Elinor Slomba: Design and the Entrepreneur, Distilled

Elinor Slomba is founder of Arts Interstices, an Agile coaching consultancy for entrepreneurs and artists. She is also Program Manager at Project Storefronts and an art curator. Her show “Portraits and Pop Art,” including work by New Haven-based artist-entrepreneurs, is currently on view at The Grove. The show’s formal opening will be held this Friday, April 4th, beginning at 5pm, as part of Design On9. You can follow Elinor on Twitter at @ArtsInt.

Design is more than aesthetics, a logo, or a website. It’s a way of thinking that always keeps the end result—the experience of the customer or the user—at the forefront of business and technical decisions.

Understanding customers’ problems, addressing customers’ needs, and knowing how to tell when you’ve succeeded through their eyes are all imperative. In this way, design can be a driver for innovation and the right kinds of changes in organizations, communities, and ecosystems.

Understanding how to learn in groups is key. Peter Senge defines five characteristics of the learning organization as systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. These features of a team allow them to stay in productive conversation about what’s working and what’s not, making timely and critical adjustments along the way. Double-loop learning, as advanced by Chris Argyris, enables organizations to break through stagnation to change underlying patterns and assumptions.

Design Thinking

No single manifesto or overarching set of principles has yet been generally accepted to outline exactly what constitutes Design Thinking. However, most lists have common, overlapping features. Here is one more list (my own), shorter than most:

  • Transparency: Simply put, it’s best to be in touch with reality through the facts. Group work saves time, effort, and frustration, radiating data by default. Mistakes are to be expected; that’s how learning happens. Transparency helps correct them quickly and move on.
  • Context: Every unique set of circumstances requires an artfully fitted response. In an age of complexity and micro-nuance, it becomes rarer and rarer that any model can be applied without synthesizing and adapting to local cultures and conditions.
  • Sustainability: Design thinkers are in it for the long haul. From the pace of work to business growth, it is important to imagine that the systems we set up must have immediate applications and be functional beyond the short term. That means tweakable, with built-in capacity for changes responsive to context.
  • Engagement: Strong design invites curiosity and rewards interaction. Making, sharing, and responding becomes, in essence, a form of sustained conversation.

There are many frameworks out there for improving business design. Lean Startup and the Business Model Canvas are familiar to many in the innovation ecosystem. Agile frameworks feature short work cycles, iterative development, and regular inspect-and-adapt loops to gauge the quality of works-in-progress.

As more entrepreneurs align themselves around design thinking, we detect emerging trends. Design/Build Workshops feature DIY kits to sell and/or emphasize letting the customer make their own design decisions. Coordinated Co-location means that those living in the same space or city can use shared data to inform their daily plans. And Self-Organizing Communities are forming more frequently to manage themselves without any distinct leader or governing hierarchy except their own commonly espoused principles.

How do business models based on Design Thinking create value? The answer almost always involves bringing software close to decision-making in real time by empathizing with the needs and perspectives of various groups.

In the process, entrepreneurs lit with the latest Design Thinking are building and enhancing places and platforms where people meet to connect. They convene collaborators and help people find others who have value to exchange. They curate conversations and help communities stay relevant and serve their members.

What does design mean today for Connecticut’s creative entrepreneurs?

Plenty! With the days of “build it and they will come” long gone as an economic strategy, merchants, nonprofits, and community members are rallying around design instead. Brad Armstrong of the Urban SEED [  ] Ponics Lab, for instance, offers a seven-week Human-Centered Design course that begins this week in New Haven; and on New Haven’s Ninth Square, the public gathers this Friday for Design On9.

As communities and ecosystems are finding out, alignment around simple themes and clearly articulated principles is key to cutting through the clutter and engaging participation. When Chris Ortwein, the driver behind On9, invited The Grove to consider scheduling arts-related events every first Friday, the collaborative coworking space created The Grovestand—a production support concept blending an informal and friendly vibe for merchandising with the ease of making credit card purchases. The Grovestand debuts this Friday as well.


About Michael Romano