The Uncle Sam Service Jam

Just about a month ago, I participated in a really cool event here in DC called the Uncle Sam Service Jam. The USSJ was a local version of a global event which brought folks interested in service design together for 48 hours to develop entirely new services around a common theme. The USSJ event was hosted by Peer Insight, who led us through general service design methodology and provided us with an awesome space, atmosphere, and coaching.

Here’s a little sketch of what the weekend looked like:

timeline crop w color2

I really enjoyed learning about Peer Insight’s process and discovering new frameworks and tools. Another highlight for me was how amazing my team performed in the 11th (47th?) hour. I had brought skills to the table in terms of design process know-how and visualizing our ideas, but when it came to prepping, recording and editing our video I stepped back and watched in awe as my talented team took over🙂

Speaking of talented teammates, here’s an amazing video that my teammate Brent Davidson put together to capture the weekend:

And last but not least, here’s our ‘final prototype’ of the service we developed. We dubbed our service, and created a platform (in concept only) that will help match people who want to learn a skill with folks who want to teach that skill, with nice benefits for the teachers since those tend to be harder to come by. Check it out:

It was a fantastic weekend!

If you want to learn more about the Global Service Jam, you can find them here or follow them on twitter at @GSJam

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Wearable Health: a space to watch

On Monday, a new blog post of mine went live on my company’s website! You can read it there, or in the space below. Exciting stuff! – Joanna

What started out as something only a small group of devoted quantified selfers cared about was the hot topic at CES 2013. Whether you want to call it quantified self, connected health, or wearable health – it’s a space to watch.

Wearable Health Blog Post

I’m a quantified self enthusiast. I’ve owned two Fitbits, have been using some combination of paper, apps, and internet to track food and exercise for a few years now, and currently own the Jawbone UP. As I’ve watched the wearable health space explode in the last six months, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good wearable health system. The way I see it, a wearable health system can be broken down into three parts: the device, the data, and the experience.

The Device:
In some ways, the device is very important – after all, it’s often the only part of the system that others can see. Perhaps because of this, the newest device designs seem to be trying to take a fashion-angle with their devices: the Fitbit Flex, Misfit Shine, and the new BodyMedia system will come in bright colors or with “jewelry-like” accessories. But what I think is more important than being fashion-forward is designing the devices for wearability. When I had the Fitbit Ultra, it annoyed me to no end that every time I changed from work clothes to workout gear, I had to remember to move my Fitbit, or lose credit during my most active times. My relationship with Fitbit ultimately ended when I lost my device for the second time simply walking around town. These days, I prefer the wristband style of the Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand, because I can wear it all day without even thinking about it. Another key to wearability is how the device communicates with its wearer. UP has gone to one extreme by having no screen on it’s device – any communication to the wearer comes through vibrations. The Misfit Shine and FitBit Flex are somewhere in the middle – instead of showing specific stats, they use LEDs to give you an overall impression of your progress towards a goal. It remains to be seen if people will feel like they need on-device feedback, or if we’ll see screens and lights fading to the background.

The Data:
As important as the device is the data it collects. Nearly every new wearable health device has the ability to track multiple kinds of data (e.g., steps, stairs, sleep) over extended periods of time, and output graphs of it. But beyond clever graphics and comparisons (“you walked the equivalent of the Golden Gate bridge just now!”), I think the real magic is when the data is interpreted for you. Jawbone’s UP claims to have an ‘insight engine’ that “discover[s] hidden connections and patterns in your day-to-day activities.” My experience has been that some of these insights are indeed quite motivating; for example, this message last week helped motivate me to go on a run that afternoon.

UP wednesday

Others seem like they have little to do with my specific data set: this message about sugary drinks seemed particularly unhelpful given that I rarely drink sweetened beverages (and the UP should know that, since I use it to track food).

UP Sugar Tip

UP’s system isn’t perfect, but I love the direction it is headed in, and I hope more wearable health players will incorporate targeted feedback into their offerings.

In addition to providing more interpretation of data, wearable health makers will also need to address the fact that data gets stale. After wearing a device for a while, the data that was interesting to you when you started out is no longer valuable. By the time you’ve worn your device for a few months, you know what your average steps are (~6900), which days you walk a lot (Saturday and Sunday) and a little (Monday), and it’s no longer enough to see the same stats. To keep the data interesting, I suspect that wearable health makers will need to differentiate with the experience.

The Experience:
To me, the experience – on the device, apps, and online – is probably the most important aspect of a wearable health system. When I say experience, I don’t necessarily mean the experience of using the device, or the data as a standalone, but the experience one has using the entire system for a length of time. (Interestingly, the current wearable health darling, Misfit Shine, says almost nothing about their online or app experience in their Indiegogo campaign).

One thing that enables a great experience is integration, or allowing data to be brought in from or sent out to other trackers. Integration is key, because you can bet that the majority of people who are tracking steps and sleep are also interested in weight, calories, and other bits of data. Right now, Fitbit might be the winner for integration; it takes in weight data from the Withings scale, and plays nicely in both directions with activity apps like MapMyRun and food tracking apps like Lose It! But where Fitbit wins on integration, Nike wins on what I think is the second enabler of a great experience, gamification. With their new game platform, NikeFuel Missions, they’re going beyond badges and challenges and using traditional video game strategies – avatars, narratives, and levels – to motivate people to get active in real life. Nike recently released a video previewing the NikeFuel Missions, and while the details are still very much in the air, I’m excited to see where it goes. If the recent success of Zombies, Run!, the $8 app that tells an audio-based zombie fighting storyline as you run, is any indicator, gamification is going to be big in the future of wearable health.

The wearable health space is huge right now, with new players coming to the market every day. As the space gets more crowded, I’ll be looking for the folks who can differentiate with device wearability, insight engines, and gamification.

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Gift Guide for Creatives

I have mixed feelings about Gift Guides. In general, I try to remind myself at the holidays and otherwise that I don’t really need All.This.Stuff. Videos like this one from Patagonia and this one from Free Range Studios & Story of Stuff have been especially thought provoking this holiday season. In spite of all this, I’ve chosen to go ahead a post a gift guide for creatives, because a.) it’s cheery and b.) it’s my hope that these things are tools you can use rather than “more stuff.” I hope these gifts will help the creative folks in your life (or you!) come up with great ideas, express themselves, and live 2013 to the fullest. Feel free to add your own ideas to the comments!

  • Stendig Wall Calendar ($40) | I’ve though this calendar was cool ever since one of my favorite bloggers, Elise Blaha, wrote about using hers to organize blog posts. I think its large size makes it ideal for mapping out projects and goals via post-its.
  • Moleskine 2013 12 Month Daily Planner ($36) | I used these for 2012 and though they were great! I make to-do lists for each day and sometimes include grocery lists or details for appointments.
  • Designer’s Notebook ($20) | This is my current “idea log”. It’s small enough to fit in my purse, has dotted rather than lined pages, and also has some neat reference features in the back.
  • Evernote Pocket Squared Smart Notebook ($25) | I haven’t tried this one but it looks really neat. Apparently, both the pages and the stickers make it super easy to use OCR and tagging for converting your paper notes into digital ones.
  • Targus Ultralife™ Stylus ($20) | Isn’t she lovely? My company, Continuum, helped create the design for this snazzy stylus for Ultrabooks, but it will work on any capacitive touch screen.
  •  The Sketchnote Handbook ($20-$27 with video) | I think sketchnoting/visual notetaking is the coolest, so I’m jazzed about this how-to manual, the development of which I’ve been following on instagram (@rohdesign).
  • Winning the Story Wars ($16) | I’m 75% of the way through and finding it a very worthwhile read. Read this to learn about how to learn from myths and apply their structures to marketing campaigns or really any convincing brand story.
  • Young House Love: 243 Ways to Paint, Craft, Update & Show Your Home Some Love ($17) | I pre-ordered this one, and what a fun book! So many great projects to tackle.
  • The Creative Habit ($11) | An inspiring, down to earth read about what you can do to keep your creative juices flowing.
  • Paper (free but $7 for brushes) | A super simple app for sketching out notes and ideas on the iPad.
  • iFontMaker ($7) | An app for turning your handwriting and handdrawn lettering into digital fonts for the computer.
  • Totally Rad Actions ($149) | I read about Totally Rad Actions on A Beautiful Mess and was completely intrigued – such an easy way to add pizazz to your photos!
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Wedding Planning as a Designer (Part Two)

Last week I shared some thoughts on what it meant to me to be a designer/strategist planning a wedding. This week, I’m sharing what we designed! I hope you enjoy.

* special thanks to our amazing photographer, Jeannie Mutrais, for taking all but 1, 14, and 15!

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Wedding Planning as a Designer (Part One)

Tyler and I got married just about 6 months ago (hooray!) After celebrating with friends, moving from Cambridge to DC, and honeymooning in Thailand, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on our “wedding planning process,” and how my work as a designer/strategist played into it.

The way I see it, my background as a designer/strategist came in handy for two reasons. First, I can design and make stuff. And not only do I have the skills to design and make stuff, but it’s pretty much my passion. As I learned from reading various wedding blogs, this is not always the case and there are many brides-to-be who hate Martha Stewart with just as much passion. So, being able to design stuff was handy. Second, I know how to plan things. In my professional life, working on projects where a lot needs to get done in a set period of time, my strength has always been scoping out “the plan” for who’s going to do what, when (Heck, I even do this for Thanksgiving dinner).

On Project Planning the Wedding:
There are a lot of things that go into planning a wedding (venue, guest list, food, music, decor, paper goods, etc etc) and there were clearly moments when we felt overwhelmed. Luckily, by bringing some of our favorite ‘project planning’ tools to the table, Tyler and I were able to reduce our stress considerably. Here are a few tools we used:

Lots of to-do lists. I kept so many lists. Running lists in notebooks, deadlines listed on calendars, lists to bring to the craft store, and many, many more. Because I’m no expert in weddings, I turned to some experts to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything major. A Practical Wedding and Paper Source were both helpful, as were the timeline sheets from Russell + Hazel. But, importantly, I paired down these into my own lists because one thing you quickly learn about wedding planning is that a huge part of it is identifying what parts you want to do and then eliminating everything else from your mind.

Obsessive Calendaring. Tyler kind of freaked when he saw how many things I wanted to craft for the wedding. To assuage his fears, I mapped out all of my ideas on monthly calendar pages and showed him that if I did this on that weekend, we’d be fine. I also promised him that if certain projects weren’t meeting their deadlines, they were out. And believe me, that happened – eliminated ideas included the one where I thought I’d crochet myself a wrap to wear at the rehearsal dinner, the one where I planned to paint guest’s names and their table numbers on stones that would sit on a bed of moss, and the one where I planned to create blurb books of photos of our friends to have strewn about at the reception (yes, a little ambitious).

The Big Notebook. I’ve already written about how I love to Idea Log, so it should come as no surprise that I kept a log for wedding stuff. Actually, I split my thoughts across three notebooks: the pocket-sized red moleskin (above) that I could carry everywhere, a sketchbook for exploring ideas in more detail, and this massive binder for collecting, well, everything else. I probably went a little overboard because that’s how I roll, but in it I pasted images from the web and magazines, saved contracts and contact info, and kept sketches and revisions of various designs. It was anything but practical to carry around, but its a neat thing to look back on, since it captures the year+ of pre-wedding frenzy pretty accurately.Harvey Balls. If you can believe it, we actually used Harvey Balls to choose our venue. In my professional life, I’ve used Harvey Balls as a way to evaluate opportunity spaces or concepts across multiple criteria. In the case of our venue, we needed to make a decision, fast, and this was a really good way for us to talk about the aspects of a venue that mattered to us, even if in the end we didn’t follow the ratings to a T. Not exactly romantic, but definitely useful.

On Designing A Wedding As A Designer:
Now, in terms of bringing my design training to wedding projects, I would say my background was both a blessing and a curse. Initially, I wanted to (co)design just about everything. We wanted our wedding to reflect us, and it seemed like the most straightforward way to achieve that was to do it our way, by ourselves. I think I also felt a bit of pressure to show off my design chops. The problem with this approach, though, was that we wanted everything to be great (it was our wedding, after all) and I am not an expert at all the things. I may have had opinions about flowers, invites, cake toppers, and so forth but I don’t have any special skills in arranging flowers, I don’t design stationary for a living, and my painting skills are rudimentary at best. So, DIY-ing it for the wedding turned out to be a lesson in having ideas and then enlisting the help of others to help bring them to the finish line. For example, my mom is great with flowers, so I pulled together some examples of things I liked, sketched out a few ideas, and handed the plans off to her in a neat PDF file. And they were beautiful! (Thanks again, Mom!)

In any case, I had a great time working with Tyler to DIY our way to the wedding. For me, it was a chance to focus my crafting energy on one, big event, and a time to stretch my planning muscles on personal projects. For the two of us, it was a great experience of dreaming up ideas together, working with talented folks to make them a reality, and overall creating a wedding that we were just so happy with. We’re so excited with how it went, and also pretty excited for what’s next!

The Art of Idea Logging

One of my favorite parts of being a designer is upholding the practice of keeping an Idea Log. Actually, you might say I’m an overachiever in this respect, because at any given moment I’m usually keeping 5+ idea logs for different subjects.

An idea log is a solo, visual record of thinking, one that you create as you think rather than after the fact, as you would a journal. Moreover, the idea log is a kinesthetic tool for the thinking itself, giving you space and opportunity to let your mind wander to creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Because they’re your own, idea logs are a safe space to explore half-baked thinking and relate your own life experiences to the problem at hand.

Why Idea Log?

The first reason why I love idea logging is because I like having a record to refer back to. Idea logs help you capture thoughts that pop into your head while on a walk, record meetings or conversations for later verification, and create a record of past mistakes so you won’t repeat them.

Additionally, I find idea logs to be one of the best tools for processing thoughts and working through problems. For me, scrawling out thoughts on a blank sheet of paper is an excellent way to jump-start a project that I’ve put off for awhile. Or, if I’ve been talking an idea to death with colleagues, working alone over a notebook is the perfect way to clear my head and move on to fresh thinking.

One Idea Log vs. Many

Some people use one log to capture all of their ideas. The great advantage of this is that with just one notebook, it is easier to carry everywhere, which means you always have it for jotting down moments of brilliance or looking back on. I personally prefer keeping separate notebooks that are specific to a project or subject, so my thoughts are somewhat organized. In order to do this, I usually carry around a stack of post-its so I can move thoughts from whatever I have on hand to where they belong.

Here are some of the types of notebooks I’ve kept:

  • Work Project Idea Logs – these include project planning notes, meeting notes, photos, idea sketches, etc
  • “Life” Notebook – where I map out week plans, gift ideas, menu plans, budgeting, etc
  • Wedding Notebook – a small Moleskine that I can carry to potential wedding vendors to jot down notes, and use to collect DIY inspiration
  • Recipe Notebook – one of the new Moleskine ‘Passion Journals’ for capturing my favorite recipes
  • Sketchbook – blank sheets for drawing & sketching practice
  • Personal Project Log – a large format (11 x 9) sketchbook to capture sewing patterns, graphic design ideas, etc

Best practices for idea logging:

There is no one way to idea log, and everyone has their own idea logging style. But oftentimes forcing yourself to step out of your comfort zone is the way to get to new ideas. This means if you’re the type who thinks through text, force yourself to doodle or sketch frameworks and see where it takes you. Here are some other tips for getting the most out of your idea log:

1. Create conditions for creative thinking
Find a place that is comfortable and free of major distractions, and make sure you have the things on hand that help you think best, like good snacks, music, colored pens, and craft supplies.

2. Quantity yields quality
To get to the good stuff, you need to give yourself enough time to relax: think 45min+. Once you get started, try to go through as many pages as possible, because the point is to get beyond your initial thinking, which will take up the first few pages. If you’re truly an idea log master, you should also be striving to idea log every day, a task that is difficult but not impossible.

3. Leave time to go back and make discoveries
The key takeaways from an idea log session come out in the last ten minutes, when you look back on what you’ve logged and take notes on what you’ve learned. This might take the form of identifying patterns and themes, or simply highlighting the most important stuff. To this end, make sure to write legibly and avoid excessive shorthand so you can understand what you’ve written even after a few days have passed.

4. Capture stream of consciousness (don’t edit yourself)
In order to make implicit leaps and understand subtle nuances within your thoughts, you need to allow yourself to capture your ideas before you’d be ready to share them – in other words, to capture half-baked and wacky thoughts. You also need to give yourself permission to let go of laying out the perfect page, spelling everything correctly, and making it look pretty. If you’re going for style points, you’re probably not allowing yourself to think deeply enough.

5. Give yourself permission to get off-topic
I often find that when I sit down to idea log about a framework, the first thing that pops into my head is something completely unrelated and mundane, like what I need to pick up at the grocery store later. Allow yourself to work through these roadblocks by thinking on them, making a list or otherwise capturing, and moving on. While your goal is to get deep into a topic, you should definitely indulge these distractions, as sometimes the most surprising insights come out of serendipitous explorations.

What are your favorite ways to idea log? Do you have any favorite notebooks or tools for idea logging?

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Recent Work: Christmas Card Designs

Having the ability to draw design inspiration from many sources, quickly sketch ideas, and ultimately turn those sketches into rendered graphics is so important to design strategy. As a designer, going through this process of actualizing ideas helps you filter through to the best ones. Moreover, many clients have trouble fully understanding new ideas until they are visualized. I like to work on personal design projects throughout the year to keep my visualization skills fresh, and to give me an outlet for my incessant need to create things.

As one such project, I’ve been working on designing our first ever Christmas card for a few weeks now. Just last night I completed the project by ordering a set. I thought I’d share a bit on my process for designing them, as well as our ‘rejects’ – I won’t show our final design so as to keep the surprise for those of you on the mailing list.

To start, I looked at stationary sites around the web for inspiration. I also looked through Real Simple and made a few trips to Paper Source to check out what they had to offer. The cards I loved most had interesting typography and blocky graphics.

After bookmarking a bunch of designs, I sketched out my take on some of the favorites.

Finally, I took to Illustrator to create the graphics. If you have the time, I find that a project like this is great for pushing your skills in design computer programs. Though the Adobe Creative Suite can be tough to get started with, there are lots of resources on the web – whenever I got stuck, I could Google, “How to create a clipping mask tutorial” and immediately find several helpful videos.

Here are some of our favorite designs:

And there you have it! Working on Christmas cards has inspired me that I can design our wedding invitation suite, so it’s on to the next project.

Side note: We ordered ours as postcards through, which happens to have free shipping for orders over $35 until November 22. The process is very simple: upload your files, sign off on the proofs, then wait a few weeks for them to arrive in the mail. I can’t vouch for the postcard quality (yet) but love their services in general.

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Learnings from Likeable Social Media

I finished Dave Kerpen’s new book, Likeable Social Media, a few weeks back and thought it was great. The book is about how businesses can create social media campaigns that are more ‘likeable’ (as in, the Facebook ‘like’ button). The book is geared towards people who are familiar with social media tools but haven’t yet run serious social media campaigns, though I would argue it would also serve as a great refresher for people who have been working in social media for awhile. In this blog post, I hope to share three big learnings I took from the book, but in no way can this serve as a substitute for reading the book itself.

To start off, let me explain the principle of a ‘like’, which is how Kerpen makes the case for social media. Facebook’s Like button allows users to endorse companies, articles, photos – you name it – for all their friends to see. What’s so important about it is that the like button highlights what a Facebook user’s friends are buying and endorsing, which means that it is a far more trustworthy recommendation than an ad on TV. It’s word-of-mouth, but at the ginormous scale of Facebook and Twitter.

Likeable Social Media walks through what it takes to be a ‘likeable’ company, with case studies of companies who have done it right and wrong strewn throughout. Below, I’ve condensed its eighteen chapters into three takeaways: why social media is a great tool for making your business likeable, best practices for using social media to be likable, and things to watch out for along the way.

#1 – Why social media is worth it

  • Social media chatter is free market research, if you’re paying attention. By listening to what your consumers say about your business as well as your competitors, you can learn how to make more compelling products, services, and offers.
  • Social media gives you the opportunity to create positive experiences out of negative ones, which will help you retain customers that might have otherwise defected, and will also likely result in word-of-mouth praise.
  • Engaging with customers through conversations, story sharing, etc. makes fans out of them and builds brand loyalty.
  • Interesting promotions drive interest and sales (just be careful this isn’t the only thing you’re using social media for).

Social media tools are not designed for selling more product, but they are great for getting a better understanding of your customers and your company, which in turn helps you build your business. Moreover, social media is great for deepening  relationships with customers. While that’s sometimes difficult to link to ROI, it’s a clear win for companies.

#2 – How to use social media effectively

Throughout the book, Kerpen shares principles of what you should share on social media.

  • Share surprising, valuable content – meaning, give away free value to your customers. For a consulting firm, that might be white papers on methodologies. For a packaged food company, it might be recipes combined with coupons for some of the ingredients.
  • Share stories, and encourage your customers to share them too. Stories about how the company was founded, about your awesome employees, and about what you do for customers make your company human and relatable. Of course, even better than sharing your own stories is getting your customers to share theirs, so make sure to thank and recognize customers who do.
  • Don’t limit yourself to Facebook and Twitter. Videos are great pieces of media to share via YouTube, and Kerpen also suggests location-based networks (like Foursquare), niche industry networks, LinkedIn, and blogs.

Additionally, Kerpen offers strategies for how to share content on social media:

  • Think like a customer. As you post something to social media, think “would I click on this/find it valuable if I were them?”
  • Be authentic and transparent. A CEO’s Twitter account should be the CEO, not her assistant. If you do need a team to run your social media platforms, be upfront about it. It may make sense to sign tweets/updates, just so people know who they’re talking to.
  • Be engaging. Social media isn’t about pushing out information like announcements or offers, it’s about having a two-way conversation. Use twitter to respond to your customers, Facebook to start a wall conversation, or YouTube to share stories and ideas.
  • Integrate social media across the entire customer experience. Kerpen writes a horror story about one social media campaign that pushed out a promotion for a nearby shop to his Foursquare account. When he got to the store (with several friends he invited along), the sales associates had no clue what he was talking about. Instead of creating a positive experience, this campaign created a negative one, and was worse for the company than doing nothing. To avoid this, make sure every department is clued into your social media strategy.

In sum, social media is about people interacting with one another to share who they are and what they care about. Any company that tries to use social media purely for advertising misses the mark and will anger its customers. Likeable companies speak openly about themselves, interact with the community, and respond to feedback.

#3 – What to do when things go badly

Occasionally, bad situations get blown up into huge stories through social media. When this happens, your objective as a company should be to respond to the situation as quickly as possible and turn it around into something positive. Kerpen uses a JetBlue case study to showcase this. In 2007, JetBlue blew it when a string of storms combined with internal dysfunction made them cancel hundreds of flights. JetBlue’s CEO quickly filmed a YouTube video apologizing and promising this would never happen again. He followed it up with several media appearances in which he continued to apologize, and the incident was soon forgotten.

To be as savvy as JetBlue, Kerpen offers some key principles for responding to negative social media situations:

  • Do not delete a customer complaint unless it’s profane/bigoted/obscene. Savvy customers know when they’ve been brushed under the rug, and censorship will only anger them further. Instead, respond quickly – within 24 hours if you can.
  • Say “I’m sorry” and then figure out how you can fix the problem beyond a customer’s expectations. Saying I’m sorry doesn’t admit responsibility, it just empathizes with the customer and shows them you care.
  • Have an crisis plan in place – figure out ahead of time how you will respond to, say, a negative YouTube video that’s about to go viral. Who is able to decide about the appropriate response, and who will actually take care of it? What happens if it happens over a holiday or on the weekend?

Social media is scary for companies because bad reviews can spread so quickly – but so can good recoveries. When things go awry, use social media to fix the problem right then and there.

This post was intended to share at a high level what I learned from Likeable Social Media. If you’re interested in learning more, his book has many more details, insights, and case studies, and I highly recommend grabbing a copy. You can also follow Dave Kerpen on Twitter (@DaveKerpen), and subscribe to Likeable Media’s blog to learn about new developments in the social media space. I love that Likeable Media practices what they preach in the sense that they’re constantly giving out valuable information for free, which ends up giving them a lot of credibility as industry leaders.

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Lessons from South Park

On Wednesday, I attended a talk at the Innovation Lab by IDEO’s Life Sciences Chief Strategist, Rodrigo Martinez. The talk was put on by a group called ‘Design+’ which hopes to bring more design thinking to the business school through talks and events, something I’m clearly interested in as well.

While much of Rodrigo’s talk was familiar to me (he went over things like how folks at IDEO get inspired, the power of in-depth research over huge quantitative studies, the design process, and the value of cross-disciplinary teams), he and some of the other folks there mentioned a few things in the health space that I definitely want to check out, like the talks from TEDMed last week. But one non-healthcare mention peaked my interest – a student asked if Rodrigo had seen the documentary on the making of a South Park episode called ‘6 Days to Air‘ (he hadn’t). The student wondered if there were similarities between episode-making process of South Park and the project cycle of a design strategy firm. Having watched the documentary, I can tell you there are.

I should caveat by saying that I’m not really a big fan of South Park. I find its jokes crude, usually offensive, and not my style of humor. But I have great respect for creative teams in general, so I put my feelings about the content aside and looked at their creative process. The premise of the documentary, which aired on Comedy Central in October, is that the creators of South Park have just come off a long hiatus working on their Broadway musical, ‘The Book of Mormon’, and now have just six days to create the season-opening episode for South Park. As I watched the team, I was surprised to see that their methodologies and structures are almost identical to those of a design strategy firm.

1.) Create a safe space for ideation

On South Park, the writer’s room is a writers-only conference room where the team gathers to come up with episode ideas. The room’s exclusivity creates a safe space where folks feel comfortable throwing out stupid ideas without being criticized. Moreover, censorship for the sake of network politics is not allowed. Co-creator Matt Stone notes that “for every good idea, there had to be 100 bad ones” so having this space to air them is key to their success.

At most design strategy firms, a similar effort is made to create safe spaces for ideation. Some, like Jump, even create ‘rules for brainstorming’ which include things like: defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, and build on each other. To have a good ideation experience, you don’t need to be invite-only, but you to need to get everyone bought into creating a safe ideation space.

2.) Find inspiration in personal experiences and the world around you

As you watch Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the other writers brainstorm, you hear them pull in ideas from current events. “What is it with those stupid iTunes terms and conditions, where they want you to scroll through 10 pages of text before you agree? Does anyone actually read that? No? Well, what have we all agreed to exactly?” Just like that, from an annoying moment in one person’s day, a whole episode arc gets created.

Design strategists know that you can get project-defining inspiration from the most unexpected sources. That’s why folks at creative strategy firms are constantly feeding their heads by reading magazines, watching films, talking with people, trying out new technologies, and going on field trips to local stores and museums. One key is to make sure you feed your head with stuff beyond the area your project is focused on. You’re working on a new mobile technology? Why not explore what’s going on in fashion for a day? It’s the unlikely connections that can lead you to the most interesting ideas.

3.) Be versed in prototyping mediums so you can try it as you go

The documentary shows that the entire South Park staff is able to prototype the episode as they create it. Writers hop up to the whiteboard to draw rough sketches of scenes, and animators slip into the characters’ voices to suss out sequences. Whether it’s in a medium core to their background or not, the team members have learned how to prototype in just the right level of fidelity to push their ideas forward.

As a design strategist, you’re encouraged to develop prototyping skills in the same way. Even if you consider yourself more of a strategist than a designer, you should know how to do a quick sketch of an idea to explain it to others. Conversely, your design chops will only get so far if you can’t do some back-of-the-napkin rapid estimation for a ballpark number to value your idea. As a member of a cross-disciplinary team, you need to be able to prototype in all the different disciplines in order to fully realize an idea.

4.) Success depends on how much fun you’re having

As the writing team brainstorms, the rest of the South Park staff casually strolls by the writing room door to check on laughter level. Why? Because the amount of laughter coming from the room is a clear metric for how late the staff can expect to stay. If there’s a lot of laughing, things are on track and they might make it home for bed. When everyone is starting blankly at the wall, you can expect to be there until 5am.

At design strategy firms, the amount of fun team members are having is a key metric to how well the team is working together, and how successful their outputs will be. At Jump, we liked to take breaks throughout the day to play four square on the patio or doodle mutant product ideas. Being silly energized us and allowed our minds to wander, helping us bring fresh perspectives when we got back to work.

5.) Set deadlines to force decisions

After the team has sent the final edit off to the network, co-creator Matt is not happy, and laments that they could have used another day to perfect the episode. He admits, however, that the feeling of not being done is one he has for every episode, and that deadlines are the saving grace of making a show. With an extra week or two, you can second-guess and re-write, but you’re only going to make the show 5% better.

I firmly believe that deadlines are key to the creative process. Whether its setting a deadline for how long you’ll brainstorm (hint: quit while the energy is still high) to when you’ll present in front of an executive team, working towards a time goal creates team energy that is hard to build otherwise. The key is to make the expectations reasonable for the time left (I would argue that South Park fails here, given that the entire team spends the Easter holiday sleeping at the office) by backwards-planning up front and being realistic about how long things take.

South Park may not be for everyone, but their creative team has developed a process that works. These five lessons are ones that any business that’s trying to be more creative can and should follow as it strives to develop new-to-the-world ideas and solutions.

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On Food and Social Media

If you saw my Quantified Self post, you learned that one of my “key knowledges and interests” is food & cooking. One challenge that I’ve faced in pursuing this passion through social media, though, is finding my way through the plethora of not-always-relevant tweets by food trucks and chefs, daily pictures of people’s food, and endless recipe blogs. Today’s post is about unique and useful intersections of food and social about that cut through the chatter, along with suggestions for further improvements to the food and social media landscape.

#1: Crossover promotions with food trucks and other industries

It’s now baseline for food trucks to use Twitter accounts to share their location and menu items. Many trucks have even branched out to other social media tools, like Facebook or Foursquare, that allow them to crowd-source fan ideas or give out rewards to frequent customers.

What’s newer and more exciting is cross-category promotions like the one that Virgin America did recently with food trucks in SF and LA. To promote new routes to Mexico, Virgin America created a challenge where would-be flyers had to seek out selected Mexican taco trucks and check-in on Loopt (another location-based social network) while ordering 2-for-1 tacos. Doing so qualified them for a 2-for-1 deal on tickets. It ended up being the fifth highest sale day ever for Virgin America.


This promotion was not only fun but made total sense (tacos + Mexico), and I’d love to see more cross-category promotions like it. Maybe by checking in at select hot dog stands in downtown Boston, you could earn half off on Red Sox tickets. Or buying x number of sno-cones in the summer months earns you a free lift ticket for the next winter. We all have foods that we associate with certain events and experiences, so why not leverage those through promotions that combine the two?

#2: Tweeting recipes in the tweet

My ‘foodies’ Twitter list points to a lot of the usual suspects: local food trucks, grocery or specialty (read: cupcake) stores near me, food authorities like Food Network and its celebrity chefs, and a rotating list of food blogs. But one foodie, Maureen Evans of @cookbook, stands out. She shares entire recipes in 140 charactors – the length of a single tweet. I love this idea because it means I don’t have to click through a link to get to the full recipe or blog post (which is how almost every other person who tweets about food does it). As a confident home cook, I get what I need from this recipe without all the back story and details.

If I were to take this idea one step further, I’d create a food only sub-network for sharing tweets containing pictures of what you cook/eat with your friends plus a 140-charactor recipe/description. This network would be opt-in, so my friends who find ‘what I ate’ pictures gratuitous wouldn’t have to see them.  Maybe it’s just instagram for food (cookstagram?), but I think it would be pretty neat.

#3: Visual-based recipe collections

Browsing beautiful food creations is by far one of my favorite uses for Pinterest, the visual bookmarking tool I love so much. They say you first eat with your eyes, which is why I think using such a visual tool to save recipes is brilliant. In case you’ve never used Pinterest, here’s what a Pinterest food board looks like:

What’s neat about using Pinterest is that everything you pin is your choice, and you’re not limited by where you can source recipes from – you can literally pin any image on the web. You can also use the iPhone app to pin your own photos – so in theory you could take a picture of something you just cooked and pin it up there with notes.

If I were to make Pinterest even more useful for recipes, I’d want to be able to make sub-boards, so I could nest boards for main courses, baked goods, appetizers, etc. under my food board. I’d also want to make it a 1-click process to get from the visual spread to the recipe I want. Finally, at some point I might want to turn my favorite dishes into a physical cookbook so I could leave my iPad out of the kitchen. That’s where tools like Blurb (a self publishing service) or Tastebook (a site that turns virtual cookbooks into printed hard copies) could come in handy.

Finally, one other idea.

I watch a lot of Food Network, and pretty much eat up everything they throw at me, from thinking their celebrity chefs are awesome, to believing that the restaurants featured on ‘Diners, Drivers, and Dives’ or ‘Best Thing I Ever Ate’ are must-visits. What Food Network could really do for me, then, is to use a location-based application to alert me when I’m near a celebrity chef, restaurant, or food truck featured on one of their shows. Bridging the gap between the TV world and real world would benefit their stars, and would drive me back to their shows if they alerted me to something I hadn’t seen yet.

In conclusion, using social media to talk about food has become so noisy that it’s difficult for me to figure out who to listen to. As a result, I’ve turned my attention to food folks using social media in unusual ways that rely on principles core to enjoying food. Have I missed any? I’m interested to hear about your favorite food & social media pairings, or ideas for them!

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