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  • Writer's pictureGary Dickson

Little Experiments or Small Bets — an approach to designing (and to life)

2006 - Experimenting with pottery in the back yard

In 2004 I made my first trip to Mata Ortiz — a small village in northern Mexico. My reason for the trip was a small, 2-week, pottery making workshop on a remote ranch with the legendary Juan Quezada. It was the beginning of a long obsession with making pottery in a very specific way. I learned a lot about making pottery — from digging and processing the clay, to making my own tools and to firing the pottery in my back yard. But, possibly more important I also learned a lot about a philosophical approach to design, work and life. We spent hours on end with Juan Quezada as he showed us how to craft pottery and shared with us many of his life stories and lessons. Juan spent most the years of his youth and young adulthood studying, striving and practicing before he was able to reliable make a single piece of pottery. Even in 2004 after a lifetime of making amazing pottery Juan would confess to still loosing a surprising percentage of his pottery every time he fired a new batch. But, it didn't bother him.

At that time Juan, who is still active today, had made countless pots and trained hundreds of people in his village and from around the world in his technique for making pottery. Yet, as we watched him demonstrate his craft it was clear that he held a deep, heartfelt, youthful enthusiasm for every single pot he made even after so many years. That and his casual acceptance of pottery lost in the process raised questions. We asked — How did he remained so engaged in his craft? He told us that, for him every pot he started was a new little experiment. He always had some new idea he was trying out. This notion of using every new thing as a "little experiment" impressed me deeply. The idea of trying some new little thing, doing a "little experiment" is powerful. First of all it takes a lot of the pressure off — "oh, I'm just going to do this little experiment." The consequences could be amazing or it could just suck. But, it's just a "little experiment" and then it's on to the next thing. If it works then wow, if it fails then, well, I learned something from that. I think it's a beautiful, powerful and useful way to approach design and life.

Years later I ran across another example of this philosophy in approaching creativity, design and life. John Bielenberg, renown designer and once mentor of mine, refers to it as "small bets" as part of his "Think Wrong" approach. John says ...

"“Thinking Wrong” has six different practices that each function to remove the barriers for coming up with new ideas. (1) Be Bold—what’s the big challenge? (2) Get Out—get out of your orthodoxies and everyday patterns. (3) Let Go—let go of your existing orthodoxies and solutions. (4) Make Stuff—don’t just talk. Start making and prototyping. (5) Bet Small—try a bunch of small bets to alleviate the fear of doing things that might not work. When you frame something as a small bet, you can take a chance and try something new. (6) Move Fast—capture what you’ve learned from the small bets and accelerate momentum."

An example of this from one of Johns "Project M" design workshops was "Pie Lab." The workshop was focused on a poor rural town in the American south. The towns main-street was dying and the town seemed poised to follow. So, the project was attempting to find some way to bring people together and strengthen the community. In one of their work sessions, John asked each designer-participant to share something that they were good at. One designer simply said that they liked pie. Well, that's not exactly a skill or a talent but it did spark some interesting discussion. The discussion led to an idea for a "small bet." They baked some pies, set up a folding table on the street and shared pies with the locals. It was a huge success and led to setting up a shop in town — the "Pie Lab." Described as a "a combination cafe, design studio and social change incubator," Pie Lab is an interesting example of a small bet that led to a larger, more refined design idea that had an impact on a real world problem.

Sometimes these little experiments or small bets can feel difficult to execute in the context of work or life. Even small bets can seem hard to implement due to the people around us or the circumstances we are in. I wish I had some magic that I could share that might make this easier -- but I'm afraid that, in my experience, I have mostly bad news. The bureaucrats and such will ever insist that you adhere unwaveringly to their strict frameworks and approval processes. My advise is tough -- rebel... well, rebel a little. Make your small bet. Our future depends on it!!! It is often easier to ask forgiveness than to gain permission. Please understand that I am primarily referring to people involved in design, design education and design research. But, I think the advice applies to the majority of people out there.

In my life I've placed a few big bets, or done a few big experiments. Three out of five have payed off. But, those that broke even or lost, reeked significant havoc (and in one case nearly catastrophic) results in my life. Fewer, smaller bets allow for more learning and eventually more progress. The big bets must be addressed, but the small bets need to be rapidly formulated and lovingly embraced.

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