Daniel Pink on Design, Writing and the Brain

When I first heard Daniel Pink talk about his third book, A Whole New Mind, in 2005, I was immediately captivated. He’s articulate, unassuming and just plain smart. Of course his background as a political speech writer and the tale of how he discovered writing as a career spoke to me, so you can imagine my absolute excitement when I heard he’ll be speaking at the HOW Leadership Conference in 2014.

If you aren’t familiar with Daniel, he’s an entrepreneur, accomplished speaker and author of five bestselling books. Well, that’s the short version …

Design visionary and HOW partner Debbie Millman interviewed Daniel for her online radio program Design Matters, where he talked about his fondness and appreciation for design, and how a self-proclaimed “hard-core left brained guy” can cultivate more artistic, right-brained capabilities through recognizing the design everywhere around him.

©Rebecca Emily Drobis

© Rebecca Emily Drobis

Debbie’s show openings are always carefully shaped to support and highlight the program’s primary content and guest’s topic. (As a side note, I really love her narrative style, so don’t cheat yourself by skipping the intro.)

In this specific episode of Design Matters, Debbie begins by revealing that Daniel’s “last real job was in the White House.” He never set out to be a political speech writer, but “working in politics morphed into writing speeches.” And clearly Daniel had a knack for it, as former presidential candidate Al Gore hired him.

Daniel Pink on his former career as a speech writer:

“It was exhilarating—and demanding. You denominate your life in dog years instead of human years … each month you survive is equivalent to four months. Every once in awhile I felt like I was making a difference in the world, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore.”

On why he went to law School:

“I went to Law School because that’s what you were supposed to do. I was interested in politics but never thought I’d make a career in writing.”

Daniel Pink, A Whole New MindOn his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future:

“It’s a book about big trends I saw with people on the job, and what I was instructed to develop, what was really happening in the economy…

Debbie asks, “What made you write about the brain?”

“I wrote about the brain because I thought it was a good metaphor. This book isn’t explicitly about the brain. What it does is it uses two sides of the brain to understand the contours of our time.

But in order to get the underlying metaphor right, I actually do spend the first chapter talking about the brain. And I went to the National Institute of Health—I got my brain scanned to understand, in a first-hand way, the different sides of the brain.”

On the distinction between right and left brain attributes:

“The right brain deals with processing things all at once, context versus text, synthesis rather than analysis. These tasks are hard to automate, big picture thinking.

The left side is logical, linear, sequential, analytical, more step-by-step and rule-based.”

On Nobel Prize-winning scientist Roger Sperry’s claim that “modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere?”

“For a long time the left-brain abilities were more economically useful (accountant, engineer, lawyer). They were what employers wanted and the abilities schools taught, therefore they were the abilities individuals were incentivized to develop… In a very rational, sensible way our world was configured around developing those sorts of capacities.

The other capacities [right-brain] were seen as fine, but thought to be more ornamental … so if you were a serious person, you focused on left rather than right.

The other thing that’s interesting is that left-brain abilities are reletively easy to measure: IQ Test, ACT, SAT, and we understand that measurements do matter. But we fell into a logical fallacy that said, the fact that we can measure it means it’s worth measuring, and becuase we can’t measure soemthing means it’s not worth measuring.

A systematic bias against art, empathy, inventiveness, big picture thinking, as robust, serious, cognitive abilities happened because they [right brain abilities] defy measurement in terms of right and wrong.”

On strictly left brain functions:

“I think they are necessary and not sufficient.”

Daniel Pink; HOW Leadership Conference Speaker

Courtesy of Eli Meir Kaplan

On the value of design and (how it fits into the brain functions):

“There’s a notion among non-designers that design is ornamentation. I was trying to make the case [in the book] that design is more than that, that it’s problem-solving—and that design has consequences… beyond something not being pretty.

I’ve gotten more literate in design by keeping a design notebook, and each time I see an instance of good or bad design, I write it down.

Designers often carry a notebook, but for me it brought to the surface that everything in our midst is the product of a design decision. The configuration of a workplace, a city, and there was intention behind it; a human being created it. Am I ever going to be a great designer? No. But have I become more conscious of design and literate (thanks to a drugstore-bought notebook)? Yes.”

Catch Daniel Pink live in the flesh at the 2014 HOW Leadership Conference!

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