Talking to DOD Keynote Dan Pink

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.

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.

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?


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.

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


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