Bill Buxton kicked off UX London 2012 with a talk on ‘Long noses
, sampling, synthesis, design and innovation’. What I found most interesting about this talk was his view that good designs don’t come from alchemy, but from prospecting. The idea of a lone genius designer with profound powers of invention is a myth – innovation comes from mining and refining ideas that are already out there. He gave the example of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards who, when inducting Chuck Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, said
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry ’cause I’ve lifted every lick he ever played”
Hell, even the band name wasn’t unique but tweaked the title of a Muddy Waters song. This ‘lifting’ of other peoples work is mentioned often in music. Earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen in his keynote address at SXSW referred to the Animals ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’, saying
“That’s every song I’ve ever written. Yeah. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either… everything I’ve done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones”
Bill suggested that even in art, the genius inventor is a myth and often they work more like architects, with many people working towards the design; Rembrandt had a studio of artists around him who cut their teeth copying his portraits, likewise Andy Warhol had his studio ‘Factory’ where an assembly line of his famous silkscreens were produced.
That creations are more often than not iterations of existing ideas is a frequent theme in literature too; even a quote about that very thing has been adapted many times
“Talent may frolic and juggle; genius realizes and adds” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different” – T.S. Elliot
“Talent borrows, genius steals” – Oscar Wilde
Bill showed a very persuasive example of this in Apple’s prospecting of a design idea from Kodak’s Vest Pocket cameras. Seeking to broaden the camera’s market appeal, particularly to women, in 1928 Kodak released a version of the camera in 5 different colours, where previously it had only been available in black. In 2003, when Apple wanted to expand the market for its iPod, it too released the product in 5 different colours. The same colours. “That was no accident”.
In his article for Businessweek.com What Apple Learned from Kodak
, Bill explains:
“What Apple did was learn from history, and adopt, adapt, and assimilate past success to current context. That is simply good, intelligent design in action. It is also a very good lesson: an obsession with the new and original, without a deep literacy and appreciation for the past, leads to a path of missed opportunities.”
He even suggested this as an antidote to the ‘woke up this morning…’ blues designers sometimes face – hungover, stressed by the project, hating the client – yet proffesionalism demands that we do fantastic designs regardless. In these situations we can draw from history.
Wise men say, and not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past
If you’d like to find out more, here are Michele Ide Smith’s Sketchnotes of Bill Buxton’s Talk