People Who Inspire Me: Leo Frishberg


“I’ve never figured out how to separate art and work. My work is my art.” – Leo Frishberg

Art and design: in our culture, these two worlds seem so close and yet so far apart. Both rely on creativity. But while designers spend hours studying what consumers want and designing products to serve their sponsors, artists draw on their imaginations to create what they see within themselves.

Consequently, we’re often told that artists make art, not money, while designers stand to make money hand over fist.

Not so fast.

If you asked User Experience Strategist and Product Manager Leo Frishberg, of Portland’s Phase II (A UX Consultancy), he’d tell you artists and designers aren’t actually that different. In many cases, artists want to profit financially from their work as much as designers. In order to do this, both must find customers who actually want to buy.

Leo has dedicated his life’s work to helping companies and individuals create their customers. His method, called “Presumptive Design,” approaches product development from a user-centered perspective. 

Presumptive Design is a different way to create not just products, but customers. While typical design processes starts with lots of research and ideating, Presumptive Design starts with action. Designers make their prototype project right away based on their first impulse of how to solve a problem or fulfill a market need.

Presumptive Design “forces you to make a decision, just not a permanent one. You must take action, even if it’s the wrong action,” says Leo.

The key then is to take your product quickly out to an audience, gauge their actions, and readjust your plan based on what your prospective customers say and do.

For designers, this can be a pretty shocking idea. For most artists, too, thinking and making go on behind the scenes, waiting for that perfect future moment to reveal the product.

Yet Leo’s method asks us to do the opposite: to make something quickly and put it out into the world under controlled conditions. Essentially, customers’ first reactions become the research.

I first encountered Presumptive Design on a trip to Portland last year for Design Week. At the last minute, I signed up for Leo’s workshop on the subject. The room was full of first-class designers and user experience professionals, mostly in the technology sector—a far cry from the hand-crafted, artsy world of my attic studio.

What could an artist from Milwaukee possibly have in common with Leo and his designer friends? A lot, it turns out . . . because we’re both trying to drive business off of what we make.


Says Leo, “In 1954, Peter Drucker wrote, ‘There is only on valid definition of a business purpose: to create a customer.’” As a product designer and user experience expert, Leo devotes himself to creating products that customers inherently want to buy. His work focuses not just on designing the products, but on creating product experiences so useful and user-friendly, they generate customer demand all by themselves.

That’s a skill both artists and designers could use a whole lot more of.

Not that every creative project has to be purchasable, of course. As Leo points out, pure art ought to flourish without the constraints of audience opinion, or adjustments made to please buyers. Design, on the other hand, is always about creating something beautiful and useful for a patron or client. 

Which is exactly what an artist does when s/he deliberately decides to create marketable work—be it an Etsy store full of crafts, a sculptural line aimed for general sale, or even a series of novels.

When sales enters the picture, the artist steps into the role of the design, at least somewhat, because someone else’s opinion (besides the artist’s) now truly matters.

In order to realize financial success for his/her project, the designer-artist must figure out how to do exactly what Drucker said (and Leo aims to do): create his or her customers.

And that’s where Leo’s approach to design becomes really interesting for independent artists.

But to understand Presumptive Design fully, we’ll have to go back a bit to Leo’s early years. He likes to say he was “born digital,” which might not seem so odd, except that Leo is not a Millennial. He remembers a time before computers were mainstream in the workplace, before laptops were invented. And yet he is truly digital—because his dad worked for IBM “at a time when IBM was shifting from fancy calculators to true computing.”

Growing up in a tech-focused family before tech was normal dinner conversation and entrepreneurs had become the new superstars, Leo had plenty of inspiration to follow a path that merged both art and design. Little did he know, however, that his work would focus on the art of creating customers.


Leo went to school for Environmental Planning first, then Architecture, and then for design. It was in architecture school that he first noticed something interesting about his creative process. During his studio hours, he noticed he was spending a lot of time getting ideas out of his head and onto paper, then having to totally rework them once he saw them operating in real life.

“I called it back then the ‘Barf method’ of design,” he chuckles. “I had no formal training in design thinking theory. I just knew what I’d been doing in the studio was a lot of pushing stuff out of my head and reabsorbing it; over and over again.”

But out in the real world of work, Leo began to notice that other designers weren’t doing things the same way. They spent a lot of time creating finished products, then put them out into the world when they were “done.” If they brought “users” or “customers” in to test a product, the customer was given a lot of information about the prototype’s use and intention so they would be sure to use it correctly.

Unfortunately, this approach didn’t really demonstrate whether the product was useful, or what the customer would do with that product when they approached it without a researcher at their side.

So Leo had a different idea.

What if, instead of heavily researching a product idea before ever making it, he just took action? Made a version of the product, however rudimentary, and put it out into the world?

What if his research were actual people using an actual artifact he had made?

Instead of lots of academic research or surfing the web, Leo got real-time “research” data from people who were actually using his first product prototype—which could tell him far more than his pie-in-the-sky thinking and planning ever could.

He tested his method for a few years, then took it to a conference of other designers in Vienna. To his surprise, the concept  of “make first, research second” was novel for the 40 leading design thinkers in the room.

He named the new method “Presumptive Design.” He’s been testing it, perfecting it, and teaching it ever since.

So how can artists take advantage of this setup?

Leo suggests that artists interested in starting a business (such as an Etsy shop with a regular product) create just one or two of the product they’re thinking of selling, then invite friends that represent “the right type of client” over to use what they’ve made.

The only prompt these test subjects should be given is, “You told me you needed to solve XYZ problem (or wanted XYZ artistic product). I’ve created it for you.”

From there, our job as creators is to stop talking: not explaining, not asking advice. From there we watch facial reactions. Watch to see what subjects actually do with the item once it’s handed to them. Listen to what they say about it. Ask ‘why’ when they say something critical (positive or negative). Listen, and ask why, a lot, in fact.

Ultimately, this allows us to find out how the audience uses what we’ve made, what they would prefer, and (in a sense), what it should be (if we’re interested in maximizing its audience appeal, at least).

The only other question we ought to ask is, “How much would you pay for this?” And that’s only if the current product iteration has received a favorable impression.

The results of this type of “audience-first” design approach ought to tell us much about whether we’re going to sell just two of our products, or have the potential to sell 2,002. Or what needs to be done to increase the number of potential sales from one end of that spectrum to the other.

Taken to its end, the approach has extreme implications for product development. Even if that product is an artistic one that’s aimed for mass-market sale.

As he realized the full import of Presumptive Design, Leo decided to write a book about it. But that in itself didn’t seem like such a profitable idea, even by his own business standards.

“When the idea of creating a book first emerged a couple of years ago, my wife suggested I was insane: there’s no profit it in, it will take a lot of effort, and of course, I didn’t have a publisher,” he recalls, then adds, “All of that was true, and most of it (other than the publisher part) remains true.”

Presumptive Design Book

Before they committed to the project, Leo and co-author Charles Lambdin consulted many other respected authors they knew, to find out why they wrote their books and what the benefits had been for them. Turns out that there was a universal urge among authors just to get an idea out and to say something that was really on their minds.

Leo and Charles decided to take the plunge.

The result is Presumptive Design: Design Provocations for Innovation

If you’re an independent artist or crafter looking to create a “line” of products or set up shop serving a particular niche audience, consider grabbing your copy of Leo’s book and using his customer-centric design method the next time you create a product that’s specifically designed to sell.

Take your creation out into the world. Get reactions. Resist the urge to tell people what it is or what they should do with it. Ask, “Why?” See what you learn from their comments. Make changes.

Because at the end of the day, any business that’s going to survive has to be more about its customers than its creator. Even when that business involves something as personal as art.

And that’s where art and design ultimately meet.

*  *  *

Get a discounted copy of Presumptive Design: Design Provocations for Innovation hereAnd don’t forget to connect with Leo through his website.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s