Under a spreading chestnut tree, this creative director wanders around

It seemed like a simple assignment: determine how the village is spatially organized.

But I already felt stumped, plus jetlagged and a bit carsick.

It was day two of my semester abroad in Nigeria. About an hour had passed since another student and I had arrived after a harrowing journey at this village on the outskirts of Lagos. Our mini-bus had hurled us in between clogged lanes of traffic, dodged cattle, and launched airborne over potholes.

Now we were rambling through a maze of circuitous paths between buildings made of cement, wood and mud. But their purpose and the logic behind their organization was still a mystery to us. So we asked two local men for help.

Could they tell us why these buildings are here and those there?

They didn’t know.

Maybe, like a New England green, we could discover the town’s most important spatial relationships by starting at the center and working our way out. “Where is the middle of the village?” I asked.

Like a directional sign post they pointed to opposite destinations. “There.” “There.”

A map might help. Could they draw one for us?

Warily, they nodded.

I produced paper and pen.

They stepped back and consulted with each other. Then one man carefully drew two intersecting straight lines and handed me back my implements.

He had drawn the two main roads, their junction, and where they went. But he left the town off the map.

The mini-bus horn honked. It was time to go.

Later that night we wrote up what the assignment as best we could, but acknowledged we failed.

Hoping for leniency, I included a footnote. I wrote that while we didn’t learn how the town was spatially organized, we did come to realize that the relationship of the town to the broader context of its surroundings seemed more important. And that the importance of spaces within the town seemed relative to the individual. We wished we had come up with better, perhaps less leading, questions. When we got our paper back we saw that our professor wrote in effect, “that was the point”.

This was over 20 years ago. But recently this story came back to me when I was out walking in a local Connecticut park.

I had walked these paths hundreds of times, usually on a weekend afternoon and in the same direction and sequence. But this time I went on a weekday morning. I walk fast and look straight ahead at the view of the trees ringing the saltwater marsh or across the Sound to the blurry blue smudge of Long Island or the faint grey Manhattan skyline.

But now I stared at a collection of elderly people pacing in circles in the middle of a field looking down at their shuffling feet as they kicked the leaves.

At first I thought it was Tai-chi or something like it. But then I noticed that they weren’t moving in synch.

I stepped off the path and timidly asked one of them what he was doing. “Chestnuts!” he exclaimed. Then he walked over and handed me a little brown nut, warm after being squeezed tightly in his palm.

Counting out a few more chestnuts into my hand, he told me in a thick Italian accent how dozens of people came every day for weeks often early in the morning before the park opens and from as far away as New York City. Chestnuts are hard to find since many decades prior a blight wiped out most of the trees. And then he showed me how to use my feet to spread open the spikey exterior casing and expose the nuts inside.

For a couple of weeks I had been kicking these spikey bundles out of my way on my brisk walks, never looking down to see what peeked out from between the broken husks.

The next weekend my kids and husband joined me in the grove of chestnut trees, incredulous that we would find anything. In the brisk fall air we shook the branches, kicked the leaves, pricked our fingers on the spiky skins, and deposited a bounty of shiny brown nuts in a big plastic bag, handles stretched taut by the weight.

We didn’t go down to the beach or walk the paths. We didn’t kick the soccer ball or go fishing. Our familiar experience of the park was changed and broadened. By seeing the park through others’ eyes, it was like being in a new place entirely. In the car ride home we all vowed to look more closely at all the familiar places we went because maybe they too had new experiences to offer.

We shouldn’t have been so surprised. We already knew that Long Island Sound is home to a natural bounty that many don’t realize is there. When my husband goes fishing on the nearby jetty and hauls up a big striped bass or even a humble porgy, inevitably a walker, jogger, or someone sitting nearby will exclaim, “there are fish in there?” Admittedly, I didn’t realize the variety and size of fish until he started reeling them up a few years ago. But, really?

Everyone experiences space differently, noticing what has meaning for them but not the rest. And even though those other experiences are as deep and rich as your own, they don’t exist for you until and unless you are compelled to look and, with an open mind, choose to step over the threshold to learn about them from their perspective.

When it comes to creating experiences in real or virtual space as a Creative Director, I think Design Thinking can be pretty great for breaking through these barriers and incorporating diverse perspectives. Being grounded in empathy, Design Thinking mandates that practitioners consider other people’s perspectives when solving problems. But in response to building criticism that it may not be sufficiently inclusive of all voices, Michael Hendrix of IDEO recently acknowledged the limits of the methodology his firm popularized.

In my practice of Design Thinking, including diverse voices from outside of the creative team as co-participants, especially the end user, is the explicitly acknowledged ideal. But, in spite of the potential for rich insights, the reality is that ideal isn’t practiced as much as it should be. Time and money are the typical excuses. Instead, what passes for “empathy” can be two or three degrees of separation away summarized in a PowerPoint deck of qualitative research findings. And the “creative” still has the power to determine what solution should or should not be more fully developed and how it should be revised based on feedback.

Anything that can increase our capacity for — and practice of — empathy, curiosity, and humility is most welcome. Because in order to design real or virtual experiences that include people different from ourselves, it’s clear that we must understand their perspective as well as the limitations, assumptions, and prejudices of our own.

So I am excited to learn more from John Maeda, Kat Holmes, Bruce Nussbaum, Natasha Iskander, and others who propose helpful revisions to Design Thinking or alternate methodologies that seek to be more inclusive, ask better questions, inspire more innovative solutions, and/or produce better results.

Hopefully, we can all discover some chestnuts.

The art of listening to hear

My husband is the Michelangelo of pet grooming.

To see him wield a clipper and scissor and artfully reveal the true essence of a dog from under a mound of matted, knotted hair is to witness a natural talent. He’s self-taught, having unofficially apprenticed with the resident dog groomer in the kennel where he worked years ago. He watched her carefully and purposefully while sweeping up the bundles that fell to the floor sometimes more delicate than snowflakes and other times all at once like a discarded coat, depending on the degree of neglect from its owner. She gradually taught him what she knew and, one day, quit to move to another state, leaving all of her clients to him, if he wanted them. And he did.

He is a natural craftsman, for like woodworking or stone carving, that’s what grooming most resembles. But, it’s also more than that.

What’s different, for one, is that the dog is a living, breathing thing with its own innate reactions to the appearance of a strange man with a sharp object next to its flesh. But the teeth and claws are mild compared to the demands of some of the owners.  He often gets sketches, photos, and conflicting direction from family members, and specific instruction on what tools to use and not use and how much where. I thought my advertising clients were tough, but his often are bickering, disagreeable spouses; detail-obsessed cheapskates; and/or dotting, obsessive parents to their furry surrogate children.

He’s also the Oprah of pet grooming.

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need. And by that I mean he listens patiently and then filters through his own experience and intuition to create a result that is always better than what the client asked for, while also managing to put both the nervous or difficult owner and his or her dog at ease.

“Make my [bichpoo, schnoodle, cockapoo] look like this picture from the Westminster Dog Show, and by the way, she bites.”

“OK, I’ll try.”

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need.

Then with some comforting words for the dog and its owner, a graceful sweep of the clipper, and a strong grip on back of the neck, the dog is returned both beautiful and calm as the owner exclaims with joy and surprise something like, “wow, how did you do that?” The previously skeptical customer becomes a loyal, repeat client who then always asks him to just do what he thinks is best.

It’s an art.

I draw inspiration from my husband in my own work as a creative director. I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

Although metrics are the true measure, I know we’ve succeeded when we’ve made the client cry.

I remember one pitch presentation in particular. We had to come up with the launch and engagement campaign for a new, innovative product. Like many, but perhaps even more than most, the RFP was a bit convoluted, asking us what talents, methods, tools, and resources we would use to answer various challenging questions about how to find and engage with their core audiences at key moments in their journeys. Their fear of failure was palpable. As was, frankly, their hubris. Our labradoodle is unique and needs a special touch that you probably don’t have, but let’s see what you can do anyway.

I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

We did all that hard work. Figuring out the answers to all of the questions, providing the required backup, and trying to instill confidence that we knew what we were doing. For the creative strategy, we learned the functional benefits of this new product were astounding – it truly was a better mousetrap that could kill an existing product category, alleviate a major burden, and provide peace-of-mind where there previously had been none. Maybe that was all we had to say, but in a clever, memorable way?

If we had just listened, that would have been enough.

But I like to think we did more than that. We heard what lay beyond those impressive benefits. We heard the emotional pain caused by missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams, and frustrating vicious circles of negativity. Convenience and peace-of-mind were great, but not enough to truly capture the transformative power of this product.

So we stopped in our tracks and did another round of research, asking people more about the alternative universe that would open up should this current burden be lifted. We asked them to imagine in detail what life would be like without it. We interviewed carefully screened strangers, but also loved ones and friends and recorded their descriptions of aspirational, imaginary worlds. By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

These stories of unlocking hidden potential became the inspiration for the creative and flowed through the work in content, experiences, and look and feel.

Then, recognizing the power of the stories we heard, we wrote down short excerpts, one per index card, and locked the stack in a jewelry box.

By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

At the end of the presentation, after answering the questions in the RFP and showing dozens of boards and slides of creative work, exhausted yet exhilarated, I took the small jewelry box from the table where it had been sitting silently waiting and handed it to the SVP seated at the head of the table.

Surprised, he opened it, taking out one card, and then another, reading and smiling, and reading another. Finally, the silence was broken as he started to read the stories aloud, punctuated by thoughtful sighs and bursts of laughter from the room.

Perhaps saying he was crying is an exaggeration, but eyes filled with tears and a hitch in his voice made it clear that the stories deeply touched him.

We were in a cab to the airport when he called to tell us we had won the business.