John Bielenberg: Creative Inspiration and Ideas
I first met John Bielenberg, one of the contemporary pioneers of the “design for good” movement at a conference several years ago. I was immediately struck by his presentation on the importance of thinking wrong in order to generate ideas worth building. In this interview, we discuss his work, the Pando tree in Utah, and gravity.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I think I was meant to be an artist, but I became a designer and then a mentor. Maybe I’ll return to art eventually.
In 1978, I was expelled, actually told to “shape up or ship out”, from the communication design program at Rochester Institute of Technology for rebelling against the prevailing International Style. I finished college with a fine art degree from Binghamton University in New York. In hindsight, that schizophrenic education turned out to shape my design approach and career. The foundation of thinking wrong was established.
After graduation, I drove my Renault LeCar from New York to San Francisco, where I got a job at an ad agency in Palo Alto that had mostly high-tech clients, way before high-tech was cool. Much more like The Office than Mad Men. After a year, I moved to San Francisco and started at a small, naive graphic design studio. By accident I became a partner and later took over. I think of this part of my career like climbing a ladder and I was intensely focused on each rung… graduate college, get a job, do good work, win awards, get my name on the door, make money. After 10 years, I wasn’t quite at the top but I had climbed high enough to see the top, and I started to question the profession of graphic design. I felt like the majority of my time was spent greasing the cogs of capitalism.
So, in the mid 1990’s I invented a fake corporation called Virtual Telemetrix and produced a series of projects that satirized the role of design in corporate America. We produced 2 annual reports, a catalog of fake products, a corporate video, brand materials and proposed a casino in Las Vegas. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired a number of those projects and produced an exhibition in 2000.
Also in 2000, I had the opportunity to see the legendary architect Samuel Mockbee speak about his Rural Studio program at CCA where I was on the adjunct faculty. I thought “why isn’t there something like this for other design disciplines?” This led me to start an experimental program called Project M in 2003. The M is in honor of Mockbee who sadly passed away shortly after I met him.
After 10 years of thinking wrong with students at Project M, my business partners and I developed a 6 part thinking wrong methodology and formed a company to help large companies and organizations solve their biggest challenges.
Most recently, I founded the Think Wrong Institute at the University of Kansas to try and imbed this kind of disruptive design thinking into a large academic institution.
You’ve been a central figure in the Design for Good movement – what inspired you to focus on impact as a designer?
The inspiration goes back to my dissatisfaction with practice of design for capitalism. I needed to shift the focus to something that felt much more meaningful. I also love lighting that same fire in young people starting their careers.
We share a love for workshops. What’s the most interesting idea that’s come out of one of your “Think Wrong” sessions?
That’s hard to say but we recently ran a Think Wrong Blitz with a group of design sophomores at KU where the challenge was to get young people to vote in the next election. One of the ideas, which I thought was brilliant, was a dating app called Swingr. You would answer a series of prompts like “How do you feel about a woman right to choose?” and swipe right or left. The app would then match you up to someone physically appealing but with the opposite views and your first date would be at the voting poll.
Why should we think wrong?
I believe that we live in an unprecedented time in human history. Big challenges like climate change, population growth, species extinction, and technologies like artificial intelligence are looming. Thinking right or business as usual won’t be sufficient to go from the way things are to the way things should be.
What do you like to do when you’re not jumping around the country facilitating workshop sessions?
I’m a big fan of cycling, cross country skiing, and have been a runner since the 1970’s. I also have a couple awesome kids, 2 motorcycles and a van that is converted for road trips with the love of my life. I generally prefer the outdoors to cities but she loves both equally.
What is something you’re working on right now that you’re psyched about?
By far the most important thing I’m working on is helping an organization called Pando Populus that is driving us to shift to a more ecological civilization. It’s named after the largest, and possibly oldest, organism on earth, a 106 acre aspen grove in Utah.
What’s something you wish you knew when you were 20 that you know now?
The status quo is like gravity.
Thanks again, John, for your insights into “design for good”! It’s time for more of us to start thinking wrong.