Innovation and The Limits To Imagined Possibilities

In our Theory of Design & Social Entrepreneurship course, we’ve been considering what might limit our imagination and the scope of innovation, with the hope that we can move beyond those limits and seek further possibilities.

Understanding Innovation
Don Norman and Roberto Verganti discuss the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation in their article, Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology and Meaning Change. They introduce the hill-climbing paradigm applied to incremental and radical innovation, which illustrates that human-centered design is capable of incremental innovation, as designers find the highest maximum point for a particular space (or ‘hill’).

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Moving to an entirely different, and even higher ‘hill’ requires meaning or technology change. In Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, Norman ascribes this type of radical innovation to inventors and technologists, stating, “They invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so.”

But Norman omits a key group of innovators that also push culture and society to reach that other, higher peak: Artists. Artists impact both incremental and radical innovation because they drive meaning change and challenge the way technology can be applied.

Art & Innovation
I received my MFA in Studio Art in 2008, and have been a professional artist for over a decade, so I’m in a position to examine both design and art with an intimate gaze. Artists and designers have a range of overlap, most notably in that they operate from a sense of curiosity and that they are makers of ‘things,’ although those things take many different forms. The key difference between the two groups, however, is that while designers seek solutions, artists experiment with ideas.

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When it comes to innovation, this distinction is a fundamental differentiator.

In Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion, Roger Martin states, “A traditional manager would take the options that have been presented and analyze them based on deductive reasoning…whereas a designer uses abductive reasoning to say, ‘What is something completely new that would be lovely if it existed but doesn’t now?’” I would take this thought one step further and propose that then an artist might say, “This [material, idea, technology] is intriguing…I wonder what will happen if I play around with it for awhile?”

Artists aren’t bound by the constraints of a solution. As in Don Norman’s investigations, in which “every radical innovation he investigated was done without design research, without careful analysis of a person’s or even a society’s needs,” artists are primarily exploring ideas simply because they are driven to.

Garry Winogrand, the American 20th-century street photographer famously said, “I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.”

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To me, this exemplifies the artistic spirit: to do something for the curiosity of doing it. Unlike designers, artists have both the license and the luxury of making things to see what happens when they do. This pure drive of curiosity can often bring about more creative experimentation than making something to solve a particular problem, as designers are often tasked to do. The drawback to ‘art for art’s sake’ is that the creative innovations it reveals are often embedded in singular artifact, unsuitable for practical application in its artistic form. Design and technology can learn from artists and then take specific aspects of that work and apply them in appropriate, reasonable ways.

But this is not a novel idea. I attended graduate school at Concordia University in Montreal – a large, public Canadian university. At Concordia, a multi-school research institute called Hexagram is housed. Hexagram defines itself as an “international network dedicated to research-creation in media arts, design, technology, and digital culture.” From my own experience of Hexagram, the idea is that if you provide cutting-edge technology to artists (and other interdisciplinary researchers), they will find ways of pushing the boundaries of what that technology is capable of. Hexagram refers to their members as ‘research-creators,’ acknowledging that by removing the constraints of finding ‘solutions,’ their research-creators can be free to experiment for the sake of experimentation, and innovation is more likely to occur.

Danielle Feliciano, in her article What Artists Can Teach Creative Thinkers, states that “creativity thrives in the artistic community because it is appreciated there. Accidents, playfulness, and frivolity are encouraged because they lead to the unusual and the innovative.”

I wonder – are accidents, playfulness, and frivolity encouraged in design? Could they be?

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Implications for Design
So what can designers do to access and adopt the experimental processes and innovative qualities of artists? Most of all, designers should let curiosity reign. Take a few moments to allow lateral thinking and wild playfulness enter the studio. Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of any radical innovation.

On an individual level, designers should expose themselves to art and artistic practices, especially contemporary art – visit shows and read articles, for a start. Be aware of how artists are using technology in novel ways, and then consider adopting useful aspects of that work to more practical applications in design. More broadly, we should cultivate the tendency to encounter ideas and disciplines that we are unfamiliar with.

Rethinking Discipline Boundaries
What is it that limits what we can imagine? Overall, I believe it’s the division and insularity of disciplines. We need to get out of our own silos and rethink the boundaries on our fields of work and study. As Bruce Sterling says, “Rather than thinking outside the box…we surely need a new understanding of boxes.”

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The art world is set up to serve those who are interested in art. It takes a concerted effort to go out of our way to encounter and experience it. Similarly, design, business, technology, and the social sciences all reside in distinct spheres. We each remain too closed-off within a particular field, a way of thinking, and and our own common patterns. We lack the integration that will allow us to innovate. We need to adjust our view of who we are and how we make efforts to intersect. There are overlaps in the way different professions work and what we wish to achieve, but the products of our efforts are limited by our individual channels. I propose a new model where we don’t think of art vs. design or design vs. technology, but of a collaborative, integrated, and intersectional model in which the norm is that we eagerly access and learn from each other.

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