Sunday, February 5, 2017

Toronto Design Week - ToDo Symposium - Reflection & Review - American Perspective

here he is! Mr. American, Ivan McCuistion

Chapter 1TODO 2017 Reflection: Work Culture, Well-being and Seeing the unseen

Red cup in tow, a half-flight of white steps led up into my momentary heaven at the DO Festival 2017 in Toronto.

“Remember Tomorrow?” a brand poster asked, before cascading deeper into eloquent paradoxes. Marrs Brand Future, even the name rang true! Hasn’t the planet Mars long been an icon of the future, yet riddled with uncertainties and failures?

Looking deeper into the white-walled gallery, the divergent handcrafted housewares furthered my perception of the thesis: question our implicit promise of the future. What do we assume and is it so? The Marrs Brand Future exhibit acted as a portal for inquiry into the Unknown-unknowns(1), as Jamer Hunt would present two days later at the DO Symposium Talks.

I promptly insisted two friends arrive at the Marrs exhibit for discussion. They did, and we quickly found ourselves debating the unprecedented personal security that individuals in developed countries enjoy—a gift born of the future. Yet are we suffering with self-inflicted isolation? Going deeper, we wiki’ed national suicide rates and asked ourselves, at what threshold of discomfort is suicide warranted? What is the mark of a greater civilization, lower indexes of violence or lower indexes of self harm?

As a society we need more space for this, as Erika Bailey spoke of it, we need more real-talk. I agree wholeheartedly with Jamer Hunt’s concluding keynote at the Do Symposium. In design, and more broadly in all creation we need to adapt tools and culture for more discourse in our work. Perhaps our capacities for creation have grown far larger than our collective bandwidth for discourse. But Hunt probed the audience to think of this as an integral part of the design process. It isn’t enough to be retrospectively critical, as was done in his Design and Violence collaboration(2). Designers must leave space for unforeseen consequences to arise in their process and actively address them. Yet my personal experiences with intense focus and isolation leave me wondering if there is a conflict between corrosive cultures and the state of mind necessary to see the unforeseen.

I could not have marveled at the Marrs Brand Future exhibit if I were under the pressure that some organizations still praise or demand. Fortunately work culture is evolving, and Erika Bailey of The Moment provided clues on influencing these cultures in her talk. She cautioned us of the complexity and challenge of changing culture, yet offered striking quantitative results. “Invite the unusual suspects!” Bailey proclaimed, and Jamer Hunt too reinforced the value of the unexpected perspective in design discourse.

Bailey described culture like an iceberg, with our customs and artifacts seen above water but supported by dense histories of behaviours and belief systems below. She emphasized it isn’t only the elements of culture that are key, but being aware of the language that is used around those elements.

Rejecting the notion of a work-life balance, Bailey offers a holistic approach where the whole person is welcomed into the workplace. Rather than balancing a scale, she advocates for respectful and meaningful integrations of work and life. “You must care,” Bailey implored us. At every step proposed towards changing culture, Erika Bailey challenged us to get real in our conversations, intentions and reflections on progress. Throughout the process we need to give time and persevere, 12-18 months in her workplace examples.

This is a challenge I want to continue to develop, let’s get real about our well-being, our workplace culture and our culture of creation. Bring yourself, your whole self—known and striving towards wellness—into conversation. Let’s ask each other if we are creating recklessly, let’s define that, and even dare to ponder broader impacts. Let’s ask what did the future promise and what it will promise. We need to ask not only if our civilization is great, but what have been our unintended consequences. We’ll be discussing our iceberg, but let’s develop an awareness of our language in process. In doing so we may prime ourselves for cultural changes and possibly see a bit deeper into the unforeseen—the unknown unknowns.

Respectful, honest and challenging conversations are a necessary tool in evolving culture, whether in the workplace or in creation. To recapitulate Jamer Hunt, where do designers go for philosophical criticism of our work and process? Who is helping us see the unseen, and how do we see it sooner, before a product is launched? Are we leaving space for this discovery in our working process, in our culture?

Yet this isn’t enough either, as Bailey points we’ll need to address multiple points in the culture to affect change. While this is reaching beyond my present knowledge, it seems obvious that our creative capacities have outstripped our ability to educate each other, share and conviene. Do we need more regulatory control or broader—likely competing—design tribes that share insights. Maybe these tribes function like competing academic networks, and put the person first, not the brand or marketing.
Together we need to be more open to criticism of our discipline, our process, even ourselves. Beyond continuing to raise these ideas, I believe Erika Bailey’s talk offered insight into improving our own well-being, and thus primes us to reach higher, and look deeper.

1 – Derived from a Donald Rumesfeld quote

referencing Johari Window heuristics

2 –

TO DO Talks Symposium –

Jamer Hunt –
Erika Bailey –

Ivan McCuistion –
Ivan is an American new to Toronto. He studied Industrial Design at the University of Cincinnati–DAAP and is currently freelancing at The Station, while seeking contract and full-time design opportunities in the area.