Imagine you are getting onto a train. Drive. Park. Traverse the crowds. Find the train. Sounds simple and, in many places, it is simple. But Millbrae Station is a difficult space to navigate. In fact, locals would tell you to find somebody to guide you. At least, for the first couple times, because it is easy to get lost. Bring a friend. Recently, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) brought in studio1500 to design a better way.
The challenge was bigger than the space. There is an information system which guides people through the BART public transportation system. Broadly, this known as wayfinding. Specifically, in San Francisco, this was a set of design choices made by different firms at different times. BART’s internal team would be implementing the wayfinding system at Millbrae Station. The colors, typeface, paint choices, all these and more had to come together in a design that coordinated and communicated with multiple parties. One final consideration was how the design would be kept up. Public transportation departments routinely touch-up and refresh signage over the lifetime of a project.
Wayfinding is an analogy for thinking about how people navigate the various screens, sites, security systems, prompts, and challenges. Our workforce navigates wayfinding systems done by others (say, WorkDay and SalesForce) at the same time they’re working through what we control (say, VPN and SSO). An example of a wayfinding design, across multiple environments, with strong need for maintainability, such an example is fertile ground for cyber security lessons.
Returning to Millbrae Station, you might expect the story to begin with a brainstorming session with the studio1500 partners Julio Martinez and Erik Schmitt. You’d be wrong. It’s cool. I was wrong, too. In fact, Martinez himself wrote: “I assumed life in a design team would be full of brainstorming sessions — mythical, lively, fast-paced meetings with brilliant ideas bouncing off multiple heads until they were captured in someone’s notebook as shiny kernels of greatness. There would be roars of celebration and laughter, hugs and high-fives, uproarious chants.”
Several years ago, I took an improv course. During my time spent learning how to Zip-Zap-Zop, I realized I wasn’t fast at coming up with ideas. Someone would shout a premise, I would freeze, and others would jump in. This wasn’t surprising. After all, I took the course because I felt slow. I decided to take each improv class twice. Double down. Work through it. And here is where I ran into a surprise. Across different classes, with entirely different teammates, with different composition of ages and backgrounds, the exercises were remarkably the same. I froze. Others jumped in. But no matter who it was, in both classes, people made essentially the same joke.
Free association isn’t all that free. It’s bound by shared experiences and cultural expectations.
David Palermo and James Jenkins studied free association with words in the 1960s. Simon De Deyne is studying this today. (Check out https://smallworldofwords.org to participate.) If you give someone a word, you can be reasonably certain what word they’ll think of next. Likewise, if you give someone a premise, you can be reasonably certain what they’ll improvise. Our first instincts feel creative but actually repeat what most anyone else would do.
Brainstorming tries and fails to avoid the work of preparation and contemplation.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who popularized the concept of flow, once said there are five stages in the creative process. This was after interviewing a hundred designers and artists, including Don Norman, so we can assume Csikszentmihalyi was on solid ground. The five steps are: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. Incubation can take days, weeks, or months. Scheduling a brainstorming session for a Tuesday at 4 o’clock, showing up, and jumping to insights feels tantalizingly innovative. But it ignores decades of research into how creative work gets done unconsciously.
Okay, but what does improv have to do with wayfinding, you ask?
“This dance between the conscious and the unconscious is important,” Martinez explained. Instead of brainstorming, they read the brief. They walked the site. Martinez made time for his observations and intuitions to gel. When studio1500 presented to BART, they came with a number of thoughtful options for the Millbrae Station. They came with ideas to discuss and build upon.
“Our approach is antithetical to the classical Paul Rand model of design. You have one idea. You show up. It is a God-given idea and it is done. Take it or leave it.” Martinez said, contrasting studio1500‘s approach. “We like to play. We like to think as we’re designing. It’s collaboration. It’s iteration. It’s actually how you figure the ideas out.”
The Millbrae Station wayfinding would go through a few iterations. The design firms working within and without gradually got onto the same page. Martinez worked to make sure the vision was translated and executed properly. This meant simplifying the design a bit, choosing colors that were more maintainable. It also meant some rework to get the typeface correct. Each change required thought, but none required a storm of ideas and flurry of sticky notes.
Brainstorming is theater. As security theater makes us feel secure without actually increasing security, brainstorming makes us feel insightful without producing insights.
Don’t feel pressured to crowdsource or brainstorm ideas. Prepare by setting a vision, thinking through how to protect the organization and define the security capability. Give it time to seep into your subconscious. You’ll be ready the day comes for creatively defining architecture and controls.
When designing cyber security capabilities, find your own way.
In past articles in this series, I’ve covered four of my preferred ways for exploring problems and discovering new possible solutions. These are:
- Find an analogy or metaphor to generate new tactics.
- Discuss the thing without naming the thing.
- Discuss what the thing does rather than what the thing is.
- Mimic a working solution using the IDEA method.
Julio Martinez recommends James L. Adams’ book, Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas. The book is now on my end table.
This article is part of a series on designing cyber security capabilities. To see other articles in the series, including a full list of design principles, click here.Posted by