An online resource for designing a better world.

Open Secret: An Interview with John Bielenberg

December 16, 2015

Open Secret: An Interview with John Bielenberg

John Bielenberg is a designer, entrepreneur, and imaginative advocate for creating a better world through the application of “Thinking Wrong”. In 2003, he created Project M, an immersive program designed to inspire and educate young designers to shape a positive future through their work. In 2012, he co-founded Future Partners to advance his Thinking Wrong methodology within organizations and companies. Most recently, Bielenberg launched CCA Secret Project, a new program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, based on Project M.

Allan Chochinov: John, I wanted to start by asking you a bit about your history. For those who don’t know you through your work with Project M, could you tell us a bit about that project and how long it’s been going on? Decades, right?

John Bielenberg: I’ve been running Project M for 12 years now. It was inspired by the work of Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio student architecture program in Hale County, Alabama. I take small groups of motivated college-age students and plunk them down in a distressed and unfamiliar place where they “think wrong” about how to have a positive impact in a short amount of time. The goal is to engage with community members, invent a project and have something positive done within two weeks. Some of these projects are one-off events or campaigns but a few have become ongoing social enterprises.

One of the most well known projects is PieLab, a restaurant and community space in Greensboro, Alabama, which started as a one-day event called Free Pie on March 14th (3.14 = Pi) in Belfast, Maine. After a successful launch, the project morphed into a pop-up PieLab in Greensboro, North Carolina for the summer and then was permanently moved into an abandoned building on Main Street in Greensboro. PieLab has been a catalyst for rejuvenation in this previously depressed town ever since.


Project M also helped create a business called HERObike, located across the street from PieLab, where they build bikes out of locally harvested bamboo (Semester Bike) and woven bamboo skateboard decks (Beacon Alley). Both of these enterprises are owned by a non-profit called HERO, run by an amazing woman and former apparel designer named Pam Dorr.

“I believe that there is great value in being away from home and your orthodoxies when trying to come up with innovative solutions. Comfort is highly overrated.”



AC: And how did the whole thing start? You were a practicing graphic designer, right?

JB: After years of running my design studio in San Francisco, I became frustrated with using graphic design to grease the wheels of capitalism. My career was like climbing a ladder. The first rung was getting a job, then doing good work, then winning awards, then having my own studio, and then making some money. I was climbing the ladder, was close enough to see the top and started to wonder whether the climb was worth it.

So, I started a fake company called Virtual Telemetrix, Inc. to parody graphic design and corporate culture in America. We did satirical annual reports, corporate videos, catalogs of inane products and eventually pretended to take it public in 2000.

Then, while teaching at CCA, I attended a lecture by the architect Samuel Mockbee from Auburn University in Alabama. Mockbee would take architecture students out of Auburn and plunk them down a three-hours drive away in rural Hale County, Alabama. Hale County is largely impoverished and African American—a big change from what most of the students were accustomed to. Once there, the students had to assimilate into the community and then design and build a house, community center, baseball field or whatever structure was needed. The projects were amazing and ingenious in their use of existing resources. However, what was most inspiring to me was not the projects but what I imagined to be the influence on the careers of these students. Mockbee called it an “architecture of decency.”

I sat in the audience and thought, “Why isn’t there something like this for other design disciplines?” Shortly after I saw him present, Samuel Mockbee died of leukemia. In 2003, I started Project M, with the M standing for Mockbee.

AC: And Project M’s ethos is really at the heart of your new educational initiative at CCA, called “Secret Project” right? Can you tell us how the name of the course came about?

JB: Yes, CCA Secret Project is based on Project M and Thinking Wrong. I think of it as the “Crossfit” of design thinking or the Stanford crossed with the X Games. Names are tough! We initially thought of “secret project” as a temporary placeholder during our stealth start-up mode last year. However, it seems to be sticking and I like how it sounds like something interesting and cool to be involved with. We are currently recruiting an elite team of students from across design disciplines at CCA. Kind of like the movie Ocean’s 11 but instead of needing an explosives expert to knock over a casino, we need a UX designer to help tackle food deserts in Oakland.

“The Think Wrong process has six “practices”: Be Bold, Get Out, Let Go, Make Stuff, Bet Small and Move Fast.”


AC: And how has the methodology of Project M changed now that it’s a full-semester long thing? Project M projects were only a couple of weeks.

JB: The methodology has remained the same, but the longer time frame allows for more project development and multiple small bets. The Think Wrong process has six “practices”: Be Bold, Get Out, Let Go, Make Stuff, Bet Small and Move Fast. Be Bold is about setting a big goal, Get Out is going where you’ve never gone before, Let Go is stopping your brain from habitual problem solving, Make Stuff is about quick prototyping, Bet Small is about trying things that might not work, and Move Fast is building momentum through learning.

Our brains are wired with synaptic connections, which are compulsively followed. We get an input and there’s a superhighway to a known solution. If you believe in the value of new creative solutions, you must break these connections.

The biggest difference between Project M and Secret Project is that the students are on familiar turf at CCA. At Project M we are usually in a completely unfamiliar place—like the rain forest of Costa Rica or rural Alabama. I believe that there is great value in being away from home and your orthodoxies when trying to come up with innovative solutions. Comfort is highly overrated.


AC: So how are you planning to address that issue at CCA? What kinds of communities have you, and will you, be working with?

JB: That is a challenge. I try to get the students out of the academic bubble and into alien territory. We’ve done a project in East Palo Alto, former U.S. murder capital, and I took a group of students to Hale County, Alabama during Spring Break last year. Any college experience becomes mundane and routine over time. How can this be broken? I strongly believe that, under the right intense conditions and with a creative challenge that pushes past perceived limitations, you can influence the arc of a student’s future career in a short amount of time.

In addition to projects in the San Francisco Bay Area but away from school, we’re planning another trip to Hale County and a project with a non-profit called Epicenter in Green River, UT in 2016. When I think back to my college experience, I can’t identify anything meaningful or surprising that happened in any short burst. Why not? Design education must blow your mind on a regular basis. Boring is very bad.

AC: How would you respond to the objection some might have that this approach involves “parachuting” students into a community designated as troubled. Isn’t there a risk of the power dynamic being more about designing for and “saving the day” rather than designing with and empowering community members?

JB: This is a very real concern and we take great steps to ensure that this form of “design imperialism” doesn’t occur. The projects are always conceived in the community where they happen. We leave all expectations at home. An exercise that we always do on day one is called 10X10X10. The students get out into the community, individually or in small groups, and meet 10 people in 10 locations and come back with 10 stories. Our projects are often generated from these initial conversations. We also focus on things that are universally positive, like pie, pizza or bikes, rather than “fixing deep problems.”

AC: What makes the Secret Project different? Getting students outside the classroom is important but quite a few institutions are now doing that. How exactly will this initiative restructure education?

JB: I think it’s very different because of the full Think Wrong process. It’s much more challenging and intense than regular “human centered” design. I truly believe that the greatest learning happens when you are pushed out of your comfort zone. In fact, we do an exercise at Secret Project called “Show Your Guts” that was inspired by Project M Advisor Stefan Sagmeister. He once told the group that his best projects were always produced when he had to push himself out of his comfort zone and “show his guts.” So, we make everyone reveal something about themselves that is a barrier to forward progress … and then they need to push past that barrier.

AC: We’ve discussed the impact made on the students. Can you speak to the effect this work has on community members – i.e. the recipients?

JB: CCA Secret Project is launching now but I think that Project M has had a big impact on the community of Greensboro, Alabama. In fact, Hale County was recently listed as one of the most influential zip codes in America. However, I think the real value is that the students have an experience that changes the way that they think about their careers and the impact that they might have on their own community. A great example of that is +Pool from Project M Alums Archie Lee Coates and Jeff Franklin of PlayLab – a project to create a floating public pool for all the people of New York City.


AC: You travel a lot, and visit a lot of design schools. What is your impression of the current educational landscape?

JB: Great question. I just got home from a trip to the University of Kansas, Iowa State and Cornell. My general impression is that most programs are stuck in an archaic model of education that doesn’t acknowledge the way designers work today. Students rarely get to work on real projects in teams with other design disciplines.

The tools have changed so radically since I was in school. The computer and software does so much of the heavy lifting that was once required of designers. I’m not sure that schools have evolved enough to reflect this reality. I also think teaching creative problem solving methods is lacking because of an emphasis on traditional skills. Are you designing the tread pattern on tires or figuring out how people can better get to where they need to go? Maybe it’s about knowing when and how to ask the right questions before solving a design problem.

AC: So are things getting better or worse? Or maybe I’ll ask it in a less dramatic and perhaps more personal way: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

JB: Oh boy. I vacillate daily about this question. The increasing quantity of humans and their current behavior is putting extreme stress on the planet’s ecosystem. We are living in an unsustainable state and business as usual will not result in a happy ending to this movie. It’s easy to be pessimistic.

To be optimistic, you have to wonder where fundamental change will come from. Religions? Governments? Corporations? I highly doubt that existing institutions invested in the status quo will come up with alternative ideas and implement them quickly.

So, I think that young creative people between the ages of 20-30 years old, just entering their careers, are the most critical group to influence and inspire with the idea that their work can have a significant impact on shaping a positive future. Designers need to think wrong and get shit done.

Continue With More Articles in This Feature

Our New Feature Series: “Shaping Design Through Education”

October 14, 2015
Design and education are both, in a sense, about the shaping of things. The lines and contours of our built environment, the elegant curves of our diagrams, the molding of minds. Perhaps what they share... Read More

Impact Education Around The World: The African Design Center

October 28, 2015
Five years ago, Christian Benimana looked all around him and saw disaster. Born and raised in Rwanda, Benimana had just returned to his native country after finishing his architecture studies abroad. What he found was... Read More

The Promise of Transition Design: An Interview with Terry Irwin

November 11, 2015
Terry Irwin is Head of School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and has been teaching at the university level since 1986. A practicing designer for over 40 years, her studies in living systems convinced... Read More

The Future of Impact Design Education

October 14, 2015
Few of us today have a degree in “impact design,” “social design,” or “public interest design;” though a few of us who are now students may be studying exactly those subjects, some even in degree... Read More

What The Maker Movement Needs To Learn

November 18, 2015
  Vincent Purcell is a Baltimore-based maker who teaches about making culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He currently serves as an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow, where his work centers on the... Read More

Democracy in Action: Impact Design Education at Malmö

December 2, 2015
As part of our Shaping Design Through Education feature series we’ve been exploring the many different ways impact design education is being practiced around the world. anNa Seravalli is a senior lecturer in product design... Read More

The Trailblazers – How Students Are Learning To Make Impact Design Better

December 23, 2015
Social impact is something that many fields work towards, and in some respects, designers are actually late to the game. Disciplines like public health, social work, and international development have long been pursuing the same... Read More

Empathy Is Our Compass – The Power of Design Futures

December 30, 2015
For years, students across the country have been frustrated by the lack of real educational opportunities in community-engaged design. While a handful of programs are gradually emerging to fill that demand, the problem of access... Read More