Thinking through Wednesday’s post, Parker x Process: A Framework for Innovation, it seems like there was a missing component—how to ensure your improvisation strikes the proper note with the audience. Cool is an elusive and mystical equation, and there is not a neat formula to solve for it.
This blog, in general, has been about crafting an approach toward innovation. Before today, we have been chipping at components of successful innovation, but thinking through the subject of cool brings everything previously discussed together in a more holistic way. By exploring this subject with me, you will begin to see the interrelatedness between the pieces of our prior discussions.
Many businesses begin the innovation process with front-end customer feedback. But, is this approach backwards? Listen to your customers? If everybody is listening—who is speaking? A similar approach, design thinking, puts users first by observing and anticipating customer’s latent needs and designing solutions around constraints, and this seems as near to a “silver bullet” approach as I have ever encountered.
But, I have been thinking about the long-term outcome design-thinking would have on our world. What would our lives be like if we could fast-forward to a place where the entire planet has been redesigned using the human-centered approach? People would have exactly the things they need, and technology development would keep pace only with new design requirements. It seems, then, like this is a fitting way of putting the relationship: human-centered design thinking: innovation as the slow-food movement: agricultural development.
Do you see the relationship clearly? In both cases, customer satisfaction is higher than ever before and people feel good about consciously making smart choices, but can simply “designing” solutions meet the needs of sustaining a society long term? And, more importantly, should we even be concerned with reaching this realm (see Skvorecky + Powell x Manipulation: Manufacturing Need)?
I realize I may have completely thrown you off—this post was about making stuff cool, not saving the planet, right? Well, I’ll tie it together by saying this—I don’t believe technical development is a complete answer either. But when I was imagining this perfectly designed planet, my mind went back to the Huxley x Altruism: Business Good or Evil post, which discussed that the existence of both good and evil is precisely what makes good recognizable and desirable, and evil recognizable and abhorable. So, imagine, what happens when neat, perfect design conquers the world? Well, to me, it sounds pretty user-friendly, but it also sounds pretty boring. Is this the world we want? Maybe. But, I also believe humans have an innate desire for imperfection. What is imperfect is often charming, and sometimes even genius. The Italians call it sprezzatura, roughly translated as the art of charming nonchalance–making the difficult seem easy and intuitive. To me, sprezzatura is synomous with cool.
This brings us back to Parker and that modern style he created. His improvisations were never neat, and his musical descendants forged new paths that were often off the map—sometimes even unbearable to listen to (See John Zorn). But, there was something beautiful about the imperfection, something magical about letting notes fly. In fact, unrestrained playing is the only way to reach the “blue note,” which is an off-the-scale anomaly improvising musicians must break traditional rules to find.
Parker, and Italian rakes have proved that these “cool” outcomes arise out of more than just technical innovation, or collaborative design thinking—the other part of the human element involved is self-interest. Think about what makes your favorite thing cool. Is it the impeccable design? Maybe, if you are in love with your Macbook. But don’t you also love the crowded corner bistro with the awkward layout where everybody knows your name and the recipes are cobbled together by a 3rd or 4th generation Italian chef? Places like that have character. They are fresh, exciting experiences. And the person who designed them didn’t know a thing about you—they cared only about opening up their dream place and doing it their way. The result? Undeniable, timeless cool. Fyodor Dostoevsky speaks of the virtue and consequences of self-interest in his novel Notes from the Underground:
One’s own free, untrammeled desires, one’s own whim…all of this is precisely which fits no classification, and which is constantly knocking all systems and theories to hell.
And where did our sages get the idea that man must have normal, virtuous desires? What man needs is only his own independent wishing, whatever that independence may cost him, and wherever it may lead.
Interestingly, the novel was rejected by Soviet literary critics because of its rejection of the idea of Socialist utopianism, which is strangely similar to the idea of democratic design, except more practical since it is enterprise based. Another of Dostoevsky’s claims is that man’s needs cannot be satisfied through technological progress alone. I recommend reading the book if you want to explore the issue more fully, but for our exploration’s sake, we need only make the connection that non-economic self-interest (i.e. interest other than greed) is a necessary component to the “cool” equation. We might talk about our Macbooks, but what truly keeps things fresh is that café, or a visually arresting graffiti display, or anything else that was created in the name of self-interest. We look at these things with awe and wonder—these are the things that a group of design-thinkers never would have created. They are the things that product engineers never would have dreamed. But, they are equally compelling and desirable to their audiences.
Rather than being intuitive, people look on and speak of the imagination it must require to create such a thing, while experiencing only the simple beauty of its charming imperfection. These things stain our souls with desire for more—and, in their absence, we long not for them, but for experiences that generate that same swelling emotion within us of seeing our fellow man’s pure, unadulterated work. What matters is not what customers think, but what they experience. What makes you cool? It isn’t necessarily a better widget—it’s about developing your own style, and finding people that dig it. The question is not who are you creating for; take the artists approach—create for yourself and then find who wants what you have before running out of money. I once believed this approach was ignorant because I am often a perfectionist, but now I see what a vital role the imperfection of self-interest plays in sustaining innovation.
Have you ever considered this question of cool? Is there any sprezzatura about what you create? Are you worried about perfection? Or, do you create without inhibition? Have you ever let a note fly because it felt right? Or are you too worried about what everybody else will think? Do you also see then, how birthing cool, making it real, enhancing interaction, innovating within a framework, seeing both good and evil, and manufacturing need are all interrelated components worth exploring? Now would be a good time to review—our conversation is only beginning.
As a side note, I believe what is most interesting about the progression of this blog, is the visible connection between ideas of great authors. For example, using Rand’s philosophies as evidence for this post, rather than Dostoevsky’s would bear no consequence on the concept of birthing cool, as it relates to business. Rand believed men should not be slaves to the audience they create for. I hope you see this as proof that the concepts we are exploring are timeless, no matter what your business pertains to.