Kim Chandler McDonald is Co-Founder, with her husband Michael, of digital-product making company KimmiC. She calls herself a FlatWorld Navigator, stemming from her Web-based offering, FlatWorld, a tool for collaborating and working with data. I was introduced to her by Brianna Sylver(1), Founder and President of innovation research and strategy firm Sylver Consulting. Here, Kim generously tells about the purpose and process of her new book about innovation, in addition to her takes on creativity, work, and more.
On the book Innovation
How did you arrive at the idea
of making a book about innovation?
The short answer is: I’ve always been intrigued by interesting, innovative people. So I began writing the Capital I Innovation Series blog, and a number of readers suggested I grow the blog into a book.
A longer answer would be that, after moving to Australia, I was looking for a project that I could sink my teeth into. One wherein I could use the skills I’d honed as an interviewer, working in the media in the Netherlands, writing and editing newspapers, magazines, including radio.
There were a number of reasons I chose to interview international innovators and thought leaders:
- They are a fascinating resource for invaluable insights and expertise, which they are, more often than not, very happy to share, especially if they’re asked nicely.
- I have no doubt that, particularly in the new, knowledge-based Global Digital Economy, innovation drives change culturally, societally, and economically.
- No matter where or who we are, innovation touches each of us as individuals and communities—locally, nationally, and globally.
- Innovators deserve to be celebrated and paid attention to.
This range reflects the fifth theme that was playing somewhere in the background of my initial thinking, but which became clearer as I made more connections and had more conversations with the participants. That theme, or through melody if you like, was: even though I was interviewing innovators from an extremely wide range of fields, there were commonalities that they shared, that I felt were important to explore.
And finally, though this wasn’t a reason for writing the book, I should mention that Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World isn’t just a book about innovation—with its Enhanced Edition/Online Ecosystem and SmartMark (example conversation thread above) intelligent, interactive bookmark, it’s also an innovation, in and of itself.
If you want to delve deeper into the design of the FlatWorld technology supporting the Enhanced Edition, I’m going to suggest you interview my husband, Michael (below)—he’s the “technology titan” in the family! But I can definitely talk about it from the User Experience Designer perspective.
There are several books about innovation,
what is different about yours?
Wow, there’s so much, it’s hard to know where to begin! But, as I’ve just touched on it in my last answer, I’ll start with the book itself, and talk about the content after that.
Firstly, let me say that I’m really proud of the print edition of Innovation, and will be eternally grateful to my publishers, Kogan Page, for taking me on. They really stepped out of their comfort zone with me, and I appreciate them for doing so, and for putting so much energy and enthusiasm into the project. It was published on October 3 in the UK and is being released in the US and Canada at the end of the month. However, as this is a forum about design, I’m going to focus my answers around the Enhanced Edition, which shares the official US release date of October 28.
Very early on in the process, Michael and I became aware that the book could also be a platform to showcase innovation and innovative technology—particularly technologies that could affect the Global Digital Economy in general, and, from my perspective at least, publishing in particular. Having worked in the media for many years, I was acutely aware that the industry was hemorrhaging, and desperately looking for a way to lick its wounds, heal, and hopefully become healthy again.
To my mind, that meant engaging and empowering its readers while it reassessed its business models and moved forward in the Global Digital Economy. Swiping pages in an eBook didn’t really seem to be doing the job, so we—my husband, Michael, and I—looked at how we could bring our FlatWorld technology to the table.
We envisaged a new publishing concept, one that embraced interactivity and ecosystems—one that had “as well as” rather than “instead of” at the heart of its design, so that it became an extension of physical media. We wanted to capture the concept of user empowerment, engagement, and interactivity, in an ecosystem that used content as a focal point to create collaborations and insights around ideas, knowledge, and data.
FlatWorld technology works like that in general. Specifically, it differentiates the Enhanced Edition of Innovation by supporting some industry-firsts such as the SmartMark intelligent, interactive bookmark and “Keyword Imagination Exercises”. The Enhanced Edition also includes a collection of Foundation Question and Answers from the interviewees who are featured in the print edition, and quite a few more!
In short, we wanted to convey Capital I innovation for the book, as well as sharing the stories and insights gathered from innovators around the world, within the book. The interviews are special. I have what might seem to be an odd technique, but I work my encounters with the participants—who were all so incredibly gracious and generous with their time and talents—as a chat between friends. And, wonderfully, quite a few of them have become good friends that I stay in touch with regularly!
They have so much wit and wisdom, which I wanted to share, but the only agenda I had was to ensure that the people I spoke to were able to tell “their truths” with their own voices. I think that’s one of the reasons the responses to my questions were so forthright, so honest, so authentic!
The interviewees live the hardcore reality of innovation, not a formulaic “ten-steps to success and happiness” generalization. These people are as unique as their projects and the ways they’ve become successful are as varied as they are. That said, there are some common traits they share—specifically an unrelenting drive and passion for their projects and goals.
Perhaps it’s because there is no pretense to the Innovation project, the participants speak honestly about what they do, why they do it, and what they think others can do to increase what I call their, InQ—their Innovation Quotient.
The feedback I’ve been receiving on the book has been fantastic—it’s really kind of blown my mind. But you know, along with all the great reviews I’ve received from people like Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter; IBM’s Sandy Carter; Leif Edvinsson, who is the world’s first Professor on Intellectual Capital; and Francine Gordon, the CEO of Womenovation—one of the best things I’ve been told is, “You got them to talk honestly, to really tell the truth instead of spinning fluff.” I’m really proud of that!
You interviewed a 100+ innovators.
What was your criteria in selecting whom to interview?
The people I was drawn to interview are those who aren’t looking for job satisfaction from a job title—they have a passion to make positive change, on a major scale, through innovation.
I recently read an interview with actor Tom Hanks, in The Guardian. He is quoted as saying, “I’ve only ever been in this business for the fun. I only came here for the hang.”
Well, I did this project for the chat—so a big part of my criteria was, I had to be interested in chatting with them—I guess that’s my version of “the hang”. I figured if I was interested, a lot of readers would be too.
Who are some particular innovators that you want to highlight?
In a way, that’s like asking someone who their favorite child is. So I’m going to switch your question up a bit and say, there were certain things I set out to do, which I think—at least to some extent—I’ve done.
I wanted to ensure I showcased a selection of women as, rightly or wrongly, the innovation arena is often seen as something of a “boys club”. I wanted to make it an inter-generational project to illustrate that innovation knows no age barriers. And in the same vein, it was important that I interviewed a global range of innovators, as innovation is borderless and boundless.
I have some secret jewels, some truly amazing moments and memories that I’ll always treasure—and that’s on top of the fact that, through the project, I’ve made many marvelous friends!
All of that said, noting your focus on design, there are a huge number of innovators in the book who are, in one way or other, also design-focused and may be of particular interest to you. There are many and are doing such good work—be it designing energy solutions for the poor in the Majority World, designing user experiences or ecosystems and strategies to support entrepreneurs, designing 3D-printed buildings or coral reefs, foldable bicycles, bacteria to kill cancer cells, the Internet of Things (IoT), software, hardware—the list goes on. To pick just a few to mention:
- San Francisco-based Julian Keith Loren is a designer of face-to-face games, Gameferences, that drive deep exploration and breakaway design. He also lectures and runs collaborative design games at Stanford and UC Berkeley.
- Robert Jacobson, based in Malmö, Sweden, and San Francisco (which comes up a lot!) designs innovation platforms for combining multidimensional virtual and the physical worlds.
- Jonathan Cousins and his partner create data visualizations and large-screen computational art installations, which have been featured in festivals such as Sundance.
- Professor Gordon Wallace, amongst many other things, is working with electronic textiles in the design and development of sports bras (I couldn’t help but think of them as bionic bras—very Austin Powers!)
- Lizbeth Goodman is Professor of Inclusive Design, Chair of Creative Technology Innovation at University College Dublin, and Board Member at the Innovation Academy. She is also the winner of numerous international awards including the Blackberry’s Outstanding Woman in Technology and Microsoft’s Innovation in Education Awards.
- Vint Cerf, recipient of the US National Medal of Technology, the ACM Alan M. Turing Award (the “Nobel Prize of Computer Science”) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The co-inventor of the internet, and Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Vint is working on the design and implementation of an interplanetary internet.
I made a wish list, then began researching and getting in touch—it really was as simple as that. I’m often asked how I manage to “score” the interviews I do. I explain that my goal is to make the entire process a pleasure for all concerned—and that starts with approaching everyone positively.
Can you relate details of your process in getting your book done?
That’s a VERY long story, but in short, each of the steps taken were as important at the beginning of the process as they were at the end. There wasn’t a day where each wasn’t, in one way or another, to greater or lesser degrees, focused on.
- Build the technologies.
- Build the network.
- Build a brand.
- Make the wish list (began May 2012) and work the wish list.
- Find the connection (the “door keeper”).
- Make the initial requests.
- Develop the relationship.
- Do the interview.
- Transcribe the recording of the interview: Edit the transcriptions.
- Get agreement of interview texts to be included: Send Foundation Questions; Prepare the edited text for the print edition—This is a MAJOR undertaking. For the print edition, I had over 500,000 words that I had to edit down to around 70,000.
- Chase, chase, chase, chase, chase agreements on text, images, links—you name it, I chased it! The final chase actually occurred two days before the Enhanced Edition was due to be completed.
- Build a marketing plan.
- Work the marketing plan.
- Try and get some sleep—Ha!
- Wake up...work, repeat.
and how did you overcome them?
It depends where you’re looking in the process. Though, gathering all the interviews wasn’t easy, and not everyone I asked said yes—I have to say, my acceptance rate was extremely good. I think this was due to the fact that, during my career in the media, I secured interviews with lot of extremely engaging people, such as US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright; film directors Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway; artists Daido Moriyama and Spencer Tunick; and authors John Irving, Amy Tan and Tom Wolfe (I was so thrilled when Tom turned up in a white suit!). I had “form”, and I asked nicely.
Of course, building the FlatWorld technology was a challenge, but not one that I had to deal with—that was Michael’s domain and drama. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted for the Enhanced Edition—and because I didn’t know that, at the time of asking, what I wanted didn’t exist and was thought to be impossible to produce, I had no hesitation in asking for it. I’m extremely fortunate that Michael is the Information Artist that he is! Together, we were able to imagine, then deliver, the Enhanced Edition without the need for a traditional technology engagement—if we had to have gone through the latter, it would have been prohibitively expensive, if it had been possible at all.
Looking back at the whole process, perhaps the effort and attention necessary to bring together so many different disciplines was one of the greatest obstacles. There’s always been a seemingly huge divide between design and function in the realms of computing. Design, in a computing context, is far more about the elegance of technical design rather than the design of elegant—and easy!—interaction with humans. Conversely, it could be argued that a lot of user interface design, particularly web design, is about “luscious looks” on an otherwise lackluster site.
Because the vast majority of End-Users, empowered or otherwise, don’t see why this divide must evolve into an obstacle that they have to overcome—if they can overcome it at all—we decided to work as if the divide didn’t exist. Design and function are equally important, and their relevance is catered to in the full depth of FlatWorld technology.
I did the vast majority of the interviews via Skype, so where I was, wasn’t important. It’s only now that I am feeling the tyranny of distance that is part and parcel of living in Sydney. It’s at this point, when people are inviting me to do book launches in their cities that I’m aware how far away I am. Flying over to San Francisco for a party just isn’t in my budget—at least not yet!
What tools did you use to make your book?
Skype, MacBook Pro, iPad, LinkedIn, and, for the Enhanced Edition and SmartMark technologies comprising FlatWorld. I put in so many hours on the MacBook that I actually wore out the touchpad and had to use a mouse.
From start to final manuscript, how long did it take
to complete your book?
Because I see the project as an entirety, a full ecosystem, I count the time it has taken to envisage, design, and deliver all of it: the text and the technologies that incorporate the Enhanced Edition. The whole thing has taken just over four years.
The print edition was about a year and a half in the making. The Enhanced Edition will continue to evolve as more innovators become involved in the project. Because of this, we’re incorporating a bulletin board feature as well as a bi-annual edition update in order for those, who have the Enhanced Edition, will have access to an ever-growing ecosystem.
I really can’t stress enough how all encompassing this project has been. Between building the FlatWorld technologies, the network, the relationships, and the content for both the print and Enhanced Editions, we have worked almost every single day for the last four years. Long days. Minimum 12-hour days. Seriously. (We talked about it recently and figured out that there was probably 2,000 hours put into building the SmartMark technology alone.)
I don’t know that I say it to him enough, so I’m going to make a point of saying it here: When I saw what Michael had been able to do with my content—the amazing piece of Information Artistry behind the Enhanced Edition, it brought tears to my eyes. Seriously.
Who is the ideal reader for your book?
That’s one of those “how long is a piece of string” questions.
One of the main reasons for writing the book was to illustrate that there aren’t any barriers between innovation, innovators, and we, individuals, communities, etc.—this is why I included men and women from around the world, who are experts in such a wide range of areas—and why I also included a few young people, in grammar school, middle school (high school), and universities.
The book is designed to be multi-focused and inter-generational, specifically because I didn’t think that it was necessary to have an “ideal reader”—I think different types of readers will find different themes and points of interest in it. Instead of writing a book that would construct walls, I wanted a book to build bridges. I wanted the project to contribute to a platform where a wide range of people could meet to develop conversations, ideas, inspirations, and innovations. The technology supports this meeting—be it within companies, families, faculties, governments—you name it.
Certainly, noting that my publishers, Kogan Page, focus on business books, there is a great amount of information for business people and entrepreneurs. But there is equal focus on “creatives”, on innovators in media, medicine, social policy, knowledge management.
The future of publishing is enabling all Stakeholders to capture and capitalize on Smart Content and, to my mind, that’s what the SmartMark epitomizes. Readers of the Enhanced Edition can use the book as a resource—a vast, mobile, repository of information on innovation and innovators.
For those who want to write and publish a book,
what is your advice?
Do it. BUT, do it because you have to, not that you think it will be a fun thing to do (which it certainly can be!), but that you have something you feel you really must share. I think this is important, because when the hard work starts—and believe me, there is hard work involved in all aspects of the production—you must never allow yourself to give up.
You need a clear idea of what you are going to write—and whom you are going to write it for. This gives you the framework, or thread, to bring together disparate pieces of work and/or ideas.
Perhaps the best advice I can give writers is: Edit. Edit again. Put it down. Walk around. Read it out loud. Edit again. Fashion-design pioneer Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” The same goes for writing. Look at what you’re “wearing on the page”. Take something off. Edit.
Where can people buy your book?
The print edition can be purchased in book stores internationally, as well as being ordered online via a whole raft of Websites such as Kogan Page UK and USA, Amazon.com, Amazon.com.uk sites, in addition to the Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, etc.
The Enhanced Edition, with over 100 extra interviews, the industry-first Online Ecosystem and SmartMark bookmark, is only available at innovationinterviews.com. Because you’ve let me play the “proud parent” and talk about the book, in all its guises, for so long—I’d like to offer readers of Design Feast a 25% discount on any pre-orders of the Enhanced Edition they make before November 28. They just need to visit innovationinterviews.com and use the discount code: !NNOV8DSNFST
Probably the only definition I like of “innovation” is this:
Innovation is hard work. It’s plainly expressed, not arrogant.
Straightforward, not over the top. How do you define innovation?
From the Capital I Innovation Series, innovation is defined as, “Something that was not there before, upon which new economies and cultures can be built.” I stand by that. I’m not negating incremental innovations, but I’m less interested in an app, and much more interested in the platform the app runs on.
There are a myriad of definitions of innovation in the book—a lot of them noting, as you do, it’s very hard work. But, it can also be fun, especially if it’s done in collaboration with others. Sharing ideas and inspiration can be joyful. I liken it to jazz. If you’re a master at your instrument, it’s great fun to jam with others who are just as proficient on their own instrument, their tools, their areas of expertise. “Playing” together is often where the magic, the majesty, the innovation happens.
The word “innovation” is used a lot, and too easily applied,
such as job titles and descriptions, especially marketing.
Why do you think “innovation” lends itself to be frequently
used and applied?
If we’re talking “corporates”, I think the answer is fairly simple. Most corporations think in terms of measurable functions. They like to be able to fill in boxes or check off items on a list, particularly when it comes to their org charts. The simplest way to make an org chart look good is to create a box that represents a function or capability that your company should have. The current “flavor-of-the-month-function” is centered in and around innovation. The problem is that, generally, businesses are focused on “business as usual”.
Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I don’t want innovation to show up on the org chart. I do! I just want its being there to represent a real decision, by those who direct company policy, that innovative thinking is a core capability that should be sought and supported throughout all levels of the org chart. Instead of concentrating on job titles and descriptions, focus should be on the fact that anyone can bring an innovative idea to the table. So it’s imperative that there is a company culture to support that.
Are there concrete qualifications to call oneself an “innovator”?
I don’t think there is a list of boxes to tick off so that, once you have a full complement of ticks, you can call yourself an innovator. However, I do think there are states of mind that can be adopted by anyone, which will lend themselves to more innovative thinking and raising the InQ (Innovation Quotient) in individuals and organizations alike. If I was to break it down to the ABCs of it, I’d say:
- Always challenge the “accepted wisdom” on how to do things.
- Be open to constructive feedback and “feedforward”; the spark of innovation can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.
- Collaborate and cooperate as much as possible; the cross-fertilization of experience and expertise equates to a greater likelihood of innovative success.
What are examples of true innovation and why?
I tell you what, if you’re looking for current innovation, then I’m going to direct you to reading the book. Trust me, there’s true innovation and innovators galore there—and with the Enhanced Edition, you’re not just reading about innovation, you’re reading it via innovative technology! Additionally, in the Foundation Question segment of the Enhanced Edition, among other things, I ask the interviewees what they thought the most important innovation launched in their lifetime was, and what innovation they wished had been theirs. There’s some pretty good answers in there!
In the book’s introduction, I say that Johannes Gutenberg probably holds top spot on my favorite historical list of innovators and their innovations. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything that the printing press hasn’t, in one way or other, affected. Standing on the shoulder of that giant empowered bringing books to the masses and led to reformations in religion and politics in particular, and society in general.
On creativity and design
Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called
“Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?”
Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy at?
I think you’ll find a number of pretty amazing women included in the book—I did try to give them a good representation—but looking specifically at women in Industrial Design, I would point to women like Liz Goodman, whom I mentioned earlier, who is a thought leader in the design of body language engineering interfaces for rehabilitation; Brianna Sylver, who is a thought leader in innovation design planning; and Mary Lou Jepsen, Former CTO of One Laptop per Child and Faculty Member at the MIT Media Lab—named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world and one of the top 50 Women Computer Scientists of All Time, Mary is known as, amongst other things, one of the most influential people in mobile computing.
That said, it’s a good question. I have to admit that I don’t hang out at Industrial Design events, but, It wasn’t that long ago I attended the launch of a national innovation festival and was one of only four or five women there—and only one of two people who weren’t wearing a dark suit. Sigh.
What is your definition of bad design?
First things first, I’m uncomfortable saying that something is badly designed—much like I wouldn’t like to call a piece of art “bad”. It may not be to my taste: I might not hang the art on my wall, or put the tool in my kitchen, but that doesn’t mean that said piece of art, or design, wouldn’t “speak” to another person.
However, I believe good design (not art, mind you!) equals a combination of beauty and utility. If we are using the definition of design as something created for a definite purpose or utility, then I would say that if something doesn’t “work”—if it is useless—then I think it is poorly designed. I would add that, to my mind, the easiest way to avoid this problem is to include the End-User early on in the design process—they know what they need. Millions of dollars and hours could be saved on an annual basis, if this was done.
How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
Good question. Particularly, when Michael and I work together and, generally, work from our home, there’s nowhere to hide. Thankfully, our disagreements are rare. I think this is, in part, because we each work on completely different parts of the project: I’m the text, Michael is the technology.
What helps is that not only do we love each other a great deal, we also respect each other, and honor each other’s expertise and experience. We’re both tenacious, determined; in many ways, we’re both natural innovators and entrepreneurs—we’re a rare mix of talent and techniques wrapped up in a great relationship. Without being too soppy, he really is the love of my life, and he thinks we were destined to be together. I’m a very lucky woman!
What is your workspace like? How does it contribute
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
Our home is our workspace—each of us works in it differently.
Michael works at a small desk with a minimal amount of tools, where he writes the code and creates: I call what he does “Information Artistry”, since it goes so far beyond Information Technology.
On the other hand, I really need to be “comfortable”, so I’ll likely be tucked up somewhere with my laptop or iPad. I don’t work best at a desk. I’m a bit of a lounger. I think this comfort is reflected in the type of interviews I do which often seem more like relaxed conversations between friends.
What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
Am I going to surprise you if I say FlatWorld, again? :D
As far as tools, we run the gamut—my MacBook Pro has a lot of grunt and allowed me to do my creative work quite easily. Michael builds tech on a laptop that is so old (we joke that its steam-powered). The same goes with our mobile phones. FlatWorld was designed so it could be used by anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection, so it needed to be built and tested on old-technologies rather than the “latest and greatest”.
We believe that in the Global Digital Economy, transformational tools, particularly ones that aim to be ubiquitous, must be platform-agnostic and vendor-neutral. Without these things, truly secure data collaboration is nearly impossible.
Additionally, we’ve both been involved in the design and core-competence decisions from the beginning. We believe that End-Users should be involved in the product design from the beginning of the process to ensure that the tool that’s built is a tool that solves a real problem.
I often joke I’m Michael’s blessing and his curse. What I mean is that he was blessed with having an End-User (me) in-house; also his curse: having me hanging over his shoulder every day making sure that he was building what I wanted. I asked for the world (FlatWorld) because that’s what I wanted and needed, and that’s what he built.
How do you stay creative? What are some of
your sources of motivation/inspiration?
That’s a great question, and one that is particularly difficult to answer as its a nebulous thing, it changes. Without a doubt I am continually inspired by Michael, who gives me an incredibly strong foundation from which my flights of fancy can launch. Additionally, I have an absolutely amazing network of innovators, innovative thinkers, artisans, experts, and all-round extraordinary people. This is a network that has been growing for many, many years, and by maintaining connections with them and their initiatives, I am consistently inspired.
What often happens is that I will be inspired to connect people in my network, as I get a feeling that together they’ll be inspired to create something magnificent. I get just as much satisfaction from this as I do from creating something myself.
What is your advice to people who aspire
to be a creative practitioner?
Gosh, what is a creative practitioner? It sounds very fancy! :D
In all seriousness, I think you can bring a creative mindset to anything. Perhaps my best advice would be: find your inner child and let him or her out to play. Children are inveterate innovators; they are constantly curious and audacious in their belief that anything possible. Their bravery is boundless: they try, touch, run, fall, get up, and try again. To be childlike, rather than childish, is a great way to boost your InQ, your Innovation Quotient. If you have a passion for creativity, if it’s in your blood, then be bold and let it shine through.
Personally, I think that my background in the theatre has a lot of bearing on how I work, how I stay motivated and inspired. I come to projects like this as I would to a theatre production—a fringe theatre production. I work well with lean budgets and specific deadlines that must be met—the show MUST go on. If you can find a cast of characters who are superbly skilled, passionate, and prepared to work all the hours sent them until the curtain goes up, it makes your “creative practitioning” much easier—and a whole lot more fun. My advice: get yourself a great team that bring a diverse range of skills to the table.
How does Sydney, Australia, contribute to your work?
And what makes it special for
I’ve only lived in Sydney for a few years, so I don’t think I’m the person to be commenting on how special it is for startups and creatives. To be honest with you, I came for the weather. I’d done twenty years of Northern European winters and I was ready for a change. Sydney has the type of “winter wonderland” I can work with. We’ve designed our lives so that, though we live in Sydney currently, we work—we innovate—in the FlatWorld.
(1) Read my Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) answered by Brianna Sylver, Founder and President of innovation research and strategy firm Sylver Consulting.
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