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Dan Pink Kicks Off Dwell on Design

Last night, the Dwell on Design 2009 keynote speaker Daniel Pink serenaded us into cocktail hour with brevity, levity and repetition.

dan pink headshot

Bounding onto the stage with enough energy to max out every solar panel on the trade show floor (and then some) the New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink warmed up the packed-house crowd with a series of experiments which are like brain teasers for the creative class.

The first, his "candle problem" showed that when a group of people were asked to solve a conceptual problem, they actually did worse when incentives are involved. The second transported us back to 1994, where he pitches the wacky concept of Wikipedia—and it seems pretty crazy when he spells it out like this—and once again, people working for free, no incentives, beat out Microsoft's funded encyclopedia Encarta, which will fold this year. Besides Biological (self-preservation, sexual) and Extrinsic (raises, promotions), we also have Intrinsic motivation: The inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges to extend and exercise our capacity to explore and learn.

It turns out rewards and punishments work, but only in a very narrow set of situations. Performance depends not on the Extrinsic pressures (or Biological) it depends on our level of creative engagement. This is most evident inside the organizational structures, which we can look at like operating systems for computers. 1.0 was Biological (motivation of working together to find food, or you'll die), 2.0 was Extrinsic (they typical carrot-and-stick, which worked well for office efficiency). We're still in 2.0 culturally, but it's crashing more than we'd like to admit. The open source technology—good old Wikipedia—proves this. So do freelance-based firms with loose organizational structures. The new word on college campuses from those hiring: "If you need me to motivate you, I probably don't want to hire you." 3.0 is of course Intrinsic. And for creative, right-brained tasks and thinkers, if the motivation isn't Intrinsic, it can actually do damage. Damage!

So what's motivating for us right-brainers in these 2.0 times?

Autonomy: It's our nature to be curious and self-directed. But too many of us become passive and inert. So this means giving people more control over these things—task, technique, time, team—the better you're going to perform.

Mastery: We all like to get better at things. We love to have moments of intense creativity—call it flow. If we don't encourage this in our workgroups we stifle motivation.

Purpose: Knowing that we have something greater that we're working towards. There's only one problem, and Pink used a phrase coined by Chicago designer Jim Coudal to illustrate it: The Tyranny of the Client. Of course, the only way to avoid this is to become the clients. Publish and produce your own products and ideas. What's stopping you? Well, says Coudal: "When you're your own client, who are you going to make fun of after work at the bar?" So the other option is to educate your clients to think more like designers. And this was something that Charles and Ray Eames did elegantly. They would work with constraints, but they would never compromise. At one time, Anheuser-Busch asked them to redesign their logo. The Eames spent months looking it over, but eventually they refused to take the commission, claiming that the existing logo was perfect for the company already. Charles Eames once said that the designer is the host, and the client is the guest. This makes design more like a public service, fulfilling that Purpose that is ultimately the most important part of everything we do. "Eventually everything connects," Eames said.

And that could not be more apparent right now, as we move towards Motivation 3.0.

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