There is something spectacular about a blank canvas or a vacant field. Where some see only chalky textile or mounds of soil, designers of all stripes see pure possibility. They know they can shape any platform for a defined purpose. They can paint rough themes through broad strokes or capture minute detail by choosing the perfect seed strains. 

The core function of design is to conceptualize something as it could be. This includes evolutions of what already exists and the creation of what remains to come. The most astounding inventions begin as mere concepts in resourceful minds—sheer imaginations waiting to be given life. This is also true of both products and brands.

But what can be done with a canvas that has already been painted, or a lot that has already been planted? What if the distance between a brand’s potential and its reality is obscured by the distraction of what has been done in the past? 

From time to time, brands need to completely refocus—whitewash the canvas or plow under the field of the creative process—to get needed direction. The organizations behind them need to consciously release their preconceptions, routines and patterns to access the next level of inspiration.

Dissociation and Presencing

In 2009, Otto Scharmer published a highly influential book called Theory U, in which he described two major themes that are relevant to design-centric growth: dissociation and “presencing.”  


Through the process of dissociation, organizations take stock of the limitations in their creative mindsets and purposefully shed their biases. They begin by observing the present situation without prejudice and deconstructing it into its essential components. They then proceed to open their senses to the entire situation, attempting to see it holistically. This enables a vision of the innate needs within the overall system.

When you think of your brand and the products you offer, what constraints come to mind? Are they imposed by the market or by your own business thinking?

When it comes to assessing your brand’s needs, what is your main point of reference? Do you look to known market trends or conventional wisdom?

The process of dissociation can help liberate your organization from artificial limitations it may inadvertently be placing on its own progress. However, this process is only intended to foster a setting in which you can identify appropriate ways to fill the needs that spring from it. Creating solutions that address those needs happens during the process of “presencing.”


One of the vital takeaways from Theory U surrounds the pivotal learning point in the path to responding to authentic needs. Otto Scharmer refers to this point as “presencing,” and offers it as a contrast to the traditional method of learning based mainly in the past. Presencing is about synthesizing data generated during dissociation to generate learnings about the near future.

Significantly, presencing strives to create solutions that respond to holistic input, rather than input from only one or a few constituents. For this process to be successful, its participants must have sincerely and completely dissociated themselves from routine or long-held preconceptions. It acknowledges a common “source of inspiration” underlying day-to-day motivations.

In the analogy of adding paint to a blank canvas, effective presencing takes the form of a whole group delicately coloring a collaborative mural to communicate a common message—without any single contribution standing out for its individual qualities. In the analogy of cultivating an empty field, presencing would be akin to reaching consensus and sowing the seeds most needed by the community of planters in any given season.

Theory U and Design for Growth

The basic tools of the modern marketing trade are widely known: CRMs, SEO and cloud analytics. Less known are the strategic models marketers use to change organizational thinking around brands. While Theory U was initially conceived for leadership development, it has powerful applications for product and brand design. Here are some examples of scenarios that could benefit from dissociation and presencing: 

  • When sales of long-standing brands or product lines begin to stall for several consecutive quarters (with or without any clear explanation);
  • When a product or marketing campaign fails to connect with consumers as expected;
  • When a known and yet unexplored market opportunity appears to conflict with present brand identity;
  • When a new market opportunity arises, but seems inaccessible due to present workflows, procedures or policies;
  • When a brand itself has not yet been created.

In each of these scenarios, the primary focus remains on growth, since growth and adaptation are key to any organization’s survival. In fact, any time a corporate mindset resists the possibility of doing something new or different because of an established process, the mindset itself is evidence of the need to follow the process of dissociation. Whenever a surfacing need goes unaddressed by current solutions, presencing can help identify the next most useful course of action.

The reason these approaches align so well with the design is that they are conceptual by nature, but they drive towards concrete outcomes. Dedicating mental energy to considering new possibilities free of historical constraints is the essence of good design, and it often reveals the best space for growth.

Bringing Design to the Center of Growth Strategy

Many companies enter the marketing design phase believing that the growth problem has already been “solved” and that implementing tactical solutions will be a quick, easy fix: one more email blast or one more update to SEO key terms is sure to generate desired growth. While necessary for sustaining existing performance, these techniques do not always yield the kind of growth leaders desire.

Timelapse has experience guiding clients through the dissociation and presencing processes. We have helped an innovative biosciences company from the creation of its name through the development of its visual identity. We have also worked alongside a disruptive packaging firm to give shape to its aesthetic and brand presence.

Whether your brand canvas is blank or full—whether your product field has yet to be planted or is ready for harvest—you can benefit from distilling your situation to its essential elements and identifying innate needs. Timelapse will be a valuable partner in this process.


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