JOSHUA BERGER: Openness, Light, & Design Thinking

Elizabeth Latenser | 09.10.18

Joshua Berger leading a 2016 Bend Design workshop.

 

Innovative thinkers from a diverse range of disciplines gather at Bend Design every year to explore complex issues. One emerging thread is “design thinking,” a problem-solving approach that helps people from all walks of life—not just designers.

But what is design thinking, really, and how does it work? We sat down with creative director Josh Berger to break it down for us in simple terms. Josh is a founder and principal of Plazm, a design, branding, and content firm that evolved out of the award-winning magazine of the same name. Plazm recently expanded its presence into Central Oregon, and Josh now sits on the programming committee for Bend Design.

 

IN YOUR WORDS, WHAT IS DESIGN THINKING?

Let’s clarify what we mean by “design.” There are many definitions, but at Plazm we think of design as problem solving in a beautiful way. A lot of people think of design as a surface thing, like buying a piece of art to match your sofa. Design is not simply style or beautification. Design is a transformative process bringing form and function together—and transcending them, creating something new.

Good design has more substance. Designers think about all facets of a problem, then solve it in a comprehensive way. There’s a surface level, but everything below it matters. Take your iPhone: it looks good, it feels right in your hand, but if you start to peel it back—what’s inside of it has all been designed as well. And it’s part of a much larger branded universe.

Design thinking is a strategic, process-based approach to problem solving and innovation. We can apply this approach to just about anything. We can design a better city, better schools, better transportation. Whether you’re planning a neighborhood park or developing microbes that eat plastic, you can use design thinking to contribute to a healthier world.

 

I’M NOT A GRAPHIC DESIGNER. CAN I USE DESIGN THINKING?

Yes, everybody can. Design thinking takes the science of design and applies it to problem solving in general. We all solve problems using creativity, something everybody has from the day they’re born.

Design is a process-based discipline. Whether you call it rapid prototyping or something else, design is an iterative activity. Take something like the invention of the light bulb. Thomas Edison had something like a hundred failed attempts before he succeeded. Do you count that hundred as “failures,” or as “process?”

Designers are trained in thinking about process. Another example can be found in business. I will often be approached by a business that has a great idea—they know what they want, and they think they are ready to do it. This skips a crucial step. Design thinking suggests we add a step between “knowing” and “doing.” The middle step is “making”, an iterative process of exploring and testing. This often leads to discoveries and results that wouldn’t otherwise be found. This is design thinking.

 

HOW HAS DESIGN THINKING HELPED YOU IN YOUR WORK AND LIFE?

It forces me to slow down, to truly consider what I am doing in each moment. And it requires me to solve problems in new ways and try new things. There’s a certain level of openness and curiosity required, an embrace of not-knowing. The unknown is a place of discomfort. Being willing to make yourself uncomfortable can lead to innovation and discovery.

 

YOU’VE BEEN PART OF BND DSGN FOR TWO YEARS NOW, SINCE EXPANDING PLAZM TO CENTRAL OREGON. YOU’VE BEEN PART OF OTHER DESIGN FESTIVALS FOR DECADES. WHAT MAKES BND DESIGN UNIQUE? 

What I enjoy about BND DSGN is its intimacy. I’ve been to design conferences with thousands of people and very narrow opportunities to connect directly with leading thinkers. The opposite is true in Bend, where there are multiple opportunities for meaningful connections.

When I think of coming over the Cascades from Portland, driving over—it feels like everything just opens up. There’s more light. There’s broad vistas. That feeling permeates the event, too, that openness and light.

On the Bend or Bust Road Trip, we’ll have a rest stop when we first come to the Deschutes River. My family often stops there. After being on grey city streets and driving through dense, wet forests, it’s a breath of fresh air. There are so many great colors: the deep blue of the water, the bright blue of the sky, the burnt browns and golds of the high desert landscape… contrasting and complementary elements. I get out of my car there and take a breath—I always smile.

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Joshua Berger is a Creative Director and Partner of Plazm. In Portland in 1991, he co-founded Plazm magazine and went on to run the award-winning creative studio Plazm Design, which now also has a presence in Central Oregon. Josh has won various design awards and his artwork has been shown from The Museum of Sex in New York to the ZGRAF Festival in Zagreb, Croatia.

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