Curiosity as a tool for sustainable brands

22 min read

Gage Mitchell sees everything as a design challenge. Whether it's designing new business strategies, designing to solve community problems, or designing your life to be more fulfilling. He’s the founder of Modern Species and Evolve CPG where he helps better-for-the-world brands grow through purpose-driven strategy, design, and community.

With us today, there is Gage Mitchell. Gage sees everything as a design challenge. Whether it's designing new business strategies, designing to solve community problems, or designing your life to be more fulfilling. He's the founder of modern species and the Evolve CPG, where he helps better for the world brands grow through purpose-driven strategy, design, and community.

He describes himself as an impact designer, and today's call will be talking about how to inspire people to ask more questions and to be more intentional with their work and lives so that we can collectively design a better world.

So, Gage, we were talking about how to inspire people, and one of the things that you mentioned is asking more questions and how can we do that? How can we give more value to the art of asking questions?

One of the first pieces of advice I give people wanting to do purpose-driven work or sustainability or impact-driven stuff is curiosity. Just be curious first of all because if you ask yourself, how can I better connect with this person? How can I make this person life better?

In which ways can this project be more sustainable? What happens to this thing after it leaves the consumer's hands? You know, no matter what industry you're in, if you get good at being curious, you'll think of a bunch of questions that you can ask and asking those questions will hopefully help you find the answers you're seeking that will help you design a better solution. But, what's awesome about asking questions is that you often get something back that you weren't expecting that you weren't looking for.

Some brilliant, amazing insight from the awesome person across the table from you that you're asking the question of that will inspire you to do something different that you would never have thought of on your own.

So, Gage, if we extend this to brands, which benefits brands can get from questions from, you know, asking more questions, can you give me some detail about that?

For brands, if I am a brand manager, let's say, and I am trying to figure out how to grow my brand, sell more product. I think the version of curiosity that works for them is being more curious about your customers and consumers.

And asking them a bunch of questions instead of thinking that you know everything and go out there with some assumptions and survey your email list, ask to look at the data in your social media. Do actual live consumer you know quantitative and qualitative studies.

To figure out what makes them tick and what about your brand they resonate with and what about other brands they resonate with and why they buy certain products and what motivates them and what gets them excited in the world.

The more you know about your consumer or your customers, the more you can make sure that your products and your services and your brand itself can help them be the person they want to be in the world, and therefore they'll see you as this great option to achieve whatever they want to achieve and lock their dreams.

So, the more you can know about them, the better you can serve them, and the better you can serve them, the more they'll trust you and love you and be loyal and buy all your products and whatever else you sell and tell everyone else about it. So, I'd say the moral of the story on both sides' is don't assume you know everything. Assume you know just enough to ask the right questions and then go talk to people and figure out what's going on.

Because just getting a little bit more understanding of the space you're working in, or the people you're working with can work magic. The insights that can come from really good questions will unlock a ton of potential for you as an individual for you and your brand or for whatever business you run or you as a student, a learner in the world trying to find some more expertise in some subject you're interested in.

So how do you think this line of questioning could actually help in developing sustainable brands, businesses strategies, because some people might not know what they want, you know or how to be sustainable even. So how can we help them understand what they'd like through questioning? What's your take on that?

Yes, good question. There's a lot of great tools out there, and a question you just asked is the reason some fellow collaborators and myself wrote, The Path to Impact. It's a workbook that we put together for AIGA, the professional Association for Design.

Well, it's this workbook that we got sappy ideas that matter grant to produce. It's a little banged up because it's been well-loved, but the idea in this workbook is that we kind of guide people through what impact looks like.

The types of impact you can make environment, social, culture and the economy, and then in a design familiar process of going through step by step. So, we help people envision what kind of impact they're going to make, and the reason I'm bringing this up is because, within this book, we have a bunch of questions about the beneficiaries about the conditions you want to change, about the stakeholders you're trying to engage.

Instead of writing it out in some sort of very theoretical or very academic way, we tried to write it in just plain language so that by seeing that word beneficiaries and then the question next to it, like who's this project intended to serve you're both learning a term that maybe you didn't know before maybe you did.

If you work in impact space and it's just helping you to think of some of those questions, you can ask. So, this whole workbook is full of a bunch of those questions or prompts that get you thinking in the right way. But it's not necessarily designed for you to ask and get answers to all of them because that would take a very long amount of time.

Probably a good year or something to go through that whole book but flipping through that book and figuring out where you are in a certain stage of a project or where you're getting stuck. So, if you'd pull some of those questions from there, it could really move some mountains and get some obstacles out of your way and help you point in the right direction.

Then you'll probably think of a bunch of your own questions you can sprinkle in there as well, but exactly to your point, we created that workbook, these materials that we created with it just to give people a place to start if they don't know what questions ask. So, with that said, there's lots of other tools, resources, websites, books that are on sustainability or on impact or on social justice.

If you pick up some of those books, attend some events, go to a conference, you know you'll learn a little bit every time you engage in that community. Eventually, you'll have a stronger vocabulary and a stronger idea of what questions to ask, but if you just need to start somewhere, there are lots of resources out there.

The IGA path impact is one possible resource that you could look into.

That's great, and I guess all of these questions can also apply to, you know, the everyday life of a person.

It's not just you know applicable to brands and enabling brands or empowering them to get somewhere through this line of questioning, but also to, a bit of an introspective aspect to it as well that you can apply to a person, maybe, and develop a personal brand or you know, just self-development really.

Absolutely, Yes. We've actually used that book when we were in the testing kind of design writing phase, we were just trying to figure out where all it could be applicable. We definitely found it applicable to nonprofits like boards like designing themselves or to work with their community.

To design better solutions for the community, which means it also works for businesses or brands trying to make more impact but what we found that was kind of shocking to all of us was that it also works personally.

You can ask a lot of these questions of yourself and figure out how to design your life or your world, or your business in a different way that will help impact you, your family, your friends, your community, your customers in a better way.

With that said, there's; also, I've always wanted to write a book on life design because I'm a big believer in applying design everywhere, and I was relieved from that duty when I found that a couple of Stanford’s professors that have been teaching a life design class.

I guess it's one of the most popular classes at Stanford, but they wrote a book. I think it's called, Designing Your Life. I've got it up on my bookshelf somewhere, and they have their process, my process is a little bit different, but you know theirs is super valid.

They have a process that they walk you through in that book on how you can be a little bit more iterative and prototyping and so on and so forth. Kind of using design thinking methods on your own life, and so that could be; in what kind of career, you want to pursue? It could be where you want to live or how you set up your priorities in life.

So, you're living with more balance like there's just so many different things. So many different questions you could ask yourself to figure out ways to tweak your life in different ways. That'll make a big impact for you and, again, your loved ones or friends, family, etc. So yes, I would say being curious and asking questions applies to basically everything.

Yes, that's really true. When you start asking yourself questions, you start thinking of ways how you can get better. There will be ways that possibly have not considered yet. So yes, starting from somewhere and then maybe evolving that line of questioning depending on which part of your life you'd like to, you know, develop because there are different parts of your life.

There's the personal one, the professional one and as you said it, goes across borders. Going back to the line of questioning from designers, there is a responsibility that comes with questions and not only with the questions to empower people to answer you and how change is going to come from the person.

But also, a responsibility of how you're going to be using this information. So now designers have a very important role I think there which is possibly sometimes misused or you know through no fault of their own, maybe because they might not have enough information.

But yes, I mean, we believe that designers have a very important role in even defining a culture or defining the thought process because design is all around you. It is in the architecture; it's in billboards, it's in books, it's in everywhere. So how can we help designers understand the responsibility? I think that is where the key lies.

Yes, that's a very good point in that any time somebody has the power to make decisions, I've believed that comes with the responsibility to make good decisions that are good for all, but then also designers are in a position of influence too. So, we don't just make decisions. We also make decisions that will influence.

As you said, people live, cultures, businesses, etc. So, if we're in this position of influence and we have the option to either sell more cigarettes that are going to kill a bunch of people or sell smoothies that are going to save a bunch of people lives.

That's one area of responsibility that I have personally chosen, the path of health and wellness for my career focus. I work mostly with better for the world, brands, and a lot of that is in natural organic products. So, I believe that you know, not only can we reverse climate change through the work that we're doing because all the studies show that food-related problems are some of the biggest struggles we're facing right now.

We can also help empower people to live better lives by giving them better choices at the grocery store or helping inspire them to live a better life just at home if they're making their own food.

So that's like one area of responsibility is who are you going to work for? Granted, I see that that's also a position of privilege, by which I mean I have the freedom to choose who to work with, but not everyone has that freedom. You know, sometimes you're getting started in your career, and you just need a job, and you don't get to tell your boss that you're not going take that Coca Cola project or that you know Nike product.

Whatever company that you think is doing some evils in the world and granted a lot of companies are turning a leaf and becoming better in making more of an impact, so there are fewer and fewer companies to call out as evil anymore. But you know there are still a lot of terrible products out there that are making people's lives worse, not better.

So, if you have the power to make decisions around who you work with, I think that's one area of responsibility: who are you giving your superpowers of influence to, and what are they doing with that power?

Are they helping people and making better lives? Or are they sucking people's money, damaging their health, destroying the environment, and making the world worse off for your children, grandchildren, and everything else? So, you're really hurting yourself in the whole world if you're making the wrong choice there.

So, I think if people think about the fact that their decisions and their behaviours have long-lasting impact and outcomes, hopefully, they'll start asking the right questions about what kind of impact and outcomes their decisions are making.

And you know, if they're in a position of privilege to be able to make the right decision, that hopefully, they'll realise that making that right decision has long-lasting impacts that go way beyond their short time on this planet.

So that's like, choosing who you work with but then even if you work for some evil company. So, let's just say cigarettes because I think we can all agree that that's probably bad, and they're not going to be good anytime soon.

So, let's say you're working for a cigarette company. There are still choices you can make in that process to help people and help the planet. For example, let's say you want to make cigarette packaging more sustainable like they're usually wrapped in plastic, right?

Maybe there's a different way to wrap those boxes so that they're not in some plastic that's going to get ripped off and thrown in the street and end up in the ocean somewhere or eaten by a bird or something like that? You know, maybe that wrapping could be compostable, something like that.

There are also questions you could ask yourself about the package design or the advertisements that you're making for a cigarette company.

Are you designing those in such a way that purely sells the product with no nod to the potential side effects? Are you selling those products in a way that's appealing to children or kids?

You're making it look cool or aspirational, like something that younger people want to like, be like that person in the ad. There are lots of decisions along the way that even if you're selling something bad, you could be doing a little good with it by reducing the negative impacts as much as possible, and you know, letting people choose from there.

So, there are lots of different ways I think as a designer that we can help make decisions, help push companies or brands or people in the right direction. But of course, we can choose to use those powers for good, or we can choose to use those powers for evil, and I think it's up to each person to decide how they define good and evil and then up to them to decide, like how much of their career, they're whatever they're willing to risk to make those good decisions.

I think there's always ways to push people forward. Even if you're working for a quote-unquote evil company, you can always pitch sustainability or impact as a profit-driving method because done right; sustainable design should actually save money or make more money.

It's not just the wrapper that packaging, the product, but it's also the advert that you put out to accompany that. Whether that has a positive impact or a negative impact depending on the message that you're trying to put forward. So, the responsibility of designers is not just designers themselves, but also how they link with marketing, how they link with ad agencies, and how this comes together as one.

You know, as one project basically to be not just environmentally sustainable but also socially sustainable, and I think this is a very important point to mention in today's world, no? In the world we live in.

My other thought was, I mean this is, it can all seem to be a little bit doom and glume, no? We can all be quite worried about how to do this, and we have to be realistic about stuff. We have to be realistic on how much people can absorb, how much people can change and how fast they can change. Also, we have to be quite positive in a way because, you know, just going out there saying in billboards that the end is nigh and we're all going to die out of a tsunami.

It's very pessimistic, and I think people don't really take on that well if you're going to be attacking and highlighting the bad bit. So, how can we use curiosity and all of this, what we've talked about today to make it positive to give a positive message and maybe get more out of the experience of this question asking?

Yes, that's that is so true. One of the struggles I see with the organic movement, for example, in the US at least, is that they like to sell organic by just talking about all the bad things that they're avoiding in by you choosing organic. It's just funny to me because they never seem to want to talk about all the good stuff you're getting. Like all other brands that are successful, right? Nike doesn't tell you about all the crap they left out of your shoe.

They tell you about all the cool stuff they put in your shoe and everything you're going to get to achieve by wearing their shoes, so I think a lot of better for the world products or better for the world, brands or companies or whatever get stuck in this idea of us versus them or this whole competitive or negative kind of mindset is one of the problems. They think that all we have to do is educate people to let them know how bad the thing is that they're currently consuming, and then they'll want our thing.

That's a big assumption because not everybody wants to be educated. Some people just want to be entertained. Some people just want to feel cool. Some people want to have hope for the future etc., and you telling them a bunch of negative stuff isn't necessarily going to influence them.

That's a big assumption because not everybody wants to be educated. Some people just want to be entertained. Some people just want to feel cool. Some people want to have hope for the future etc., and you telling them a bunch of negative stuff isn't necessarily going to influence them.

It's not meeting them where they're at, so to use behaviour design principles, you have to understand people, existing motivations, what they already care about instead of trying to make them care about something new.

You tap into what they already care about if you can find a way to position your product, your brand, your movement, you're whatever. The thing that you need them to do to make their life better in the world better.

If you can tie that into something they're already motivated about, you can get them to actually consider it and then once they're buying it, using it, whatever, and they become a believer in it. Then they'll seek out more information, and then they'll share it with the world as well.

So, hitting people with just negative messages, hitting people with education, hitting people over the head with stuff they're not ready for is not usually a good growth strategy or a good advertising campaign or anything like that.

Figuring out what your target customer, beneficiary, whomever it is that you're trying to change. Figuring out what really motivates them and then figuring out how your product, your solution, your whatever ties into that and positioning it in that way, I think, will move mountains compared to just telling them all this negative stuff like the world is ending or whatever.

So, I think that's one method to think about if you're interested if the listeners are interested in behaviour design. There's a professor out of again Stanford. I guess I'm a Stanford fan, apparently.

He's called Doctor BJ Fogg, or he just goes by BJ Fogg. Still, he's been studying behavioral psychology for a while and has some different theories, philosophies, and tools around behaviour design that can help you wrap your mind around it a little bit easier. He just came out with a book called Tiny Habits that's really more about personal behaviour and influencing your own behaviour.

Like getting yourself to floss or getting yourself to, you know, exercise in the morning or whatever, so but those principles also can apply to designing stuff for other people.

So maybe check that out. But yes, I totally agree the world can be super negative. I think it's better to be a realistic optimist. By which I mean I understand that things are broken, and not everything is great, not everything will be great, but being optimistic that it can change and being hopeful and curious enough to be part of that change.

Yes, this is super interesting. I mean, there are three types of people in the world. There are the believers, the people who are actually doing something already, the borderline cases, you know. I call them the borderline cases. There are people who are really interested in doing something but are a bit lost at how to start and then the non-believers. The people who you know you can get angels dancing and just did not believe that you know that's the way forward and really and truly in time, more of these quote-unquote non-believers will probably transition into being the believers, but it will take some time.

I think that is why the inquisitive approach that you were mentioning before is very important because they will start realising themselves that this transition or this change needs to be done in order for them to be better people living in a better place, in a better city.

So that is, you know, really interesting. So maybe by way of summarising what we've just said today. Could you perhaps give us your takeaways that the general public could take from business owners or maybe authorities?

I would also just echo that comment that you made first about the, you know, the believers, the people who are already sold and then you know the people in the middle and then the non-believers.

There's a tech adoption curve. I think it's been called multiple other things, but it's all about jumping the chasm between the early adopters and the early majority and then the late majority and then the laggards. I think the non-believers are often those laggards that hold off and don't want to move and don't like kind of, kick and scream and don't want to change until they absolutely have to.

The funny thing that I've seen is with at least my own experience is sometimes those non-believers, those laggards, if you can really connect with them and find a way to position whatever it is that you're doing from their perspective and let them be heard, often they become your biggest most vocal advocates afterwards.

So, while they are harder to win when you do win them, they'll scream from the rooftops about how amazing you are. So, don't completely ignore them, but yes, of course, you got to first start with the early adopters, get them sold and then get into the early majority before you can reach the rest of the world again. So, I guess I would just hit back to this idea of curiosity and observation.

So, if you're observing, like paying attention to your own body, for example, how you're feeling. Like most people, just ignore it. You know we don't get enough sleep. We don't get enough water. We don't get enough whatever, but we just keep telling ourselves we need to power through, power through this moment that we're in and, you know, whatever we'll sleep when we're dead, or we'll catch up over the weekend or we'll whatever.

Whatever the answer is that you're telling yourself, and we ignore ourselves and our body and our intuition, and so on and so forth. All the time, but if we can pause every once in a while and just observe and ask ourselves, how am I doing right now? You might notice that you're a little tired. You're a little hungry; you're a little anxious; you're a little whatever. If you can dig deeper into that and figure out well, why am I anxious?

Why am I tired? Why am I whatever? You might start getting curious and asking a bunch of questions. I guess it's because I didn't get enough sleep last night? Is it because I haven't been drinking enough water? Is it because I've been drinking too much alcohol during this COVID lockdown or something like that?

Is it because you know what? I've been stuck in this desk for so long I haven't got up and walked around in a while? I haven't gotten hiking. So you know who knows, like whatever it is that really brings you energy, you might not be doing that as much.

So, I would say if I could leave people with one piece of advice, it would just be pause every once in a while and just observe whether it's observing your coworkers, whether it's observing your family, whether it's observing your consumers, your customers, whatever, or even just yourself.

So,If you just pause and take a moment and observe, put yourself in their shoes or put yourself in your own shoes and think about how you're feeling, how they're feeling, how they're doing, and what context that lives in. Then, hopefully, you'll start asking yourself some very interesting questions that could lead to some life-changing insights.

Either for you or for them, it all has to start with that observation and then ask the right questions.

Wow, you've given us some homework Gage here.

Yes, I'm good at homework.

Well, yes, and to be honest, I think this, what you just said applies across the board right in your personal life whether it's in a business and possibly even for authorities to understand how the community is behaving, what they require of the community, and you know, to really home in on what is important, not just for one person, but from you know, from a resilience point of view, from a societal point of view.

See how this could get better in time and continue to ask questions and fuel this curiosity. Maybe one thing that you know reminds me of having my child here is she's always asking why things, you know.

She's just curious. She just wants to know more of the world and perhaps that we have to, you know, forget that we're adults sometimes and go back to our childhood and really tap into discovering for ourselves why things are the way they are and how we'd like them to be.

Maybe you know, put our heads together and understand how this can be done better in whatever way in whatever sphere that we want to address this.

This has been super interesting. Thank you so much for your insights. It was wonderful having you with us.

Thanks for having me. It has been a fun conversation. I appreciate it.

This was Gage Mitchell, and you are listening to The Human Agenda. Thank you so much for joining us in this episode.

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