Day of Searching for smart grid symbol turns up peace plugs, vampires

This story originally appeared in Smart Grid Today.

About 50 people from organizations inside and outside the power industry gathered in a big, white, noisy room at San Francisco's Frog Design yesterday for a day-long “think-in” intended to create a universally recognizable, emotionally appealing symbol for the smart grid and energy efficiency.

“The World Wildlife Fund has its panda,” Jesse Berst, acting director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGT, Oct-18 ), told the group as free-association exercises got underway promptly at 9:30 am. “Lance Armstrong gave us the ‘Live Strong' yellow wristband to help fight cancer. What we're after is a way to help consumers worldwide relate to the smart grid in the same way. It's quite a challenge. It needs to touch hearts and appeal to the head. It has to be understandable to rich and poor, technical and non-technical folks. We're here to find our panda.”

No symbol or campaign currently in existence quite does the trick, Berst said. The Energy Star logo is industrial and has no emotional resonance, though “it's the closest thing we have right now.” A green ‘Live Strong' wrist band? “Too easy.”

Frog Design, an industrial-design firm that helped shape Apple's IIe and Mac computers, offered its headquarters and staff as an in-kind payment for membership in the collaborative. “We're lucky to have Frog Design, the cool kids, on our side in this,” Berst said.

But Frog Design independently determined this summer that the smart grid as a societal issue was something it wanted to get involved with, David Merkoski, executive creative director, told us, adding, “We already realized it needs a symbol that people can display that says ‘You believe in a cause, just like I do'.”

The day began with about 20 frogs -- as the design firm's staffers call themselves -- passing out color postcards of varied images to all participants, who came from organizations including Accenture, Adidas, Cisco, Control4, DOE, Ember, GE, PG&E, Stanford University, Silver Spring Networks and Yukon Energy. The images included Lego blocks, a Giacometti sculpture and the Great Sphinx of Giza.

“The choices were quasi-random,” Merkoski said. “They're not about energy. They're designed to elicit feelings and thoughts, to be generators.”

People taking part wrote on a yards-long sheets of white paper up to 25 words they associated with the image they had been given. Frogs tagged each word with a sticky note color-coded pink for nouns, yellow for possible icons and gray for energy-related terms. The frogs then grouped one pink, one yellow and one gray note onto single sheets called “stitches.” Participants then broke into subgroups and free-associated on the stitches, coming up with “half-baked ideas -- the less baked, the better,” said Michael DiTullo, a creative director who helped lead.

Much gesticulating and vigorous, if random, conversation ensued.

“Live in a modern forest,” one group said to Ratna Desai, another session leader. “Reduce temperatures. A reachable future. An ideal future.” Tim Morey, yet another session leader, heard participants riff on a sketch of a throne. “Some mysteries you don't question, because you trust them,” said Sharon Talbott, a manager at Control4. “Energy has parameters. It sets the rules. It's the ruler.”

Fractals and photo mosaics emerged as an idea in another group. The image of a boiling kettle was cause for musing -- “it tells you when it's ready. It's an excellent image of how energy is used,” group participants told frog Katie Dill. “Whatever the symbol is, it has to be muscular, US-centric, with no question about patriotism,” said Linda Schuck, director of the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Project at the California Institute for Energy and the Environment.

“I know the process seems random at the outset, and it is,” Sara Munday, Frog Design marketing director, said during a break. “But the more you narrow it down at the outset, the more you limit what comes out of any creative exercises.”

Lisa Magnuson, marketing director at Silver Spring Networks, found the two-hour free-association session exhilarating. “It's so cool to bring together a group of people who all have such different perspectives and just let them roll,” she said.

Then frogs chose their favorite stitches and pitched them to other frogs, winnowing out a handful for further consideration. Those remaining were subjected to yet more group brainstorming. The room grew warmer and noisier. “We have now created confusion and uncertainty,” Merkoski said. “It resulted in some excellent ideas.”

The field narrows

By lunch, no panda had emerged. But 50 ideas had. Among them: the slogan “Power it forward.” The peace symbol modified to look like an electric plug. A large numeral 1, symbolizing the difference one person can make. Three fat concentric arrows facing upward, resembling a house and symbolizing the individual, community and world interacting.

In the afternoon, divergent thinking gradually became more convergent. Frogs had grouped the 50 best ideas into five themes, and participants gathered near the theme they found most appealing. The themes: Leaving a legacy, the “e” in “me,” gamesville, data to action and making it viral.

In the leaving-a-legacy group, discussions centered on whether conservation ought to be a strong message.

“People won't rally behind conservation as a long-term strategy,” warned Bob LeFort, CEO of wireless-sensor firm Ember. “Jimmy Carter's failure to rally Americans behind the idea showed us that.”

In the data-to-action group, conversation veered away from the smart grid to product lifecycles for 45 minutes until one participant reined it back in.

Many participants referred to Prius owners, who show the world they care about energy use through a very visible symbol. But for every Prius driver who brags about mileage there are 100 Ford F-150 drivers who are indifferent about it, others noted. Same with energy: “How do we make people who don't care, care?” one group wondered.

Five ideas emerge

It remained difficult at mid-afternoon to see how the masses of verbiage and whiteboards full of squiggles might be distilled into a succinct message, symbol or program. But at the day's end, five ideas emerged:

  • “Kill Pluggy,” a game to dispose of an energy-sucking vampire. Sunlight (solar power) melts him. Wooden stakes (composting) do him in, as does water (hydro power).
  • The Power of 1, a program of marking individual homes and neighborhoods with LED placards showing their participation in energy-efficiency and smart grid programs.
  • En-power, concentric arrows pointing up to symbolize individuals working to save power. Its slogan: “What is your house power?”
  • Life Tag, an RFID chip or printed tag showing how much energy was used to create every consumer product.
  • Power Forward, a campaign symbolized by the universal power-button symbol turned sideways and given an arrowhead. Individuals would use the campaign to show their commitment to energy efficiency.

As spent participants ate hot wings and the San Francisco Giants prepared to play their first game in the World Series down the block, Berst declared the day a success.

“We got kernels of ideas we can flesh out over the next few months and likely present at our symposium in January,” he said.

© 2010 Modern Markets Intelligence Inc.. IMPORTANT: This article was reproduced from the October 28, 2010 issue of Smart Grid Today with the limited permission of the owner. To view the full story on Smart Grid Today’s website, please visit