In February 2021, John Bielenberg (Co-Founder, Thinknado) joined us live over Zoom to take part in our Insighter Series: weekly conversations between creative professionals and young, aspiring creatives looking to advance.
No time for the full video? Check out the transcribed version of John’s presentation right here:
We talk about, and our students know this, but we tell our students on the very first day of school when they go to orientation, that today is the day that you start building your network of people that inspire you, and motivate you, and really push you to do better. You guys have heard that at orientation. So I have a great story about John because he was that person for me many, many years ago when he was a speaker at Portfolio Center in Atlanta.
I had the amazing opportunity to go to dinner with him and a whole group of students. We went to dinner at this place called South City Kitchen and John, you were incredibly inspiring and it was a pleasure for all of us at dinner to hear you talk about advocacy and your design for good. And so I’m really thrilled that you’re back here tonight for another round because now you’ve got this next group of really wonderful students and people to inspire.
John is known as a designer, and an entrepreneur, and an imaginative advocate for a better world. He is an AIGA gold medalist, and he’s known as really one of the first disruptors in our industry. And tonight he’s going to share some exciting news about his incredible project M. It’s an inspiring mentorship program that has gone on for years. Project M was actually described at one point as mental gymnastics camp for young creatives who are already inspired to contribute to the greater good. Which I thought was a great description. He’s an expert in thinking wrong. Tonight, he’s going to talk with us about how right is wrong and wrong is right, and how you can have a significant impact on the world. So, please help me give a warm welcome to a long-time inspiration of mine, and soon to be one of yours, John Bielenberg.
So welcome, John.
John Bielenberg (02:07):
Thanks. Was that the dinner, when this guy came over and he had a badge that he was shooting porn on?
No, I don’t know if I was part of that dinner. All I remember it was really loud restaurant. It was a very, very loud restaurant though. That’s hilarious. What a story. I want to hear that one.
John Bielenberg (02:28):
So I’m going to share my screen, and I’ll kind of tell you my story here. Did that work? Not yet. How about now?
We got you. Yep. We can see your desktop and then Big Hemp. We’ve got your desktop.
John Bielenberg (02:58):
Okay. Hold on. Usually, I have this all queued up. I thought it was an hour later for some reason.
Oh, okay. Apologies. Well, thank you for being on the fly then. That’s great.
John Bielenberg (03:15):
Okay, good. So I used to be a famous graphic designer. That’s like being a famous plumber. Nobody cares except other plumbers. But I spent my career in San Francisco for the most part. And I had my own studio called Bielenberg Design and worked on, branding, and identity, and marketing projects for companies like this, a lot of Silicon Valley startups during the dot com years. And I was doing fine. I sort of describe it as this ladder that you’re climbing, and the first rung is, go to design school, then it’s graduate, then it’s getting a job, doing good work, winning awards, having your own firm. So I was climbing this ladder over a couple of decades, and I got not quite to the top, but near the top and started just looking around and I was like, “is this it? Is this all it’s about?”
John Bielenberg (04:18):
And so I just kind of took stock of where I was and started asking questions about, “what do I want to do with design?” And came to the realization that the future will not look like the past. Usually, when we predict the next 10 years, we sort of base it on what the last 10 years looked like. But I think we’re at this pivotal point where the impact of humans on the natural world is unsustainable. And it doesn’t matter what’s your viewpoint on that is, it’s just, we can’t keep doing the same things we’re doing and expect a positive outcome.
John Bielenberg (05:00):
So some of these big challenges are climate disruption, CO2 in the atmosphere, which is warming the planet. And if you look at these graphs, all of them are what’s called an exponential curve. So they’re not just like the easy gradual curves. They’re all what’s called a hockey stick at the end. So the right side is going up exponentially. We have a huge population boom, you don’t really feel it in the United States, but globally we’re rapidly populating the earth with humans. There’s something going on called the sixth extinction, and this is the animals in the wild. And it maps almost exactly to population growth, human population. Globalization, not necessarily a bad thing, but what this means is the GDP is going up all over the world. People have more disposable income, and they want all the crap that we have. So you’re just increasing the demand for stock on the planet by more humans.
John Bielenberg (06:07):
There’s something called ecological debt. We use up more of the earth’s resources earlier in the year. So the earth produces a certain amount of resource and we’re going into debt every year, earlier and earlier. We have a huge technology explosion. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but what you’re going to see is the introduction of AI and by 2045, Artificial Intelligence will be smarter than every human brain on earth combined. And we just don’t know where that’s going to lead us. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’ll probably do a lot of good, but it’s also a big question mark, that we’ve never had to deal with. And then, obviously, we’re in a global pandemic right now, which is also an exponential curve. I think this example is just how connected the world is. Something starts in China…and all of a sudden the whole world is suffering from it.
John Bielenberg (07:09):
So I started thinking about how do you use design to go from the way things are to the way things need to be. And typically, what happens, somebody goes, “Hey, I have a great new idea.” And then wham! It gets shot down almost immediately. There’s always a devil’s advocate. We could never do that. What would the lawyers say? You can’t be serious. That’s nuts. So to every new creative, innovative, radical idea to change the status quo, you have this reaction against it. So why? Why do humans do this? Well, one of the reasons is we’re all victims of pre-existing pathways. So an example of this is shark attack off the coast of South Africa. Surfer gets munched, widely reported on the news. He actually survived it, which is good. But what happens is people in Los Angeles stay out of the water. So there’s no statistical correlation from a South African shark attack to stay off the beach in Malibu, but this is what’s happening in your brain.
John Bielenberg (08:20):
So this is your brain, a shark attack. We all think that’s a really bad thing. There’s a neural pathway, superhighway to a behavior: in this case, stay out of the water. So we don’t rationally think about it, we just follow this preexisting pathway in our brains. And we’re doing this all the time, whether we know or not. Culture also conspires against radical new ideas. When you get a lot of brains all thinking along the same pathways…that will prevent new things from happening. The status quo tends to act like gravity. So if this line is like the way things are, the status quo, somebody has a big, bold idea. The status quo will try to bring that line down into alignment with the way things are. What I think has to happen at this inflection point is what we call Think Wrong. You can’t think right and expect to create this kind of momentum up this bold pathway.
John Bielenberg (09:24):
Traditional problem-solving methods won’t work in service of this kind of radical idea. This is where they exist in the certain and the known. So the challenges are certain, solutions are known. This is what I call the comfort zone. So large companies, countries, religions, organizations, this is where they want to be in this kind of comfort zone. Thinking wrong happens down in this, what I call the discomfort zone. So things are more uncertain and I think you have to start down there. You have to have the courage and the wherewithal to start there if you’re trying to kind of do new things.
John Bielenberg (10:07):
I started thinking about natural wrong thinkers. So these are people like Steve Jobs, in business, obviously with Apple. Jane Goodall in science, with their work with chimpanzees. Bjork in music. Georgia O’Keeffe in art. Mohammad Ali in sports. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, and Elon Musk, who’s kind of gone off the rails, at times, but I think he’s a natural-born wrong thinker. So I thought if these people are natural-born, could you develop this capability in young people? So this is the first group of students I had in my project and program. Actually, three are from Portfolio Center. Jim Lasser, who’s standing, Christian Helms, who is below him, and Rachel, who’s on the right side, looking down.
John Bielenberg (11:08):
So the idea of project M was to gather a group of young creatives and plunk them down in an unfamiliar place, where they had to figure out a project, think wrong about it and get it done in a short period of time. And so this was an attempt to sort of invent a program that incubates wrong thinkers that could go off and do great things in their career. So we’ve been all over the world. This was Costa Rica. The next year we were in the rain forest there, the conservation area. I was rocking an awesome mustache at the time. This is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We bought a used ambulance and drove it down there. I think we stopped in Atlanta Portfolio Center actually. All of these projects came out of their experience, none of them were invented before we got together.
John Bielenberg (12:05):
This is [inaudible 00:12:10] rural Alabama, a project called COMMON Hoops, where we built basketball backboards out of recycled road signs. This is a project called (blank)LAB. It was really a mobile design studio built out of a shipping container. This is a project in Reykjavik, Iceland, at the Art Academy there, right after their financial collapse in 2008. A great project called Pizza Farm I did with a group called the Winterhouse, in Connecticut, to sort of encourage people to get their stuff from local farms rather than supermarkets. This is Detroit. We built horseshoe pits in an abandoned, a vacant lot where they had bulldozed some houses. Gulf Coast of Alabama after the BP oil spill.
John Bielenberg (13:03):
So after about 10 years of running those, came up with this method we call Think Nado, which is a way to unlock creativity really, and kind of break your neural pathways. And it’s really simple. The first step is called, Wait… Why? And that’s really, asking those questions, why are we doing the same things over and over? And this can be a company, it can be an individual, it can be a second-grader. Really, you can apply this to anything. Then you ask after that kind of investigation, you figure out what’s the most interesting why? And then you ask maybe? Maybe it’s possible to create something completely new.
John Bielenberg (13:51):
The next step is really the creative Think Wrong engine. We call that, What if? What if I could trick my mind into thinking wrong? And I’ll show you an example of how you can do that because your mind does not work that way. Right now I have a thought and the vocalization because I have a preexisting neural pathway. I don’t have to think about putting sentences together, but if you try to talk wrong, it’s almost impossible because your brain is already hard-wired, so you have to trick it.
John Bielenberg (14:26):
The last is Try This. And we think of this as small bets. So after you have a big, bold, crazy, innovative idea, how do you smallify that so you can actually get something working. And so I’ll show you some projects that kind of take you through a little bit of this process, so you get an idea for how it works. This was a Project M group. I think it was 2007 and they were struggling to figure out a project together. At this point, they were based in Maine, a small town on the coast of Maine. And this one girl, Rosanna in the white sweater said, “Well, I like pie.” I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but the group grabbed onto it because it was almost March 14th. So 3.14 Pi, P-I, Pie, and Pi. So they thought, well, let’s grab on to this March 14th. They called it free pie day and they baked pies and they organize this one-day event on the streets, in this little town of Maine.
John Bielenberg (15:39):
And the idea was to use, in this case, pie and coffee, to gather people together, to have conversations that could then drive positive design projects. It was a big success. So they decided to go over down to Alabama, where we had this studio. And I said, “well, you guys can take over half the studio for the summer”, and open up what they called PieLab. So I gave them $600 total and they were able to build out this space with tables, pie boxes, cups, and saucers, from Goodwill. They painted signs and they opened up for the summer as this pop-up PieLab.
John Bielenberg (16:23):
The purpose being gather people in the community to have conversations over pie and coffee that then could drive projects. This is a deeply segregated part of the country. There are black churches, white churches, black restaurants, white restaurants. They would never sit down at the same table. So we just had one table and no takeout. So you had to actually sit there. It was a big success, so we decided to do a permanent PieLab, got this space on main street in Greensboro, Alabama.
John Bielenberg (16:57):
This is the group that was there at the time and we had to build it out into this permanent PieLab. These were all graphic design students at the time. Nobody knew construction or anything. So we had to level the floor, and it was like a hundred degrees in August in Alabama. We got this wood from sharecropper cabins to build big rolling walls. To reconfigure the space. And we got that wood for free. We painted the outside, got vinyl lettering, and decorated the windows. This is what it looked like when we opened. And we actually got second place in the James Beard Awards for restaurant design that year. We lost out to the Guggenheim, the new Guggenheim restaurant. Our total budget was $8,000. We spent six for the heating air conditioning. So we really had two grand total to build this out.
John Bielenberg (17:59):
So we opened up as a full-service restaurant and started doing things like, well, we had pies. That’s actually my daughter in the middle there. We ran a program called YouthBuild where the girl on the left is earning their high school degree and learning the restaurant business. We had a silk screening for kids, bike rides, open mic nights. None of this stuff was happening at that time in this little town.
John Bielenberg (18:37):
And we had a huge sort of publicity barrage. The New York Times magazine did a story, PBS did a story, every food magazine. And so you started having tour buses full of people coming to PieLab, in Downtown Greensboro. And slowly, the towns started getting renovated. This is the old Greensboro hotel that got money to be renovated and is now finished. And NBC News called it one of the most influential zip codes in America. And it’s not just because of PieLab, but I think the publicity from PieLab and what it created in the town far exceeded what we ever could have imagined. So, if you look. The “Think Wrong” part is you look back to Rosanna saying, “I like pie,” and where that ended up by iterating through the process, and the series of small bets shows how powerful those ideas can be.
John Bielenberg (19:40):
This another one, again, down in rural Alabama, about 20 miles from Greensboro. The group found out that one out of four households didn’t have water. They were either on shallow wells like this one. They were contaminated with sewer [sic], because they didn’t have septic tanks, or they didn’t have any water hookups at all. So we decided to do a project we called Buy A Meter. To buy water meters and get people hooked up to freshwater. Identified Oprah as one of the key influencers (she’s from Mississippi). She had actually given money for this County before. So we thought, “if we can get Oprah, game over”.
John Bielenberg (20:25):
So we did this big newsprint piece, put Oprah on the cover. Oprah has one. The reason we did newsprint is, I think we got 5,000 copies for $800. So you get scale and you get a lot of pages, not printing fidelity, but we thought that would be able to tell the story in a compelling way. So does Paris Hilton. Charles Manson uses one. And you have one too. Herbert Banks doesn’t. These are real people. Jackie and Damien Green. Hale County, Alabama, water is not a right. It’s actually not a right anywhere; we just assume in America, people have water. Found out it costs $425 to bring water. Put up a website, help a family buy a meter, buyameter.org. And started getting donations to buy water meters.
John Bielenberg (21:21):
In the last week, a guy named Brian Collins, who you may know. He was supposed to speak together today. He was one of the advisors for Project M and he flew down to Alabama at the very end. And the students wanted to print t-shirts to give out just as a kind of thank you to the community. And Brian said, “You guys are idiots. If you’re going to do a t-shirt make it be about the project, not just some random thing.” So we got white t-shirts from Dollar General, the cheapest kind of t-shirt. Hand cut the silkscreen, the four two five decimal point, and ended up selling those for $425 each.
John Bielenberg (22:06):
So it’s thinking wrong, instead of give a donation, get a free t-shirt, it was buy a t-shirt for $425 and you get a free donation. And we sold all of them. Raised about $55,000 with those. Two of the students, Tim and Ben, ended up working at Facebook. They’re both retired now by the way. So Oprah came through, and they grabbed her and grabbed the piece and showed it to her, and she was actually kind of pissed off about her name on the cover. We got no money from Oprah, unfortunately.
John Bielenberg (22:46):
This is another project called Nada Bike. And the idea was, could you get young people to use bikes for everyday transportation and create kind of a Think Wrong brand around that? This was the beginning of what was called the movement. These single-speed bikes (messenger bikes) were in favor at the time a few years ago. So we did another big newsprint piece—less cars, gas, smog. Less is more independence, health, freedom. You are Nada. Put up another website, and the way this worked was you paid a hundred dollars to become a member of Nada. And then your membership card in the mail, you got your picture on the homepage, and then your membership card was a raw, steel, bike frame.
John Bielenberg (23:36):
So you got this frame in the mail, and then it was all up to you how you wanted to build it out or paint it. And our thinking was if somebody had to actually build their own bike from scratch, they’d be more inclined to use it and take care of it. We sold out almost immediately of these. I think we ordered 150 frames and said, well, maybe there’s some more sustainable way to build bikes and build them in Alabama. And I’d read about this guy, Marty Odlin is his name. He started the Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn and he was building bikes out of bamboo. And I called him up, I said, “Marty, I think we could build these in Alabama. There’s bamboo everywhere.” So he came down, helped us figure out how to harvest the bamboo. You have to flame treat it to get the moisture out. We got this space across the street from PieLab and built it out as this Bike Lab, and then started building these bamboo frames using the technique from the Bamboo Bike Studio.
John Bielenberg (24:41):
It looks like electrical tape, but it’s actually carbon fiber tape that you dip into poxy and then wrap. It’s really crude, but they’re actually very durable bikes and quite stiff, and they work pretty well. I call it the Gilligan bike because it looks like it was built by the Skipper and Gilligan. We had four of the Project M alumni come down to Alabama, build bikes, and ride them to San Francisco to promote the project. This is two of the guys when they got there. And then we decided we needed a brand for it, so we called it Alabamboo. Connecting bamboo to Alabama, like Georgia Peaches or Florida Oranges.
John Bielenberg (25:28):
Then this guy got involved. His name’s Lance Ray. He teaches industrial design at the University of Kansas. And he came down with some students and he said, “There’s got to be a more elegant way to build bikes out of bamboo. And they invented this; they’re called the hex tube that uses bamboo slats, a poxy around the carbon fiber core, and this allowed for a stiffer lighter frame. But it also allowed us to connect the joints without wrapping them with the carbon fiber tape. This is one of the early prototypes. This is down in Alabama. And then we came up with this one that we called this Semester Bike and did the Kickstarter campaign. I think we raised about $60,000 and started building those down in Alabama and fulfilling the Kickstarter orders.
John Bielenberg (26:26):
At Kansas, they kept iterating with new designs. This is a folding bike. A commuter bike. This one is using kind of a stress bamboo, more like strutts. This is my favorite that used a woven bamboo around the carbon core. It looked like that. Looks super awesome, but it didn’t work worth crap because it was really flexible. But it did work for fenders, and we started trying it on skateboard decks, which looked really cool. And so he decided to do another Kickstarter campaign, we call them Beacon Alley. And raised another bunch of money and started making those down in Alabama. So the idea here was to get young people on bikes. We start with the steel frames from Taiwan, then the bamboo frames, then the Semester Bikes with the hex tube, which then led to the skateboard decks. So it just goes to show how the project morphed from riding bikes to creating micro-enterprises in this depressed area of the country.
John Bielenberg (27:45):
This is the last one I’m going to show. This is one we did a couple of years ago in Montana, in the Bozeman area. This is the group. Actually, the girl next to me is Evel Knievel’s granddaughter. She was awesome. And so we spent the first week just kind of feeling out what was going on in Montana and actually thought the project would be around the large mammals, the grizzlies, and wolves that are being displaced by population explosion. But then we found out that Montana was the number one hemp grower in the country. And this is industrial hemp, it doesn’t have THC. You can eat it, you can build houses out of it, you can make clothes out of it. The majority of it (at the time) was going to CBD oil, and it’s a miracle plant compared to other similar things like cotton that take a lot of water and pesticides.
John Bielenberg (28:48):
And so we decided to help somehow create this market and awareness of hemp as an agricultural product, much like the bamboo in the Alabamboo. Shot some video, came up with a brand, we call it Big Hemp, sort of a joke on Big oil or Big pharma just sounded funny to call it Big Hemp. Put up a website. It’s there to drive demand and infrastructure through awareness, products, and experiences. And then we created this short video, which I’ll show, which was a promotional thing for the project.
Speaker 3 (29:34):
We went West with a vision. Explores, farmers, makers…all called to this new frontier. Drawn by its valleys and peaks. It’s life carried by the rivers that run wild. Calloused hand over calloused hand, we sowed ourselves to the land. Build the world carved in our minds. We love this land. Land of the bison, the land of the bears, the land of the trout, the wolves, the elk. And then we got lost following the road most traveled, pushing away the land that shaped becoming just a destination. We’re found when we feel the most lost. When everyone else wants to head back, and they ask, “Where are you going?” That’s when we’re right where we need to be. It’s where we’re home. Back to our roots, forging the path to the future no one else can see. Building the world on our back. That’s exactly how we want it. In Montana, we grow against the grain. We are big Hemp.
John Bielenberg (31:38):
That actually was a guy named Matt Coval who was in that. I think he might have gone to the Miami Ad School. So the most recent thing is I got this airstream from a friend of mine, and we’re building it out into a kind of mobile hemp lab. We just got a relationship going with Patagonia, who’s promoting him. So that’s the next phase of that. So here’s a quote I really liked from Elon Musk. I’d rather be an optimist who is wrong than a pessimist who is right. And if you think about those big challenges I talked about at the beginning, I think it feels good using design to somehow address a lot of those big issues. So thanks. And then I’ll talk about this next. I think we have a few minutes, but let me stop sharing. Did that end?
Yeah, you’re good.
John Bielenberg (32:45):
Okay. Let me get rid of it on my screen if I can here. Zoom is so quirky the way it works. So a few years ago, I co-wrote this book called Think Wrong, which you can get on Amazon. And it was good for taking people through this think wrong process, and a lot of the examples that I showed are in here and other corporate examples. But it didn’t really help people do it. And so my partner Brandt and I recently invented this, we call Think Nado. So it’s like Sharknado or tornado. And we call it The Tornado Thinking Toolkit. And this is a sample, but it’s in production now. And it uses that really simple four-step process, but it packages it in a way that anybody could do it. You could play it at home or on a project or wherever.
John Bielenberg (33:52):
So you pick one of these “Wait… Why” cards, in this case, it’s sports. And it says, “maybe it’s possible to…”
So these are all topics: morality, aging, science. So you pick one of those, come up with maybe it’s possible. So sports could be, maybe it’s possible to get everybody involved in sports in some way. It could be any challenge. And then there are two “What if?” cards, black ones and white ones. So the white ones are a word. In this case, it’s boring. And the black ones are an image. So this is a boring gallery. I’ll pick another one. This is lonely tomato.
John Bielenberg (34:48):
So what you do is you start solving that challenge based on this random mashup. And the idea is, this is the trick: your brain has no connection between sports participation and lonely tomato. So you really have to forge new neural pathways. I would argue that they always create more interesting ideas than if you didn’t kind of start in some random place. And we always say, “the crazier the better,” because you can always take a crazy, interesting, amazing, legendary idea…and then smallify it to make it doable. You never go from a regular, status quo, business-as-usual idea…and then later on, it becomes legendary. It never works in that direction.