Experiencing CUSP: The Design of Everything

Experiencing CUSP: The Design of Everything

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Sandee Kastrul and Deborah Cane on Experiencing CUSP: Bagpipes, Food Allergies and Serendipity.

Every fall, the auditorium at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is transformed into an interesting human chemistry experiment. The CUSP conference, curated and produced by Multiple Chicago, a design strategy firm, brings diverse designers together to talk about their latest projects and their most original thinking. The experience of CUSP is unlike any other; the randomness, the unexpected feelings, the networking, the amazing speakers, the way it makes you think about everything differently. Sandee and I are so grateful to know Dave Mason, one of the curators, who generously provides us the opportunity to attend the most thought-provoking conference we go to all year.

I call it a human chemistry experiment because the mix of people, ideas, processes, presentations, music, dance and astrophysicists creates a palpable and unique energy. There is no Q&A after each presentation - there are good-sized networking breaks. You get to really speak with the people who have presented something, which creates such a more organic and interesting conversation. Plus, if someone else is already talking to the person you want to talk to, you get to jump onto that conversation, which is always fascinating. Also, all of the presenters stick around for the whole conference. They don’t just come in, do their thing and then leave. They’re there to be as inspired as we are. As I tweeted during the conference, “My favorite thing about CUSP is watching the most inspiring people be inspired.”

Sandee and I look forward to this two-day celebration of innovation and design every year, and this year we wanted to share some of our reactions to what we saw, and what inspired us. We sat down to compare our experiences, and this is a bit of our conversation…


Part of the metaphor of “CUSP as chemistry experiment” is that so many disparate and seemingly random presentations go on, yet they combine with one’s own thoughts and ideas to create something new. We’ve been talking a lot with our current cycle of interns about connecting all the different parts of the internship experience in new ways. The greatest innovators are those who see connections between ideas that no one else sees. Nothing illustrated this better at CUSP than the conference’s kickoff performance by Patrick Lynch, a champion bagpiper.


Rather than getting up on stage, playing a few songs, then diving into a speech, a bagpiper appeared onstage to play the bagpipes, but… all he did was play. He went on and on and on, so much so, that I finally decided to focus on the mechanics of how the bagpipes work. It woke me up to the design of the bagpipe, and how absolutely beautiful it was. For the first time in my life, I appreciated the beauty of the sound.

Now I also feel that bagpipes are a beautiful metaphor for education and what we’re doing at i.c.stars. As learning designers, we’re metaphorically blowing up the kidney, just like the one on the bagpipe. We stick it under our arm, and we make different things happen at different moments. And at any given moment, many kinds of different things are always happening at i.c.stars, whether it’s client meetings, stakeholder conversations or leadership preparation.

What makes art truly special is when the person witnessing the art experiences a new feeling. The bagpipes performance did this for me. I didn’t feel anything about them until one specific moment - and then all of a sudden, I had a rush of feeling - this was art.

I think the same thing holds true for teaching and transformation. Everyone’s transformation is going to come at a different time by connecting different dots. Inspiration is like seed planting: sometimes you just get sprouts, and sometimes you get to say, “Look at that beautiful oak.”


What I noticed about the bagpipes is that when you play them, you blow into a tube that inflates the kidney-shaped part with air, but your blowing has nothing to do with the rhythm, or the way the sound is produced. You have to use your elbow/arm to push the kidney bean that’s full of air, while also doing at least four different things with your body at the same time. Watching the process of this music happening, you realize how closely you’re looking at the overall design and process of it.

We’ve all heard bagpipes and thought, “Oh, that’s a kind of a cool, wacky sound that I would not want in my house but I am happy that it exists. So, okay, bagpipes, yeah. I know what that sounds like.” And you can do the same thing at i.c.stars, “Oh, yeah, transformation, I know what that looks like.” But when you start to peel the onion, when you start to see how many different things are working all at the same time to actually make a leadership curriculum happen; to make those kinds of connections that we’re making on a neighborhood level and a corporate level. You have a much deeper appreciation. “I didn’t know how many moving parts it took to facilitate transformation.”

Food Allergies

We were inspired in another way by Dr. Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist who spoke about the importance of design in medicine.


Dr. Lee’s son, “B,” has a lot of food allergies. Rather than telling everybody the story about what he can and cannot eat, she made a beautiful video. It’s written in B’s voice. In the video, B draws pictures to tell the story of how his allergies did not kill him.

The video was just so captivating that it went viral, and went crazy, and now it’s changing the way we think about everything from the EpiPen to food allergies. Since the message came through the voice of a child, and it wasn’t a doctor who was talking to us, we automatically paid attention. It was beautiful.


The thing that I enjoyed about Dr. Lee was seeing someone who is obviously at the top of their field. You don’t get to become a pediatric endocrinologist and a Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health just by accident. And, after a year’s sabbatical at the Stanford d.school, she really embraced the idea of design thinking and made it a part of her medical practice.

There is a design to everything, including health care. How do we make sure that patients understand when to take their medicine and how to communicate what they need to their doctors? She spoke about doctors listening to their patients rather than blaming them when they don’t take medications correctly. This is a huge issue for any person that has to go to a doctor. By having this little child, B, explain in simple terms that “ingredients can be tricky,” now we understand the way Joyce Lee understands the mission of medicine. She’s really saying, “Let’s rethink everything.”


Defined as a “happy accident,” or “fortunate mistake,” the concept of serendipity truly spoke to us at CUSP. When you’re sitting there thinking about the design of everything, you also have to think about connecting dots that don’t necessarily go together.

Daniel Kim, who created the two-wheeled car, said, “Okay, I have to make a motorcycle that people who never drive motorcycles would want to drive.” It’s about realizing the kinds of things that can come from totally disparate places but are somehow brought together - and how beautiful that can be.

As we reflect on another CUSP, we want to thank all the incredible speakers and thought leaders who inspire us every day. Finally, another special thanks to Dave Mason and his team for not connecting the dots for us - but leaving us to connect our dots for ourselves.

A Measurable Impact

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