Category: General

blogart_life-less-designed

A Life Less Designed

blogart_life-less-designed

“What the hell am I doing?” I ask myself on a Sunday morning, half-covered in grass clippings. The weather is warm and immaculate, ideal for a hike or picnic or lazy stroll through town. Instead, here I am clutching my Sears Craftsman line trimmer, dutifully mowing my overgrown lawn. There are blisters forming on my rawhide-gloved hands. I’m sneezing uncontrollably from all the pollen in the air. My legs are sore from the frog-like hopping about to tear weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk. I see my neighbors on their way to brunch (their landscaping is all concrete, no grass) and wave my most neighborly wave. Behind my smile, I’m seething with envy.

My ego tells me I’m beyond this grunt work. I’m a designer, for heaven’s sake! Why spend my free time on mundane chores when I should be free to pursue the finer things, as any cultured, creative person should in this day and age? Would I prefer to scroll through those saved-for-later long articles? Or would I rather enrich my mind with literature, art-making, or a bit of writing? Maybe all I want is to not think at all and enjoy a documentary or TV series, guilt-free? Am I not entitled to these and more choices in the year 2016, rather than feel burdened by antiquated chores?

Despite my ego’s bourgeois indignance, I can’t deny that this yard work is maybe kind of fun. I’m outside, physically active, using muscles I didn’t know I had. I’m taking pride in my handiwork as a home owner: the clean edges where green meets grey, the uniformly level height of grass, and the sense of order restored. I’m in awe of the smallness of insects marching on the ground below and the vastness of the cerulean blue sky above. It’s just me and my natural environment — at least, whatever a semi-suburban residential neighborhood can afford — with little else in between.

The fact that something like yard work can be both annoying and fulfilling is a reflection of the larger issue we face with the nature and quality of progress today. On one hand, many think a better life is one of minimal inconvenience and maximum enjoyment: frictionless experiences, pre-anticipated needs, and adaptive systems that respond to our every desire. Plenty of work has gone into building that idea of “better” through research and investments in everything from motion-sensing bathroom fixtures to voice-activated devices and self-driving cars. If I fully subscribed to that vision, I’d happily welcome any sort of liberation from horticultural busywork. Some clever tech startup could easily capitalize on that “unmet need” by building an outdoor Roomba — an app-controlled grass-trimming drone that could trim and sweep my grass every few weeks. Lost time reclaimed!

But on the other hand, maybe that wasn’t lost time at all. Maybe in eliminating that task I’m actually paying a bigger price: I’m losing a part of my life in which I feel more connected with myself and what’s around me.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the solutionist thinking that pervades discussions of design, technology, and progress overlooks the value of common problems humans might actually need to have in order to retain our human-ness. Cameron Tonkinwise, the Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses this topic in his Medium piece, Contempt by Design: When Empathy turns into Hatred of Everyday Life. Design empathy can be a means of understanding people in order to design for them and with them, but it can also lead to design decisions that work against them. For instance, he describes the typical habit designers have historically fallen into and the consequences of solutionism:

Every time designers notice pain points, obstacles, or even just opportunities for things to happen a little more productively or pleasantly, the outcome is another thing…. Our societies are unsustainable because mass production has allowed designer empathy to go unchecked.

Design, in this sense, is a tool of commercialism: it fuels consumption (and waste) under the guise of making life better. Rather than seek to enrich life by first understanding what a better life really means and how people define it for themselves — before any type of intervention is considered — design, and the players driving it, tend to take any chance to insert themselves into the everyday human narrative. A highly cynical distillation of the current formula in play might look like this:

  1. Crank up the “creative” to spark desire and keep people buying stuff they never thought they needed.
  2. “Innovate” when you hit a sales slump to jolt the market with something new.
  3. Repeat as needed.

More problems arise on another level, when design presumes to know what’s best for all of us and cushions our lives in pseudo-utopian bliss. Tonkinwise counters rampant design solutionism with a call to action for design to seek a deeper understanding of its role in everyday life and even question where it does and doesn’t belong:

This is the greatest danger of design empathy; that its concern for humans and its insight into materiality end up being contempt for all the friction and finitude of everyday life. To counter this we all, but especially designers, must learn to empathize with the activities of everyday life. We must use design thinking not to eradicate all the hardships of everyday life, but rather to find existing everyday pleasures in material practices. We must be prepared to listen to people when they say that they do enjoy doing some mundane tasks. We must accept that not everything needs to be disrupted, that some things need not be changed.

Maintenance activities like doing laundry, washing dishes, and sweeping a floor have a dignity to them, a timelessness, and even philosophical meaning. Accepting them as an essential part of life, just like other human-scale manual activities that have been around for generations, is becoming harder and harder because the apparent benefit of not having to do them (and ease of access to “solutions”) outweighs the deeply-ingrained sense of displeasure attached to them. Especially for those with the means (even more modest means), it is almost unthinkable to do some of these things by one’s own hand any more when it costs relatively little to minimize the problem.

On a personal level, I honestly don’t look forward to every chore, but once I’m engaged in the flow of an activity, the feeling is practically zen-like. Instead of contemplating some other fun thing I could be doing and getting annoyed that I’m not doing it, I try to stay in the present and focus on the task — on how I can perfect the movements and what small hidden lessons I can extract from just becoming absorbed in the moment. My mind sifts through fragments of thoughts generated throughout the day, makes connections, recalls loose threads, and basically catches up with itself. No matter what the task is, there’s a minimum of stuff necessary; save for the grass trimmer and my washer and dryer, it’s usually low-tech, low-end design: a broom, a sponge, a trowel, a dust pan and brush. What’s great about those things is that they are designed to help me do something — they don’t remove me from the equation altogether. And using them is, in a way, part of the fun.

We need to celebrate the joys of a life less designed and protect the necessary boundaries between the collective entity of design-business-technology and human experience. If we continue riding the runaway train of “progress,” if we tacitly agree to the intermediation of every effort, every gesture, every thought with a design “solution” — without making better design decisions for ourselves — what then will be left for us to do? What will be left of us?

 

blogart_conversations-not-clicks

Conversations, Not Clicks

blogart_conversations-not-clicks

For those who’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have noticed the frequent departures from information design and other related topics. Rather than write about what’s popular in conversations of-the-moment and sustain a magazine-like consistency of material I generate, I often follow my curiosity and try to sort through the questions in my mind, wherever they lead. Figuring out what I think and sharing that thinking publicly, however rough or conceptual or unconventional it may be, is something I enjoy, and not for the attention it may attract. In fact, I could count on one hand the few “greatest hits” I’ve had when site traffic has spiked (they’re the Recommended posts listed in the footer). Oh, and there’s also that cancer infographic I did a while back (now removed because of so many reuse requests and misuses). Pretty much everything else falls flat — the introspective pieces, the way off-topic ramblings, the high-level surveys, and the preachy sermons. Very few comments, tweets, or shares.

And that’s okay.

As appealing as it seems to have legions of followers and tons of social media buzz like some folks I follow in my own areas of specialty, those aren’t my measures of success. It’s not even about success. To me, having a blog like this is like participating in a giant conversation where each statement, each thought, has the potential to change another person’s thinking or invite a response that could change mine. In some ways, this is fast becoming outdated, much like throwing a message in a bottle into a vast ocean and waiting for a reply that may never come. Commenting has been on the decline, as social media gestures has taken its place. Conversation is being further squeezed out of the equation with the growing “push” model of publishing via e-mail newsletters. And that’s just it: the notion of putting anything online has radically shifted meaning from when I started my blog about 8 years ago. Online content is a commodity these days, bound up in advertising, marketing, data collection, and analytics. I wonder sometimes if people even read any more when there’s so much available, so little attention, and such an irresistible urge to keep the social sharing engine humming.

Despite the machine-like nature of content creation on the web, it’s fascinating to see how organically it can behave, how the human element never goes away. Interests ebb and flow in cycles: a “big data” peak one moment becomes a trough the next, a wave of pro-brainstorming articles recedes as the counter-argument rises. And the cycle repeats. Still, I keep writing — and scanning the ocean for kindred spirits. Once in a blue moon, I’m surprised by a comment someone posts on my blog or by an exchange that emerges from a comment I post somewhere. On even rarer occasions, those conversations solidify into real connections.

In the end, I’m not too concerned with being liked or earning widespread approval for saying something lots of people agree with or gain value from. I’m happy for the recognition I get, and even happier for the thoughtful, sincere responses I receive from both brand new readers and long-time lurkers. 😉 What matters to me are basic things: learning, finding links between ideas, seeing the world in a different way from someone else’s perspective, and starting a dialogue across all different subjects, not just information design alone. As long as I have thoughts bouncing around my head, and as long as there’s a chance someone out there is listening, I’ll do my best to keep it going.

blogart_old-and-new

Bridging Generations

blogart_old-and-new

As someone who’s slowly inching toward 40, I feel distinctly out of place with the present. It doesn’t feel like my present. The more I age, the greater the sense of anachronism. Three distinct realities are blurring together: the old world wisdom my grandparents conveyed to me during my childhood, the analog-to-digital transition through which I have come of age, and the Web revolution whose rapid escalation has left virtually no part of my present life untouched.

It seems to me that the faster technological “progress” happens — and the more I notice it — the less natural it feels and the more alienating it becomes. Every advance in technology that’s introduced into our lives appears to grant us some new luxury or capability that wasn’t available (or needed?) before, but when those novelties become normalities, what they actually do is erode a bit of the past to make a little more room for the future. Devices, apps, screens, texts, buzzes, beeps, taps, swipes, and every other new feature added to our tech-saturated experience claim to be human-centered in some way or another, and yet we’re forced to let go of what’s comfortable and familiar in order to learn these strange new tech-intermediated ways, adapt to them, and end up having our behavior altered by them. The hyper-computerization and hyper-connectivity that permeates all our waking and sleeping hours takes away more than it gives back, and what it takes are the things I’m not willing to give up — the ethos of simpler times.

I may sound like a grumpy old man, but no, I am not a Luddite ready to flee to a cabin in the wilderness, nor am I fearful of an impending techno-dystopia. Low and high technology is a good thing; I am just as profoundly amazed by wood screws, indoor plumbing, electricity, and wifi as I am grateful for them. The problem I see is that we are no longer shaping and molding technology to us as we used to — it’s the other way around. We’ve ceded control of how we live our lives — decisions about what fits and what doesn’t, what enriches our lives and what saps it — to the forces of corporate “innovation” and easy availability of tools like e-mail, wireless devices, social networks, and text messaging. Meanwhile, with each passing generation, I see growing indulgence in fleeting pleasures and mindless habits enabled by devices and further disconnection from now bygone values like self-restraint, hand skills and craft, deep concentration, listening skills, and the big one, human-to-human attention. (Far be it from me to level judgement on those poor younger generations wedded to their smartphones: I learned how to curb my device habit back when I had an iPhone 3G.)

There’s no point in reminiscing about the “good old days.” They’re not coming back. Regarding the past with warm nostalgic affection and preserving stories of yesteryear may help keep the memory alive, but it doesn’t do much good for everyone else in the here and now. What matters are the practices and attitudes that helped make those days “good” — the common sense that governed everyday conduct — and how to carry them forward. In my own lifetime, numerous aspects of life have radically transformed for the worse because of the pervasiveness of technology, such as how we work, how we learn, how we interact with each other, and how we spend our free time (of course, the good-vs-bad debate goes both ways). Reconnecting with old world / analog thinking might help restore some of the things we’re losing.

One area in particular troubles me the most today: communication.

Way back when (up until 25 years or so ago), communication was an art form:

  • Letters were lengthy, hand-written with care or typed on special stationery.
  • Conversation was rich with well-told stories, clever turns of phrase, and literary allusions, not to mention back-and-forth dialogue.
  • Phone calls were the lifeline of business, with protocols for answering and concluding.

Today, communication is broken into tiny little fragments:

  • E-mails, the sorry substitute for letters, are piecemeal, poorly written, and replied to at whim days or weeks later — sometimes regardless of the sender’s situation.
  • Conversation is regularly interrupted by the buzz, ring, or glow of a device that’s rarely out of reach, and then the problem is remembering where one left off.
  • Text messaging, chat, and social media updates have all but replaced phone calls, which are now dreaded by younger generations, in personal and work contexts.

How do we fold some of the past back into the present with a sense of balance? For starters, let’s be more considerate and deliberate in how we communicate. Here is some advice I follow from that little voice in the back of my head:

  • Write purposeful e-mails with complete thoughts and clear points, and keep the recipient in mind. If there’s a question or unresolved issue in a message you receive, address it in a timely way — the other person will almost always interpret a delayed reply negatively. On the other hand, if you really care and the message is personal, write out your thoughts and hand-deliver or mail them. The gesture alone matters a lot, and not just for thank-you’s, birthdays, and holiday cards.
  • Turn your phone off and put it away when you’re having a conversation. Take interest in the person you’re talking to face-to-face. He or she is a human being right in front of you, so respect their time and attention by giving them yours. Conversation should be interesting and dynamic — like “intellectual jazz,” as Richard Saul Wurman put it. Probe shared interests like travel, aspirations, art exhibits, books, nature, etc, before delving into talk of the latest Netflix show.
  • If you get an urge to text (or any sort of social media update), think twice. Does this thought require a text? Is it urgent or can it wait? Also, consider stopping off to the side of traffic (foot and vehicular) if you absolutely must read or write a text and avoid accidents. When you do choose to write a text, again consider who you’re writing to. It’s still writing and doesn’t excuse you from putting coherent thoughts together.

I know this sounds like a lot of tired old finger-wagging, but it needs to be said, generation after generation, from one context to the next. So we don’t forget. For those whose experience of life has been defined early on by the omnipresence of technology in their daily activities and interactions, it may be a fool’s errand to sell them on a philosophy of “slower, less, and more thoughtful” technology use, or heaven forbid, “as little as possible.” Someday, when they’re older, when the pace of change rattles their own sense of comfort, they might see things differently and long for their own good old days.

I am thankful for having known the past far enough back before technological progress started getting out of hand. I am glad to have developed a callus on my right middle finger from years of writing and drawing, not typing or tapping (although I’m kind of proud to have learned how to type on an IBM Selectric). I treasure the time of not having information at my fingertips, not always knowing what my friends or complete strangers are thinking or doing, not having an immediate solution to boredom in my pocket, and especially, not always being available to everyone. I enjoy talking to people twenty, thirty, even forty years older than me with whom I share the same tech-free experiences and delights, and I marvel at their stories of tougher times, when wars, economic depressions, political upheavals, and emigrations were the major forces of change in their lives. Above all, and despite my uneasiness about what’s happening today, I feel lucky to have experienced so much change in my still short life so far, to have learned the lessons of others, and to be able to translate some of the “wisdom of the ages” into what I do now. Maybe some of it will rub off on these young whippersnappers.

blogart-disposable-design

Design In-Between

blogart-disposable-design

As tax season feverishly comes to a close, it seems a fitting moment to consider a realm of design work that hardly gets any attention. Not the dull gray administrative documents like tax forms and instructions. Not websites like IRS.gov. Not tax preparation software like TurboTax.

I’m talking about receipts. More generally, I mean all those little in-between design artifacts like tickets, stubs, and claim checks that serve boring but necessary functions of everyday life — counting, recording, verifying, identifying, authorizing — but sit squarely in design’s blind spot.

I do an awful lot of squirrel-like receipt stashing, but it’s not until tax time, when I have to sort through each one forensically to account for every little expense, that I start to realize how little design actually goes into these small, flimsy but widely diverse paper squares. Ages ago, bills of sale and other transactional documents were handwritten, or preprinted with lines and recurring information so that only new data need be entered. There was a charm to them, the human touch of penmanship framed within a mechanical imprint. These days, most receipts are entirely machine printed in blocky low-res fonts on wispy thermal paper. Can’t forget the legal fine print or sincerely heartfelt “HAVE A NICE DAY” or “THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS.” And, opportunistically, some supermarkets take advantage of the empty real estate on the back of a receipt and slap on some ads and coupons.

How could designers let this anti-design go on for so long?

Aside from expense accounting, receipts allow for returns, exchanges, and refunds, but have afforded little else (notably, Pret A Manger prints the wifi password and bathroom keycode on their receipts to “reward” patrons). The same goes for used transit tickets, museum admission stubs, parking tickets, boarding passes, and all the other commercial ephemera we accumulate almost every time we spend money. There’s a chance they might get used as bookmarks or impromptu note paper, maybe even serve as a souvenir of a special event, but most of the time, they get absent-mindedly stuffed into pockets or crumpled and tossed away. Soon enough, though, with the rise of e-mail receipts and device-based transactions, all those scraps of paper will be no more.

So should we just wait for this annoying single-use detritus to get phased out and happily welcome our paperless future? Or is there an opportunity to reconsider the role of this clerical confetti?

One way to think about this particular design challenge is to situate these artifacts in a broader context of use and to revise the notion of design work as primarily conventional grand gestures. For instance, if a transit system takes such great care to design their identity, wayfinding and signage, online information systems, advertising, marketing, all the way to their employees’ uniforms, why do they cut corners or care less about other, more mundane but ubiquitous touchpoints like their ticketing systems and the design of tickets and receipts? Is it assumed that the investment won’t pay off because tickets are low cost and disposable (because that’s what other similar companies are doing)? Or has it never occurred to them that they could completely reimagine tickets and receipts to enhance or extend their usefulness and value, not to mention minimize waste? What do customers think?

It doesn’t take much “out of the box” thinking to open doors of design exploration:

  • AMUSEMENT: What if there was a random fortune printed on the bottom, like you’d find in a fortune cookie?
  • ART: What if you could collect different receipts with art printed on the back, then assemble them to make interesting collages?
  • RECREATION: What if the receipt contained a game like sudoku or a picture to be colored in?
  • INFORMATION: What if you could see a personal dashboard of your spending habits or purchases or recommendations drawn from your past transactions? Or what if your local coffee shop printed out headline news and weather on your morning coffee receipt?
  • ENVIRONMENT: What if the paper had seeds in it, so you could plant it and grow a garden?
  • GAMING/CONTESTS: What if there was a puzzle or series of clues over time that customers would have to piece together and solve in order to win something?

The list could go on (some of it is borrowed from Berg’s Little Printer). The point is that there’s a world of possibility right now to do more with these little pieces of paper — to actually reinforce and improve the experience a customer, passenger, or citizen has with a company or organization.

Designers shouldn’t limit their capabilities to the standard-issue items they’re hired to design for, like the physical environment, the look and feel of a product or service, the face-to-face staff encounters, the online/mobile interactions, and the marketing, advertising, and information design artifacts. Nor should they limit their thinking to familiar patterns and cling to assumptions about what can and can’t be done — and especially what is and isn’t worth their attention. Outside of the spotlight of typical design moments is a lot of overlooked but necessary “in-between” design: forms, instructions, and documents that serve as connective tissue linking touch points; tickets, stubs, and receipts that punctuate the start and end of key activities; labels, stickers, and tags that make systems visible.

Good design is about the big things, the little things, and even the seemingly insignificant things that end up in our coat pockets. All of those things form a complete picture of our designed lives.

blogart_pure-imagination

Imagination Limited

blogart_pure-imagination

Here’s a fun experiment: think up the wildest possible thing you can. Something unfiltered and completely off-the-wall. Go crazy. Hold that thought in your mind.

Now, how outrageous is that thought? What would someone think of it? We’ll come back to that.

We all have this amazing capacity to imagine. During childhood, imagination burns bright and roams freely. We dream up companions, stories, entire worlds with ease, often transforming ordinary objects and toys into extraordinary things — and we’re encouraged to do that! As we go through school, we’re told to stop daydreaming and channel that imagination into well-defined art and creative writing projects (that is, if our schools cared about those things). We get graded. By the time many of us hit adulthood and start working in traditionally non-creative industries, we get rewarded for making things we’re told to make and making them work better — not so much for making up radically new things. Our imaginations grow dormant, underutilized.

We end up spending more of our time consuming the fruits of other people’s imaginations. Brilliant writers and visual effects specialists transport us to strange new worlds through science fiction movies. Impossibly talented musicians immerse us in thrilling soundscapes. Visionary artists confound and provoke us with works that reinvent reality and challenge conventions. These “creatives” and “artsy types” who fill our world such marvelous creations seem supernaturally gifted, not to mention a bit eccentric and free-wheeling. But if you take away the natural talent, the years of finely-honed skill, and the quirkiness, the key ingredient you’re left with is, in fact, a richly cultivated imagination. And what a precious, highly-sought-after, but misunderstood thing imagination has become.

Left Brain and Right Brain Collide

Imagination, and the people who embody it, have had a hard time getting taken seriously. Historically, novel, “blue sky” thinking has been great for entertainment, escapist fiction, and the occasional “Aha!” moments that spark new inventions. The irony today is that the same systems and organizations that have long marginalized creative thinkers but have celebrated and profited from industrial age values — assembly line efficiency, clockwork precision, and one-size-fits-all standardization — are gradually realizing that what made them successful in the 20th century isn’t cutting it in the 21st, and maybe they need to loosen their ties. Bombarded with economic, social, cultural, and technological change, they’re desperate for “outside the box” thinking to help make them relevant and profitable again. They’re facing a huge imagination deficit and, increasingly, have been turning to those kooky creatives and their strange magic for salvation.

Enter the innovation craze.

With the gradual rise to fame of creative process-driven powerhouse IDEO (thanks to great press like Nightline’s The Deep Dive), the design-led rebirth of Apple via Steve Jobs, and the repeat box-office hits of Pixar, along with other factors in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the business case for imagination was growing strong. However, the actual in-housing and importation of all things design/creativity/innovation has taken about 15 years to take off, with more designers in leadership roles, more “designer” product lines for mass-market retail, more dedicated design/innovation departments, and even the wholesale purchase of design firms by large non-design corporations.

Of course, it’s not enough to buy talent when you depend on your entire organization, from management to the front line, to “deliver on the promise of innovation” (or whatever marketing angle you wish). Training in all manner of design/creativity/innovation methods has become all the rage. Everyone’s getting reacquainted with their imaginations… but primarily to conceive of wondrous new products and services to delight customers, build strong relationships with them, and of course, drive that bottom line.

Companies are making grand investments in the name of creativity, building collaboration spaces, stuffing them with bloopy chairs and tables, painting whiteboard walls, stocking up on post-its, decorating offices with inspirational quotes. It all looks great and maybe gets people excited about sharing their ideas and having them valued, but does pure imagination really roam free in these environments? Is it really okay to “think different” and “encourage wild ideas” or is it just business as usual wrapped in the latest trendy rhetoric?

“Thinking Outside the Box” Without Ever Leaving It

There’s definitely more “harnessing” of creativity — so tightly it can’t get very far — than “unleashing” it in the corporate world. Rather than allow people to stretch their imaginations and see what happens, however nonsensical and illogical the raw output may be, commercial creativity is firmly, cautiously anchored in pragmatic concerns. The enterprise worries about market share, competitive advantage, and profits. Managers worry about hitting their targets and getting the best performance out of their teams. This puts compounded pressure on the teams paradoxically charged with letting loose and being more creative. They’re worried enough about keeping their jobs, pleasing their bosses, getting quick results, and not looking foolish in front of their co-workers if they fire off a few duds. In the end, fear of risk and failure at any level hangs like a dark cloud over all those post-it-filled brainstorming sessions and dry-erase-infused team meetings. You can have any idea you want, it seems, so long as you don’t disrupt the status quo. Inherently safe, viable ideas get shepherded to implementation, while the seeds of potentially great but dangerous earth-shattering ideas barely have a chance to see the light of day. And all that grand talk about game-changing and disruption often amounts to just that — talk.

A recent example of a large organization talking big but really after something small is the IRS. Their IRS Tax Design Challenge flirts with innovation at government scale, but as it turns out, breakthrough ideas aren’t exactly what the IRS wants. According to the description:

The goal of this challenge is to reimagine the taxpayer experience and design the taxpayer experience of the future.

Sounds exciting! What a fantastic opportunity to improve people’s interactions with the tax system! And you could get so many wonderful ideas with a public competition. But the very next sentence narrows the challenge — and the possibilities — drastically to a user experience and information design optimization task:

With over 200 data fields at play, how might we design, organize, and present tax information in a way that makes it easier for taxpayers to manage their taxpayer responsibilities, and to use their own taxpayer data to make informed and effective decisions about their personal finances?

They had me at “reimagine” and totally lost me at “data fields.” This bait-and-switch language sends the message that major league innovation and thinking big is purely aspirational: we need to get people really fired up and motivated to fix all the little things that stand in the way of our “taxpayer experience of the future.” Why don’t they come clean and say they want a better website (which is fine), rather than appeal to people’s imaginations for large-scale ideas they’re not interested in (which is deceptive)? And seriously, would a government entity like the IRS ever publicly welcome reimagining?

Meanwhile, there are some organizations who take imagination seriously enough to use it as a vehicle for dialogue and change, like The Extrapolation Factory. This “imagination-based” studio uses prototyping and even improv acting to play out future scenarios, in order to uncover new ways of thinking about present and future problems and opportunities. One outstanding project of theirs is Pawn Tomorrow, an interactive museum exhibition that used a made-up pawn shop of the future as a backdrop for different “stakeholders” to contribute to a broader discussion about future needs and values. Museum visitors were invited to contribute ideas for “items that don’t exist yet” but are informed by “recent and ongoing research, developing technologies and emerging social issues.” Prototypes of the items, like a robotic yogurt-delivery drone and a living air purifier that eats hair and dust, served as conversation pieces for futurists to flesh out their stories and monetary values. Finally, the products were sold in an online pawn shop, with the proceeds going to organizations working towards the futures in which those products might exist.

What’s interesting about The Extrapolation Factory’s approach isn’t the imagining that happens within their projects, remarkable as it is, but the meta nature of their work: creating truly imaginative scenarios and activities in which to imagine a multitude of possibilities. They create large conceptual playgrounds bounded by some key themes and populated with fairly ordinary raw materials (paper, electronics, everyday objects) for experimentation and prototyping. What’s even more interesting, the focal point for imagination isn’t some commercial opportunity but a basic human need shaped by the convergence of technological, scientific, social, and economic forces. In this context of future visioning, imagination is a vital, limitless tool; what tomorrow looks like will depend in large part on our facility in how fluently we can articulate it in our minds.

The Dreamers of Dreams

Perhaps no character in pop culture embodies the spirit of unbridled imagination better than Willy Wonka, impeccably portrayed by Gene Wilder in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, based on the 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Throughout the movie, glimpses into Wonka’s life and personality reveal as much complexity and even raw fury (!) as delight and wonder. One short scene, however, beautifully conveys what pure imagination means in a world that still doesn’t know how to embrace it:

With a piercing, paternal gaze into Veruca’s eyes, Wonka delivers this timeless line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” (these are not his words, but the opening lines from Ode, a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy). The message is clear, and yet, many of us are uncomfortable giving more free rein to our imaginations. We prefer to stifle or silence them, save them for the pages of our notebooks, or indulge them in absent-minded daydreams and fantasies. We can certainly do better to apply imaginative thinking to business, and no doubt we will, but far greater work remains where we need imagination most — in how we can improve our lives, our communities, and our world.

The real power of deeply imaginative ideas is not so much in their “wildness,” but in how they’re molded, shaped, and built one upon the other to synthesize something new (i.e., applied creativity). Among the most important inter-related skills we can develop are our ability to open the door of possibility wide and play, apply judgement to narrow down what’s possible to what’s do-able, act to make things happen, and learn from the results (i.e., creative problem solving). In nearly every wild idea is the potential for something real, and the possibility of something that could be, but we would never know unless we explore those ideas and find the means to bring them to life. Wonka’s fairy tale world wasn’t really all that fanciful because he — like many pioneering entrepreneurs and inventors in recent history — found a way to turn his craziest ideas into actual things, limitations and constraints be damned. He created his own process, built his own machinery, hired highly skilled people (Oompa Loompas!), imposed strict manufacturing quality control measures, and dared to release products that the public might not be ready for. People like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk are just a few people who’ve made headlines for their capitalizing on their imaginations, but such benefits aren’t exclusive to a select few “geniuses” and aren’t limited to financial gain. We all can benefit in countless ways from putting our full imaginations to work.

So don’t lose that shocking idea you had at the beginning of this post. Unbelievably mad, surreal, mind-warping ideas are where the action is. Those ideas don’t come from a boss’ permission or from wearing a black turtleneck and thick-framed glasses. They come from who you are right now. They just need to be let out of the box once in a while.