Category Inspiration

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Boris Cube

Last week, my lovely and talented colleague Vlad wrote about three steps to eliminate/mitigate risks in strategy – understand, assess, neutralize – and offered a chart that caught my eye. Vlad adapted a piece of HBR chartery that was fundamentally similar to a Boris Cube, something used by aerospace engineers to assess, quantify, and make decisions about process and design.

This is a slide from a deck by Boeing – surfaced by Flightblogger – that was used in the development of a second production facility in South Carolina. Interesting that the axes are transposed from Vlad’s chart.

And here’s a slide from a Northrop Grumman tutorial on risk cubes, why they should be used, and how/when to implement them. Note that Northrop’s generic risk cube represents a higher tolerance for risk than does Boeing’s, which considers Likely + Minor Consequence a Moderate Risk.

(Aside: I love finding shit like this.)

Same deck. Same level of fascination on my part. Good strategists, as far as I’m concerned, are thinking like engineers and cost analysts when they’re developing their recommendations.


So much truth, so much inspiration.

I don’t put much stock in the “sleep is for the unsuccessful” thing, but the idea that the best in every field work hard to perfect everything, every little detail, everything to the work…man, that’s powerful stuff.

I remember in college we used to really think about this kind of thing: managing our sleep, managing our food, the timing of our workouts, the people that we ran with, the order of operations for optimal race and workout days…everything was considered and pretty much mandated by a coach.

Since entering the adult work world, I’ve never once thought that way. Let alone lived by life with that kind of focused method.

Which is pretty weak, if you ask me.

I suppose most people, including myself, think “that kind of intensity is for professional athletes.”

Again, weak. Some folks in the creative and strategic world get paid like professional athletes, and their careers are significantly longer.

So my question, I guess, for myself and anyone who feels like being inspired today: where’s the focus?

Found via Mr. Plett.

Make Things For People

This one’s near and dear to my heart.

And it hurts when companies get it wrong.

So it’s exciting to see it done so, so well.

Muji’s just released a set of iPad apps that parallel their products, that align with the values they hold dear, and that extend their brand into new places: a free calendar app that synchronizes with Google (and happens to be the hottest calendar app I’ve seen), a paid notebook app that is a digital addendum to their paper products (and happens to be the hottest note-taking/drawing/importing/whatever app I’ve seen), and a free app to help streamline travel.

Granted, they’ve also got an app that promotes their products in a catalog, but generally speaking their apps are made to help people live their lives better. Not to sell product. Not to deliver a message.

And guess what? They work. I downloaded ‘em all and they’re rad. The travel app won’t replace anything for me, but the calendar app is a definite keeper, and the notepad is unbelievably sick.

I sketched the above in about 20 seconds. And that interface is definitely, probably swissmiss approved (elegant and makes sense), and delightfully logo-less.

Anyway, this is how you make things for people. Now you know.

Size Does Matter: our Web 2.0 Expo Talk

Size Does Matter – Click to view on Slideshare

Alex and I were fortunate enough to be able to present something at Web 2.0 on Thursday of last week, and I’m happy to report that it went off without a hitch. We spoke about a topic that we’ve both been passionate about for quite some time: that a focus on smallness is the way when it comes to developing and understanding marketing ideas.

In the talk we step through nine connected examples from a variety of industries, sciences and arts, all supporting the idea that conceptual smallness is a defining factor for success in today’s economy. It starts with the idea of differentiation, which at least for us is a constant driver to create incredibly specific things. The way we see it, if people have millions of things to visit, look at, and purchase, whatever we make has to be f*cking awesome if it’ll get any attention. Not groundbreaking at all, I know, but we continually see examples of products and marketing things designed for massive, anonymous audiences. So at least some people aren’t getting the picture.

The nine stories go something like this:

  1. People think they’re really special. And not necessarily with good reason.
    We found an article by Christopher Hitchens a while back that talked about the “narcissism of the small difference,” an idea that in places of great conflict, the belligerents tend to share a very tiny differentiating factor that’s caused the hostility between the groups. Without getting into that here, it points to an important human truth: that we think we’re really special, and really different from other people, even though we’re all pretty much the same when we get down to it.
    Which gets us to a design problem.
  2. Specific, localized design wins.
    Based on an article that we found in The Economist, Panasonic was in a pickle last year, posting a ¥52BN loss in the second quarter. Remarkably, they decided to take their design department and spread them around the world – from 98% designed-in-Japan in 2009 to 15% in 2010 – with incredible results. By designing electronics that took into account local needs (energy efficient A/C units in India, where it’s hot, and fancy-looking ones in China, where they’re a status symbol), their emerging-market sales led them to an ¥82BN profit gain in Q2 2010. It’s easier than ever, and less expensive, to design things that are particular to an individual environment.
    Which takes us to rodents.
  3. When competition increases, organisms tend to get smaller.
    These two chaps, Lomolino and Perault, studied patterns among rodents in temperate rainforests. They found that as the habitats for shrews shrank over time, the body size among the sample shrank as well. Which makes sense, right? If the habitat is smaller, food supply goes down, and those animals with a smaller “caloric budget” are better able to survive. Our interpretation: habitats for ideas and products are shrinking in response to competition. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing…it just means that it’s okay for there to be a Foursquare, a Gowalla, a MyTown and a Facebook Places in the marketplace. It also means that we shouldn’t expect $100M valuations for products that are easily imitated and tweaked for an audience or a space.
    Which takes us to Fiji.
  4. Small doesn’t have to mean unsuccessful.
    Alex found this crazy study by a fellow called Godfrey Baldacchino (from whom you can get a Masters of Arts in Island Studies) that talks about the relative success and failure of innovation and business on island nations. Apparently most islands are hamstrung by a lack of resources, a dependence on trade agreements, and isolation from other thought leaders. But the study holds up Fiji as an example of how to get by: steal thought leaders from other places, luring them with your island charms; create deeper relationships with customers by not only telling them that your coconut soap is excellent, but by showing them where it’s produced and introducing them to the folks that make it; and reframe value propositions in terms of rarity and distinction from competitors (see Fiji water). Our message here: be like an island nation. Embrace your constraints (in fact, add new ones if you’re a huge company and can do whatever you want) and use them to create smaller, more focused things than you would have otherwise. Because a constraint-free environment is an environment that fosters inaction.
    Which brings us to a core human failure.
  5. In all things – politics and poverty included – we tend to be awed by the big picture.
    When people look at income stratification around the world, they tend to see things in continental terms, or even more broadly in terms of Worlds (First, Second, Third), Groups (Developed, Developing, Under-Developed) and Divisions (North/South, Rich/Poor). Obviously the segmentation is much more detailed than that – see Gapminder – and it’s my contention that a great deal of the failed development projects around the world are a result of “big” thinking: applying something that worked in one country to the problems of another, without seeing the little reasons why the problems differ. Without going off on a rant, it’s important that we avoid the Mashable-promoted population-based thinking to substantiate our clients’ “need” to get onto a new platform. It’s great that Facebook has half a billion people, or that Foursquare had a whole shitload of checkins last night, but that’s not really what’s valuable. It is valuable to find the small groups within these platforms that exhibit similar behaviors. For instance, the 450 people checking into schools every morning might be exceptionally valuable to a company that makes digital research tools. And so on. Unfortunately, most big organizations aren’t set up to talk to very small groups of people, stemming usually from some inability to measure the impact of those people on their bottom line.
    Which brings us to microfinance.
  6. Microfinance uses highly specific objectives and payment terms to enable smooth flows of capital from one person to another.
    I think we can all agree here that Microfinance is a big, positive development made possible by digital tools. But in our view, it’s the mental models they use/support that lead to their success and the comfort people have in the use of the system. Donors feel good because their contribution tends to be small and the terms of the use of their money are made very clear. Further, the results are clearly communicated back to the donor/sponsor, completing a feel-good feedback loop that’s absent from most “big” charity. This is a model worth adopting. It’s not that big charity is bad, it’s just that it’s almost always unclear where a donor’s dollars are going, how they’ll be used, and the specific returns they’re creating.
    Which brings us to the real reason why banner ads suck.
  7. We all know banner ads suck. But they mostly suck because they’re in big, anonymous places.
    We found an old study on banner ads that attempted to qualify what makes them work and/or not work. And while it was from 2003, it points to an important truism: adding interactivity, animation, emotional appeal, and incentives didn’t bolster an ineffective ad; however, better targeting did have a measurable impact. On the whole, among the 10,000 ads studied, the B2B-focused ads tended to be in more targeted, smaller locations. And they did way better than the B2C ads, which showed up on big sites, trying to garner the attention of the masses.
    Which brings us to the failure and success of Joshua Bell.
  8. No matter how good your product is, if you put it in front of a big, lame audience, it’ll fail.
    This one’s pretty simple, and I think is explained particularly well in Alex’s slides. So I’ll keep this brief: when Joshua Bell performs in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall, he sells out the place at an average ticket price of $100; when he played as a busker in a D.C. metro station, he made $32. Don’t try to be all things to all people, and don’t try to get an uninterested, anonymous audience interested in your shit.
    Which brings us to the rise of focused, premium content.
  9. When it comes to media and entertainment – things people want to watch, read and hear – the more focused, the better.
    This one started when I heard Jimmy Wales speak at the New Museum a few months ago, where he brought up the idea that if media is used as a performance metric, people are getting smarter every year. Turns out this is the thesis of Steven Berlin Johnson, who uses the evolution of popular culture (viewed through the lens of TV) to show that people today desire media that is complex and intellectually challenging…even if not in the traditional sense. And I can dig that. I Love Lucy reruns, for me, are unwatchable and feel generic, while Seinfeld, Curb, Arrested Development, the British version of The Office and even It’s Always Sunny continue to be fascinating. To me (and I’ve not read Johnson all the way through), it’s focus that makes them great. All the aforementioned watchables are intently focused on the needs of a particular audience… in the same way that NPR and The Economist (and even Monocle, in its own special way) continue to deliver a consistent and unique experience year after year. And financially… it seems to make sense. In the midst of a continuing crisis for the media industry, NPR has doubled its market share and The Economist made $92M on a circulation of 1.4M. They’ve clearly got it going on.

And that’s it! All the examples, we feel, provide useful fodder for the argument that a sense of conceptual smallness is the way of the future. Hope you fine folks at Web 2.0 enjoyed the talk.


For further reading on this topic, check out these awesome Planningness decks.

The first is from Mike Monello (Campfire) and Griffin Farley (BBH) on Propagation Planning.

Thinking not about the people you’re reaching, but about the people they reach: that’s what we’re trying to get to. Totally dig.

To that end, here’s a redesigned version of a couple of their charts.

The second is from the smart fellows at Made By Many:

I rather like the idea of a Minimum Desirable Product. It’s almost exactly what we’re arguing for in our talk.

Report Up @ Canvas8

Borrowing an idea from Jon Kolko – and an examination of a work he pointed to in a presentation I wrote about a while back – I recently created my first piece of “real” editorial work since college for Canvas8, a subscription-only digital publication out of the UK. Their blurb adequately explains what I was trying to get at:

“Consumers don’t view the world in categories, they see products and services side by side and they compare them, similar or not. Are brands ready to be judged as part of a collective consumer experience?”

Since you can’t read it without a subscription (sorry), I can’t post it here. So this is basically a post for:

  • My scrapbook (eek, made the “editor’s choice box!)
  • My mom (see above)
  • Shameless plug: I wrote the whole thing in Writeminds, and it was awesome!

That’s all. Thanks to Jo, Alex, Ana and Jen for giving me feedback on the idea.

Nike Air Secrets Revealed

I really, really enjoyed this.

Now I know.

Via Look Both Ways.

David Foster Wallace on Athletes, Focus and Perception

Not a whole lot to say about this, other than that I need to read more David Foster Wallace. I suppose what makes this interesting is that digital things are giving us an even clearer lens into populations that we previously didn’t know much about. And it’s a reminder that primary sources are the real stuff; watered-down prognostications from the marketing department (in this case, the television media) aren’t always to be heeded.

“It’s not just the athletic artistry that compels interest in tennis at the professional level. It’s also what this level requires — what it’s taken for the 100th-ranked player in the world to get there, what it takes to stay, what it would take to rise even higher against other men who’ve paid the same price he’s paid.

“Bismarck’s epigram about diplomacy and sausage applies also to the way we Americans seem to feel about professional athletes. We revere athletic excellence, competitive success. And it’s more than attention we pay; we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll spend large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

“But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll pay lip service to these sacrifices — we’ll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the privations, the prefight celibacy, etc. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think.

“Note the way ‘up-close and personal profiles’ of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life— outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.”

Via this blog, via Truehoop, from a collection of essays called “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. Note to self: this is what a real writer sounds like.

Design Synthesis and Creative Thinking

Jon Kolko – Design Synthesis from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Definitely worth a watch.

I found this just after I moved to NYC as I was traipsing about the design-related portion of the internet, and found it plainly fascinating. I’m trying to use it to help me frame “What I Do” so that I might explain it better to others. I’ve always had a difficult time (a) understanding exactly what the process is that I follow, mentally and (b) trying to explain that to others. Currently, my job is less about process than it is about output (yay!), but I can envision a time when that might not be the case and/or I’d like to help some junior people step up their game. It’d make good blog fodder at the very least.

If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the video, here’s a brief overview. Mr. Kolko, if you’re out there reading this, and I’m wrong, please help me out:

  • People don’t typically understand their creative processes, or don’t follow a process at all. But most “expert” designers do follow a mental process known as Design Synthesis.
  • Design Synthesis is an “abductive sensemaking process of manipulating, organizing, pruning and filtering data in an effort to produce information and knowledge.”
  • Call your output whatever you like, but if you’re taking insight from research and combining it with your personal experience/taste to produce a deliverable, this is what you’re doing.
  • There are some tremendously structured methods for doing this, including Insight Combination and Reframing, but they all involve abductive reasoning, which seems akin to formalized guessing.

These concepts are fairly self-evident and sometimes purely mental, but if you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to introduce rigor into your personal creativity. By practicing Insight Combination (following the steps, doing the work, etc.), I imagine I could become a bit more consistent in my work product.

I suppose the thing I found most interesting was the idea of “abductive reasoning“, whereby our minds take two seemingly disparate experiences/data points and attempt to form a logical connection, in this case with the goal of creating an idea. This is pretty commonplace within the creative industries, as we’re constantly pushing ourselves (and being pushed) to innovate upon a previous campaign/effort/site/ad/whatever. Deductive reasoning would tell us to do only that which was successful previously, or only those things that have been successful for similar products marketed to similar consumers.

I hope to write a bit more on this topic. Any thoughts on this? Do you guys out there use formal creative processes, or do you just let it happen? I’m curious.

Bobby McFerrin and the Pentatonic Scale

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

I hate to be a malcontent, especially given that this is ostensibly a marketing blog, but this sort of thing is about a million times more interesting than the marketing drivel that gets posted to the web every day. I honestly couldn’t care a whole lot less about most of the thinly guised “Self-Help for Social Networks” that I see with increasing frequency, and I don’t think I could care much more about the science behind what’s going on in this video. Humans have some interesting pre-installed software in their heads.

Via Jason Oke.

Little Red Riding Hood, in Infographics

Slagsmålsklubben – Sponsored by destiny from Tomas Nilsson on Vimeo.

Not a whole lot to say here, other than:

  1. This is amazing.
  2. This is how I want to present my ideas to people.
  3. This is a lot harder than it looks. Seems simple, but it’s an epic story told by a master information designer/animator.