The Origin of Our Design Axioms

“Discovering you don't know something is the first step to knowing it.”
“Everyone in this room has the answer. The purpose of this intense experience is to stimulate one, several, or all of us to extract and remember what we already know.”


All of our axioms were created in 1981 while Matt and I were living in Nederland, Colorado. Nederland, a tiny community was about 3,000 feet above Boulder, Co.  MG Taylor corporation and the DesignShop process were just forming, growing out of workshops we were offering on personal planning under an organization called CHOICE (choosing healthy options in changing environments). It was through these workshops that participants began asking us to work with their businesses, government departments, and corporations.  

1981 was twenty-five years ago. The Rate of Change model was one of our earliest models. Almost all of our workshops/DesignShops began with this model.  None of our participants had ever thought about change in this way.  The idea of exponential change was quite foreign. Collaboration, Group Genius, design, paradigm shifts were other strange concepts.  Yet, we discovered that when we created an environment and a process for people to explore these ideas, to create with them, as opposed to debating them, whole new ways of thinking began to take hold. People were hungry to learn a new way; they were curious; they were scared; they were stepping into a new world.  As Matt and I were driving down those 3,000 feet from Nederland to Boulder where we had our first office, our axioms were born. They were created as a scaffolding to help participants  leave the safety of their existing mental models and begin to get hand-holds on new ways of thinking and acting.  One by one the axioms were created over a couple of months as we watched participants move from one way of thinking to another. We spoke the axioms in the car. None of them were written, or iterated; rather they just formed as we watched people do what seemed to come naturally when they were given both the freedom and structure to think and work differently. Matt and I spent time exploring the ‘fitness’ of each axiom. Did it seem innate to humans? Was it authentic and universal?

Today, the axioms might seem fairly obvious.  But the idea of everyone having part of the answer was very strange in the 80’s and most of the 90’s.  The thought of working together to get better answers than we could possibly do on our own was a ridiculous concept.  Admitting that we didn’t know something was dangerous. We had our job positions because ‘we knew the answer.’  We held our status in school because we knew or didn’t know answers.  

Once we had our set of axioms we began each session with them. We didn’t explain them. We just offered them for consideration.  And throughout each event, participants would come to us at different moments and tell us that they ‘got one’ and how delighted they were to re-member something they knew innately, but had been taught differently.  Our axioms enabled people to be bolder, more transparent, more transformative in their thinking and working. The axioms created a scaffolding, a safety net, for different ways of thinking. They weren't to be argued, or rationally understood. They were  just statements to be used in design.

When I look at my THERE, my vision of our work so many years ago,  I can see how far our cultures have come in becoming comfortable with life-long learning and being able to say I don't know.  "Let's find out ... together!" is becoming the way! The axioms created a social benchmark for me. Change can seem non-existant, or very slow. With the axioms I can look back and see how far we have really come.  And, they are still powerful, still providing meaning and insight to me and many others.