There is a myth that we only use 10% of our brain, but we certainly don’t use the fullest array of creative means of communication at our disposal. What if designers, health promoters and those seeking to communicate better started considering a more sensory-forward way of sharing what they know to each other?
“Pheromones?” I said.
“Yes. Think about how much we convey by pheromones?” my colleague said. “Imagine what we could explain if we knew what they told us?”
So started a conversation between three of us faculty at the annual Center for Contemplative Mind and Society annual faculty curriculum development program. The conversation was prompted by a performance by New York-based dancer and fellow contemplative Yin Mei the previous night that we found bereft of words to fully explain. The performance, and our conversation, The dance and movement performance blended film, sound, music, dance and kabuki-style masks in an interactive dance studio environment. If I wrote any more and I wouldn’t be doing the performance justice.
Here were three people who were literally involved in a performance virtually unable to share a common description of what they saw, even if it was the same thing. We three were stuck trying to come up with words to describe what we had experienced. Words, feelings, text all failed. And that is how we came up with our conversation.
Our discussion has inspired reflection on how much information we neglect and the types of information that we privilege when we design things and communicate what we know to the world around us.
Pheromones are a means of communication available to us to use. Yet, we don’t, nor have the knowledge of how to use them. We might develop an instantaneous connection with someone — even fall in love (or lust) — for reasons that make no rational sense to our brain, but it happens. We don’t have the sensory intelligence to make sense of the signals we receive, but we nonetheless transmit and receive a lot more than we are aware of.
When we seek to develop a design for something, good practice involves engaging a diversity of perspectives to generate ideas that create new knowledge, best suit the communication of those ideas, and develop those ideas into products, services and policies that best help people. However, our means of communicating these still remain with spoken and written words.
A touch can convey information that is immeasurable. A look, a feeling, a smell, a brush of a hand are all sensory means of conveying information and learning about our world. As we seek to tackle the kind of ineffable, yet persistent and pernicious problems that complexity introduces, new ways to express and share our understandings are necessary. There are simply times when words won’t or cannot do it.
The practical application of this sensory-based approach to design is not a simple venture. Western culture is not very kinesthetic making a lot of touch-based collaboration problematic. Add in the very real issues that those who’ve experience physical trauma or abuse, and such application of touch must be handled with care. But just as words can be weapons or means to joy, so too can touch if done with compassion, skill and sensitivity. Artful methods like dance, sculpture, or video could be means of communicating ideas that simple words cannot.
What if we could cultivate the means to be intimate with these methods in the service of better design and communication? What kind of design would that look like? Could we engage a much broader range of people into the discussion? Right now, we privilege those who can write and speak well, those who are forward (i.e., extroverted) and verbal, at the expense of those who might have as much to offer, but for whom writing, reading or oral communication might not be their strongest method of communication, yet that is all they are given.
We are more than our words and we can be more than what those words convey. It seems time to start taking this a little more seriously and seeing where it goes. Who knows? Maybe the best ideas are just a painting or dance away.
Clowning might seem either silly or scary to some, but the art of non-verbal communication is just that: an art. And like art, it opens the door to myriad interpretations, but also to greater empathy and that only benefits design.
Tonight I attended my first of what I hope will be many monthly meetings of the Design With Dialogue community of practice being held at OCAD University in Toronto. The topic of the evening was What do clowns know that you don’t ? The hosts were an international clown troupe comprised of Patricia Kambitsch, Heidi Madsen, and Elsa Lam. The answer to the question posed by the evening is: a lot.
The night began with a series of exercises done first in pairs, then pairs of pairs, and then as teams of four. What struck me was that, prior to this evening and a few Twitter follows, I didn’t know a single person at this event. Yet, after the course of two and a half hours, I felt I had a room full of new “peeps”. I was thrilled to find an interesting, engaged and dynamic group of people who could perform for each other without the safety net provided by familiarity.
So what brought this about and what does it have to do with clowns? Actually, the clowns were not made up nor was there even mention of clowning beyond the introduction of the hosts. In the case of tonight’s activity, the clowning was due more to physical performance, and particularly the use of non-verbal communication. Over the course of two hours we went through four sets of activities:
1. In pairs, determined by how tall you were (which isn’t relevant, it just allows for a creative way of splitting the room up), introduce yourself using gestures — particularly exaggerated ones — and then mirror that response back to your partner with no words expressed between you.
2. As a pair, join with another pair and use the non-verbal communication rapport generated from the first exercise to work together to non-verbally communicate a particular emotion (including some tough ones like passed over and pity — try acting these out, you’ll see how hard that can be).
3. Working with both pairs together as a foursome, the new group of four is asked to act out a particular phrase. They are to do this while walking across the room where the rest of the participants are asked to guess the phrase. There is little communication between the four people in this new group.
4. The four individuals sit on four chairs and acts out a skit called “four clowns on a bench” where one person is whispered a scenario and the other three are asked to follow along, not knowing what the actually phrase is.
What happens after all of these is remarkable. I found myself acting in a group on something I didn’t know, yet perceived because of the empathy that I developed over the course of two short hours of working non-verbally. As a result, my group — team — and all the others put on performances that were funny, coherent, and creative with little to no verbal sharing of information.
This stoking of empathy and the insight it produced demonstrated enormous potential for design and teamwork. Building on work that Keith Sawyer has done looking at improv and creativity, this session demonstrated just how powerful non-verbal, emergent communication can be and how us designers — in whatever situation we inhabit — dismiss such opportunities for learning, creative expression and community building at our peril.
I wasn’t really a fan of clowns before tonight; now, I am.
** Photo by Peter Pearson under Creative Commons License from the Flickr pool
Earlier this week I attended a presentation by Rotman School of Management Dean and design-thinking advocate Roger Martin. The talk, given as part of Torch Partnership’s Unfinished Business lecture series put on with S-Lab, was titled: The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage
The presentation provided some clear-headed thinking about design and managed to reduce the concept of design thinking into something very simple, without being simplistic. This was, not surprisingly, done by design. As Martin himself stated:
Our knowledge moves forward when we leave things out
In research we are often seduced by our data and the volume of potential information it can provide. If we have enough of it, twist it, mine it or manipulate it the right way, we can find answers. Certainly there are areas where this kind of thinking is useful. Genomics appears to be one of them – - at least, as far as discovering potential relationships and systems of organizing goes, gene expressions may never be fully understood through quantitative means alone. But the complexity in human systems seems more fraught with information overload and rarely, if ever, does volumes of information lead to better understanding. Indeed, as Martin suggests, sometimes we need to apply design thinking not to generate more information, but reduce it.
Qualitative researchers know this all to well. So do great artists. The latter point is brought home all too much this week as Toronto hosts Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. I’ve seen about a dozen documentaries so far and most of them were, in the opinion of me and my fellow theatregoers, too long (that is, they could have left things out).
But like art and qualitative inquiry (and the theories that underpin both), design thinking can be viewed much less as something that you do, but rather a way of positioning oneself relative to the topic of interest. As one audience member proposed:
Design thinking isn’t a theory of activity, or a method, but a stance
To my mind this may be the best description of design thinking I’ve heard. While there are certainly methods of using design, and strategies that firms such as IDEO, BMW DesignWorks, and Porsche Design use it is the particular stance that designers take that enable those methods to translate across settings, issues, and time horizons.
Interestingly, the discussion about design then shifted to the kind of training one needs to foster the ability to take a stance in a particular manner, not just use tools and theories. When polled about whether they had any training in thinking approaches, less than 5 per cent (estimate) of the audience said that they had and it was speculated that this was because those people had gone to private school or some other specialized training program as children (e.g., schools for the gifted) where such high-level cognitive skills are taught (which is also the foundation for the Rotman School of Management’s approach to teaching).
So here we have a skill or stance in perspective taking that is viewed as a competitive advantage, a means of advancing more humane products and systems, yet is taught to a very small number of people. It seems that should be turned on its head and that we need to consider teaching thinking as a core feature of our educational programs.
Imagine? Teaching people to think in order to do instead of to do and not to think.
Yesterday I attended another one of the fabulously inspiring Unfinished Business lectures put on by my friends from the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD by Alexander Osterwalder, Ph.D on business model generation. The talk focused on the methodology developed and employed by Osterwalder and his colleagues (including 470 members of an open online forum who paid to see the project bought to life!) and how it can be used to illustrate (literally!) the business model for an organization. The methodology, described in the book, which was designed carefully to reflect the visual nature of the approach, centres on using art, sticky notes and conversation to help organize firms’ thoughts about how to design their business.
At its core is something fundamentally juvenile – play, drawing, movement and tactile embodiment of ideas. At the end of the talk my colleague and I were chatting with some others about the way in which methods like this — ones that use visual learning and active, arts-based approaches to creative expression — get disregarded in mainstream. I even overheard comments made about the book (which was on sale) that somewhat dismissed the reliance on pictures, sketches and a relatively non-conventional layout (for similar examples of this layout look at two books highlighting Bruce Mau’s work and ideas: Massive Change and Life / Style) .
So even among designers and design thinkers this is still an idea that’s hard to grasp. It’s the tyranny of text.
Yet, it seems so intuitive to use the many tools at our disposal to facilitate creativity. Text is good for some things, but lousy for others. It’s like the old saying:
Give someone a hammer and pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail
We’ve given our health professionals tools and learning methods made up of numbers and letters and they’ve consequently treated their subsequent strategies for learning as ones requiring text and numbers to solve. The hammer is given in school, the public and patients are nails are used in the field.
It’s not like this for everyone. Ask a five-year old to share their ideas and they might offer a story, a finger paint picture, create a play, or get their friends to build something with clay. As a thirty-five, forty-five or fifty-five year old to do the same and they’ll likely offer you a typewritten page and PowerPoint presentation (with lots of text). Why? We’ve been so acculturated into a dominant design culture of text that we rarely consider sketchbooks, art tools, or performance as options, let alone good options when we develop ideas. Our education system, cultural bias towards the written word and perhaps an elitist attitude among the learned societies (combined with a mystery around arts-informed methods of learning) all contribute to this constant promotion of written work over other forms.
Knowledge translation, at its heart, is about generating the data needed to address problems, making sense of it, and ensuring that such knowledge is implemented in a manner that solves the problem.
I’ve heard many times that we only use 10 per cent of brain, which is a myth (note: I was thrilled to find that when you look up this “fact” in Google, nearly all of the first two pages of hits are myth-busters, raising my faith that the collective peer-review system is working — something Laura O’Grady kindly commented on with my last post) . But it might be closer to reality to say that we only use 10 per cent of our available creative tools to solve problems in the health sector.
So at your next meeting, maybe bring a sketchbook instead of your laptop and see what you produce.