Sunday, January 31, 2010

Auteur Design

 Today, a link to an article from the New York Times about Apple and design that, at least to me, has words that ring true. While I think the author is misrepresenting wisdom of the crowd and he completely ignores customers and users—the only ones we design for, after all—he shines a light on the very idiosyncratic, weird, personal parts of creativity that I think are very important. The  strange combination of data and instinct. The power of one person to make an impact. The thoughtfulness and deliberation. And to some extent, the loneliness.

For me, during the process of design, there is constant tension. It's a three way tug of war between what I learn and hear from others, what I know exists, and what I want to be. All three change my mind, change the thing I'm designing. That's not just when I'm working on the website or catalog. It's during any act of creativity. Writing, cooking, even, I daresay, designing a training program. After all, when it's done well, I firmly believe business is an act of creativity.


The fashionable recipe for nurturing new ideas these days emphasizes a kind of Internet-era egalitarianism that celebrates the “wisdom of the crowd” and “open innovation.”

In the auteur model there is a tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created.

Mr. Jobs, of course, is one member of a large team at Apple, even if he is the leader.

Great products, according to Mr. Jobs, are triumphs of “taste.” And taste, he explains, is a byproduct of study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you are doing.”

The Jobs formula, say colleagues, relies heavily on tenacity, patience, belief and instinct.

He is also a skilled listener to the technology to judge when an intriguing innovation is ready for the marketplace.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Unemployment figures — currently running around 15% in Michigan, about half that in Ann Arbor  — count people who are actively looking for a job. If you stop looking you're no longer considered unemployed. If you have a job that's not full time, or not as full time as you want, you're not considered unemployed either.

The last group are the folks who, in my personal lexicon, I call underployed. They'd like to work more but they can't. The work isn't there.

This December, if you you talked to the temporary crew who worked at ZMO, you probably found lots of the underployed. I met a few:

There was a self-employed man who ran his own moving, cleaning and landscaping business. It was slow so he came to work for us (plus he wanted to see how we did what we did).

There was an Michigan MBA who has her own consultancy. It was a little slow. She also wanted a peek inside Zingerman's.

There was a graphic designer whose own business was a little slow. He always thought it'd be interesting to see how we worked.

There was a person who worked for a major resort hotel on Mackinaw Island. December is a slow season for island resorts on the Great Lakes.Guess why she applied? Same story: she knew about Zingerman's and wanted to work "inside."

We were certainly blessed, in a sad and perverse way, with an abundance of riches in our crew this December. Unemployment and underployment were rampant. In the next few years, unemployment may subside. But when you’re a good company you can often find the underployed. They're interested in who we are, how we work. The experience they had this year may mean some come back. Or they’ll tell other underployed friends.

My favorite crew story wasn't about underployment, though. There was one man who had a full time job. He worked for us for only one reason: to buy a ring so he could — in his words,"properly" — ask his girl of ten years to be his bride.