Imagine a near future in which the President of the United States came to the leading design schools of this country, to enlist its best thinkers and practitioners in a new kind of Manhattan project — a problem of life and death urgency and of unrivaled complexity. Would we be prepared to answer her call? I expect that everyone would try their best to rise to the occasion. Shouldn't we be actively preparing for future design challenges of such unprecedented scale and importance? Because I have no doubt theses challenges are coming.
I never expected to have a life and career in design, let alone business. I wanted to make movies. I’d worked for a year on a feature film when I was 18; first as the producer/director’s assistant, then as a production assistant on the shoot, and finally as an apprentice editor. I had been a drama kid in high school, and what I realize now is that the draw of both theater and film was to the intimate engagement with passionate collaborators on projects of urgent importance. This drives me to this day, and I think of the role I’ve often played in my work as very much akin to that of the producer/director. I am driven by vision, create teams to realize the vision, attempt only the impossibly ambitious.
Just this last week, I wrote an article about my vision for my work in design over the next decade. Inspired in part by Larry Lessig’s suggestion that a decade is about the right length of time to devote to any serious chapter of a life’s work, I reflected on what I’ve done for the past 10 years and began to look think ahead in to the next decade. What emerged from this reflection was a vision for a program of design as action. It is not “how designers think” that is important for us to better understand, but how designing and designers can create change through action, and what does and might happen when they do that deserves more of our focused attention and investigation.
I believe deeply in the power and ascendency of design: the success of companies like Apple, Target and Steelcase all demonstrate this. At the same time there is an urgency that design, designers, design thinkers and design educators should feel these days. We are all facing daunting challenges — a financial system in crisis, healthcare in need of great accessibility, a wasteful and near toxic food system — and are ill equipped and poorly prepared to meet them. We have serious work to do. The prospect of such work doesn’t depress me, to the contrary, it excites me. To live within the maelstrom of wicked problems is all I’ve wanted since first learning the of the idea.
It is time to prepare for the flood. Not because we are facing the end of the world, but because we are fast moving into a very different one.
Design education has never been more relevant — all kinds of people in all kinds of places need greater access to the tools and methods of design — in government, in business, in public education. Design provides a set of levers that can move the world. At the same time, design education is in need of a massive upgrade. If tomorrow the world were to finally start converting the need for innovation into the demand for innovation, design institutions would experience a deluge they cannot imagine today. It is time to prepare for the flood. Not because we are facing the end of the world, but because we are fast moving into a very different one.
This is the work to which I want to commit myself: to prepare design for what we cannot yet see coming. The core question of the design strategy firm I founded 10 years ago was this: “what is more important, the problem you see or the problem you don’t see?” I better understand today that we have no choice but to confront both and to constantly create better ways to do so.
I started my career in design in 1996, just having finished my doctoral studies in philosophy at University of Toronto. I’d decided that I didn’t want a career as an academic philosopher. I had been attracted to philosophy for its expansiveness and dialogue, but that road had become narrower and more isolating the further I traveled along it. I had become intrigued by the emergence of the World Wide Web and pushed my way into the world of design, trying to find the door to the Internet.
20 years later, I am a design thinker, an innovator, a leader, builder of teams, and an entrepreneur. I have a passion for starting things, whether it’s conversations, companies or communities. I’ve spent much of the last two decades trying to make design practice both more rigorous and more accessible. I have worked at the convergence of design, technology and business, and am most interested in the frictions at the places those gears mesh.
I received my B.A. from Earlham College, an amazing Quaker Liberal Arts college in Richmond, Indiana. I double majored in political science and philosophy and graduated with both departmental and college honors. After graduating from Earlham in 1990 (10 years after my high school graduation), I move to Toronto to begin graduate work at University of Toronto. I finished my Master’s in 1991, and left my Ph.D. studies in 1996, after completing my dissertation. I worked under Ian Hacking, and was part of a small group mentored by him who were all working on weird problems, which we called “historical epistemology.” My dissertation, titled “Reasonable Men, Battered Women, and Objectivity in the Law of Self-Defence, mashed up feminist theory, jurisprudence and legal theory, epistemology and the history and sociology of science. I was provisionally passed after defending my dissertation in December of 1996, but remain ABD. That’s a much longer story.
Having decided to leave academia, I talked myself into a job at a small design firm called, Anno Domini in late 1996. The intellectual rigor of my academic training turned out to be unexpectedly relevant to design problems and strategy and before long, and without knowing it had a name, I threw myself into design thinking. 9 months after joining the firm, I was made Creative Director and 18 months after that, I bought it with an outside partner and renamed the firm, Aegis. We spent the next 7 years building it into one of the leading design consultancies in Toronto. Though I had left academia far behind, inquiry, learning and experimentation became strong themes in my design practice.
In 2006, I left Aegis to start a new kind of design firm. With the aim of exploring design practice as a form of business and management consulting, I founded Torch Partnership with Robin Uchida in early 2007. My very first engagement was consulting to the private holding company (The Woodbridge Company) of Canada’s wealthiest family, the Thomson’s. I had had their eponymous public company (Thomson Corporation, now Thomson Reuters) as a client since 2001, but was engaged to prepare a report to the board of Canada’s largest media company (Globemedia) of which the Thomson’s had just taken control. I spent an interesting six months exploring and reporting on the dynamics affecting the future of the media business. The very first thing I did as part of that engagement was to attend the Strategy Conference at I.D. in Chicago.
Apart from the consulting work that Torch did, we also ran a self-funded research and community engagement project, which I called Unfinished Business. Eventually I pressed that work and the community I had convened into the service of a nascent project at OCAD University (OCADU). Offering this group 25 percent of my time for almost two years, I helped develop the strategy for and launch of the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCADU. In support of this I also sponsored and curated a lecture series that for three years I co-branded with sLab. It became Toronto’s most important platform for innovators and design leaders, building important relationships not only for OCADU, but for many other projects and institutions in the city, including the MaRS Innovation Centre and the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto.
Bar none, my proudest accomplishment and the most significant paraprofessional investment of my design career has been as a founder and leader of Overlap. Born out of an unconference held in Monterey, California in 2006, Overlap has evolved into a peer community of designers, business people, entrepreneurs and artists who believe the most interesting things exist at the edges and intersections between disciplines, and these overlaps are key to insight and innovation. Overlap has run annual retreats since 2006 and maintains a year-round digital community for design leaders and front-line innovation practitioners across disciplines. I have been one of the architects of this community and have contributed a huge amount time and energy to ensure its sustainability and vitality as a intentional learning community for leaders working at the intersection of design, technology and business.
In fact, Overlap led directly to my making and sustaining long-term relationships with a number of the faculty, grad students and alumni at I.D. Though relationships with Larry Keeley and Chris Conley, Ric Edinberg, Chris Finley, and Irene Chong, to a long list of alumni in companies in New York, Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco as well as Mexico City, I have come to feel a close affinity with I.D.’s culture and mission.
Throughout my career I have experimented with, written and spoken about the innovation of design practice. In 2007, I coined the term Innovation Parkour, and from 2008-2010 ran numerous experiments, ran workshops and gave talks (including one at TEDIndia) about the possibility of developing a disciplined mind-body practice that could be used to train people to be more innovative. I collaborated closely with Matthew Milan, founder of the Toronto software design studio Normative, in this work, as well with as a number of others from the Overlap network. I have been an active speaker and conversation starter on topics of design leadership, design thinking and practice, and on innovation discipline and leadership at design and business events and fora in Canada, the United States, Germany, Norway, India and Mexico.
In addition to having founded and led two design companies from 1999-present, I have also been a serial entrepreneur. In 2011 I founded and led a funded start-up, Moso, focused on creating online learning programs and software tools to accelerate design leaning in large enterprises. From 2013-14 I co-founder was Chief Product officer in a mobile technology start-up called SMLR, developing a consumer application of a military image data capture software platform technology. I also developed and ran an online education product company called Unfinished Business School, whose core product was adopted by United Health Group as a key element of their innovation learning and development program.
I am fascinated by complexity and drawn to working on problems with no sure answer, but whose very questions lead us forward.
My choices have always been guided by my desire to constantly be learning, to be in conversation with people smarter than me and who know about things I don’t and who can do things I can’t. I am driven by a strong desire to explore and experiment and to do the kind of ambitious work that absolutely requires collaboration. I am fascinated by complexity and drawn to working on problems with no sure answer, but whose very questions lead us forward. Most of all, I thrive on thinking about, designing with, and solving for the kind of ambitious creative community for which the Manhattan project, Bell Labs and the Bauhaus are leading exemplars. To liberally paraphrase Karl Marx, I strongly believe that the purpose of design is not to put more and more new things into the world, but rather to design better ways to live in it.