Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 6th, 2014 by bobmorris

DoorleyScott Doorley is the Creative Director at the Stanford d.school. His design work centers on using media and environments to enhance interactions, gently guide behavior, and bolster learning. At Stanford, he teaches classes in communication design including storytelling & visual communication, improvisation, and digital media design. His large scale digital installations with the Dacha Art Collective have been exhibited in the San Jose Museum of Art and the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts San Francisco. Scott has degrees in Film from UCLA (BA ’96) and Learning, Design, & Technology from Stanford University (MA ’06).

Scott Witthoft is a former Fellow and current Lecturer at the Stanford University d.school. His Witthoftprofessional work as an engineer and a designer has focused on understanding and manipulating interactions among systems. This has included forensic structural engineering, furniture design, and curriculum design. As a Lecturer at Stanford University, he teaches classes in human-centered design and storytelling & visual communication. Scott has degrees in Civil Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis (BS, ’99) and The University of Texas at Austin (MS, ’00), and Product Design from Stanford University (MSE ’08).

Scott and Scott are co-authors of the recent book, Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, published by John Wiley & Sons (2012). It is a tool box for everyone interested in designing and creating environments to support creative collaboration. The work is based on years of classes and programs at the d.school.

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Morris: Before discussing Make Space, a few general questions. To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Witthoft: Formal education makes me think of classroom education. Fortunately even a lot of my classroom education led me outside the classroom. I offer eternal credit to a lot of subversive teachers for that. In thinking of key attributes of the people in all of my learning environments—home & school—one that stands out is being around people who are actively interested in learning and applying what they learn, geeks and hoodlums alike. The best situations have been those in which students and teachers have been equivalently interested in learning.

I’m not sure if it is my own inability to make disconnections or if it is a result of many people who illuminated interconnectivity of stuff, but in any event, the ability to make connections among things has been really helpful to me in all aspects of life. Setting up a canvas can have a process in the same way that designing a beam or a foundation can have a process. Never in my education has it been necessary to dissociate the two. In fact, more often than not, being able to translate frames has been an aid to others I’ve worked with.

Doorley: I love to learn, formally or informally. Finding learning opportunities is a primary consideration for me in making decisions about everything from career paths to travel plans.

Formal education brings people together in the midst of vulnerabilities which connected me tightly to the people I met in those times. It also offered me time out to focus exclusively on learning above other habits. In addition, formal education provided me with permission to be a novice and allowed me to ask broad questions.

That said, I the biggest thing I’ve learned through formal education is that those postures (learning, being a novice, questioning, and vulnerability) are valuable to hold onto beyond the walls of a university. They are useful in any and every moment of life.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Witthoft: The framing of “begin with what they have” is really intriguing, not as a disclaimer but as a banner, in fact: We *can* do it because we have the tools. Often the most successful work (in terms of spaces and design concepts) are those in which people see & feel that they have direct agency to build & change things. This is sometimes antithetical to a more conventional notion in the workplace that a facilities crew could and should be in charge of everything else chaos will reign. It seems like a good bit of order or at least convention is helpful in setting a default—ground rules—but I’m very often inspired by the activities and creations emerge when people feel individual agency to respond with options rather than limit based on what’s allowed.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Doorley: I doubt Voltaire intended it, but this quote perfectly describes a particular approach to prototyping. Every new solution brings a new context, and thus a new truth. Learning and honing can be the goal of prototyping.  Getting better at getting better becomes the higher goal rather than getting to the “best of all possible solutions.”

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Doorley: There’s an adage in some theatrical improv circles: “be obvious.” Sharing your gut instinct provides fertile fodder for an improvisation to grow and continue. If you hold back, other players have nothing to build on. Through this lens, it is critical to share your full self in creative work. That said, we’re not idle objects. We’re constantly evolving and are shaped by what we’re exposed to. If you believe that expressing your full and true self is valuable, then it follows that you have to take care of yourself and expose yourself to challenging and positive experiences to be able to share your best.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Doorley: Yes––except that all our thinking is built atop previous thinking. I think this operates at the micro-level in particular: small changes in thinking (or process or behavior or action) can be all that is needed to solve the next problem (which will then spawn it’s own set of new problems to be solved with slightly new ways of thinking and so on).

Witthoft: I’m curious if Einstein thought of this in the midst of a pattern or routine in his daily life? It nudges me to think about how patterns can be viewed from afar and then maybe shifted ever so slightly for different outcomes.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Witthoft: This seems like the perfect caption for Alec Guinness’ facial expression at the end of, The Bridge on the River Kwai. There can be a lot of fun in applying efficiency to a creative process while recognizing that time & energy savings might allow more experimentation. I’m pretty enthusiastic about following guitar luthiers and this conundrum of efficiency versus creativity or automation versus authenticity is ever-present in that field. Even then, neither of those considerations really addresses the “correctness”—whether that be moral, practical, or contextual correctness—of actually doing what you are doing. Making a delicious meal for people is a beautiful thing, but sequentially serving up seven piping-hot courses of pork to a table full of vegetarians misses the mark. Connecting to a goal by talking with & listening to people always feels like a good step in answering the question, “Should I be doing this?”

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Doorley: I think it is quite difficult to build consensus with a large group around the unknown. The most success we’ve had has been to allow people to experience the change––through large scale prototypes or pilots––and put weight behind the people who have the most energy for change––by resourcing those who are actively making change for themselves. Both strategies have the benefit of making the future state tangible so people can compare it to the present tense. Discussion about the future is a valuable exercise in understanding emotional needs, but is not helpful in taming resistance to potential changes.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Make Space. When and why did you decide to write it?

Witthoft: In 2010 or early 2011, several of us in The Environments Collaborative (then called “The Space Team”) were working on capturing some situations & patterns that had proven repeatedly successful in practice both in spaces and behaviors among the various d.school build-outs. Many people who had participated in d.school classes and programs as well as visitors who had come by to explore asked about how things were built and why. This interest led to some early categorization of information—it became evident that we weren’t just turning out furniture. With several members of The Environments Collaborative—Dave Baggeroer, Adam Royalty, Natalie Woyzbun, and Joel Sadler—we began to create “Space Studies” that were short text and graphic pieces to capture and share this content. This concept set an early structure for the later content in Make Space.

Scott and I began writing the book in early 2011, prototyping the design and content many times over the course of the year.

Morris:
Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Witthoft: In very specific regard to the written text, Scott and I worked through what we guessed was a conventional process of grouping everything in categories and assembling all of the content in sequential order. After doing that, we both read it and thought, “this is terrible.” No one, including us, could take in the material this way. The questions that prompted us capturing written “answers” never arrived in such a linear way, and we never talk about it this way. That realization led to a redesign of how the information in the book could respond to the ways in which we knew people asked questions.

On another note, we realized that we could not separate the written content from the visual design of the book. (This is also a very conventional sequence in writing books: text then pictures.) Writing out dimensions is laborious and it is often a terrible way to communicate them, versus showing how they apply in a graphical way. We were very fortunate to work with the book designers — Scott Stowell and his designers at Open — who are experts at not only understanding communication but designing it for the reader’s experience rather than convention alone.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Doorley: We knew early on that we wanted it to be more tool / instruction manual than treatise / research. The idea of short sections with information that can be put into action is something we envisioned from the start. Early on we used instructions as a metaphor: from Lego’s to Chilton’s manuals. The biggest shift was the shuffled order of these bits of content to provide more of a magazine style layout. As mentioned, Scott Stowell and the designers at Open, as well as our book “producer” Grace Hawthorne were extremely helpful in making that vision come to life. By laying the book out in these sorted chunks, we we’re able to fulfill a goal that the book can be engaged quickly then set aside just as quickly so you can get to work. Thus our goal was to create a book that people put down (because it inspires action). Anecdotally, we’ve found that this has panned out.

Morris: Of all that you learned while co-writing Make Space, what do you think will prove most valuable to you in months and years to come? Please explain.

Doorley: The thing is the thing. It’s one thing to talk about what you want something to be and it’s something else entirely to make it. We made most of our progress through making things, namely prototypes and drafts.

Also, I learned that Scott’s a great copy editor.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a space within which creative collaboration is most likely to thrive?

Witthoft: The relationships among the people who wish to collaborate are really important. In the context of Make Space, these might be considered as Attitudes. Many of the physical and philosophical implementations suggested in the book depend on people openly and honestly communicating with each other. These attitudes—values & habits—of the culture will ultimately dictate how successful any built aspect of an environment will be. No type of dry erase surface or digital projector will necessarily make people honest with each other, for example. However, for teams that are looking to openly share ideas, big vertical writing surfaces can physically help people get outside their own notebooks and displays.

Morris: Why do you suggest that creative situations involve quick, repeatable configurations or patterns?

Witthoft: People can support their behaviors with spaces. Using patterns—maybe even “recipes”—that are quick and repeatable can be reliable ways to pair and intent with an outcome. It’s nice when the space manipulations are quick or at least achievable so that you can focus more on the activity, rather than the set up & take down. In many situations, individuals or teams switch quickly from thinking of an idea to testing it, then revising it and retesting. The quickness of the reconfiguration can support a quick iteration of ideas, too—like a responsive dance partner. Highly-tuned and fixed spaces can trigger creativity too: landscapes captured in paintings; showers in which people seem to come up with great ideas; the realm inside a set of headphones. Putting yourself inside those spaces is often intentional and can be repeated. It works equally well when you can go one step further and not just conceive an idea but also respond to it. That’s where pairing intent with configuration or pattern can be handy.

Morris: Are you an advocate or opponent of the “fail fast and frequently” strategy? Please explain.

Witthoft: Trying something and being open to the outcomes of the act seems more interesting (and important) to me than explicitly failing. Lots of people fail miserably because of success, too—an example might be how an artist or musician responds to positive response to his or her work. A recent example to that end comes from people with funded (versus successful) Kickstarter campaigns. I’ve read advice from those who have been funded but who were not prepared for the “success” of their efforts that says, “think about the outcomes of what you are asking and get those things in order now.” This advice comes after the project initiators had to scramble sometimes unsuccessfully to figure out new supply chains, fulfillment options, ways to communicate to many more people than they had imagined, etc. At a base level, I love that learning from a prototype—a try—requires figuring out both what worked and what didn’t. It can be a really nice exercise in honesty.

Morris: To what extent (if any) should idea generation be separated from idea selection? Please explain.

Doorley: We’ve found it extremely helpful to be conscious of what you’re trying to accomplish at any given moment and to focus on one action at a time. Separating idea generation from selection allows you to explore territory that goes beyond your built in assumptions and biases. You first explore possibilities, then critique them. This approach allows you to “get out of your own way” and can lead you to a solution that lies beyond what you might normally be able to imagine. It’s a trick to do it and much more difficult than it sounds, but we’ve found it to be particularly useful.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Make Space, you explain in detail how to complete a number of initiatives that will help facilitate creative collaboration. For each of these, what are the two most important “do’s” and “don’ts” to keep in mind. First, Build a space on the cheap

Witthoft: “Building a space on the cheap” feels like it implies showing that a place is active. One of the cheapest ways to make a place active is to actually activate it with people—this is intuitively obvious, but is actually often overlooked. One of the most successful techniques people share with us is simply occupying an otherwise vacant spot—an off-cycle conference room, a lobby, a hallway. Find a place and do something there. Someone will either join in or send a memo. Either way, mission accomplished.

Morris: Set up a personal studio space

Witthoft: A personal studio space can take a different shape than a collaborative space—meaning you might be physically accommodating fewer folks physically and emphasizing ideas/projects for longer duration. In Make Space we talk about borders having meaning. In the case of a personal studio, creating borders between “studio” and “not studio” could help signal different attitudes—or mindsets—once you step inside, whether inside is actually into another room or simply across a painter’s tape boundary you place on the floor.

Morris: Jump-start an existing space

Witthoft: Working vertically and visually is a great way to signal that a space is active. This case takes shape in lots of ways: dry erase surfaces on the wall, butcher paper taped on an otherwise “no-writing” wall, Post-its—large and small—to make work mobile and manipulable. We’ve heard really great reports of people using a “be vertical and visual” action to transform unlikely spaces such as hotel lobbies and dining rooms into collaboration zones. The Z-Rack mentioned as a Tool in Make Space is useful for deploying into spaces where you might hang out only temporarily.

Morris: Find other ways to find stuff

Witthoft: Time spent understanding how other experts & amateurs do things is time well spent. This can take shape as an immersive experience such as visiting a potter’s studio or a place where someone makes something, taking a manufacturing tour, or simply walking into a venue of an industry different than yours and focusing on the question of “how are they working?” Deliberately creating & checking a loop of blogs is a great non-physical way for finding new techniques & tools. Two favorites I have are: The Setup (http://usesthis.com/) where pros talk about their tools and studios; and NOTCOT (http://www.notcot.org/) one of the best curated sites for… everything.

Morris: Make a space for new ideas

Witthoft: Set aside specific wall space for posting ideas in progress—this takes shapes as dry erase surface, blank walls, and cabinet fronts—using scraps of paper, painter’s tape, and Post-its. Having this evidence visible often triggers new thoughts, and new layers of info.

Morris: Make a space to stay focused

Witthoft: Making a space to stay focused often translates to making time to stay focused. There are lots of websites that compile the work routines of artists, professionals, and designers—this is a recurrent theme for Maria Popova and her brilliant site, Brain Pickings (http://www.brainpickings.org/). One thing we hear repeatedly is that making time shouldn’t be an after thought to collaboration, but should be a key ingredient—meaning don’t just fit it in, but make it a “real” component of your day.

Morris: Make a flexible space

Witthoft: Casters. Make Space implicitly and explicitly talks about putting things on wheels—and sometimes how that can go too far! The fact is though that most spaces are not designed to change with the Actions and Attitudes happening inside. Wheels can transform a space into a willing dance partner.

Morris: Build a workshop

Doorley: There are several “do’s” that prove successful: keep materials & tools visible, organized, and at arms length. In the midst of building a prototype which is a process of tangible experimentation, we’ve watched toy designers find in the moment inspiration in the parts and pieces they surround themselves with. Chef Ben Roche who is featured in the book goes into length about how organized clearly labeled supplies allow him to experiment and execute nimbly as he creates his new to the world dishes and desserts.

Morris: Shape behavior with space

Witthoft: The most compelling stories we hear from people who start to design with behaviors in mind have a key theme: intent of the activity paired with a spatial implementation. That is, people planning an event think about what they want the participants to experience (or not experience) and adjust the environment accordingly. One example is re-crafting a weekly AM check-in meeting. From one report: a team routinely checked-in on the upcoming week on Monday mornings. The meeting became a low-energy slog that was less about sharing & learning and more about sitting. The change: limit the check-in time and make it either a stand-up meeting (no tables/seats) or walking a loop around the building. Pairing intent with space has been a great way to respond to existing behaviors and encourage new behaviors.

Morris: Create a shared team-space

Doorley: The design of any space is dependent on how your team best works together. For instance, if the goal is enhanced communication you might want to find ways to make work in progress visible in the room so that the work is noticeable enough to spark serendipitous conversation. If the goal is to have the team engage in in-depth conversation, you might want to outfit the space with soft, comfortable seating oriented in a circle. The desired behavior dictates the design of the space.

Morris: Insofar as creating space for collaborate coloration is concerned, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from the TED environment?

Doorley: The TED spaces featured in the book were designed by Frank Graziano and his team at Steelcase. They do a wonderful job in offering a suite of spaces with different affordances—particularly around posture. He and his team are also acutely aware of how people approach these spaces and how the arrangement of the space signals the potential interaction to come. These choices allow people to engage the spaces and each other within a tangible social contract. A space with scattered pillows proposes a relaxed, casual conversation, while a space outfitted with a circle of chairs suggests a more engaged debate.

Morris: Of all the elements at play in a space, or “the game behind a game,” which do you find most intriguing? Why?

Doorley: The “game behind the game” is simply to design the space around your activity. Once you’re clued into how small changes to a space can change people’s behavior, it’s easy to begin tweaking little details. Playing with posture is an easy trick that has a disproportionate pay off. Choosing or outfitting a space with posture in mind––from relaxed & reclined in a couch to active & upright on a high stool––can change the dynamic of a group tremendously.

Morris: What is the Escalator Test?

Witthoft: The Escalator Test is a little metric based on a joke by the late, great comedian, Mitch Hedberg. He said that, “an escalator can’t break, it can only become stairs.” Thinking of resources in a space with a broken or on/off configuration is a great exercise in editing: is everything here working the way it should all the time, and if it isn’t what are the implications? When a digital display is turned off, it is stagnant, usually without any other benefit or function to offer. By contrast, a dry erase surface doesn’t have that problem, but could be used passably as a display surface. There are lots of other variables involved, but The Test is one way of taking an initial pass at outfitting choices.

Morris: What is the Environments Collaborative? Who are involved? What are its primary objectives?

Witthoft: The Environments Collaborative in the context of Make Space is group of people who over many years have contributed to and experimented with space designs at the d.school—both in the design of on-site locations as well as abstracted principles & practices. In one way or another, every participant whether student or teacher, has contributed to the way that the spaces function at the d.school.
The Environments Collaborative became one of the d.school’s initiatives functioning outside of the academic calendar that explicitly directed resources to paying attention to how space can impact collaboration of participants. Following the completion of the d.school’s current building, the space design efforts at the d.school have become more widely distributed among the teaching teams and staff as new topics for exploration & development arise in scope, scale, and distribution of learning experiences.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Make Space and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within creative collaboration is most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Doorley: We find people begin at one of two possible points. Either is a fine starting place as long as you move quickly to incorporate the other. One starting point is to define the cultural goals. The other is to outfit a space with new tools and furniture. Both are essential, but focusing on one and not the other can be ineffectual. Throwing new furniture into a pre-defined culture may result in a space that is misunderstood and underutilized. Similarly, spending time defining cultural goals without manifesting them in the space leads to little progress. Instead, alternating between defining your cultural intent and building out the space allows you to make adjustments as you go and helps the culture evolve with the space.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Make Space, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Doorley: Most important is a sense that a space can evolve as the needs of the company evolve. Small companies feel change more acutely. Being able to adjust a space to respond to these changes is important. An approach that leaves room for spaces to evolve yearly or even daily is key. This can be accomplished in a number of ways: from the simple stroke of putting furniture on wheels to the more difficult task of leaving some room in the space and the budget for changes to come––generally, empty space tends to want to get filled and idle budget tends to get spent.

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Scott and Scott cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Doorley’s Amazon page link

Dooley’s d.school faculty page link

Witthoft’s Amazon page link

Witthoft’s d.school faculty page link

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school) link

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