Waterfalls, cows, and farms. Are there lessons in design from the other side of the world?

Even before we bought the waterfall, I knew we were on to something.

Over the summer we visited the homestay we built in West Sumatra for the first time since its two-storied wood-framed house was completed. The house is perched over a fishpond and overlooks a patchwork of rice paddies and grassy terraces that slope downward to a clear, meandering river.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The craftsmanship of the house is outstanding and the view is stunning. But even more impressive is the community of people contributing to the success of the enterprise. Led by my brother-in-law, three generations of men do the backbreaking labor of clearing rocks from the land and digging new irrigation ditches. Women clean the house and cook the meals for guests, serving rice and spicy fish curry on banana leaves spread on a flat patch of grass under a banyan tree. In town, news of the homestay spreads through word of mouth by a network of guides and friends, resulting in it being booked nearly every day since before the house was finished.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The waterfall is a recent addition to the homestay. We bought it since coming home to Connecticut, so I’ve only seen photos. It’s not adjoining, but a short hike away. Just beyond up the hill are “The 1000 Caves” that the canyon valley is know for, and cliffs for a range of rock climbing abilities. Down the road is the small town that has a café owned by the family of the women who do the cleaning and cooking for us. You can also hire them to teach you how to cook their local dishes, including fried coffee leaves, which are delicious by the way. Their brother also teaches traditional music, the “saluang”, a bamboo flute, and “gamelan”, a small orchestra of gongs. Our homestay is literally at the center of this network of personalized, authentic, semi-adventurous, local experiences.

It recently struck me – our homestay is a success because it strives to provide customer-first service design.

Our extreme diversification started with cows.

In West Sumatra buying cows is a traditional form of retirement investment. When you have some extra cash, you buy a female cow and board it with a local farmer to care for and breed. When a calf is born, you split the ownership of the calf with the farmer fifty-fifty. If the calf is female, the farmer raises her to adulthood, breeds her, and then owns this third generation and beyond. If the first generation calf is male, it is usually sold to the local butcher for cash for profit or to buy a female cow.

Cows are a relatively predictable and stable investment. But it’s definitely a long game.

A partnership between owner and farmer, cow breeding takes singular focus and commitment and the ability to adapt and recover after unforeseen surprises, like infertility or illness. The farmer provides labor and resources like food, water and shelter. The owner provides capital investment, bulls for breeding, and access to the marketplace for selling the offspring.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business requires a product design mindset that relies on a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Our third investment is a small family farm.

The land stood mostly fallow until my sister-in-law and her husband, who we call “Uncle”, retired. Then they came to us with an idea. They would plant fruit trees and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks. Several years later it is a beautiful, shady, fragrant oasis that rivals any botanical garden I’ve seen. The land is teeming with avocados, dragon fruit, water apples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and about a dozen other plants that I don’t know the English names for.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business is a product business that follows a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Uncle is the true genius behind the farm’s success. All along I assumed he must have grown up on a farm. But, during this past visit, I learned that his horticultural expertise is recently acquired from the Internet! In the evenings he reads about plants and their cultivation and during the day he puts his learning into practice. He tests and learns, iterates and refines. One of his early innovations was to weigh down fruit tree branches with boulders tied to long ropes. The boulders sit on the ground and gently pull the branches downward so the tree grows wide and full, making the fruit easier to reach.

Uncle is the designer of a living platform that houses a constantly evolving range of sweet, delicious content.

Indonesia is a booming, modern economy with innovative digital experiences that reach both large, sophisticated urban centers as well as smaller rural villages. For good or ill, you can see the glow of smart phones emanating from the windows of even the most modest house. But up until now I thought there was deep divide between our more traditional businesses and my work at agencies and technology companies.

Homestay, cows, and farm. Service design, product design, and a content platform. The parallels are surprising, and intriguing.

Perhaps I no longer have to be a New York creative director by day and a West Sumatran businesswoman by night. Now these two parts of myself can both beat within one heart and start to cross-fertilize in my rational mind. Maybe they have more in common than I thought.

I suspect, and kind of hope, there is still much that does not translate, and can’t be transferred, across those nearly 10,000 miles. Crispy fried coffee leaves, the warm, curly-haired head of a new calf, and the sweet, fuchsia juice of a fresh dragon fruit are just beautiful and perfect in what and where they are.

But someday it might be nice to tap on the screen to feel the spray from our cold, crystal-clear waterfall on my face.

Cut away to find space

I squinted to peer through the gap between the locked doors of the gallery for a glimpse of the serene, apse-like space that held my senior thesis art exhibition two decades earlier.

Although now empty, the grey, windowless room seemed to impossibly glow from within, lit by the sunlight piercing the oculus in the ceiling. It was a cathartic moment after an emotional yet celebratory memorial service for David Schorr, my college senior thesis advisor.

The remnants of the knotted ball of nerves I felt during my final crit with him still faintly twisted in the pit of my stomach. David was a printmaker, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, but also a passionate lover of words— just the right words chosen for maximum emotional, or often comic, effect.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

At first the words stung. But, then they settled and started to make sense. Although my installation had the trappings of fine art with drawings, sculpture, and even a tree suspended over a rectangle of grass, the best part of it was the process and purpose behind it — how I rallied a team of local craftsmen and generous friends to help me make an installation of objects that told my story. In that simple yet profound observation, he both cut away who I was trying to be but wasn’t and found space for a future that could leverage my true talents.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

One of the hardest things to teach a budding, young soccer player is to run away from the ball when your teammate has it. Invariably they run toward the ball like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It seems counter intuitive. Don’t you want to run toward the action to add your two feet to the mix?

No, you want to cut away from the other players to find space, then open up to receive the ball. Only then can you deploy your best foot skills to drive the ball toward the goal. And there lies much of the beauty in the game.

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

My senior thesis project also involved literally cutting away to find space.

The most important elements of the installation were three large drawings suspended from the ceiling. To make them I adopted a drawing technique in which I held the eraser in my left hand and the charcoal in my right. I would draw and erase, erase and draw, until ghostly forms emerged from the background. A light gray shading lingered on the edges of the erased spaces, giving the forms both depth and a vibrating energy that was much more interesting than if I drew them directly.

I’ve found that cutting away to find space is a useful technique for creative thinking overall.

For me, a long walk in the wide expanse of nature results in more aha moments than a shower. But the same principle applies — absorb lots of information, then cut it from your conscious mind as you silently process it in the background. Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

When I’m helping my team evaluate ideas, I sit huddled with them holding a small pad of paper and a pen. I look at all of the comps, hear all of the explanations, and consider all of the cool innovations and clever extensions. But I only write down a keyword or phrase that sums up the core of the idea, stripping away the usually very well thought out, but at best supportive and at worst extraneous detail.

Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

After we cut away to expose the true essence of the idea, the team and I then evaluate it and, if it has promise, open our minds to find its possibilities and build it up again, bringing back some of those great supporting ideas and adding more.

As a kid, the farthest I got in soccer was the first grade town team. I was always lost in the pack, usually behind the ball, chasing it fruitlessly. I wish my coach taught me to cut away from the crowd, find space, and open up so I could unlock the beauty of the game.

But as I peered through the sliver between the doors, blinking from the bright sunlight, I felt tremendous gratitude for the lesson I learned from David. While standing together beneath the oculus in the same luminous room he encouraged me to cut away what wasn’t truly me and find my space in the wide open field of design.

I’m still working on it, David. But I’ve never looked back.


David Schorr, professor of art at Wesleyan University, died on June 16, 2018 at the age of 71.

Limit me! Why creatives need limits even in the age of disruption.

I marvel at what my 11 year-old son can do with a sharpie and the letters B.O.E.

You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names.

A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with black sharpie. And almost all on post-it notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?”, the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters”, “paper”, “markers”, “paint”, “fruits”, “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No”, he’d invariably say, without further explanation.

As a creative director, I understood.

When I was in college, I fancied myself an artist. For my senior thesis, I could request the part of the university gallery space I wanted for my exhibit. It was a lottery, but I got my first choice. I learned later, because no one else wanted it. In a way, it was the hardest – a square, spare cement space separate from the regular long, well-lit gallery walls. I literally chose to box myself in.

Oblivious to the extraordinary amount of pre-baccalaureate pretension, I made a shrine to my destiny spirit. It made sense at the time – I had just returned from studying abroad in Nigeria where I learned about how young people on the cusp of adulthood placate their destiny spirit to ensure a successful future. For my materials, I also wanted to limit myself. Charcoal drawings. Grass and hay in plexiglass boxes. Two figurative sculptures from paper pulp and cheesecloth on the boxes. And, a tree hanging from the ceiling. The irony was that I felt the only way to tackle the tremendous scale of the idea was to limit the materials and manner in which I could express it.

“You’re a designer, not at artist,” my professor said at my final review, seemingly knocking me off my plexiglass pedestal.

Today, as a creative director, I know he was right.

I get off on the limitations. And, almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in 2 weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

I definitely can’t speak for fine artists. But, after 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying those limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas.

“I didn’t want to limit you”, says an account director to me at their own peril.

Yes, not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams.

But, most critically, I definitely want to know the edges of the box — all the things we can’t do, and the very few things we can do — so that I can fill that box with awesomeness. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black and white talking banana.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need.

And we will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.


This article originally appeared in MediaPost on September 5, 2017.