As I wrote earlier, design’s decisive turn away from old business to the new startup model may be one of those rare inflection points that determines historic trajectories. It comes at a moment when there is enormous dissatisfaction across political ideologies with the crony capitalism of large corporations and a surge of support for new business entrepreneurs.
But if design is to play a significant role in transforming the startup process by bringing the power of design to entrepreneurialism, it must begin to add new concepts and competencies to its panoply of existing strengths. In my Parsons class "Steve Jobs and Alexander McQueen: Design as Social Movement," which I co-teach with an extraordinary professor, Ben Lee, we’re digging deep into sociology, anthropology, and linguistics to find new sources of understanding. Here’s a short reading list of what we’re discussing every week. It’s just a beginning. Suggestions are warmly welcomed.
Let’s start with charisma and calling. Entrepreneurs are secular prophets (indeed, they are the "prophets of profits"). They embody their audience, they don’t study them. They form an organic, emotional relationship that is based on the prophet continuously performing for their audience in a way that gives their lives meaning—and the audience returning adulation as a following, not a consumer base. So the must-read book is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Startup capitalism is very different from the big-business capitalism. We need to go back to what Weber was analyzing about early capitalism to understand today’s situation. But Weber can be a bit heavy, so I would go right into the chapter on "The Sociology of Charismatic Authority."
We also need to know a lot more about what is truly meaningful to people. Right now, ethnography is the basic methodology and gives us a good slice of knowledge when done right. But ethnography is too shallow for what we now need. We need to go much deeper into the historic context and wider into the lateral connections of people in society. One key article is "Deep Play, Notes on the Balinese Cock Fight," by Clifford Geertz. If you want to understand what it means to really understand a culture, this wonderful essay shows you how. Then there is the incredible book All Things Shining: Reading The Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. It takes us into the different worlds of shared meaning. In Praise of Shadows, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, explains the context of meaning and how it changes with space and time. And Caroline Evans’s book about Alexander McQueen, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness is a brilliant analysis of McQueen’s embodiment of a part of society we prefer to keep secret.
If we are to examine entrepreneurs, we need to reexamine the concept of "flow" and peak experience. The relationship of craft to creativity is especially important. David Foster Wallace’s classic New York Times (August 20, 2006) analysis of Roger Federer’s "impossible" tennis play is the place to start.
Framing is perhaps the single-most important "new" competence we need to understand. One key to entrepreneurs’ success is in how they frame existing things differently. We usually call this "connecting the dots," but there is a far deeper concept here with a rich literature. An easy place to start is with George Lakoff’s work on framing. His Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Mind is wonderful. For a deeper analysis, go back to the original— Erving Goffman’s ]Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience.
We need to know more about play and gaming as well. Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (Man the Player) is the place to begin learning about "magic circles" of play and creativity. To know about complex systems of play, you need to read Katie Salen’s Rules of Play. Gamification is now a major force for iteration and creativity.
Design thinking took design into the realm of abstract ideas, strategic direction, and incremental innovation. That took place in the interaction between design/innovation consultancies and big corporations. We are now moving forward into the realm of radical transformation and disruptive innovation, driven by young creatives and new capitalists. We need to know how that worked in the past to get it to work in the present.
[Image by Maguis & David]