There was no way at the time of realizing that this quiet, courteous man, conservatively dressed in a dark three-piece suit and a broad-brimmed hat, had just turned my life inside out

– George Nelson on D.J. DePree

Like many companies, The Understanding Group has a “special” email address that can be used to send the same message to each employee’s inbox. As you probably know from first-hand experience, the power to send a blanket email to an entire organization will be abused. At TUG, I’m the chief abuser of this power. I try to keep it to one or two things per day, and to make sure these things are worthwhile. And while the definition of “worthwhile” is highly subjective, what I sent around to the TUG team yesterday may be the best-yet thing I’ve shared via that channel.

The Big City Designer and the Small Town Teetotaler

Herman MillerSo, yesterday I sent around a link to a FastCompany article re-printing a short piece by George Nelson from 1984 recalling a career in design working with Herman Miller. It’s a great story and of course there are gobsmackingly beautiful images of the iconic designs Nelson developed for the West Michigan furniture maker in the 50s and 60s. But the thing that was most striking to me and most important for my colleagues to get from Nelson’s reflection on his time with Herman Miller was the story Nelson told of how he came to meet DePree and how DePree’s “moral base” (including beliefs about the evils of alcohol) created a center of gravity for Nelson and others to guide their efforts by.

If this talk about D.J., his disapproval of dry martinis, and his theological preoccupations seems like an irresponsible way to use a modest budget of words, the only response I can offer is that I do not know any stories that are closer to the point. The point is that D.J.’s beliefs, and his lifelong efforts to live what he believed, surfaced as a strong moral base which permeated his entire working life and, by extension, the company he controlled. That is the point. To describe this moral base is almost impossible, for it all comes out as shopworn truisms.

In the case of DePree and Herman Miller, the shopworn truisms were things such as honesty, quality, fairness, and not copying what others are doing. Nelson notes that these are “pious platitudes–until you try to put them into action.”

Proof: Platitudes In Action

I’ve seen those pious platitudes in action since I was a little kid. I spent my childhood just a few miles from the Zeeland, Michigan factories where a lot of that fantastic Nelson furniture was manufactured. The summer after we were married, my wife worked second shift in one of those same factories. My brother-in-law has been with Herman Miller for decades.  At TUG we’ve had the good fortune to partner with Herman Miller on a couple of different efforts around their digital marketing communications and online commerce. In each of these contexts, the “strong moral base” laid down by Mr. DePree was manifest in at least two ways: excellence, and innovation. And while some of the words have changed, the principles remain.  Abby Covert and I snapped a photo of one expression of these cultural values during one of our meetings there (photo at right).

TUG‘s Truism: Make Things Be Good

Here at The Understanding Group, we’ve got our own shopworn truism: “make things be good.” The way we say it comes from the definition of information architecture provided by Richard Saul Wurman in an interview with INC. magazine in 1997:

information architecture is how to choose
the right way to structure information
and how to help people
navigate through it.

it’s a way of thinking
in which the aim is not to make something
look good

but to make it be good.

These principles, like DePree’s, are merely pious platitudes until one puts them into action.   I’ve triggered audible guffaws from the audience when when telling them that what information architecture is about and what my company does is “making things be good.”

On the radio yesterday I listened to an interview with one of the founders of The Noun Project, who noted that one of the few nouns they’ve been unable to come up with a universal symbol/pictogram for is “good.”  See for yourself.   In post-modern culture, many of us have been trained to be skeptical of the possibility of an objective standard for what constitutes goodness. In order to talk about what’s good, you have to establish what’s true.  And, we’ve been told, there’s no such thing as True, so there can’t be such a thing as Good.  And yet, to the ten or so of us at TUG, that’s what we’re about.  That’s what we do. That’s what we’re after.  Making things be good.  Our contention is that understanding is always good.

I take solace in and am emboldened by the story George Nelson tells about Herman Miller and the perhaps-implausible competitive advantage of anchoring your company and its vision to a strong moral base:

It is to be expected in such a social environment that D.J.’s concern with a moral base should come to be perceived as a charming, nostalgic relic of a bygone time. And yet it is central. Losing this core of meaning in work erodes the possibility of innovation.

One result of this [core meaning in the work] was that we all had a very good time; another was that a prodigious amount of work got done. No one felt the need for power plays and, in consequence, no one felt the need to take sides, assemble supporters, or do anything except deal with the problem at hand.

When the team is mindful of and believes in the core of meaning in the work, doing the work is easier. And you get more of it done. And the outcomes are compelling. But for me, the most compelling aspect of working in a culture that’s built on shopworn truisms like honesty and making and goodness and authenticity isn’t the outcomes, although they’re often marvelous. It’s waking up each morning and knowing that our company, with this core of meaning in its work, is still running. Still, as we say, TUGging.

Nelson’s closer in the article is the best:

The gamble had paid off. We now had company.

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