A Process for Creating a Work Product

Bryan S. Coffman

November 24, 1996
(updated 02/20/1997)

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 with respect.

"'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 Alice.

"'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 journey.

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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