Systems of Significance

For some bizarre reason I have spent the last hour or so reading commencement speeches. Among them was one by Susan Sontag that she gave at Wellesley College in 1983. In a backhanded kind of way it is quite comforting to read a passage about the President of USA then,that, given a few minor changes, could have been written today. But I won’t quote that one – you can read it yourself – instead I draw your attention to this one, which is worth some moments of time to ponder:
“As individuals we are never outside of some system which bestows significance. But we can become aware that our lives consist: both really and potentially, of many systems. That we always have choices, options—and that it is a failure of imagination (or fantasy) not to perceive this. The large system of significance in which we live is called “culture.” In that sense, no one is without a culture. But in a stricter sense, culture is not a given but an achievement, that we have to work at all our lives. Far from being given, culture is something we have to strive to protect against all incursions. Culture is the opposite of provinciality—the provinciality of the intellect, and the provinciality of the heart. (Far from being merely national, or local, it is properly international.) The highest culture is self-critical and makes us suspicious and critical of state power.”

That moment of Zen

If you feel that you’re buried in management crap that is getting in the way of you doing your work, why not secretly send your managers this article from Fast Company – a miracle might happen and some of them might feel that moment of zen:
“‘People who join Toyota from other companies, it’s a big shift for them,” says John Shook, a faculty member at the University of Michigan, a former Toyota manufacturing employee and a widely regarded consultant on how to use Toyota’s ideas at other companies. “They kind of don’t get it for a while.’ They do what all American managers do–they keep trying to make their management objectives. ‘They’re moving forward, they’re improving, and they’re looking for a plateau. As long as you’re looking for that plateau,it seems like a constant struggle. It’s difficult. If you’re looking for a plateau, you’re going to be frustrated. There is no ‘solution.”
Even working at Toyota, you need that moment of Zen.
‘Once you realize that it’s the process itself–that you’re not seeking a plateau–you can relax. Doing the task and doing the task better become one and the same thing,” Shook says. “This is what it means to come to work.'”

An improvised life

I was taken by surprise today when I came across an obituary of Clifford Geertz. While I only knew him through his writing, the news felt like the death of an old friend. Hurrying to google I rediscovered a lecture he gave in 1999, “A Life of Learning”. As it turns out it is as good a memorial to a life well lived as anyone could have written. I include its beginning and end as a taster and urge you to read the bits between:
“It is a shaking business to stand up in public toward the end of an improvised life and call it learned. I didn’t realise, when I started out, after an isolate childhood, to see what might be going on elsewhere in the world, that there would be a final exam. I suppose that what I have been doing all these years is piling up learning. But, at the time, it seemed to me that I was trying to figure out what to do next, and hold off a reckoning: reviewing the situation, scouting out the possibilities, evading the consequences, thinking through the thing again. You don’t arrive at many conclusions that way, or not any that you hold to for very long, so summing it all up before God and Everybody is a bit of a humbug. A lot of people don’t quite know where they are going, I suppose; but I don’t even know, for certain, where I have been. But, all right already. I’ve tried virtually every other literary genre at one time or another. I might as well try Bildungsroman.”
“I am, as I imagine you can tell from what I’ve been saying, and the speed at which I have been saying it, not terribly good at waiting, and I will probably turn out not to handle it at all well. As my friends and co-conspirators age and depart what Stevens called “this vast inelegance,” and I, myself, stiffen and grow uncited, I shall surely be tempted to intervene and set things right yet once more. But that, doubtless, will prove unavailing, and quite possibly comic. Nothing so ill-befits a scholarly life as the struggle not to leave it, and—Frost, this time, not Hopkins—”no memory of having starred/can keep the end from being hard.” But for the moment, I am pleased to have been given this chance to contrive my own fable and plead my own case before the necrologists get at me. No one should take what I have been doing here as anything more than that.”

Service innovation design

Gill Wildman of Plot and Chris Downs of live/work make an energetic and thoughtful case for Service innovation design in a conversation with GK VanPatter, Co-Founder, NextDesign Leadership Institute. Well worth a read in full.
To give you a taste, here is a snippet from Gill:
“Service innovation design encourages you to take a genuinely people-centered, empathetic approach, beyond even the user-centered design methods popularized by best-practice product designers. User scenarios often frame people in a passive role as part of some machine (“the system”). People show up as talented thumbs in texting scenarios. They turn up as talking wallets in retail scenarios. They turn up as walking luggage in airport scenarios. At the worst level of practice, people get transformed into a kind of material inventory to be processed. The messy reality of people’s everyday life and dynamic need-states get smoothed out or abstracted. Whole sets of preconceptions sneak in unnoticed, framing the innovation brief.”

And here’s one from Chris:
“… my advice to a recent design graduate would be to embrace and enjoy the complexity. Get out of college and get a job. Don’t hang around in your school’s new ‘future design blah innovation blah lab.’ Don’t prostitute your services for free to get a toe in the door at IDEO, Humantific, Plot or even live|work. Go and work for a hospital, the government or a credit reference agency.
Hold on to the unique skills and perspective you have as a designer and apply them in strange but fruitful environments. You can, and will, make a real difference there.”