Seth Godin has a thoughtful response to the wonderful Fast Company story “The Un-Tipping Point” by Clive Thompson.

Unleashing the Ideavirus didn’t spread because ‘important’ people endorsed and promoted it. It spread because passionate people did.

One more reason not to obsess about the A list in any media category. Worry instead about people with passion and people with lots of friends. You need both for ideas to spread. That was Malcolm’s point all along.

There are many ways to interpret the story, which covers Duncan Watts’s research, which discounts the roles of the super-influentials that many marketers try to reach to make their products tip rapidly. My interpretation is that marketers often over-simplify the definition of an influential, not recognizing that different people will be influential for different types of ideas or products. For example, Slashdot is a hugely influential audience for open-source software. It’s almost irrelevant when you have a new digital audio player to sell. This level of nuance has been left out in most efforts to create an influentials strategy, and that’s why the Tipping Point isn’t the panacea marketers hoped it would be. Just my two cents, you should read the story.

Seth’s Blog: The Hyping Point


Cultural research lies at the base of design strategy. Unless we understand the needs of ordinary people, it doesn’t matter how elegantly designed our offerings or how cleverly plotted our strategies for their roll-out.

These days, the focus of cultural research is on individual, extreme  groups whose needs are aspirational for the rest of us. We might look at people who have already sold their SUVs to begin to understand what the people driving Hummers today will be looking for five years from now — and potentially how to make more efficient vehicles appealing.

Small distinctions in people’s lives have huge implications for product planning and strategy. Studying small groups tells us a lot about the rest of the world, in part because we are mindful of their similarities and differences to the wider population. By seeing finer and finer dilineations between people, we are able to see a clearer image of the whole

But once, the concept of a culture as a shared set of values or customs that crossed class boundaries was radical in itself. For a long time, we viewed  nations as entities that existed because of the rule of law and the power of governments. In the late 18th Century, we realized that nations exist because of people. Nations emerge from the connections between people and the way the languages they speak and the ways they live their lives, not top-down impositions of order.

This intellectual shift was led by Johann Herder, an almost absurdly romantic German who would inspire the Brothers Grimm in their collections of folk tales. What matters is the Volksgeist, the spirit of the people that pervades through people in the same culture.

Romantic nationalism is not without its downside. After all, when a philosopher begins promoting patriotism and nationalism as the key values of a culture, a turn inward occurs inevitably. Herder, for example, was extraordinarily pro-German, and this biased his work considerably. In his view, all intellectual roads ran through Germany, whether they actually did or not. Herder made sure to qualify his statements, warning against the excesses of nationalism. But few listened, as is the way of such things. The end point of unchecked nationalism is totalitarianism.

This lesson does have continued implication for design strategy. Great social and cultural research can point the way forward for a company. But unless we pair insights with great designs and strategies, they don’t lead anywhere. Worse, if we grow beholden to a particular group or set of needs, we’ll one day defeat ourselves. Bill Gates once said that we tend to overestimate how much things will change in 10 years and underestimate how much they will change in five.

I think the same is true of people. We tend to overestimate how similar people in a given culture are with regard to their needs — and underestimate how little major differences matter in the face of products and services that really connect with ordinary folks. In other words, Americans (or even Baby Boomers, for that matter) as a category is incredibly broad and hard to develop for — focus on a smaller group. But once your studying is over, look for the needs that go beyond the immediate group. Then go past the obvious solutions to the stuff that really resonates.

If we do that, we can benefit from the Volksgeist. And that’s a great thing.

Today, we generally acknowledge that perhaps the most meaningful of all possible experiences come from serendipity — finding greatness in the least likely of places. Discovering the profound in the prosaic, as a friend and colleague puts it, is the rarest of pleasures.

This notion has tremendous implications for the design of everything around us. A beautiful product is not enough. A novel or exciting product is not enough. People want products that both surprise and delight them, whether it’s an MP3 player that organizes music the way we do in real life, a shoe that fights poverty or a robotic vacuum cleaner that acts as a surrogate pet. This is all table stakes in today’s market — I don’t even consider it a particularly interesting discussion.

Here’s what is interesting: Serendipity, the discovery of greatness in the most unexpected place, has only been a real virtue for the last 150 years, and only then thanks to a handful of folks who argued that art needed to be cheap and handmade. Also, one more thing, the best work of a great blacksmith is every bit as valid as the finest portrait by a court painter. The movement is Arts and Crafts, and the prime mover is William Morris, who devoted his life to promoting the resonant power of humble, well-crafted goods and the people who made them.

Before Morris, an Englishman of the mid- to late-19th Century, changed the discourse, Western society understood beauty as something found in nature, the work of the Renaissance masters and in the ostentatious architecture of royalty. After Morris, the traditional rural house, hewn from simple, natural materials, became the ideal of taste and meaning.

He also founded the very first independent design firm, best known as Morris and Company. He designed beautiful tapestries, wallpaper, even hand-painted stained glass. He founded a legendarily luxe printing company, Kelmscott Press, that brought the beauty of illuminated manuscripts to the middle classes. The consciousness was raised, an art and architecture movement was born and Western Society’s conception of aesthetics broadened to include everyday objects.

THIS MEANS SOMETHING, as E-lab used to say in its presentations. Perhaps the most important realization to the development of the modern consumer economy was an essential insight that Morris highlighted, whether he meant to or not: Regardless of objective aesthetic or emotional value, people care more about the little things they use thousands of times a day — their front doors, their kitchens, their pencils, their dens — than they do about the big things that most can only enjoy in a gallery. This makes sense: People are physical, mental and emotional. If you form a physical bond to an object through repeated contact, you will also form an emotional bond. It can either be a positive bond or a negative bond. The stuff that we bond positively to are the hardest to take from us — just ask anyone who has been using a Macintosh since 1984 if they would ever willingly use a Windows machine.

This is an essential insight to consider when making anything — people don’t love good design, they love stuff that loves them back.

The greatest irony of William Morris’s life is that he tapped into the secret of design as an added virtue for the simplest things in life — thereby creating the idea that one object could be superior to another with the identical function because of some vague notion of artistic merit. All of this from a socialist. Life’s like that sometimes, isn’t it?

If you would seek to really understand people, you must first understand the stories they tell in the exact words they use to tell them. This seems obvious — metaphors and word choice reflect the cognitive frames of a person — but this is actually a profound insight, and one that didn’t take hold until the 19th Century among Western thinkers.

If would have taken us much longer to recognize the value of authentic folklore had it not been for Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They were brothers. You might have heard of them. Here is what the famed folklorists showed as they gathered the tales of people in the German countryside: Stories themselves are always interesting. Stories that are untainted by an observer’s preconceived notions are much more interesting and tell us much more about the storyteller.

Prior to the Grimms’ work in the early 19th Century, the oral tradition of cultures tended to change during transmission. It’s easy to see why this might be so. When the Romans adopted the Greek gods as their new pantheon, they changed the names of the group to be more Roman. They altered myths into forms that fit the Roman culture. When the Romans later adopted Christanity as their new religion, they created a new religion that was as Roman as it was Catholic. William Shakespeare took stories that were popular from culture and institutionalized them and twisted them for his plays to advance his particular worldview. He even changed history to best favor his current patrons.

What does this mean? By controlling the terms of the stories that people built their lives around, whether religions or mere folk tales, the powerful sought to control the way that ordinary folks thought about their everyday lives. It’s a deductive view of the world. And it only works up to a point.

The great irony that we recognize now, of course, is that stories are the keys to finding out what really keeps people up at night. And when you find out those big needs, it becomes possible to get a group to behave the way you want it to. What’s easier to do? Trying to change someone’s mind by arguing with them or agreeing with them and very subtly changing what it is they agree to? Obviously, it’s the latter. Such implicit reframes are only possible when you speak in terms of the stories that people are already telling themselves.

What the Brothers Grimm really achieved with their famed accounts of folklore was what readers believed to be an accurate snapshot of the stories people in the German countryside told one another. None-too-surprisingly, the Grimms themselves didn’t practice what they preached: They altered the stories they gathered every bit as much as the earlier generation folklorists they sought to distinguish themselves from. But it didn’t matter. People believed that the Grimms had been what they said they were. Because of that belief, followers did practice directly sourced folklorism, even though their role models turned out to be fraud.

After all, people want to believe in a good story. And who doesn’t love that?

Adam Smith lives in the economics department. He sleeps on a back shelf found in the offices of every professor and research assistant in the western world. He’s comfortable. Understood. Dull. A mid-afternoon nap in the sunset years of the mind.

Supply and demand, invisible hand, the division of labor. Lovely.

I’m over-doing it, of course. Smith’s economic theories were absolutely revolutionary. Prior to his landmark Wealth of Nations, the theory of mercantilism prevailed. I think we can all be relieved that Smith realized that vast stockpiles of gold bullion were not the only path to economic growth. Laissez-faire, self-interest creates wealth and all that jazz.

But I’m not writing this post to tell you something you’ve heard before. I come here to argue for the misunderstood Adam Smith.
Because to really understand where Adam Smith’s economic theories come from, you need to understand his moral and social theories. You see, Smith trained as a moral philosopher. His first, almost-forgotten book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is devoted to defining the origins of morality. Many thinkers in the field, including Smith’s mentor, Francis Hutcheson, believed that morality was an innate sixth sense.

Smith, ever a man of the Enlightenment, disputed the theory of a moral sense, instead arguing that true morality is a function of sympathy. Smith’s sympathy is a many-splendored thing — some might call it altruism, some pity, some compassion — but the big idea underneath it all is that people occasionally do things where the only possible positive outcome is the happiness of others. And he’s not confused, either. The whole book is a plea for sympathy as the driving force behind functional societies, and, presumably, components of those societies. Like, say…commerce.

Look at what he has to say about sympathy:

But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.

Wait a minute, this isn’t sympathy at all. It’s empathy. Smith argues, extensively, that the fundamental driving force behind moral actions is the drive to understand the people around us and walk in their shoes. Why doesn’t he use the word empathy? Well, it didn’t exist as a word in the English language until 1904, according to the OED.

So what’s the big takeaway from all this? Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations set generations of businesspeople down a path based on self-interest and an extreme disinterest in other people. But he himself believed quite strongly that our moral sensibilities, what we believe to be the better parts of ourselves, are derived from interest in other people.

Empathy is not an emblem of weakness or sensitivity, in Smith’s view. It’s a way to practice self-interest on the lives of other people. And since self-interest leads to prosperity, understanding the self-interests of the people around you leads to the creation of wealth more broadly. Empathy is the most important business strategy of all. Well said, Adam.

Chapter 3: Anthropology Lifts Its Weary Head.

Constraints are essential to the creation of any great work. No book would ever be published if its author spent a lifetime trying to choose the ideal format. The great American pop song is about three and a half minutes long because each side of early records couldn’t hold much more music than that.

In the same way, this project needs a starting point and bounded realms of inquiry. We’re going to start in the 18th Century, and we’ll follow three threads: Social Research, Design and Strategy. Because research is fun and has a significantly more tortured path than any of the rest, I’m going to begin there.

Meet Auguste Comte. Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte, at that. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. He is the father and creator of sociology, and he’s the first guy who had the crazy idea that people could be scientifically studied the way anything else could be. He’s got a lot to answer for, doesn’t he?

Born in 1798, Comte, a native of Montpelier, France, came of age at the dawn of two revolutions: The Scientific and the Republican. At the time of his birth, France was in the grips of a violent cataclysm that tore down existing institutions and erected new ones on a rapid cycle. So what inspired him to see the world so differently? Well, maybe it was the time he grew up in. Maybe he had the spark for change. Maybe it was just something in the water. At any rate, Comte concerned himself most significantly with understanding the patterns in human behavior and thinking. (Most of his work occurred between 1824 and 1854, by the way).

Here’s what he saw: Every form of science — a term he applies quite broadly — whether chemistry, earth science or biology, has three phases. The theological comes first. During this level of thought, man’s relationship to nature is dictated by external divine forces. The church, if it has developed, is infallible. Questioning is not appropriate or even particularly possible.

The metaphysical era succeeds the theological. Put simply, the divine transfers to the human. Nothing is more important that the discovery and elevation of innate and universal human rights. The metaphysical school of thought reigned during the 18th Century through thinkers like Locke and Jefferson. The questioning of divinity and the elevation of landed men gave rise to the American and French revolutions, to name but two.

The ultimate phase is the Positive Scientific. Natural phenomena can be explained through scientific inquiry and concrete observation. Abstract speculation should be rejected. Experience trumps interesting philosophical wool-gathering.

Why does this matter? Comte suggested that in order to understand the progress of the existing sciences, we needed a new field that would study society and humanity from an empirical, verifiable perspective. He wanted to replace philosophy’s abstractions with cold, hard fact. This was extremely misguided, as you can imagine. But it matters to any of us trying to understand what people need.

Think about it. For millennia, philosophers and theologians had speculated about the nature of humanity. And after thousands of years, a breakthrough. Real people matter. Not users, not consumers or customers. But people. All of us in this industry should be here because we genuinely care about people and believe we can understand them and figure out ways to make their lives better. It’s not about assumptions, it’s about hearing their stories and understanding what lies beneath.

That’s the entry point for social research. Even 150 years ago, the groundwork had been laid. The specific outputs of that baseline and most of the associated processes were far from sophisticated by today’s standards. It was, however, a window toward change. In the ensuing decades, we started to get somewhere. But there are many miles to walk yet.

Chapter 2: The Visible Hand of the Invisible Hand

O designers, researchers, innovators and strategists! Are you girding yourself for the battle to come? Are your desks and minds filled with sharp rhetoric and sharper retorts? Do you believe that this year will be the one when we finally break through? Do you dream of the glorious revolution, the day when the world business will finally start to see the value of innovation, empathy and design strategy?

Don’t bother. The revolution is over. We won. All of us who have advocated that companies see the world through the eyes of real people, that innovation is about growth and not novelty, that good business can mean doing good for the world, raise your arms in victory.

How can this be true? The people who dismissed innovation for the longest time are now wrapping themselves in it. Every magazine in the world, from Business Week to Dog Fancy, is running cover stories on innovation. Companies are naming VPs of Innovation daily. Hell, when the decidedly non-innovative Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot, gave a keynote on the subject last December, he wasn’t killing innovation. He was signing a treaty.

It’s a wonderful thing. We won the war. But we’re losing the peace. Innovation has become all things to all people. It’s the iPod and green construction and YouTube and new finishes on cell phones. And as a result, it can become nothing. And that struggle will be won not by the tactics that brought us here thus far — holding up beautiful objects and highlighting historic case studies. This struggle will be won with diplomacy and ideas.

So how do we start to do that? The last thing we can afford to do during our moment in the sun is let someone else swoop in and use the revolution for their purposes. This blog is a first salvo in the next struggle. Over the next months, years, and, I fear, decades, I will examine our field’s past in order to define very specifically where innovation and design strategy came from, what they actually are, and, most importantly, what they are not.

This blog is here to create a canon and plant a stake in the ground. We’ll go back to the 18th Century for theoretical grounding, occasionally leap to more recent history, like the founding of Stanford’s Design Division or the development of strategic planning. I will, on fairly regular basis, go out on a limb to illustrate a point. I might even make a fool of myself at times. That’s OK.

That’s what we all need right now: Relentless trench warfare, issued from the quill of a diplomat. We’ve had our Boston Tea Parties and our midnight rides, Paul Reveres and Patrick Henrys. What we need now is James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

I propose, in a series of papers, to discuss the following interesting particulars:


In the progress of this discussion I shall endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance, that may seem to have any claim to your attention.

Now, this might all seem redundant. Don’t we all mean the same things when we talk about innovation or design strategy. But, my friends, we know that even now we are fighting amongst ourselves for a satisfactory answer to these challenges. We have no consensus, and the backlash against empty talk of innovation is a gathering storm while we debate. Let us make an end to this nonsense. Let us disambiguate. Let us say what we mean and mean what we say. Let us define ourselves before someone does it for us. Let us win the peace.


Next: Chapter One: The birth of research.