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September 2009

Personal Kaizen: 15 Tips for your continuous improvement

Kaizen.slideKaizen (改善) means "improvement" — "kai" (改) means change/make better, and "zen" (善) means good — but as the term is used as a business process it more closely resembles in English “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is one of the keys to the steady improvement and innovation found at successful companies in Japan such as Toyota. Says Matthew May, in his book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, “Kaizen is one of those magical concepts that is at once a philosophy, a principle, a practice, and a tool.” Though Kaizen is a tool used by corporations to achieve greater innovation, productivity, and general excellence, it’s also an approach, an approach that we can learn from and apply to our own lives as we strive for continuous improvement on a more personal level. We can call this “Personal Kaizen.” Others have applied the personal kaizen approach to personal efficiency or GTD. You too can take the spirit of kaizen and apply it to your own unique personal kaizen approach to improve — step-by-step, little-by-little — your design mindfulness, knowledge, and skill.   

Long-term commitment
Keep_moving.slideThe overriding principles of kaizen is that it is daily, continuous, steady, and it takes the long-term view. Kaizen also requires a commitment and a strong willingness to change. I suggest you incorporate these principles into your own personal kaizen approach to learning all you can about design and visual communication over the long term. The interesting thing about kaizen is that big, sudden improvements are not necessary. Instead, what is important is that you’re always looking for ideas — including even the smallest of things — that you can build on. Tiny improvements are OK; over the long-term these add up to great improvements. Each journey begins with a single step — this too is a precept inherent in Kaizen. Keep moving forward.

No end to improvement
There is an old saying that goes “Once you think you have arrived, you have already started your descent.” One must never think they "have arrived." In the West we say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the spirit of kaizen suggests that there is always something to learn and ways to improve, and that it is also better to prevent problems than to fix them. So, no matter how good things may seem now, there is always room for improvement, and looking to improve every day is what the spirit of personal kaizen is all about. It’s not about how far you have come or how far you have yet to go, it is only about this moment and being open to seeing the lessons around you, and possessing the capacity and willingness to learn and improve.
There are many small things you can do to increase your design mindfulness and skills over time. Here are 15 tips in no particular order.

(1) Keep an analog scrapbook of design examples you find. From napkins to paper cups to business cards and brochures, flyers, and posters — whatever you find remarkable (good or bad) and fits inside a folder, a box, or a scrapbook. From time to time, review the contents of your analog examples and reflect on what works (and what doesn’t) and why. This activity is even better in a group where people occasionally come together and share their scrapbook contents with others in a kind of “examples of design show and tell.”

(2) Keep a digital scrapbook in the form of an online photo blog — either private or open to anyone to view — where you log all the examples of design you find of interest. Usually you can take a snap and then upload it to your blog right from your phone.

(3) Get out of your comfort zone. Participate in something creative that others may think is out of character for you. If you’re always comfortable, you probably are not growing. Dare to be weird (at least sometimes).

(4) Keep stimulating the "right side" of your brain by learning a musical instrument, or rediscovering the instrument you used to play. Playing music is one of those creative “whole mind” activities that will enrich your life (and work). You are never too old to learn to play an instrument.

(5) Read books on graphic design, typography, color, photography, documentary film making, and even architecture and other areas of design — you never know where the design lessons are to be found.

(6) Take some time to examine the packages in stores regardless of whether or not you are interested in the product. What catches your eye as you walk through a shop? Nothing is by accident — what were the designers trying to communicate with the package?

(7) Learn to draw by taking a class using the methods of Betty Edwards (or buy her books and videos). Get Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin and learn how to draw and talk at the same time at the whiteboard.

(8) Learn to take better photos. Since you'll be taking so many snaps to learn from and to share, why not get much better at the art of photography? Scott Kelby's books may be a good place to start. You don't have to become as good as the pros, but you can get much, much better. Learn what separates the great photos from the ordinary. The lessons from photography will help in your general guest to become a better visual thinker.

(9) Take an art class at the local community college or university. Don’t worry that it may not have “obvious applications for work.” The art — whatever it is — will teach you lessons about seeing and communicating through form. All you need to do is practice and enjoy the journey. You’ll find, perhaps unexpectedly, that there were indeed lessons in there that you later applied to your own work or personal life.

(10) Go for long walks alone (with ability to record your observations). As you walk, if an idea snaps into your head or you notice something that stimulates your imagination, use the voice recorder in your phone (or other device) to record the idea. It may seem odd, but I often even go jogging with my iPhone just in case I need to take a snap of something remarkable or an idea comes to mind that I need to record instantly. Besides relieving stress and keeping you fit, exercise seems to stimulate ideas. Record those ideas when possible in a way easiest for you.

(11) Get completely unplugged and off the grid — no iPhones or computers, etc. — and go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride, or whatever it is that allows you slow your busy mind. And what if that brilliant idea hits you and you can’t record it in any way or take a picture of a remarkable example? Don’t worry about it. Getting off the grid and freeing up your mind (and pockets) is necessary too.

(12) Make it a point to watch TED videos on line, especially those related to design and creativity; many of the presenters also use very effective, well-designed visuals. Subscribe to the TED RSS feed or follow TED on Twitter. Don't forget that many presentations have been translated.

(13) Go for walks in nature with a keen eye for the balance and the colors, lines, shapes, etc. that most people never pay attention to. What visual lessons can you get by stopping to look both at the whole and then zooming in to look at the particular? There is much to be learned by careful observation of nature. Artists already do this, but we can too.

(14) Teach others what you learn. One of the best ways to deepen and solidify your new knowledge is to teach it to others. Give a presentation, run a seminar, teach a class, or volunteer to run a small internal workshop to teach others in your organization what you are learning. Real learning occurs when you share it.

(15) Share your new knowledge and passion about design in a short presentation at your local Pecha Kucha Night, Ignite night, TEDx conference, Users Group meeting, or even your local Toastmasters meeting, and other associations. The more you share and the more you get out to these events, the more you learn.

There are many more things you can do to continuously improve and grow over the long-term. What are some of the things that work for you?

Related books
• One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way
• The Toyota Way

Wa: The key to clear, harmonious design


If there is one principle that reveals the essence of the Zen aesthetic found in Japanese traditional art and design — and life in general — it is harmony. The kanji that has been used by Japan for the past 1300 years or so to represent this concept is 和 (wa). Wa is also the adjective used to describe things which are Japanese or in the Japanese style such as Wafuku 和服 (Japanese clothing), Washitsu 和室 (Japanese-style room), Washi 和紙 (traditional Japanese paper), and Washoku 和食 (Japanese cuisine), as I mentioned before. Aesthetically, wa is fundamental to all good design, yet it goes beyond aesthetics. Wa also reads as "gentleness of spirit" (和らぎ), so harmony refers to form but it also refers to an internal feeling or approach to art and to life. The particulars will change depending on the case and circumstance, but the concept is the same: in all things harmony. The idea is since harmony exists inherently in the cosmos and on our planet, we can benefit ourselves and others by learning from lessons found in nature. Wa has direct applications for our personal lives, our relationships, and our whole approach to life and work. Here are just seven things to think about as you strive to bring more wa to your own design solutions.

(1) Embrace economy of materials and means. Traditional Japanese construction and interiors used only natural, available materials, and in art and design too recycling was common. Waste and excess is at odds with wa. Think, for example, of tatami mats that comprise the floor of a Japanese room (washitsu) which were historically made from leftover straw from the harvest. There is a trend now emerging in Japan that embraces the use of more natural and recycled materials under the banner of "eco" or sustainability. How can we bring the principle of economy to our design work? One way is by practicing restraint. Yokusei 抑制 (control, restraint) and setsudo 節度 (moderation) or seigen 制限 (limit) are forms of self-restraint we can practice. It's hard not to give in to the habit of adding more when less would do; this is where restraint comes in.

(2) Repeat design elements. Repeating some elements not only contributes to unity in a design, it's a clear consequence of restraint. You made the conscious decision to limit your palette and techniques and still express the message (or solve the problem) within the self-imposed constraints. We need variety but we need similarity too. Repeating selected elements — just as nature does — contributes to harmony and clarity.

(3) Keep things clean and clutter-free. Shintoism has been called a faith of purification, and historically at least, there was a belief that kami (gods) would not enter a house that was unclean or otherwise in a state of disorder. Disorder is at odds with nature. Consumerism since the war has made for many a clutter-filled house in Japan, but there is a trend toward returning to the good parts of the past: less stuff, more space, natural materials. In design, we must do what is possible to pare down and keep things clean, clear, and clutter free.

(4) Avoid symmetry. Symmetry is not bad — and often it is necessary — but in many areas of design it is derided at the easy and boring answer. The natural world — the mountain or the forest —  is full of beautiful asymmetry. Balanced asymmetry is natural, and in the natural world is where spontaneity lives. Symmetrical designs lack the feeling of movement or spontaneity that we find in nature. Creating balance and harmony in an asymmetrical design is usually a more challenging and creative approach.

(5) Avoid the obvious in favor of the subtle. To the Japanese, there is no beauty in the obvious or the overly direct. Indirectness and subtly, after all, is the stuff of poetry. And should not design — like life itself — be the stuff of poetry? The art of suggestion can be seen in many aspects of Japanese art, design, and language. Think of ways you can design with clarity while also including elements that are subtle and suggestive.

(6) Think not only of yourself, but of the other (e.g., the viewer). Harmony in relationships exits when people put themselves in the other's shoes and think of the greater good of the group. Wa does not exist where one thinks only of oneself. Think for yourself? Of course. Think only of yourself. No. All good designers know this: it's not about me, it's about them (or "us").

(7) Remain humble and modest. Many of us mistakenly feel that strong confidence cannot exist alongside humility and modesty. This is a mistake. True confidence exists only where you also find humility and modesty. Where these are lacking, you see a kind of faux confidence that feels insecure, overly individualistic, and inharmonious. Think of the character Yoda from Star Wars. Yoda embraced all three characters among many others: Humility, modesty, supreme confidence. Be like Yoda.

This slide below contains a quote from The Book of Tea that touches on the importance of humility and other subtle aspects of wa.


The Duarte Blog posted three short videos of Nancy Duarte and me talking about the presentation landscape, etc. at the whiteboard. We shot this while I was in Silicon Valley last month. There may be a point or two of interest in there for you.

Tokyo: A visual presentation by Joan Jimenez

Tokyo Like many foreign nationals in Japan, I love living here and can't imagine living anywhere else. I always encourage foreign designers and other creatives to spend time in Japan if they can. For creatives, the design lessons and inspirations are everywhere. Add to that the culture's rich history — including the Zen arts — and the incredible food and famous hospitality, and this is just about the perfect place to study and experience personal and professional growth, especially as it relates to creativity and learning to see and think differently. For many foreign creatives who come here — designers, photographers, architects, artists, writers, etc. — the experience is even life changing. The massive city of Tokyo is but one aspect of Japan that offers its own unique, rich tapestry of visual intrigue and inspiration. It's hard to capture the essence of what Tokyo feels like, but this 5-minute video presentation by Joan Jimenez (Spain) is one of the best short pieces I have ever seen on Tokyo. If you have been to Tokyo, this may bring back memories. If you have not yet been, this video does a good job of giving you the feel for the place. This is a very creative way to show Tokyo.

I love this presentation. Joan has a great eye and makes good use of lines and shapes and movement by taking a lot of tight shots, etc. I do not know how the cinematic effect was achieved in this case. (In Photoshop you can adjust Curves to obtain a similar effect with images.) Some cameras like the Sony HDR-HC7 have a cinematic mode which records in 24 frames with a film-like effect. You can also play with the contrast, saturation, and brightness in video software like Final Cut I assume. This effect makes the darks very dark, whites very white, some colors very saturated, etc. so you lose some of the fine detail, which is the intent. I do not know how he did it (since I do not read Spanish), but I love it. Joan's inspired me to make a similar short film once we move out to countryside in Nara next year.

H/T Manu

Two cool, simple, presentations by XPLANE

Did_you_know Do you know XPLANE? If you don't, you should. XPLANE is a hot information design consultancy that works with some of the best organizations on the planet to help them create better understanding. They solve problems through visual collaboration and work to simplify complexity. And the XPLANE head quarters is located in one of America's most creative, most livable cities: Portland, Oregon. I've been a fan of XPLANE's work and their founder Dave Gray now for years. Today I was poking around their awesome website when I stumbled upon these two video presentations below. You may enjoy these — teachers especially may be interested in them. I'm not sure how they were made, but both look to be created in nothing more than off-the-shelf slideware (plus a bit of Photoshop & Illustrator I suppose). Regardless of the software, these visuals are very simple, clear, and effective. Good lessons in here. (Update: Slides produced in Keynote.)

Did You Know 4.0 (designed
This video below is the latest edition of the popular "Did You Know" presentation.

Imagine Leadership by XPLANE & Nitin Nohria
This video presentation below is a result of XPLANE teaming up with Nitin Nohria and Amanda Pepper of Harvard Business School's Leadership Initiative to stimulate a discussion of the value and importance of leadership.

10 design lessons from the art of Ikebana

Ikebana1 Though it may not seem obvious standing in the bustling center of Shibuya or Shinjuku in Tokyo, the Japanese perception of beauty is largely based on space, especially space as it is found in nature. Once you understand this, the intricacies of Japanese art and design begin to make sense. In the case of ikebana (生け花) — the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement — space is a central component of design (i.e., of the arrangements). One who practices ikebana sees space not as something to fill in or to use up, but rather as an element to be created and preserved. Proper use of space allows the positive elements in the piece to form lines that are rhythmical and flow, engaging the viewer with the composition. An ikebana artist learns to leave room between the branches to allow the figurative “breeze” to pass through and rustle the branches, just as would occur in nature.

Ikebana4 The principle of Ma
A form of space seen in Japanese art forms, such as traditional Japanese gardens, and Ikebana, is Ma (間). Ma means empty, spatial void, and interval of space or time. Ma does not just mean the kind of empty space that is background; the emptiness is often arranged to be a focal point.
Space is emptiness, yet it also has shapes. Ma allows for an energy or sense of movement within a design. Ma may show itself in traditional music in the form of silence or pauses. In Ikebana, the idea of emptiness allows for each flower to breath and reveals the contrasts among the elements, as well as the harmony and balance found in the asymmetrical arrangement. Ma is what allows for implied movement to form in the composition and creates the “space” for harmonious relationships to form. Lack of space leads to clutter and disharmony.

Ikebana_2 In formality there is freedom
To those unfamiliar with the art of ikebana, it may seem like a casual craft with no formal rules, but in fact, there are clear rules governing the art of ikebana. The rules are based on solid design principles and centuries of keen observations of nature by the ikebana masters. While there is a formality governing line and form and materials, and so on, there is great room for creativity within the structure of the rules. And as with all Japanese traditional arts, there are lessons hidden within that we can apply to our own work and to our own creative lives in or out of design. Here are a just a few humble takeaways to think about.

Lessons for your creative life

  1. Empty space is as important as the positive elements. Learn to see space. Learn to create space.
  2. Space allows other elements to “breath," to move, and connect — with each other and the viewer.
  3. Empty space is a powerful amplifier, helping to create a whole that is more engaging than the sum of individual parts.
  4. Suggestion and subtly in design engages the viewer, allowing her to complete the uncompleted.
  5. Arrangements (designs) should stimulate the imagination of the viewer.
  6. In formality there exists creativity and freedom of expression. No structure, no freedom.
  7. In simplicity there exists clarity, beauty, and meaning.
  8. Asymmetrical balance is natural, dynamic, and engaging.
  9. For the designer (or artist), focus, calm, vision, and gentleness of spirit are more important qualities than raw enthusiasm. Slow down your busy mind.
  10. Careful arrangement of the elements based on solid principles creates beauty and engagement without decoration.

7 Japanese Aesthetic Principles To Change Your Thinking

Garden Exposing ourselves to traditional Japanese aesthetic ideas — notions that may seem quite foreign to most of us — is a good exercise in lateral thinking, a term coined by Edward de Bono in 1967. "Lateral Thinking is for changing concepts and perception," says de Bono. Beginning to think about design by exploring the tenets of the Zen aesthetic may not be an example of Lateral Thinking in the strict sense, but doing so is a good exercise in stretching ourselves and really beginning to think differently about visuals and design in our everyday professional lives. The principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of the traditional Japanese garden, for example, have many lessons for us, though they are unknown to most people. The principles are interconnected and overlap; it's not possible to simply put the ideas in separate boxes. Thankfully, Patrick Lennox Tierney (a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun in 2007) has a few short essays elaborating on the concepts. Below are just seven design-related principles (there are more) that govern the aesthetics of the Japanese garden and other art forms in Japan. Perhaps they will stimulate your creativity or get you thinking in a new way about your own design-related challenges.

Seven principles for changing your perception

Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or elimination of clutter. Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity, a kind of clarity that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.

Enso Fukinsei (不均整)
Asymmetry or irregularity. The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso ("Zen circle") in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.

Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)
Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).

Shizen (自然) Naturalness. An absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and intention.

Yugen (幽玄)
Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is, showing more by showing less.

Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principle describes the feeling of surprise and a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, "...made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden."

Seijaku (静寂)
Tranquility or an energized calm (quite), stillness, solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. How might we bring a feeling of "active calm" and stillness to ephemeral designs outside the Zen arts?

Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals
Japanese Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia).
Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment (book)