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Tad Toulis

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Posted by Tad Toulis  |  13 Nov 2012  |  Comments (0)

parasite_new.jpgThe other night, I caught myself riveted to one of those blocks of cable programing one stumbles upon with increasing frequency: back-to-back episodes of some show you've never heard of. On this particular evening the focus was Animal Planet's Monster Inside Me. For those who haven't had the pleasure, each episode is a gruesome account of parasitic infestations and the effects they wreck on their human hosts. While not quite appointment viewing—the show is definitely compelling in an 'I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing' sort of way. On this night, as I settled into my 3rd straight episode, I found my thoughts drifting towards creativity; specifically to how organizational operations, like outsized autoimmune systems, often function in pitch-perfect opposition to creativity and innovation efforts.

This idea first started knocking about in my head a few months back when a client lent me a copy of The Other Side of Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. The book presents some interesting arguments as to why innovation efforts frequently fail. It's not merely that these efforts generally traffic outside the norms of the organization, according to Govindarajan and Trimble, they operate in direct conflict with them. Think about it: an organization strives to achieve a certain measure of success and that success, if met, leads to growth. Overtime the organization necessarily figures its business out; they learn how to do what they do. Growth is the proof that they've cracked the code for doing it in a manner that's repeatable and in balance. This state of equilibrium, and the mechanism that keeps it all humming along smoothly and without friction—is the performance engine. A codified system of hard won practices and truths that keep the flywheel spinning 24/7. It's the recipe that works within the context of the business as it is.


Posted by Tad Toulis  |  19 Jun 2012  |  Comments (3)


Watching last month's meteoric funding spike for Alerta's Pebble Smartwatch you no doubt caught your inner voice asking: Could I do that? The weekend of April 21st—as the project rocketed from roughly $3 million to $4.5 million and on to approximately $7 million by week's end—what was truly impressive wasn't that Alerta's ask was for a mere $100K, but rather that the project still had a 30-day drive left to go. As the funding surpassed $8 million then $9 million with little sign of abating, the blogosphere frothed with the predictable range of rants, encouragements and forebodings.

Ultimately the project raised $10.3 million—impressive coin to be sure.

Coming on the heels of last year's TikTok/LunaTik story—which earned a then impressive $950K, the Pebble story raises a slew of questions for any designer with even the most modest entrepreneurial urge. While the signs have been out there for a while, crowdfunding is now indisputably hitting its stride—and its impact on design, and culture at large, is something all of us should be taking note of.

Everywhere one looks, whether it's the recent purchase of Instagram for $1billion, Facebook's mid-May IPO, Kickstarter success stories like Alerta's, or the simple fact that every other business article today seems written by, for or about some start-up founder—entrepreneurial fever is in full effect. The slow-breaking realization of this fact got me reflecting on some longstanding opinions I'd held tightly to over the years. Historically, when asked for career advice, I've regularly encouraged young designers to get some consulting experience in under their belts before considering a stint in corporate. My logic being, you'll learn a lot, get stress-tested, work a variety of projects and come out the other side with some strong skills, good time management practices and a surer sense of what really matters to you. To this I'd usually reflect for a beat on my own corporate experience and add a bit about consulting being a sprint and corporate being a marathon. And for years that advice felt fairly legitimate.

Today, I don't know if that advice still holds true.

In a landscape of long odds, the chance to be an active agent for change in your own life wins out over being a bit player in a narrative of stasis.

Four years of mediocre economic performance served up with partisan bickering in Washington and stock price leadership in the boardroom has created what I imagine must add up to a rather un-inspiring 'now' for design school graduates. The majors, with a handful of exceptions, have proven they are either devoid of new ideas, or worse, have lost the will to gamble on them. Instead they sink millions into acquisitions and legal fees in an attempt to better position themselves in a seemingly endless game of patent collecting; a tightly scripted play in which building and creating takes a very public back seat to defensive maneuvering.


Posted by Tad Toulis  |   5 Jul 2011  |  Comments (7)

competative_collaboration.jpgLike two pugilists in a ring, creative collaborations require passion, ambition and a good dose of competitiveness if they're to deliver results that matter.

I've been giving 'collaboration' a lot of thought. I guess that's inevitable when you work in a company that's partner to one of the longest running collaborative gigs in design consulting. In design circles, especially around award time, collaboration gets a lot of airplay—but what happens to it the rest of the time? Why is something we praise as being so conducive to design success so infrequently discussed in design forums? More to the point, what is it about collaboration that makes me giddy with optimism on one hand while forcing me to contemplate popping an antacid with the other? I guess, when I come right down to it, it's that collaboration, by definition a joint enterprise, is often invoked by persons or interests having very little patience for the stuff. Sure it's nice to make a lot of noise about it, but should you act on it, or call upon it in earnest, you'd better be sure collaboration is what the folks sitting across the table have signed up for.

As a young designer, I always believed that when someone spoke to me at length about collaboration it was some veiled reference to my impending need for behavior modification. Alternatively, when I found myself in cultures that used the term liberally—my gut shrank up trying to determine if 'collaboration' was code for 'the client-is-always-right.' Three and a half years after returning to the world of consulting, I've come to believe that collaboration is quite possibly THE pivotal dynamic in generating great design results. No big surprise right? But when I think about collaboration, what I increasingly imagine is something I like to call competitive collaboration, an all out, skin-in the game style of cooperation that requires real commitment from both parties, not the whimsical feel-good stuff that so easily dissipates at the first sign of trouble. With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few observations on behaviors that I believe lead to successful collaborations and, when we're lucky, great design programs.


As Philippe Starck has eloquently observed "Design hates lazy people" and it does. Design is hard work for clients and consultants alike. The best results stubbornly defy us by the elliptical fashion in which they arrive. You can work your ass off on a given problem and move it an inch or, you glance out the studio window and move it a mile. The rub of it is you can't count on either track to yield consistent results. Instead we work. And work again. Some might say it gets easier with experience, and it does, but the fact of the matter is, if you find design problems getting easier—you are most likely repeating yourself. Attacking a problem with fresh eyes means daring to start fresh—and that is hard work. Beyond the adrenaline rush of the creative chase, the thing that makes this otherwise intolerable process bearable is engagement; the zone in which we find ourselves fully committed to the pursuit of that first spark and the subsequent journey with which we eek out its promise. The only way I know how to get there is through deep engagement—my own, my colleagues and my clients. Without it, programs drift leading dangerously toward indifference, which in design most often leads to mediocrity and crap.


While you're doing this 'hard' work, you will of course get dirty. Which is just another way of saying you'll need to check your ego at the door, roll up your sleeves and be willing to fail—more importantly, be willing to make. Making is an inextricable part of good design exploration. PowerPoint is an abstraction of an abstraction. Things don't fail quickly in abstract. Nothing brings clarity faster to an abstract conversation like a 'thing.' If you want to drive powerful, effective decision-making with your client, the type that leads quickly and brutally to decisions—my advice is to MAKE. Whether we are talking about things, experiences or otherwise—prototyping, putting your ideas into action so that they might (more often than not) prove you wrong, is critical to the mechanism of design. Today we have an arsenal of tools at our disposal to make and fab: Dimension machines, Aruduino boards, After Effects, you name it. There is little excuse not to make. Which begs the question, if the team you're collaborating with isn't bringing 'things' to the table, what are they bringing? Talk? If a picture is worth a thousand words, I'd be willing to bet a prototype is worth two thousand, easy. The difference between a good idea and a great idea is execution. My advice: make.


Posted by Tad Toulis  |   7 Feb 2011  |  Comments (10)


Design discourse often strikes me as analogous to a family get together. It sets out well enough; optimistic with an undercurrent of reconciliation, but it can turn sour. A casual remark or offhanded comment cuts quick, unearthing volumes of unresolved conflict and lingering baggage. It can be disquieting and, at times, maddening. But generally speaking, it's okay because after dessert is served and the plates are cleared, we get to leave the family table, and return to the business of doing design.

When I leave the 'table' my thoughts turn quickly toward incorporation: How do I filter through the chatter and weave the good stuff into a viable practice of design; one that bridges the here and now with a hopefully grand tomorrow? Where do we place our bets? Where do we invest? How do we incorporate the disparate soundings offered up by design into a practical set of tools that can empower a team's results, elevate its relevance, and if we're lucky, safeguard its future?

With this in mind, I'd like to share some thoughts that have kept me occupied lately. Consider them field notes; observations culled from the murky intersection of 'practice' and 'theory.' I invite the Core community to have at them. Tear them down or build on them -- but please comment as you see fit:


Posted by Tad Toulis  |  13 Oct 2010  |  Comments (27)


A few months back, on this forum, Don Norman wrote a great piece that drew back the curtain on the ever-expanding blur that is design thinking. Norman's piece eloquently articulated a number of criticisms surrounding design thinking, but as I thought back on the article, I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied. For all the chatter the piece solicited, there was something left unsaid; something insinuated but not pursued. This fact gnawed at me for months, but I think I've come to recognize the source of my discomfort. Buried deep within the messy cloud enveloping 'design thinking' is the ever so faint echo of design's deep-seated professional insecurity.

So many design articles today seem content to throw the intuitive core of design under the train of its more rational self. They imply, by varying degrees that design fits neatly into two camps: aesthetic pursuit and intellectual analysis. Just as prevalent are the pieces that chastise design for purporting to own creativity. From where this perception arose—I have no clue. Perhaps it's the unintended consequence of selling design process (aka creativity) detached from the pedestrian world of results. Design and designers may have a lot to apologize for, but their advocacy of creativity is surely not one of them. If design is guilty of annexing creativity more effectively than other professions, so be it. There are worse accusations I can imagine.