This post is in honor of Service Design Day — and everyone who’s sick, grieving, or just struggling to make sense of the world right now.
While walking across the Millennium Bridge in London a few years ago, I noticed a group of people standing around and looking down curiously at a man who was laying at their feet. My first thought was concern: Is this man alright? Is he hurt? Does he need help? But as I got closer, I realized that he was not only fine — he was painting.
I would find out later that the man was Ben Wilson, a.k.a. The Chewing Gum Man. And he’s created hundreds of paintings on this bridge, each on a canvas of spat out and squashed chewing gum.
While the adults in the crowd hovered about him in silence, a five-year-old girl approached and asked the question that was likely on all of our minds: “Why are you doing this?” To which The Chewing Gum Man gently replied, “There are lots of ugly things in this world, like these spots of old, dirty gum. I’m trying to make them a little more beautiful.”
No doubt, Ben has been successful in his mission. His miniature paintings add bursts of color to the steel bridge and surrounding gray of London. Some depict tiny action scenes. Some look like crazy multi-colored aliens. And others have become tributes bearing the names, languages, and country flags of onlookers who were lucky enough to talk with him during one of his painting sessions. All along the bridge, as locals hurry from one side to the other, tourists and amateur art appreciators stop and stoop to admire his many works.
No one asked Ben to do this. In fact, the London police have twice asked him not to do this, by way of arrests in 2005 and 2009 on suspicions of criminal damage.
But that hasn’t stopped him.
I don’t know Ben, so I’m not sure if it’s dedication to his art, stubbornness, or some other flavor of persistence — but whatever it is, I’d like to bottle it and share it with the world… A world that is hurting in so many ways right now.
If you’re inspired, like I am, by Ben’s work, I’d encourage you to think about the following questions:
- Where do you see spots of old, dirty gum? I don’t meet the literal spots of gum — although perhaps there’s a bit of that laying around in your life, as well. Rather, look around the world, throughout your neighborhood, and into the lives of those around you. Do you see injustice? Are your local businesses struggling? Are your neighbors lonely? Are your kids scared about the future? Is there a stray cat meowing out on the street? Some spots are tiny, while others seem insurmountably large. But they’re all worth examining.
- What would it look like to make these old, dirty spots a little more beautiful? If you have experience in a discipline like service design, experience design, or interaction design, you have an entire tool set to apply to this question. But even if you don’t, all you need to do is imagine a better future: One with miniature paintings instead of ugly squashed gum. One with thriving independent restaurants instead of closed storefronts. One with the meowing coming from your couch instead of the street. One with love and respect for all people.
- How can you make that beauty come to life? It’s one thing to imagine a more beautiful word — and quite another to actually make it happen. We each have the skills, know-how, and raw talent to contribute in a different way. Painting little spots of gum is clearly in Ben’s Zone of Genius, a concept I wrote about recently. Right now, all of us need to be working in our respective Zones of Genius, each making the world a little more beautiful in the ways that only we uniquely can.
Ben’s the obvious leading man in the chewing gum story. The one I try to emulate. I’m guessing he doesn’t consider himself a superhero, but I like to imagine him slipping into an old red phone booth near the Millennium Bridge and emerging as The Chewing Gum Man, a cape over his speckled coveralls.
But it’s difficult to be a superhero. As Ben knows, it may even get you arrested.
That’s why it’s worth noting the supporting actor: The 5-year-old girl who dared do what dozens of adults didn’t. She spoke up and expressed her inner curiosity, asking a complete stranger why the heck he was doing what he was doing. And if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had nearly the same story to share with you here.
So, if you’re struggling to make the world a little more beautiful right now, just look around with childish curiosity. And then, speak up. Talk about what you see. Wonder and ask questions out loud.
You never know who you may inspire.
Parts of this post originally appeared in my regular column in Touchpoint Journal, published by the Service Design Network.