Superhuman by Design: A Conversation with Donald Burlock
Creativity occurs at the intersection of safety and stimulation. Safety provides the environment for creativity to emerge, including feelings of security and acceptance. Stimulation then provides the energy to generate exciting avenues of thought and convert them into action.
I recently connected with the founder and principal designer of Forecast Studios, Donald Burlock Jr., who just debuted a guide for harnessing creativity. I usually stay clear from the self-help aisle of the bookstore, but Superhuman by Design felt less like self help and more like self accessing what you already have. Burlock revealed this book was many years in the making. We discussed his inspiration behind it and where we can all go from here.
Whelan: First off, I’ll just say you have a self-help critic here that actually liked your book.
Burlock: Yes! I’ll take it. You know, this book tends to get grouped into the self-help category, but I don’t view it that way. I did, however, want to write a book the audiences I’m a part of could relate to within the first 20 pages. I wanted people in the space of design—Adobe Max individuals, if you will—to gravitate towards it. That’s why I tried to make it look good and make the writing a little quicker. I wanted the entrepreneurs and strategists who look for motivational quick reads to say, “Okay, that was worth the 30 minutes.”
Whelan: If you wanna get Silicon Valley’s attention, you almost have to speak in soundbites.
Burlock: It definitely feels that way sometimes in this tech bubble!
Whelan: So what genre would you put this book into?
Burlock: To me, this is a humanities project, so conversations about empathy, diversity, and being a better human beyond your own life is what got me here.
Whelan: Let’s talk about what that last part means to you.
Burlock: Well, in order to impact your community, you first need to build your own value system and human code. It also involves really knowing your own value.
Whelan: I agree. I also think it’s important to not fall into the trap of being defined by the roles you play or assigning yourself value because of them. For me, your book reinforced the idea of taking a step back and remembering we’re meant to find value in who we truly are.
Burlock: Yup, that’s what I refer to as our creative core. The core contains the energy of those “superpowers” I discuss in the book. It doesn’t change even if our roles do. Once you really zero in on that, you’ll notice how your actions influence communities as a whole.
Whelan: And by not worrying about what everyone else is doing.
Burlock: I used to constantly compare myself to others. That’s especially hard as a Silicon Valley designer. Then two years ago, I had a unique experience that enabled me to flip my narrative. I stopped identifying as someone who was the creative director of a failed startup. I finally thought, “Well, what did I do when I was there? What was the value in going through that experience?” I ended up inviting readers to do the same.
Whelan: It’s one thing to realize there’s value in telling your story. It’s another to turn those stories into a book. What got you into the action of actually writing this book?
In order to impact your community, you first need to build your own value system and human code. It also involves really knowing your own value.
– Donald Burlock
Burlock: One of the key moments was when I was working late one night with three interns and another creative director. We were taking a break to play ping pong. Next thing I knew, we were talking for hours. They asked me all about my time at IDEO; the startup; and how I ran my own studio. I noticed the language I used was really self-deprecating. I’d say, for example, “Oh it wasn’t that big…We didn’t make over a million.” And yet, they still found my story inspiring. That taught me that even if you’re not conventionally “successful,” as long as you’re trying, you can share your stories.
Whelan: Did you change your tone when describing your past experiences after that?
Burlock: Definitely. Someone said to me that night, “You have the ability to share really well.” So the next time I interviewed for a job and was asked about my previous experiences, I said, “You know what, I’m a creative person who likes to share stories. That’s one of my superpowers. I can pull a narrative together.”
Whelan: It’s a fun angle you explore in your book…That we all have some sort of superpower, so to speak.
Burlock: I wanted to use that analogy to lighten up the book. Well, that, and I have a love of superhero movies.
Whelan: This next question is important. Is Batman your favorite?
Burlock: I do like the DC heroes. Batman, Wonder Woman…I like all the struggles. The grit. The resilience. The sacrifice for something greater than themselves. There’s something really centered in humanity with them.
Whelan: Okay, so after experiencing both triumphs and failures during your Silicon Valley years, what advice do you have for all the young entrepreneurs out there just starting out?
Burlock: It all comes down to chapters three and four where I discuss the “superhuman code” and the “3 C’s of creativity.” The superhuman code is another way of saying: Have a value system based on your character that’s forever growing, learning, and seeking to be open-minded. You will then understand how to be a better person for yourself, your teammates, and your customers. This value system will also give you a foundation that will help you no matter how many failures you experience in this game.
Whelan: What about those rare entrepreneurs who never experience a failure and hit it big right out the gate?
Burlock: Yeah, I’ve also seen cases where super successful people don’t bounce back from their success. They didn’t listen to others and blew through their money instead. That’s why it’s important to establish boundary conditions, and that starts with who you are.
Take ownership to build and maintain your own community no matter where you’re at. That requires action.
Whelan: And the 3 C’s?
Burlock: Consciousness, connections and community. You know, everyone talks about being “woke” these days. I use consciousness to refer to all the degrees of social awareness in our current social climate. It’s a deeply, interwoven word that allows us to look toward the future and revisit history, all at once. It also describes being aware of what you can do better. Your consciousness leads to connections. Your connections then form your community. Often in my life, I was the one who didn’t maintain my connections. I didn’t follow up.
Whelan: I agree that it’s important to take ownership when our connections fizzle.
Burlock: Yes. Take ownership to build and maintain your own community no matter where you’re at. That requires action. I was passive for a long time, which leads to a hyper-victim attitude. I finally stopped to think, “Who am I? What’s my brand beyond my portfolio? What are the actions I’m gonna take beyond what others are gonna do for me?” That’s what I would tell those new entrepreneurs out there. That’s why I’m curious if this book will be more interesting to people just getting going or those further along.
Whelan: They say it takes “21 days” to build a habit. How long did it personally take you for the advice you wrote about to become ingrained in your daily life?
Burlock: I’m still building the habit! Even when it comes to writing. I approached this book the same way I approach projects for a client. This is a book that starts with your creative self. When people get stuck trying to create, it’s usually not because they lack motivation or feel afraid of failing. It’s because they don’t know where to start. I had those moments as a designer—the ones staring at that blank page—so I get it.
Whelan: How did you overcome those moments?
Burlock: I had a sketch professor in grad school who would say, “Just draw lines for as long as you need until something emerges.” That’s such a good metaphor for all creativity. I’ve noticed that if a designer is stuck, I shouldn’t even talk about design. That’s going too far. Instead, I just keep it to, “You are unique and can produce something novel if you just put pen to paper for a moment.” That’s the thing I want everyone to hang onto after they read this book.
Whelan: What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve noticed people face when trying to identify their uniqueness, aka, creative core?
Burlock: Identity. My first chapters are intended to get us to accept that we can be superhuman. When I wrote the word, I thought, “This is gonna be too cheesy.” But I just needed a way to describe that intangible thing. I feel like the epilogue about the Australian marathon runner, who was superhuman in my opinion, brought it all together. In that moment, she helped me see myself as something more. That’s the hard part: Not posturing as something more, but really seeing yourself as more. Then you can leave the room knowing, “I’m still great. I’m still growing. I still have a lot to offer. And somewhere in the world someone truly needs what I can bring to the table.” You just gotta lean in on that.
Whelan: Do you find that the more you identify with that power, the easier it becomes to use it?
Burlock: It’s like sketching on the board. It gets easier the more crits you sit through and the more feedback you get. If you have a safe and supportive space for creativity, then yes, it does get easier.
Whelan: We discussed a while back how cultivating environments for creativity will also enable inclusivity in this predominantly white creative field. So how do we work to establish these types of environments now?
Burlock: It’s all about embracing those feelings of awkwardness and discomfort. They push us to develop environments that invite a shared cultural understanding. I think conversations about race in the creative field, specifically in the design world, have been happening for years. However, they primarily occur behind closed doors and in smaller circles of underrepresented minorities. After the tragic events rightfully highlighted in 2020, they are happening broadly, and that makes some people feel awkward, uncomfortable, and maybe even attacked.
Choosing to be conscious means this: Don’t turn off that feeling of discomfort. Engage it…Even if you have to do so virtually. Don’t hide from the reality of the negative effects that bias, prejudice and privilege have had on the creative field. Any thought leader in the creative industry who is afraid to have these conversations openly has yet to make the unconscious conscious. By becoming more conscious, we’ll create environments where we can truly connect and build real relationships. Relationships with real empathy built on listening, learning, and trust.
I want to challenge the design community to focus on how we are serving others. That’s a function we can do like no one else. We’re trained to be deeply empathetic.
Whelan: Not only will a diversified Silicon Valley make for more balanced and empathetic individuals, but the innovations that emerge will inherently become more innovative.
Burlock: Exactly! Innovations that combine diverse perspectives are the ones that can make the biggest impact. I also want to bring the narrative back to who we are truly serving. I think 2020 started to do that—especially in the design space. Here we are, changing from 3D printing to making masks for frontline nurses and doctors to use during a pandemic.
Whelan: Yes, the bright spot about pandemic life is that many people are now focused on helping humanity step forward.
Burlock: It’s not to say we shouldn’t keep designing gadgets, but I wanna challenge the design community to focus on how we are serving others. That’s a function we can do like no one else. We’re trained to be deeply empathetic. I wanna hold the industry accountable to their empathy. Like, why isn’t MLK observed and recognized as a holiday by many companies in the Bay?
Our leaders need to step back and say, “Are we doing everything we can to establish a legacy that promotes a more equitable future? Are we pushing towards greater democratization of good? Are we leaning into social justice by what we design?” I think about these things because, as a minority who’s often the one Black person in the room, I have to. I’m thinking of the representation of people who are not often thought about in the design of experiences. We need more people stepping up and saying, “I’m not afraid of having the discussion.”
Whelan: What do you hope is the outcome of this book?
Burlock: If you don’t put anything out, you’ll never know what could be. I put it out there. So yeah, I hope it gets good reviews. I’d also love to turn it into a podcast. I ended the book with where I’d like to pick up in my next one: The evolution of the hero to the superhero to the icon. I go there because so many people writing in the design space inevitably just come back to accomplishments for the sake of accomplishments. I hope my work challenges people to see themselves in a new light.