Pigment-free wing of the morpho butterfly (each ‘scale’ is 0.1mm long), from Pete Vukosic, U of Exeter.
My business partner John and I have recently started working with the Beal Centre, a design institute in Toronto, to invent and extend the application of ‘aware’ personal portable electronic devices. The chemistry between us is intriguing, as we each bring very different skills to the table. The Beal mandate is “to enhance education with new methodologies in imaginative thinking, explore ways of improving the human condition, and contribute to the development of knowledge and economic well-being…using research exploration to push the limits of the imagination and arrive at breakthroughs in products, services, communications, systems or experiences.”
The associates at Beal are extremely creative, and our association with them is aimed at adding a level of business savvy, pragmatism and value awareness to channel their creativity into productive, realistic activities (they are mostly a generation younger than we are, which also helps deepen our collective knowledge). John is an excellent analytical thinker, very well read and very attuned to the business viability of big hairy ideas. He is extremely knowledgable about innovation, the process of identifying great realizable ideas and bringing them to market. I’m the definitive lateral thinker, with an exceptional if sometimes impractical imagination, a learned ability to transfer ideas from one domain and see how they might apply in another, and an ability to provoke thought by manifesting dissatisfaction with the way things are now (’cause I believe creations are only valuable if they tap a deep unmet human need).
This begs the definition, I suspect, of the difference between creativity and imagination. The way I make the distinction is to say that creativity (the domain of artists) is an ability to model things concretely in the real world, while imagination (the domain of dreamers) is an ability to conceptualize something not limited to the real world. Artists are creative but (IMO anyway) often not very imaginative. They are perceivers rather than conceivers. But that doesn’t mean imagination is ‘better’ or more advanced intellectually than creativity. We all imagine, but I believe our modern world suffers from horrific imaginative poverty. Most people’s imaginations, from what I can see, are terribly derivative, incapable of coming up with anything more original than a sexual fantasy about a favourite movie star in a different setting. It’s tempting to blame TV and video games for this, but I think this is more due to the fact that people no longer have the time, the intellectual and emotional bandwidth, needed to support a rich imagination. Like our appendix, imagination is no longer essential for survival.
Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and he wasn’t referring to mundane fantasizing, he was talking about the imagination it takes to invent an utterly new language, or to imagine how the knowledge that a butterfly wing’s colour is due to refraction rather than pigment (pigments would make the wings too heavy) could be applied to prevent counterfeiting in banknotes, or to make exotic new eco-friendly eyeshadow).
So perhaps you can see how the Beal staff, John and I together make for some extraordinary collaborations. An intriguing idea or discovery can come from any of us, or perhaps from Alex, Beal’s director, asking one of his famous (and very imaginative) “what if” questions. John will focus it, possibly identifying some major commercial obstacle. I’ll pitch in with a suggestion of how the idea might be applied in some way or in some area no one had thought of. The Beal guys will amplify it, drawing on their own experience to make it more concrete. John will extend it, show how the market for it could be broadened by thinking of the idea as a platform, not just a one-off product. I’ll invent a future-state story that pushes it a little further. The Beal team will illustrate it, bring it to life in a drawing that shows its context, and that will set off a flurry of other ideas of how it might be made better, more powerful, easier to use, smaller, more portable, or better connected to other technologies that would increase its value even more. Together we’ll synthesize. And so on.
Recently, Chris Corrigan pointed me to an article by German blogger Ralph Beuker summarizing recent writing on something called Design Thinking, which is kind of what we do with Beal. Combining the thinking of Dan Saffer, Victor Lombardi, and Hans Henrik this ‘rule set’ for Design Thinking (more useful than a definition, I think) emerges:
You may notice I keep putting ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ in single quotation marks. That’s because in complex systems, you often don’t know what the real ‘problem’ is (such systems don’t lend themselves to deductive processes like root cause analysis). I tend to use the term challenge or need instead, but we’re all so used to the terms ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ that it’s hard to avoid using these well-understood words. Likewise, what comes out of projects in complex systems is rarely a ‘solution’, but more often actionable findings (each person taking responsibility for deciding on appropriate actions in their personal context), opportunities or resolutions that effectively deal with rather than ‘solve’ the ‘problem’.
Now, you may be wondering What does any of this have to do with design? The dictionary runs the gamut on the meaning of this word, but perhaps the shortest definition — intentional creation — is the best. So the rule set above is a mechanism for the intellectual process of intentional creation. It is much more than just imagination, or invention, or creativity, or project planning, though all of these are a part of it.
I’m trying to imagine what would happen if we used the Open Space approach, embedded in the design thinking methodology. In the meantime I’m thinking of renaming my pet project AHA! Design Thinking.