Meaning is What Matters


I challenge people for a living. I find ways to ask questions that actually matter and pursue them until I have exhausted the possibilities. Because unless I’ve pushed my clients way outside where they imagine themselves, they won’t actually be able to see their organizations in a way that is meaningful to the human beings that matter to them. And meaning is what matters in business today.

Meaning is the secret sauce that businesses need to thrive. It is the key differentiator. It’s not fluff, it is the core value. If you don’t get it right, it’s only window dressing. It’s not just for outside your company. Meaning is for every single person your company touches, employees, suppliers, competitors, government, partners….People, in general, are becoming much, much more discerning and they’re looking for authenticity in everything. Nathan Shedroff, Chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco taught me that “Design is the process of evoking experiences. Meaning is strategic.” Every aspect of design today is focussed on looking for and finding meaning. Meaning creates value. Meaning creates loyalty. Meaning is enduring.

You can’t make meaning up. It “is”, whether you have a handle on it or not. Anyone who knows about your organization, in any way, is out there making meaning about you right now. The most successful companies know what they mean to people and they live it — authentically.

When I recently helped a medical research organization create their brand, we started with science. That’s where they were coming from. It was about beating disease through cutting edge therapies and new methods of detection. Their function was to do three things: raise, and continue to raise funding; attract the brightest minds in their field to help them; and find the most innovative ways to outsmart the disease. The surgeons, clinicians and oncologists I met with needed to step back from science and revisit what the disease meant to the patients and their families. They needed to see what meaning their organization created for potential employees, experts, partners and funders. At a human level, what did the fight with this disease mean to these people? The process was pragmatic and thorough, but it produced a brand that was steeped in meaning that they had found. I simply helped them to do that.

Your organization could be doing, making, selling the next best thing ever, but without understanding its meaning, you’re missing your upside. Because meaning is what matters.

*Also published in The Nitty Gritty


Getting off the Food Truck to Talk about Transit

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We need to have a chat, folks.

The political rhetoric around the Skytrain shutdown yesterday is predictable. Every hack with an axe to grind is scrapping for his or her second on the soapbox. But while we’re all churning bile, let me just point out a flaw. When people start saying we need to turn $175,000 spent on art for an entire transit system in a major metropolis back into the system to make it better, you know what I think? I think you’re a person who probably should not be further contributing to the gene pool. So put it back in your pants. If we don’t have art, music, writing and dance in our society, we will dry up and blow away, negating the need for any kind of transit, rapid or otherwise. Art and culture is what separates us from animals. Not that I don’t love animals, but left to run the planet? How is it that these things are “frills”? They are not, any more than our clothing is a frill. Art and culture make us cultured people that: live with laws, live with and tolerate each other and the things we work at and create, respect each other, respect life and generally make life tolerable day to day. You want to get from A to B in a grey, concrete tube accessed by grey concrete stairs with nothing around?

Be my guest.


What This World Needs is a Family Meeting


We are alone. This planet is a tiny, solitary spaceship sailing through a vast black wilderness.

How we  conduct ourselves on this pebble in the abyss is a massive problem. This video, Overview, puts our place on our planet in perspective. We are interdependent and capable of solving great problems when working together. But we can and do create unimaginable chaos when we pursue our own interests and see things only from our own narrow perspective.

If you picture our planet as a small island, perhaps a mile in circumference, you may be able to imagine that someone living on the other side abusing the resources there will almost instantly impact those of us on the other side. We only have so many trees and plants, so many animals to hunt. And with one stream serving the whole island, poisoning the water up island poisons the water for all of us. The feuding over borders, resources and ideology is madness when you consider that we are using what we have faster than the planet can keep up.

Until a giant asteroid vaporizes Earth, the planet itself will survive. As a species, however, we are racing headlong for the end in short order. There is only so much to go around. In the western world, we scramble for newer and better toys that require oil, metals and chemicals to produce. We make the toys where labour is cheap — and then we use more oil and metal and chemicals to get them into the hands of consumers who want the newest and the fastest.

The collective ocean touches every shore of every land mass. We are all breathing the same air. Earth is enveloped by a thin, fragile layer that protects our species from annihilation. That layer is being damaged and there is likely no going back. We are all passengers on the same little boat. We cannot befoul one part without impacting the rest of it. Battling to conquer others over ideology, wealth or resources will leave the “winner” the last person on the Titanic.

It’s time to have a serious family meeting of our species. We don’t have time to “wait a while.” We need to start thinking like a family, instead of  like a pack of rogue gangs. It may not be possible. Human history has consistently demonstrated a pattern for one-upmanship that distracts us from minding our basic human needs. In the past, the resources were usually there to feed and clothe us once we put down our weapons or sheathed our claws. But the time is fast approaching where this won’t be the case. The planet is warming. Storms are becoming superstorms. As we now grow massive swaths of genetically and chemically assisted monocultures to feed ourselves, we run the risk of catastrophic crop failures with climate change. We have created weaknesses in our spaceship, and then continue on as though nothing is wrong.

We need to talk. Together. And soon.


The Design of Everything. Cusp 2013.

I attended the Cusp Conference in Chicago this week. The tag line for the conference is “The design of everything”. It came at an important time for me, when I am looking for ways to keep all of my senses open to possibility in unexpected forms. The speakers lineup was wild — from Constance Adams, a space architect with NASA, to a sword swallower, to Warren Berger, co-author of Glimmer and the soon-to-be-released A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. It was an intellectual mashup of ideas and provocations aimed at the disruption of comfortable ways of thinking. Constance Adams, for instance, talked about how the design of a closed-loop system like the International Space Station relied on not only the biological necessities but the mental ones as well. The health of the station depends on the health of those working there for months at a time. And so it is with our larger space station, the planet. photo I was blown away by Dr. Gary Slutkin, who’s work in epidemiology in Africa and around the world informed his determination that violence is actually a disease, not a social problem. It is contagious, it’s born in clusters and is transmissible in epidemic waves, exactly like the plague and cholera. He has proven this theory through his founding of, and work in Cure Violence, with unbelievable numbers showing that a reverse of the spread of violence is not only possible, but highly successful, using public health-based epidemic control approaches. GarySlutkinThese ideas and many others like them are challenging me to think beyond the expected and to help my “clients” in local farming to stretch from what they know as their limitations to see a different way to do things, a way that will make local farming a sustainable way to make a living and contribute to a community. As I’ve said so many times, big D Design is about reframing problems, about disrupting embedded ways of thinking and about finding real innovation. It is about the design of everything.