There’s a Difference Between School and Real Life: This week on Track Changes, Paul and Rich sit down with Allan Chochinov, chair of the MFA in Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts and founder of design network Core77. We talk about who is really teachable, building good design from huge problems, the vast applications of "design thinking", and how much time is wasted on meetings.
Allan shares two incredible medical UX-design moments that he's witnessed— building an at home diagnostic tool for HIV testing and creating a quick-attach prosthetic limb. Both of these scenarious required empathy towards consumer experiences and pragmatism. These small design gestures can have a big impact.
Paul Ford You’re a— you’re a sensitive, in touch person.
Rich Ziade [Crosstalk] Are you in your fifties, Allan?
Allan Chochinov I am, yeah.
PF It’s a little—
RZ You look great!
PF [Crosstalk] When you realize . . .
AC I’m gonna be 57 soon.
PF I know— it’s [snickers] we’ve had this conversation.
RZ Oh he’s had LSD—
PF Look at the beautiful hair—
AC My mom’s— [inaudible over crosstalk]
PF Yeah, some grey. Some grey.
RZ I— I can’t see his face right now but the forehead is tremendous.
PF No, no. Alan just won a lottery on this front.
RZ Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Are we recording?
PF We are. We’re talking about—
RZ Steph, feel free to put this stuff in [laughter].
PF [Chuckling] We’re talking about how handsome Allan is [voices fade out, music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Allan Chochinov, a key person in New York City tech and design for a long, long time. Let’s talk about that in a minute but the first thing to talk about, really, is you run a program at the school of visual arts.
PF What is the name of that program?
AC Uh [music fades out] the name is MFA in Products of Design.
PF Ok. That— [yeah] ok. Let’s break that down a little bit [laughs].
AC We should. We intended for it to be uh future proof and [uh huh] it actually came true because— well, I mean the idea was that everything is a product of design [mm hmm]. So each and every kind of design: uh graphic design; industrial design; service design; interaction design, social innovation design; tons of business design—
PF So a new design— like, you know, suddenly there’s a new kind of way—
AC Well, yeah, radically, you know, multidisciplinary or generalist anyway [ok] but what’s interesting is people see the word product design they think that we’re an industrial design program and we do teach industrial design—
PF Like make a teapot kind [yeah] of thing, yeah.
AC But the fortunate thing is that, I guess about four or five years ago interaction designers kind of like stole the term product design from [snickers] industrial designers—
PF Actually that’s— boy, we did, didn’t we?
AC Which is— it’s either like funny or heartbreaking depending on which side you’re on.
PF No, it’s funny for us. Yeah. We’re— we’re enjoyin’ it.
AC So many of my colleagues spent their whole lives trying to, you know, help people understand what an industrial designer was, you know you would— you would say well, “We’re— we design product.” [Oh!] Product design. That was easier. Now it’s just like, “Oh, what platform? Facebook?”
PF [Exhales hard] We destroyed everything with that—
RZ “We” is a lot—
PF No. But you know how many times have we said “product design”?
RZ We jumped on it. We did jump on it.
AC You know? Many people have said everything is interaction design, everything experience design. So—
PF It’s true.
PF Alright, so tell us a little bit— this program, it’s a graduate program?
PF And it has how many students—
AC There’s about 18 students a year. Uh it’s single track; every student takes every course, uh no grades which is really helpful uh cuz we want maximum risk and, you know, it’s point of departure is that uh and, you know, we’re really upfront about this that like everything’s broken. And so that everything can be uh reimagined. We’re I wouldn’t say cynical about best practices but we’re certainly interested in doing things in a way that we haven’t gotten good at doing them.
PF You gave me a piece of advice once um [uh oh] um that— No. It was very, very valuable. It was just that there’s a real difference between life and school.
PF And that when you’re in school and you’re learning that’s not practicing for the real world, exactly, it’s not like, “Here: learn these incredibly necessary skills for tomorrow,” some of that has to be there but for the most part it’s like, “Let’s break things; let’s figure it out. I want you to be thinkers.”
AC Yeah. I— I’m still really sympathetic with that um I think you need, you know, especially grad school, it’s just a two-year program, and, you know, they’re grownups, they’re people who chose to come back to school so there’s a strange— like when I’m meeting with potential students or prospective students and, you know, they have this idea of this place where they wanna be after grad school [right]. So they’re trying to find either the right grad school to get them from where they are now to this vision of the future or whether grad school at all is the right sort of medium to get them from here to there. Uh but the problem is that grad school’s job is to like mix you up, in that, you know, couple years between where you are and where you wanna be and, in fact, even within the first, you know, two months, where you thought you wanted to be like probably won’t look very interesting anymore [sure]. And also— you’re gonna— grad school’s other job is to show you all these other potential futures that you didn’t even know existed, many of which, as you know, don’t even yet exist.
PF What are some of the things they do in this remarkable journey?
AC You know, we have a— a real mix between very purposeful, very social projects and very fanciful and projects around— we actually have a course called Design Delight.
AC Um you know a couple projects that stick out, Smruti Adya’s one of the projects she did— she was doing a project around prosthetics [mm hmm] uh and limb loss and limb difference and um a lot of these theses they can really turn on one sentence, like one of their subject matter experts or one of their, you know, user interviews will say something that will change everything. And so she was interviewing um a woman who had lost her leg and she said, “You know, late at night um when I have to go to the bathroom, uh sometimes I crawl to the bathroom. [Oof] Because it’s just— yeah. Because it’s just so onerous um—”
PF “I don’t wanna put my legs on—” Yeah sure.
AC And you know, that’s, you know, it really made an impact on Smruti and I think in like one or two days she just banged out this device, it’s actually— it’s on the website, called Swift and it’s essentially just a white tube that can expand a little bit and you would either print it out at Shapeways— you could, you know, measure and— and order a size or maybe there would be several sizes at— at Amazon and it’s just like this opportunistic limb that you can slip on, not have to crawl to the bathroom and then return to bed. So, those kinds of products are amazing to me because there’s not a— there’s a— it’s like an incredible lots for incredible little [right] um and I just love the idea of the power of design where you could make a small gesture and get an extraordinary impact from it um—
RZ Usually I— I think what’s—
AC And the visuals are very convincing. I mean like you— you should see the work.
RZ I mean oft— oftentimes that— when the design or the design arm of some big company, it’s usually driven by markets, right? [Mm hmm] Like it’s time for us to have little teeny Bluetooth headphones because Apple came out with little teeny ones [yup].
RZ So go do those, right? And that’s not driven by fundamentally a problem. Of course, everyone would like smaller headphones but really [yeah] the catalyst prove to be competition and [trails off as Paul comes in] —
PF Well and, “I’m gonna— I’m gonna put my mark on it.”
RZ You know and, “I’m gonna put my— we gotta—”
AC [Crosstalk] Oh for sure.
RZ “— have ‘em.”
PF Yeah. “Ours will be purple.”
RZ Yeah. Exactly which is— and— [stammers] that sits in such stark contrast to what you just described, right? Which is—
AC It does. I mean, you know, one of common denominators, which I actually don’t talk and think much about but for this moment I will, is beauty. I mean this thing— this thing’s beautiful uh and so there’s a whole spectrum of we could say “purposefulness” um in design, everything from, you know, what industrial designers would call like “skin jobs” like, you know, very styling, take a thing and just, you know, shroud it in something beautiful or really rethinking the problem. Some of the stuff that you do in reframing, let’s say you have a client comes to you and they think that they want something and, you know, that’s good enough to start but likely that’s not what you’re gonna end up doing and the problem finding uh the scoping, the reframing of the whole engagement is gonna be the most important part up front. That’s no less true for any kind of design in my opinion including uh product design, just product design’s really [chuckles] hard.
AC You know: materials; technology; labor practices; supply chain. It’s just endless.
PF We find this all the time. Like nothing that— people walk in the door and are ready to get that contract moving [yeah] and it’s we don’t want them to.
RZ Well, actually, it’s— it’s counterintuitive, right? We actually get ‘em— we wanna slow down for a sec.
AC Yeah, you wanna add some friction which they don’t wanna—
PF No! Cuz especially if they’re ready to go, it feels terrible—
RZ And also we wanna— we also wanna close the business. [Yeah] So it’s a little weird for us too but you also don’t wanna end up— end up down a path where it’s like you’re doing a thing that a) is untenable; or isn’t gonna make a lot of sense down the road.
PF You know what I’ve learned though is that everybody knows, like you just— you don’t wanna blow up that— that moment of fantasy is really important where your idea is absolutely transformational. Because the process whereby you actually start to go, “I’ve had a few of these ideas,” and then you start to sort of see them get poked at by reality as you walk around with them and then you figure out what you’re really in the business for, why are you doing this? You know? What change could you affect? Because kind of any— especially with technology, any technology idea you come up with: a smarter watch; a better hat. It’s doesn’t matter. Is going to be utterly world transformational and worth a trillion dollars.
AC It’s everything is— and everything is a platform.
PF That’s right.
AC Even if it’s not like unless you look at it at the platform level, you’re not looking at it. The systems mapping, I think, is the most valuable thing that the students do. Infinity mapping; system mapping [how do they— what’s]; user journey mapping—
PF What do those look like? Just—
AC The most basic one, and probably the funnest one is a mindmap where you’ll put let’s say the topic in the middle of a piece of paper and you’ll draw a circle around it; and then you’ll have these lines that radiate out like spokes on a wheel; and they’ll radiate out to other circles, the things that are related. So maybe— like my background is in medical design, so it might radiate out to— well, what we’re talking about, industrial design, let’s say ergonomics. And then it could radiate out to regulatory, and then it could radiate out to money. Uh and very close to that is gonna be insurance and then payers and payees will be around insurance bubble and then you start making smaller bicycle spoke wheels around each of the wheels, and all of a sudden you have this map on the wall. And then it’s a pretty quick trip to do what we would call a systems map after that which is—
RZ [Crosstalk] Well, ok—
AC— where you would start to organize this a little bit, it’s not just a big like blah on the wall. And when you show that to a client or to really anybody, it is likely the first time they’ve ever seen what they do, and it is often just, you know, they’re jaw drops. Because nobody ever showed them a picture—
RZ [Crosstalk] They finally zoomed out [yeah] and took a bird’s eye view.
PF Well, your own— your own process is a mystery, right? Like who knows your own process?
AC Absolutely. Same with students like they’re the worst— they’re the worst at seeing what they do or just a little edit that will turn something from good to like, you know, great [sure]. I mean you find with— with your clients, right? That you have to do that in the beginning or you’re— you know, you’re digging a hole that you’re gonna be in, sometimes when I say to my student’s, you know, when they’re like, “How should we write our thesis books?” I’m like, “Well, you know, imagine reading them.” [Laughs] [Right, right] Write them— write them as if you would actually have to read them and they’re like, “Oh. Ok.”
PF So students come in, they wanna make things, they wanna do things, design things, what are they— what are they like when they come out after two years?
AC You know there’s certainly converse— I wanna say that they’re multilingual [ok]. That’s— that’s ambitious but there’s certainly converse and they understand how, you know, VCs talk and what they worry about; they’re gonna understand how to pitch to foundations; they’re gonna understand UX, UI, lots of principles around graphic design and typography hierarchy. Just like all of it. It’s— it’s ambitious. The thing that we do is we have a lot of short courses instead of [huh] — we almost— we have almost no 15 week courses left. I believe that people can learn things faster than most people think that they can [mm hmm]. Also, graduate students worry, like they’re old enough to know, I— I’ve written about this, they’re old enough to know that they’re uh decisions have consequences so they don’t wanna negative consequences so they don’t wanna decide anything. So they read another book. And so when you have a project that is, you know, 15 weeks long, you know, they’ll start and then by week three or four like it’ll get hard. [Sure] You know, cuz like anything worth working on gets hard. And then they’re like, “Well, maybe I should try this other idea?” So then they go to their other idea and then three or four weeks later, that gets hard too cuz anything [snickers] worth on gets hard. And they’re like, “Well, you know, now I’m getting worried. Lemme go back to my first idea,” and then it’s just like this desperate rush to the finish [right]. I’m sure it’s the same— same in business, right? With a seven week course, you begin and then you middle and then you end, you’re ending after like class two or three um and you have to commit to idea— to an idea and just never, never give up. Like [mm hmm] no changing your idea. Of course it will change and evolve but no like starting like, “Oh well now I’m gonna do something around optics.” So we design out those weeks of anxiety where students will typically have like an [snickers] existential crisis but the best part is if we make a course from 15 weeks to seven weeks, we have a new seven weeks now that we can create a new course around [mm hmm] um and because we’re in New York and because a lot of the classes are in the evening, you know, I can get people to say yes to teaching who could normally never say yes to teaching like 15, you know, afternoons. But you know like Paola Antonelli can give us, you know, five evenings a year, right? Um—
PF That’s right. She’s the Exec Director of MoMA, right?
AC She’s at MoMA, yeah.
AC Uh she’s actually on sabbatical this year but and also like she can kill it in five weeks, you know?
PF Sure! Where do they go when they graduate?
AC I thought that it was gonna be just entrepreneurship city [mm hmm]. You know? It was so in the air, like I always conceived of it as a leadership program but I did have an idea that there would be more businesses launched out of it [mm hmm] and I think that I was a little naive— I’m Canadian. Still Canadian. I’ve been here for 30— 32 years.
PF [Laughs] It’s never gonna leave you.
AC Ugh. I wanted to vote. I mean, you know, it was the—
RZ Oh you’re still a Canadian citizen.
AC Yeah, I am.
RZ But residing here, in the US.
AC Yeah, so I underestimated just the— the financial burden of this thing. I mean—
RZ I was about to make a joke—
AC— you know, grad school is so expensive.
RZ— you just left ‘em with a debt [laughs].
AC Yeah, I know and they worry about that.
PF “You owe me 80,000 dollars and start a company— go start a company.” Yeah.
RZ “Good luck with your startup.”
AC And, you know, add— add to that the cost of living and eating and they’re not earning money, right? Like they don’t have jobs [sure] while they’re in school. So it’s a— the opportunity cost is immense, in any event— So they get the jobs at IDEO and Frog and SYP and Johnson & Johnson, like lots of really great companies. And then medium and small sized consultancies as well, and it’s really only in the last couple of years that the students are— are leaving those, you know, probably their second jobs—
AC— and starting out on their own. The other thing that I knew but I— I hadn’t internalized is that like nobody stays anywhere more than 18 months. So I can— I can calm some students when they’re so worried about like, you know, picking the right first job kind of thing and I’m like, “You know, don’t worry about it so much.”
PF “You’re gonna leave.”
AC “You’re— you’re gonna leave anyway.”
PF “In a year and six months.”
AC And this used to be more of like an advertising agency model [mm hmm], you know, you’d raise your salary by leaving every 16 or 18 months or whatever the convention but, you know, creative people are really restless. Um [yeah] and they want new challenges and, you know, school in a way makes that worse because it spoils them with all these fascinating things to do like every day of the week, every week of the two years, and then they get somewhere and, you know [well and also you’ve just given them—] it’s not inventions time every day.
PF You’ve given them the leaders of thinking in New York City around the field as their teachers, advisors, and friends.
RZ WHo— whose doing great work right now?
AC Well, actually, I mean back to one of my students, Souvik Paul, he’s actually turning his thesis into a commercial product, it’s called Cathbuddy. It was called Clean Cath. Two weeks before he came to the grad program, a friend of his was in a car accident and became paralyzed, so sort of back on paralysis. And he knew that for his thesis he wanted to— to do work around, you know, life in a wheelchair, but one of the things that he discovered is that there is a budget for how many disposable catheters you get a month if you are, you know, cathing and that it’s usually not enough, what insurance will pay for, and that people are sterilizing their own disposable catheters and reusing them. This is just like pretty specific design challenge. And they’re using like, you know, Clorox and microwaves and I mean it’s just [Paul sighs] — it’s a disaster out there [yeah], right? And so the risk for infection—
AC Yeah. It’s like — it’s a— it’s a big deal. So he came up with this device that would use a UV sterilization and you would put your used catheters into this device and it would sterilize them and then you could use them again. And he had really kept this dream alive since he’s graduated and worked so it’s gonna—
PF That’s great.
AC— it’s gonna be a real product. So like—
RZ It’s not out yet.
AC It’s not out but it’s like you think like that’s really like almost arcane. Right? It’s like a really, really specific but the numbers of people who use, you know, these products is extraordinary, so the scale of something like that could have really great impact.
RZ Also there’s no segmentation here. This isn’t a urban problem or an American problem—
AC Yeah, I know.
PF Yeah, you’re—
AC I think it’s a not talked about problem which makes it actually extra fascinating.
PF Your persona work is pretty simple on this one.
RZ Straightforward and it’s global in scale, I mean.
PF The other thing uh that I love is you and I love to talk about how we like really, you know, difficult, disgusting, horrible problems. And that’s a—
RZ Are you looking at me right now, Paul? [Laughter]
PF You and me. Yes.
RZ Yes, yes.
PF Yeah, we love to— we love to brag about it and that’s an actual like—
RZ That’s an actual horrible problem.
PF Cath— catheters that have to be clean where you can’t get the insurance money. So you had an agency.
AC Yeah. It’s— it was that but it was, you know, sister to uh a design like publication platform. So this is ‘95. I had graduated in ‘86 and ‘87 from Pratt with an industrial design degree and I was— I did my thesis on stick proof hypodermic needles. So hypodermic needles where you couldn’t get an accidental needle stick.
AC Uh HIV/AIDS was like new and everyone, you know, all the healthcare industry was like freaking out. The world needed a device like this. I mean now it’s like mandated by law but in those days it didn’t exist and no one could spend anymore money on any kind of—
RZ State the problem, again.
AC Um, you’re taking blood or [huh] you’re giving a shot [yeah] um and you remove the needle from the arm and you turn and accidentally um, you know, stick somebody [mm hmm] or you’re sheathing um the needle with the needle cap, the plastic cap, and you miss it and you jab your thumb.
AC Um I worked for a year and a half in that area, ultimately it expanded to um a phlebotomy which is a fancy word for laboratory blood collection. So looking at the whole, well, user journey of blood from when it leaves the arm to when you’re gonna get, you know, a result. So things like, you know, when you put blood in a test tube— we’re getting very detailed now, right? Um that blood builds up pressure and so when you open up the rubber test tube top it can aspirate into your face, um and you can contract HIV/AIDS through your eyes that way. Um this is getting lovelier and lovelier, right? Um so I graduated and I knew I wanted to go into medical design. I always had like a big problem with solid waste. I knew I wanted to design things but I couldn’t stand the idea of mass production in just garbage. So I went into medical design. The joke’s on me, of course, cuz, you know, medical design creates more plastic than anything [crosstalk and laughter] and it’s like incinerated so it’s like extra bad, right?
PF It’s not like a styrofoam wrapper for a hamburger. That’s like [Rich laughs].
AC Oh I mean the mechanics in some of these devices like surgical staplers, I mean and it’s all just thrown out after a single use. I got to continue my interest in HIV/AIDS, I worked in secret on a project for Johnson & Johnson, it was the first home— uh home HIV test kit.
AC But they weren’t ready to put their name on it and so like we couldn’t tell anybody we were working on it. Mackenzie was involved; the FDA; [wow] C. Everett Koop, if you remember this very beloved [yeah] Surgeon General [yeah]. Uh you know so I’m like behind the one way mirror like testing the design of this— of this kit that you would essentially prick your finger and then it provided a dry blood sample and then it— it sent in the mail but we knew that we were, you know, we— even in those days, we didn’t call it like, you know, user segmentation but we knew that we were really looking at sexually active teenagers; we knew that we were looking at, you know, in all candor, like cheating spouses [sure]; we knew that we were looking at groups that are high risk for HIV; and that this thing was gonna be done secretly and in some like with a lot of anxiety [mm hmm]. And so pricking your finger—
RZ Lock the bathroom.
AC So lock the bathroom. So thank you. That’s the first place is where is this is gonna happen? It’s gonna happen in the bathroom. So in the bathroom, not a lot of horizontal surfaces. Right? So we actually had to create—
AC— a surface, this kit actually unfolded into a surface because we knew that it was gonna be in some sense laying in the sink.
PF It’s not a desk.
RZ You’re on toilet.
PF You’re not in a lab. Yeah.
AC Well it’s before phones, so— you’re not in the toilet that long. Yeah. Um well and then it gets— so you have to get rid of the evidence, so the kit has to somehow go away.
RZ Alright. So wait, I’m trying to visualize it, so you’re in the bathroom, maybe you got on the floor, maybe you sat on the toilet. You open this kit up, it kinda creates almost like a— I guess a tray.
AC Kind of a flat surface. Yeah.
RZ A flat surface. Ok. Next.
AC The big battle was the pre-test counselling.
AC Because there had never been— there’s no precedent for a home diagnostic kit, like a pregnancy kit for instance, of a fatal disease [right]. Right? Um also the false-positive and false-negative was really, really important here because—
RZ Stakes are high.
AC— even if you were negative, you had to be re-tested in three more months [right]. Right? And it had to be private. So the idea— we came up with this like barcoding system where you would pull out this ticket and we shaped it in the size of a credit card so it was a very familiar shape. And you could put it in your wallet and hide it.
AC But if you were in a situation where you weren’t hiding this kit, where you were with a partner, and you were both doing it, let’s say, then that number would be on there. Ultimately there was a 1-800 number and the way that it shaked out was that if it was negative, you would get a kind of recording and if it was positive, you would get a live person [mm hmm]. So this was really hard to do and there were two different land sets in the package cuz sometimes you miss on the first one cuz it really hurts [sure]. So even if you miss and you don’t get enough blood, you have to do it again. And you’re really scared to do it again. Like I’d come home with these like sore fingertips for weeks [right] um—
PF Oh cuz you have to test this thing, constantly.
AC The full user journey, right? So now what happens? You haven’t— it hasn’t worked. You take it back to the drugstore and you want a refund? This is supposed to be anonymous. Right? There’s no name attached to this. You’re not registering to do this. So— so thinking through these just unbelievably complex—
AC— thorny user experience design issues.
RZ Also, there’s— there’s blood on stuff.
AC The whole thing is just— [yeah]. You know back to the pre-test counselling— or the no pre-test counselling because C. Everett Koop was so beloved in those days, I think a deal was made probably bar— uh you know, brokered by Mackenzie and FDA that if C. Everett Koop wrote the— the manual then that, in some sense, would count as pre-test counselling. I mean it really came down—
RZ That’s ridiculous.
AC — It really came down to, like, “Listen: people should go to a clinic. They should go their doctor.” [Right] And then on the other side it’s just like, “People don’t go to the clinic, they don’t have a doctor, people are dying. Do you want this kit with a booklet? And no pre-test counselling in person? Or we’re gon— or nothing?” And so it became this really— it was an extraordinary—
RZ It was a lot at play.
AC— moment in time. Yeah.
AC So as— and every one of these was just such an unbelievable design decision. It comes on the market, it’s ripped off in one day. [Someone whistles in disbelief/amazement] Right? The knockoff like same forward factor; similar graphic identity; basically the same layout. I think it was on the market— J&J was on the market for I think a year or two only, you know they really need a homerun with J&J like just the scale—
PF It’s a giant company. Yeah.
AC Yeah, so they, you know, have to sell a lot of anything and they’ll— they’ll sink, you know, huge sums of money into R&D for a product and if it doesn’t go, it doesn’t go. Um—
PF This is not something you can market like Q-Tips.
AC No and all of— I mean imagine those meetings.
PF Well that’s just giant company, too [yeah]. Like what are you gonna do? You got Mackenzie and the FDA in there. It’s a tornado. [Yeah, yeah]. And little Allan just trying to do his job [laughs].
AC Yeah, you know, I was just— anyways, so um I started teaching in 1995 and that’s where I met Eric Ludlum and Stu Constantine who were the founders of Core77 and Pratt was smart enough— for their thesis they wanted to make a website. So this was like two years into the World Wide Web and um and that was the year that I started teaching and Pratt was smart enough to hire them to design their first pratt.edu website and gave them um a room and a T1 line which you will appreciate.
AC Yeah, right?
AC Um and essentially like incubated them when that word wasn’t a word yet [sure] and so in those days I would teach like a full day which was amazing. Like three hours in the morning; three hours in the afternoon; like sophomore id studio. You could show a film; you could have a discussion; do critiques. It was amazing.
PF Oh so it was a good thing?
AC It was a good thing.
PF That much teaching?
AC Yeah but I had a lunch hour and I—
PF I’m tired just—
AC — well yeah, now it’s like unimaginable [laughter] but I’d go there— I’d go there at lunch time and uh to the Core77 office and I would like learn HTML.
RZ For those that don’t know what is Core77? Let’s—
AC Uh so Core77 was actually the first design website online. It specialized in industrial design. So it had a very tight like per-view. And Stu and Eric talk about it that they created the site that they wish they had when they were looking for grad schools.
AC Um and it had all of these sections, it had a resource section. Um like you remember what things were like in 1995, right? It was like web 1.0. Um—
PF There wasn’t that much web!
AC No, no, I mean and it was— you know these were static pages. I actually had a column called Contraptions. Stu and Eric tease that I— they say that I was first design blogger which actually might be true cuz I— I would pick like a funny object and write like some pithy paragraph about it and do like five of them a month kind of thing.
PF I’m just worried Jeffrey Zeldman will burst through this door.
AC I know. Yeah [laughs].
RZ He’s coming for us from three blocks away.
AC Yeah I don’t know [Paul laughs] if there were web standards either. So I— I got to know these guys and um— and then there was a project that uh I was consulting with Ayse Birsel for Herman Miller. It was this brand new— you might remember a system called Resolve, it was based on 120 degree angles instead of 90 degree angles.
PF Oh that’s right! It was the future of the cubicle!
AC Yeah it was— it was phenomenal.
AC And then the first Dot Com bust happened, you know, eight months later. Like Herman Miller couldn’t build enough factories to make enough of this stuff and just— it was just unbelievable [Paul crosstalks]. No, in the contract furniture industry, that’s the first to go.
PF Oh ok. Oh, that’s interesting.
AC That was heartbreaking. Anyways, so I started doing some consulting with Stu and Eric at Core77 and uh we did this project for this Resolve system and it actually won a lot of awards like, you know, The Gold Pencil and the Silver Cube, I actually like have those engraved [mm hmm] and all of a sudden, Herman Miller starts calling and said, “Well, can you do that for our system?” [Sure!] And then we started to do all like the physical computing in our—
PF Ah that’s for young designers, what’s a better than a call from Herman Miller?
AC Well, yeah and [26:19?] was around and, you know, we worked with a lot of amazing artists. From ITP and—
PF That’s really close to like the core, right?
AC And they’re design-driven, right?
AC So, yeah we couldn’t ask for much. Anyway so I ended up like running a lot of this stuff in between like, you know, managing editing, um—
PF I see you’re always teaching.
AC Yeah, it’s a long time. Yeah.
AC It’s probably 23 or 24— 24 years. And then um so that design publishing went on a long time and Core grew, the web grew, like everything exploded.
PF Are you connected day to day? Are you kind of advisory now?
AC You know I’m on— I’m on partner meetings [ok] um you know most of my life is at SVA right now.
AC But yeah, no, it’s um—
PF It’s still very much part of your life.
AC It’s, you know, there’s not a lot of things that have lasted that long.
AC Uh that are really about, you know, making design connections and helping people find either fascinating things to care about or fascinating opportunities, you know, job opportunities or finding talent.
RZ So, Allan, design— it feels like somebody made two or three billion stickers that say “design” on them [yeah] and gave them out to everybody [yup], designers and non-designers, [yeah] and now there’s— there are design stickers on everything.
PF Well there’s design stickers on giant consulting firms around technology, around— just everybody’s a designer.
RZ The way a term’s like, you know, “customer journey” get tossed around. I mean it’s a strange— I’ve watched this not as a designer but more as a spectator—
AC Mm hmm.
RZ— and seen I think it’s the last ten years, more like five I feel like it really started to heat up.
PF Well, do we— let’s— let’s actually— you’re saying, let’s ask Allan: do you feel that design has been commoditized in the last ten years? In a way that it wasn’t before?
RZ Or describe this, like I— it’s just exploded and one I— I mean you can put on one hat and say, “Isn’t this great? Finally we’ve arrived.” And then there’s the other hat which is, “God we’re being— I mean it’s just— it’s been diluted into shit.” Uh give me your perspective on where we’re at today.
AC I think the first thing to notice— like so I’m not cynical about this, like the first thing to notice is that design has moved from something that is seen as aesthetic and coming at the end to something that is truly strategic, you know? And coming at the beginning. Adn like you understand that better than anybody. Right? You know? Again, you’ll make something beautiful but in a— in a Bucky Fuller kind of way if it’s the right solution, it will be beautiful. You don’t have to make it beautiful. So I think that there’s a new appreciation that—
PF If you like domes.
AC If you like domes.
PF If you love a dome.
PF Yeah, ok.
AC And then the other thing that, you know, people love to make fun of is design thinking which, you know, um even Tim Brown would like argue is just it’s pretty common sense. Right? Like work with your user; uh listen; prototype early; and then do it again. You know and iterate. And like don’t be an idiot. Basically. Like those [Rich laughs] are it. That’s design theory.
PF That’s the man who runs IDEO.
PF Yeah, that’s Tim Brown. Ok.
RZ Um design thinking is a wonderful thing.
PF Well [sighs] —
AC Well but people— but people make fun of it. And I think that a lot of people who make fun it— I mean first of all: the word, I talked about this in that no meeting article [https://productsofdesign.sva.edu/blog/nomeeting], the word thinking is in design thinking and everybody knows that design isn’t about thinking, it’s about making stuff. It’s about doing.
AC Um so right away it’s tricky um and then the idea is that if you thought about something hard enough then you— you would solve it, and that’s like ridiculous. I also think that people who criticize design thinking have actually never been in a design thinking workshop. Like I’ve run one uh with a bunch of um doctors and some managers and med students at Jefferson University just a couple months ago, and it’s like they see God. Like they can’t believe, they come up to you after and they’re like, “I can’t believe . . . I didn’t know about any of this. I can’t believe the notion of iteration. I didn’t even know that word, for instance. I didn’t know that we could make a low resolution like, you know, prototype of a webpage on a three— you know on a mobile app on three Post It notes and actually see something that we’ve been sitting in meetings just talking about and doing nothing about.” It’s like a revelation to them.
AC So I think that people would be less willing to criticize—
PF Well that’s the conversation where design thinking is brutal in the marketing message.
AC Well and that’s the thing is journalists like to talk about the over promise of design thinking [right] and of course that’s bad. And again the over promising is— is part of the problem, the— the— the journalism of the over promising part is— that’s a fun article to write. You know? So.
PF Well there was also a moment where everything kind of caught fire and went too far. It’s like TED was a good example like [mm hmm] 90 percent of the TED content is typical magazine style content. It’s pretty packaged up and then 10 percent is a little woo woo [mm hmm]. And fine, ok. Like that’s— that’s how America works and how we consume content but there was so much of it at one point that everybody was like, “I’m gonna make fun of this now.”
AC Yeah, yeah, no, and I mean I think everything comes up for parody at a certain point [that’s right]. You know I liked it before it was cool kind of thing.
PF Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
AC Um so I see the more people talking or thinking about design as an actual process and not as a thing, as an artifact, like the better. That is—
RZ It’s really value.
AC Especially in a world where, you know, cynically, you know, it’s all about extracting value. Like the design process adds value.
AC Um and the earlier the better. Um I know Postlight’s like super design driven and you have a place, you know, you understand that everything, you know, starts and ends with design.
PF Thank you, you’ve saved us 30 seconds of marketing [Rich laughs].
AC Yeah. Ah it’s really, really true.
RZ If you don’t mind [Paul laughing, Allan crosstalks] we’re gonna use that clip—
AC Yeah, for sure.
PF “Allan Chochinov says,” [Rich laughs] um you know a tricky thing too is the process can be really goofy, and that it’s hard to like it’s hard to commoditize like goofy thinking—
AC Uh and— and risky, I mean if you’re a designer, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity [yeah] and business is not comfortable with ambiguity. Like they— they’re in the risk reduction business, right? A lawyer is too. Regulatory too. Policy too. So—
PF One of the ways that I think we’re able to get stuff—
AC— it’s antithetical to a lot of people’s like you know—
RZ Sure. It’s scary.
AC— way of life.
RZ It’s a scary process.
AC It’s really scary, yeah.
PF One of the ways we get things across the line is just it’s so hard to ship software that people accept— there’s a point about halfway through on a lot of projects where we’re like, “You know, I know when you walked in and you said this and this and we said we didn’t know, we weren’t a 100 percent sure. It actually turns out that instead of A and B, C’s gonna be the better path.” They’re so anxious about not shipping that they’re able to sort of like process and listen and react to that because they’ve had experiences where things haven’t gone out the door because people have tried to do everything for them.
RZ Also transparency is key there [yeah] like you can’t show up and say, “Listen: um it’s gonna be path C.” They— they have to have seen how we got there and involved—
PF Rich has a wonderful maxim which is nothing’s bad news uh 60 days ahead.
AC Oh I love that. Mine is everything’s shitty until it’s better. You know?
AC Everything’s worse until it’s better.
PF And if you just keep telling the story and they know that like, you know, path C is probably gonna be our option but it’s two months before delivery date, everyone is gonna calm down.
AC Well do you think that— that scale like that number 60 changes depending on how, in some sense, in love they are with their own idea before they managed to get to you, to find you?
PF [Exhales] We— we—
AC Like how dug in they are to like, “We know that this is—”
PF We destroy the love at outset of engagement.
RZ Well, it’s— it’s— we have very much— we don’t report back, we’re more like, “Come on in. Come sit. [Yeah] At the table.” And you know that virtual table is Slack today. We don’t do the weekly report. We’re like, “Here’s what’s going on. Come on in.” Sometimes they don’t do it. They don’t come in. And then they just show up and they say, “Hey, what’s going on?” And—
PF Actually not— not of the current class. Like we’ve got most of that out of the business.
RZ Yup. It’s— it’s very—
PF It’s too risky.
RZ— collaborative. And because we want them to, first off: we want to have them in the room as we talk through the problem because a lot of times they’re the domain experts, not us. We’re just—
AC Oh yeah.
RZ We’re still trying to learn their world.
AC Well I think appreciation for local knowledge is a nice tenet of design thinking.
RZ Absolutely. Absolutely.
AC It’s like not everybody— the client isn’t an idiot all the time.
AC Kind of thing. Um. Yeah.
PF We are done with that. Like that— when we started this firm, my instinct was the clients were gonna show up and they were gonna show up and they were gonna be smarter than they used to be. The consumer of a platform company services is often a— a product leader on the other side and they— or they are experienced or they— also the— the resources for learning for what apps and what platforms and APIs are are— are so much better than they used to be [mm hmm]. So they come in pretty educated.
AC Well and they also have consumer experiences on their devices [that’s right] that are like, “How come our work doesn’t work like this?” [That’s right] Like, “How come I don’t have a dashboard for this for my business but I do for my jogging?”
PF Yeah, that’s right.
AC “You know my running.” So, maybe half the battle is done for you. Maybe not half but at least they understand power of design, they may not understand the actual, you know, plumbing of it.
RZ I think it has to do with— and I think you’ll see this even right up to big consulting, I mean the message now is, “We’re gonna worry about these problems with you. We’re gonna work through this. Design is part of the whole story. Here. Rather than it’s a bolt on.” And— and we say that, and so when people come to us, they kind of have an idea of how it’s gonna go, that we’re not a just raw engineering shop that is gonna take a blueprint and just produce the thing.
AC I just wonder— you know one of my favorite quotes is Petrula Vrontikis, she’s a— a designer and a teacher in California, she says, “I work with my ears.” And so I wonder sometimes like well what kind of clients come in here where you’re mostly listening and what kind of clients are coming in here where you have to just help them understand like who are; what you believe; the process; the kind of team that you have.
RZ Usually when they come here, there is so much bottled up. We go into pure listening mode. We just— we don’t even wanna actually have a dialogue much. We just sort of let them go.
AC Put it out like let us see the reality of what you’re worried about, basically.
PF Around about minute 50 of a meeting—
PF I— I think like, “Oh, you know, we should tell them what we do.” Seriously like that’s—
RZ We gotta let ‘em go and do the thing and then little by little we start to get into the— the conversation. You’re gonna know pretty quickly um whether this person is going to relinquish a lot of that control to allow us to do our thing or if it’s— if it’s going to be too tight and it’s gonna not allow this to be a success. And we can see it. Usually in that first or second meeting you can tell.
AC Yeah, I’m sure you have really good instincts as well. Well lemme ask you the magic wand question like if you had a magic wand, what would you want that person to ask you or to know about you in those initial meetings where they’re trying to understand like, “Do I need design?” Like, “What is design capacity gonna do for me?” And I mean sort of where we started about choosing, you know, whether to go to school at all or with school and if your organization is the right fit for them. What would they ask you? Or what would they tell you that you couldn’t sort of sort of interrupt them at minute ten, say, “Listen, can you—”
PF No, I mean—
AC This would be helpful.
PF For me, and Rich you might have a different point of view, but for me it’s just it’s very much— it takes a long time to get to the user. People have their— they have their peers and their business—
AC They have the wrong user usually.
PF Yeah and they’ve got the CEO and they’ve got so many anxieties. They have either money they have to spend or money they have to go ask for and—
RZ Promises they’ve walked around for bigger companies.
PF And who are we? Who the hell are we?
AC Oh right, of course, like you’re not necessarily the only people they’re talking to.
PF No and so they’re— they’re trying to figure us out. And so it often takes I think really three or four conversations until you can finally relax everybody and they can say, “Yeah, no, I know exactly who the user is here.” Right? But they cannot relax into that on that first meeting. It’s actually very closely held information.
RZ It’s often ambiguous. We had a client, the message was: there’s a big event coming in 90 days. And we wanna do a thing so that there’s— we make a good impact at the event.
RZ Like ideas came out like you know you pop the confetti thing? [Laughs]
AC Exhibition design; branding; the whole brand environment.
RZ They didn’t know. They had ideas. They had sketched stuff out. And they had what was actually great was they had this timeframe which we were able to use as sort of a forcing function [yeah, that’s true] to say, “Alright, listen: some of these are great and 3D is awesome.”
AC [Chuckling] “But 90 days is 90 days.”
RZ [Laughing] “But we’re 90 days away.” Right?
AC And you’re budget’s your budget.
RZ Exactly. That steering process and then eventually you have to give us the keys, right? We’re like, “Ok, we gotta run fast here.” I mean that is the reality.
PF You’re gonna set up the server, you’re gonna put it on Rails at that point.
RZ Yeah, yeah. And— and—
AC And you might not get to test it so much.
PF No, that’s right. That’s right like—
AC Cuz an event like doesn’t slip. That’s— that’s the scary part of that.
RZ It doesn’t slip.
AC It’s just like, “Well, if we wait three more, you know, weeks, it’ll be, it’ll be [exactly] —”
PF No, it won’t get better and we won’t fail. Like we won’t let you fail. And so we actually have to build that relationship. The good news is that the people who are right over your shoulder watching every little bit, they tend to be super cheap. Like they don’t wanna pay. They wanna watch you and they wanna tell you how to do it and they’re gonna— they’re gonna watch every minute and so by the time we get even— even to back of envelope, they’re gone.
AC They’ll know. You know that chart? It’s like, you know, design fees? You know whatever it is like 500 dollars, you know, if I do it [yeah], 750 if you watch me do it.
PF Yeah [laughs].
AC You know? 1100, you know, if you’re in the room, you know.
PF That’s right.
AC Um and it just gets more expensive the more um [laughter] — there’s a bunch of these things on Instagram. They’re pretty great. I’m gonna find one and send it to you.
RZ It’s also— I mean we think about the designers, it’s pretty demoralizing if you’re just— if somebody took your hand while it’s on the pencil [yeah] and are just constantly in there. It’s very—
PF It’s not good.
RZ It’s not good.
PF Alright, Allan, what do people do to get in touch with you?
AC I’m not much on Twitter. I mean I’ll be on it cuz I feel like I have to be on it. I like Instagram for hobbies. So that’s a good place to find me. Um, you know, you go down to chochinov.com but uh probably SVA is gonna be the— you know where you’re gonna see the most exciting stuff. So.
PF Where? What is the name of the program?
AC It’s uh Products of Design, it’s plural. Productsofdesign.sva.edu.
AC Oh and I have this whole essay on changing the word “meeting” to the word “review”. Uh the argument is that if you use the word— if you had a review at three o’clock this afternoon, you know, you’d look like an idiot showing up empty handed to something called a review. But if you had a meeting at three o’clock like whatever, no need to prepare. So um this idea came up um in a— in a staff meeting from Alisha Wessler, our Director of Operations, and, you know, it was like, “Can we— can we reimagine the word ‘meeting’? Can we actually just change it in the department?” And she said, “Well what about the word ‘review’?” I was like, “That’s it!” So I went back to my computer and I downloaded an autocorrect Chrome Extension and I made it correct one word, whenever I typed the word “meeting”, it would change it to the word “review”. And then I went into my iOS and did the same thing. Um and so I spent seven months not being able to type the word “meeting”.
RZ How’d that go?
AC It was awesome. Because you type “meeting” and then it changes it into “review” and you’re like, “Oh no, actually, we should probably ask people to like do something before we take their time and get together.”
RZ Huh. I’m applying this test right now, so it’s like—
PF No, it’s not— it’s not— don’t just bring your ideas. Bring a plan.
AC Anything— any kind of prototype.
AC Um and so one of our faculty, Bill Cromie, actually built a custom extension called No Meeting. Uh so you don’t have to like type in anything—
RZ [Crosstalk] God bless web extensions—
AC No, and get this: he came up with this idea to make a Slack bot, which he did. Which you can find at this— at this article. So when you type it into Slack, if the No Meeting Slack bot is in there, then the Slack bot will pop up and it says, “Hey, I noticed you uh typed the word ‘meeting’, would you like me to change that to the word ‘review’ so that people always come prepared to future gatherings?”
RZ This was great.
PF Yeah. I could listen to stories about medical devices being designed for the rest of my life.
AC Well, thanks for having me.
RZ Allan, thanks— thanks so much. [Music fades in] This was great.
AC Yeah, this has been a thrill.
RZ A lot of fun.
AC Thank you.
PF Hey, if anybody needs us, email@example.com, that’s the email that you could send to and it would go to me and Rich and we’ll forward it to Allan if you have any questions for him.
AC Ah, totally.
PF Alright, let’s get outta here. Let’s hang out and talk about medical devices [music ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, fades out to end].