I flew nearly 6,000 miles, drank two Red Bulls and one 5-Hour Energy shot, and missed two days' worth of sleep a few weeks ago. I did all of this to spend less than 24 hours in Washington, D.C. at the 7th annual STAR-TIDES Demo hosted by the Center for Technology and National Security. STAR-TIDES, in case you're wondering, stands for Sharing To Accelerate Research-Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support. The Center is located within the National Defense University and was able to pull off this demo during the government shutdown, though with decidedly fewer people in attendance.
I recently learned that you are a designer when you say you are, though not everyone would agree with that. So, as a self-titled designer, it may have been a little ballsy to speak before an experienced group of technology and product designers at this gathering. But I firmly believe there is always room for one more designer -- self-declared or not.
Now, a great designer, to me, sparks divergent ideas in others. They lead a newly-formed group into a chaotic mental space that allows for crazy ideas -- one of which might be the disruptive idea we've all been waiting for. A great designer doesn't show off how much they know. Any knowledge they possess is in service to the crazy things they can get strangers to do, make or dream up. Because, as signs around the d.school point out: "Just beyond crazy is fabulous."
This leads to what I believe to be the great thing about design: no matter what anyone in a group knows about design writ large, the goal is not to impress anyone. Instead, success is achieved when you are able to bring others along on a unique journey.
I wonder how many people at the STAR-TIDES event had been able to leave their individual booths and collaborate with another potential genius three tents down. All of the technology -- solar powered stoves, temporary shelters, portable solar panels, and LED lighting fixtures -- was being marketed to customers supporting populations in post-conflict and disaster-relief scenarios, these included the Department of Defense, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and USAID, among other groups.
A friend of mine came to the event to support me. Their mission was to do whatever he had to do -- be the only audience member awake, throw confetti if that looked like it would help, and spy for me. More than a couple people voiced their approval of the prompt I gave for small group discussion. When I am called on to speak to a crowd, I am never able to determine if the information I'm sharing is useful. There is such a wide variety of backgrounds in any group. But I know this: if I drop an interesting and challenging query, the audience will engage in kind.
I used this opportunity to experiment. I asked an audience member who had developed a product to describe its capabilities to their partner. Their partner, who had developed a completely different product for a different need, was then called on to develop a marketing pitch based on what they knew of their own users. The purpose of the exercise was to investigate whether a new product or service could satisfy any of their own customers' needs and user insights.
I left the stage with the same insecurity I always do and the question, "What did people think?" A two-star general walked up to me mid-sentence and let me know his schedule required him to leave but he really enjoyed my talk. The compliment gave me a huge boost. I would much rather lead a group-therapy session than address a crowd and try to convey an idea. Learning from others is far more interesting than hearing myself talk about topics I am still trying to cultivate an expertise in. But isn't that what the design process is all about?