Thinking Clairely

Photos by  Rosemary Williams
Photos by Rosemary Williams

So, my friend and occasional provocateur, Claire Burge, has rattled my cage and challenged me to start blogging again. Her tactic was to send me a provocative question to which I would reply. After much delay, here goes dusting off the old WordPress install …


Deconstruction before construction is a core element of design thinking. Why is it important to understand the individual components or challenges before understanding the whole?


One of the most powerful activities within design thinking is framing the problem. Probably more than any other activity, how you characterize the problem you’re solving is going to be the best predictor of whether you’ll come up with anything innovative in the first place. The question is more important than the answer.

Einstein famously said,

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

When I teach problem framing, I often use the example that trying to “build a better diabetes meter” will yield decidedly different solutions from “helping people manage their disease.”

In the typical “go do” cultures we exist and work in, we very quickly identify the “thing” we are going to do without taking a step back to understand the underlying “why(s)” we are doing that “thing” in the first place. Is that “thing” even valuable for the person it was originally intended for?

Whenever I am given a directive, or we are kicking off a project, I spend time with the team and starting with the original problem, we ask a successive series of “Why? Why else? Why else?” You can purposely narrow, or deconstruct the problem by asking “How? How else?” This technique is formally called Abstraction Laddering, but the overall purpose is to consider various re-characterizations of the original problem.

Not only is this a worthwhile activity to stretch your thinking about what you’re solving for, you’ll get the added benefit of gaining alignment on what you’re trying to do as a group.

All problems aren’t created equal either. By deconstructing the individual challenges, you can also begin to evaluate which challenges have a higher relative impact to solve for in the first place. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything, so placing a bet on a high value problem will always get my vote.

I like to use the Alternative Limb Project as a great case story in problem framing. What if an artificial limb were an enhancement vs. a replacement?

“Far Out on a Limb” – New York Times
The Alternative Limb Project

Even the structure of the questions you ask, particularly when leading into ideation, can have a massive effective on outcomes.

Harvard Business Review

When something goes wrong …

… the ultimate moment of truth in customer experience.

This past week, someone suggested on that might be worth a look in a thread about finding the best pint of Guinness being served in Limerick City. The reaction was anything but perfect …

Time to take my own medicine.

Continue reading When something goes wrong …

24-Hour Universal Design Challenge

Update: Sign-up for this year’s challenge by November 1st. Application Form (Word, 48k). Team Member Pack (Word, 64k).

This past November, Dublin hosted its first 24-Hour Universal Design Challenge. It would be impossible to capture the experience without taking part yourself, though Fiona Ashe just posted a video documenting the event.

Five teams were tasked with creating a new product or service along with a design partner who had a specific disability. Our team had the pleasure of working with Genny, a self-described “venetian blind”. Working through the night and collaborating on a superbly-talented team, MY WAY was created. MY WAY is a portable device and service designed to help anyone with a specific need find the path best traveled through the city. Our team garnered the People’s Choice Award.

Continue reading 24-Hour Universal Design Challenge

Happy Halloween


We LOVE carving pumpkins at Halloween. Working left to right is mine, Gabe’s and Lisa’s.

Time to roast the seeds for tomorrow night’s “horror” triple feature. Mothman Prophecies (which none of us have seen), Alien and Nightmare on Elm Street.

The Necessity To Be Positive

Last evening, Sean Gallagher spoke in the IT Sligo Innovation Centre to a packed room. He had many wise things to say, but the biggest impression was the positivity that exuded from the man, and his belief in the “resilience of the Irish entrepreneurial spirit.” That was infectious. My summarised notes, his quotes:

  • Success leaves clues.
  • You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with
  • You are not your business
  • A customer acknowledge is a customer half served. Service is about feeling valued.
  • In year one you CAN’T control your revenues, but you CAN control your costs
  • Action. You can’t plow a field by turning it in your mind.
  • The only thing you have is your effective energy. (Sean only concentrates on five things in relation to his business and ignores all other activity.)
  • Be brave if you don’t know know the answer
  • I’m not a fan of advertising but I love PR.

One nice aside from the Q&A session was the advice to always say your name and your company when asking a question in an audience. Take advantage of every opportunity.

Notes and Quotes from Bizcamp Dublin

A great event in Dublin on Saturday. Certainly the most robust communities anywhere in the world are supported by the community itself. It’s even more heartening that the North West is starting to rally around similar events (Open Coffee Sligo & Mayo, Leitrim Business Network, North West Connects, among others) so it is no longer imperative to travel two hours to network with like-minded business people.

Quote of the day goes to Jerry Kennelly.

Sack the gobshites.

You only need to look to the public sector to see what a demotivated and unincentivised workforce can “accomplish.” I can also draw on my own work experience in the private sector. The worst mistake I made was not getting rid of a highly-productive, but toxic employee in my own group. Now, even in the private sector, the law seems to be on the employee side with enforced multiple stays of execution and fear of lawsuits tying your hands while your team looks on and begins to question your ability to lead. It wasn’t entirely my decision. But if you’re running the show, you must make the call.

Continue reading Notes and Quotes from Bizcamp Dublin

Product is service is product

It’s a known fact that more people talk about a bad service experience than a good one, so it makes even more sense to give a shout out to a great example of stellar service. I had come across moo cards, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally made an order. This post will be long enough without walking through all the service design steps (Entice, Decide, Use, Support, Extend), so lets just stick with the moment the new cards arrived.

Yay! That’s right. This is an exciting moment. Just a sticker, but it sure beats a box with your first card taped to the top.

Continue reading Product is service is product

Music in the genes

Last night Gabriel and I DJ’d a set for the Native Speaker Summer Junior Camp at The Crib in Sligo. Gabe won a free spot at the camp for two weeks through an essay writing contest. When he heard they had a weekly disco on Friday nights, he volunteered to do it. Needless to say, it looks like we have a gig for the rest of the summer.

I used to DJ throughout high school and into college. I couldn’t imagine life without music, and would likely sacrifice my eyes before my ears, which is bizarre since I make most of my living through sight. Gabe has been developing his skills on the decks and today we officially launched GNET!C.

I’m digging the brand I whipped up this morning. What do you think? The last thing I need right now is another web project, but I made up little tent business cards; registered a domain at and got us up on Twitter.

Most importantly, we dropped a hot set last night for a mainly Spanish and Italian crowd. At one point they were actually dancing on the tables. No joke. Can’t wait until next Friday …

Authenticity never goes out of style …

… but a forgotten blog loses its relevance quickly. I could easily blame Twitter, or my lack of broadband (no more) for a lapse in posts. Blogging takes time and thought, and I had a chance to do some thinking today in Dublin with Reza Abedini and Paul Hughes during their Design for Cultural Diversity workshop at NCAD today.

Paul began by giving an overview of some research that was done in the Netherlands on how cultural diversity was represented in Dutch design. I’m sure similar hackneyed patterns exist throughout the world. Rainbow children holding hands in a circle anyone? The challenge is to move from the straightforward to a more refined, well-considered, researched and executed vision of diversity.

What is a common denominator beyond our nationality that connects us?

Reza followed Paul with an exploration of Persian culture and how that has influenced his work. I was initially struck that his schooling included Persian painting, calligraphy and even archaeology. How enlightened is that? His cultural explorations fell into several themes like Magic & Mysticism. Persian calligraphy, like zen calligraphy, is performed in a meditative state, where largely process is more important than outcome. War cloaks, covered in written prayers and magic, were believed to protect warriors in battle. While exploring Framing, Composition and Distance, Abedini remarked that “composition” is a modern term. Works from 500 years ago were done by artists “thinking about meaning before composition.”

I was left (again) with the sense that Irish graphic design has not fully explored or leveraged the visual history and cues of Ireland. I’m not suggesting one must reference the rich, cultural heritage of Ireland in all their work. To be sure, Abedini’s work is universal because it simply is great design in any culture. I didn’t need to read farsi to appreciate it. However, the layers of authentic reference add a complexity and depth beyond good composition, typography and colour. The local becomes universal simultaneously.