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Under a spreading chestnut tree, this creative director wanders around

Updated: Nov 8, 2018

It seemed like a simple assignment: determine how the village is spatially organized.

But I already felt stumped, plus jetlagged and a bit carsick.

It was day two of my semester abroad in Nigeria. About an hour had passed since another student and I had arrived after a harrowing journey at this village on the outskirts of Lagos. Our mini-bus had hurled us in between clogged lanes of traffic, dodged cattle, and launched airborne over potholes.

Now we were rambling through a maze of circuitous paths between buildings made of cement, wood and mud. But their purpose and the logic behind their organization was still a mystery to us. So we asked two local men for help.

Could they tell us why these buildings are here and those there?

They didn’t know.

Maybe, like a New England green, we could discover the town’s most important spatial relationships by starting at the center and working our way out. “Where is the middle of the village?” I asked.

Like a directional sign post they pointed to opposite destinations. “There.” “There.”

A map might help. Could they draw one for us?

Warily, they nodded.

I produced paper and pen.

They stepped back and consulted with each other. Then one man carefully drew two intersecting straight lines and handed me back my implements.

He had drawn the two main roads, their junction, and where they went. But he left the town off the map.

The mini-bus horn honked. It was time to go.

Later that night we wrote up what the assignment as best we could, but acknowledged we failed.

Hoping for leniency, I included a footnote. I wrote that while we didn’t learn how the town was spatially organized, we did come to realize that the relationship of the town to the broader context of its surroundings seemed more important. And that the importance of spaces within the town seemed relative to the individual. We wished we had come up with better, perhaps less leading, questions. When we got our paper back we saw that our professor wrote in effect, “that was the point”.

This was over 20 years ago. But recently this story came back to me when I was out walking in a local Connecticut park.

I had walked these paths hundreds of times, usually on a weekend afternoon and in the same direction and sequence. But this time I went on a weekday morning. I walk fast and look straight ahead at the view of the trees ringing the saltwater marsh or across the Sound to the blurry blue smudge of Long Island or the faint grey Manhattan skyline.

But now I stared at a collection of elderly people pacing in circles in the middle of a field looking down at their shuffling feet as they kicked the leaves.

At first I thought it was Tai-chi or something like it. But then I noticed that they weren’t moving in synch.

I stepped off the path and timidly asked one of them what he was doing. “Chestnuts!” he exclaimed. Then he walked over and handed me a little brown nut, warm after being squeezed tightly in his palm.

Counting out a few more chestnuts into my hand, he told me in a thick Italian accent how dozens of people came every day for weeks often early in the morning before the park opens and from as far away as New York City. Chestnuts are hard to find since many decades prior a blight wiped out most of the trees. And then he showed me how to use my feet to spread open the spikey exterior casing and expose the nuts inside.

For a couple of weeks I had been kicking these spikey bundles out of my way on my brisk walks, never looking down to see what peeked out from between the broken husks.

The next weekend my kids and husband joined me in the grove of chestnut trees, incredulous that we would find anything. In the brisk fall air we shook the branches, kicked the leaves, pricked our fingers on the spiky skins, and deposited a bounty of shiny brown nuts in a big plastic bag, handles stretched taut by the weight.

We didn’t go down to the beach or walk the paths. We didn’t kick the soccer ball or go fishing. Our familiar experience of the park was changed and broadened. By seeing the park through others’ eyes, it was like being in a new place entirely. In the car ride home we all vowed to look more closely at all the familiar places we went because maybe they too had new experiences to offer.

We shouldn’t have been so surprised. We already knew that Long Island Sound is home to a natural bounty that many don’t realize is there. When my husband goes fishing on the nearby jetty and hauls up a big striped bass or even a humble porgy, inevitably a walker, jogger, or someone sitting nearby will exclaim, “there are fish in there?” Admittedly, I didn’t realize the variety and size of fish until he started reeling them up a few years ago. But, really?

Everyone experiences space differently, noticing what has meaning for them but not the rest. And even though those other experiences are as deep and rich as your own, they don’t exist for you until and unless you are compelled to look and, with an open mind, choose to step over the threshold to learn about them from their perspective.

When it comes to creating experiences in real or virtual space as a Creative Director, I think Design Thinking can be pretty great for breaking through these barriers and incorporating diverse perspectives. Being grounded in empathy, Design Thinking mandates that practitioners consider other people’s perspectives when solving problems. But in response to building criticism that it may not be sufficiently inclusive of all voices, Michael Hendrix of IDEO recently acknowledged the limits of the methodology his firm popularized.

In my practice of Design Thinking, including diverse voices from outside of the creative team as co-participants, especially the end user, is the explicitly acknowledged ideal. But, in spite of the potential for rich insights, the reality is that ideal isn’t practiced as much as it should be. Time and money are the typical excuses. Instead, what passes for “empathy” can be two or three degrees of separation away summarized in a PowerPoint deck of qualitative research findings. And the “creative” still has the power to determine what solution should or should not be more fully developed and how it should be revised based on feedback.

Anything that can increase our capacity for — and practice of — empathy, curiosity, and humility is most welcome. Because in order to design real or virtual experiences that include people different from ourselves, it’s clear that we must understand their perspective as well as the limitations, assumptions, and prejudices of our own.

So I am excited to learn more from John Maeda, Kat Holmes, Bruce Nussbaum, Natasha Iskander, and others who propose helpful revisions to Design Thinking or alternate methodologies that seek to be more inclusive, ask better questions, inspire more innovative solutions, and/or produce better results.

Hopefully, we can all discover some chestnuts.

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