frank's blog

Coffee & Power – It’s A Crowdsourcing Workclub Hybrid

Posted in innovation, Media, web by aldorf on January 7, 2012

Coffee & Power is the current project of Philip Rosedale, the founder and former CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life. It’s a crowdsourcing startup that Rosedale founded in 2010 with former Linden Lab colleague Ryan Downe and former Accenture consultant Fred Heiberger. And it’s all about making it easier for people to do small chunks of creative work for one another, and get paid for it. The idea has to components, there is a website where people can post small jobs they need done or are willing to do. And  two physical Coffee & Power “workclubs,” in San Francisco and Santa Monica, where members can meet to collaborate or deliver services. These are the “key enabling features” that they copied from Secon Life and that help sellers and buyers find one another, decide who’s trustworthy, and pay for work completed. The first element is rich communications, in the form of profiles, reviews, status updates, and a live public chat space (no 3-D avatars this time). The second is radical transparency, meaning the details of every transaction are available for everyone to see. The third is a virtual currency, called C$ in an echo of Second Life’s Linden Dollars or L$.

Investors have been paying a lot of attention lately to bigger crowdsourcing players like oDesk and Elance, as well as upstarts such as TaskRabbitMobileWorks, and Zaarly. (via xconomy)

350 Free Online Courses from Top Universities – Open Culture

Posted in conference, ideas, innovation, pioneers, web by aldorf on May 3, 2011

Open Culture brings together high-quality cultural & educational media for the worldwide lifelong learning community. Web 2.0 has given us great amounts of intelligent audio and video. It’s all free. It’s all enriching. But it’s also scattered across the web, and not easy to find. Our whole mission is to centralize this content, curate it, and give you access to this high quality content whenever and wherever you want it. Free audio booksfree online coursesfree moviesfree language lessonsfree ebooks and other enriching content — it’s all here. Open Culture was founded in 2006.

48 Ways to Crowdsource Everything

Posted in design, innovation, internet, pioneers, web, your take on... by aldorf on April 26, 2011

Crowdsourcing, which involves a community of anonymous people completing a given task, has become an attractive labor model. Everyone’s

seeking it out, from solopreneurs needing transcriptions to Fortune 500 companies looking for answers to complex scientific problems. Here

are 48 ways to crowdsource just about everything you can think of.


1. While hotels offer predictable accommodations and quality, sometimes you need something different. Like an entire oceanview flat, or an

ultrabudget basement room in the heart of a city’s university area. Sites like AirBnB and VRBO let you search rooms, apartments and houses

listed for (nightly) rent by their owners. When you book through the site, the owner gets everything but the small cut taken by the booking site.

Ideally, you get the kind of different vacation or business travel accommodations that you’re looking for.


2. TunedIT specializes in crowdsourcing data mining and data-driven algorithms. They pose both industrial and scientific challenges, with

student contests to boot. The best algorithm wins the payout.


3. In his book “The Smart Swarm,” author Peter Miller relays the fact that the most effective kind of swarm involves smart people who

specialize in a variety of tasks. Atizo, a crowdsourced brainstorming site, harnesses this idea. From naming a unique company to marketing

ideas to product concepts, this Swiss site lets you collect hundreds of ideas from people across disciplines. Its innovative payment system is

based on points, which brainstormers can accrue in a variety of ways.

4. If you want to focus on the kinds of fresh ideas that young people provide, Brainrack is an idea and solution site with an army of students

brainstorming behind it. Prize money gets divvied up between the best 15 ideas. Kluster is another brainstorming site to check out.

5. There’s also a DIY option in this space. If you want ideas for new products or services, or even how you conduct business, take an example

from Dell. The computer giant’s IdeaStorm website lets consumers submit their ideas for new Dell products and services, as well as anything

else that strikes users’ fancies. Dell doesn’t define the topics, leaving its users creative space. Of the 15,000 or so ideas it has received to date,

the company has used more than 400. If you’re a smaller operation, you can do something similar through a Twitter list or a Facebook group

(or your fan page) devoted to the topic.

Broadway Plays

6. Ken Davenport is producing the musical Godspell this year exclusively with crowdsourced funding. One share of the musical costs $100,

and investors have to buy a minimum of ten shares. This entry ticket pales in comparison to the usual Broadway investor minimum of $25,000.

Godspell needs a total budget of $5 million, relatively meager compared to other plays. Davenport, who had to pass a finance exam in order to

sell the shares of his play in the first place, runs a site called The People of Godspell to continue the effort.

Business Innovation

7. Innovation Exchange, like many crowdsourcers, runs contests that award winners with a cash prize. They focus on the business side of

innovation, such as products, services, and processes. Companies submit problems to the site, then facilitators pull together teams from diverse

backgrounds to tackle them. Challenges range from marketing ideas and ad campaigns to better packaging and transport. (Though the site

doesn’t advertise its challenges as being technical, some of the challenges do require a technical background.)

Cancer Treatment

8. Cancer Commons’ goal is to provide patients with the best cancer treatment possible through crowdsourced information. Doctors, scientists

and patients contribute to the effort by sharing treatment results (based on the tumor’s genomic subtype) and using that knowledge to figure

out how to best treat the next person. The website also aims to outsmart the shortfalls of Big Pharma’s randomized clinical trials by gathering

volumes of specific information.


9. These guys have quite the niche. Colnect is a crowdsourced collectibles catalogue on which collectors display hundreds of thousands of

stamps, coasters, phone cards, and other things they’d gathered. Call it the crowdsourced anti-print catalogue. Users have both wish lists and

swap lists, so people in this little industry can fine-tune their collections.

Data Entry and Digitizing

10. Microtask crowdsources your data entry and digitizing of handwritten forms to a mixture of people and machines. Instead of being able to

select their assignments, human Microtaskers work through a queue of seconds-long tasks for as long as they’re available to do them. This is

what the New York Times calls an “online assembly line.” Companies use these information factory workers full-time; Microtask’s software

facilitates the process and guarantees results.


11. “If you don’t give back nobody will like you” is Crowdrise’s motto. While certain politicians and beloved-by-investor corporations

continually prove this statement wrong, there’s something to it, and Crowdrise knows that. Basically, you create a profile, put up your cause

(or join someone else’s), message via existing social media sources, and network. Eventually, unless everyone still hates you, you’ll get the

money you need.

Finding a Mortgage

12. You know those automated mortgage comparison sites? SmartHippo isn’t too different, except that it’s powered by a human community,

which gives you a more personal touch—and potentially more accurate information—during your mortgage hunt.

Forecasting and Data Prediction

13. If you have reams of data and want trained eyes to tell you more about it, hit up the statistical analysis crowdsourcer Kaggle. There, teams

of data scientists can predict everything from the speed of freeway traffic at a certain time of day to the ratio of people who will default on

their bank loans. The team with the best data prediction model wins your prize.

Graphic Design

14. Your website design, logos, business cards, pamphlets, and more can all be crowdsourced now. 99Designs is a contest site where you

submit your concept and let a pool of more than 100,000 designers compete for your prize. At the end, you get the design and the copyright.

ReDesignMe is another website to check out in this space.

CrowdSpring is a similar website that specializes in small business graphic design. It also offers a host of writing services, from opinion

articles to company naming. It also operates on a prize-based model. Squadhelp is another site that crowdsources web design and marketing,

also with a focus on small businesses.

15. Minted is more of a niche crowdsourcer. It only crowdsources paper designs, especially cards, announcements, wedding invites, and other

kinds of stationary. Their open design competitions are, unlike many other crowdsourcing sites, democratic: Users vote the best designs to the



16. Tapping your Twitter followers will help you gain real-time input on your products, services, and anything else you need to know.

Depending on how much feedback you want, and how detailed you want it to be, you may want to offer an incentive such as a prize. You can

also join or create Twitter lists for ongoing collaboration and discussion. Using Twitter doesn’t require an intermediary, it’s fast, and it

harnesses people you’re already familiar with.

17. Facebook is another way of doing just that. Through a private group or by using your fan page, you can collect rapid-fire feedback for your

company. As with Twitter, offering a prize will often get you more responses. You can also use the site for ongoing collaboration.

Innovation (B2B)

18. Some big corporations have set up proprietary networks to crowdsource their innovation. For example, P&G Connect + Develop, Procter

& Gamble’s invite-only open innovation website, lets companies work with the consumer products giant on its innovation. Only select

companies can participate, and ideas aren’t visible to everyone. While P&G has the heft and leverage to pull off this kind of proprietary

network, if you’re a small business owner, you can also crowdsource innovation through private groups on Facebook.


19. EquitySplash says it’s “crowdsourcing Wall Street” by letting users invest in a fund (their ownership is proportional to their investment),

then having them buy and trade individual picks via a proprietary platform. The outcome of each trade gets spread around the fund. It sounds

fun, unless you’re the one making all the bad trades.

20. Through StockTwits, you can network with a huge community of traders around the world, riding their coattails, adding to the info pool, or

being a revered lead-dog trader yourself. It doesn’t just run through Twitter, either—you can get tools, widgets, data feeds, and more off their


Lawn Mowing

21. Who said you couldn’t crowdsource cutting grass? Put in an order on Lawn Mowing Online, and someone from your area will come over

and cut your grass the next day, for $19 and up. Anyone with a lawnmower, digital camera and computer can compete for a gig on this site.

As a result, moonlighters and professionals are available at a moment’s notice, all from one central website.


22. If the bank won’t lend you money, or if you’re looking to make a better interest rate than the measly one banks are currently offer, peer-topeer

lenders like Prosper offer alternatives. Find real people to lend to or from. With more than 1 million users and $227 million lended,

Prosper is money.

Marketing Research

23. If you need to build and organize a client database, run marketing surveys, or even just sort your existing information, the dutiful

Clickworkers will hand it over with characteristic German efficiency. They also crowdsource things like writing instruction manuals and


Mobile Testing

24. If you’re developing anything on a mobile platform, Mob4Hire can basically crowdsource the entire development process you, using a

swarm of more than 45,000 testers on more than 300 carriers around the world. They give you feedback in every stage of the development

cycle, helping you bring your product to market quickly and efficiently.


25. When millions of users share their playlists, streaming individual songs to other users who want to listen to them real-time, you have one

massive crowdsourced music system. That system’s name is Spotify, and its technology lets users listen to just about any song they want to—

with the exception of a few with licensing issues, like Oasis in the UK—on demand and for free.

26. If you want to crowdsource your music making, MusikPitch lets you tap the swarm for custom songs, compositions, jingles, background

music—you name it. is the first site for crowdsourcing custom songs and music compositions. You name the kind of music you want and what

you’re willing to pay, then sic the crowd on the task. The winner gets your prize.

Patent Research

27. This task can be a horribly time-consuming pain, and Article One Partners has the panacea. Their network of more than 1 million patent

researchers works on whatever patents or patent issues you need dug up. You can communicate with them to make sure you get the right

results. As with many crowdsourcing sites, the best or most extensive research, as determined by you, wins your monetary prize.


28. You have the means. You have an idea of the societal problem you want to address. But you’re not sure how to put your funds or available

grants to best use. Enter Philoptima, which crowdsources the design and implementation of nonprofit programs for people who have money,

but need good solutions. Whoever finds the winning solution gets the cash prize.


29. In the traditional stock photo industry, photographers would license their images to established companies, like Getty Images, and receive

fees whenever someone bought those photos. As a result, photographers could establish a passive income stream–say, $50 every time someone

bought a photo. iStockPhoto disrupted this system by letting amateur photographers, generally more concerned with getting their names out

than making money, sell their photos for $1 a pop. Legions of amateurs filled the site with cheap and, with numbers on their side, many highquality

photos. This changed the stock photo industry forever. Getty ended up buying it.

30. Yahoo-owned Flickr hosts hundreds of thousands of users who display their photography on the site. Many of these users let you use the

photo for free—with credit—via specific Creative Commons licenses. All you have to do is find the picture and credit it appropriately. Many

such Flickr users have excellent photographs, meaning that companies seeking to crowdsource that function have good prospects here.

Preventing Poverty

31. Yes, even the act of preventing downward mobility has been crowdsourced. The Modest Needs foundation has people with serious

financial emergencies write about their issues online. Readers then donate whatever amount of money they can afford until the person’s

“modest need” is met. The organization performs due diligence on the people in need, making the website legit and free of scammers.

Project Management

32. Smartsheet is a project collaboration tool with integrated crowdsourced labor. You use their software to collaborate with your remote team

on the project, and plug in labor wherever in the process you need it. The software has HR, IT, marketing, and product management features

integrated, kind of a one-stop shop for both collaboration and labor.

Protests and Causes

33. Got cause? CrowdVoice can help. By tracking protests around the world, it gives you a central place to find cutting-edge information about

your cause and what people are doing about it. CrowdVoice collates news, video, and social media information, so it saves you time and effort

in finding the crucial updates you need.


34. Help a Reporter Out (HARO) matches up experts and businesspeople with reporters to create a symbiotic source/PR relationship. You scan

your daily HAROs and see if there’s something you can comment on; reporter publishes or airs a story with your commentary in it. Bingo—

instant PR, without the legwork.

Quality Assurance (QA)

35. uTest offers on-demand, crowdsourced mobile, web, gaming, and desktop application testing. They offer usability, functional and load

testing, by nearly 38,000 testers in more than 170 countries. They offer custom quotes in advance, too, so you know exactly what you’re

getting into.

Scientific or Technical Problems

36. Familiar with RNA sequencing, chemical derivatives, or GUIs? Then you might be the kind of user that InnoCentive seeks out to solve

companies’ pressing technical problems. Geared at braniacs, and offering handsome prizes for the winning idea, InnoCentive lets companies

tap a global community of more than 200,000 users to solve the problems they can’t figure out internally. Those users, in turn, attempt to

tackle the problem for a prize. Companies select their winners—and gain a whole bunch of alternative solutions from non-winners in the


37. Like InnoCentive, Idea Connection taps the brains of engineers, scientists and other tech-oriented people to solve difficult problems.

Unlike InnoCentive, however, Idea Connection is facilitated, and keeps much of its information confidential. Companies come to the service

with their challenges, and Idea Connection acts as a middleman, seeking out input from users via collaborative intranets. Companies can

customize how much input they get and how much they pay; Idea Connection takes care of the rest. With that level of service, one wonder

about the size of the cut that Idea Connection takes vis-à-vis other crowdsourcing helpers.

38. There are more companies in this space. Consultant Nine Sigma also provides a high level of service, helping companies customize the

kinds of structures they need to support open innovation, as well as facilitating open innovation processes. Hypios is another company that

provides a platform to outsource your R&D.

Tedious Tasks

39. If your business involves QAing software or content, or perhaps transcribing, finding things online, tagging, or any of the other

miscellaneous tasks that come up in your business, there are a couple places that can help out.

40. Mechanical Turk, powered by, lets you splice up your task into minute pieces, enabling you to crowdsource those slices of

the project to hundreds of people at the same time. As a result, you’ll get your entire project done faster, because loads of Mechanical Turk

providers finish their own slices in the time span you allot. You can get a project that would have taken days done in hours or even minutes

this way.

41. CrowdFlower, formerly known as Dolores Labs, is a similar service. It harnesses its millions of users to take on parsed sections of bigger

projects, many of the same nature as Mechanical Turk’s. Indeed, CrowdFlower sources people through Mechanical Turk (and several other

places). They can also help with custom projects for small businesses, as well as enterprise-level crowdsourcing projects.


42. Starting at 5 cents per word, you can have your content translated by a crowd of 1,200 translators around the world on MyGengo. The

Japanese company offers translation in 11 languages. The site’s simple, intuitive interface and pay model make human translation almost as

easy as plugging something into a machine translator—but with more accuracy, of course.


43. Zipcar is pretty well-known as an easy way to rent a car by the hour, but there are other services that make sense. Car2Go is Austin’s

answer to Zipcar; RelayRides takes the community aspect one step further by letting you rent from independent car owners, by the hour or by

the day. They’re only in Boston and San Francisco so far, but will hopefully spread to new cities soon.


44. Poptent crowdsources commercials, virals, how-tos and all of the other video needs today’s companies have. Basically a social network for

people who make videos, Poptent gathers assignments by mostly Fortune 500 hundred companies, lists them on its site, and Poptent members

create videos with the given content and creative brief. After users finish the assignments, the company picks their favorite and pays.

45. Tongal’s tagline is “where the best ideas meet the best filmmakers,” and that pretty much sums up the collaborative videomaking contest

website. If you want an ad, you put up your project and prize, and let the masses compete. Users can also be paid based on the number of

times people download their videos, so all is not lost, even if a user loses a contest.

Waste Disposal

46. If you have something you want to get rid of, chances are someone in TerraCycle’s crowd is willing to do it for you. They specialize in

both recyclables and “upcyclables,” things that you don’t want, but someone else can use. eCycler is another crowdsourcer that focuses solely

on recyclables; Freecycle, on the other hand, is the ideal place to dispose of and pick up things to upcycle.


47. If you need a press release in an hour, content on the quick, translation, or proofreading/editing, has officially parsed the single

human being formerly known as the writer into an anonymous online crowd of college students, stay-at-home parents, unemployed people,

and anyone else seeking a quick job fix. It’s quick, because guarantees a 24-hour turnaround time; the proofreaders and other service

providers are sourced through sister site They attract these users in part through quick assignments and guaranteed next-day

pay. Sadly, automates the personal communication that generally makes writers more effective to a client, and it doesn’t let you use the

same writer twice.

48. takes an interesting slant on niche writing. For $25, you can get a letter—any letter—written in 24 hours. We’re talking

letters of acceptance, resignation, hypothecation, rejection, and anything else you can dream up. In a nod to the former glory days of copyright,

LetterRep pays writers again if existing letters get purchased more than once. (via Business Pundit)

A Truth And Great Benefit Of Open Design

Posted in ideas, innovation by aldorf on December 2, 2010

Thanks to Jay Cousins and  Christopher Doering for hosting the OPEN UP workshop on Saturday at Open Design City, Berlin!

The Good Gym – Fantastic Idea That Works

Posted in ideas, innovation by aldorf on November 25, 2010

Good Gym starts from the premise that the very idea of gyms as a place to exercise are symptomatic of a sick society. As an alternative to the treadmill, participants sign up to run a set number of miles in their neighborhood, and on their way, they drop in to visit an elderly person who might struggle to get out and about. Participants might drop off a library book or some grocercies, or they might just stay for a chat. The motivation to stick to a running schedule is hugley increased with the knowledge that there is someone waiting for a visit. And the elderly participants in the scheme go from being passive recipients of a volunteering project to much needed “coaches,” helping someone to achieve their fitness goals.


Scvngr – The Next Level

Posted in ideas, pioneers by aldorf on November 22, 2010
Image representing SCVNGR as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

The check-in application that asks users to complete activity challenges, just announced a strategic partnership with major drink distributor Coca Cola . The two have joined forces to give users who check-in to certain Simon Malls across United States the opportunity to earn points and rewards like gift cards and other Coke-branded merchandise.

Starting Friday, November 26, Scvngr users who check-in at one of the malls will be prompted to complete the new Coke Secret Formula Challenges. Some of the challenges include tasks like having a friend snap a photo of you high-fiving a fellow mall patron (bonus points if your target is drinking a Coke) or snapping a photo of hiding locations throughout the mall (maybe that’s where the Coke Secret Formula is hidden).

The 7 Biggest Challenges in Merging Design and Business

Posted in design, ideas by aldorf on November 21, 2010

Design and Business: The Bottom Line

by Helen Walters on November 12, 2010


This morning, I gave a speech at the RGD Design Thinkers event here in Toronto. For a first ever keynote, I think it went ok, though I probably relied on reading out my notes too much. But given that I used this forum to tell designers they can be “dictatorial, inflexible, snobby”, people were pretty friendly. It’s super long, but here’s the text, along with the beautiful typographic slides designed by my friend Timothy O’Donnell, who stepped in to save me from the indignity of having to present homemade slides to an audience of professional designers.

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing coming to this event with a designer friend of mine. “What are you going to talk about?” he asked. “Oh, you know. How in the 21st century economy, design provides the differentiating factor that can really determine whether a modern day company thrives or fails,” I said merrily. His reaction was not quite what I’d hoped for. In fact, he laughed in my face. “That old shtick? Ugh. Are people *still* saying that?” he asked with a hint of derision in his voice. “Er. Yes?” I stammered in reply.

Now bear in mind that this was a designer talking! This was not a jaded executive with no connection to the creative department. This was someone who has devoted years of study and thousands of dollars to getting a well-rounded design education. He’s worked hard and done well, working as a designer in various major American corporations hailed for their attention to innovation and design. He is you. And he should have been excited and delighted and should according to my calculations have assured me that I was doing precisely the right thing and that this was an excellently interesting topic that would make for a perfectly acceptable—albeit possibly fairly bland—speech at the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto.

That he didn’t was more than just an affront to my ego. It was a problem.

And so, in the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw, I got to thinking. And as I thought, I began to focus on a worry that’s been nagging at me for some time, pretty much since I first started reporting on the design world back in the 1990s. Because, the thing is, in the years between then and now, there has been an explosion of interest in the field at large. It has seemed that finally, perhaps, designers had the world at their feet, that now, at last, the world had discovered and understood the potential of the discipline, that we stand on the brink of being surrounded at all times by glorious design of all types and forms, from sexy product to swooping app to perfectly crafted business. The keys to the kingdom were being jangled seductively in front of designers’ faces.

And yet, we know in reality that they were never actually handed over.

In fact, if we take a close look at our world and environment and businesses and systems and services, we must accept that we’re not generally surrounded by gloriousness, at least any more than we were before this supposed grand renaissance.

It turns out, really not much has changed at all. There’s more design, sure: more options, more types, more outlets for it and more ways to buy or consume it on both an individual and corporate level. And sure, all the processes and programs and protocols and outputs of our complex world are designed. But this has not ushered in a new golden age of design.

In reality, many of the tools that were once strictly in the domain of designers have been distributed across borders and boundaries. This has helped to democratize design, for sure, but has it led to a wider understanding of the discipline or the hiring of designers throughout the enterprise? I don’t think so. What it has really meant is both that the industry as a whole has fragmented, and that those not trained in the discipline are taking on responsibility for the extra work.

As I see it, non designers still value design just about as much as they always did. Which is to say they might appreciate it, but they don’t really understand it. And mostly, they only really notice design when something doesn’t work properly.

Perhaps my friend was right, that all the excited talk and gushing enthusiasm amount to a big fat, beautifully designed nothing.

So if it’s ok with you, and without wishing to come across as a total Debbie Downer, I’d like to spend this time to take stock of some of the challenges facing the contemporary design community that are perhaps preventing its wider adoption within the business community. Hopefully, by shining a light on these topics, we can work toward figuring out the best next steps necessary to forge a future and an industry that we’d all like to be a part of; one that will truly allow designers to drive and execute meaningful change within the world’s biggest businesses.

As an aside, and I know this is old hat by now, but I would also like to give credit to those on Twitter who have engaged with me and this question over the past few weeks; who pushed and challenged me to come up with a much better list than I could have concocted on my own.

Here, then, are the seven biggest challenges facing the design community today:

Let’s start with the term that forms the basis of this very conference: design thinking, the exciting new phenomenon that has swept the pages of the business press, including my own alma mater, BusinessWeek, over the past decade. Well, first thing’s first, the terminology may be recent but design thinking itself isn’t new. I recently started working with Doblin, founded in Chicago in 1972 by Jay Doblin, who specifically started the company in order to apply design methodologies and ideas to different and larger contexts and problems than those traditionally tackled by or offered to designers. Before that, back in 1959, Doblin had even advised Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry on creating a national design policy.

What is newer is how the premise and promise of design thinking has really caught on in recent years. As the business landscape shifted, becoming ever more complex and sophisticated, ever more digitized, connected and global, corporate managers and consultants alike seized upon the idea, hoping that perhaps design thinking might provide the key to growth and success when efficiency drives or Six Sigma efforts had already been executed and were no longer sustaining the desired results.

Design thinking initiatives have had proven success within organizations. Procter & Gamble and General Electric, for example, are two enormous standard bearers for the discipline. Critically, however, executives at these companies took the principles and methodologies, internalized them and made them appropriate for their own organizations. That meant that innovation and design-based initiatives were not then rejected by the larger host. And these successes were translated across departments in terms that all the executives understood. All those involved in these initiatives are to be commended. But aren’t you tired of hearing about them? Where are the other examples, of companies of all shapes and sizes grasping, seizing, internalizing and implementing the potential that design thinking has to offer? Isn’t it concerning that so far it doesn’t seem like it has scaled across too many other organizations? Turns out, design thinking has a few problems.

For one thing, the term itself is vague enough that everyone imagines they know what it means, while everyone has their own slightly different interpretation of how it works, who does it or where it exists in an organization. This might seem like a matter of semantics, but it’s more important than that. Last year I sat in on a meeting with a senior executive from a large multinational corporation, who genuinely thought she had a handle on this design thinking thing. To her, it was a mindset and a series of tools that she and her board had to adopt in order to innovate more effectively. “Design thinking isn’t done by designers,” she said, much to the consternation of all the designers in the room.

And design thinking isn’t just coming under fire from confused clients. Many designers seem to be backing away from the term as quickly as possible too. As Kevin McCullagh of the British design and innovation firm Plan wrote recently in apiece for the Design Management Institute, suspicion of design thinking from within the design ranks only grew after the economy tanked. “Many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding,” writes McCullagh. “Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many… well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.”

Likewise, Peter Merholz of Bay Area design firm Adaptive Path also chimed in earlier this year, writing scornfully on his Harvard Business Review blog: “Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation.”

So is design thinking a technique to teach to non-designer clients? Is it a methodology used by experts to use design to tackle the wicked problems of our age? Is it merely a salve for executives trying to figure out how to innovate? Is it all of the above? The lack of consensus, common purpose and mission is dangerous, particularly when the design community itself is already so fragmented. The all too real outcome of this is that the non specialist clients who invest but then get wildly different results will become bemused, confused, frustrated, irritated and ultimately disengaged. That’s not an outcome that does anyone any good.

At BusinessWeek, we worked to put together a list of the schools that teach design thinking. It was a super interesting challenge that often felt like something of an abstract exercise. Because when you got down to brass tacks, it turns out that not that many schools are teaching any such thing. Given that there’s really no consensus on a definition of design thinking, that’s perhaps no surprise.

For now, different experiments are being tried in schools around the world. Some programs are co-taught by professors from design, business, and other departments, such as at the at Stanford. Others, such as a partnership between three schools in Helsinki, bring together students from various universities for cross-disciplinary project work. Another approach is to offer dual degrees in business administration and design, such as the MBA and Master’s in Design program from IIT in Chicago. Rotman School of Management, right here in Toronto, has also made a name for trying to teach its students skills from both disciplines. Rotman’s dean, Roger Martin, is speaking here this afternoon. Any self-respecting would-be design thinker would be wise to read and re-read his books.

It’s early days, but clearly it’s smart to teach design principles to MBAs. The tools and techniques they can glean from these courses will prove a critical foundation for educating future corporate leaders that design can be more than something to relegate to the shadowy if beautifully decorated confines of a creative department.
Reverse attempts at introducing business principles to design folks seem to be less consistent and perhaps more problematic. I don’t feel close enough to this to fully understand the reasons why. For instance, I do understand the desire to ensure that those in design school have the opportunity to revel in freeform thinking, to learn about craft and to be immersed in the discipline of their choice, free from worrying about the commercial pressures of the marketplace. But as far as I’m concerned there’s a clear distinction between artists and designers. The former get to determine the terms of their own creation; the latter had better be able to articulate ideas and value to clients. Both are noble callings, but they are distinct and separate. The current murkiness of the divide between them can sometimes be less than helpful.

Too often it seems that design graduates emerge from school without the skills necessary to thrive in the real world. That strikes me as a tremendous problem. These graduates need to be able to do well beyond the confines of an academic or even a corporate design department. What’s needed is for a legion of smart, informed designers to emerge who can take on the MBAs at their own game… and win. That certainly won’t happen through wishful thinking or by chance.

Take Elizabeth Scharpf, for instance, the winner of this year’s Curry Stone Design Prize, a prize created, I quote, “in the belief that designers can be an instrumental force for improving people’s lives and the state of the world.” Scharpf runsSustainable Health Enterprises, an initiative addressing girls’ and women’s lack of access to menstrual pads in Africa. S.H.E has designed feminine hygiene products made from locally sourced banana fiber. Scharpf is all about improving people’s lives and the state of the world. She is smart, engaged, committed and articulate. But she’s not a designer. Instead, she is the product of Harvard Business School and the World Bank.

Yes, she’s co-opting design ideas and principles and combining them with her deep understanding of fundamental business principles to build a thriving organization. She’s using ubiquitous communications tools like Blogger and Twitter to build her business–and you can tell. Any professional designer looking at the S.H.E blogwould likely be appalled at the clutter and garble on her web pages. But Scharpf is only doing what many entrepreneurs and business leaders are doing these days—taking the cheap templates available to all, and using them in a way that makes sense to her. Should she be penalized for not hiring a professional web or graphic designer to craft her brand for her? No. Is her business improving lives and the state of the world? Sure looks that way. Would she call herself a designer? Absolutely not.

When a prestigious design prize goes to someone who’s not a designer, it could be a sign that the design world is magnanimous and surefooted enough to welcome and celebrate success from other related specialists. Or it could suggest that perhaps the profession itself has lost its sense of self and is in need of renewed direction and focus.

Indeed, what we need to see more of from designers is a similar spirit to that shown by Scharpf. Designers need to work to forge the reality they’d like to see. If designers want to be seen as more than stylists, and that’s still a common complaint even now in 2010, then they need to step up to drive the projects, not merely be co-opted to make them look good. It seems unfair, in a way, because making things look good, in print, in product or on screen, is no small matter, as I know from my own disastrous, aborted forays into the dark hinterland of PowerPoint. But many people in many disciplines have been forced to expand their skillsets in order to offer much more than they’d initially anticipated. That is the reality of our modern world. And so, as designers continue to be forced to cede control of many of the means of creation they used to be in sole charge of, as they are forced to share their toys and play nicely with others, this is no time for nostalgia or regret. It’s time to reevaluate what else they too can bring to the table.

Getting a seat at the table is neither easy nor a small matter. Boardrooms rarely seem to feature the voice of the chief creative or design officer. This is truly one of the critical challenges for the industry. Folks such as IDEO’s Tim Brown or my new boss, Larry Keeley, do have the ear and attention of those in the C-suite, but they are the exception, not the rule. What designers should be urgently seeking are those people who can act as champions of the discipline, who understand how very difficult good design can be to execute, who understand the level of effort, analysis and skill that go into making something that will resonate on an emotional level and who can articulate that investing in design can make a significant difference to their business. As Terry Winograd, the legendary computer science professor at Stanford writes, “To get design into effective practice, you need to train designers and also to teach the people they work with how to understand, incorporate, and foster design.”

Currently the design industry faces a common problem: that when people reach a certain level of seniority, they are promoted to roles that no longer harness their talent or passion. This happens all the time in every field, not just within the creative industries, but it is perhaps at its most apparent within design. Designers work long and hard to study the craft of the discipline; why in their right mind would they then choose to step away from executing this craft proficiently in order to take on a role that they’re neither trained nor equipped for? I’ll tell you why. Because if no one steps up, the design industry as a whole will flounder.

It seems to me that this could be a two-pronged attack. Some designers need to be prepared to become akin to high profile, respected in-house coaches, educating the C-suite in the why and the how, reassuring and encouraging those more used to grokking reams of data that the often muddy, unclear reality of the design process is not just one big waste of time. And we also need more CEOs and leaders who are inculcated with the value of design.

It’s almost embarrassingly trite to mention Steve Jobs at a design conference. And actually I think it’s worth noting that with the stumbling introduction of a product such as Ping, even the mighty Apple demonstrates it is not invincible. But, whatever you make of some of the company’s more stringent or questionable policies, no one can deny that Apple has built its business by focusing doggedly on producing good design across disciplines.

I recently read a really great interview by Cult of Mac editor and publisher Leander Kahney with former Apple chief, John Sculley, the man who infamously canned Steve Jobs. After detailing how he’d initially bonded with Jobs over matters of industrial design, he told a more recent story of a friend who’d visited both Apple and Microsoft on the same day. At the Apple meeting, Sculley recounted, “As soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking, because the designers are the most respected people in the organization.” He then contrasted this with the Microsoft meeting, where “everybody was talking and then the meeting starts and no designers ever walk into the room. All the technical people are sitting there trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Think about how common, in reality, this recipe for disaster is. Even as interest in design has proliferated, the existence of design industry champions who can explain the promise of the discipline to the wider world at large has hardly materialized. Too often, industry leaders get caught up in navel gazing that is perhaps fascinating to them but sadly utterly irrelevant to those on the outside. Sometimes the design community seems hellbent on doing its very best impression of the American Democratic party. When in doubt, they turn on their own, squabbling about small matters that just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

John Maeda, the esteemed interaction designer and president of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote, “a well-crafted message only has worth if it leaves the hands of the craftsman and makes it all the way to others’ hearts.” It’s a pointed reminder for designers to keep in mind the reason so many of them got into this business in the first place: to make a difference in the world at large, not just in the small world immediately surrounding them. Feeling like a part of a community is great, of course. Not having the wherewithal to look deeper across the horizon is not.

Earlier this year, Mike Lacher wrote an article for McSweeney’s. The article was pithily entitled, “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole” and is a foul-mouthed defense of a typeface that has become an accepted design world joke, written in the voice of Comic Sans itself.

“You don’t like that your coworker used me on that note about stealing her yogurt from the break room fridge? You don’t like that I’m all over your sister-in-law’s blog? You don’t like that I’m on the sign for that new Thai place? You think I’m pedestrian and tacky? Guess the fuck what, Picasso. We don’t all have seventy-three weights of stick-up-my-ass Helvetica sitting on our seventeen-inch MacBook Pros.”

The author of this post is a designer himself, and its tone was as tongue in cheek as anything else. But as with all the best jokes, it’s funny because it’s true. Designers can be dictatorial, inflexible, snobby and they often don’t play nicely with others. And for all that this might appear to many designers as being exactly the right state of being, it’s actually unhelpful in the longer term. As Canadian designer Mark Busse wrote recently in an article for Applied Arts magazine, “the immaturity with which we’re viewed will never go away if all we do is whine about everything among ourselves.”

It’s honestly mystifying to me that I would hold up the Republican party as a good example of anything, but they certainly seem to have mastered the art of getting supporters to toe the party line. So too does the design industry needs to put aside its petty squabbles in order to focus on presenting a coherent vision to the wider world around them.

And designers need to learn how to communicate with those untrained in their discipline in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. This is possible. In my many years of interviewing designers and creative types from all over the world, I have often been struck by a shared characteristic of the pioneers who were truly challenging the boundaries of their discipline: they were gracious, generous and delighted that anyone should take an interest in their work, a welcome counterpoint to the insecurity that is rife throughout the industry. We should all do well to remember to be open-minded and kind to those who are not specialists in our field. Everyone brings something to the table, and it’s a happier and more interesting feast when everyone is engaged and empowered to contribute and speak freely.

Luckily, design has some fervent supporters in some unexpected places. When I was at BusinessWeek, we ran a piece written by the angel investor and Silicon Valley mainstay, Dave McClure. If you’ve ever seen McClure’s website, you know that he is himself an unapologetic proponent of Comic Sans, of a gratuitous use of fonts and colors that adds up to an impression I like to call visual roadkill. He is not in any way obsessed with the principles of good design. But while much of McClure’s shtick is completely over the top, he is very, very serious when it comes to the potential of design to help a company thrive, particularly within the cut throat world of Web 2.0 in which he is immersed. “Design and marketing aren’t just as important as engineering,” he writes. “They are way more important.” But McClure is nothing if not a ruthless pragmatist. If potential doesn’t translate to the bottom line, it’s gone.

As we barrel headlong into a universe in which data is ubiquitous, accessible and where web analytics and the tools to assess the impact of a design are both commonplace and used to dictate the form of our visual landscape, it’s time for both celebration and concern. Google, the ultimate engineering nirvana, has taken a reliance on analytics and data to a degree that is impressive mainly for its obsessiveness. Earlier this year, I wrote a story about the redesign of Google’s search results pages, spending time in Mountain View with the engineers and designers involved on the months-long project. Their relationship was impressively symbiotic, but the designers on the project were under no illusion that they needed to be able to speak the code in order to be taken seriously. All of the design decisions were subject to rigorous testing and retesting, including time in the eye-tracking lab to monitor where exactly a user was looking and clicking. The designers swore up and down that they were afforded the freedom they needed to experiment and innovate, and the results were indeed a distinct step forward for the design of one of the most valuable properties on the web. But it’s worth remembering that as Don Norman reminds us, data-driven decisions only ever produce incremental innovation or change.

In the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about the “undesigned” web. It’s a great meme that in my view is borderline poppycock. Reader habits and methods have evolved, sure, and apps and iPads presage an offline digital environment that will be commonplace in the future. But remember, when it comes to online or onscreen design, design is all there is. Design IS the product. And while some pioneers such as Craig Newmark proclaim a total disinterest in design’s best practices, the “undesigned” nature of Craigslist is in fact rife with design decisions. They’re not related to the rules and ideals of the Swiss school of typography, that’s for sure, but Newmark has nonetheless managed to be pretty successful, despite or perhaps even because of these decisions.

Designers need to figure out a way to make the entrepreneurs and technologists believe in investing in their talents. They need to make themselves indispensable. To do that, they should start mucking in. Because this movement is happening with or without them, and if they’re not careful, they’ll find that they’re jolly cold and lonely up there in that ivory tower.

I read a great story the other day about Expedia. Joe Megibow, who’s the travel site’s VP of global analytics and optimization, described a confusing problem. Customers were filling out the forms in order to buy Expedia services, but at the very last minute, many of them weren’t going through with the transaction. It was baffling. So Megibow’s team looked through the analytics and noted that one particular box on the page was regularly confusing would-be shoppers, meaning that their purchases didn’t go through. So they deleted the field. The result? An additional $12 million a year.

Stories like this are fantastic when looked at through the lens of design. I mean, essentially a small page redesign led to an additional $12 million in profit. Now I don’t know the structure of Expedia’s business, but Megibow’s job title, of analytics and optimization, doesn’t suggest that design was a driving force behind this analysis and decision. Instead, web pages are being ripped apart and assessed retrospectively and then rebuilt accordingly. To butcher Henry Ford’s famous phrase, we are all too often getting the “faster horses” of Web pages. Designers need to find a way to seize control of the dialog, to put themselves at the center of the discussion, to use their years of training and learning and insights in conjunction with the data in order to create better outcomes for all.

Business has a part to play in all of this, too. Earlier, I mentioned P&G and GE, two organizations that have been praised to the high heavens for embracing the potential of design at a high level, and which have figured out a way to implement a discipline of innovation throughout their businesses. And as I said earlier, it’d really be great if we could start talking about the success that other companies have had with similar initiatives. But there’s a deeper reason that we’re not inundated with examples of more design and business success stories, and why the shiny products still get so much play in the design and business press. True design-based transformation is really, really hard work. For all that lots of chief executives of companies—even leaders of nations—proclaim their fervent desire to foster a spirit of creativity and innovation, relatively few have the faintest idea how to do so in any meaningful way.

A few things can be done here. Not least, a system of evaluation metrics needs to be built into any creatively minded project from the start. This doesn’t necessarily have to use the same measures as other projects, but there needs to be an upfront acknowledgement that this is serious business. This will mollify executives who aren’t directly involved and will help sponsoring executives to have some breathing room for projects that need time to demonstrate they can pay off. This point relates to my earlier ideas about educating everyone in the potential of the discipline. Designers must prove that they’re prepared to speak a different language in order to get their point across.

Executives themselves need to have a much clearer idea of what it really means to adopt a design centric strategy, too. Embracing all that is necessary to be effective will almost certainly result in tension among existing management. Not recognizing this or developing plans to deal with it will almost inevitably lead to disappointment, failure and, ultimately, a large step backwards on the path to successful, sustainable innovation.

Right now, there’s another problem, too. Many of those who have been through some of the more rigorous programs within business or design schools and who have emerged with a real desire to make the difference I’ve been describing within the world’s largest organizations, are finding that they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. When they’ve tried to join big businesses in order to apply the thinking they’ve learned, they’ve found that there’s really no place for them. Instead, these innovative misfits often fall between the cracks in organizations that have entrenched silos, established ways of doing things and that more than likely don’t know how to change things, even if they wanted to, which many people probably don’t, really.

Hiring processes that are driven by HR departments unfamiliar with any of the skills or thinking accrued by this new class of graduate really don’t help. These do not brook thinking laterally about what an organization might really need, or about the way that business will thrive in the future. Instead, there is one inexorable, unhappy outcome: organizational atrophy.

A combination of apathy and fear is a dangerous combination that’s all too common in the innovation space. Leaders should recognize it, and move to make bold changes within the organization. Those who believe in the potential of what they’re doing should refuse to be daunted.

Microsoft Research Principal Scientist Bill Buxton talks of the need to create I-shaped thinkers (for the typographers in the audience, that’s an “I” with a serif.) This updates Bill Moggridge’s theory of T-shaped thinkers, and provides a vision of designers who can exist in the starry realm of big ideas and keep their feet grounded in the reality and muck of commercial pressures—while simultaneously spanning every moment in between. It’s a delightful idea, but for the time being, only a small number of such deliberately trained hybrid thinkers even exist, and genuine cross-disciplinary collaboration is the exception rather than the rule.

This will surely change, but as graduates see how difficult it is to make an impact within the large multinational corporations, so will they likely opt out and take a more entrepreneurial route to their work. In fact, this actually sets up an interesting paradigm that could contribute to a more creative global economy. Indeed, the emergence of design entrepreneurs who are prepared to walk the walk as well as talk the talk provides a real bright spot in the industry at large. It’s also a threat to their systems that executives would do well to recognize.

But if design doesn’t move beyond the realm of the creative department itself, if it doesn’t prove it’s about much more than a glossy product and that it can indeed be used to determine the definitions and domain of innovation, of systems, of business writ large; if it can’t prove itself within a corporate context, it’ll be dubbed a lame duck. Designers will not win the recognition and influence they crave, and there’s a distinct danger that the discipline will be written off as just one more failed fad left to rot on the scrapheap of nice ideas that had so much potential and yet never quite managed to deliver. Design will still be used, of course, in the same ways that organizations currently understand it. But it will have moved no closer to tackling the core of the problems of our age.

Interestingly, this is perhaps where consultancies can step up. When Jan Chipchaseleft Nokia Design to join Frog, he described an inhouse environment at his former employer that made it difficult to get design work done. “Frankly you can even be at a disadvantage internally, competitively, both because it’s easy for people to take it for granted that you’re there, and because of the “not invented here” syndrome,” he said. “People feel if they’re paying for something and can tailor what they’re purchasing then it has bigger weight.” Now, consultancies of all backgrounds, not just from within pure design, are putting a ton of effort into selling the promise of design into organizations. The Boston-based strategy consultancy Monitor bought Doblin back in 2007 in order to build a rigorous innovation competency within its practice. For the design world’s sake, it’s important that such initiatives pay off.

Evan Fry of the open source advertising agency Victors and Spoils recently wrote, “Agencies packed with staff who don’t care to solve client challenges in scrappy, nimble, economical ways deserve the fate awaiting them.” His words of warning were aimed at those within the ad industry, but they hold no less true for those within design. Denying the arrival on the scene of a new way of doing things that essentially enables professionals to be entirely bypassed should strike everyone as a supremely bad idea. Paralysis is no solution. Luckily, within every problem lies an opportunity and an industry comprising supremely creative folks should be able to both rise to and harness the challenge. So what should the design community do?

For the time being, they can be grateful for debacles such as the recent redesign of the Gap logo, which neatly proved mainly that branding and design and social media can be dangerous tools in the hands of the untrained. But a time will come when systems are in place for major brands to sidestep the usual ways of doing things routinely.

Already, there are at least 100 crowdsourcing platforms available for some kind of design or marketing work. And as big companies figure out better and more efficient ways to manage their businesses and brands, they will also figure out ways to implement appropriate incentives and systems to handle the work.

From “expertsourcing”, wherein participants are paid and sign non disclosure agreements, to the harnessing of bigger and more public crowds for ideas and engagement, the exact path of this new discipline is still somewhat opaque.
But it’s not going away.

That means the trained professionals need to make their case more loudly, strongly and convincingly than ever before. And they need to take up the crowd’s gauntlet and figure out a way to lead the discussion about these initiatives and demonstrate the value of design in real terms.

Companies are also realizing that crowds can be used in interesting ways internally. Doug Randall, of Monitor 360, recently wrote a great piece for the magazine, Design Mind, outlining the potential of information markets to help predict the future and help executives figure out how projects are actually progressing. “An anonymous marketplace gets you the kind of answers the boss never hears face-to-face. It does an end-run around the kind of know-nothing consensus found in board meetings,” he wrote. “You might discover, for instance, that the marketing department is generally bullish about your chances of hitting your ship date, but there are a lot of bears in engineering. The bad news is presented in a way that decision-makers can’t take personally. Nobody gets to shoot the messenger.”

Randall also outlined a scenario in which virtual designs might duke it out before they were even more than a pixilated twinkle on a computer screen. It’s only a matter of time before this is the new status quo. Forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes. Designers should be at the head of the pack in seizing and exploiting the potential of these tools.

I was honestly a little concerned that focusing on the challenges facing the design community might prove a little doomy and gloomy, particularly as a way to kick off a day that I’m sure will be packed full of insight and inspiration. Instead, I actually feel quite optimistic. These are tough challenges to take on, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re impossible to achieve, and it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
As Umair Haque wrote in a recent post for, “most companies don’t take design seriously, but they damn well should.” It’s not good enough to expect executives to come to this realization and do something about it. Designers need to make—force—the change. So I urge all of you to think about how you can rise to the challenges facing your industry as the 21st century progresses. And I hope that the next time my friend hears what I’m planning on talking about, he’ll be engaged and invigorated and inspired rather than unimpressed that the same discussions are droning on and on with the same lack of impact.

Thank you.

Helen Walters is a New York City-based business and design journalist with experience writing, editing and publishing content across multiple platforms, online and offline. Th… Read more

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• Typographic images by Timothy O’Donnell

Trampoline Systems – Best Tech Crowdfunding Example

Posted in ideas by aldorf on September 22, 2010
Image representing Trampoline Systems as depic...

Image via CrunchBase

“Don’t put things off by going to study for an MBA. Just dive in and start your business. You’ll soon discover if it’s what you really want to do.” (Charles Armstrong, Trampoline Systems)

Interesting fact: Trampoline is the first tech vendor to finance its growth through equity crowdfunding.

Trampoline Systems is an award-winning specialist in social analytic software. The company’s SONAR technology analyses business communications to map internal collaborations, analyse external relationships and report on critical performance factors. Dedicated solutions are available for salesforce optimisation, internal reorganisations and experise search.

A seven-minute film on Trampoline as part of BBC‘s Start Up Stories strand. The film covers Trampoline’s beginnings, our first experiences hiring and raising finance, and what advice we’d give to entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own company.

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