Thanks to a short vacation, I’ve had a little time to catch up on the articles and posts that caught my eye over the last few months. And, in doing so, I’ve found the perfect idea to repurpose for my own post.
Let me back up a bit and explain that what I’ve actually done is “combine” the main point of another article with my own experience, random thoughts, other people’s words, stuff people told me and things I made up – thus making it “my” new post. The article I’m referring to, by the way, was posted on brainpickings.org and contained the author’s lament on (or plain recognition of) the absence of new ideas in writing. It caught my eye, because I agree that there are no “new” ideas – not in writing, not in art and not in design.
A quick spin around the internet provided a little backup in the form of sympatico quotes from conceptual heavy-hitters. ”Creativity is,” as Steve Jobs put it, “just connecting things.” Mark Twain, in defense of a friend (Helen Keller) accused of stealing someone else’s idea, wrote “the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.” Salvador Dali saw the practicality in borrowing ideas from others in order to make something new – “those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
It is important to be aware of and remind ourselves – even embrace – the fact that we don’t own our ideas, “we move into them ready-made” per Henry Miller. The creative process, at its core, and all the education, experience, luck, intuition and serendipity that surrounds it, begins with the plagiarism of existing ideas.
Wait a minute, plagiarism’s bad, no? You can’t take other people’s ideas and call them your own. Right? Shouldn’t we as creatives always strive to create something unique - never seen or heard of before – radically different – NEW? Simply put, no. And that’s the point – we recycle ideas every day – we all do it, we just don’t think about it or talk about it as part of our process.
Spend a couple of decades looking at portfolios like I have and you’d guess plagiarism was mandatory training in all design schools. Young designers follow trends and imitate things they see and like – sometimes in entirety – with the internet making it easier than ever to poach from other designers around the world.
Creatives don’t like to think of themselves as unoriginal. When they start their careers, they assume incorrectly that no one else knows the history of the ideas they’ve sampled – likely not even themselves. With experience, and with track records of brilliant work behind them, many great thinkers (as quoted above) have admitted that taking, repurposing, perfecting and connecting existing ideas is the essence of creativity – nothing less.
Discuss among yourselves.
Part of the fun of watching Mad Men is that the detail-oriented set design is always worth paying attention to – whether it be for the mid-century cool office interiors or the sleepy suburban Connecticut homes. In those two extremes (NYC ad agency vs. east coast suburbia), with the use of “modern” furniture, architecture and art in the former, and “early American” in the latter, we have a continuous visual reiteration of the storyline - progressive vs. conservative - new vs. old.
What the two settings and their corresponding designs say to a contemporary viewer, however, is mostly based on what we associate with the two styles. Early 60′s suburban style that referenced even earlier American style, probably always seemed conservative and comfortable. Somewhere along the line, however, the spirit of mid-century design, and what that style represented, became tangled with sophistication – so much so that its industrial roots and intended easy accessibility are no longer part of the story.
This half-hour Chevrolet / General Motors sponsored “infomercial” (the Jam Handy Organization, 1958) is a great little overview of the range of American industrial design from the late 1950s. Watching it makes you wonder what exactly happened to the exuberance, optimism and trust in design that was so universally shared that a major American manufacturer would sponsor the short Technicolor film and play it in movie theaters across the country.
So, unplug your Ericofon, pull up a Tulip Chair, dim the Rotoflex Pendant Lamp and enjoy the design. Then, to jolt yourself back to 2012, watch this Chrysler Superbowl commercial to see how far we… haven’t come – and how much we need our mojo back.
Men and women who design, you know what you need to do.
Read more about the film here.
© Markus Horak, 2012
MOTION DESIGN & POST-PRODUCTION / SOFTWARE / INNOVATION & CREATIVITY
Over the last 20+ years, companies like Adobe, Autodesk, Avid and Maxon have helped redefine the realm of possibility for video producers and motion designers – with After Effects, Photoshop, Cinema 4D and Media Composer, among many others, being relied on for even the simplest project undertakings. They’ve helped make our jobs easier – and, without them at our disposal, much of what we do now would be technically impossible or financially impractical (which is the same as DOA).
A question to consider, however, is if this same software – this seemingly bottomless resource of ever-evolving apps that we depend so heavily on to produce our projects – is also squelching our creativity and ability to innovate. To put it another way, does using software make us better at what we do by enabling us to more fully leverage our creative skills – or, does it allow us to easily generate viable but unoriginal solutions?
Does it matter?
The answer to the first question lies somewhere in between – a genius idea, brilliantly executed, is what we aim for – but, more often, a practical solution, professionally executed, is where we land. And, the easier it is to achieve “professional” results, the less important it is to develop ideation skills – the less important it is to be creative – the less obvious it is when software is doing the real work.
Yes, it does matter. It matters from an educational perspective, making it more important than ever to focus on ideas over software and technical skills. It matters from a branding perspective, in that copying and recycling of older ideas is easier than ever – making techniques and visual styles less proprietary. It matters from a technical perspective when the popular developers have no desire or financial incentive to generate new products that could negatively affect their sales or compete with their current products.
And it matters from a creative perspective – because, eventually, designers may be little more than highly trained recyclers. The tools that once blew us away by making video look like film, or pixels like paint strokes, are now the only “paint” and the closest thing to film that some designers have ever used.
According to Alvy Ray Smith in an overview for Microsoft Corporation in 1997, digital paint systems can be traced back as far as 1969. Since that time, developers have invented a myriad of ways to mimic, and improve on, traditional art, craft and design and production skills. Originally, their progress was judged by the software’s ability to do just that. Now, however, the effectiveness of a particular release of software is assessed on its ability to elaborate on those earlier introduced functions – the more nuanced, the better. Big and innovative ideas have been replaced by an endless rollout of updates, and the complexity of design software continues to compound.
In the not-so-long-ago early-ish days of motion design as we know it, software was proprietary and inseparably tied to clunky and expensive hardware. Getting an upgrade meant purchasing the latest model, like a car in a showroom, provided you had the five or six-figure budget necessary to do so. A handful of companies in New York and Los Angeles ruled the roost and the majority of their work came from the networks or cable companies whose offices were a delivery-convenient block or two away.
Innovation and change came to the industry quickly. Within a few years, vector graphics, non-linear editing, digital compositing, desktop design & animation software and the web changed the way we did everything. Every couple of years, in fact, something came along that caused a sea change, overturning the industry and forever altering the playing field.
Innovation hasn’t stopped, of course, and new products and tools are released, seemingly every day. Software continues to evolve and new technologies pop up year after year. What has changed is the way these tools are applied, and by whom. In the last twenty years, the most prominent development in design software has been in its shift away from overall accessibility. Rather than enabling artists and designers to broaden their range of capability with minimal effort, the focus has been placed on ever more specialized and idiosyncratic tasks, requiring advanced training for increasingly technical (read less creative) users.
Sharing stories recently with another early adopter, of sorts, the conversation evolved to a guessing game of technological advancements on the horizon. It reminded me of something my fellow design students and I used to do (back in the day), which was to toss around ideas for products we guessed would be introduced to the market forthwith. In the spirit of those pre-real-world brainstorms, I would like to take a stab at the innovations I think will be necessary to revolutionize design the way computers and software once did.
Drum roll please… First, hardware that incorporates the full range of hand motion and accurately reflects a variety of physical tools used for creating marks, textures, patterns and 3D shapes. As long as we continue retrofitting essentially the same keyboard, mouse and tablet with software that references itself as a measure of advancement, we will be stuck in a never-ending loop of increasingly technically enhanced repetition.
Next, concept check. Like spell check and grammar check, concept check could scan the web and media databases to help designers and producers (and clients) identify pattern similarities, overlapping imagery and outright plagiarism.
And third, software with a completely visual and verbal interface to remove any technical barriers that might limit its full range of potential users. Think of it as SIRI meets HAL 9000 - combined with hardware that functions as intuitively as a hammer or a ball of clay, this type of user experience would help creativity to, once again, replace technology in the driver’s seat.
In other words, we need better tools so that we can focus more on ideas and solutions and less… on our tools.
© Markus Horak, 2012
In an opinion column (“Rise Of The New Groupthink,” Sunday Review – New York Times, January 15, 2012), Susan Cain argues that creative people can only innovate in solitude. She elaborates on her contention that “the current fad” of the “new groupthink,” – in which she includes workplace collaboration, brainstorming, contemporary office space layout, and classroom education – is a nice idea… that doesn’t work. Period.
“Spectacularly creative” people in many fields are often introverted, independent, individualistic AND not joiners by nature, says Cain. So, they can’t work or learn in groups, can’t collaborate productively, shouldn’t be a part of a team and must work in privacy and without distraction. Working in offices with shared space, being asked to contribute to discussions or attend meetings, she writes, will lead to their suffering from higher blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion.
Oh, and if they’re interrupted while they work, they make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish!
I recently completed work on a website that was designed specifically to be a promotional tool for the authors of a new book, Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes For Later Life (The Monacelli Press, 2011). The book documents an amazing collection of single family homes and multi-residence properties that were built and furnished specifically for aging boomers – each defining retirement living in ways that are uniquely meaningful to the owners.
Design for the elderly – or, “design for my future self,” to put it in a way that may seem more relevant to some – is a topic that I have been interested in for many years and have written previously about in this blog. It’s also a topic that doesn’t seem to get nearly the amount of attention that it deserves.
If you spend any time driving near the ocean on the east coast, you’ll eventually come across a resort town like Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Dozens of motels with names like The Americana, The Neptune, Moontide Motel & Cottages, Edgewater and The Beau Rivage Motel line the street front, separated only by tarmac and outdoor pools.
During the summer season, the parking lots are full, and no-vacancy signs buzz on and off along the strip.
In Maine, however, the beach season is short and traffic is all but gone by late September. Pools are drained, plastic furniture is stored away, shuffleboards and bocce courts are covered and knickknack shops and pancake houses close for the winter.
Maybe it’s the extreme contrast between high and low season, but the effect is palpably melancholic, eerily quiet and, in my opinion, the best time to spend a day exploring. I took these pictures in October – wandering around, peeking into shop windows, imagining histories and completely enjoying the off off… off season-ness of it.
Nothing says summer’s over in quite the same way – and there’s not a more compelling reason to drive along the coast in the fall than the fact that no one else seems to want to be there at that time… except me.
See you next year.
More: view photos here…
DEVELOPING AND IMPLEMENTING CREATIVE STRATEGY – PLANNING WITH AN EYE FOR WHAT’S NEXT.
All businesses evolve. Trends pass, technology eases some tasks and complicates others, economies shrink and grow, and new markets emerge – while others disappear.
Businesses adapt accordingly, or they fade away.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the right-place, right-time advantage of being at the center of some of the most iconic brand transformations, product introductions and technology shifts in the media and entertainment industry. Working for a series of innovative branding and design firms put me in a front row seat, then on stage, and eventually in the conductor’s chair for cable channel launches, identity overhauls and high-profile commercial campaigns. I’ve been on board for countless equipment and software “firsts,” and navigated through waves of techniques, methodologies and theories before they were scrapped, replaced and then scrapped again.
Change has been, and will always be, at the heart of this industry.
Media and entertainment design, packaging and promotion are, on a very basic level, window dressing. A big part of what we do is to take our product (channels, shows, news, events, movies, music, etc.) and display it in ways that catch the attention of passers-by on the busy, worldwide, multi-platform sidewalk.
From a strategic perspective, that dressing is also the visual representation of market insight, research and forward thinking that comes together in one big, dimensional and tangible brand message for the viewer.
The broadcast media industry, of course, is changing again. Companies are now contemplating the best way to negotiate with consumers whom, thanks to the internet and social networks, refuse to accept their news and entertainment served up in traditional formats or on set schedules. While the basic structure of movies, television shows and video hasn’t changed substantially, the way they’re watched has.
This latest digital / cultural / behavioral / distribution upheaval is still playing out. And, as traditional media companies cobble together and solidify their responses to it, a new crop of competitors is free to wade into the mix with tailored-from-scratch solutions that nimbly straddle both old and new. And, viewers continue to do whatever works best for them.