The Questions | Craig Berman | gravitytank

He’s fueled by coffee. He’s a blogger, a photographer and a graphic facilitator. He’s been known to take inspiration from classic Robert Palmer music videos. Somehow, “designer” doesn’t quite encapsulate Craighton Berman. But it is a good starting point for getting to know him.

FEBRUARY 2009 - Craighton Berman (or Craig) grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs before matriculating to Virginia Tech University, where ID found him floating in the seas of engineering. He left the East Coast for the great metropolis of the Midwest, and now lives in Chicago's gritty-but-lovable Logan Square neighborhood with his wife, Emily. The gravitytank designer can be found perpetually drinking coffee.

How did you end up working in design?

My path to finding design is a common one: I decided to study mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech because I wanted to "make things," but once enrolled in an ME program, felt like it wasn't the way I imagined "making things" to be. One day one of my engineering professors told me "you're great at drawing—that's rare for engineers—usually the industrial designers are the ones who do that." Of course that just blew open a whole new door in my mind. Once I got into the studios and had an ID friend show me her work, I was hooked, and the rest is history.

Craig Berman Sketch Fast forward to senior year: I was obsessed with bags and mass customization, so I combined the two for my thesis, and came out with a project where I not only designed a modular bag system, but also a business model: users could customize the cut, color and graphic treatment of their bags online. My hours spent at a sewing machine caught the attention of a small soft goods company in Chicago, and the next thing I knew I was living a block away from Lake Michigan.

Fast forward a few years: I've worked at a few design firms in town, have been helping run the local IDSA chapter, spoke at a few conferences, started making my own products, showed work in Chicago and London, started teaching, and currently I'm a designer at gravitytank.

What creative disciplines other than ID do you have a background in? Howdo those skills influence your ID work?

I've always approached design more broadly as "creative" work. Creativity and ideas are what drive me—independent of the medium—so it's only natural that I'm attracted to many different disciplines. Because of this, I always feel the need to be connected to other interests, like independent music, photography, graphic design, illustration and underground comics, modern art, etc.

I DJed college radio back in school, and still have an insatiable hunger for discovering music—especially anything that pushes in new directions or is created from a really unique point-of-view. Whether it's the atmospheric haze of a Boards of Canada track, the left-field folk of Neutral Milk Hotel, or even just a banging track from Lil Wayne—I've got to have music in my ears at some point in the day while I'm working.

I started to get into photography when I moved to Chicago, and would notice all these odd and interesting things as I walked around the neighborhoods. From hidden pieces of street art to makeshift fixes to the urban landscape, I was constantly snapping pictures. Photography inspires me in lot of ways: from the opportunity to pay closer attention to my surroundings and notice things, to the implied narrative that I get to impose on an image, to the chance to capture a feeling through nothing other than imagery.

I've always been a doodler and unofficial cartoonist. Obviously this interest feeds well into product design, where you're typically sketching ideas and designs. However I've always enjoyed creating characters and letter forms, and have filled sketchbook upon sketchbook with fictional characters and text treatments. This unofficial illustration background has helped drive my work towards "visual thinking" using visualization tools to understand intangible ideas. Tools like storyboarding and graphic recording have become tools in my design toolbox, and they stemmed from doodles in the margins of physics notes.

Describe your work environment. What’s the collaborative process like?

Craig Berman Work Currently I'm a designer with gravitytank, an innovation consulting firm in Chicago. I like to say that we help companies define what to do next—from products to services and experiences. Most companies CAN do anything they want, so the hardest decision is knowing WHAT to do next. The work I've been doing here has been extremely mind expanding. I've worked on everything from future scenarios for consumer electronics strategies, to retail experiences, to conceptual interface design, to communication design, as well as designing products. I really appreciate that gravitytank sees design in a broad context, and is always pushing to apply "design thinking" outside of traditional areas.

The role is extremely collaborative. I work with a lot of extremely smart and talented people who have really diverse backgrounds. For the duration of each project, we work in small teams that generally consist of research, strategy and design. Obviously each discipline comes at the problem with a different toolset: the researchers really get to know people and their values, the strategists focus on the factors that drive business and technology, and the designers bring ideas from insights to tangible solutions. There's a lot of overlap between these disciplines—I've helped create frameworks for business opportunities, I've traveled all over the world for research, as well as crossing over into other design disciplines at GT, like communications design, interactive design and motion graphics.

Probably the most telling part of the collaborative way we work are the "project bays" we work in. Every project has a bay where the team permanently camps out together for the duration of the project—nobody ever sits at their desk. So for 12 weeks I'm living in a "room" made up of modular cardboard walls and four (or more) people around a single table. It's a constant dialogue between the three disciplines as we bring clarity to ambiguousness and define new opportunities.

Probably the most defining element of gravitytank's collaborative nature is the client workshops that occur in the middle of each project. We have an entire floor of our studio dedicated to these events, where 15-20 of our clients come out for a multi-day interactive workshop, where we share research, frame up opportunities together and explore new directions through a series of activities.These workshops are a lot to orchestrate, but they push the project forward at an amazing pace! It's amazing how much is accomplished when all of the stakeholders from a company are brought together in a room to understand their users and collaborate on a vision of what they do next.

Another very unique part of being at gravitytank is the opportunity to explore new techniques, tools and methodologies for designing. I've been able to take my passion for drawing in new directions by developing new techniques for visual thinking. For example, I've been using "graphic facilitation" in a lot of our workshops and client meetings. This is basically a technique for mapping group conversations on large sheets of paper in a visual, non-linear way. This can facilitate a conversation by mapping the dialogue, and can help people see connections between ideas and concepts—all the while the room becomes literally wallpapered with images and words.

 Also, over the past few years I've lead the development of using storyboarding in our design process. Obviously it's been used for years for communicating stories, but it also has a lot of value in analyzing research, generating ideas and designing experiences. It's been a really powerful tool for designing collaboratively with teams, by getting people to think broadly about design opportunities, and focus directly on consumer experiences. Plus you get to draw cartoons. Not bad.

Tell us about your blog and how you’re using online tools to build your personal brand?

I've kept a personal blog [www.fueledbycoffee.com] for over six years. It started as an outlet for me to write about stuff I found inspiring, things I noticed and ideas I had—but it has turned into a bit of a digital sketchbook of sorts. I post photography, sketches, ideas, doodles, inspirations, music mini-reviews and of course the requisite rant (it is a blog after all). Although it's open to any and all who care to read it, I approach it in a fairly personal way, and take it in any direction I'm in the mood for. I've always felt that community is very important—whether that be literally the neighborhood you live in, a professional design community, or in this case, a digital community. It's been great sharing ideas and thoughts with people, and meeting people who have read things I've posted. Obviously, as with any tangible output, it has also sort of become a "personal brand" of sorts. I'll meet people for the first time around town who know "fueledbycoffee." It may have been odd at first—having someone "know" you before you know them—but it usually is a great conversation starter, and I've met tons of interesting and creative people through my blog, as well as other social media, like Flickr and Twitter. Again, it goes back to my passions. The web is just a great conduit for creativity and ideas.

What are your own personal design aspirations?

Craig Berman Salt Over the past few years, I've started making objects on the side under my own name [www.craightonberman.com]. It started as a chance to make some simple ideas into tangible products and enter them in competitions, but has developed into an outlet for my ideas that I am actually turning into saleable products.

Currently I am working with a ceramics molder for the first run of a salt and pepper set, as well as getting ready to produce a laser cut table lamp with a conceptual spin to it. My full time job has been very supportive of this after-hours hobby, and it's been a great chance to explore a different side of design from design thinking. The two actually work very well in parallel, and it also fulfills two sides of my personality. I have a conceptual side that loves the point-of-view-driven design world that you see at Design Week in London or Milan, and I have a side of me that loves using design to solve complex problems that may or may not lead to a physical artifact.

As for future aspirations, I'd like to keep fueling both sides of my design personality, and maybe even see what happens when you drive them closer together, as well as apart. Long term, I have a lot of aspirations: help launch a tech start-up, academic design (I just started teaching sketching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this semester), help to shape a city with good urban design, and, of course, found my own design studio, where maybe I could do all of that at once.

Who/what are your sources of design inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere, and find it very necessary to refresh periodically to stay up. What it comes down to for me is that I need two types of inspiration: daily minutiae and grand visions. On the daily minutiae, I might check the blogs, read random information about hand painted grocery store signs, watch an obscure music video from the '80s, see some street-art, take a photo of some odd piece of wood lodged in a bridge, see someone intriguing on the subway or play the right record at the right time. For grand visions, I'll head out to the art galleries on a Friday, go eat at one of Chicago's many creative restaurants (or better yet cooked by my wife, who's in culinary school), go see a band play the Empty Bottle, go ride my bike through a neighborhood I've never been in, travel to a completely different culture and feel overwhelmed, and drink some really good coffee from a French press.

What are your favorite design books or web site distractions?

My favorites are always shifting, but recently I've been inspired by Maira Kalman's Principles of Uncertainty. Her illustrations and observations of trivial experiences in everyday life remind me how awesome it is to be living right now. I also have been enjoying Designing Design, MUJI Creative Director Kenya Hara's thoughtful collection of essays and gorgeous projects he has curated. I just re-read the Bouroullec brothers' book—I find their vision of design incredibly inspiring. As for web sites, I'm seriously addicted to Twitter and Flickr. I'm also a pretty voracious blog reader, so there's too many to list here. Highlights include the modern art blog VVORK, the image repository FFFFFOUND, the design blog Dezeen.com, and the 1980s Robert Palmer video "Looking for Clues" on YouTube. Look that one up.

How do you think design will evolve in the near future?

Design is going everywhere. It's broadening and infiltrating many industries that were untouched previously. I'd like to see it spread into the public realm. I think a good dose of design thinking could do a lot for our local and even national government. I also would like to see design take a larger role in the design and planning of our cities. I'd like to see more designers with the ability to understand what's meaningful to people and the vision to create things that are authentic and honest. I'd like to see more design entrepreneurs striking out on their own and starting successful companies making great products and services. I'd like to see less over-designed objects with few reasons for existing. I'd like to see designers taking a bigger role in defining our culture, not just our commerce.

What should the design infrastructure do to help guide that future in a way that benefits the profession and those who practice it?

I'd like to see more empathy from professionals towards students. I'd like to see students form their toolbox of skills earlier, so they have more time to create powerful and thoughtful projects without technique getting in the way. At the same time I'd like to see more intellectualism and experimentation within the field. We need more thinkers, writers, curators and experimental makers—especially in the US where we tend to approach design much more pragmatically.

What have been your biggest and best takeaways from your IDSA experience?

The best part has been the community—I've met lots of great people and had some great conversations. I've also actually formed some great friendships that have nothing to do with design!

What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?

Their ability to maintain relevance to me. When I was in school, a trip to the National Conference in Boston blew my mind open, and inspired me to work my ass off to get a ob in the design world. When I was a young designer in a new city, IDSA was an opportunity to meet people and learn about the local design scene. When I got involved with the local chapter and helped to run events, amp up our communication and help to plan conferences, it was a chance to shape things. But now I'm not sure what to do with it next—where do I fit?

What does the average designer not appreciate about the challenges of being a volunteer IDSA leader?

It takes a lot of time and energy to conceptualize and run events—and no event will ever please all of the people all of the time. But remember: you aren't allowed to complain unless you've helped. Then you can bitch and moan all you want! But seriously, IDSA is only as good as the programming and content we create for it. Yes, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation—but you start small and see where the momentum takes you.

What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?

I want them to focus on their overall strategy, and more clearly define their offering. I'd like to see them become more transparent in their communications. I'm not quite sure about the recent move to take away a lot of the autonomy of local chapters, in favor of a more centralized IDSA. I'd like to see the various regions and chapters reflect their uniqueness. With those critiques in mind, I am optimistic for the future, and look forward to the unique perspectives of the next generation of design leaders. The first step is things like this article. Big credit to the IDSA for creating opportunities like this that allow us to share our perspectives in such a public forum!