The Design Letters, Vol. 1


Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

In a rare example of successful content marketing to me (zero inbox is one of my proudest habits, sadly) I signed up for Jarrod Drysdale‘s Tiny Designer email newsletter series–not least, Jarrod-if-you’re-reading-this, because it promised to give me a semblance design literacy in only 5 short installments.

I’ll meet your business goals rather than sell you a glossy coat of paint. Jarrod Drysdale, with whom I have no business relationship, although he seems pretty cool.

Design thinking is where the rubber hits the road for systems thinking, and I like being able to actualize my thoughts, so it seemed like a good investment of email attention capital.

So far, it is. The first email I got posed this bold, no-bullshit question:

Is creative work valuable anymore? When anyone can write a blog, listen to a song for free, or design something pretty on Squarespace, it can seem that creative professions are going the way of the dodo bird.

This question reflects ground truth for a lot of people who will have to deleverage from their career or business pretentions for any number of reasons. Despite the abundance of design capital in the world today, anyone can easily fall victim to–or worse, embody–bad design outcomes, bad design practice, or bad entrepreneurship, or some combination of the same. I “designed” my own business card because I can’t afford a professional designer, and every reprint I order, exchange of cards that I “lose” American Psycho-style, or Pinterest binge I indulge reminds me of what the opportunity costs of my time spent and money “saved” might actually be.

Jarrod concluded by asking:

What’s the biggest threat to the design profession?

I tried to answer him, and answered some of my own questions, questions that I face as I try to clamber my own professional writing, communications, and business development consultancy–designing tools for strategic clarity and improved customer engagement–out of the depths of Resistance.

(Some clarifications added [in brackets].)

In my view, denigration of creative and design work always stops when competitive advantage [through superior design] is achieved (hopefully not by a competitor). The problem is that denigration persists because some competitive success can be found without real investment in design capital (e.g. Google [products outside of search] prior to their tipping point c. 2011 into puff pieces like this one).

This is because (a) design literacy seeps into the subconscious of sausage-making and client-facing types as a matter of simply interacting with the world, and (b) there is an economic market (profits and savings) for de-skilling of design. Real life isn’t going to end (a), nor is a cure for hubris going to end (b). But that complex is the existential threat to the design profession, even as it drives demand for a lucky few of its practitioners and aficionados/patrons.

Thank you for offering this course. Good content marketing always reminds the audience of the phrase “if you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.” I believe, and I hope, that this is good content marketing for you.

This is one more place in our serviceinformationknowledgecreativeattentionsemanticrelationship economy where the “professionals” will either learn enough to adapt, or find a new profession, taking the transferable artifacts of their experience with them on a sometimes long, sometimes perilous journey to a new beginning and a new chance at personal differentiation in a new market.

We’ve all made the journey before.

Tackle new issues with humility and without fear: Capital Punishment, Vol. 2


I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis du Lafayette (yes, that one)

I find that I am essentially for the death penalty in theory, but against it in practice. That’s one of those statements that is in danger of meaning nothing, like “supporting the troops but not the war.” In this case, however, I understand my position well enough to use such a platitude with my eyes wide open.

Short version of this post: Execution of a guilty person, for a finitely determined type of crime, is just. But in order to be a morally adequate human being, I have to privilege the (judicially) innocent. In a practical, real-life society I don’t know if there is any solution short of full abolition/repeal that can do justice (a terrible pun) to both needs.

And into the weeds we go.  Continue reading

Just written, without irony

Fortunate to serve/have served in both.

Fortunate to serve/have served in both.

Politics is practiced in a command & staff model, requiring an agile mind and secure, constructive dialogue. Campaigns recruit and mobilize assets, applying intent to the electorate to reach endstate on exact timelines–an allegory of the operational “art of war”. ADM personal communication, career-related.

Now don’t get me wrong; this is the God’s honest truth, at least in a campaign with money for more than one staffer. Still, this feels stilted in comparison to a more honest quote evincing the likeness between politics and battle:

One of the serious problems in planning the fight against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine. Notebook of a Soviet Army lieutenant

What it's all about

What it’s all about.

You have more customers than you think


No one just builds a platform anymore. They have to make a market.

That’s what I told my colleague and good friend Duane Wells. Duane is a co-founder of CertSpring, an application that provides rapid, low-cost curriculum development and knowledge verification or “microcredentialing” for partners in content publishing and professional development. (Full disclosure: I am engaged with CertSpring to assist in marketing strategy and business development.)

The major platforms and in our life seem inevitable after the fact, but they were impossible at first, and their predecessors were impregnable right up until the moment they were undone.Technology now facilitates any combination of content, analytics, user mechanics, and social layering. But plugging all of the above together, no matter how seamlessly, proves nothing. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, don’t be fooled into thinking that the invention of cranes means Dubai can (or should) be.

Parts of an entrepreneur’s work have become faster and cheaper, but his work is not shorter or easier; that speed of effort and capital means that all assumptions are up for grabs and should be actioned comprehensively and simultaneously. It’s no longer possible to build a deeply functional product and wait for it to find its user niche, nor is it easy to grab and hold large swaths of engaged users without a compelling reason for them to discover what may be technically possible. Nothing can be taken for granted. Bridging the gap over a market problem to create a successful product lies in the difference between merely facilitating the combination of solution elements and catalyzing those elements.

On that note of market transmogrification, Duane occasionally uses the word alchemy to describe the success we’re pursuing–the stories in which the platform does deliver an experience that is affirmed as value-creating by both the “partner” and “customer” stakeholders, in a space where neither group realized value could be made. Now, I don’t think I have enough personality to get away with using such a sensationalizing word; besides, what we’re attempting isn’t entirely magical even as we look through an iPhone screen, darkly.

Product/market fit, service edition, is a process that regular old kinda-smart folk like ourselves can keep taking cracks at and getting closer each time. Good thing, because an element of two-way marketplace management catalysis exists in almost every business model, and increasingly in our careers. We are all continuously finding a way to stay in the value chain.

Platforms don’t make their own markets. People–like Duane, the CertSpring team, and I–do. And I hope you do too.

Excerpt from a conversation with a climate scientist

“I can certainly share my objections in more detail, but I want to give you the courtesy of going first since this is supposed to be a scientific conclusion driving policy and not the other way around. (I wasn’t breastfed, by decree of a father who smoked. /rimshot)” ADM email, not making it up, wondering if the recipient of this email (or anyone else) will get the joke.

Quotes for an apéritif to this week

IMG_2854“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.” (T.S. Eliot)

“Strange things happen to a kid when he grows up like I did. Relationships become…object-oriented.” (excerpt from ADM personal communication, 2015)

“Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.” (H.L. Mencken)

“All loss is learning.” (ADM private writing, 2013)

“Imagination is its own form of courage.” (President Francis Joseph Underwood, House of Cards)

“Audit what’s fallen out of focus inadvertently.” (ADM private writing, 2014)

“You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out.” (Cal Newport, via Reddit)

A/B testing in real life, and Real Life in A/B testing

You knew I had to show you the pictures eventually.

It would be prejudicial to comment before showing you the two photos.

My new-ish and very bright friend Ann Chao (HBS ’13; CEO of the company behind Cadenza, the award winning musicians’ practice app) recently had professional photos taken and informally polled her friends to inform her choice between the two best shots. Many more responses later than expected, this became a learning moment:

Following my previous post on “doing things we love within the things we love,” this has been my creative rumination for this week. It was fun to study people’s perceptions across various lines. And to note the tension between gendered descriptors like “warm and inviting” and the supposedly gender-neutral but usually-male position of a CEO or startup founder.

Check out Ann’s whole post for some of the qualitative and quantitative artifacts that emerged along different lines of her social graph. I will reproduce here the excerpt that snapped me from bemusement back into work mode.

I wondered if people who I met at different phases of my life would have different opinions. The number of respondents among my high school, college and HBS circles were roughly the same.

  • My high school friends had a strong preference for #2 (80%).
  • My college friends were almost evenly split between #1 and #2, leaning slightly toward #1.
  • My HBS friends also had a strong preference for #2 (77%).

Not sure how to explain the high school and college difference. But for business school, I presume that most of my friends have a pretty solid idea of what a professional headshot should look like, and #2 fits the bill better.

Suddenly I both actually cared about someone else’s headshots, and found myself in the throes of my own learning moment, to boot.

Ann, I can advance some theories behind the break in opinion between these two photos.

  1. Let’s all please take a moment to note that none of this would matter if Ann’s technical, interpersonal, and ethical values were not top-notch. They are. Little moments like this, where we see the richness of thought behind a fleeting decision or “minor” detail, are deeply telling moments about the measure of a person. (Ann’s more introspective version, “doing things we love within the things we love,” is admittedly more catchy.)
  2. College is the great experimental space of emerging adulthood, whereas high school and business school (I have also heard this about law school, from my brother and others) can be a bit more concerned with a certain kind of branding relative to the social context. Those who remember Ann from each of those periods likely made their selection based on the values they shared at that time.
  3. I may as well just step in it. For the record, these are things that have literally nothing to do with Ann’s skills, but we are already talking about “looking good” as opposed to, you know, anything else.
    • Ann is Chinese-American.
    • Men, “artsy” types (her word, and I stand by it), and more strongly tied friends all showed effect sizes for preference of the “warmer” #1 photo, with the common observation that it has an authentic or “eye” smile.
    • It is very astute of Ann to consider the gender implications of her visual identity as a startup CEO. For whatever it’s worth, I personally chose #1 because of its warmth, taking the professional context as obvious from her attire.
    • However: the eye smile causes a visual narrowing of the eye to the outside observer. Some visual stereotypes still propagate that carry often quite ugly messages; Ann, as previously stated is Chinese-American. Ann having many Asian-American friends, it is not impossible that this cohort featured a prioritization of visual “eye volume” or smize over warmth or affinity.
  4. I must contend in addition that, if we are already in the business of optimizing our physical appearance (and body language, and speech patterns) for branding against other socially normative values, “racial” physical features, along with all the other sensitive indicators, are fair game.
    • I play this game too. With my attire, or my voice, or my writing, or my height, or my business card, or my stated hometown–or the questions I ask you about yours.
    • You play, too. So even do those individuals who boast “ideal” features.
    • None of us can “change society” by ourselves, but we can change our product space, and the lives of everyone around us, for the better.
    • Bias may never go away, but injustice or distaste aren’t the point of our optimizationsSuccess is.

This afternoon’s chance reading has crystallized an idea for me. I believe that the time for questioning the rules of the game comes less often than we think, and oftentimes not in the way we expect. That’s because the game started long before we were born, and it never ends. The most effective question we can ask ourselves is that of what kind of players we intend to be.

In this game, momentum shifts often. Every play is a scoring play, for someone. We adjust our gameplan–our strategy and our brand–on the fly. Everything we say and do in our careers, and indeed in our interpersonal lives as a whole, has informational value that translates through our own reckoning, however oblique, into the real value we seek.

Everything is communications.

And all communications, then, have underlying analytics.

The velocity of technology and information has created an era in which we can all publicly, commercially be as personally astute as Lincoln, Oppenheimer, or Jobs. Or we can be exposed as tone-deaf on the scale of Andrew Mellon, Robert MacNamara, or Steve Ballmer. Consider that each of these historical examples, both the successful and unsuccessful, had access to the best data available of their day.

Then and now, data requires discernment.

Then and now, we only find true understanding of our work if we know where, when, and why we are searching for it. Today, however, the entirety of the decision space has collapsed to within arm’s reach for those who will grab it–even as the gravity of this transformation now demands of us an extraordinary density of thought. What was true all along is now clear: as areas of expertise based on optimization, communications (or sales, marketing, business development, product management, social media, content strategy, UX, design, doctrine, plans, legislation) and analytics (or KPIs, data-driven strategy, data mining, data science, business intelligence, usability research, behavioral economics, sentiment analysis, operations research) are two sides of the same coin.

Communications and analytics are the same thing.

Real life doesn’t come to us in neatly defined campaign cycles (unless you’re in politics) or environments amenable to conventional statistics, although we have acted as though it does. The real questions of leadership, strategy, and influence haven’t changed per se, they’ve simply helped bring each other to the forefront.

How much–and how granularly–can you capture?

How fast can you optimize back into new value-creating actions?

And of course:

Can you ask the right questions?

How hard, fast, and deep can you think? Apologies to Barry Goldwater, but extremism in the pursuit of value is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of vision is no virtue.

Ann, your piece obviously got me to thinking. And for that, I thank you.