Art Gallery of NSW - interior
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Art galleries and surveys: 2 things I dig

I’ll admit: I’m like a moth to a flame when it comes to surveys. Send me a survey about art and art galleries — ONLY two of my favourite topics of like — and that’s like a moth to an INFERNO. Wrong analogy now, but the point is: I just filled out a survey from the Art Gallery of NSW by Pollinate, and it was the most fun I’ve had filling out a survey ever.

I’ll never see the results of that survey, or what I typed in again, so I just wanted to preserve a couple of things I wrote here.

Why do I like the Art Gallery of NSW?

It’s hard to overstate how much I appreciate AGNSW as a place of reflection, mental and emotional refilling-of-the-tanks refreshment.

I use it as a place to teach my kids about art, and the issues that art and artists bring to the fore. We’ve worked out a lovely routine where I can stand for ages in front of some paintings in an exhibition, and my wife and kids can go through at an — ahem — faster pace, and then I meet them in your café afterward. It’s an all-round relaxing and harmonious experience.

It is noisy, clashy, quiet, calm, fresh, ancient, exotic, familiar… all in the right amounts.

I regularly stand in front of the Arthur Streetons and Sydney Longs, and worship them. I walk amongst the works of art in that section and feel like I’m among friends. There’s dusty greens and parched desaturated fuchsias that quite honestly are like a litre of guarana to my core.

I’m a painter myself, and I regularly go for inspiration, challenging and learning. Each time I want to get into a new area of art — like Asian art, for example — I find that AGNSW has it covered in some way. So your gallery is like my brain laid out in a physical space: there are some parts that have a lot of my foot traffic, and other parts I’ve really yet to discover.

And isn’t that like all of our brains, really?

Ideas for making me come back to the gallery more often?

  • Be open more in the evening
  • One-off painting/drawing/sketching/sculpture/calligraphy/etc how-to technique classes
  • One-off art theory classes, about specific topics/periods/hot issues, e.g. the Big Milk Crate got excoriated in the media, so how about an evening that educates about modern art thinking in sculpture that would have lead to that work?
  • A cruisy evening bar to meet friends at for a drink amongst a rotating collection of salon-style artwork. You could even have theme nights, like French fin de siecle or 40s New York
  • Roaming ‘art experts’, maybe even with an approachable tag on them, to ask questions about artworks. I know there’s a lot of staff around, but they seem to be there to only make sure noone does anything stupid.
  • Pop-up kids activity spots, just like the Chinese New Year monkey craft thing you had, that was awesome
  • Have ‘real live artists’ at work that people can gather around and watch. Watching art in the making is absolutely bewitching and accessible at the same time.
  • The kids’ activity books for specific exhibitions are great; having ‘adult’ versions for the regular exhibitions would be brilliant
  • Have pop-up stands that relate modern topical hot issues to the artwork around them, e.g. imagine having something that draws attention to 19th/early 20th century Australian artists’ (I’m thinking Heidelberg here) appreciation for the Australian landscape contrasted with images of mining companies’ maps of similar places marking out possible deposits of coal/etc to go and frack. It’s not trying to take a moral position, but it’s using different imagery to portray different people’s assessment of value. I’ll stop now… this is getting into the sort of stuff *I* like to create ;)


The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.

In instructing, be brief in what you say in order that your readers may grasp it quickly and retain it faithfully.

Superfluous words simply spill out when the mind is already full.

Horace (Epistolas Ad Pisones De Ars Poetica), over 2000 years ago

How much are you paying for child abuse?
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I don’t remember being asked to pay for child abuse

If you know me well, you know that the human rights issue of the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia is something I care deeply about. It’s one thing to read daily about the ongoing crisis, with more and more reports of child abuse, mental illness and self-harm. But it’s quite another to realise that it’s being funded by our tax dollars.

I’ve written letters to politicians before about offshore processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, and how it’s — well — pretty bad on any level. And I also know it’s pretty much useless writing letters. So my cynicism is at an all-time high.

But something different happened just now: I just received a tax bill I have to pay (fair enough), along with a notional breakdown of where my personal tax was spent, over the last 2 financial years. And oh look, there’s an amount there for Immigration: $1,261.00. It’s probably much the same for you too. Yes I know this is generalised and notional, but it’s significant enough that they’ve put a dollar cost to it. That’s $1,261.00 funding a state-sponsored campaign of child abuse, secrecy, and (given we pay $1.1 billion/year for those detention centres) financial irresponsibility.

Did I pay my tax bill? Nearly all of it. I want to pay all the tax I owe, believe me. But in showing me where my dollars are being spent, the government is inviting a conversation on this. I don’t know about you, but it’s unconscionable for me to contribute to these disgusting and illegal acts of child abuse and assault with my tax dollars, and I cannot pay that $1,261.00.

So here’s my latest letter:

JUST ADDED: It’s just been announced today that Nauru will process all asylum seekers in its detention centre ‘within the next week’. This is indeed good news, but this announcement pops out of the blue just days before a legal challenge examining the lawfulness of our government’s role in offshore detention on Nauru starts.

Dear Minister,


I am writing to explain why I can’t pay all of the tax I am currently owing, and to ask you to please stop the current treatment of asylum seekers under your governance through Wilson Security and Transfield Services.

I have just received notification of tax I owe (via my accountant), and I have made a corresponding EFT (BPAY) payment. For reference: Biller code 75556, ref. #########, paid ######.

I have also received two letters (via my accountant), with Australian Government letterhead and a breakdown of how my tax was spent in 2013-14 and 2014-15 (attachments A & B). These letters detail that for both years together, $1,261.00 of my tax was spent on Immigration.

I am a law-abiding citizen, I believe in the parliamentary, taxation and legal systems we have, and I firmly state that I want to pay all tax that I owe to contribute to the responsible running of Australia. But I cannot in good conscience contribute my tax to what the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has spent in these past 2 financial years.

Minister: In this time, your government has outsourced the detention of asylum seekers to Wilson Security and Transfield Services (Transfield), on Nauru and Manus Island. Employees amongst this company and its subcontractors have enacted intolerable acts of cruelty on people being detained. Amongst recent reports and figures:

Even putting aside these heinous acts, it is financially irresponsible as well:

In addition, you have been fiddling with legislation to try to maintain this regime of cruelty:

What makes this even worse is that not only have you known about the extent of crimes against those detained, but you haven’t done anything about it. Indeed, you have tried to silence those who seek to raise awareness:

You (and the previous Minister for your department) have not been seen by the Australian community to work with local authorities to properly investigate these crimes, no-one has been charged, and you have shown no reasonable leadership in rectifying this situation. As it stands, your contract with Transfield Services is still in effect. Communities under your governance have been taking notice and taking a stand as a result. Again, amongst the mounting number of communities of all kinds protesting:

HESTA sold its 3.5% stake in Transfield Services over its treatment of asylum seekers

Back in February 2014, The Australian Lawyers Alliance said: “Following reports of beatings, escapes, and serious injury, including attacks with machetes, the Australian Lawyers Alliance highlighted that Australia has a duty to asylum seekers which appears to be in gross breach.” They also go on to state:

No matter what misery and denial of their humanity that asylum seekers are exposed to in detention centres flung around the Pacific, the fact is that there is nowhere Australia can run from its international obligations. Australia will be held accountable in a court of law.

Minister: it is unconscionable for me to contribute to these disgusting and illegal acts of child abuse and assault with my tax dollars, and I cannot pay this portion. I know that the figures are generalised and largely notional, but the point and principle remains: Australian tax payers are funding the state-sponsored abuse of adults and children. And I cannot be a part of that.

Would you please respond to the following questions:

  1. When will you cease the contract with Transfield Services and its associated partners?
  2. If not immediately, what is actually more important than the lives of men, women and children, the appropriate and legal spending of tax revenue, even Australia’s international reputation, that you would still be delaying?
  3. It is now abundantly clear to both the domestic and international communities that Australian offshore processing of asylum seekers does not work and is unsustainable. What action will you take to cease this practice?

In your response, please do not mention:

  • That is a complex issue, and so on. I know it is, and I and my fellow tax payers are trusting you and your department to have all the facts — much more so than what you let on publicly, hopefully — and are trusting you to do better.
  • That it’s about border protection, security, stopping boats, all that distracting palaver. I have had several correspondences with Hon. Philip Ruddock on this matter. I wish I had a reply from an earlier letter to your previous incumbent Hon. Scott Morrison, but I never received a reply. My point is this: this has nothing to do with stopping boats and border protection. This has everything to do with people who are already here, and under your care. Please do not conflate a human rights issue with a border policy issue.
  • That it’s the previous government’s fault. In these matters, I don’t actually care what party is or has been in power. I know that it was the Gillard government that enacted offshore processing in the first place. I would like to park any political rhetoric, and make it about current policy and action.

Once I receive your reply, and if it eases my conscience, I will happily pay the remainder of my tax owing.

Yours faithfully,

Ben Crothers


Leading design with intent: Design Thinking meetup, Sydney

It’s one of us design professionals’ great ironies in our working lives that we spend so much attention on the design of whatever it is we’re designing, but little on our own working habits.

That was the big take-away I got from a great talk by Anthony Quinn (of Value Machine) called the Design Leader’s Playbook. There were two other talks (Conversion Design by Ben Marr and Designing Solutions Using Gam—–tion* by Lie Ming Tang), but Anthony’s really resonated with me the most.

Anthony packed in some nice meaty insights and tips about design leadership, including:

Make sure we design leaders/managers turn insights that we communicate into real action. Unless we make this clear and obvious to stakeholders/clients/etc, we’re short-changing the value of the insights and therefore our own work.

Give our sponsors ways to sell our solution. This is a huge one that keeps coming back to me time and time again. Making something clear and relevant to a sponsor is only the first step (that’s exhausting just thinking about it… by anyway!); the real effect is helping that sponsor take the message, the story, the direction, and actions to the people for whom the direction and actions are really intended for. No mean feat, whether you’re in-house or external. Which leads to…

Inspire others to re-tell your stories. Wrapping insights and actions in stories is what it’s all about. We can ‘design’ what we say so that each story takes on a life of its own that others will want to tell to others. Anthony shared a neat little tip: that first 5 minutes of a meeting when everyone’s waiting for that late guy to turn up before starting? That’s when you can share a story or two, to embed those ideas in people’s heads.

Do design thinking on your own reactions and behaviours, to get better consequences. Anthony shared some great (and disarming) stories about what it’s like to be intimidated by CEOs, left feeling like you’re an impostor, and getting into less-than-ideal behaviours as a result of those sorts of reactions…

As design(ers/leaders/managers) we can control this! He laid out a nifty Trigger > Behaviour > Consequence model as a way to do metacognition on your own thinking and working practices. Great stuff.

All of these for me pointed to how we can work smarter at designing the way we think and work. I used to think that design was 50% craft and 50% communication. I’ll have to re-work that equation to fit in cognition now!

My sketchnotes:

Sketchnote - Design leadership, Sydney Design Thinking meetup

Sketchnote 2 - Design leadership, Sydney Design Thinking meetup

* Call me a pedant, but I have a real aversion to that word starting with “Gami…” and ending in “ation”. It just shouldn’t be a word. It’s down there with that other word that starts with “Monet” and ends with “ise”, and rhymes with – well – no other word.

Sketchnote - Trade Me & How Not To Be Dicks to Each Other
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How not to be dicks to each other

Mark Johnson of Shine Technologies is such a gent. He was nice enough to use one of my sketchnotes in his latest post: Agile UX Conference Report. I think he’s captured the essence of the day really well, and, like Mark, the talk by Ruth Brown and Simon Young of Trade Me was easily my favourite. Which you can sort of tell from the energy I’ve put into some of the lettering in the sketchnote above.

And he even asked permission, too, which is pretty ace. :)

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Want better ideas? Go to Crazytown

I first published this post over on Medium, but I wanted to include it here too, for my own convenience, really. :)

The internet is tipping over with listicles about creativity, but they don’t really help that much in the busy, noisy, constrain-y environs of business and start-ups. Sometimes you just have to be brave, get a bit stupid, and go to Crazytown.

Oh joy! Brainstorming time…

There’s nothing like the word ‘brainstorming’ to bring on such feels of hope and promise in some people, and fear and loathing in others. It’s the word that makes introverts want to run and hide, and extroverts want to — well — go all extroverted on everyone. We want, nay crave, to reach that promised land of great ideas, but are often so confused about the path to get there.

I run a lot of workshops. Some are fairly serious affairs, like product strategy workshops. Others delve into customer empathy and insight using techniques like journey mapping and storytelling. Still others are just good clean fun, with activities like storyboarding, prototyping and role play.

They all typically involve some degree of ideation: brainstorming, going broad, blue-sky out-of-the-box thinking, that sort of thing. I’ve never met anyone who is happy with one or two lame ideas; everyone wants as many ideas as possible, and of course we’re all after that absolute disruptive cracker.

But time and time again I notice that people either seem satisfied with just having those one or two lame ideas, or they’re disappointed at the low yield, but aren’t willing to call it out. They’re not sure how to build their creativity muscle. Or they push a mediocre idea through, polishing the absolute snot out of it, hoping it’ll be okay.

Why is this?

No creativity with anxiety

Firstly, people often don’t actually want amazing ideas. They want feasibleideas. There’s a well-known triad of outcomes I’m fond of where you can think of any product, service or experience as being desirable (people will love it and recommend it), viable (you will make or save money from it) and feasible (you can build and service it). Most of the time we trap ourselves in the Feasibility Corner, fill our minds with Viability Language, and it weighs us down so that the desirable is beyond reach.

Getting a room of people to try to come up with ideas, or reach a break-through solution, with this sort of thinking is incredibly anxiety-inducing. And it’s hard to find a better way to squash creativity than anxiety.

It’s about stepping stones, not bridges

Secondly, I think people have a really narrow concept of what an idea even is, especially in the corporate “let’s make things for people to buy and use” context. There’s an unspoken expectation that a great idea will just birth itself out of someone’s mouth or whiteboard marker, fully-formed, resplendent in all its commercial world-changing power. I know, I’ve been guilty of this.

But it doesn’t happen that way. It just doesn’t. I could fill this post with loads of quotes about creativity and inspiration and hard work and so on, but I won’t. I’m sure you know a few of those already. Ideas happen as a fluid collection of connections, sparks, meanderings and questions. Ideas aren’t big bridges to cross a river, they’re a series of big and small stones to hop across.

So, the thing here is to change your approach to coming up with ideas in the first place. But how? Glad you asked. Here’s a couple of things that work for me.

Call out your constraints

The first thing I’d like you to do is to finish this sentence:

We need amazing ideas for our [insert product/service/campaign/experience] BUT…

Start by calling out what is silently hobbling your thinking. Is it a time limit? Is it something to do with resources and capabilities? A cranky stakeholder? What?

Do it as a team, even, and bring out all those silent anxieties, pre-conditions and constraints into the open.

Now take a good long hard look at those constraints, and think about whether they are indeed constraints, the scale of those constraints, and how you can come up with ideas to solve those things first. See it as a game where you get to knock down each of these pegs first, and probably come up with ideas for the main thing on the way. There now, didn’t that feel better already?

Can we go to Crazytown now?

Another thing I often do in creative workshops is to draw something that looks like this:

On the left is you and where you are now. A bit further along is where most of your ideas tend to be. Safe. Normal. Expected. Further along still is where things get bold and people start scratching their heads, wondering if it’s even possible. And then on the far right is Crazytown.

I love Crazytown! Crazytown is Willy Wonka territory, it’s where Unikitty lives, it’s where fish ride bicycles, where ice cream is wasabi flavour, where tattoos are animated, where a computer can fit on your wrist, where random connections are made, where dreams live.

Can you see it in your head? It’s a truly wonderful place.

But you don’t live there. You just visit.

You buy a return ticket, you get on that train, and you get off at Crazytown. You take in deep lungfuls of the air that smells vaguely of bubble-gum and western red cedar, you play their weird dancing-around-with-buckets-on-your-head dance, you joke with the locals, take photos.

And you see amazingly stupid ways of working with whatever problem or need that you actually want ideas for. Quick! Write those down, draw them, whatever. But capture those amazingly stupid things.

And then you get back on the train, and you come back invigorated, refreshed, and with a head and sketch-pad full of those amazingly stupid things.

Now, no-one would ever expect you or your team to present those ideas, let alone actually make and release them. But here’s the magic: you mine those ideas for what you could use. Break each one down, apply your business rules, user research insights, understanding and all the other serious grown-up things to those ideas.

Because what you’ve brought back from Crazytown is a whole host of new idea territories. You’ve stepped out of your regular environment, your regular thinking.

But how, Ben?

If you want to try this in a group, draw this diagram, and tell them this story. Make sure they know that whether they’re there to solve a problem, or there to come up with some cool innovative campaign, Crazytown still helps. Youcan solve boring problems with crazy ideas.

Show the way to Crazytown

Mark on the line where people tend to want ideas to be, and where they end up being. Show them that going all the way to Crazytown doesn’t mean just stopping with the Crazytown ideas, but using them as raw material. It helps lift the overall level and range of ideas. And make sure you’ve created a safe space where people will feel free to be a bit braver than they normally are.

Frame the challenge as a question

Next, frame whatever it is that you need ideas for as a question that people can get their teeth into. For example:

  • “How might we improve this [product/feature/etc] for our customers?”
  • “What would make [target market consumers] want to buy our [product/service/etc]?”

Welcome to Crazytown, population: you!

Now, here comes the fun part. Blow open that question by taking it toextremes. Pick an aspect of your question and ask it as if a Crazytown resident asked it. Take a ho-hum question and imagine you’re at the pub with Billy ConnollyRon Burgundy and Yoda, and play out the conversation. Turn it into a ‘What if…?” of a “How about…?” To wit:

  • “What would make people break in and steal our [product/service/etc] because it’s so good?”
  • “How could our service actually turn Sauron into a nice guy?”
  • “We need to speed up the journey of shopping at our supermarket. What if we just shot the food into bags for them?”
  • “Our product has 4 drawers. Why not 40? or 400? or 1 with a carousel inside it?”

Make sure you’re writing down and/or sketching all the random things that come up. As soon as you make those things visible, you’ll be amazed at how that triggers even more random things and connections.

I hear you. It’s crazy and stupid, even irrelevant. But that’s the point. Do it just so that you have some weird out-there ideas that you can then stealfrom, in ways that are relevant for your particular problem.

Get back on that train

Then get back on the train, go back to Ho-Hum Normaltown, and pick apart what you’ve generated. You should have some new idea territories to extend in more — ahem — rational ways. Examples:

  • “Well, obviously we wouldn’t have a space portal inside our wardrobe product… but mirrors inside it might make it appear larger. We should try prototyping that.”
  • “We can’t actually fit an entire espresso machine in a mobile phone…. but what if we partnered with a commercial espresso machine maker to include a feature where the machine can receive texts for what customers want?”

Go get a ticket to Crazytown

So give it a go, I’d be interested to hear if and how this approach works for you. And say hi to Unikitty for me.

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Atlassian Design Week

The Atlassian design team is now over 60 people spread across Sydney, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Boston, Gdansk and Saigon. Design Week, back in February 2016, was a great opportunity for everyone to get together in one location, get to know each other, and soak in as much knowledge and inspiration from each other as they could.

This year round, we had a videographer document the whole week, and the result is a nice look into our culture and approach, as well as how important design is to the company. I bang on about storytelling and storyboarding a bit in there.

Mural - detail

Big fish in the study – a mural

I’ve been wanting to paint a mural at home for ages. It actually took a friend, who was over at the time, to casually remark on the empty study (that I was painting a nice shade of light mushroom at the time): “You know, you should paint a mural”.

The study had a dark blue feature wall (remember those?) that the owners before us had thought was a good idea to do. I knew it would take me at least 3 coats to get that wall looking the same colour as the others, so yes, paint a mural instead, why not?

Taking the dark blue as a lead, and some earlier drawings of subject matter I’ve always been fond of, I sketched up some oriental-style koi and water patterns first, before opening the paint.

The making…

Mural - first step

I set to work on the lighter blue circles first, then overlaid that with white spiral patterns.

Mural - second step


I knew I wanted a fairly loose diagrammatic treatment for the fish, so I looped in some abstract watery white areas for where the fish would be.

Mural - third step

The next step was to add the orange lozenge areas.

Mural - fourth step

Once that was dry, I drew in the final outlines of the fish using prussian blue acrylic paint thinned with medium.

Mural - final step

And boom! It didn’t take that long to do, not as long as I thought it would. You should try this yourself, it’s loads of fun and creates a grand statement for any room.