Project M: Thinking Wrong, Doing Right

John Bielenberg broke creative ground in his graphic design career. Now he wants to transform the industry itself.

Graphic designer John Bielenberg isn’t one for playing by the rules, not even the rules of human nature. A partner and co-founder of the San Francisco-based design firm C2, with Greg Galle and Erik Cox, Bielenberg built his practice around a creative exercise that challenges our brain’s synaptic connections. Called “Think Wrong,” the process encourages participants to cast off embedded assumptions and approach design with a fresh perspective.

Bielenberg began thinking wrong early in his own career. In 1991, he satirized corporate branding with a fake annual report for an imaginary organization, Virtual Telemetrix. (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art would later acquire several of these fake reports and help Bielenberg stage an Initial Public Offering for the company in 2000.)

In 2003, Bielenberg founded Project M, an intensive immersion program meant to inspire designers, writers, filmmakers, and photographers to use their work for impacting communities. Project M has taken place in cities around the world and now has a physical lab in Greensboro, Alabama (home to Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio). Today, Bielenberg and his partners at C2 are working to marry the spirit of Project M within their practice. They call it the Mav Lab, and it brings together interdisciplinary teams of creative individuals who work to solve big design challenges.

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Earlier this winter I traveled to Hale County, Alabama with a group of designers from the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center for Design Practice and the Baltimore-based firm Piece Studio. Eight of us spent a week immersed in the Project M Lab, developing ideas to support a local non-profit, the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization. I sat down with Bielenberg for coffee one (very cold) morning to talk about his many endeavors.

You’re at a point in your career where you could be anywhere in the world and here you are in a rather cold house in rural Alabama. What would you say to a designer in London or New York about why it matters to come to a place like Hale County?
In Hale County there’s this alchemy. There’s the legacy of Mockbee, there’s the passion of others like Pam [Dorr] and [the non-profit] HERO. There’s the work of Walker Evans and James Agee, , which is a really interesting part of the history of this area. That’s why I’ve decided to come hunker down for the long haul because there is something going on here that makes it especially fertile. It has an effect on people. And there’s the legacy of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. I was a young kid in the ‘60’s and I have very vivid memories of that.

I reached a certain point in my career about ten years ago. It wasn’t that I had reached the top, but I could see the top and it wasn’t a peak worth climbing. I made a conscious shift in where I was trying to go and it wasn’t just about a successful career in graphic design but something that, for me, was more meaningful.

We’re at multiple global tipping points where the future is going to be radically different than the past—global climate change, the backside of peak oil and fossil fuel, water issues, population growth in third world countries and the rise of the middle class there, the financial collapse. Everything is linked now. You have the Internet and nobody really knows yet what that means. You can either be pessimistic about the future or you can be optimistic. For me, an optimistic alternative includes ingenuity and creativity, and I package that under the big D: Design Thinking and how that can shape the future.

You talk frequently about cognitive behavior and the brain. This seems very important to your creative process.
It’s the “Why?” Why do people do things the way they do? Once you know that, whether you are trying to sell them something, build awareness, or change behavior, then you have a lot more material to work with. It seems like a more thoughtful way to go about it.

It sounds like you had a moment when you realized that humans approach the world with a pattern of thinking and behavior and you wanted to know how to shock us out of that behavior. Is this the root of your Think Wrong process?
Yes, there was definitely a lightbulb and it came from a client, an investment firm. They had hired a behavioral scientist to look at how other investment managers were basically victims of their own synaptic connections. There is a thing called “overweighting information” that all humans do. If there’s a shark attack off the coast of Santa Cruz and it’s well publicized, people in New Jersey will stay out of the water. They are overweighting that catastrophic incident. Even though intellectually there’s no correlation between the two coasts, it changes our behavior anyway.

To me that was just so smart. I thought. “How am I a victim of that same kind of principle?” That’s what led to Thinking Wrong. A lot of what we do for clients at our firm is not design, it’s more what we call Think Wrong Tanks.

Yesterday during my own Think Wrong session, you had our group open up to a random page in a David Byrne book to spark our creative session. How did you start developing these exercises?
My partners and I use just a few techniques and that one works particularly well to get people out of their normal orthodoxies.

If you had a dream team of wrong thinkers, who would be on that team?
Stefan Sagmeister is a really creative thinker. I think people think of his work in a certain way because the projects that have been celebrated have a certain technique to them. I know him pretty well and I know how his brain works and it’s fertile.

One of the things you encourage your Project M’ers to do is use their work to change behavior for the better. I notice that you can get pushback from the community sometimes. People can be scared of change even when it’s good for them.
That fear of change is another human characteristic. I think about this a lot. There are some people who don’t just accept change, they actually crave it. And maybe they are the natural wrong thinkers, the adventurers. It’s a natural and reoccurring thing necessary to move society forward. That’s the fringe. Then there’s this whole other group that’s clinging to the norm and following predictable ways. When you have a situation like the one we’re in right now where you have to rapidly shift—we really do need to change, we can’t wait for generations to adopt new ways of doing things—how do you get that mass to come along willingly?

I saw a presentation years ago with a guy named Paul Sappho. He was talking about the adoption of new technology and how it takes two generations. For example, my dad has a computer and he’ll do email and that’s about it. I have a computer and I’m more comfortable with it, but my kids are completely fearless. Sappho drew this thing I’ll never forget. It was two mountaintops and he said if you climb up to this mountaintop you can see the other one clearly, but to get there you have to go all the way down. The moral is never mistake a clear vision for a short distance. I totally think that’s happening now, where people like Al Gore see the energy technology so clearly and that’s the new peak we have to climb.

Lately I hear a lot about the American “brand” and the Obama “brand.” My immediate reaction is, ugh, we’re back to this consumptive language again. But you are someone who has worked with branding to a great extent. Am I giving branding a bad rap?
The word is so loaded with a lot of negative things. The way we think of brand at my office is how you are understood. We use this equation: U= D over E. Understanding is the function of the expectation you create and how you deliver against it.

You’re living in Maine, traveling once a month to C2, your firm in San Francisco. You’ve got Project M popping up all over the world. What does a year look like for you?
I want to add another piece to that. We had a partner retreat almost a year ago and my partner, Greg, had given us a book called The Art of Possibility. The authors talk about how everything is invented. So you and I, we’re sitting here in this house having coffee. This is all made up. We think it’s real, but the dwelling is based on something that was invented and then evolved. If everything is invented, that means that new frameworks can be invented. This is not the way the world has to be, it’s just the way it happens to be.

I had been reading this book on the airplane, so at our partner’s retreat I said, “What if we were an institute instead of a firm? What would that look like? What would we do?”

I asked myself “Why is Project M the best most successful, most interesting, most fulfilling thing that I do every year? And why do M’ers feel that way, too?”

A lot of things are happening and design can play a role. With Project M we’re doing design that matters, design for the greater good. How do we create a business so that we can do this full time rather than just on the side? That was the motivation for this new business idea, the Mav Lab. We’re in the process of launching that right now.

What does Mav Lab entail?
I was involved with that think tank in London and we sat around and we talked and we came away with a lot of ideas and that’s it. Designers like to make stuff. That’s really important to move forward, that you actually make things that inhabit the world.

Creative services in design are mostly built on an archaic model. You have the genius at the top and they build out a firm underneath them to enable them to do the project. I started thinking about a more networked, collaborative version. How can you blow up the model of the creative genius at the top? We designed Mav Lab around this idea.

You have two main constituencies. One we’re calling the Mav Lab fellows and they come from a wide range of expertise: designers, writers, entrepreneurs, neurologists. Then there’s this other group were calling the Mavericks. The Mavericks are the makers, the young designers. We pull them out of Project M and they are the design engine. You mash them up with the Mav Lab fellows and then you have a youth perspective, not just older people sitting around talking about stuff. Then you have the Mav Lab staff facilitating.

I like the idea of having multiple generations as well as multiple disciplines.
It’s critical. You use Thinking Wrong to generate all kinds of possible ideas and the Mavericks are rapidly prototyping. They would be asking: What would that idea look like? What would the graphics look like? What about t-shirts? And they’re putting that up on the wall and it would inform moving those ideas forward. Making becomes a part of the process.

Afterwards, once you identify what you want to do, we push these projects out into the world as needed. In a traditional firm, there’s a certain arrogance that no matter what the project, we can solve it within the four walls of our office. With this model, we don’t care whether we have the capability of executing it. Who in the world, who in our external network, would be the best? Let’s say we need to develop some kind of a mobile, shipping container office. Maybe we contact these guys in Amsterdam, spun out of Droog, working with shipping containers.

The idea is king.

Yesterday at Project M lab you drew a doodle that read, “Remind me to keep an open mind.”
It’s so easy for us to be a victim of our own orthodoxy and synaptic connections. I’ve often thought about giving Project M’ers t-shirts that they have to wear the whole time that reads, “Please remind me to keep an open mind.” That’s why I wear this stupid little bracelet that says, “Live Wrong” because it’s always a reminder to me to think wrong.

How do we actively keep an open mind?
I try to surround myself with people that encourage that. If you’re just sitting in your cabin in the woods, it’s very easy to get wound up in your own thoughts and they reinforce each other. When we work with clients, I talk about how it’s like playing tennis. You can’t play tennis by yourself, so you need someone on the other side of the net who can return the ball at the same level as you. If you are Roger Federer, you need the right partner or it’s really boring. The biggest thing is having people to play with, who get it, who are challenging and who keep the conversation activated like that.

I imagine it can get tricky because so often people want to own the solution and be recognized as the one who came up with the answer. How do you as a facilitator react when you start to see ego come into the process?
If somebody said, “What’s the biggest challenge of Project M?” it’s curating the groups in advance. So far it’s pretty much worked out. There have been some conflicts over the years. One year, we had this one guy who was very much a designer’s designer, a lone wolf. Project M is really this free form collaboration and at first he had a hard time. Luckily he wasn’t alienated by the group, he had to work through it.

You’ve added the concept of a Project M blitz, where participants not only prepare and research for a longer project while at the lab, but they also have to develop and execute something rapidly within 48 hours.
It came out of this desire to build Project M out into a kind of open sourcing model. How can it be more inclusive? More like the Architecture for Humanity Model where there are a lot of these things happening and they are not all controlled or facilitated by me.

Especially if you want to create Project M Labs in multiple cities as you have discussed.
Right. The other thing is that it’s relatively easy for young people between school and jobs to come and spend a month or more at the lab, but I get a lot of response from working professionals. How do you give them the opportunity to engage in design for the greater good when they don’t have a lot of time?

The thing about Project M is that there has never been a business plan. There isn’t even a legal entity. I don’t care about owning it. I would love for it to have a life of its own. I have the luxury that I don’t really care that much about financial rewards, I feel like I’ve got whatever crap I need. When you remove that as a goal, then I don’t care that this has an income. That’s a luxury.

I sense in young people that they are motivated by change and things that matter, and less about the financial rewards of the short term. This is why Project M is really appealing to people.

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