Impressions

by Cochran

Bach and The Art of Design Thinking

Bach.TheArtofDesignThinking

As a musician, I get this question often: “Who is your favorite composer?”

Without hesitation, my answer, for as long as I can remember, has been and forever will be, the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For me, there are many reasons why.

Bach’s music moves me like no other. Though challenging to play, his music is filled with pure joy. Understanding the music of Bach is a lifelong pursuit. Never static, each time I hear or play a work by Bach, I hear something new. Bach’s complex layers are constantly revealing themselves to the focused listener or student. My list could go on and on.

In addition to all of these attributes that I attach to Bach, I am convinced that Bach embraced principles of design thinking throughout his musical career. For instance:

Bach combined the analytical with the intuitive. He coupled research (listening and learning from others) with his amazing intuition, moving things forward by imagining new possibilities. Bach was a master at synthesizing past, present and future into nearly everything he wrote. Even his staunchly well-loved B Minor Mass is now believed by many to have been somewhat of an exercise that Bach used to convey his latest musical discoveries.

Bach employed iterative prototyping. Bach would often reuse his own earlier compositions, revising and improving them. He regularly created three or four versions of a single cantata movement. Referred to as parody in the classical music realm, Bach would re-work a movement from a harpsichord concerto into a cantata movement or parody a minuet from a Brandenburg Concerto in a chorale.

Bach took inspiration from a broad range of experiences and cultures. As a young man of only 20, Bach supposedly walked more than 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the older, well-established organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, play. Surely, ideas generated by this experience worked themselves into his music. Bach incorporated a variety of music styles from throughout Europe into his works. For example, Bach composed each of the four movements in his Partita for Unaccompanied Flute in a popular dance style of the day with German, Italian, French and English styles all represented.

Bach co-created with others. Bach knew he couldn’t go it alone. He regularly looked to others for inspiration and new ideas. One of his most frequent collaborators was the librettist, Picander. Together, they created a large volume of cantatas and other works including, most notably, the St. Matthew Passion.

Bach regularly embraced constraint as a source of creativity. Probably the most famous example of this is The Musical Offering, inarguably one of Bach’s most striking works. In 1747, upon a visit to the palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the aging Bach was challenged to improvise on a difficult theme given to him by the king, himself a formidable composer. On the spot, Bach improvised a complex fugue at the keyboard. Within two months following his visit, Bach completed The Musical Offering, based entirely on Frederick’s theme. The piece was immediately printed and presented with a dedication to the king.

Bach wrote music for the people. He composed music for the enjoyment of the listener. In Bach’s words, music was “for the recreation of the mind…” Bach’s music can sound simple and elegant, yet beneath the surface exists a highly detailed system of counterpoint and fugue. In addition to his responsibilities as church organist and Kapellmeister (chapel master), Bach directed a Collegium Musicum off and on during his tenure in Leipzig. Actually founded by Telemann, this group of amateur and semi-professional musicians met for informal music making at the coffee-house of Gottfried Zimmermann. Through these performances, Bach was able to hone his skills in writing for a secular audience while giving the people of Leipzig exposure to music outside of the typical church setting. Read A Rollicking Bach Time Is Had By All in today’s New York Times for a modern-day reference to these coffee-house performances.

When we think of early examples of design thinkers, the first person often cited is inventor, Thomas Edison. Yet more than a century before Edison was born, Bach composed a set of 15 keyboard pieces in two contrapuntal parts and termed them inventions. I’m convinced that we can all learn more about design thinking by studying Bach and  listening to anything from his large output of work, be it his cantatas, oratorios, solo partitas, concertos and yes, his inventions.

Let me know what names you’d add to a list of early design thinkers.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | Bach, creativity, design, design thinking, empathy, Innovation, music, prototyping | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Saturday Branding Lesson

A parking lot with landscaping and a diagonal ...

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So, I was exiting one of my favorite coffee shops after enjoying my Saturday morning cup. I tend to linger longer on Saturdays.

Just for the record, I drive a metallic blue Honda Accord.

As I was leaving the shop, I was reading an incoming text message on my smart phone. Since I was focused on my phone display, I wasn’t looking at my car. But, I knew the general direction in which I had parked.

As I approached my car and pressed the “unlock” button on my remote, I noticed that there was a half-used legal pad sitting on the back seat. My first thought was, “How did that get back there? I never use the back seat and, by the way, I don’t use legal pads (well, not in public, anyway).

Then came the a ha. This wasn’t my car. Mine was parked in the same overall position, just one row over.

My first instinct was to feel embarrassed. Who saw me? Did the owner of the “other” car think I was trying to steal something? Who was having a good laugh at my expense?

As I unlocked my car door, hopped in and sped away, I had a good laugh at my mistake.

Then, another a ha. This was my Saturday branding lesson. Thank you, Honda.

The “other” car I tried to enter was also a Honda. Not an Accord, but a Civic. Not metallic blue, but metallic gray, and probably the same model year as mine.

It dawned on me that this was branding at its best. Even though I wasn’t focused on the cars in the lot, out of a tiny little corner of my eye, subliminally even, I had shown my brand loyalty to Honda. I didn’t walk up to a Toyota or a Mazda or a Nissan and make this mistake. My eyes took me to a Honda, albeit not my Honda.

Was it the color similarity that fooled me? Was it that I sometimes park in that exact parking space (the one where the Civic was) many a Saturday morning? Was it the overall design of the car that I recognized? Did I unknowingly glance at the Honda logo and gravitate towards it?

It was probably a combination of all of these factors (and probably some I haven’t even thought of yet) that attracted me to the Civic. All in all, it was an interesting branding case study. This Accord is only the second Honda I’ve owned in my lifetime. Oh, but I did receive a telemarketing call from Honda this week. Scary, huh?

Pity I can’t time travel back to notice whether there were other Honda models in the same general area of the parking lot. Or notice if there were other cars the same color as mine. Or any of a myriad other factors which may have affected my choice of the gray metallic Civic.

I’d love to know what you make of my branding experience. Please comment and let me know what factors I’ve overlooked in my analysis.

P.S. Thank you, Honda, for the interesting study in branding and brand loyalty. And, by the way, I love my Accord. Keep up the good work.

February 11, 2012 Posted by | brand loyalty, design, design thinking, Marketing | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Design Thinking: Methodology, Mindset or What?

Chamber musicians perform trio sonata

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During the past several years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring design thinking. I’ve read inspiring and insightful books and blogs on the subject, heard in-person keynotes by design thinking experts including Claudia Kotchka and Roger Martin, attended a design thinking conference, engaged in numerous online discussions around the topic and have had many face-to-face conversations with others on this often elusive topic.

My still looming question: Is design thinking a methodology, a mindset or something else?

David Kelley, a founder of IDEO and co-founder of the d.school program at Stanford, in a video interview with Reena Jana of Business Week, stated that design thinking can be learned. Design thinking is not a new methodology, according to Kelley, “it used be to be called design.” Companies are finally recognizing the value of design and many are working to make design thinking part of their corporate DNA.

I tend to agree with Kelley in that design thinking can be learned. But, at the same time, I feel that design thinking is a mindset. According to the World English Dictionary, mindset is defined as “the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.” If this is an accurate definition, then I’m convinced that design thinking also falls into mindset mode.

OK, so design thinking is both methodology and mindset. But, which comes first? How does one acquire the design thinking mindset?

In my case, design thinking has been a way of life for as long as I can remember. At the age of 10, I (luckily) embarked on a path towards becoming a serious classical musician. That meant years and years of developing both sides of my brain and, just naturally, blending analytical thinking with intuitive thinking.

Of all the arts, music is the one which best grooms the mind in that hybrid way. During tens of thousands of hours in the practice room, a musician taps into a blended skill set of analysis and intuition. In learning a new piece or re-learning a piece from our past repertoire, we prototype hundreds of times. That prototyping is done alone, with a teacher, in rehearsal and then again during each actual performance of the work. Whether in a chamber music ensemble or in an orchestra, the nimble musician combines what he has analyzed with what he has prototyped and then adds the layer of intuitive thinking so necessary when interacting with other musicians onstage.

So, for some, design thinking seems to come naturally. Design thinking is a blend of years of learning, prototyping and doing.

What are your thoughts? Are there other fields of study that naturally train us in design thinking? I’d like to hear from you.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | business, creativity, design, design thinking, Innovation, music, prototyping | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Coco and Igor as Innovators

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

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I just returned from a private* screening of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” the Jan Kounen film which closed the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is now showing in U.S. theaters. Beautifully filmed and acted, the film spoke to me on multiple levels. As a serious classical musician, lover of Stravinsky’s music and passionate devotee of French culture, Kounen had me from the downbeat.

And, what a downbeat it was! The opening scene depicts the tension leading up to the 1913 world premiere of Diaghilev’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, set to music by Stravinsky, at Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The unsuspecting audience, so accustomed to ballets like Swan Lake and others from the late-Romantic Russian repertoire, riots. The dancers and orchestra musicians are barely able to continue performing. The entire scene is wildly disruptive.

Interestingly, Coco Chanel is in the audience and she seems to be one of the few listeners who understands Stravinsky’s music. The complicated love story (and aren’t all French love stories complicated?) picks up again in 1920, once she and Stravinsky have each made names for themselves in Paris.

I was struck by the fact that Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky were immediately simpatico, perhaps because they were both innovators. He, a Russian composer then living in Paris, was writing music with uneasy, syncopated rhythms and disruptive harmonies new to the world’s ears. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel turned the women’s fashion world upside down, designing clothing that was not only chic, but thankfully, comfortably corset-less.

Mark Bernstein, CEO of the Palo Alto Research Center, defines innovation as “a valuable change, unconstrained by the way things are.” If his definition is accurate, then Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel should take their places at the top of a list of early 20th century innovators. Although we usually see the term “innovation” attributed to late 20th century corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Apple, let’s not forget some of the world’s earlier innovators who helped to change the way we think.

Which other early 20th century innovators would you add to this list?

* My screening was private only by accident. Pity no one else showed up to enjoy this incredibly insightful film with me.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | creativity, design thinking, Innovation, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dog Days Are For Reading

What 'cha reading?

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading this summer (so far). I encourage you to comment and share your summer reading recommendations.

  • Change By Design by Tim Brown
  • The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger Martin
  • In Pursuit of Elegance: Why The Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew E. May
  • ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • Wired To Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy by Dev Patnaik
  • How To Be A Brilliant Thinker by Paul Sloane
  • Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler
  • The Connectors by Maribeth Kuzmeski
  • The Silver Lining by Scott Anthony
  • Innovation X: Why a Company’s Toughest Problems Are Its Greatest Advantage by Adam Richardson
  • Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity by Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian C. MacMillan
  • Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal by Mark W. Johnson
  • The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwartz

July 19, 2010 Posted by | business, design thinking | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What To Look For In Hiring A Web Design Firm

This is a condensed version of a recent talk I gave to a group of sales professionals within a large website design firm. They wanted an agency perspective, so I didn’t mince words.

Here are Cochran Creative Group’s top ten prerequisites in choosing a web design partner.

1. Easy to work with. We look for a firm that’s well organized. Namely, we need to know from the ‘get-go’ who our lead contact person is. We don’t want to talk with a different customer service person each time we call.

2. Speaks in a language we (and our customers) can understand. This harks back to Sales 101: Learn to talk the customer’s language.

3. Is customer-focused. Not only are they interested in our business; they’re also interested in our customers’ business. They’re here to help solve our problems and make our lives easier.

4. Wants to form a real partnership with us. For instance, we’d like help preparing proposals and pitching clients. We’d like to include our web partner on conference calls with customers. We’d like our web partner to take as much ownership over the project as we do. We don’t need you to be anonymous.

5. Takes part in the website planning process. Offers up ideas. Discourages us from going in a wrong direction. Basically, we need your help. We’re not web designers. Please guide us.

6. Offers us content management sites that are design-independent. We spend our days creating custom logos, custom marketing plans and custom advertising campaigns. We want to create unique sites. We don’t want to be boxed in by column widths or drop down styles. We hate the “T” word, i.e., templates.

7. Cares about site aesthetics. We and our customers care about things like centering, consistent use of font styles, font sizes and colors. Aesthetics help maintain a consistent brand message. They may do little for SEO, but they do subliminally attract and keep customers.

8. Is attentive to detail. Looks into even small errors. When we see “done with errors” on the bottom of a page, it doesn’t inspire confidence. If we notice errors, there’s certainly a chance that other visitors to the site will notice them too.

9. Adheres to web standards and provides a high level of quality assurance. Tests each site on multiple browsers for consistency in rendering. We don’t want to hear that a site “might not look right in Safari or IE6.” Unfortunately, our customers could be using less-popular or older browser versions.

10. Delivers on time and is readily available for troubleshooting. We prefer to work with a website firm that provides ongoing support in a proactive way – a group that checks in on a regular basis, just to “see how things are going.”

All in all, we’re looking for a long-term relationship – the launch of a new website is only the beginning.

May 16, 2010 Posted by | website design | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2009: Journey Into the Marketing Unknown

A close friend recently sized me up this way: “You’re most comfortable residing in the ‘unknown’ because that’s where the most learning takes place.”

If that was an accurate assessment, then 2009 was definitely my best year ever. It was chock full of unknowns.

After 10 years as the owner of a marketing and creative design group, all of a sudden, new customers were not beating a path to my door as readily as before. Even long-time customers were scaling back on their marketing initiatives. I took a deep breath and began brushing up on my sales skills, reacquainting myself with some tried and true methods and attending a seminar or two to learn some specific tactics for selling in a down economy.

The marketing and advertising industry was in serious change mode well before the economy took its nosedive. The Internet had already changed everything. No longer were companies relying solely on traditional print and broadcast media to market their products and services. There was and continues to be a whole new set of skills necessary to compete as a marketing professional.

Several years ago, the unknowns of the online world began presenting themselves to me. Website design and email marketing were quickly becoming prerequisites for maintaining a viable business model. In true form, I jumped into those unknowns with both feet, learning as I went and happy to be doing so.

Much to my delight, even more unknowns showed up in 2009. The year has found me gaining fluency in search engine optimization, blogging and social media, especially Twitter. And, I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about design thinking to learn how better to help my business and my customers’ businesses grow in more innovative and human-centered ways. Books of particular note include Ideo’s Tim Brown’s “Change By Design” and “The Design of Business” by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management.

Despite the unruly and disruptive nature of 2009, I was a bit sorry to see the year come to a close. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that 2010 will present even more unknowns to us all. The pace will quicken too.

Let the learning never end.

January 2, 2010 Posted by | creativity, design thinking, Marketing, Online Marketing, social media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment