Shinya Kimura and the primacy of doing

My personal creative process is a source of great joy in my life.  The reason I do what I do is because when I'm working on creating something, I can more often than not get to a state of flow, and living in that state, even for a few minutes, is an amazing experience.  I can get there by writing a blog post, drawing up the organizational structure for a new venture, carving out a wicked reverse income statement on Excel, or improvising on my tenor sax.  The medium really doesn't matter — only doing it does.

But if I'm not careful I can very easily psych myself out.  If I'm not mindful of my own process, I can think all I want, as long as I want, about how I might get traction with whatever blank sheet of paper is staring back at me, but all of that mental toil never gets me anywhere, though it is extraordinarily effective at keeping me up at night.  In my experience, there's nothing quite like getting started to get one tracking toward success, as trite as that might sound.  By not getting started, however, I tend to create a virtual cage for myself, a cell whose bars are made up of equal parts, fear of failure, lack of confidence in process, and a vague sense that this may finally be the time when when hard work does not suffice and my talent and years of training will finally fail me.  And yet, when I start, my own creative process — which is a variant of the generic "design thinking" process, I suppose – never lets me down, because it is actually built upon a premise of iterative failing.  The only failure is to never begin.  Whenever I finally get down to starting, all of the fear and worry melts away.  Doing leads to flow and progress; thinking about doing locks one in stasis.

Over the past five years, I have been talking about the idea of design thinking, which in its essence is a repeatable, generative process focused on the creation of options.  Yes, design thinking is about thinking like a designer, but what is often missed about the concept is that the thinking that a designer does is not thinking done in isolation from other aspects of life and the world.  Rather, much of the thinking and processing done by a designer happens in the context of active exploration of the world, whether it be playing with metal or with piles of market data.  It is very difficult to imagine any worthwhile design thinking happening from the inside of a totally white isolation cell, or for that matter, from the circumference of a corporate conference table.  The critical factor is to do think while doing, and to do while thinking.

Enter Shinya Kimura, stage left.

I am always intrigued by the reflections of designers who think with their hands.  Kimura, in a Harley Earl-esque fashion, does not do many of the things we expect designers to do, process-wise:

"I have images but I am not inspired by any particular thing.  I don't draw, either"

Kimura, it would seem, does not have a premeditated game plan for the bikes he creates.  Instead, he sketches with his materials as they are, where they are, allowing his confidence in his point of view to guide him through to the final result.  I think his bikes are truly remarkable.  Their aesthetics, coupled with the story of their making, are inspiring.

From a standpoint of time and material intensity, Kimura's way may indeed be less efficient  than a more rational approach to prototyping, the kind I teach at Stanford.  There, I preach the wisdom of baby steps, of modeling quickly with cardboard if the end result is to be resolved in sheet metal, in Excel if the object is a viable financial process.  By the way, I do think this is the appropriate pedagogic approach given a room of neophyte designers, but perhaps the challenge for those of us design thinkers is to move beyond rote process; to paraphrase Charlie Parker, first you master the art of prototyping, then the design process, then you forget all that shit and just design.  In other words, once you know how to do, just do.  Pre think a lot less, do think while doing a lot more.  If the rapid asendance and spectacular triumphs of the Web 2.0 superstars — the Zyngas, the Facebooks, and the Twitters — tell us anything, it's that doing trumps planning more often than not.  It is far better to ship now and learn soon than to study for a while and ship… much later.

In doing there is knowing.  Doing is the resolution of knowing.  We learn via our mistakes, and we make many more mistakes of value when we take action.  Kimura is a wise designer.


By the way, this amazing movie is the work of director Henrik Hansen, and was brought to my attention by my good friend, the indefatigable Jim Hancock.