Forget Brainstorming. Newsweek, July 12, 2010.
What you think you know about fostering creativity is wrong. A look at what really works.
“Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, Applied Imagination. But it’s been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together.”
For a better account of what happened in 1958, discussed in a calm, non-sensationalist way, take a look at this 28 page paper ‘A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry‘, by Scott G. Isaksen of the Creativity Research Unit at the Creative Problem Solving Group, Buffalo, NY.
Well, now it’s planted front and center in the mainstream media, is it that much more true? Let’s remind ourselves that this is simply a hypothesis – I doubt there will ever be real proof of something like this, but the raging debate will keep a few labs staffed for a few years, and keep some careers on solid ground. It’s unlikely that anyone who is not in the business of innovation will know very much about the process. In the minds of the general public, innovation comes from many places : from bright individuals who create wondrous things in garages and labs in solitude [the crazy inventor, the tinkerer], and from large ‘innovation’ labs staffed with bright, industrious people, toiling long hours.
What does it mean to innovate? According to the Apple dictionary on my computer, to innovate means “to make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas or products.”
At thinkmore, we’re in the business of innovation, and it’s something we’re told we do quite well. In our experience, the best new ideas have come from the interaction and debate between 2 talented and bright individuals. And the process runs like this – idea conceived, idea presented, idea discussed, idea debated, the parrying back and forth, with both parties trying to validate and invalidate the idea. It’s not so much about an individual being right, but about the idea being sound. Over well made espresso, or over a shot of whisky, the process is refined – thoughts and ideas have been inscribed on paper or whiteboard, and we’re ready to move on to the next steps.
Sound simple? It’s not. The most crucial component is the people involved – if they’re not really, really talented and bright, and pretty much equal [in ability, not background], quick thinkers and well spoken, and if there’s no mutual respect, this process is a non-starter. Bright minds are key. Bright minds are the ones with the ability to flex beyond comfort zones – to dream a little, to go out on a limb, while also knowing how to get back.
On the other hand, a group brainstorming is essentially Design by Committee – it’s en masse design. In his piece on Design by Committee, Michael Beirut makes and unmakes the case for DbC. He suggests that there are projects that benefit from many collaborators, and from the tensions between the multiple individuals – without that tension, the result would be inferior. It’s interesting to note that in his example of a DbC success story, the core guiding ‘committee’ in question consists of 2 vastly creative and talented individuals – not a large body by any count.
There’s a lot that can come from a group hug, but perhaps it’s not what we typically consider innovation. To borrow the immortal words of Remy [of Ratatouille fame], “Anyone can, that doesn’t mean that anyone should.” Group efforts can be invaluable in evaluating and refining ideas. Most people work best when they have something to push off from – ask not the broad and nebulous question ” What do you think?”, ask instead “What do you think of this? What would you do in this situation?”, and allow them to draw on their expertise. Allow them the opportunity to be creative in ways that they can be creative.
Many discussions seem to miss the point that there’s really no guarantee of success from the managed process of innovation, whether through group brainstorming or individual inspiration – pundits have been known to fail as often as unknowns have prevailed. Individual practitioners and small companies produce ideas of outstanding merit at least as often as larger groups. The skill and the will to do well, and the ferocity of intent, generally outweigh size. Ignore the little guy at your peril.
To quote from Ratatouille again [those of you who have not watched this yet really ought to] – the critic Anton Ego : “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Last year, Honda showed off a concept vehicle with a small personal transporter, the U3-X, strapped to the inside of the door. This is the closest we’ve seen to seamless integration of specialized needs into a mass-production vehicle – it’s too bad the Honda EV-N is only a concept. Clearly, there’s opportunity for better integration of personal mobility devices within a primary means of transportation. It’s also clear that there are not enough numbers to support the development of, and the incorporation of, such functionality within all cars. Could we have just one?
If there was a car / car type that you’d like to see incorporate this feature, what would it be?
That it does not work perfectly is unfortunate.
That a possibly significant performance issue might have been missed in testing is just plain sloppy.
That they might have tried to cover it up with a software update is understandable, but not nice.
That a consumer products company constantly tries to push the design envelope, creates products that people love, and generally gets better with time is pretty damn special.
At the end of the day, the iPhone 4 is a phone. If it works for you, great. If not, no real damage done. If a product bothers you, return it. Or don’t buy it in the first place. When all is said and done, the only reason this case is so spotlit is because everybody expects Apple products to be special and close to perfect. When was the last time you saw people lining up for days to buy a computer, which is what the iPhone really is, or the iPad? Would you even want to hear about a sticky keyboard on a Blackberry? Or a buggy OS on some other brand? Not many people care, and for good reason.
Critics realize this, certainly – bloggers are paid by the number of hits a piece gets. It makes good business sense to cover a slipup from Apple. It is perfect sensationalist fodder, and for good reason. Other than very few landmark examples of specialized phones, what else besides the iPhone is worth writing about? What else in consumer electronics polarizes as much as Apple and its offspring?
The iPhone 4 will make it into the thinkmore collection of design objects – it is significant in ways that will probably never be discussed in populist media. We hope to write our own thoughts about its design and about what its presence means for design in general. In so many ways, it sets a benchmark for what can and should be expected of a successful marriage of design and engineering. Critics delight in appropriating the design thoughts of Dieter Rams when talking about Apple design, but most critics of design have never designed anything. They have no idea what it takes to create a product, let alone one that is progressive in ways they cannot begin to understand. Professional criticism from those quarters is not worth much – read at your own peril.
This storm in a teacup is summed up best in the immortal words of Anton Ego, food critic from the movie Ratatouille [those of you who have not watched this yet really ought to] :
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
Google is bringing Android software development to the masses. NYT, July 11, 2010.
Now it might take the appearance of just 1 Android phone with the design integrity of the iPhone 4 to make this author, and Apple guy, an Android convert. Perhaps we’re seen as design snobs in some circles, but I prefer to think of us as ardent supporters of good design. With the same ferocity that we support good work, we shun mediocre work, some of which is on display in this unflattering graphic below.
App Inventor is here. In much the same way as my daughter builds palaces and skyscrapers from foam blocks and bits of Lego and Duplo, anyone can build the Android app that they want. Requiring no programming knowledge has just made me feel as confident about building apps as Leyla is about building a comfy bed for Barbie, which is to say, very.
In one fell swoop, Google has managed to turn what was just another smartphone platform into an immensely useful tool that can empower large numbers of people to be creative and playful. And this is a large pool of people indeed, it’s the same people who were, until now, intimidated by the technology of telephony as seen in smartphones – how many of you out there fit this mold? I’d say there are plenty who for whom the programming environment was incomprehensible, and now that barrier has been moved.
This is a brilliant move.
By doing this, Google has managed to differentiate themselves from Apple in a way that has no direct points of contention – it’s not about speed, stability, look and feel, who copied whom. The ‘open’ platform has been made open in a way that Apple cannot compete with directly. To do so would be in direct conflict with their approach. Apple has always believed in keeping close control over their operating system and accessibility to their devices, in order to maintain the high quality of the Apple experience. Suddenly, the very control that has kept my Apple devices humming smoothly, and which I’ve appreciated, feels a tiny bit too controlling.
And there are ways that Apple could do something along the lines of App Inventor, or maybe someone will write an iPhone app that allows others to create their own apps? Possible? Possibly.
As pretty talented designers, we have no shortage of ideas – it’s been the specialized coding that has held us back at times – the time and investment needed, the back-and-forth in languages not native to us. No more. This is such a liberating feeling – but I’ll save feeling giddy for when I know that this system works as promised.
May the free and easy creation of apps begin.
I’d love to get in on the action as well, as soon as there’s an Android phone of Cupertino quality – no matter how enticing the platform and the software, tacky painted plastic and generally bloodless design just will not do. Now, if Google could see fit to release a do-it-yourself, open platform, carrier free Android device….how about it, Google? HTC? Sony? Samsung? Anybody? We’ll design it for you, no charge!
Announcing the thinkmore Wall of Fame.
This is a collection of well designed and very useful objects – and in many cases, very humble. These are small everyday tools. Not high design in the traditional sense, but highly functional design. And they look good. We use these objects every day, so it’s a given that they’ve been subjected to extreme scrutiny.
It’s not easy for any product to make its way to the wall, so anything here is around for good reason. These objects are sourced from around the world, and will perform better than anything else in their category. In the coming weeks, we will publish detailed examinations of each object, much as we’ve done here, here and here. More object examinations can be found in the ‘tools of the trade‘ category on this blog.
Go forth and get your own. If you have trouble locating any of these, let us know and we’ll help ya. There’s quite a bit of space left on the wall, so if there’s something you think ought to reside here, let us know?
For an idea of size, the pegs on the wall are 4″ on center, about 10cm.