Notes from CUSP

Metropolis Magazine
Notes from CUSP
By Tiffany Meyers, October 2011
“We all come here with a truckload of fears,” shouts Mike Ivers, president of capacity-building organization Goodcity. He’s riling up the crowd for the fourth annual CUSP—a “conference about the design of everything”—created by design firm Smbolic.

And he’s wearing a blindfold. Ivers, a former priest who knows how to raise a roof, shares the stage with a group of young people. Representing his fears, they lead him around, as fears are wont to do, and spin him in discombobulating circles. “Get dizzy at CUSP!” he hollers. His point? Fear is a constant. Learn to use it.

Attendees do have things to fear today. There are the forthcoming breaks, for instance, during which they’ll have to mingle. There’s failure. And success. And then there’s this: In any gathering about social innovation, there’s a chance that all the enthusiasm could snowball into that brand of unchallenged, “designers talking to designers” groupthink about The Power of Design.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the multidisciplinary speakers—many of whom aren’t traditional “designers”—stand before the audience and lay down the truth, in all its glorious nuances and complexity.

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Entrepreneurs: Stress + The Recession

Entrepreneur Magazine
The Psychology of Stress
You’ve managed to keep your business afloat, but how are you managing the stress?
By Tiffany Meyers, April 2009

Author’s Note: At the height of the recession, business mags were full of tips for keeping small businesses healthy. But what about keeping a healthy mind? To find out how entrepreneurs were (or weren’t) dealing with the emotional stress, I checked in with psychologists and entrepreneurs. This article was more positively received than almost any I’ve written, with a letter to the editor published in the subsequent issue of Entrepreneur. 

In the economic tailspin of the late 2000s, loss is part of life. Workers are losing their jobs, employers are losing their businesses, and as credit becomes more and more scarce, everyone is losing confidence. What’s more, entrepreneurs are grappling with a sense that they’ve lost control of critical factors that could determine their futures.

Those psychological hurdles are perhaps the biggest challenges facing today’s business owners; after all, it was probably that shining confidence and ability to innovate that got you started in the first place, right?

“So much of it has nothing to do with you,” says Tarek Tay, 36, co-owner and managing partner of Atlanta’s Zaya Restaurant, which launched strong in February 2008, boomed through the summer–and then saw business drop 30 percent in September. Although well-reviewed, it has operated in the red since, even with $1.2 million in 2008 sales. “If your food isn’t good, you can improve the quality,” he says. “If service is the problem, you can train your staff. But if the problem is that no one’s going out to eat because of the economy, what can you do?”

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Biomimicry: Consider the Tardigrade

Hemispheres Magazine
Consider the Tardigrade
By Tiffany Meyers, January 2011

The fast-growing field of biomimicry encourages innovators to look to nature-in all its wonder and weirdness-for solutions to our trickiest problems.

ONE AFTERNOON IN Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dayna Baumeister stands in a room full of Herman Miller employees, next to a trunk filled with seashells, feathers and other natural miscellany, and hands a sea cucumber to Carolyn Maalouf, a blindfolded R&D engineer. Don’t guess what the object is, Baumeister says. Guess what it does. Maalouf takes a shot. Well, it’s spiky, she says. Maybe it needs those spikes to ward off predators?

Another blindfolded colleague, meanwhile, is holding a swatch of sharkskin. With some guidance, he eventually deduces, correctly, from the smooth surface that his object is designed to move fast.

That they stumble through the exercise is pretty much the point. By eliminating sight—the sense that would instantly provide the “right” answer—the exercise succeeds in what Baumeister calls “quieting our cleverness.” This is crucial. Baumeister is the cofounder of The Biomimicry Guild, a group that promotes the increasingly popular notion that many of the best solutions to problems facing humanity can already be found in nature. “Biomimicry represents a paradigm shift away from the belief that we humans are the cleverest and most perfectly evolved,” says Baumeister. “When people believe that humans are the cleverest species, they might say, Why would I bother trying to learn from nature?”

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Spray Pride

Time Out New York
Spray Pride
By Tiffany Meyers, January 20-26, 2005

A new website revisits—and revives—a dying NYC art form.

Longtime New Yorkers remember that riding the subway wasn’t always the shiny experience it is today. Back in the 1970s and early 80s, a group of ghetto kids—armed with spray paint and the pre-PlayStation impulse to create—turned trains into giant, moving canvasses. Thus marked the birth of wild-style graffiti, whose complex letter forms turned the artists (or “writers”) into local celebrities—and enemies of a bureaucracy seeking to regain control of its transit system.

Some 20 years after a mid-’80s crackdown started to deliver spotless trains, graffiti artist Carlos Rodriguez and New York design firm Code and Theory have teamed up to (virtually) rebuild the streets that sparked the movement. Style Wars (, which launched in November, is as close as you’re going to get to a tour of the New York City streets circa 1982.

The website takes its name from—and was inspired by—Tony Silver’s 1983 film, Style Wars, which is available for purchase here in its 2003 two-disc DVD format, Style Wars: Revisited, featuring additional footage and interviews. Rodriguez, associate producer of the DVD and Style Wars’ cocreator, says the site pays respect to the pureness of intent in the moment before graffiti was embraced by the mainstream.

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Success by Design

HOW Magazine
Success By Design

By Tiffany Meyers, January 17, 2008

We’re five years into the new millennium, and the gurus of modern business have at long last decided to agree with IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr., who said that good design is good business. The celebrity CEOs of Apple, Target and Procter & Gamble have carried that torch into the 21st century, leveraging design as a safeguard against the commoditizing forces of the global marketplace. Their stories have been featured in the most authoritative business publications on the newsstands, from Fast Company to BusinessWeek, not to mention in the design trades.

So everyone seems to agree: Good design equals good business. But there’s something about that word, it seems; it introduces a ghost of doubt. Because while CEOs Steve Jobs, Robert Ulrich and A.G. Lafley provide examples of corporate design ambassadorship, one could argue that they have pockets deep enough, and reputations solid enough, to afford taking risks on design.

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Wrongness in the Walls: M&Co. Remembered

Wrongness in the Walls: M&Co. Remembered
By Tiffany Meyers, May/June 2006

In 1988, Tibor Kalman, designer Emily Oberman, and intern Scott Stowell were frequently left at New York’s Ceasar Video without adult supervision in the middle of the night. They were working at the edit facility on M&Co.’s music video for the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a typographically driven solution that would both break new ground and take an inordinate amount of time to produce.

Kalman had arranged a deal whereby M&Co. could use the facility 24 hours a day during the video’s production, giving them the run of the place after business hours—and often past 4 a.m. Hilarity of the kind that accompanies caffeine and overwork ensued. And Oberman recalls one night in particular, when Kalman removed every poster from every wall in the facility—Joseph Beuys prints, if her memory serves—and rehung each piece upside down.

When Ceasar Video staffers arrived for work the next day, there was intrigue and confusion—and finally, the decision to embrace the upended art. “And for as long as I continued to go to that facility, it stayed up that way,” says Oberman, now partner of Number 17 in New York, whose term at M&Co. from 1987 to 1993 was the longest run of any employee in the firm’s 14-year lifespan.

M&Co.’s sprawling mythology brims with antics along these lines, many with the same Marx Brothers’ quality. But the story of Ceasar Video and the art on its walls is a particularly tidy metaphor for Kalman’s preternatural ability to wrench audiences out of what they’d come to rely on as proper and right.

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Universal Design at Access Living

Metropolis Magazine
Free Space
By Tiffany Meyers, October 2007

A Chicago nonprofit creates a liberating environment for people with disabilities.

The building that houses Chicago’s Access Living, a nonprofit that provides services for and is staffed by people with disabilities, sits at the architectural intersection of sustainable and universal design—but you wouldn’t know it. And that’s the point. “A basic principle of universal design is that an environment shouldn’t make a person with a disability stand out as different,” says Richard Lehner, a partner at Chicago’s LCM Architects. “So the building itself shouldn’t stand out from any other office building either.”

That was core knowledge for LCM, which specializes in barrier-free spaces, but when Lehner and fellow partner John H. Catlin set out to incorporate green features into their plans–a requisite from the city of Chicago, which sold Access Living the site at a discount-they discovered a powerful synergy between the two design paradigms.

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Ad Age: Marketing to Women As Your Lead Consumer

Advertising Age
Marketing to women: If she’s happy, then everybody’s happy.
By Tiffany Meyers

Author’s Note: Women expect a lot from their products and services. So when marketers create offerings to meet women’s criteria first, they’re likely to have something that other demographics will go for, too. That’s the premise of this piece, the cover for Ad Age’s 2006 special report on marketing to women.

For all that blather about alpha males, adult men are a beta demo. There are 6 million more women aged 20 or older than males. What makes the 21st century woman a consumer phenomenon is her own deep pockets, born of greater education and clout in the workplace. The rise of the female consumer phenom–or she-nom–merits an overhaul in strategic thinking. Marketers must keep feminine preferences in mind not just for “women’s products,” but for items ranging from digital cameras to beer, that have traditionally been pitched aggressively to guys.

“The concept of marketing to women as your lead user is the way of the future,” says Bridget Brennan, founder of consultancy Female Factor Communications. In virtually every category, smart marketers will put women in the bull’s-eye, not on the periphery, she says.

Many marketers fear that direct appeals to women will alienate men, but the opposite is true, Ms. Brennan says. Products with a feminine veneer are apt to turn off not just men but women who suspect these are watered-down versions of the real deal, she says.

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It’s a Swamp Thing

Metropolis Magazine
It’s a Swamp Thing
By Tiffany Meyers,  September 29, 2010 

An IV drip of espresso would have stimulated the brain less than an afternoon at CUSP, the two-day innovation conference—created and hosted by design firm smbolic—that flipped Chicago’s lid last week.

Swampman kicked it off. Covered in head-to-foot, craft-store moss, former priest Mike Ivers took the stage, complaining of deadlines: “I’m swamped!” he shouted, shedding peat. Ivers, now President of Goodcity, a capacity-building organization for NPOs, proposed his perspective on swamps—or the social, economic and personal problems we’re trying to design ourselves out of. To find our way out of the bog, we have to get lost in it first. “Let us shift the paradigm of life’s swamps, and see them as adventures—frightening and scary, but always exhilarating!”

Halleluiah. Conferrers then dove into the “gumbo mud” and morass of Broken Systems like health care, food distribution, manufacturing and education.

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Use This, Not That

Chicago Tribune
Use This, Not That
By Tiffany Meyers, September 27, 2010

What’s on designer don’t lists? Five designers share their list of verboten materials — along with the alternatives they use instead.

Never say never? Well, not unless your hand is forced. Think chinchilla fur. Or popcorn ceilings. Sometimes, “over my dead body” is the only reasonable option. We asked five designers to name the one material that they would never, ever, not for a pile of money and a lifetime supply of cake, use in an interior. Then we found out what they’d go for instead. The common thread: authenticity. Each in their way, these designers confirm the importance of honesty in materials.

Use this: Authentic materials
Not that: Counterfeits

Tom Polucci, director of interior design, HOK Chicago, can’t say there’s one specific material he’d rule out altogether. Rather, he believes in using authentic materials wherever possible, whether reclaimed or locally sourced. “What’s great is that, today, we have so many products available to us,” he says.

For wood flooring alone, Polucci can choose from solid wood, end grain wood, cork or bamboo. But not every budget can accommodate wood flooring. What then? Polucci finds a different but equally authentic solution: He might leave the concrete floors exposed, for instance, or recommend linoleum, a floor covering made of renewable materials.

“Using an authentic material in an unconventional way is also a great way to create more impact,” he adds. For HOK’s office, the firm reclaimed some teak flooring, using the warm, salvaged wood to create a striking wall panel at the entrance. And in a beneficent twist, it would have cost more to make custom veneer panels than it did to repurpose the solid teak flooring.

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Marketing to Kids Under Attack

Special Report: Kids Marketing
Marketing to Kids Under Fresh Attack
By Tiffany Meyers, February 21, 2005

Assuming that it’s ok to market to 11-year-olds as if they were 16-year-olds is shocking to some media and advertising critics who have taken up the battle against marketing to kids.

Marketing efforts playing into tweens’ aspirations to adopt attitudes of much older teens are one alarming development that author Susan Linn sees. “The message they’re getting,” she says, “is that playing with toys and not being interested in the opposite sex is babyish and they ought to be acting out in sexual ways.”

Ms. Linn, associate director of the Media Center at the Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center, sees such efforts as part of a marketing maelstrom surrounding kids that puts normal childhood development at jeopardy. The question of whether marketing to children does them harm isn’t new, nor are efforts to curtail it. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission earned the moniker “national nanny” by calling for a ban on ads to children under age 7, a proposition Congress overruled.

More than 20 years later, that concern has spread to even the most cutting-edge marketing tactic of “word-ofmouth.” The National Institute on Media & the Family this month called on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association to prohibit the “exploitation” of young people, after the association released a draft of an ethics code. Among the institute’s concerns are word-of-mouth campaigns that take place in Internet chat rooms.

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Creating Green Infrastructures

Metropolis Magazine
Infrastructure Activism
By Tiffany Meyers, November 12, 2009

To introduce his panel at last Thursday’s Infrastructures for Change Workshop, in Chicago, Giles Jacknain reminded us that the ancient Greeks had two words for city. The first was asty—or the inanimate bricks and mortar. The other: polis, or the city as a human entity. The conversation we were about to have, he suggested, was about moving from “asty to polis.”

Jacknain is the founder of the consultancy the Oikos Collective and a faculty member of Archeworks, which sponsored the day-long Infrastructures for Change event. The conference offered a mash-up of bottom-up and top-down projects designed to make cities of the future sustainable “before it’s too late,” as more than one speaker put it. It’s the first in a series of Archeworks workshops that will showcase design alternatives to the waste-intensive, auto-dependent, low-density infrastructures of the 20th century.

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