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Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Crown Business, 2011
reviewed by James McCown

“Change is inevitable and good.” That’s been a corporate mantra for a few decades, usually invoked by a CEO just as a company is about to announce massive layoffs. The word “change” has made its way into all ranks of corporate hierarchy. At some companies, human resources departments are now “change management” departments; that former public relations professional is now a “change evangelist.”

Dozens of books promote “embracing change” and “leading change.” Given the ubiquity of the term, is there anything fresh and new that can be written? Yes. Brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath — respectively, a professor at Stanford University and a research fellow at Duke University — add a lively and engaging book to the mounds of “change” literature. Though primarily aimed at readers who want to affect change within corporate organizations, the Switch brothers take an expansive view.

Anyone who has taken a college psychology course will find the brothers’ thesis familiar: Our psyches are in a constant tug-of-war between our emotional, pleasure-seeking side and our rational, stern side. Think Freud’s id, ego, and super-ego. The authors use an easy-to-grasp metaphor to illustrate:

“Our emotional side is an Elephant [sic] and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.” Positive change occurs, the authors argue, when we understand the particular forces that drive Elephant and Rider and, most importantly, the resulting paths they take. Chapters are titled “Direct the Rider,” “Motivate the Elephant,” and, finally, “Shape the Path.”

Heath and Heath pepper the book with excellent, true case studies such as improving ways of feeding children in rural Vietnam, undertaking relatively simple procedures to save lives during surgery at urban US hospitals, and detailing ways to help drug-addicted veterans. This is the book’s great strength. It’s not just another corporate leadership book; it’s one that seeks to apply its ideas to a wide swath of the human experience.

Switch puts a fresh spin on a widely published topic — and that’s a refreshing change in itself.

Massive Change

Bruce Mau
Phaidon Press, 2004
reviewed by Rachel Paupeck

Massive Change is the 2004 catalog for an exhibition of the same name that set out to explore “the legacy and potential, the promise and power of design in improving the welfare of humanity.” Or, as it’s subtitled: “It’s not about the world of design. It’s about the design of the world.” Is that all?

Co-authored by designer Bruce Mau with Jennifer Leonard and Mau’s Institute without Boundaries, Massive Change is intended to provoke discussion, and to expand the definition of design to include much more than architecture. Unabashedly ambitious, it reads as a rallying cry. Designers will improve humanity. Designers will change the world.

In the opening passages Mau, through manifesto-like proclamations, demands a collective spirit of action: “WE will tap into global commons... WE will distribute capacity... WE will embrace paradox... WE will reshape our future.” The book is divided into specific sections corresponding to specific “economies,” such as Urban Economies, Movement Economies, Military Economies, Living Economies. Included within each chapter in short interview form, a series of architects, engineers, scientists, philosophers, and writers describes their corresponding work. These interviews are fascinating and inspiring.

A book this ambitious begs evaluation. In attempting to gauge the effect of Massive Change on the world of design and humanity (an impossible task, to be sure), I found myself wondering: Is Massive Change a black swan? The black swan effect, recently made popular through Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book of the same name, is the phenomenon by which “one single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings and millions of white swans.” Has Massive Change invalidated all previous means in which we understood design? Has it changed the landscape of public discussion about innovative thinking, in all its various disciplines? Has Massive Change caused massive change?

Massive Change was published in a different era. In 2004, economies were strong, architects were employed, swoopy shaped heroic projects received extraordinary media attention and glory. In many ways, Massive Change aimed to be an alternative voice, directing design attention to more mundane yet complicated issues like housing the global poor, or coordinating mass transit systems.

Since then, the world has changed. Natural disasters in New Orleans, Chile, and Haiti have refocused attention on the design of infrastructure and everyday environments, while the global financial crisis has curtailed many big ego projects. Moreover, through recent, massive transformative movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and social media in general, massive change has been operating as not a top down enterprise, sourced in the traditional modes of power, but in a movement of the masses. It is found in the change that the average citizen affects each day. Eight years later, people are designing their world, their future — and as far as I can tell taking Mau up on his call to action.

Although it is hard to quantify the exact ramifications that Massive Change has invoked, it is easy to see the world changing, through the actions of the masses, and for the better. Black swan it is.

Material Change: Design Thinking and the Social Entrepreneurship Movement

Eve Blossom and Yves Béhar
Metropolis Books, 2011
reviewed by David Gamble AIA

What’s weaving got to do with it? Material Change is an elegant and understated book about the power of design to affect real change in people’s lives. The author, Eve Blossom, is an architect-trained entrepreneur. She founded Lulan Artisans in 2004. Lulan, a for-profit social venture, “designs, produces, and markets contemporary textiles through partnerships with artisans in Southeast Asia.” US-based designers work with weavers in developing countries. The company builds on the strong tradition of weaving in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, seeking to raise the profile of the collaboratives and improve the individual workers’ lives. By increasing the artisans’ income, and thus their economic stability, Lulan diminishes the likelihood that artisans fall prey to slave labor and other threats. Lulan’s products — pillows, scarves, clothing, and housewares — are beautiful, too.

While the mission of Lulan is to link high design with traditional weaving techniques, the book is as much about designing a sustainable enterprise as it is about developing a specific product niche. Blossom underscores the value of her design education. She credits her design background with providing the critical skills necessary to synthesize multiple variables and forge partnerships around a dynamic process.

Not insignificantly, the layout of the book embraces the concept of weave; the book’s design is a tailored work in itself. Eight crisp chapters are punctuated with lush images of the artisans with their fabrics and looms. The text is often divided on a page, with running narratives about the saga of the company interspersed with biographies of other “disruptive entrepreneurs.”

From the growing work of organizations like Architecture for Humanity to the highly publicized, celebrity-laden rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and Haiti, design for social good is part of the spirit of our day. Though it’s easy to understand why the media loves these stories, one might also wonder whether or not regular people benefit. While at times Material Change veers too much toward the genre of personal diary and diatribe, overall Blossom demonstrates that a socially-conscious enterprise based on local expertise can create real, meaningful impact. Blossom has created a viable business model that refutes the notion that you can’t do good and do well at the same time. The success of Lulan Artisans is dependent as much on the cultivation of compassion as passion itself, and all are better off for it.