012 : Deconstructing Discontent and Designing Communities with Hugh Weber


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“You can’t design community until you’ve deconstructed discontent,” says Hugh Weber, Managing Director at The Great Discontent and Design Observer. He believes that any society’s areas of discontent, at any point in history, are best articulated by the designers and artists of that community. In other words, the power of the artist is that they can envision the world not only as it could be, but perhaps even how it should be.

Hugh gives a fresh take on the COVID-19 crisis, particularly as it relates to the design community. In just a few months, the pandemic has ravaged much of the world in more ways than one. However, Hugh considers this moment as an opportunity for creatives to evaluate the long-term purpose of their work. At a time when survival is top-of-mind for many, and working from home has become the new normal, makers now have more time and an increased responsibility to reflect on how their creations can tackle various current areas of societal discontent.

Hugh Weber and Steve Chaparro express their hopes for the future in this episode of the Culture Design Show where they talk about the impact of COVID-19 on the design industry, the indispensable role of the artist in society, the power of network effects, and why your children could be your secret weapon toward creative breakthroughs. Stay tuned.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • What led Hugh down the path to becoming the Managing Director of The Great Discontent and Design Observer?
  • Hugh gives his thoughts on the potential opportunities that creatives face amid the COVID-19 pandemic
  • What led Hugh to develop the Deconstructing Discontent series of workshops
  • The responsibility of the artist to articulate society’s discontent in order to lay the foundations for change
  • How designers and artists can break down a big picture discontent into specific, bite-sized ideas that can spread via the initial, “immediate ripple” of a network effect
  • Hugh shares how individuals in the design community are moving forward in spite of the challenges presented by COVID-19
  • How your children can have a significant impact on your creative work if you allow them to get involved.

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guest:

Hugh Weber is the Managing Director at The Great Discontent and Design Observer, both of which are collaborative platforms dedicated to inspiring timely and relevant conversations from the perspective of artists and other creative changemakers. This is done through various forms of media, including digital and printed pieces, film-based projects, podcasts, and live events.

 He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Public Policy, Black Studies at Swarthmore College. He also has a Master of Arts in Campaign Management, Strategic Message Development, and Quantitative/Qualitative Research Methods at The George Washington University. Before becoming involved with The Great Discontent and Design Observer, Hugh has held C-level roles or served on the board or advisory committee at several companies, including AIGA Design, OTA, Institute of Possibility, and Design for America.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by the Culture Design Studio, a consulting firm that helps people and cultural leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people through a series of facilitated workshops. They provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization.

Culture Design Studio has worked with organizations like Duarte Design, Design Thinkers Group, Red Bull, USAID, Bacardi, and the Office of Civic Innovation

If you’re looking for more than just a consultant and want someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, Culture Design Studio is the one for you.

Contact them today to learn more about what they can do for you and your company.

Full Transcript: Powered by Otter.ai

Announcer Welcome to The Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro Steve Chaparro, here. I am the host of The Culture Design Show, a podcast where I feature leaders and thinkers at some of the top creative firms in the world, including architecture, design, technology, and marketing. What’s the one thing they all have in common, they all believe in the power of culture, and design.

This podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio, we help people in culture leaders who feel constrained in their ability to engage their employees to become champions for their people. Through a series of facilitated workshops, we provide a practical and collaborative process to transform the culture within your creative organization. We’ve worked with organizations like Duarte Design, DesignThinkers Group, Red Bull,  US AID, and the Office of Civic Innovation. So if you’re looking for more than just a consultant, but someone who can facilitate your organization through a structured conversation to transform your culture, reach out to us at culturedesignstudio.com.

Hugh Weber is a man of many passions, but at the center of it all, he is passionate about bringing together design and community. After a career in politics, he decided that he wanted to help build a community for creatives in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. If you listen carefully, you would notice that all of those states ended in -ota. That’s when he founded OTA, a for purpose organization focused on sparking transformation through creative connections and collisions. He also founded the Institute of Possibility and was named a current board member of AIGA. But most recently in a flurry of news, it was announced that he was assuming the roles of managing director at both The Great Discontent and Design Observer. He was a force to be reckoned with, but a benevolent type of force that you would welcome into your home for an intimate potluck and nourishing conversation and a fulfilling connection. That’s my friend, Hugh. Hugh, welcome to The Culture Design Show.

Hugh Weber Hugh sounds like a guy that never sleeps.

Steve Chaparro Well, from my experience in my chat with you, that could be very well the saying, never sleeps and never stops traveling. But he’s a great father all in the say at the same time.

Hugh Weber That’s your too kind of so great to be with you here today, Steve.

Steve Chaparro This has been a blast. I think you’ve been part of my journey in a very big way. We we met about three and a half years ago. And it was a virtual relationship at that time. And then we met for the first time in Nashville for the story conference. We’ve got to we had a conversation late into the Tonight as we walked around downtown Nashville if you remember, and it’s been you’ve been a great example and friend to me since that time,

You know what I’ll never forget about that strange encounter is that we we went for this long walk through downtown Nashville, and we get to the bridge and all of a sudden we realize there is a Counting Crows concert is like in that ballpark or stadium right there. Yeah, it is so completely random. But it’s it’s really created a solid sense of our first evening hanging out and conversing and enjoying each other’s company. So it’s a, that’s always gonna be a great memory for me. And that’s mentioned stories, a great gathering and a great conference, too.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, so it’s been great to hear as we’ve conversed over the years and learning and kind of just being alongside each other for our respective journeys. And I remember you having chats we were having chats with, you’re having chats with organizations about the possibility of things to happen and they wanted to ticular case, you didn’t mention what the organization was. And then when you told me oh my gosh, Steve, the deal just went through, I have the opportunity to assume leadership of the great discontent. I’m like, Oh my gosh, like, I couldn’t believe that that was the organization that you were talking about, because I’ve been such a fan of that effort from the beginning.

Hugh Weber Yeah, me too. I think it absolutely has been a dream come true. I had the opportunity through OTA, through the nonprofit you mentioned, to bring Ryan and Tina Essmacker. Who were the founders, the creators of the greatest content to the Dakotas and brought them here because I was a super fan of buying several hundred copies of the first couple magazines to give to attendees and parts of people in our community. And it was so so when that conversation around actually kind of taking the helm of the greatest content became real. It was it was a dream. come true. I mean, I think telling the stories of the untold stories of creatives of the creative journey of creative risks, but also the way that those creatives are acknowledging and directing the discontent in their work. And in their these. I it was the heart and soul of odo, but now at a global level, and it’s such a extraordinary community in such a, an extraordinary group of 300 plus past interviewees. Every day I just kind of pinch myself. And only exciting things have happened since since then, you know, since last October.

Steve Chaparro Yeah. So speaking of last October, so that I’m not sure what the exact months were for each of the announcements, but it was first the announcement about the great discontent event Two months later. And design observer, which is this force, absolute force and leader invoice in the design community. It was announced that you were to be you Now the managing director of design observer. Tell me about that.

Hugh Weber It was a little bit I was never a Chicago Bulls fan, but a little bit like showing up at the 97 bowls and saying, Hey, can I can I play with you guys? And they were like, yeah, you’re the starting forward. It’s a it’s an absolute fantasy situation. And I and I say that with no kind of self deprecation. You know, the co founders, Jessica health and and Michael Beirut, are to have not only the greatest living graphic designers, but also to have the most generous people with their time and passion and insight and curiosity, and to people that see the role of design not only as this isolated kind of bubble of craft, but as this vast kind of field of view of consequences and legacy and inspiration and impact and leadership.

And so, you know, we started with a project probably not too far after you and I first met when we started with a project really diving into some research around who their audience Was they’ve been around 17 years. And it led to this place where, you know, several months ago, they kind of extended the opportunity to step in as managing director and help think about not only what it’s been and what it is, but maybe what it becomes, as an even bigger kind of cultural force and even bigger partner to leaders in business and leaders and culture and leaders in design and some of the conversations that have happened in in through that that group have been life changing for me, and and some of them have have, you know, they continue, we do this thing called studio sessions on Saturdays. Well, this week, and we’re featuring Emil dash and Anna, we are two of the leading voices on tech and tech culture and tech community. And we’ll be doing it in the context of their expertise, but also Michael and Jessica and my own expertise in InDesign, and that’s a that’s an amazing conversation to be able to have once a year to be able to do it. If not daily, certainly several times a week it is every fantasy I could have could have had a year ago or five years ago.

Steve Chaparro Yeah. So when we talk about the, you know, what are some of the things that you were endeavoring to, to pursue in terms of on behalf of the great discontent? And the design observer? I’m sure some of that I’m almost guaranteed most of it has been disrupted, maybe not changed it necessarily, but at the at the very least, has impacted it. So share with me what are some of the things that you see moving forward as some of the big challenges opportunities that are coming out of this COVID-19 experience?

Hugh Weber Oh, yeah, let me let me maybe start a step before before that, which is to say, you know, there’s the same to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. I’m a guy that carries not a hammer but carries is a tool set built around some ideas that I call relationships of influence. idea that at our core, everything from our personal health and well being to our professional kind of creative, innovative ability, quantity quality, are impacted by the relationships that we actively intentionally and reciprocally engage in.

And so, you look at an audience like the great discontent, which was primarily 40. And under 35. And under, they are focused on developing a perspective on their work on their craft, and and often are extremely isolated, like many globally, but many Americans, but many creatives, like there’s this sense of isolation that we know increases, again, health impacts, but also work impacts. And so you know, I arrive at that table and say, What if I could teach or provide a unique lens for that group of culture creators to really examine their work through the lens of who they’re doing it with? And if it’s not like someone that is actively in the work you and I don’t think I’ve ever done a work project together, and you’re part of kind of my relationships mentally ones that are actively bringing new ideas helping me refine existing ideas. You are a critical part of the work that results even if your hands aren’t on the work. What if I can help them see through that lens?

On the other side of the equation is, is you’ve got people, design observers, primarily 45 and older. They’re moving into executive roles. If they’re designers or creative they’re moving into. They are business executives that now oversee design or creative function. Yeah. And they’ve got the, they sometimes get so focused on their silo or their niche, that they’re missing the incredible ripples in the same way relationships of influence and ripples of impact. They’re, they’re missing the ROI right there. Yeah, there’s return on investment, but they’re missing the relationships of influence and the ripples of impact and you have to be able to sit with them and say, here’s the work you’re doing what if what if you were really intentional about these reciprocal engagements, not just from a mentoring standpoint, that can be part of it. But from a how your work impacts and leaves consequences in the world. And so you know that that’s that’s how I arrived the end of last year when we last saw each other in January, I was higher than a kite on all of those ideas and possibilities.

And then, you know, seven weeks ago, everything kind of slowed down after a trip to see Carlos Estrada in Detroit suddenly out. And, you know, for for the last handful of weeks. what it has done for me, though, is actually amplify the need for those relationships of influence, right? What falls away in these moments are the transactional kind of aspects of business, transactional aspects of design, the formal kind of legalistic and hierarchical nature of relationship and work.

You know, I spoke to a large agency a couple weeks ago and I said you may not have the same kind of connection through the hierarchy. Directors might not see the people that report nearly as Frequently, but I assure you, informal relationships of influence that happened over used to happen over lunch or via text are still happening. They’re just having a different format. The nature of those consequential, reciprocal influential relationships survive there, you know, send it to a client this morning. They are recession proof, they are pandemic proof. They are technology proof, human beings will find a way to do what they uniquely do as humans, which is connect with other other people and share stories and experiences on a mentally basic human experience that we’ve managed to kind of carry through from oral traditions to, you know, VR, ar sort of immersive environments, those truths are there regardless, and so it has certainly made us adapt. I’m a guy that lives in South Dakota, so I’m always on zoom. And people people maybe have made themselves more available via zooms I may be on video calls a little more frequently, but not really. This is generally If I’m not on the road, which is a lot, generally I’m on a call like this. And so you know, that’s changed a little bit. But I think we’ve also found that it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to just kind of Port our real world lives into virtual contexts and think that’ll be sufficient. We’re finding out a lot of things that we thought were true or not true. It’s a lot easier and and more viable to provide extremely accessible across abilities across needs, accessible communication channels, then we once believed, it’s a shame that two people that needed those resources prior to this, that it wasn’t accommodated, it wasn’t created and it wasn’t designed that way. I hope that we will preserve those things now that we’ve learned how available they are, how true they are, how easy it is, to still be functional, even even with children running around. We used to say it was impossible for a lot of businesses to be remote. But now when they’re all wrong, we know that wasn’t true. And I think we see people adapting. But I also hope we don’t simply see them adapting, which is momentary and contextual, but that we actually see them evolving. And that’s what we’re trying to do with design observer. It’s what we’re trying to do with gray discontents, or I’m trying to do with my community design practice. And and the phones never run more like, I’m sure that it’s quiet in some traditional ad agencies right now, in community design spaces in spaces built on genuine, authentic connection. I’ve never been busier. And that’s not to brag, or it’s certainly a position of extreme privilege. But it’s a recognition that it doesn’t need to be the way that we’ve been told it needs to be.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, I love your approach. And I love that that the different roles that you play right now, whether it’s sort of the younger group, that is the audience of the great discontent, Or the older group that is the design observer community, and the holistic community that is represented with AIG as a whole, you’re you have a very strong leadership role in all of that. And, and I, I would love to dive into that a bit more. And I think, you know, the name of this podcast is the culture Design Show. And I think of it I look at in a couple of different ways. One, it’s the culture of design. But it’s also how can you design culture as well. And I think if I use some of the words that you use in terms of community design, it’s the community of design. And then it’s the design of community. And I love talking about the tensions that you’re addressing and observing in terms of discontent in that, that world and I’d love to dive into the nuances of even those age groups because I think that discontent is always there, but it may change based on the lifestyle stage that we’re in, and maybe the role. So one of the things that I’ve seen that you’ve done recently is you have been going around the nation giving this workshop. And it’s called deconstructing discontent, the dive into that, and what led you to prepare and develop this, this content and what has been the feedback?

Hugh Weber Well, so So two things kind of were emerging. At the same time, I was doing a workshop called designing community, which is really where I had grounded a lot of my thinking. And, you know, over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with one of the extraordinary marketplace designers and community organizer, I think on the planet. gentleman named Marshall Pollard from Southeast DC. He works part of his life through the creative School, which is a program for fifth grade kings and queens, young young men and women in a DC public elementary school, helping give them Access to spaces and places that they as designers are designing that fifth grade, fifth grade level. You know, I don’t know if I have it here where they’re addressing gun violence, which is a epidemic concern and a structural, I would say designed disconnect that’s been created in their neighborhood.

And one of the young designers who is happens to be the first greatest content article we posted since a few years I curate, Tucker. It’s like cure, I always give her a shout out design what’s called gums, not guns. Yeah, very intentionally said, What would make people stop and pause and think before they use a weapon or get in a violent situation? What would make them stop and try to get a fresh kind of perspective? And what emerged right down to her little identity more of Zai bys. I you know, was guns, not guns.

I I come from a very privileged and I feel the need to accept and embrace and acknowledge the privilege I come from which is, life has been relatively smooth. I exist in the world as someone that has access and privilege in a way that a lot of the people that I care about and work with, and even a lot of people I don’t know, don’t have the same privileges. I’ve never been concerned in an encounter with law enforcement. I’ve never questioned whether there’d be a grocery store within my neighborhood to provide kind of basic sustenance like these aren’t. I live in a small rural community, most life and yet those things are never concerned for me. And what I’ve realized is that you can’t design communities like you can design community until you’ve deconstructed discontent, right? We have kind of convenient myth for a lot of Americans that I think Americans of color don’t necessarily have the same.

The same kind of mythology but it’s convenient myth that you know, systems Where we see things we don’t like that it’s a broken system or that it’s an undesigned space. So like we see the over representation of African American men in the prison system, and we assume that’s a breakdown somewhere that that’s a system that we should design community there, and that’ll solve it. But it doesn’t acknowledges that there is a systematic discontent that needs to be deconstructed first. So I say all that to say that I came from a place of privilege with the collaborators that I’ve been blessed with, through Marshall and spin, who’s our head of operations with tgd and the creative school and a whole host of others. I realized there’s a step we were missing. now. I’ll acknowledge that it also helps.

So in a publication and a platform called the Great discontent in that in that change, but it really was this intentional focus on saying what is the biggest source of the workshop follows a fairly kind of straightforward structure. They even show you here up saying, you know, who do you represent you Who are you? What’s your name? What are your What are your pronouns? Who do you represent? What is the biggest source of discontent in your life into solve for that discontent? You know, what, what are the steps you’re taking, also looking at very carefully who the essential allies are, and who will be most impacted by the work you’re doing. You know, we step into the spaces and sometimes discontent is very personal and it’s very much about a relationship with a family member or a partner or or something within a neighborhood.

Then there are other individuals that are looking at discontented is extremely communal or even global. Right there is our on, you know, making space for safety in the immigrant community addressing climate change. I think what we found within this work of the of deconstructing discontent, is that it’s okay that it’s both, right. It’s okay that it can both be incredibly personal and can be about my need to develop a skill to be able to do a thing, and it’s okay that someone else’s gone and really gone to to scale that breadth, and depth. And, and are trying to address something that affects a lot of people or maybe all human beings on the planet. But it’s incredible work. And then then you can step into spaces. And this is where my friend Marshall’s other side of his work is around story centered design, you can stay stuck. Once you’ve deconstructed discontent acknowledged and addressed, begin to address it, you can begin to step into design spaces like you do with design thinkers, actually design design new systems, design new trends, design new structures. But I think until we’re until we’re willing to actually see things and in some cases, tear them down. I think that it’s really hard to build something new and something that’s equitable and generative and deep in its connective kind of DNA.

Steve Chaparro Yeah, I love that you provide through this conversation at the workshop, this framework to be able to deconstruct that because I think what happens many times is we could find ourselves decades into our careers. And we if we are really reflective about what is that common thread, through everything that we’ve done, we might at that point start to see that there was that this singular, discontent that was laced through all of us. And so in some ways, we were probably pursuing something that we didn’t know. And our journey is almost like a process of discovering, understanding that discontent and I know for me, you know, I could say I’ve, whether it’s for myself or for other people. There has been, I think there’s probably like, say artists, you know, some folks you know, that maybe this might be religious, religious, laced wording, but some have said that artists or designers are the prophetic voices of their generations, that in a sense, their discontent that they’re able to articulate in A way that many people cannot and when they took that in the form of design, or by sort of understanding the framing of the real problems, they’re able to give voice and form to what many people are thinking and feeling but but I love that you’re providing this framework to really say in the matter of you know, the the session that you’re having, they’re able to maybe get really into what that discontent looks like.

Hugh Weber 

Yeah, well and and and to start from a place of representation and relationships that influence to say, who do I really represent like as I sit in this space today? Who do I represent? Am I here representing the community of design? Am I here representing my my children now homeschooling upstairs with my partner? Who do I represent? And when they come into a space do they represent the city of Detroit? Do they represent the design community they represent a collective like the hooligan that is their kind of core collective together? getting really clear on that helps you begin to think about the discontent that those people you’re representing and embody, are facing in a way that you know you otherwise might not. Yeah. And it’s, I do it.

I won’t get too deep into the weeds of this, but I do a lot of work that I call creative counsel, which is more or less, yeah, literally, it feels like therapy with good. I’m a strong advocate for therapy. I’m just not a therapist. So I get to the edges of those. And I tend to make referrals rather than deep dives. Sometimes it looks very practical and tactical, like business strategy. But I see this recurring pattern. I had a conversation on another podcast a couple weeks ago, this recurring pattern that designers live in and in between they are Yeah, yes. So they’re never fulfilled, fully seen and realized as a creative but they are creative. So they’re never seen as practical and pragmatic. And so they live in this big in between that leaves, you know, some sort of cosmic wounds and it externalizes self worth through a lot of the product that’s being created, whether that’s visual or virtual. And, and it leaves them in this in between, I always call them the bridge builders, which is maybe an easier way to talk about that, that kind of foundational element.

But I think I think you’re right. They they make ideas possible. They make ideas visual, they make ideas, simple and elegant. I think designers are the most extraordinary talent and skill set that human beings can have when they’re when they’re when they truly see and find identity in that role, but I think it often leaves the human beings that are practicing the craft in a in a bit of a bridge and kind of lacking a grounded kind of community of practice. And that’s where things like AIGA which I’m so humbled to be, you know, for at least another month here. I think my term wraps up June 1. A leader in you know, I’ve gotten really involved with design from America, which is a program that seeks to be an intersection between design and management. So it lives in a lot of business schools and a lot of engineering schools, but is a college based program that is absolutely extraordinary. They’re all looking for that sense of clear identity, belonging, reciprocity, some element of being able to influence and be rewarded for that influence, and sharing experiences and where those systems exist. designers are thriving, and where they don’t exist, designers, designers are really struggling and that’s only, you know, amplified in a season like this.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, I love I love that word. You know, discontent and in and I don’t mean to, and I don’t think you do either. I don’t think that there is a negative connotation here of that discontent, but it’s just it’s this drive within us it is this. You know, sometimes I would call those you know, the discontented designer as being a frustrated visionary. They are discontent on behalf of others or even other people they see a world as it could be, in fact, they might even see it as it should be. And there is this anks and unwillingness to allow the current status quo to rule the future. And so what are we going to do to make that change? And so, when we do see that future, there is that in between that you talk about that we are in the present today, but there is that gap between today and that beautiful future. And, and I think many times leaders that are maybe not designers, they may may or may not have that ability to actually craft a framework to be able to get from the present to that beautiful future and I think designers because of the the tools and the mindsets and the skills that we have for our work in our craft, we could very well have the capable ability to provide those tools to reshape the future for leaders around the world.

Hugh Weber Well, and let’s just I mean, let’s just address it for what it is to like it is scary. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety around trying to transform or change things. There’s a lot of disincentive in the system to change things. Even with all the things we know now about remote work, even in this most extreme, awful context, we know that remote work and distance work can work. I think the vast majority of businesses will go back to some version of what they know best because it’s, it’s easier, it’s less scary. It’s less disruptive. It’s easier to justify. I think designers have to have, you know, he talked about this JFK speech a lot where he ends a stanza with we must be bold. He’s talking about putting a man on the moon and after describing this impossible task, the phrase he wraps it up with is if we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it right Then we must be bold. And I think of boldness as not extreme or not edgy, but just really brave, really confident. very courageous. I think designers do that.

Hugh Weber Well, yeah, I always talk about let’s see if I have it here. Because this is story hour, right? I was talking about this children’s book. It’s my very favorite. I keep it near my desk. It’s a book called Swimmy that was written and illustrated by a AIG medalist named Leo Leoni. And more or less the story goes like this. So swimming is hanging out with his buddies. He’s, he’s a little black fish amongst the sea of red fish. He’s hanging out with his friends, and he’s the fastest swimmer and a big fishes and he told his friends like, like, life is great. The life is really really bad very quickly, right, like, in this case, we’ll say the large fish is the Coronavirus, right. All of his friends are gone. Swimming is hiding is there’s a passage that I read that makes me you know, sappy and emo. Each and every time I read it, this is after his friends are gone. It says he swam away in the deep wet world. He was scared, lonely and very sad, which I get it two or three weeks ago, whoever pretty well, Americans, but then what he does is he does this like inexplicably brave thing, which is he starts swimming again, right? And he sees the jellyfish and he sees the seahorse and he realizes that the world is extraordinary. And as he’s swimming, he comes across this new group of little fish fish very similar to the fish that were his friends that he had lost. And he says, The world is an extraordinary place. And they’re just too scared to do anything about it. They’re just they’re just too nervous. They know how bad it can get. They know how isolating it can get. They’re just too scared to do anything about it. So he sits back and he thinks and he thinks and what he comes up with, is he comes up with a swim together.

We get emotional over distinctive children’s book cheese, if they swim together that like that. Everything’s gonna be just fine. And when he gets everyone in their place, he says, I will be BI. like they’ve taken this possibility of saying, because I saw something more possible, and I helped you and us collectively design it. I’ll lead the way, like, I’ll be bi and then they go about their business and they have a great life and they live the rest of their days at the you know, probably with Sebastian the crab singing and it’s that space that so many business leaders are hiding under a rock scared, wet and lonely. Yeah, and especially in an environment like this because they don’t know if they come out from under that rock. You know, if they go back to work, their entire workforce might might get infected or the business might not reboot the way they wanted to. It is safer. At least it feels safer to stay under the rock. 

But man, those those designers, those creative voices, those culture creators have the ability to say, you know what, I think we stick together Things will be okay. I think if we stick together and we swim together for a while, and you trust me enough to help help you see the scary things and recognize where they are threats, extraordinary things can happen. And that is true. In moments like this. It’s true all the time, because there’s always a big scary fish around the corner that can eat you for lunch. But if you trust the people that can truly see those people that are bridged into other communities bridge into other crafts and diverse spaces, you know, that there’s, there’s a great life out there. There’s a big beautiful world out there and there’s, there’s money to be made. And there are beautiful things to be created. And there are people to meet. life, life can be pretty great. Wow, I’m now.

Steve Chaparro Well, I mean, I think that many times when we think about some of these grandi these big systems, whether it’s at a society level, a culture or an industry, we think of, you know, years To view what the beautiful future looks like, here is what it should look like. And many times people, there are some of us that might really respond to those types of efforts. But then when we translate that large context to the context of our team, and the context of our partners, and the context of our firms, sometimes it seems it can seem like creating community or addressing discontent at those smaller scales is like, Oh, that’s not a big enough discontent to address. I want to address these bigger things. What can we learn from from addressing that mega discontent to really identifying the little discontents that we deal with on a daily basis?

Hugh Weber Let’s see if I can make this at all visible. This is a weird thing to try to show but there’s some basic network theory around an idea of three degrees of influence. So we know that on a measurable level, that network effects reach not only your friends, those people that you’re connected to collaborating with that, you know, well, friends, family collaborators, not only for your friends, friends, but your friends, friends, friends. So all of the things we talked about in terms of consequential reach and impact and influence are true to three degrees of people more or less. So what I ask creative counsel clients, consulting and strategy clients to do is to think about that immediate ripple right to think about not about the 1500 people in your social network, but the 15 people that really matter. 

You know, we do a lot of that mapping in the discontent workshop around just 12 people. Let’s start with 12 people in an ROI circle, and think about who we know who impacts our work, who matters to our work who matters to our personal and professional live and work from there. So no one should be discredited for thinking too big. But I think no one would be should be concerned about acting too small. I mean, intentionally, again, within a contract of intention, and reciprocity and shared values and acknowledged discontent. Doing something on your block is going to have ripples, it’s going to have impact of thousands of people, even if your initial outreaches 15 people or 150 people. And so I tend to really focus people or try to focus people in on those immediate circles. Because I think it is both more manageable.

It’s a little bet to use a phrase that my friend Peter Sims wrote his book on. It is, it is a manageable risk. It is not, you know, going to immediately swim in the deepest of all waters it’s was swimming in the waters where can still control things a little bit before you know, get your competence and courage. And I think it’s I think it’s where a lot of people can can step into work that matters if you want to address homelessness as a big wheel, multinational global challenge. If you want to make sure that no one’s homeless in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that’s still really big, but much more manageable. If you want to make sure that no one goes hungry on Williams Avenue, where you live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that any of us can accomplish my 11 year old could start working on hunger in this neighborhood and have a measurable impact by checking in with their neighbors and see new has some food insecurity issues and seeing who has financial issues especially right now. And identifying who she knows that have resources that they can share. And and you know, setting up distribution, a 11 year old can figure that out. Because it’s manageable, because it’s because it’s you know, acting and thinking smaller knowing that the ripples are going to be extraordinary.

Steve Chaparro Right, I think, yeah, I think one of the things that that I find myself doing many times is I definitely have no problem dreaming big about that 1500 person problem that I can address. But because I start big, I end up failing big as well. So I think you know, the term of think big, but start small. They’re starting that first ripple of 15 people. And that can go for any challenge out there, whether it’s whether it’s the relationships of influence, or whether it’s a problem that we can face. And I think many times when we talk about how do you create a culture of innovation or culture of empathy, I think many times if you’re trying to bring in adoption of any type of mindset or impact, I call it a three kind of a three part process of one is to bring about awareness, and then you apply a new way of working to a small group of people that will then be able to gain gained some some momentum so that you can bring about widespread adoption. But I think it definitely is an incremental thing. In too many times we try to change the system of status quo versus looking at the components and I know I’ve studied systems thinking I understand that it’s not so much about the components being fixed, it’s about the whole been fixed. But sometimes that change does begin at some of the at a component level

Hugh Weber It does. It does and, and I think that recognition of constantly being able to, you know, my friend Gino says look up to the stars, but also looked down on the telescope, you know, essentially that ability to see the big, expansive, almost impossible scale of things but also be able to look deep and, and and see how tangible and immediate some of the steps are, that can be taken. If you can navigate that kind of Divide or dichotomy, I think that that almost anything is possible. Almost anything is, is, is accomplishable, you know, by by the human kind of curiosity and creativity.

Steve Chaparro As we start to round the corner in our conversation, I wanted to ask you as we’re, as we’ve entered into this COVID-19 period, what are you hearing from the community in terms of what are the things that people want have been intention with? And to what how are they responding in a really healthy way moving forward?

Hugh Weber I think I think maybe the two things that intertwine around those questions is that people are really recognizing the needs they have around connection even in these events. And they’re adapting and evolving their expectations of connections. Jessica Hill fan with designers ever talks about like if you continue to focus on what was You know, even a month ago or two months ago in February, yeah, always been disappointed, discontent, disconnected, depress. But if you begin to identify the needs that are at the core of that, those desires and and and really start to evolve kind of your ways of thinking and systems of thinking.

Six months ago, Design Observer never would have had a Sunday sessions kind of a Saturday sessions kind of approach studio sessions. But it emerged of a need to retain spaces of intimate, influential conversation. And so, you know, that also held us to those same values, we could have scaled and had 1000 people on the first call, but we know that what what design observer does best is to stay intentional. And there’s, you know, to cap things artificially at 100 even though it would be better for our egos and maybe even our bottom line to scale it means that people can have extraordinary talent. at a scale that’s manageable and at a scale where we have a student that’s joined all of the studio sessions and Mr. Stein horrible. And and she asked a question the first time because she’s a senior, and she’s worried about her portfolio and she’s worried about the job. She’s been part of every conversation stints since then. And that wouldn’t be possible if there were 1000 people on that on that call on a weekly or bi weekly basis. So I think I think people are really focusing on what matters most with what they need, what’s important, and they’re building systems to protect and ultimately, hopefully, to preserve those things now and in the future.

Steve Chaparro If we had one more topic to talk about that I didn’t bring up or mentioned, is there something that you’re particularly passionate about that would love to bring forward to the community right now?

Hugh Weber Oh, that’s such a good question. Um, you know, I mean, this is, this is a left turn but the most fruitful I feel like I see this in your work and the content you create Steven, I know it to be true on a personal level. But the most extraordinary gift to my creative practice strategic practice, community practice is the engagement and involvement of my children. And I think that it is super easy to be inconvenienced in this moment by 11 and a seven year old upstairs 11 year old daughter Emerson and my seven year old son Finn. I just asked that they keep the somersaults and cartwheels to a minimum on stairs while we were talking. It’s really easy to be inconvenienced by that but my encouragement to parents, particularly but even adults that just happened to be sheltering in place amongst children is to look for the opportunity there. Emerson has spent a lot of time at this desk next to me over the last six or seven weeks. And she is she brings such an interesting voice. Let me see if I can find something as we’re talking. She brings such an interesting voice to my work.

So I was I was sitting down here one night after she had gone upstairs. And she had been more or less sketching and doodling. The conversation. She was overhearing me have. And there were some. I don’t want to exaggerate. There are some truly breakthrough ideas that I’ve been working for years on that in her penciled us as an 11 year old. She got to she got to I mean, like she she, she was asking questions that are at the core of what I I spend most days working on and she got there as an 11 year old. I guess, you know, I would ask you, how have you as a parent, a parent of, you know, a couple of precocious, incredible kids. How have you experienced that? How do you feel it’s impacted your work positively or negatively? What are your thoughts on what it means in terms of the future and how they’re involved or not involved?

Steve Chaparro Yeah, that’s a great question. So my sons, I have an 11 and 14 year olds, and they, you know, I think it’s been an interesting thing is sometimes you know, I find myself distracted and wanting to put myself in a cocoon so that I can just do my work. And then when I kind of like, Oh, you know, the term when the term says, I finally came back to myself, like a reality, and I realized, oh my gosh, I got to, you know, beautiful boys, tremendously talented. My oldest son is a musician. He wants to compose movie scores. When he goes to school. He wants to go to UFC fight on alma mater. So that’s a great thing. And then my youngest son is a maker. He’s definitely very, he wants to work with his hands. And he’s amazing. I think his ability to articulate very complex things is a Marvel to me. 

And I think when I observe their passions, and I think how my own journey as a creative or even just as a curious being, I can go back to how my parents fostered and nurture that curiosity and and how, no matter what crazy aspiration I had in any given moment, they said, Steve, you can do it just just have fun. They didn’t steer me in any direction. And I try to do the same thing with my kids. It’s like I want to nurture every desire that they have as much as possible. So I think their curiosity and their desire to just dive in. On one hand, it’s an inspiration for me, but I my dad says, Well, I wonder where they get that from. And I think there’s an element of it’s like this generational thing of and I don’t know that they’ve necessarily observed that for me, so I’m not gonna give myself credit for that. I think it’s just who they are. But I love the curiosity and the willingness to just dive into something that they love and That is so one is to curiosity, but also the lesson that my youngest son has taught me of.

Sometimes I wish I could do more for them when I realized, oh my gosh, maybe I’ve neglected them for the last eight hours here at the house. And then for them to say that, I’m just glad you’re here. Yeah. Oh, like, okay, that brings a tremendous amount of perspective to me. That many times, I think I should be doing more, which is always the case on one hand, because I, you know, I came to get distracted, but they always are affirming who I am as a dad, and that’s, you know, like, that’s been the most powerful thing I’ve learned is my identity as their father, which will never change. Right? And that’s been such a grounding experience and realization for me.

Hugh Weber I would just say for those that don’t have children, you should never have them to the most disruptive things due to their life personally. But if you do have them like that, I think this conversation is helpful. I would say if you don’t have children there are, you know, an entire generation of kids that are sitting at home that could benefit from some mentorship and some connection to designers and culture creators. And, and so I’ve been encouraging people that don’t yet have children to find a find a child to engage with because I can say, we’re super involved with Ben and M. My wife’s an educator, and yet they so desperately need focused, intentional time right now. Dan says, there’s an incredible gift to be given to young people in your life or in your neighborhood in this moment, but I think everyone has something they can offer to those conversations and selfishly, I think you would get something extraordinary from it. This is apparently a Boys and Girls Club, PSA metal, but

Steve Chaparro Yeah, this is this is great. I mean, I remember so when my wife and I first got married, we both grew up in homes where our mothers were homeless. full time. And that was in a sense, a sacrifice. It was also a luxury it was it’s not a decision everyone makes for sure. And we so we decided that we wanted to do that for our kids. So my mom, my wife, rather, my wife was home for the first 12 years of my have of having children, and she went back home. But I almost feel like sometimes at the time that we’re in right now, it’s almost like we’re you know, in a sense, we’re doing both a full time stay at home parent as well as a full time employee or worker, business owner, whatever. I really do think that there are some awesome things that we are experiencing that this is to summit this convenience and there is that true that truism, but also the blessing that it is that we are able to spend time with our kids and I think if we are doing working from home right with our children, We are going to miss this time when we re enter whatever the new normal looks like, we’re going to miss this. And so I think we should, it’s going to be quieter when for at the very least, it’ll be quieter.

Hugh Weber But it will be something I think this this last handful of weeks and whatever however long things go on, I think I think you’re exactly right. I think I think it will be seen as a transformative time in a lot of relationships. I mean, I I just imagine the number of people that went into quarantine with a boyfriend or girlfriend or a marriage that was driving or in trouble. And all of the all of the truths are being revealed. I don’t think I don’t think people are dramatically the trajectories changed. I think just the truth is being amplified in these moments. And and I know for me, you know, there’s discoveries around my relationship with my my son and my daughter and my wife have been a been a really fortunate thing and To figure out how to navigate it as it continues to evolve and deepen, is important, but it’s it’s an amazing moment that kind of a crucible moment that I think is going to reflect and impact a lot of people for a long time to come.

Steve Chaparro Folks, we’ve been talking to Hugh Weber, the managing director of both the great discontent and the design observer. Hugh, if people want to learn more about you, and your work, where can they go?

Hugh Weber I would love I would love to connect with them here on LinkedIn. Just Hugh Weber, you’ll see it somewhere LinkedIn in Steve’s notes, I’m sure you can read designobserver.com, which I would absolutely encourage and if you’re interested in Anna Neil this weekend, I think there’s still maybe a couple of tickets left. The Great Discontent, I would beg of you to go read the most recent stories on my favorite living artists. A gentleman named Michael Two Bowls. That is are artists from Western South Dakota and Zykera Tucker, who’s the designer from Southeast DC I mentioned. So The Great Discontent is a great place to dive into that content. And you can just find me anywhere, anywhere on social let’s let’s, let’s connect and get to know each other. I’d really, really value that opportunity to get to know you.

Steve Chaparro All right, Hugh. Thank you very much. Appreciate you being on The Culture Design Show.

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