written by:
May 20, 2009

Big-thinker Daniel H. Pink has quickly established himself as an authority on the rapidly-transforming concept of work, and along the way, become an influential design advocate as well.

dan pink headshot

A law school graduate who never practiced law, Pink left his last real job as a speechwriter for Al Gore in 1997 and wrote two blockbuster books, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, and A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, the latter of which touts the dawning of the Conceptual Age, where right-brained creatives who excel at inventiveness, empathy and meaning will rule business and society (that's you, designers!). Pink's latest book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, is a career guide that takes all of his right-brained advice to heart. It's presented as a highly-entertaining Japanese Manga-style graphic novel.

We called Pink at his office in Washington DC to hear why he believes design thinking is as important as math, and what he'll be talking about as the keynote speaker at this year's Dwell on Design in Los Angeles, June 26-28.

You've said yourself you're very left-brained, not "design-minded." So I'm curious to know what your introduction to the design world was.

I started writing about business in about 1995 and that was about the time that this idea of design being important in business was starting to gain some steam. And it was a totally new concept for me. I had not focused on design at all, I didn't know what designers did, I was design illiterate. As I got to know more about it I thought it was so amazingly interesting and I was so in awe at what designers do that I wanted to learn more. Then, over the course of working on A Whole New Mind, design came up again as one of the signature abilities of the 21st century—an ability that is difficult to outsource and difficult to automate, and therefore very, very valuable. My kids now have t-shirts that say "Support Design Education."

Have you seen the industrial design film Objectified? There's this whole beautiful section where Paola Antonelli from MoMA talks about design being so valuable that designers should be the country's policy-makers, solving problems like health care.

wnm

Amen, I'll be Paola's hallelujah chorus on that one. If you look at the problems we're facing—the big problems, not the problem of, you know, is company X going to stay in business tomorrow or is someone going to meet their numbers next quarter—if you look at the big problems, they're design problems. Health care is a design problem. Dependence on foreign oil is a design problem. To some extent, poverty is a design problem. We need design thinkers to solve those problems, and most people who are in positions of political power are not design thinkers, to put it mildly.

And you've definitely been on that side of it, working for Al Gore. Do you think this new White House is more enlightened in those ways?

No.

Really? The design community seems to think so, and you know, Barack Obama said he wanted to be an architect, so there seems to be this great hope that they finally get it.

I'm not holding my breath. Remember, he wanted to be an architect but he got a law degree. The left-brainer and the economist in me says watch what people do, not what they say.

It's still kind of the same thing in business, but you've talked about how companies like Proctor and Gamble are finally allowing designers into these high-level positions. How are these right-brainers supposed to command respect from the left-brainers?

I think that's a hugely important question. I think the burden is on them. I don't think you can go around saying, "Oh you know, these people just don't get it," boo-hoo, wring your hands. I think that designers and architects need to educate the people who don't quite know what they do and make a strong case for why it's valuable and why it changes the game. I think waiting for people to come around to it just won't do.

jb

And there's a responsibility for designers, not just as businesspeople but as members of civic society to make the case to the left brainers for why this really matters. The main thing that architects and designers love to do is create cool stuff, the second thing they like to do is complain about their clients. It's their two favorite things in life. And I'm saying, that's fine, I feel your pain, but I think you've got to get out there and educate your clients.

Is that where a publication like Dwell comes into play, by educating its readers about design?

Absolutely. The way I personally think about it is literacy. I don't mean that everybody has to be a great designer, but everyone has to be literate in it. In the same way I consider it up there with numeracy. That is, to be in business, let alone to be a fully-functioning member of a democratic society, you have to be numerate, you have to know a little math. I think the same thing is true now about design thinking: You don't have to be a great designer, but you have to be design-literate. I think the capacity to explain what design is, to show what design is, to tell stories about design, to educate people about design, does a hugely important service. It's actually helping designers by educating their clients for them.

You even told Oprah that learning about design and design thinking was the most important way that left-brainers could start thinking more right-brained. And you talked about your design journal.

Again, I can't overstate how little I knew going in. I came in as close to a blank slate as possible. And as the left side of my brain said, "Geez, Dan, you gotta get up to speed on this," I said, Okay, what are some practical ways to do that? And heard frequently from designers that a lot of them kept notebooks with them, so I started trying to do that myself and write down instances of good design and instances of bad design that I saw in my midst. Again, that's not going to make me a great designer, but it's going to make me more literate in design. It's going to make me better understand what designers do, and allow me to collaborate with creative people to make the end product of my own work better, because I understand what they're doing and I can allow them the autonomy to do great work. I say that as someone who has to think about the design of books, the design of websites, the design of presentations. And my wife and I are actually massively renovating a house, with a contemporary architect. A Dwell-like architect!

Speaking of the design of books, you just did this awesome book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, and chose a very non-traditional design format for it (illustrated by Rob Ten Pas). Is this to lure in the people who might be more likely to read it because it's designed that way?

Yes. Call it what you want, but you're dealing with someone who has converted to a religion or someone who has moved to a new country, and those people end up being the most fervent believers. I am a fervent believer—and I don't want to take the metaphor too far—but I had to be someone who drank their own Kool-Aid. If I really believe that visual representation and narrative are ways to convey important, complex ideas and if the world is gravitating toward this form, then geez, I better do it myself. I want to do it myself.

Since you've studied how people choose their careers, I'm wondering if you see a connection between free agents and the right-brainers you talk about in A Whole New Mind. Is it the natural trajectory for a creative like a designer or an architect to want to go out on their own?

I think it's a natural human impulse to be autonomous. And I think there's a natural connection between autonomy and creativity and when autonomy is stifled, creativity is stifled. I don't think someone has to go out on one's own to be creative, but I think there are many organizations and organizational contexts that suffocate autonomy and, as a result, reduce creativity.

Is that what you'll be talking about at Dwell on Design?

I'll be talking about 40 years of research that shows that our traditional approach to motivation—that is, our idea that people respond to rewards and punishment, and that if you want them achieve at a higher level, you offer them a carrot or threaten them with a stick—is not right. We can argue whether it's right morally, but it's just not empirically right. And there's 40 years of research that show that those kind of approaches often don't work—basically the typical approaches of the typical business in North America don't work. It can either have no effect or have a negative effect.

The people and the organizations that really flourish prize autonomy, the sense of doing something out of self-direction rather than being pushed by somebody else—the sense of mastery, which is the desire to get better and better and better at something, and also the sense of purpose, which is about doing something that outlasts yourself, in the service of a cause larger than oneself. And in a lot of ways these three keys to true motivation are embodied by architects and designers very strongly.

So if everyone starts running their companies like that, it seems like we could probably save the economy.

I think there's something to it. If people stopped chasing quarterly numbers, and started doing amazing things, I think in the long run we'd be better off, and better as a society.

You can attend Daniel Pink's keynote address either by purchasing a Dwell Conference Plus ticket or, if you are verified Design Trade, you can purchase the add-on Friday Evening Special Event ticket. Register at dwellondesign.com

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016