A Process for Creating a Work Product
Bryan S. Coffman
November 24, 1996
See additional material here:
Creating Work Products
Creating Work Products While Maintaining
Post DesignShop KreW Integrity
Start Without an End in Mind
Start instead with something you love and something intriguing.
My best work products began by using new ideas I had recently read about
as kernels of information around which I built syntheses.
Work Products, particularly evolutionary ones, spring from
exploration. If you have a clear picture of where you're going, why bother
with the journey? Go somewhere you've never been before. Take the DesignShop
participants (your readers) along with you on an exploration: don't try
to preach solutions to them instead.
We often use a scene from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
to emphasize the importance of vision in the creative and planning process.
Alice has just encountered the Cheshire Cat:
"The Cat only grinned when it saw
Alice. It looked goodnatured, she thought: still it had very
long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt it ought to be treated
"'Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather
timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name:
however, it only grinned a little wider. 'Come, it's pleased so far,'
thought Alice, and she went on, 'Would you tell me, please, which way
I ought to walk from here?'
"'That depends a good deal on where
you want to get to,' said the Cat.
"'I don't much care where--' said
"'Then it doesn't matter which way
you walk,' said the Cat.
"'--so long as I get somewhere,'
Alice added as an explanation.
"'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said
the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough."
It's very enlightening to read further and discover how
Alice resolves the dilemma. She does not engage the Cat in determining
what her long range goal should be. She does not build a comprehensive
vision and then set about to achieve it. Instead she asks, "What
sort of people live about here?" The Cat answers her and then she
chooses her course based upon which of the two responses sounds the most
interesting. The whole of the wonderful book grows by following whatever
seems most interesting at that moment. In the course of this marvelous
sequence of events, an entire fantasy world is invoked--only as it is
discovered, not based upon any pre-ordered plan. This does not mean, however,
that the book is constructed without craft; the opposite is true. And
the events and characters become interrelated across many levels of meaning.
A masterful Work Product.
What sort of people live about here? On my way to any DesignShop®
event I always read something, usually on the plane or in my room the
night before the walk thru. Occasionally it is literature, more often
it is science or engineering or philosophy. Always it is difficult and
presents an intellectual, philosophical or emotional challenge. Always
it is something that intrigues me. Always it is something new, although
it may be related to a field in which I know a great deal. It's never
directly related to the problem the client is trying to create and then
solve. I very rarely understand much of it after I've read it. Instead
I've chosen a few concepts that have meaning to me, and often even this
tentative understanding proves incorrect later on. These concepts, however,
form the nucleus of the Work Product--particularly the evolutionary
sort. They are the first interesting things I've encountered along my
If you must have an end in mind, be ready to easily relinquish
it during your journey in exchange for something locally interesting instead.
Make Maps to Hunt for Patterns and Themes
Remember books like Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island?
The main character finds a map showing where treasure is hidden and goes
off on a hunt to find it.
Sorry, but DesignShop processes aren't like that. Instead, you get to
make the maps as you go along. And the landscape is so complex that you
must constantly choose what to include, what to leave out, and how to
express things so that nothing critical is left out. You must also choose
how things are related to one another.
Either during the DesignShop event, or with the aid of a Journal afterwards,
I begin to draw maps and diagrams. It's easiest to use Mind Maps as a
tool for this, but more fun to do diagrams. Most Mind Maps are hierarchical
arrangements of information. This is not bad, but don't let the branching
appearance fool you: most of them could be redrawn into the traditional
org chart structure. This implies that whatever is at the center or top
is most important, whereas the real patterns usually emerge buried deeply
within the lower layers of the map. Some cross-connecting of ideas can
make the map look a little less hierarchical, but that's not the point.
Just draw the map but look for emergent nodes out on the fringes first.
That's where they usually hang out. You can spot them because they look--well,
they look interesting to you. Hey, you're the artist and you can't paint
stuff you don't like, so paint stuff you do like. Remember to follow what's
interesting. Don't ask the Cat what to do, ask it about what's neat to
see in the neighborhood.
The purpose of drawing the maps is not to produce maps. Nor is it to
"get somewhere." I don't think a Mind Map has ever been included
in one of my work products. The purpose instead is to hunt for patterns
and themes. Just like in music. Pick out the verses, the chorus, the bridge,
the lead break, the 4-bar melodies, the chord progressions. If they're
playing jazz, it may be harder to sort out than if it's just rock 'n roll.
In a well-designed DesignShop process, the creation of the problem and
its solution may all be found in the work from day one. Chances are the
participants don't see it yet, and it's not in a form ready for action.
But this phenomenon gives the synthesist a head start. Focus on day one
information and grok the patterns. Day one is a sketch. The other two
days fill in the rest of the painting, but it's all based on the underlying
sketch. Make sure you get the sketch or you'll be way behind.
At one point I did this by creating full color 11x17 plates using marker
and colored pencil for each report out during the day, often staying up
until 3AM to finish the work so it could be posted the next morning. If
you have the stamina for this, I recommend that you try it in whatever
media you like. Each plate captures in diagram form the key patterns and
themes of the report in much the same way that pages in personal journals are kept. By the way, I learned
marker and colored pencil technique by way of doing these plates--I didn't
learn the technique first and then apply it to the DesignShop. It's best
to operate out on the edge of your experience--that way you're too ignorant
about the whole thing to know any better.
Connect New Stuff with Old Stuff and Get Lost
So now you're about halfway through the process timewise and you're surrounded
by pages and pages of sketches, maps, notes, scribblings, database sorts,
and so on. You think you've got some ideas of where to go--too many ideas,
perhaps. The whole thing seems bewildering. It's time for your intent
to be tested. Can you push through?
It's important to get good and lost in the process of making a Work Product.
It doesn't happen all the time but the best results come only after your
whole thesis has crashed once or twice under your careful scrutiny.
There are lots of ways to work at getting lost and unlost. All of the
themes and musical passages have to be tied together into a composition.
Remember the kernels of new information described at the beginning of
this article? Force fit them into the client's information by playing
a rigorous game of "what if." What if chaos theory were applied
to the results of this event? What if Victor Hugo were to write about
this process? How did the Mayans solve similar problems? What are the
comparisons between the DesignShop information and quantum physics, or
DNA? Hey! This is not a drill! Do it for real. The results may be
your Work Product! Many dazzlingly successful Work Products have been
built directly upon metaphors.
Force fit connections between everything from the obvious fit to the
ridiculous. Observe apparent paradoxes in the information with suspicion.
Paradoxes are invitations to uncover hidden syntheses, or hidden fatal
errors--either one is worth discovering. Delight in finding intriguing
relationships between seemingly divergent concepts. Work feverishly and
passionately. Ignore logic and face down the fear of deadlines. Make the
product something worth having expended a portion of your life on. Stay
up way too late for your own good. When you hit the wall, push through
it--not as a reality, but as the illusory barrier to creativity and stamina
that it truly is.
It's important to push the mind to see the information from multiple
vantage points. Not just one or two, but many. It may not take long or
it may be extremely tedious and take days. And there's no rote list of
questions to work from. You must work from your own kernels--the ones
you brought with you to the DesignShop; the ones that are foremost in
your thinking; the ones that intrigue you. Not someone else's kernels
(unless you're working in a team and you take the time to share and explain
them to each other.)
At some point, you'll be ready to come out of the woods. That's usually
when you have an appreciation for the whole forest, as well as many of
its trees. At that point, you're ready to select a path based on a complete
vision. You've passed the point of insight and you're moving into the
second half of the creative process. The strategy of looking for interesting
things in the neighborhood won't work from here on out. It's time to paint
in whole pictures.
Create Pictures Whole, and in Layers
I recently finished a watercolor painting class. One of the techniques
I learned there brought home an approach I've used on a number of work
products. In the art class we were painting landscapes. The first thing
we had to do was find a subject that we were interested in and make up
a little story about it that described how we felt and what it was about
the subject that appealed to us. We were falling into the subject, so
to speak, and if we fell far enough, we would fall in love with the subject.
From that vantage point, we could paint what we needed to. Without that
love, the best we could do was execute with technical proficiency. Who
cares about doing that? Not an artist. Not you. Or me.
Next came a number of small sketches to test different compositions for
the painting and also to look for values (the balance of light and dark
in the composition). These sketches were whole and not fragmentary. Although
they were rough and smaller than the final work, they were done with discipline
and attention. We chose one of these thumbnail sketches or elements from
several as the basis for the final work.
As an aside, I had never known that painters frequently change things
in their painting from how they looked in the actual scene. A plant may
disappear, a boat may be rotated slightly to be seen from a different
angle. The painting is telling a story, and since the viewer will not
be able to walk about the real scene like the artist did, the artist is
responsible for assembling the key components of the scene in a way that
will satisfy and engage the viewer. The same is true for Work Products.
As the artist, you must rearrange items to suit the composition--to make
the complicated merely complex, and therefore understandable.
The chosen thumbnail sketch was then transferred to the paper on which
the final painting would be composed. The major areas are all lightly
sketched in. Next come the washes of thin transparent color. On top of
those are more washes, or darker sections of detail. At each stage, the
whole picture is examined before taking the next step. Of course, there's
no clear definition of a stage--you just feel it's time to step back and
look at what you've done from a different vantage point. Sometimes you
put it away for a day; sometimes you step right back in and work. A painting
is not completed by starting in one corner, bringing it to completion
and then moving on to an adjacent section. The painting takes shape as
a whole and gradually attains more contrast, more definition with each
layer of work
The same goes for the Work Product. Once you have all of the patterns
identified and the composition built, work in wholes. You may find yourself
skipping about in the unfolding product, or you may work from front to
back, telling a story as you go. Now it's time to keep not the end in
mind, but the whole. The end is still a mystery, but it will be framed
within the whole.
Use layout, design, metaphor and emergent patterns of information as
unifying themes to the composition. Fill in the layers of detail with
all the annotations necessary to bring the themes to life for the viewer.
Don't Think Too Much about the Process While You're Knee Deep in Content
This is the advice we give to DesignShop participants. Don't worry about
whether the process is working or not. Just go from assignment to assignment
and do the work. As a Work Product artist, you're your own facilitator.
Use transitions between assignments to come up for air and look at the
process you're using and make adjustments. Even if the assignment seems
all wrong, nine times out of ten you'll gain more by finishing it and
following through than you will be backing out and treading water while
you analyze why it isn't working. The creative process is propelled by
doing the work--that's where it gets its energy. Designing processes aims
the whole thing, but it's useless to provide aim to something if you've
let it drift until it's dead in the water. Make sure that you apply principles
of cybernetics to your process design so that there are feedback loops
and so steering can take place in real time.
It sounds trite, but you must finish the product and ship it. It must
be delivered to someone, and hopefully you'll get direct messages concerning
its worth from your audience. There are occasions when finishing is not
warranted, but these are rare. There are other times when there may be
a long stretch of time between a DesignShop event and the delivery of
a Work Product, but these are also infrequent. Leaving work undone is
debilitating, undermining self- and collective confidence.
Creating Work Products as a Part of a Group
Start without an end in mind. Groups are often impatient to
get on with the work. But creating and defining the work is a part of
the work. You should not be complacent with progress or lose discipline,
but wrestling with the scope of the mission is vital and sometimes time
consuming. Occasionally the vision of the whole will emerge very rapidly.
If it does not, remember to work in explore mode for awhile and take a
look around the neighborhood.
Make maps to hunt for patterns and themes. Get a scribe on the
wall, or do a take-a-panel. Make matrices, do Mind Maps or mandalas. Whatever
you do, don't rely on making lists alone. Lists are one step on the road
to something that's more dimensional. Show connections and relationships
instead. Try to draw or construct 3D models of different components or
slices of the information. Add another dimension and show how these 3D
models behave over time. To get real world about it, show how multiple
incarnations of the 3D models might behave over time.
Connect new stuff with old stuff and get lost. You're dealing
with highly complex information that is organized so poorly that it appears
to be complicated for the time being. Your mission is not to simplify
complication but to complexify complication. [Think about it... no really,
do.] Resist the urge to make simplifying diagrams, statements and lists.
Work together to raise the bar on how much of the problem and the solution
you can show on one or two diagrams in a clear, compelling fashion. Do
this until the composition of the work product snaps into focus and place.
There is no substitute for the "snap." If it doesn't come, completing
the project will be a waste of time. Persevere and demand the revelation
of the intuitive stroke. Not everyone in the group will have great kernels
to use to shift vantage points. That's OK. Work with what you have.
Create pictures whole and in layers. When it's time to compose
the final product electronically or on paper, work on it with the whole
in mind. However the work is divided among the team members, install a
process that allows the components of the product to emerge together in
whole stages of increasing relief and texture. There must be a unity in
the composition--its look, feel, sound. Within this unity there can be
as much diversity as is necessary, only avoid fragmentation.
Don't think too much about the process when you're knee deep in content.
Come up for air, and a broader perspective every so often. Use fair witnesses
to test your product at various stages. Don't get bogged down in time
tables; they're a recipe for fear. You want to be driven by the need to
create and express, not by thoughts of missing the deadline. The deadline
will take care of itself.
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