from ‘What We Know’ to ‘A New Aesthetic’

When we invented industrial manufacturing, we looked to Victorian era products and mass-produced everything from dishware to ovens with Victorian ornamentation. We did this until the Bauhaus came along and demanded that new technologies require a new aesthetic. The members of the Bauhaus “listened” to modern materials and processes and “heard” that they wanted to be simple and clean and not covered in lacy decor.

Another example: When we invented computing, we grabbed what we knew – a type writer and a TV set – and mashed them together to make a desk top computer. Only today are other types of computing starting to take hold. Google glass is a known example of mobile and hands free computing. Smart products with simple micro-controllers, another. Computing is finally moving beyond sitting at a desk or having your head down in a phone screen.

Today we have the desktop manufacturing revolution. There are all kinds of new technologies becoming available but none other has captured the publics’ imagination like 3D printing has. I think this is because the objects that a printer makes look like objects that we know from the store. Objects from 1950-2000 that are enclosed in injection molded plastic. Which is ironic because this late 20th c. aesthetic is the epitome of hiding a products’ inner workings from consumers–ironic because makers are interested in openness and product transparency.

We’re in that early stage of a new technology – making what we already know. It’s just what we do. In art school, that’s how I learned to draw – from copying 16th century masters. But I wonder how long it will take us to move from making what we know to demanding a new aesthetic–to listening to these new materials and processes and hearing what they want to be. And I wonder who will lead this change.

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The Value of Dreaming

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If you read this blog, then you know that one of the things I do is teach people how to brainstorm. I pride myself on not only giving people permission to suspend their judgement and generate 100s of wild ideas, but on giving them assessment tools for these ideas. After a brainstorm, I ask folks to plot their ideas on a grid with “safe ideas” and “wild ideas” at the ends of one axis and “easy to implement” and “hard to implement” at the ends of the other. Now, since I’m usually working with people who have to build their ideas, I ask them to choose an idea in the “wild and easy” quadrant. This is so they can move forward with a wild, creative idea that is easy to build and test a minimum viable product (mvp).

But this semester I am teaching Brand Design. The project for the semester is for students to make a brand book for a company that they imagine. So we started the project by brainstorming on what they would like their companies to be. As usual, after their brainstorms I asked them to plot their ideas on the grid I describe above. But when it came time to hone in on an idea, I realized that they don’t have to build the companies that they are dreaming up, so they don’t have to consider how difficult it is to implement their ideas. I realized that they can and should choose an idea from the wild and hard to implement quadrant. Why not?

This insight immediately reminded me of the work of Syd Mead, pictured above. Mead created concept work for the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s and later did work for the films Blade Runner and Tron. Mead never had to implement the concepts he came up with. He was paid, and paid handsomely, to dream.

A few years back Roger Martin, then dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote a piece called “Reality is the Enemy of Innovation.” In it he laments the lost art of abductive reasoning, which calls for constant adjustments to your conclusions after each iteration, like Dr. House does when exploring treatments to complex medical conditions. This form of reasoning allows us to ask the question “What might be?” We’ve replaced abductive reasoning with more one-dimensional methods like inductive and deductive reasoning. These methods are valuable, for sure. But do they encourage us to explore our dreams?

Another related piece popped up in my news feed this morning titled, “Is There a Creativity Deficit in Science?” It points out the irony that the researchers who have the most predictable ideas get funded but that what we need for innovation is to fund researchers who have unpredictable ideas. That starving artist thing ain’t no joke. Artists are able to do what they do because they distance themselves from market constraints.

Which makes me wonder, when we shoot down an idea because there’s not an obvious market for it, are we robbing ourselves of those ideas? When we kill dreams, are we killing the seeds of potential solutions to the complex problems we face? And if that’s what we’re doing, how do we make it stop?

related reading:

Syd Mead

Reality: the Enemy of Innovation? 

Is there a creativity deficit in science?

Abductive reasoning

House and Philisophy

Lean Startup MVP