Meaning is What Matters

November 29th, 2014


I challenge people for a living. I find ways to ask questions that actually matter and pursue them until I have exhausted the possibilities. Because unless I’ve pushed my clients way outside where they imagine themselves, they won’t actually be able to see their organizations in a way that is meaningful to the human beings that matter to them. And meaning is what matters in business today.

Meaning is the secret sauce that businesses need to thrive. It is the key differentiator. It’s not fluff, it is the core value. If you don’t get it right, it’s only window dressing. It’s not just for outside your company. Meaning is for every single person your company touches, employees, suppliers, competitors, government, partners….People, in general, are becoming much, much more discerning and they’re looking for authenticity in everything. Nathan Shedroff, Chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts in San Francisco taught me that “Design is the process of evoking experiences. Meaning is strategic.” Every aspect of design today focussed on looking for and finding meaning. Meaning creates value. Meaning creates loyalty. Meaning is enduring.

You can’t make meaning up. It “is”, whether you have a handle on it or not. Anyone who knows about your organization, in any way, is out there making meaning about you right now. The most successful companies know what they mean to people and they live it — authentically.

When I recently helped a medical research organization create their brand, we started with science. That’s where they were coming from. It was about beating disease through cutting edge therapies and new methods of detection. Their function was to do three things: raise, and continue to raise funding; attract the brightest minds in their field to help them; and find the most innovative ways to outsmart the disease. The surgeons, clinicians and oncologists I met with needed to step back from science and revisit what the disease meant to the patients and their families. They needed to see what meaning their organization created for potential employees, experts, partners and funders. At a human level, what did the fight with this disease mean to these people? The process was pragmatic and thorough, but it produced a brand that was steeped in meaning that they had found. I simply helped them to do that.

Your organization could be doing, making, selling the next best thing ever, but without understanding its meaning, you’re missing your upside. Because meaning is what matters.

* Also posted in Dangling the Local Carrot
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Is what you don’t know about your customers driving your decisions?

April 1st, 2014

There is a big difference between branding and strategic branding. That’s why you can buy a logo for $99 on line. It’s a logo, not a strategic brand identity. A brand is not a logo. It’s everything that represents your organization, whether you control it or not. The objective is to control as much of it as you can, know exactly what it is, and live it every day like it’s what keeps you alive. Because it does.


A serious business will always treat their branding seriously. It costs more, but it’s worth vastly more. You need to know what will resonate with your customers and potential customers and that can’t be left up to an educated guess. You need get to know your customers on a personal level — to get out of your own (and your company’s) head and get into your customers’. You need to go where they use your product or service and see what they do. 
Ethnography, used in design research, allows researchers to test theories about how brands — and in fact, whole product or service segments — are perceived. In traditional qualitative research, questions are often asked so directly that the answers aren’t what you need to hear, they’re what you want to hear.


Field research techniques used by design teams like Herrainco can uncover not only brand weaknesses, but most importantly, brand opportunities. What starts out as a “branding” exercise can become a discovery of ways that your company innovate to serve customers better or speak to them in ways that they find compelling — and more worthy of a purchase. It may be as little as a change in “voice” to as much as a change in systems, or adding products or services. The more open the research is left, the greater the value and opportunity for you and your company.

Think of a strategic branding consultancy as a resource for seeing a bigger picture, then shaping that picture into a story people understand, love and will follow.

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Cusp 2013 and the Design of Everything

September 27th, 2013


Patrick Lynch, City of Chicago Pipe Band and 2013 U.S. National Champion

Chicago is a design city. It is the cradle of mid-century modern architecture. It buzzes — constantly.

I attended the Cusp Conference there a week ago. It had everything from Constance Adams, NASA space architect; to a sword swallower; a Canadian researcher hoping to gaze at the actual edge of the universe from a balloon above the Antarctic this year; to Dave Carroll, the guy who produced the viral video United Breaks Guitars; and — oh, yeah — a bag piper and a teenage rock band. This melange was about the “design of everything”. For the attendees (I would estimate about 90% non-designers) it was an eye-opener to what is going on right now in design. The hackneyed term “Design Thinking” (with apologies to Bruce Nussbaum) has permeated the awareness of the business folks who are shaking things up. What we have called “thinking out of the box” is given a framework and process through design thinking (this time no caps, on purpose).

Maria Giudice of Google

Maria Giudice of Google

There is no magic bullet, no acronym-laced corporate efficiency model here. It’s about thinking outside of comfortable paradigms and just flippin’ doing things differently. And, as Maria Giudice from Google puts it, it’s just plain GSD (Getting Shit Done). Business models are changing. No longer are the good companies looking for cost-efficient ways to do the same thing more cheaply. The good ones are looking for ways to get new things done, to create something that helps their customers, helps the world and is valuable enough that people want to pay for it. It’s about adding real value, not taking away. As Marsha Sinetar says:

Do what you love and the money will follow.

And that doesn’t just apply to individuals. If you put heart into what you manufacture, into the services you provide, people feel it. You have a clear idea of who and what you are as a company. You know your story.

Story telling is what I am most interested in for my work. I love finding the stories that are sometimes buried deep inside companies and bringing them into the light. A good story attracts good employees, good customers, good suppliers — good stuff.  And a good story is the way for people to understand you and become followers, promoters of your company.

I’ll be at Cusp next year, looking into the future of business.

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Design is a conversation about the future*

June 13th, 2013

Someone asked me what this was all about. How is design a conversation about the future?

Well, that depends on your understanding of design and on your understanding of conversation. Design inherently lives in the future. And if it’s not a singular expression of self, it is most certainly a conversation about that future. Let me explain. Design lives in the future because its entire raison d’être is to see the future: opportunities, challenges, possibility. The future as we all know is, by definition, unknown. Design lives here, thinking about what could be —something or some idea which does not currently exist. To the mainstream, that might mean a poster not yet realized, an advertisement which exists only in one person’s mind. To the design leader it might mean an entire business model that will turn every other business model on its head. It might mean a teaching method that reaches that other 80% of students not currently served by the narrow teaching methods of today.

Design is a conversation rather than a singular narrative. It is that because design does not exist without conversation — a hell of a lot of conversation. Real design can’t be realized without the clearest of definition. And clear definition cannot be had without triangulating in dozens of directions with every stakeholder, real or imagined, that the future design will affect. Triangulation is conversation; checking in; listening; hearing the echo.

Design is a conversation.

*cross-pollinated from my personal blog designisthefuture

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Design Thinking Will Be at the Core of Innovation in the Not Too Distant Future

November 11th, 2012

“Designers are the ones best situated to figure out how a kit of parts can become something more — they’re the ones who can figure out the human interface for a vast chain. If they do their job right, the result — a working ecosystem — is a far better platform for innovation than an isolated product.

This article in Fast Company, October 2012, Why Good Design Is Finally A Bottom Line Investment explains, with the broadest brushstrokes, how much Design and Design Thinking have changed in 40 years. When IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. first said  in 1973 that “good design is good business”, he was still talking about skilled craft in aesthetics. He wasn’t wrong, but I think he would be gobsmacked by where design is now headed.

The innate ability that allows designers to “think outside the box” and to blend deductive and inductive reasoning with abductive reasoning (that intuitive leap of faith that designers can take), is the skill that allows design thinkers to help organizations innovate. And when I say innovate, I don’t mean tweaking the sweetener in a soda, I mean creating entirely new ideas; disruptive ideas — ideas that can, potentially, break down the wicked problems we struggle with today.

How can we turn the giant tide of consumerism around before we destroy the planet? How are we going to pay for the health care of an aging boomer bubble with a young workforce far smaller than that aging population? Or, one of my personal missions, how can we convince the BC forest industry that creating and owning businesses that use and refine the resources they harvest could actually give them far greater profit margins, create jobs and improve the lives of everyone in the province.

There will always be design, and my fondest hope is that it will only ever be great design. But I see the mental toolkit available to designers as being much more far-reaching than beautiful posters, logos and chairs. There will be a new subset in the profession that will not simply have access to the C-suite. It will drive the innovation of business. It will be a profession armed with post-graduate degrees in design as well as business administration. It will look beyond the reliable algorithms of business success to new and better ways for us to manage our planet and to live in it more happily. That’s where I want to be.

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How Good is Free?

June 12th, 2012

What is the value of creative work? It’s an interesting point of discussion. Jessica Hische and Jon Tan spoke at Creative Mornings Vancouver last Friday and pondered it out loud. It is a subject Jessica has written about to great renown in her blog post On Getting Paid, The Dark Art of Pricing.

There are so many opportunities to pay little or no money for design on the internet. I would equate it to getting a great deal on a gross of chlorine pucks — but you don’t own a pool. Great deal. Not useful. You can buy a logo for $99. It might make you happy, but it’s not going to help your business that much. But, hey…it was $99! If your business is just like all of your competitors’ businesses, you can just slap up your shingle with your $99 logo and let the chips fall where they may. Doesn’t make much difference. But, if you believe your business is truly unique — that you have some competitive advantage — then your logo should reflect that. It should reflect your pride and it shouldn’t just be a picture of what you do, but a representation of your passion in doing it. When you hire a professional designer to work with, you generally get someone with a whole lot of training who asks a lot of questions rather than doing whatever you ask them to do. That’s because they are good at what they do and they respect that you are good at what you do.

Serious businesses get this. They do pay properly for design because they know how valuable it is in building their brand equity. Not all serious businesses are big businesses either. They’re just businesses in it for the long haul.

Another issue with free stuff is sustainability, and this came up in Jessica and Jon’s talk with respect to buying typefaces — or not buying them, as is often the case. A well-designed typeface takes 12-18 months to be drawn, expanded to different weights and point sizes, etc. And this process is carried out by a designer who has 4-6 years of specialized schooling. The professional type design community is small. There are no faceless multinationals making nauseating piles of money on typefaces. So, if you’re not paying anyone for it, then the designer is working for free.

Now, I didn’t go into design because I was a talent with numbers, but I’m pretty sure you can’t get by very long without an income. So, if you don’t make money at what you’re doing, you won’t be able to continue to do it. So, that means fewer type designers, fewer decent typefaces, etc. For the $25 - $150 the majority of typefaces cost, they’re often a bargain at twice the price. Not quite free, but really, really good. When you pay for typefaces, you’re supporting the ongoing development of type for the future. You’re respecting the person who makes this their life’s work. And you’re respecting your own profession by supporting others within it.

Don’t undercut. Don’t work for free. Remember that what you do has value and respect the same in others.

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Blow, Jeff, blow!

May 24th, 2012



I had coffee with an old friend today. Jeff Burnette is a force. He has been a glass artist for I don’t know how long, but I know it’s a really long time. He has worked in production glass in Mexico and has blown glass here in Vancouver for aeons. He is an “old hand”. Jeff has done it all in the glass business. But I am captivated by his combination of youthful enthusiasm combined with the wisdom one only gains through falling down, picking yourself up and doing it all over again.

When I first met him, he was in a group called V6 near Granville Island. It was a collective of talent that had everyone’s attention, including ours. We were planning a big project for a client and needed international design and art superstars to feature in a series of books and promotions. After an exhaustive search we found them all in Vancouver —  Martha Sturdy, John Fluevog, V6 (I’ll focus on Jeff) and Niels Bendsten. The project involved books, posters, invitations, and two stunning books.


It was a smash success…We toured 14 cities in North America, showing an exquisite film we made about all four artists/designers.

I have always been fascinated by Jeff and his work since then. Jeff’s “personal” work is his ray guns. You can see more of them here. He has had innumerable shows of his work and heaps of recognition.


Jeff continues to reinvent himself with time and the shifts in the world. He is leading a team of production glass artists right now as well as working on his personal projects and commissions. His work is beautiful. He cares about it. I recommend a look!

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Turning things upside down

April 21st, 2012

Photograph by Paul Eekhoff. Design by Herrainco for Methanex Corp.
Photograph by Paul Eekhoff. Design by Herrainco for Methanex Corp.

I’ve had a few paradigm shifts happen of late. Clients have called me, just for my opinion. Not about design. About stuff — their businesses, their thinking, their strategy.

This is what I like about my profession and what I continue to beat the drum about regarding design. It’s a thinking profession, not an art profession. True, designers make beautiful things, but that’s largely the given part of it. Anyone with a lick of talent can make something pretty, but not everyone can make something meaningful. To make something meaningful, you have to know things about the thing you want to make meaningful. But most importantly, you need to know what is meaningful to the people you’re talking to.

That nexus of meaning is where design thinking lives. And again, it’s not about the “design” thinking you think it is. If you are 99% of the world, you think design thinking is about choosing a typeface, images, colour and/or making a sketch of a chair or an aerodynamic bicycle to make a cool looking thing, preferably as “of the moment” as possible. Wrong.

Design thinking is turning problems upside down. It’s about asking why, why and WHY. Design thinking is something anyone who cares to do it can use. Business, students, scientists, doctors, receptionists….You can make any wicked problem (yes, that is a link to the Harvard Business Review, because design thinking is a strategic business tool) more surmountable by challenging assumptions. As human beings, we’re comfortable with assumptions. They’re quick, supported by the vast majority and make us feel secure. But they’re generally a straight path to the banal and predictable, which means status quo. You stay stuck. You don’t grow. You don’t get any better than “okay”.

You don’t need to be a daredevil of a risk taker to do this. Back up, back WAY up. Look at the problem from far away. Take someone with you. What do they see? Take a picture. Make it black and white. Make it colour. Cut it into pieces and put it together another way. This is what I love to do. It’s what makes us a good consultancy. You can do it, too, but you need to start challenging yourself to turn things upside down.

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Andrew Zuckerman’s Thoughts on the Creative Process

April 13th, 2012

Those of you who know me know that I’m fascinated by design process as it pertains to life in general. We all have profound skills to gain by understanding how designers go about their work.

I am a HUGE fan of photographer and film maker Andrew Zuckerman. I love his work. I am also captivated by the restrained design of David Meredith who uses Helvetica the way it was mean to be used. I was flipping around in my RSS feed today and stumbled on this great Zuckerman talk for 99%. Any of my students, clients or friends who want a bit of insight into how “stuff” gets done by designers might learn a lot here. Just like the 99% says, it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Or to quote Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work”. Our work might seem like sleight of hand or magic, but what it really is is blood, sweat and tears, often while others are working exceptionally hard to ruin the outcome.

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Our Celebration of the Life of Ray Hrynkow, Video

April 2nd, 2012

Ray Hrynkow Celebration of Life April 1, 2012

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