Reflections on InVision’s Design Disruptors

designdisruptorsThis past Thursday, Nov 10, I attended the @Shopify-hosted Toronto screening of @InVision’s documentary Design Disruptors. I had read some good reviews from strangers but a bad one from a colleague, so I determined to go with an open mind to decide for myself.

The movie that was made missed a great opportunity to address a pervasive problem: that design is fundamentally a visible instantiation. As @normapenner noted in the post-screening discussion panel, when most people think ‘design’, what they have in mind is ‘graphic design’.

Here are the real opportunities that Design Disruptors missed.

Where’s the disruption?

With a title “Design Disruptors”, I expected (not unreasonably, I think) to be presented with stories of designers who disrupted some status quo. Instead, we got a series of interviews stitched together without an actual plot that gets advanced. Without a thesis, there was no narrative direction.

With the exception of Salesforce, everyone interviewed for the movie was trying to solve first-world problems and at a rather micro level at that. The focus on small and micro businesses is certainly a valid way to connect with many people. However, the field of play is much, much broader: enterprise, social, political, climate, healthcare, et cetera.

The Salesforce interview talks about solving problems for people needing to get work done but offers no examples. The Google Ventures example of a design sprint betrays the small-time, simplistic business problems that the technique seems designed to solve. I’ve personally tried unsuccessfully to use the Google Ventures design sprint to help to solve complex problems. I’d have loved a case study on how that design technique has helped solve problems that have many threads daisy-chained into a seeming Gordian knot.

Where’s the real design?

All those who were interviewed pay homage to the notion of design as problem solving, but the film never gets past the visual layer. Interspersed among the talking heads are all the clichés of design: graphic design and UI design, all set in a homogeneously Mac environment. One might be forgiven for mistaking the documentary for an Apple infomercial.

The movie that could’ve been made

As @normapenner asked, who’s the real audience? If the intended audience are non-practitioners, they would come away with images of Apple devices, people lovingly drawing boxes and squiggly lines on pieces of paper, and people sitting in beautiful spaces. All the clichés of the design industry: no disruption there.

The scope of the design is so much richer than the film’s focus on first-world problems: how to sell coffee beans online, how to get a different kind of cab, et cetera. How to Facebook in a 2G world is about as real as it got.

The movie that could’ve been made might have demonstrated how design can and should disrupt the status quo, how design is meant to identify and solve problems – almost anything but visual design, which is the myth that needs to be busted. The movie that could’ve been made might show the range and depth of problems that design has identified and solved: third-world, business, social justice, health care, education, political life, community, and yes, some fun first-world problems too.

The lucky iron fish

lucky-iron-fishHave you heard about the lucky iron fish?

Thanks to @khoaski, who shared the story with me when we went for drinks after the movie screening, I walked away from the evening with a real story about a design disruption.

Discovering and identifying the problem

Chris Charles was a Ph.D candidate at the University of Guelph when he visited Cambodia as part of his thesis work. There, Charles witnessed first-hand the crippling effects of anemia, which is caused by iron deficiency.
The best sources for iron are from meat and legumes. Poverty and the traditional Cambodian diet keep these sources of iron out of reach. Ostensibly, the problem to be solved is anemia. How to solve this problem? Why, give people iron supplements, of course. So, well-meaning people distributed iron pills to poor Cambodians afflicted with anemia. Unfortunately, the unpleasant side effects of iron supplements led people to prefer the effects of anemia.
In fact, what Charles discovered was that the real problem to be solved was how to get more iron into Cambodians. The problem wasn’t what but how.

Designing the solution

The rest of the story unfolded like a classic design process: after correctly defining the problem to be solved, Charles designed a few solutions, released each solution, conducted field observations to get feedback on the solution, and iterated.
Given the low adoption of the iron supplement solution due to its unpleasant side effects, Charles focused on designing a solution to solve the unpleasant side effects. His research led him to the idea that cooking with iron would actually cause iron to leach into the food being cooked, thereby raising its iron (Fe) content.

Iteration 1

Armed with this data, he designed a new solution: an plain rectangular bar of iron that people can drop into their cooking pots.
Adoption was low. It turns out that people had trouble with the idea of throwing a bar of iron into their dinner pots. The plain bar of iron missed the psychological aspect of design: it was simply an unnatural thing to add to a cooking pot.

Iteration 2

Armed with this data, Charles released a second iteration. If a plain rectangular bar of iron felt unnatural, what if it was designed with a cue from edible nature: a lotus leaf? And after all, Cambodians could identify with the lotus leaf since it was iconically Buddhist.

Human beings, it would seem, are complex creatures. The iron bar shaped like a lotus leaf failed. Turns out that lotus leaf’s status as a Buddhist symbol was a psychological barrier to adoption. It was akin to asking Christians to put an iron cross or a crucifix into a cooking pot.

Iteration 3 & success

The design strategy to frame the solution from edible nature was still sound. Charles just needed to find a different thing from edible nature. Enter the fish. Fish is a staple of the Cambodian diet, and instead of being a religious icon, it’s a symbol of worldly prosperity.

Winner of a Cannes Lion in the Product Design category, the Lucky Iron Fish, designed by Gavin Armstrong, was dropped into many a Cambodian pot along with its real, edible counterpart. It succeeded in getting iron into Cambodians. The Lucky Iron Fish company claims to have achieved a 50% decrease in clinical iron deficiency anemia after 9 months of daily use.

What story would you have told?

There are so many more stories for the movie that could’ve been made instead, stories that encompass the full range of the human condition and experience, stories from:
  • the third world
  • business
  • social justice
  • health care
  • education
  • politics
  • community
  • and yes, first-world problems, too.

Do you have stories for how design is disrupting the status quo in these areas? I’d love to hear your stories.

Facing down the train

20160713_213444.jpgThis past Wednesday, I went to see Duran Duran in concert. They were the centre of my teenage universe, the place I escaped to while the ugliness of real life crashed around me.

John Taylor, the bassist, was my one true crush. Seeing him now, realizing he’s mortal, just like me, is making my heart ache in recognition of my mortality.

I know many people – especially women, for some unfathomable reason – dislike admitting their age. I never have and never will understand that. Anyway, I shared my experience of the concert with my team mates at work. I mentioned that this concert was a moment that was 35 years in the making for me. I am 46 and finally saw the band of my teenage dreams in concert. My team mates were, as most people are, stunned that I’m 46. Being Chinese helps. Being hopelessly immature doesn’t hurt.

I take a trip into the time machine (thanks, Google), and I see the John Taylor of my youth. He was achingly beautiful. I see him now, an older man and still beautiful, but not the same Adonis beauty of his youth, and it brings home my own sense of mortality.

Time moves on, untouched by human sensibilities. It drives home for me that I have no time to waste if I want to make meaning of this life I have. I’ve always had this strange sense that I can stop time, that I can have do-overs. I believe it so much that I create these do-overs in my dreams.

But there are no do-overs in reality.

If I find myself on a train with people wanting the train to go in a direction I don’t want to go, driving the train in a style that I’m not into, I think the thing for me to do is to jump off and find a different train.

The subversiveness of ‘safe’

I was tidying up my Evernote today when I came across a note I made after watching this TED Talk by Aimee Mullins:

I re-watched the video, and she makes so many poignant and powerful points, but the one that stuck with me, the one that I Evernoted, was this one thing she said,

“I decided to find people who said yes.”

Most of us find ourselves trapped in the language and perspective in which we were first socialized. The well-intentioned adults in our earliest years say “no” in a bid to define safe boundaries for us as we explored our exciting environment – physical, linguistic, emotional, and social.

“No, don’t do that!”

“No, don’t say that!”



Little wonder that for many of us, the first word we learn is “no.”

And for many of us, “no” has been so internalized that we never outgrew it. We live always within boundaries that others have set for us, and if those are missing, we draw them in for ourselves, using the safe familiarity of our existing boundaries as a template.

Those boundaries kept us safe when we were vulnerable toddlers just beginning to explore the possibilities of life.

Safe from harm. Safe from the unknown and its incalculable and unimaginable risks and dangers.

These boundaries are a response to our basest and most primal sense of survival.

Safe from exhilaration.

Safe from the different.

Safe from our fullest potential.

In our pursuit of boundaries that keep us safe, we neglect to explore our own internal boundaries, to explore the full potential of what we could be.

We live in fear of injury, of death. My wise late grandma used to observe that some people have an over-developed sense of self-preservation – she called it “scared of dying.”

Some people are so precious with their own lives that they forget to live. And we enforce this Everlasting No on everyone around us. We’re not content to limit only ourselves but are compelled to limit others.

From an evolutionary perspective, that sense of those boundaries is our sense of self-preservation, a gift of Nature to ensure the survival of an organism. Yet, these very boundaries that were intended to preserve our lives are also the same things that keep us from living. Being alive and living are surely not the same thing.

A life that’s motivated by what’s safe is mere existence.

A life that’s motivated by exploration and what’s possible is surely more fulfilling.