I stumbled upon a beautiful video about Michael Wolff, an acknowledged British graphic designer. I am not a part of the design professionals’ clan, but his message touched me. I think his way of thinking is applicable to all of us knowledge workers who are trying to cope with the changing work environment.

In this lovely video (see below) Michael Wolff shortly describes the three muscles he needs in his design work. These are very much needed in the knowledge work too:

  1. The Muscle of Curiosity
  2. The Muscle of Appreciation
  3. The Muscle of Imagination

According to Wolff the first muscle, the Muscle of Curiosity, enables him to notice things in an active way and to ask the key question ‘why’ more often. He sees ’seeing’ things as a muscular exercise, a way being open. He claims:

You walk around head full of preoccupations; you’re not going to notice anything, in your visual life.

As a busy entrepreneur I find this interesting. During a work day, full of meetings and tasks, this muscle can easily weaken. However I think I’ve managed to strengthen this muscle via social media, especially via Twitter. The people I follow in Twitter are amazing; they share the most interesting thoughts and articles, and write wonderful blog posts. These active, wise and open-minded persons form my “Serendipity Heaven” in Twitter, and elsewhere in the social media communities, help me to notice things and pick up ideas I’d never found without them. They exercise my muscle of curiosity. Thank you, you know who you are!

The second muscle, the Muscle of Appreciation, is the one that interests me most. I do agree with Michael Wolff, it is the attitude that is crucial: our attitude and the level of interest towards other people – and further to learn from them.

To support innovation and creativity, it is also important to not only notice the obvious (things) around you, but to take it further. Look around, ask, listen, and take all the wonderful opportunities to learn more. You will be able to understand a bit better, and nourish your imagination.

I’ve always been interested in people – their stories and experiences, their hopes and fears, their values – and can’t get enough of that. However in my work life this skill hasn’t always been considered as strength. Sadly enough, way too many bosses, even in the personnel departments, still see people as ’resources’, like movable parts of a machine. With no interest of their thoughts. Luckily the signs for the change are here.

Out of these three muscles the third one, the Muscle of Imagination, is enabled by the two other muscles: curiosity and appreciation. I think that something else is required here too; read further and I’ll explain what I mean.

Now enjoy the video, I find it beautiful both visually and verbally:

What can I learn from Michael Wolff?

Michael Wolff encourages me to compare his profession to mine: what can I, as an entrepreneur and a knowledge worker, learn from this legendary graphics designer and brand guru?  Probably a lot, but I chose two aspects that I wish to look at with fresh eyes. Neither of these two aspects is new, but I try to see a new facet in these:

Firstly, he speaks about the power of the parts for the success of the whole.

From his video we learned that not only knowledge workers in the technology industry but also the different kinds of designers are working in the silos. And hindering the best results to come out.

Michael Wolff uses a meal as a simple metaphor. He says “it’s only through the parts that the dinner gets delivered”, and “you never cook the same meal twice”. I think in my industry – software & service business – we do this often, time and time again, totally unnecessary. Is it out of laziness or due to a lack of perception? I don’t know. But I do agree with Michael that the role of the details is important, of a single tiny part of the equation has to be seen. And for that we need to develop our ‘seeing’ muscles and attitudes.

I’ve earlier written about the on-going change and the silos in the work places, silos that lead to idea poverty and ineffectiveness. As a remedy for this our existing organizational structures needs a refresh, and we knowledge workers, should become more passionate about helping our organizations to be open, learning organizations. Mr. Wolff’s thinking helps us in this as both the acknowledgment and appreciation are the key ingredients in this.

Secondly, Michael Wolff states the kind of obvious but easily ignored idea: Emotion is most important component in graphics design.

In line with Michael I do believe that active observations combined with having our emotions ’open’, is an essential fuel for our creativity, for better thinking and for the innovation.

I find here a clear connection to Esa Saarinen’s theory of Systems Intelligence about which I’ve blogged earlier:

We all have two different thinking systems, so-called System 1 and 2: System 1 thinking as automatic, associative, and intuitive. System 2 thinking is dominating in the work places: you better be strictly rational. In every day work situations the System 2 thinking is active and often unintentionally blocking System 1 thinking – and therefore narrowing the possibilities at hands. When both systems are active, there’s a room for intuition, interaction and emotions.

An interesting connection between the System 1 thinking and the Muscles of Curiosity and Appreciation. Genuine two-way engagement with other people enables us to better co-create and develop ideas.

Systems Intelligence & the Three Muscles Combined

The unpredictable, more global, mobile and social business environment brings tough challenges for the areas of communication, coordination, learning, and leadership.

I believe that acknowledging the role of Esa Saarinen’s Systems Intelligence theory in the knowledge work and combining it with Michael Wolff’s idea of exercising these three muscles – Curiosity, Appreciation, Imagination – takes us a step closer to a more creative, productive and human working environment.

Do you think there is a need for a mental bodybuilding for us knowledge workers?

Related reading:

PS. My long-time motto is “Always in Beta. And passionately so”. I think I’ll modify it with Michael’s wonderful motto, which is: Obsessively Interested in Everything.


  1. Raesmaa,

    Fantastic piece. I love the way you write. From your the sources of inspiration to your skillful turn of phrase. This is a brilliant piece & a post I’ll return to often.

    No idea poverty after reading and watching this. More to add, after it tumbles around a bit.

  2. Yes, Riitta, this is a wonderful post, and great insights from Michael Wolff (video).

    Sounds like we’re exploring similar paths. I’ve been looking into cultural silos, learning organizations, the impact of complexity, and most recently, the importance of critical thinking. I think we’d agree, these issues require energy and focus.

    I’d be honored to get your feedback on any of the above threads, here http://sourcepov.com

    Thanks for sharing Michael Wolff with us, and for raising the bar on how we look at the world. Hope we can continue comparing notes –

    Chris Jones
    Charlotte, NC, USA

    1. Chris, thank you for your kind words!

      Yes, Michael Wolff is amazing. Actually I didn’t knew Mr. Wolff existed before finding the video. And I am glad I did. Professor Esa Saarinen is more familiar to me, have followed his research for years. I was also lucky to attend his week long seminar last September, and now his research and ideas are actively in my mind. He is a great researcher and wonderful personality.

      Glad to continue comparing notes, as you nicely put it 🙂


  3. Fabulous post thanks for sharing this gem of a human with us. I find myself in a similar struggle while working in a support role for a very creative industry (video games) I am often engaged in a battle against the status quo and the tendancy to follow along with the crowd regardless of the outcome. This article will give me an example and way of articulating the process and need for change I never had before. Thanks!