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5 questions with ‘Made to Stick’ author Dan Heath

Dan Heath is the coauthor, along with his brother Chip, of three New York Times bestsellers: Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive. He is also a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE Center, which supports entrepreneurs who are fighting for social good. He’ll be speaking at this year’s Hopscotch Design Festival about “designing moments.” We asked him about his current projects, the role of design today and in the future, and what it means to design a moment.

Dan Heath

You and your brother Chip have written some great books. Made to Stick in particular has been an inspiration for how we use stories in our work at New Kind. What issues are the two of you thinking about these days?

First of all, thank you! To answer your question, lately we’ve been thinking a lot about memorable experiences. For instance, somewhere in your house you’ve got a stash of treasures—maybe it’s in a box in your closet, or in a drawer, or a scrapbook—and those treasures would be worthless to anyone else but are priceless to you. (Thieves will never abscond with that mid-90s Sonic Youth concert ticket stub.) They are relics of the most special moments in your life. One thing that’s interesting: It’s surprisingly easy to figure out what should be added to the collection and what shouldn’t. So what factors are we considering when we make those judgments? What makes a moment worth commemorating? Let me be clear: Chip and I don’t have all the answers here. But we do have a few. And the exploration has been fascinating.

In his recent Design in Tech report, John Maeda suggests that over the coming years, the word design will come to mean less as we are forced to qualify what type of design we mean (e.g., classical design, design thinking, organizational design, etc.)? What does the word design mean to you today, and how do you see its meaning changing?

I have a Don Norman & Edward Tufte conception of design. I believe that we count on designers to fight for simplicity, usability, and beauty. I am a bit skeptical of the broad corporate embrace of “design thinking.” When Fortune 500 folks talk about design thinking, what they’re mostly talking about is rapid prototyping and user testing. And those are great practices! But if we’re going to quibble about labels, I’d file that under “marketing” more so than “design.”

At the Hopscotch Design Festival, our goal is to celebrate people who are intentionally designing the future. What do you believe are the most compelling opportunities in the business world today to intentionally design the future?

Let me make a provocative and unsupported statement that might serve as an effective teaser for my keynote: The future of design is the design of experiences. Granted, the promise of experience design is old news when it comes to selected parts of the service industry: theme parks, hotels, retail stores, spas, and so on. (But! Even in those obvious industries, the majority of players show no sign of having had contact with a designer.) But experience design is going to be critical for so many industries. Health care, for instance, is being revolutionized by people who understand that “fixing” people medically isn’t enough—that the patient experience is a critical part of the patient’s well-being. It’s going to be an exciting future for designers who love thinking about experiences as much as products.

Your talk is entitled “Designing Moments.” Can you give a sneak preview into what it means to design a moment?

Think of the medal ceremony at the Olympics: the elevated platforms, the flags, the anthems, rich with joy and pride and patriotism. Or consider the moment when a Southwest flight attendant pierces your cynical exterior with a corny joke. Or the time when you were a kid and a teacher took you aside and praised a talent you didn’t know you had. Those are magic moments. The people responsible for them didn’t consider themselves “moment designers,” but that’s what they were. And life is full of unexplored opportunities to create more moments like that.

What are you hoping people will come away with after attending your keynote?

A handful of practical takeaways, a dollop of inspiration, and a renewed appreciation for the power of moments. Also, I will validate parking as needed.

You can catch Dan’s keynote on Thursday, September 8 at 9:40 a.m. at the Raleigh Convention Center. Be sure to check out the entire Hopscotch Design Festival lineup and visit the schedule page so you can plan out your festival. And if you haven’t already, make sure to buy tickets before they sell out.

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