Good Business? Good Question.

question mark

How did you arrive at that assumption?

What can we compare or contrast this with?

Is there another way we can get there? Where is there?

What if?

Why? (Then why again and again…)

When I was young, I got the impression I asked too many questions. I suppose I had some driving need to get to truths, to the heart of the matter. Maybe I thought there was more going on than it appeared or than people seemed satisfied with. I asked “why,” a lot.

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change. —Warren Berger, author of “A More Beautiful Question”

There’s a lot of talk about solutions. Designers offer solutions to business problems. Therapists offer solutions to personal problems.

But behold the question!

Socrates was a master questioner whose method of inquiry is a way of eliminating contradictions, requiring you to defend your points or beliefs. The more rigorous the inquiry, the stronger your eventual position will be.

What became known as the Socratic method is older than the hills. But why do we still avoid the kind of questions that will yield more fruitful answers?

One of the questions I ask clients is how they’ll know if their project is successful. Most don’t know how to answer but they want to start the project anyway. The sign of a good creative partner is one who asks questions you might prefer not to answer.

What does success look and feel like?

Why do we define it that way?

Are there other ways we can define success?

Would those new definitions of success change how we approach our project?

This simple inquiry might cause you to stretch. But what if that stretching led to saving money, reaching new customers or causing a beneficial behavior change? Or better, to approaching your industry in a way others are not? You can’t know till you ask.

Questions are free, after all, even though there’s an art to crafting the right ones. Want to test your Inquiry IQ? Even with my questioning history, I surprised myself by getting 9 out of 10 (I doubted my instinct on the one question I got wrong. It’s no accident that intuition is a close cousin to fruitful inquiry.)

The best questions lead us to unexpected places. We often resist the unexpected. Questions spell possible delays. They might require us to rewrite copy, or ask permission to do so. We fear that responding to beautiful questions implies we didn’t have the answers in the first place. We view not having answers as a weakness, instead of seeking answers as a sign of strength.

All of this requires agility and curiosity and enough faith in your own ideas that you welcome having them challenged. At worst, you it will reveal you’re on the right track. You can always decide not to pursue what new ideas come from a good inquiry.

But wouldn’t you want to go there to find out?


If you dig inquiry or want to learn how to ask better questions, you can pre-order A More Beautiful Question, which is due out March 4. It’ll be on my shelf!


Visit my website to find all the ways to follow me and also to subscribe to The Good Dirt for monthly branding and marketing tips and inspiration.

(Image by orphanjones)

Friday Design Quote


“Defamiliarize the ordinary.”

—P A U L  R A N D

Stones on a black and white grid give new meaning to an ordinary object.


Detail of the artist Mark Wallinger’s 10000000000000000, 2012.
At the Anthony Reynolds Gallery and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art © the artist


Quotes on Design


Permission To Be Demanding

You’re hiring a designer or marketing person and can’t wait for the process to unfold.

Or…maybe not.

Most likely you have some uncertainty. You don’t know how to choose a consultant. You’ve never been through the process. You don’t know which questions to ask. You don’t speak the same language. You’re worried about money. You have a committee to please. You’ve got your other work to do.

Oof. Continue reading

Is your committee-run project like oatmeal?

Oatmeal, while healthy, is also an off-white blob composed of distinct particles loosely hanging together by a gelatinous substance.

Sounds wonderful, right?

Now picture a real meal, a dinner plate with a juicy seared steak surrounded by roasted potatoes, sautéed greens and wild mushroom compote.

They’re all in it together but the steak is the meal’s leader. The steak wouldn’t be as effective without its supporting cast. A one-person-led project can work, but it can also lack the pizzazz and ideas that a group of people bring to the table, each with their own perspective and expertise. (Assuming the team was  selected to create a balanced and broad understanding of the subject at hand.)

But the problem with teams is that many are unfocused and lack a real decisionmaker — someone who can keep the project alive with decisiveness.

How does indecision kill your efforts? Continue reading

Year in Review: What Got Shipped

It’s easy for some of us to pass by each minor, or even major, accomplishment and, instead, revisit the list of what still hasn’t been done. Or started. Worse is doing what’s not on the list. That is, if you want to be able to check something off.

The year 2010 was one of self-generated projects. It was a year of deliberately stepping back a bit from work, for better or worse, to reassess who I was doing business with, what kind of work I was doing, and where I wanted to go. It seemed natural, if not exactly planned, to follow where my desire led. Which meant allowing ideas to flourish just a little before tromping all over them. We creatives are masters at self mutilation.

At Seth Godin’s urging, I put together a partial list of what I accomplished this year. According to Godin:

Doesn’t matter whether it was a hit or not, it just matters that you shipped it. Shipping something that scares you (and a lot of what follows did) is the entire point.

In no particular order, a baker’s dozen:

1. Worked with 3 new clients.

2. Became a partner in a new business venture, responsible for branding and marketing strategy.

3. Took the World Changing Writing Workshop and got exposed to some daring, authentic, interesting writers. It left me inspired and supported, if virtually.

4. Had a story published in Smithsonian magazine’s Food & Think blog.

5. Developed communications and helped plan events for AIGA Portland’s Sustainable Design Initiative.

6. Contributed to the collaborative book “The Portland Bottom Line“—sustainability stories from small businesses. Profits support MercyCorps NW.

7. Started a yearlong personal project of illustrated logs of my fresh produce purchases, comparing how I spend my money on local versus non-local produce.

8. Wrote 8 blog posts for the Portland Farmers Market.

Hearty Greens 8 Ways to Sunday
Hazelnuts: A Complete Nut
Solace of Soup
Sponsor Profile: Food Front Cooperative Grocery
The Frenzy of Late Summer Eats
Love Ripens at the Market
Getting Raabed
Kids Cook…If You Let Them

9. Wrote 31 blog posts on design, food and the meaning of life.

10. Finally retired my old G5 Mac that has served me well, and committed to a laptop so I can work everywhere, all the time!

11. Created 15 paintings, mostly abstracted nature, something I haven’t done in years.

12. Gave myself an end-of-year gift to attend Compostmodern conference in San Francisco in January 2011, covering sustainable design practices.

13. Attended WordCamp Portland, which got me excited about redesigning Allegro Design using WordPress. I only got as far as a face lift that puts News and Featured Projects on the home page—a major accomplishment for the self-employed!


What did you accomplish? Give it a shot, publicly or privately. Make a list of 13 things you shipped in 2010. If you don’t know what they are, ask a good friend or colleague to point them out.

May 2011 bring even more. Cheers!

The best laid plans…

…of mice and men go oft awry (English translation) from a poem by Robert Burns called “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” It was the inspiration for the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. 

This is just another way of suggesting we live in the present, a practice that is worthy if only because, as implied above, we have little control over outside circumstances that can conspire to cheat us of our desired results.

That’s not always a bad thing, and it may even better than achieving our primary goal. But most of us are so focused on the hoped-for prize that we don’t notice we might have gotten something even better by not getting the prize. This is true whether it’s taking a trip, planting a garden or drawing a picture.

Often we are so sure what our primary goal is, and for good reason. Some situations depend on good planning and intended result. Without them, we  might be acting carelessly. But assuming there is nothing huge at stake, how often do you find yourself focusing on what went wrong when you don’t get what you intended?

After a grueling breakup, for example, when you’ve picked up the pieces of your life, you might realize you are much better off. In fact, maybe the ending of that relationship caused you to try something you’d always wanted to do. We all know that what seems bad at first, naturally diminishes with time. And that any situation has its costs as well as its rewards. This is not to suggest that living on the street, for example, is preferable to living in a house. But living in a house does come with responsibilities like fixing leaky roofs and paying utility bills.

All things are not equal. But not all things are as unequal as we think.

Appropriate mourning and adjustment periods aside, what if we recognized not six months or a year later that we aren’t so bad off, but in the moment? What if we remembered that there is always a positive outcome, even if we don’t quite know what it is going to be at that moment?

If you’ve ever been a slump after losing a major project or been annoyed that your trip to Venice was derailed because of train strike, you probably know the amount of negative mental energy you expended. Perhaps this lasted only a few minutes. Other times our obsessive thoughts last hours or even days. But losing that major project might have meant a summer free from working nights and weekends to meet a crazy deadline. Not making it to Venice might have meant discovering an untrammeled little town with phenomenal food.

To some, brushing off unintended results might be second nature. But to others, the primary aim might often seem like a non-negotiable. This idea hit home to me when I first started becoming aware that all undesirable situations have some positive outcome. Once I realized that the secondary results were as good or perhaps better than the primary goal (which are almost always different from one another and, therefore, easy to miss), I started paying more attention.

Then I began putting the idea into action before the primary goal (say, winning a major project) was in sight. I found that simply because of that mental shift—that reminder that if I didn’t get A, then (unknown) B will happen—the amount of obsessing over the loss was greatly diminished. Don’t get me wrong, I still get very disappointed. Often it’s at those small irritations in life, like a store being closed when you most need something. 

But since life almost seems to guarantee that our best laid plans will go awry, a little practice in non-attachment can go a long way. You never know which unintended goodie you’re missing while you’re spending your time kicking yourself.

Design Briefs: Don’t Get Caught Without Them

Starting a project without a design brief is like setting out on a backpacking trip with no map or compass…only worse. There’s really no harm in wandering aimlessly in the wilderness if you have no destination and there’s no fear of getting lost. (This might be called fine art though.)

But while no parameters might sound like every designer’s dream, this approach is a recipe for failure for both sides but in different ways. The designer shoulders too much responsibility for designing in a vacuum and the client risks getting watered-down ideas and faces avoidable costs down the road.

What is a design brief exactly and who creates it?

• A brief can come from the client but a designer usually has their own and will initiate a discovery process.

• It can consist of 3 questions or 10, depending on the project and the person.

• It’s best to be done in person, via Skype or over the phone so that you can be challenged to provide bold, unambiguous answers.

• The brief will define the why, who, how, what and when of the project.

• It addresses the specific results you want to achieve.

Why people avoid it and why you should embrace it.

Shaping what doesn’t exist is harder than reacting to what you see. But your business is unique. You want to start going in the direction that leads to you and not start at a point that leads to every business like yours. A designer who guesses who you are without your valuable input is, well, guessing.

Underestimating the value of your values. And for that matter, why you exist, who you most want to serve and why you’re different from the competition. Design can be a murky, mysterious process that leads you to think your input doesn’t shape the design. Not whether you like red or want a key in your logo, but how your values, mission or aspirations lead the designer to ideas that define you—the most important signposts along the designer’s path. Your task as a client is to get as comfortable with murky as you can.

When you’re eager to see ideas it’s tempting to skip the planning. Your excitement is understandable. Your project might also be long overdue or the key decision makers are too busy to give input. When a brief is finally approved, the designer passes “go.” That’s when the creative juices start flowing and the most important work is done. You don’t want to go backtrack later because you took steps in the wrong direction at the beginning.

Self examination is hard but leads to a stronger brand. It’s this discovery phase where you say who you are, but also also who you are not. If that seems like shutting doors, keeping too many open can lead to a confusing and bland identity.

A reluctance to believe that good design is good business. We all have a different view of what makes good design. Start with someone in your camp who truly wants to see you succeed. That way, you can trust them to take leaps you might otherwise not feel comfortable with. Good design doesn’t just look good, it’s also about the right tools and how they function.

Here’s another post about working with a design brief, and another.


(Image credit: Flickr creative commons / John ‘K’)

The Gift of Saying No

Sometimes saying no is a benefit to both parties.

A LinkedIn post lamenting requests for cheap work called to mind what many of us forget, especially in a bad economy, or else during a long dry spell of romance. We forget what we value, we forget our standards, we forget what we’re worth. Or maybe we forgot to consider those things in the first place.

A tight economy or even naysayers can conspire to make us operate on a scarcity model, one that dictates that we take what comes our way—in case nothing else does. We feel we have to say yes to work that we can’t afford to say yes to but believe we can’t afford not to. We have to put food on the table, but many of us panic or at least become cynical long before we really face starvation.

You have time to breathe and ask yourself some questions.

What are my strengths?

What do I offer that has real value?

What is that worth?

Is this client or project in line with my values and goals?

Will this challenge me in good ways?

A good exercise is to recall the bumpy roads you’ve been down that you swore you wouldn’t revisit. Perhaps it was the low-budget project you allowed yourself to get talked into, with the promise of exposure and more work. Recall how you felt after that, and what it confirmed about the type of work and client relationships you wanted.

If you find yourself being resentful at the assumptions people make, like a website should cost $500, then you’ve positioned yourself to be a contender for that work. If you didn’t see yourself as a contender, there would be no reason to even flinch as such a request. By giving ourselves time to evaluate before reacting (even if our reaction is only internal), we deepen our commitment to what we value.

Having then shifted that focus, we may even arrive at a solution that we hadn’t been able to consider at the beginning. Maybe that solution is passing on a name of a junior designer, offering up a simple service they can afford, or helping the client understand the work involved…all from an objective distance.

In this Zen Habits post, the author gives some tips for saying yes more slowly, for those who can’t stomach saying no. The person who posted the question on LinkedIn, as a result of repeated requests for low-cost work, lowered her rates. Prevailing logic says now is the best time to raise them. David C. Baker’s website Recourses has great position papers related to this, like Avoiding Marketing, Saying “No,” and Rethinking Rates.

We get locked into ways of thinking—that clients want cheap websites, for example. When instead, the real answer lies in what we draw to us. And why. This requires puzzling through issues we want to avoid—Why am I afraid to say no? If I find better projects, what if I fail? What do I owe to myself and my business, and what do I owe to others? And how can I make it work so both of us benefit?

This is why saying no sometimes works better for both parties. Saying yes for the wrong reasons can lead to working with a disengaged spirit, which serves neither party well. And more importantly, each time it happens, it’s a missed opportunity to learn something about ourselves.