Episode 21

Making Conversation

If the Maker Movement shifts people from passive consumers to active creators and increases the value and appreciation of the intentionally crafted, then Fred Dust has secured his place in the Maker Hall of Fame. Artist, architect, strategist and author of Making Conversation; 7 Essential Elements of Meaningful Conversation, Dust shares thoughts on the parallels between making place and making conversation.

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So there's Seven C's but they're not meant as a rigid methodology. It's not like you have to follow them. They're meant as an approach. It's a way to inspire you to think about what makes you creative in a conversation or when you feel or how you know, things work. Fred Dust


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host CCB, and today we're going to have a conversation about Making Conversation. We're going to be talking with Fred Dust, who's the author of the new book Making Conversation. And we're going to have Fred explain who he is to us so that you will get the richness of his story directly from him. Fred, thanks for joining us.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:00:24] Thanks, CCB. I really appreciate it. And I love that you use your initials. You know, it's funny, my mom had a stroke when I was 24 and she was aphasic for the rest of her life. And she could never explain to people what I did for a living. And so when she would introduce me to people should just be like, "This is my son, he's gay." That's like the only thing that she could actually make it out. I was like, that's ok. Like, if that's the one thing they know about me that's ok. But actually I'm a sort of lifetime creative and lifetime activist, which are the two things I really been thinking about, which is like social change and how to kind of like move society to a better place and also kind of how to think about creativity. And I've done everything. I studied theater for a while. I studied art history. I was a fine artist, went back to school for architecture, worked for, I don't know, 18 years, 19 years at the design firm where I was a Global Managing Partner at the end, at IDEO, and then decided I wanted to write a book which I thought was the most creative thing you could ever do. And I would never be able to make that happen. And so I quit IDEO and two days later my book sold and I went to HarperCollins. And the rest is not actually history yet.

CCB: [00:01:39] Well, you're making history along with conversation.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:01:43] Exactly.

CCB: [00:01:44] So as place-makers, as an organization that is devoted to making place and the impact that, clearly recognizing the impact that place has on the human experience, I wondered if you would spend a little bit of time talking about the architecture, moving into IDEO adventures, and how that fit's in.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:02:11] It's so funny. So, just to be really honest, I didn't quite graduate grad school because I got a job and I was like I had one more credit. And my thesis advisor wanted to hire me to do all of the workplace, all workplaces and retail, because he did mostly housing. And so I was like, I need money, I'm going to get a job. And I was like, oh my God, I remember I was making not that much. And I was like, oh, my God, it's a salary. And there's like health care and oh my God. But I lasted about nine months before, even as I was graduating, “there's this place called IDEO. I think I'm going to try to go work there.” And it's like you're not going to get into IDEO, and nobody gets into IDEO. And I basically, I remember my boyfriend and I were going to London. He was a graphic designer. He'd been trying to get into IDEO for a, I don't know, a gazillion years. And then I was like, I'm just going to send my portfolio and say, “hey, you guys should hire an architect.” Because, at that point, there weren't any architects. And I got a call, came back from London and got a call. They were like, OK, come in. Came in, did a review in the San Francisco office with the whole office, like the whole office just came around to look at my portfolio and got hired. And then gradually what I did, I ran some space projects. There was one that we were doing for Stanford. But then I actually built a practice that was called Smart Space. And the premise, and I think this will resonate with you is that, at that point, all of the money in companies were in marketing.

And so I really felt like it's like if you were going to kind of get the freedom and the ability to do work, we should be working with marketing and then kind of help their design teams kind of expand the thinking about what they would do. And so that's how I end up doing all work with Banana Republic, you know, Old Navy, Gap Kids, like you name it, Marriot was a client for years, all kinds of hospitality. But what's interesting, though, is at some point I was like, well, I can't tell the story of this to the world because people don't know IDEO for doing space and ultimately becoming service design and other things, as you had imagined. And so I was like, you know, we're going to do we're going to do a pro bono project for hospital because everyone's been in a hospital. And that's how we'll tell the story of how IDEO can actually innovate in the realm of space. And so, did that. That got a cover story in Metropolis. Yet another hospital project we did became the baseline feature, if you remember the Business Week, I think it was, the article that was like where the IDEO was on the cover of it. And but the story in there is about a hospital project that we did through Smart Space. And so in order to translate, I felt like we really needed to do something that everybody knew and understood. One thing I thought it would just kind of say to your people is, I've been thinking a lot about space recently and I have a chapter about it in the book, and I'm writing a piece I now write for Medium and multiple different magazines. I'm writing a piece right now about why buildings still matter, because I very much believe they do. I think we should not let go of that. I think they actually probably matter more than ever. And so there's places where I was like, yep, let's just get rid of the building where I'm like, nope, we're holding tight to the building, because the building is really, it's going to be needed when we kind of like when we emerge from this. So I know it can feel a bit hard, especially as we're like in the year anniversary of this kind of pandemic. But just let me just tell you that space does matter more than ever. Carolyn, you're in the office. Tell me how that feels.

CCB: [00:05:36] I'm in the office with very, very few people, I will tell you. And I know that my organization is very concerned about how we feel and our safety and our comfort. And I know what the protocols are. We have been spending a lot of time focusing on that so that I feel like, you know, I just left. I feel like it's home. It really is. But it feels odd that the people aren't here, that we are that. So that kind of gets you to that conversation around the place-making and how does connection and place, place serves as the space for connection for many activities. And we've been talking a lot about Design for Connection. How do we? We had been prior to covid; we were thinking lots of other types of… But still, where does collaboration take place? Where are creativity and innovation housed? How do we support it? We work with major health care systems, and we work with major universities. So where does healing and learning and all of that take place? It takes place in space. Clearly, they maintain this enormous importance. However, it is a giant shift that's taking place.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:07:05] Yeah. Which, as you know, like these kinds of transitions are the moments for ultimate creativity. It's kind of like really dial it up and think really seriously about that, about the ways you can actually, you can make that happen. Amazing things can happen from this. But I feel like, connection. And again, you can still go for walks of people. You can still kind of like connect in safe ways through space. But one of the things that I write about and think about a lot is that space, and I'm sure you're aware of this, space is a mnemonic. So our memories are made, one of the things that memories are made from are things like our other senses. But often it's why if I say to you, like, "Where were you on 9/11?" You'll remember kind of like almost immediately or probably you will. And that's a really interesting thing, because those mnemonics can be good or they can be bad. I talk about this thing. I was just I was going I do a science conversation every Friday on Clubhouse and I was just doing one on script spotting, which is getting good at spotting the implicit scripts that are established in a workplace, in a home, in a conversation, in an agenda and in anything. And you need to get really good at it, because if you don't spot the script, you end up living your life by that script. It's one of the reasons why you and I talked about the news this morning, which is just that the news is unconsciously setting the script of our week and we need to make sure we don't let that happen. Right. It's like we need to own our script, not have The New York Times tell us what we should be thinking about. And so all that's to say that it's like spaces still matter. Like it's I'm seeing in your office and it makes me really happy to see it, see an office. It's like in other times right now we're traveling around, but you would see us in our office in Brooklyn and it's like those spaces still tell stories about us in really remarkable ways. And so I just think that there's like there's such power even in the evocativeness of just seeing the space and the kind of connections it can have.

CCB: [00:09:11] You know, something that has been coming up a lot and it will take us back to your conversation in some ways, but that the need for choice and the need for control are gigantic drivers in how spaces work, especially within working environments, and especially even more so today with post Covid concerns. So I want to have the choice to be around the people and be in a place that makes me feel safe. I want the control over the choices that I can make during the day to move throughout the space. So if choice and control are so important in our lives, in space, they're just as important in our conversations. I would love to choose the people to speak with on a regular basis. I would love to have some control over my message so that it is clearly heard. So it gets you into a certain amount of what you've been talking about.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:10:18] That's right. And one of the things that actually, so just interestingly, is I don't really do that much consulting anymore. But before the pandemic, a museum that I worked at for a long time was like basically like you promised that you would do to our strategy for us. So you're going to do our strategy for us whether or not you're with IDEO. And so I pulled together this kind of team that I have. I have like this kind of ragtag team that goes from like 5 to 18 depending on the day. And we did the strategy for this museum. And interestingly, before the pandemic, I did all the analysis myself. I did a series of interviews, kind of pulled stuff together. I have a very simple premise on how I actually get to understanding why people are in the institutions and what the institution stands for, which I'm happy to talk about. It's really a fun little project and process. But one of the big themes I had was safety, because in a cultural institution that's buffeted by issues of race and inclusion. And so this is actually, again, this was way before 14 months ago. Safety really becomes a serious concern in many, many ways, especially when the organization has just gone through unionization. And so, as we got into the pandemic, they were like, not a time for strategic planning. And then they were like, oh, yeah, it is time for strategic planning. And what's interesting is that we picked up the document that I had given them, and everything remained the same, like it was the same topics. It was safety. It was connection. It was feeling like people could actually own their destiny and that they were making the conversations about the strategy together as a collective. And so it really it didn't change much, which I think is kind of fascinating. I think it's easy in this moment to say, oh, safety matters now. Safety always mattered, and it's always a critical part of what our spaces and our constructs need to do. So what I'll say here is that a lot of people are like, please, do I have to think about making conversation as well as everything else? I know you're hearing that from people. And I would say, yes, you do, because my perspective on this is that making conversation is the oldest tool we have that isn't deadly. You'll likely survive a conversation, and you can likely commit to a conversation even with somebody who you don't like or you're concerned about for a little bit. And there's a lot of different ways that I talk about that you can do that. And I'm like, sometimes I'll just say, like, just do something with somebody. If you can't talk like, sew with somebody or cook with somebody or play golf with somebody or, you know, I don't know, whatever you’re going to do. And that is a form of communing and connection. It is, in fact, a conversation. So the reason why I think it's important to get really creative about the conversations you have is that once you do, you start to realize, oh, they don't have to be the way I think all conversations are. It's not like you and I sitting in a room face to face, kind of like just having this conversation. In fact, like, no, we can really, we can take control in a really interesting way.

CCB: [00:13:30] So something that you just said made me think about there was that conversation that we had earlier about moving from Christopher Alexander Pattern Language and the collective conversation, to Sherry Turkle and reclaiming conversation because technology has moved us so far away from this more physical, intimate kind of conversation.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:13:53] Yeah, no, and it's funny. It's like Sherry and I are friends when we're together. Whenever we see each other, it's like it's a communal communion of spirits. And Christopher Alexander is why I went to Berkeley, though, and he was gone, I think by the time I actually went there. They're both kind of really, really critical players in my thinking. And when I sent the book to Sherry to do the blurb on, which I didn't know if she would do, but she did. And she actually put down her book, she was writing a book, and she just read my book in a day and she's like,

‘we are in spiritual communion,’ even though you might think is because I was worried she'd be like because in the book I say this is not technology’s fault, really. I mean, there's a role that television played, but it's like but the reality is that for some people right now who are quite isolated, television is the only thing that's kind of keeping them going, right? But it really is what I would say, is it's our reliance on the news hook that really kind of like serves us off. And Sherry was like, I'm right there with you. And it's like I'm, because I think a lot of us are connecting through technologies in ways that are really important and intimate right now.

CCB: [00:15:00] There has been a huge conversation amongst co-workers and friends about that. There's a digital intimacy, which is very, it's different. But we have morphed it to support our needs at this moment in time. Really, I am fascinated by that.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:15:19] Yeah, well, so I was forced because, just so you know, little backstory, because I read below the headlines. In January last year, I was like, oh, we're going to have a pandemic. And I went to my publisher and I was like, we're going to have pandemic, let's push this from our April pub day to next year, to the December pub date. And she's like, you're crazy. Now, by the way, she calls me and she's like, what's next? Like McKinsey, when I did the interview, McKinsey, they're like, and you're not psychic, right? And I'm like, pretty sure. But what I would say is that I find that I'm like, through having so many conversations and making them with so many different kinds of people, everyone from the waitstaff at the outdoor restaurant that I eat at here, we're outside of Atlanta right now to, you know, whoever the people are, I feel like you can begin to feel the pulse of what's happening in a deeper way. And so I really would say, like making conversation is a form of building a sixth sense, in essence, where you kind of like you begin to kind of feel the kind of the next wave of what's coming. You know, David Kelley, who's still one of my great mentors, you know, I think when he read the book, he said something like, you know, you're always like three years ahead of everybody or it's like you're always right on time, which means that you have to be three years ahead. And I was like very complimented by that. But it's kind of true. Like, you have the ability to be way ahead of things to kind of figure out what's going to happen. I got distracted. So I was telling you about why.

CCB: [00:16:52] How we were talking about the technology and Sherry Turkle.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:16:55] Right, so in the middle of March, actually. Right, like almost to the date today, like to the date today, I actually keep a journal. I had fallen down the stairs at my farm and thought I'd broken my back. That wasn't fun. And then I wrote a short chapter on how to have the hardest conversations of your life, a resume during a pandemic, because my publisher was like, you got to do this. We have only have room for four pages. And I was like, fine. And so I wrote it. And we've been my team have been working with those same four principals from the beginning. And they're things like change the rules, all of them. This is not normal life. You can change everything and think about asynchronous, not all communications have to be synchronous. Like when I was writing, I had at a writing coach who, he would be in the Google doc, and it was as though we were in conversation with each other. Like he'd be like, there's something wrong with your mind. And I laugh out loud, but then I'm like, show yourself like or design the human in. So it's like this is actually not my background, and it's a hotel. But it's like I'm always like there and like I'll give a lecture to, like, Berlin, say, and I'll have my husband come in and say, you know, it's like “Ich Bein a Berliner” or something like that. You know, it's like something kind of funny because we really need to see that. And I think, Carolyn, I wonder if you're seeing this. I'm seeing a lot of people in the workplace. They're basically saying, oh, I'm seeing people in ways I hadn't seen them before because I'm seeing them in their home context. I'm seeing my CEO in a different way. I'm seeing my staff in a different way, which is really interesting.

CCB: [00:18:27] It creates that intimacy that’s unusual, we know more things about each other than we ever have. But to your point, people that intentionally converse and intentionally collect information on a regular basis have so much richer knowledge of the place and of the people. I think about my mother's older sister, who was my favorite aunt on the planet, walked every day throughout Sausalito and she would say hello to every person she passed and she knew everything that was going on, everything. And she was a retired schoolteacher who lived up on the hill and was just sitting there puttering around. But for that hour and forty five minutes, she was enormously connected and she probably understood what was ‘below the headlines’.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:19:18] That's exactly right. You know, and it's funny. So first of all, just because you said it, we have Intentions, the game is going to come out. It's basically a gamified way of having hard conversations and we're getting it out because we want to have it as people start to think about what it means to go back into the workplaces or things like that. It'll be launched at the end of this week. So check out intentionsthegame.com. And we're just getting the handle right now. But yes, I mean, you're really describing my mother, in essence, like words, which is that before she had a stroke, she was the kind of person everybody would come up to and they would tell her story and she would listen with kind of curiosity and engagement and kind of creatively. And even after her stroke and being aphasic, which makes it very hard to listen, she still did that. She would like wheel around that small town in Washington on the coast. And she knew everybody. And it's like everybody knew her right to the end. So she died about a year ago, a little bit before. I was actually in Washington, at hospices and at elder care facilities during the beginning of this pandemic. But what's interesting is even as she was dying, I could hear people in her hallway who would yell out to her and be like, "Are you OK, June?" and, "We're here for you, June." And it was this very sweet thing. And even for me, when she was deep in a coma, like at this point, like I just said to everybody, I was like, everybody leave. Like, just let me be here for a moment. And I sat with my mom and I was like, listen, if you go tonight, we'll make sure you come home, and we'll scatter your ashes with my brother. Because my younger brother also died. And I call them the next morning, and they're like no, she's still alive, and I was, they're like, Oh, wait, no, we're wrong. She died at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. And I was like, I knew that was going happen. So it's like you have these conversations that, you know, help kind of move people through there, through what they need to move through. And that's our job, is to help people move along.

CCB: [00:21:27] Ok, so tell us just a little bit more about the creative nature of the conversation and how you helped break that down so that it's not as difficult as everyone might think. “Oh, dear Lord, I have to make this conversation.”

[00:21:47] Yeah. And what's funny about it is like there's Seven C's. That's just because it's a book and publishers want Seven C's. And I will tell you that when I sold the book, I sat down with my publisher and they were like, we're not going to touch anything, anything you want, except for, you wrote a proposal, it's about how we lost conversation in the world. And we need one that's relentlessly optimistic. And I was like, that's a different book. And they're like, yeah, we know, but it's the book we need.

CCB: [00:22:12] And so we make some adjustments now.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:22:15] Yeah, so there's Seven C's and but they're not meant as a rigid methodology. It's not like you have to follow them. They're meant as an approach. It's a way to inspire you to think about what makes you creative in a conversation or when you feel or how, you know, things kind of work. And so there's commitment, creative listening, clarity, I can't remember all of them, so I don't have the book with me, but.

CCB: [00:22:37] Contexts and constraints and change.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:22:40] Context constraints, change. Change was my favorite. And then the final one is create, and if you if you do them all, I promise you there's a cure, because at the end of the book there is a cure. And I know that because I've been cured. But let me tell you about one little story that I tell. So I talk about creative listening, and this is my kind of my favorite piece of the book, which is that, you know, everyone's like, you got to talk about storytelling, you got to talk about storytelling. And I didn't want to talk about storytelling. And the reason why is because I was like, if you say storytelling or story, people are like, oh, that's for this person who can tell a story that's not for me. And so the combination of like, think about how to kind of tell the perfect story and not call it a story and also having a friend who basically would start stories like at 6 p.m. and wouldn't be done until 11. And she's the kind of person where if you interrupted, she was like, you're interrupting my story. And I'd be like, OK, I'm writing this for her. In the end, she's not a friend anymore. But it's like not so much, can't figure this out. And by the way, that's perfectly like one of the things I talk about is, if you can't commit to someone, don't do it. You don't have to join the conversation if you can't commit to them, like, only commit to them if you feel like they're there and they're going to be as committed to you. So the whole notion of the first chapter is commit or don't.

CCB: [00:24:00] Or don’t. And I think is that such great permission to have or to give to people to say, and be very clear about that, wait, I am not ready to have this conversation or this is not the right. No, not the right conversation for me. Thank you so much.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:24:13] Right. And as I talk about in the book and in a lot of my kind of lectures and podcast, at the very least, that's going to give you more time.

CCB: [00:24:21] Yeah, exactly, "Oh, my gosh, what am I thinking?"

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:24:22] Exactly, it's totally what we need. That's one lesson which is like, commit or don't, and don't be the person who's like, oh, but they need me there, they need a naysayer. It's like, maybe not, like maybe it's like if they've got people who are all totally aligned, they'll go along better.

CCB: [00:24:36] Back to your very verbose friend. There's that little bit. Yeah.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:24:43] So, in the book there's about a two page section that's called Illuminations. Illuminations where these little kind of sketches or little sentences or little things that are alongside a medieval manuscript. They be things like flowers or sometimes they’re like, "Help, I'm locked in a monastery", you know, it's like all kinds of different things that would be in the Illuminations. And they're kind of meant to kind of like give you insight into the stories or distract you in an interesting way. And so my great-grandmother was really good at storytelling. And I'll tell you my favorite story that she ever told me, which is that she was a steel worker at night. So she basically, she was one of the women who went to the steel mills in World War Two, but she liked it so much that she was like, I don't want to leave. So she stayed well into the 70's. And so she was a steel worker by night and a farmer by day, very tired and had children, had to take care of the farm, whatever. And we would sit every night and she told me this story once about how she was walking so tired one morning up to the farm and she was like, "Just let me die now, I'm ready." And gradually out of the blue came this blue figure that came down closer and closer and closer. And it was sexy Jesus. And he winked at her and she had the power to go on. He didn't take her. He just winked at her. And so that, I think is a perfect story. It's like twenty seconds. It reveals something about your values. You know that she's got her work ethic, you know, this was a spiritual woman, you know, that like you know, like that she could succumb to sexy Jesus, it had to be sexy. You know.

CCB: [00:26:19] She called him sexy Jesus?

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:26:21] She called him sexy Jesus. And because you always need the sexy Jesus in your life. And then it's what I love. And this is actually what I used to do work a lot with IDEO on. It ends with the insight. Oh, here's the twist. Here's the thing that I learned. And it doesn't tell you what happened afterwards. So you're going to show up the next day to the swing to hear what that story, what happens next. Yeah, exactly.

CCB: [00:26:47] Like a cliffhanger.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:26:49] Like a cliffhanger. So really work on that. I really think it's like as designer, sometimes we want to tell all of our process and what we really want to do is be like, let's reveal a little insight and then get people excited and then engage in what they want to do next. And so if you do one thing, I think that's one thing that you might practice is kind of practice Illuminations. You don't even have to read the book for that. There's a thing that's coming out, so.

CCB: [00:27:14] Oh, you make me laugh. OK, well, it's the end of our time together, Fred. So I'm going to say don't listen to what he just said. Get the book, read it, because I think it's incredibly important for most of us in the world today. And we have been inordinately charmed by our conversation. That's the royal ‘we’ with Fred Dust. And we're going to leave it on that note of Illumination. End with the twist. Thank you so very much.

Fred Dust (Making Conversation): [00:27:40] Thank you.