Dan Goods’ background is in art and design — he attended the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena — but after an internship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he decided he wanted to work with scientists and researchers. He ended up meeting the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by Caltech, and that turned out to be that.
“I ended up getting to meet just the right people who had a little bit of vision and took a little bit of a risk,” Goods told Convene in a recent interview. “They took a little bit of a risk in what I asked them — how I could be involved there. They were just going to give me a few months to see if it worked out, and that was about 14 years ago.”
Today, Goods works as a visual strategist for JPL, helping the agency communicate its work building and launching unmanned spacecraft to the general public, as well as facilitating internal brainstorming. When he’s not doing that, he keeps himself busy with “other creative problem-solving projects around the world,” according to his website. In January, he’ll appear as a featured speaker at PCMA Convening Leaders 2017, talking about “Seeing the Unseen.”
What exactly does a visual strategist who works for NASA do?
I lead a team of eight very creative folks, and we have this thing that we call the Studio at JPL. We work in a couple different categories. One we call “sneaking up on learning.” That idea is creating beautiful, mysterious, interesting experiences and objects that people are drawn to just because they’re fascinating to look at; then when they get there, they start to ask questions. When you start to ask questions, you’re in the mindset for learning. Whenever I’m working on something, I usually like it where you’re drawn to it because it’s beautiful but then you realize there’s depth way beyond just the beauty.
Then we have an area that we call “helping them think through their thinking.” We’re not physicists, we’re not mathematicians, but we work with them a lot in brainstorming. We ask questions that their colleagues don’t ask and we arrange information in different ways that maybe are not the way that they arrange information.
Whenever people get the opportunity to see things or talk about their subject in a way that they’re not accustomed to, hopefully they get a different perspective that just makes their understanding of what they’re doing richer.
Who is your audience? Is it all internal staff at JPL, or is it the general public?
It’s both. We do things that are for the public, for them to sort of have a sense of awe and wonder of the universe. Then we also do these brainstorming sessions with the scientists and engineers who are there for their project. There are a few different [public] things that we’ve become known for recently. We did these posters that are travel posters to other worlds, and they look like travel posters from the ’30s or ’40s. We’re representing real places that really exist, and then trying to find something really interesting about that place and show it in a beautiful way that’s kind of quirky and fun. We do it from the perspective of a travel agent 500 years in the future trying to get you to go to these different places. We love ideas and finding ways of communicating them, so that’s one way of doing it.
Are there rules to keep in mind when you’re trying to communicate particularly complex ideas to an audience?
For me, when you have complex ideas, it’s really easy to get distracted by elements that are not important, because there are just so many things to think about. I’m always having to tell myself, “What is the essence, what is the essence, what is the essence?” If I don’t, I’m a distracted person and I’m interested in everything, so I’ll just jump around and never really get the essence of what we’re trying to communicate.
And then the other aspect is that I want to be clear but poetic. Clear is not dumbing things down, but clear is really just giving you the essence of what something’s about. Being poetic, to me, is about letting it seep into the people who are experiencing or listening to it. You can be clear and boring, or you can be poetic and confusing, but our goal is to be clear and poetic, so that you will understand what the concept is, but it remains with you and it doesn’t, as soon as you play Pokémon GO, disappear from view.
What are some of the “other creative problem-solving projects” you work on?
I don’t think about what I do as necessarily work. I just think of it as, this is what I love to do. I love to communicate ideas and think through problems, and so I’ve been involved in a number of public art pieces around the world, as well as helping people brainstorm conferences or events.
How do you approach the conferences you’ve worked on?
Thinking about your surroundings as more than just boxes, how can you tell stories — that’s what I love to do. I love to find, is there a funky hallway, is there something that is different or unusual, how can you take people out of the conference and into a new world? That can be challenging, because those conference centers can be life-sucking, you know? [Laughs.]
What will you be talking about at Convening Leaders?
I give a brief story of how I got to NASA, and that’s sort of about risk taking and being who you are versus being who other people want you to be. Then I talk about various projects that I’ve done — I talk about collaboration, working with a wide range of different kinds of people to accomplish things you couldn’t do on your own. At the very end, I show people particles that have come from exploded stars. They’re all around us, but you need a little detector to see them. It’s a simple thing I can show people that gives you a moment to think about the universe in a way that you’ve maybe never done before.
Do you have one takeaway that you want people to leave with?
You know, it’s funny, because I don’t tend to be the kind of speaker that has “the one thing.” My favorite response to one of my talks was from a guy who came up to me and he said, “You know, when you first started talking, I was wondering what in the world does this have to do with anything? And when you ended, I realized it had to do with everything.” I think it’s a gift and privilege to be alive. You can put that one down.
Dan Goods will speak at PCMA Convening Leaders 2017, which will be held in Austin on Jan. 8–11. For more information, visit conveningleaders.org.