Conversation with Cordy Swope: Design Against the Animal Mind

Cordy Swope: I am an innovation leader, service designer, design researcher and educator. I come from the US. I used to work at IDEO, Continuum and Toyota, and I am now Managing Partner at studiomem, an innovation consultancy in Munich, Germany. I also serve on the advisory board at the Front End of Innovation Conference Europe.

I lead teams of designers, engineers and researchers in creating new offerings for various clients such as, BASF, BMW, Eli Lilly, GE Capital, Gaggenau, Herman Miller, Nokia, Orange, P&G, Mercedes, Novartis, Renault, Siemens, Telefonica and Vaillant. I have won a few awards for both design research and communication design and my work has generated a few patents in both the US and Europe. My work has also appeared in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I am a “T-shaped” designer, in that I have both a BA in Literature and a Masters in Industrial Design. From time to time I teach design master classes at Copenhagen Insitute of Interaction Design (CIID) and the Kolding School of Design in Denmark. I have also taught and developed curriculum at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute in New York.

Prior to all of this, I wrote and performed original music professionally with my experimental Buddhist punk band called Ruin. And finally, if you ask me nicely, I can roll a €2 coin on my right hand, a trick that often amuses my two young daughters.

Audio Sample

Glenn Wallis: I am with Cordy Swope at…Cordy, where are we exactly?

Cordy Swope: We’re at an oyster bar, 29th and Broadway, by the Ace Hotel in Manhattan.

GW: And you were just saying it’s interesting that we’re meeting here. Why is that?

CS: Because, well, I suppose my whole design education was formed about two blocks away from here years ago when I did an internship with Ralph Caplan, a design writer.

GW: You went to Pratt.

CS: Yeah, I went to Pratt for graduate school, but I had already done the creative thing as a musician, in a band with you (laughter).

[Cordy Swope, air-bound, right; Glenn Wallis, ass-out, left, ca. 1986]

GW: Yeah. I vaguely recall that.

CS: And I had done a bit of literature study and then didn’t want to go down that route, of literature, and so I kind of drifted for a while and then I discovered…

GW: …why did you not want to go down that route, of literature?

CS: Because writing was always something where—I think it’s always a labor to create stuff—as one of my professors said, “I don’t like to write but I love having written.” And I knew that everyone was saying to me, yes, you should write; but I knew deep down that I probably wouldn’t have anything to say til I’m about the age that I am right now.

GW: So your interest in the study of literature was in actually doing creative writing?

CS: Yeah, but I was stuck in this sort of criticism track that—I could do—you know, but it almost felt like I could do it as a day job and do it to sort of learn to think critically and learn to have insights, and that was the most interesting part of it, and that’s why I think I was reasonably successful in it while I was being groomed or pushed or something toward academia, because I was good at reading the language and coming up with novel interpretations of stuff.

GW: So the more critical work…

CS: …yeah, I didn’t care about any of that stuff.

GW: Your particular interest was actually creative writing, but you felt like you had nothing to say?

CS: I didn’t give a fuck about Marxism or feminism…

GW: …which was popular at the time [1980s]…

CS: …or any of those filters you put on a text. I didn’t care about any of that.

GW: Well, so you say you’re at the age now where you might have something to say. Do you think you’ll try writing creatively?

CS: Probably not. I think that it’s something that you have to continue as a craft. I was pretty good at the craft at the time, and I could probably go back to it. But I still sort of have that fundamental thing of like I hate writing but I love having written. And to write something creatively, it just hasn’t really occurred to me. Having insights, responding to things, taking disparate pieces of thought, objects, etc., and then recombining them into some new perspective or seeing them in a new way or some—fiction writers call it “defamiliarization,” seeing something new, or appropriation…

GW: …you’re not necessarily talking about doing this in written form though?

CS: No. That’s the whole thing. My journey has been through lots of different formats. It could be performance; it could be visual; it could be writing, which I guess is verbal or language.

GW: So, in a way, taking up writing alone would have been very confining…

CS: …yeah…

GW: …just one form of expression. Whereas you found that this ability—whatever it was that people were seeing in you, this talent—can manifest more fully in many other vernaculars, so to speak.

CS: Yeah, as was music, it was also confining. The business aspects of making music, which was bad back then and it’s even worse now. And writing, as a form, was great, but it was also ultimately confining because I think what I started to bump up against was the fact that you had to be really, really—how can I put it—you just had to know so much rather than to do and be. And going down that particular path of writing, you had to know everything. You couldn’t just be, you couldn’t just create stuff, you had to actually know everything. You had to think and you had to rationalize, you had to defend, you had to do all that stuff. I just found that to be exhausting.

GW: Writers do a lot of research before they write.

CS: Yeah, I mean that’s fine, I do research all the time now in my work, I do it for inspiration. I look at it this way: research can be generative, it can be formative and it can be evaluative. So, what I mean by that is you can use research to inspire you to “generate” something creative. You can do research that takes an idea that you already have and make it better, shape it or form it- “formative” research. Or you can take an idea that is totally fully vetted, and if you’re trying to make a business proposition out of it or if you’re trying to see if it actually would have any kind of receptivity, if you care about that stuff—some people do, some people don’t—then you would want to use research to “evaluate” that idea. And so I think that of those three kinds of research, I practice mostly generative and formative research. I don’t do a lot of evaluative because I feel like if you do generative you’re really inspired by something, or if you have an idea and you test it out and you perform it, or you show it, or you release it into the public space for commentary, like even in a limited space, if you do that intelligently, you do that in a way it’s considered or you apply it as a tool, then you can iterate on what you’re doing and make it better. If you do generative and formative you don’t have to do this ridiculous evaluative. I never liked questions with right or wrong answers. And it always seemed like in criticism there was a right or wrong way to do it, even though I always looked at it from the creative side, wanting to just have a novel insight, wanting to do something that was not already there.

GW: And you can leave the evaluation to others.

CS: Yeah.

GW: Maybe you can say something about the work you do, give an example from your own work, what might constitute an object or an idea that would generated.

CS: Yeah, so what I do, I suppose my “day job” (laughs), my job-job…

GW: …why do you laugh when you say “day job”?

CS: I say it because as a creative person, if I didn’t have my day job, if I hadn’t fallen into this line of work I would probably be sleeping in a suitcase, you know? Or I’d be somewhere in the equivalent of that. And so I was really lucky to discover design. I studied product design, so when I stepped into that world twenty-five years ago, whenever it was, design was at that time about taking objects and making them look attractive, using the tools of art and science to solve some problems of business, which is, like, how to make something look sexy or how can we make this thing sell by making it look a certain way.

GW: What would the science part of that be—something like psychology?

CS: Engineering, technology, how to build something, how to make something, because if you’re thinking about objects and products there’s always a technological part to it.

GW: So you don’t mean using science to figure out things on the side of the consumer?

CS: No, physics. Like mechanical science. Which is an area that is also full of right and wrong answers. I collaborate with a lot of scientists and technologists. I’m not either of those.

GW: So, that was the goal back then, to make an object that would be attractive?

CS: That was how it was thought of back then. But what happened was—and this was what was interesting when I got in the field—was that there were all these stories in business and in the design world where certain products were made, and were really sexy and all that stuff, but they didn’t succeed.

GW: They didn’t succeed in terms of sales?

CS: Sales, right. That’s always the metric, right. It might’ve been beautiful , but too expensive to make, or people just didn’t get it, or it wasn’t marketed properly or there wasn’t a story behind it. And this is where it gets interesting because what happened in design in the last twenty years was that design became more human-centered—and I kind of grew up in the design field during that time. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in the field if it was about just making an object look sexy. I didn’t have the skills to do that. I was pretty crappy at that. I was trained in literature, and now I go into a field full of art kids where it’s about something else entirely, so I had to basically throw into the closet all of my literary analysis experience that I just studied for four years and work in a completely different medium, a completely different set of skills, completely different way of creating something and putting it out into the world. So, it was incredibly hard and challenging. I had had a bit of experience working visually before that, before I got into literature so it was a big split. And in a way it was an experiment with the path of my life. But what happened was, it was kind of this strange, fortuitous confluence of things, there were a couple of people in the design field who started to take the ideas of social scientists—and a lot of these people were based in Chicago, there was a lot of really successful experiments in marrying design with social science going on out there—ethnography, basically. And bringing that into the design and business environment…

GW: …this is in the 90s?

CS: …yeah. It was in the early 90s. The people who were doing this was a guy named Larry Keeley—he’s still around, he’s at Dobbin Group, in Chicago, Rick Robinson, who formed eLab which is now a huge consultancy called Sapient, my former employers, Continuum and IDEO also quickly adopted this way of working.

GW: So, they got this idea to bring in people who know about how people make choices and so forth.

CS: Yeah, and so they start, as I said before, design was using the tools of arts and sciences to solve the problems of business. Well, now, design started opening up and using the tools of liberal arts and the social sciences to solve these problems, and all of a sudden, if they could put aside some of their academic pieties—you know, in anthropology they have all these rules about how they view people – and they all, almost to a person are terrible writers and terrible communicators, but they’re very good at observing people and creating insights from those observations. So, a practice started to evolve in many design studios and many companies where the challenge was to come up with something new. And that…

GW: …were these observations coming mainly from anthropology, from the ethnologists?

CS: …cognitive psychologists and…

GW: …sociologists?…

CS: …yeah, sociologists. But I found, coming from liberal arts, coming from literature, I’d read Freud and I’d read the classics and read Shakespeare and kind of creating insights around the use of language and motivations of characters in plays or poems or whatever, you start to get really good then to use that lens in a commercial setting and on actual real people. And that actually became quite exciting, is was a really exciting time because I could now switch on all that stuff that I’d spent…

GW: …yeah, take your goods back out of that closet.

CS: And I didn’t have to exclude any part of me, it was like the two pieces, the literary side and the visual side, could start to work together. And that was quite exhilarating because a lot opened up, you know— wow, I can look at this from language, I can look at this from the visual side. The design process works—like, how I do projects now, if I have a client or a client comes to me and says—this is what I’m working on right now, a client came to me and said we need to fix this, we need to redesign this and we need to do it right, we can’t afford to make a mistake…

GW: …what’s an example of a “this”?

CS: Oh, they might say, “we make cars really well but we’re in the larger business of mobility and maybe we want to do a service, we don’t know. What should we do?” So, it’s more generative and open-ended. So I go out and I spend time with people and I look at them, I look at what they do, and I may look at what’s going on in general mobility, with trains, or with whatever.

GW: Just observing people in everyday life?

CS: Yeah. What are people trying to do? What are they trying to do around mobility? At first, I’m not offering design solutions. But rather I am asking, What’s not there? What’s that thing that’s screaming at you silently…

GW: …that I can help bring into the world…

CS: Yeah. What are the things that they’re doing that you would call “work-arounds,” that they’re adapting their own solution to something because there isn’t yet a solution.

GW: Because if there were already something there they would be reaching for that.

CS: Yeah. And you can’t do this behind your desk. You can do it to an extent online now…

GW: …do it online?!

CS: Well, you can look in message boards around certain product categories. So if someone’s complaining about their car, you can pretty much see where cars are screwed up. But it takes observing how people actually live their lives in real time to see the entire system level change that could be made – so in the case of cars, there is an emerging car-sharing business model now that eliminates the whole model of car ownership.

GW: It does seem like the most direct way is actual observation of people’s behavior.

CS: Yes. It’s basically ethnography.

[Waiter comes. We order beer and oysters.]

GW: Is one of your concerns in doing this work to help make people’s lives better somehow?

CS: Yeah. So, the thing is, the popular assumption around any kind of market research—and this is not what I do—is that it has to do with manipulation, it has to do with giving people false choices, it has to do with inventing needs for things that don’t exist. And I think that there has certainly been a long history of that sort of thing in advertising. Cognitive psychologists speak of a rational mind and an animal mind. What these advertisers do is appeal to the animal mind. If you’re selling crappy, sugary snack foods or fizzy drinks or whatever, there’s a long history of that approach. Using sex to sell stuff like that—this is one of the worst and yet most widely successful forms of advertising. What a lot of us are doing in design now is designing for behavior change, designing for looking at all the …

GW: —…so, to be clear, the work you’re doing has nothing at all to do with what you just described, with this “animal mind” approach to design and advertising?

CS: Right.

GW: So, say something more about the behavioral change approach to design.

CS: I’ve done a lot of work in health care. Some of the largest pharma companies. Pharma companies make drugs. They have such an amazing opportunity to not just think about the chemical compound that they make, the ones that people inject or ingest in their bodies, but there are real issues around pharmaceutical medications that they can address as well. Look at people with diabetes, for example. There’s a big problem with adherence. If you’re type-2 diabetic later in life, and you’ve grown up eating and drinking whatever you wanted, and then all of a sudden you’re being prescribed insulin in order to avoid all kinds of real nasty consequences associated with diabetes. You probably need more than just an insulin shot five times a day. You’re going to need to get on to a very different life-style. You’re going to have to change your behavior, behavior that you’ve probably had thirty-five or forty years or since you can remember. And so the pharma companies, they offer insulin and they offer it in really designed packages now, in many cases very affordable. But they have the opportunity to offer an entire eco system of care and useful services and of all the stuff around their compound that would actually create a better overall outcome for a person with diabetes.

GW: Yes, the person would more likely adhere to the health program. There’s a lot more to it than just taking insulin. What would an example be of a—what did you call it?—a whole package?

CS: An “adherence package.” Because people with diabetes often don’t adhere to their health regimen. So, you have to design for them so that they can continue to live and function as before the diagnosis? And to do so without inviting any stigma? I have friends who took on a consulting job with a a pharma company. Working with nutritionists, working with psychologists, working with mobile technology—because we all spend so much time staring into our smart phones, we’ve come to rely on them—they created these apps that are actually useful.

GW: So, this is an example of how designers can initiate and guide behavioral changes?

CS: Yeah, how they can intervene. Because if you leave it up to the doctors or the engineers or the health care workers and insurance people, it won’t get done. Designers go in because they have an ability to look at how people actually live, how people really live, and design things that don’t necessarily give them—in the case of diabetics—a penalty for eating a cookie, but more like take the cookie-eating behavior and funnel or channel it into something less destructive or useful. And add little things to their routines and rituals.

GW: This—diabetes, health care—seems like an obvious case where it will be only beneficial. You create apps and employ social media …

CS: Yes. Exactly. A lot of the perception about designers is that we’re only working in this commercial space and that the financial yardstick is the only thing that matters. It’s not true. The financial yardstick is often—if you can demonstrate in say clinical trials, or in a pilot test of a hundred people that they have, through your set of interventions, been able to get to a better outcome. Then, imagine how imagine how much money that would save the health care system. Imagine how much pain and suffering that would save the families of these people, who are having to bring them into emergency care every other week when they go off the deep end. Designing for behavior change does matter. And you have to bring in the cognitive psychologists, or at least some of the thinking around behavior. But it’s ultimately a creative act to design an app or intervention or service or something not even for the patients themselves but for the people around them. I saw this brilliant object in Finland. This woman was responsible for marketing an Alzheimer’s drug. She worked with a local design firm. They came up an idea where they actually, as part of getting the patient this Alzheimer drug, they created this patch the patient wears that mitigated the effects of Alzheimer’s, and she created this whole service around whom to call, what happens if they disappear. They created a whole suite of interventions, not for the patient but for the people who were responsible for looking after the patient. I saw another intervention in a hospital with people with Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s patients tend to wander, to just leave the grounds. And the hospital didn’t have a fence or wall around it. So, what they did was build a fake bus stop. They found that the patients would go to the bus stop all the time, to catch a bus to go home. They’d go and sit at the bus stop. It seems sad, but this is a design intervention. This is designing for behavior.

GW: So, these are examples of how designers come up with strategies for affecting behaviors that are obviously improving the person’s personal situation within a particular social environment, such as health care. I saw a video clip of you where you were saying that you felt very optimistic about the future from the design standpoint in part because of these kinds of developments in behavior modification. I’d be interested to hear how you think designers can extend these kinds of interventions throughout society. It would also be interesting to hear whether this same sort of method could be used in not such obviously beneficial ways. I’m thinking, for example—you know, I have a background in Buddhism and meditation—and there are a lot of studies circulating that supposedly show that meditation helps a person become less reactive to immediate stimuli or to be equanimous in the face of tension and stress. So, the US military catches wind of these studies and thinks it might be a good idea to train combat soldiers in meditation so that they can be more focused and concentrated in battle, less reactive to internal and external chaos. Do conversations around such issues happen in design?

CS: Yeah, bad people can do bad things with it. It’s technology, and technology’s neutral, right? Science is neutral. Science did not set out to create the atomic bomb. That wasn’t Einstein’s intent. We have the law of unintended consequences.

GW: You’re just interested in focusing on the positive, beneficial possibilities?

CS: Yeah! I mean, when I can. When I can get work like that. The real interesting work to be done is in education, health care, financial services, perhaps, or finance, and obviously the environment. In terms of behavior, if we can design meaningful interventions in those four areas creatively and proactively, then maybe—and there are some great examples, there’s great creative work happening.

GW: Can you say more about the actual process, creative process, that yields the kinds of results you hope for?

CS: Sure, I’ll take something really banal, umm, like banking, retail banking. I did this in Eastern Europe a couple of years ago. Okay. Who’s really good at providing service? Well, the mobile phone companies and their shops do really good service. So, look to them. Why do we need to reinvent, recreate something in our own brand when in fact we can just draw on the practices of others? So, you go through this whole phase of drawing inspiration and drawing insights out of or around the problem, around the area. And it’s very ambiguous and very hazy. And then you go into this phase that we call “synthesis,” where you’re just trying to create new insights or value out of all of these disparate pieces of inspiration. We’re trying to get at the nature of what it is. Through this whole process you’re coming up with ideas all the time. And then finally once you’re through synthesis and you have a framework, a way to organize your thoughts and your inspiration, you probably also have a ton of ideas at the point. You have a good sense of what’s not there, what could be there, what might be completely out there. So, it’s a way of also generating vision, creative vision. And then, once you have that defined in this still sort of hazy way, with little doodles or sketches or whatever , words on a post-it note, whatever it is, ten you get into this phase that you might call “envisioning,” or “giving form.” At this point, it starts to look more like a classical design project. But what you’ve done is, you’ve not only designed a service or a thing or a piece of software or something, you’ve designed what you’re going to design, you’ve designed the brief. In the past is was like, a company that makes chairs says, ok, mister designer, design us another chair. Now, if someone came to me a said that, I’d be very suspicious about it. I’d be like , well what’s the matter with the twenty chairs that you already have? You need a chair? Okay. Do we need to look into how people sit? Do people even need to sit? Maybe you can design a table or a floor or a glass or a lamp something that hasn’t been thought of yet, in the space between sitting and whatever. Because obviously your twenty existing chairs aren’t doing it for you. So, maybe there’s something else. It’s designing the what, and then designing whatever the what leads you to. So, there’s a process for defining what the what is.

GW: What did the what lead to in the case of the Eastern European banks? They wanted to improve service, so you’re looking at, what, Apple stores and cafes? What happened?

CS: The thing about Eastern Europe that’s interesting is that, if you go into any institution, whether it’s commercial or public, you have this residue of Stalinism. You go in and there’s somebody sitting behind the desk encased in computer monitors, and their chair is going to be much nicer than yours, it’s going to be gigantic, probably even elevated. And you’re sitting in a little crappy, collapsible fold-up thing…

[ Waiter comes. Interruption].

CS: …yeah, so all of this Stalinist residue, the bombastic architecture. It flavors the whole interaction, right? The other part of it is that people in this part of the world don’t really know what a bank is, what it does. (Well, arguably people in the western world don’t either, if the last five or ten years is any indication.) So, we have the opportunity to recreate what a bank actually is. People in that part of the world are looking at the West and saying, I want a flat-screen TV, I want a car, I want all of the material creature comforts, etc., because I’ve lived in a place of denial for a long time. And they come into a bank and what they get is this Stalinist experience. It’s painful. So, our client took a chance in taking our approach. Normally, bankers are just going to do what the most cost-effective thing is, invest as little as possible, and try to extract the most profit or value they can. But here, they actually said, no, we value our relationship with the people of Eastern Europe. We got them to that point. We told them, look, don’t be dicks, don’t be bank-wankers. You know? Everyone else is doing that. The state-owned banks in those countries are horrific, they’re totally corrupt and awful. And everybody knows it in those countries. Even if they don’t know a lot about banking. So, the first bank that’s actually going to teach someone about what a bank is in a very simple way and create a relationship with people, will win. So, we took our inspiration from cafes—and diners, very much like the one we’re sitting in. If you make tables that are semi-circular, and have a round thing in the middle, like a classic New Jersey diner, instead of this face to face adversarial Stalinistic thing, all of a sudden all of the conversations become much more conspiratorial, in a positive way, compared to when it’s in this justify-yourself-to-the-banker manner. So, that was the first intervention that we did. The second one was around waiting. We knew people were going to wait. And we knew that there would be all of this bank literature in any given branch sitting there unread. Why not turn waiting into a productive experience? Since the bank also offers its services to small businesses in the area as well as to its customers, could the literature somehow link-up the two, create a relationship while waiting? The third thing that we did was also a sort of animal-brain idea. We saw that there are two basic things that you need to do in a bank. One is to perform a transaction; the other is to have a consultation. So, we designed all of our bank branches split up. We literally took the design language of the street and we extended the sidewalk right up to the cash desk so that they could do a transaction really quickly. Most of these countries are still using cash. The other side of it we turned into our café, loungy sort of thing with the conspiratorial tables. And of course our banker clients are like Six Sigma Ninjas, and they measure everything. So, they did a pilot of maybe ten branches to see how people would respond. Well, they grew their business FOUR TIMES. They’ve built now, like, four hundred of these things.

GW: Man, talk about designing for behavioral change!

CS: Yeah. The main thing is, a lot of people think of design as about what the thing looks like, or feels like. But it’s also what it acts like. You can design something beautiful, but if people act like douchebags it’s kind of sad, you know.

GW: Yeah. There’s a strong ritualized element to it. People walk in, and are confronted with certain choices…

CS: …you design an experience…

GW: …to make—that’s the behavioral aspect. I sense a certain, kind of, quasi-utopian feel to some of what you’re describing.

CS: I think you have to have that to some extent. But I think it’s so tempered by reality and the frailties of human beings. When you spend a third of your work life, as I do, observing what people actually do, and the decisions that they make, how they actually live their lives, and to do all of this without saying anything to them—it’s very meditative and contemplative. But at the same time you realize that, even it’s something like a bank, the most commercial entity there is, at least it’s something that many people interact with. Why not have it be done in a way that’s a least thoughtful and considerate rather than unconscious and Stalinistic?

GW: What you’re describing, this mode of observation and so on, must also make you quite sensitive to the dystopian elements of everyday life, like, you know, how human unfriendly so many of our shared spaces are—the building materials, the lighting, what the space is allowing to do or preventing you from doing, the seating…

CS: …yeah, a lot of this comes from what you call “annoyance-driven” design. This there great story that comes from IDEO (one of my former employers) folklore. There’s this guy, a former colleague of mine, Kristian Simsarian, who’s now the head of the interaction design department at the California College of the Arts. Great guy. Very thoughtful design researcher. They were doing a project for a very large hospital system in California years ago. And what he did was, he decided that he was going to be a patient. He didn’t have any illness. He just wanted to try to understand the patient experience. So, he lay down on a gurney with a video camera, and basically shot a five minute film of the shitty drop-tile ceiling in their facility. So, his first presentation to the board, he presses play and is like, this is what the patient experience is. Five minutes of staring of this drop-tile ceiling. Of course, everyone in the room goes, whoa, we need to renovate the ceiling. And he goes, no, no you need to provide a completely different experience. What was really cool about that something that I think most design groups wouldn’t do…

[Waiter comes. We order beer and a bowl of roasted peanuts with garlic and rosemary]

CS: What we find ourselves doing increasingly in recent years is that rather than designing ourselves, we train other people involved in a practice – like the nurses and the doctors – to design their own solutions. Because they’re the ones at the rockface of the whole thing. They’re the ones who ultimately have to live it, to deliver it and to give it life. You’re not going to be off designing in your ivory tower. And I think that it’s a very powerful thing. In a way, everybody’s a designer. It can also be empowering for a lot of people because everybody’s creative. Everybody has the ability to come up with a solution to a problem if they are given a decent set of tools and a bit of encouragement. You don’t have to get a degree in it. That Einstein idea is quoted in my field all the time: the solution to the problem is never on the same level where the problem was created. You have to see the solution from a different level, or from a different dimension, or from a different point of view than where the problem actually resides. I do believe that’s true. So, there is a lot of worth in having outside perspective on things.

GW: Did this way of thinking come out of the input of humanities types—ethnologists, psychologists, and so on—in the design field? I mean, you talk in quasi-utopian terms about the possibilities of design and the role of designers as having a large, and largely positive, effect on society and culture. Did this view come from the liberal arts influx into the field? Because, before that, design was mainly focused on how to make products that stoked consumer desire, products that were attractive, and that people would want to buy. And that was it.

CS: You have three things, always, in a commercial project. It’s a Venn diagram: human desirability; technical feasibility (you to be able to make it); and business viability (it has to be able to pay for itself or create profit of value of some kind).If an innovation or new idea has those three things then it deserves to exist—most likely. I mean unless it’s something around killing people. That’s usually what you’re trying to set your projects up to achieve, the harmony of those three things: desirability, feasibility and viability.

GW: When you invoke desire, that raises all kinds of interesting questions, doesn’t it? I mean, human beings desire all kinds of things, whether they’re useful or necessary or not, right?

CS: Yeah, I mean the classification of desire lives to do that, you know? I mean, whether it’s the animal brain or the rational brain or the moral brain.

GW: It sounds like there’s a certain moral system operating here, in design.

CS: Well, I mean there’s a moral system operating everywhere. Or , of course, there are some instances when you’re aware of it by its absence. I don’t work with the egregious pharma companies, nor do I work with military contractors or tobacco companies. The basic rule of thumb is that I work with anyone as long as they don’t make stuff that kills people. I also draw the line at things that feed addictions, like gambling.

GW: Do you see any continuity between your current design work and your earlier involvement with DIY?

CS: Oh yeah.

GW: Can you say something about that?

CS: Well, in the sense that DIY—I mean, right now, we’re living in an age where big companies are deteriorating. And they’re deteriorating on a number of different levels…

GW: …you don’t mean large corporations?

CS: Large corporations.

CS: They’re deteriorating?!

CS: The people who run large corporations are obviously getting richer, and the people who work for them are getting poorer. But big corporations are in the business of being inevitable. Start-ups are in the business of being relevant. I think what started in California is spreading everywhere now, not only to the rest of the US but the rest of the world. And that is, you have a lot of people who leave big corporations and starting their own firms, startups.

GW: Executives? People who made money at the corporate job?

CS: Yeah. Or maybe they didn’t. Or maybe they were middle managers or whatever who have an idea. So, they do their own startup. There’s a lot of money out there, a lot of money chasing ideas right now, creative ideas. Corporations are ossified. They’re slow. And there are people in the investment community looking for larger growth. So, there’s a huge appetite for risk. It’s amazing—in this country, anyway. But it’s spreading.

Cordy Swope on “The Imagination Market

2 responses to “Conversation with Cordy Swope: Design Against the Animal Mind”

  1. Morrie Swope (Dad) Avatar
    Morrie Swope (Dad)

    Cordy and Glenn.

    This is so right on! Even in my business, 40 years and the gold watch is over. What I try to do with my new out of work candidates is paint a picture of success and hope by introducing a home business for them into the equation, before we look for another job. Some accept this, others not. To me it is the only way to stem the tide of mediocrity in the future work force and work place.

    I hope you can get this out to others who share your vision for the future,your points are very well taken.

    Excellent job by both of you.
    Best to all,

  2. fionnchu Avatar

    Thanks for the insights of both creative minds. Cordy’s comments on redesigning banks and seeking a more creative way to encourage exchanges reminded me of this book I recently reviewed, and the attempts of the Action Office in the early 60s to advance innovation: Is There Life Beyond the Wall of Your Cubicle?. Those inspired attempts, on the other hand, provide now a cautionary tale, given 60% of Americans now work in the Action Office’s legacy, a cubicle.

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