This is an invited essay, which comments
on the proceedings of the IDSA
DesignAbout, sponsored by Symbol Technologies, and chaired by Alistair
Hamilton at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC, Nov. 7-9, 2001.
A Non-Materialistic Perspective
Innovation as Music
By Bill Buxton
Because much of industrial design is the form of the things we design, we often fall into the habit of attributing innovation to things (“What an innovative product!”) as opposed to the process that created them. Yet, to my way of thinking, innovation is a behavior, something done by humans, not an attribute of objects.
I was trained as a musician. As a result, I am somewhat of an outsider in the context of this discussion. But on the other hand, this helps provide some distance and, I hope, some perspective. Musicians know that the key to improved performance is practice. No matter how much natural talent you have, to improve you have to practice, and practice under favorable conditions.
So if innovation is behavior, and we accept that practice improves performance, then how does one practice innovation? What are favorable conditions? And, while we are at it, is innovation like music and drawing, in that with practice anyone can get some level of improvement in performance?
The Social Nature of Innovation
When I think about all of the talks that were given during the DesignAbout and all of the conversations I’ve had with great designers, I am more convinced than ever that the answer to the last question is yes. We can identify some of the key components essential to practice and improving performance. Otherwise, why meet?
To me, the common thread in all of the presentations was the emphasis on the social nature of innovation. All of the examples were characterized by the interactions of a tight team of people and the associated “society of ideas.” When you peel back the surface layer, the isolated individual inventor was invisible, and great ideas were the distillation of tens or even thousands. Drawing again on a musical analogy, what we saw were examples of phenomenal ensemble playing, with each member playing different instrument—bringing something different or unique to the question at hand.
While on the one hand there is something banal in this observation, there is also something important. The roots lie in one of the most innovative eras in history: the Renaissance. Popular wisdom says that it was precisely this “society of ideas” that was the foundation of the Renaissance man or woman. But how does this help us today? The Renaissance man and woman has been impractical for hundreds of years.
While this may be true, it is equally true that even (or especially) today, Renaissance teams are viable, and they need to be at the heart of any innovation revolution. The art lies in the team’s makeup and interactions. Regardless of specifics, every talk and every conversation at the DesignAbout attested to the importance of teams.
The Renaissance Team
So how does the Renaissance team—that ensemble of artists with different and complementary skills— impact us as designers?
Looking at industrial design as a discipline in this day of increasingly interactive appliances and devices, one can see a significant transformation taking place. Designers are moving away from being perceived largely as designers of objects or forms, to an era where it becomes ever clearer that what they really are designing are behaviors. The objects are the catalysts or prostheses that encourage and support particular behaviors.
In this, I believe the design profession has the means to augment its potential for innovation, through the “design” of appropriate heterogeneous Renaissance teams. For many people, this is the normal course of business. But through the behaviors afforded by the products that they design, designers also have the power to augment the level of innovation in society as a whole.
The Renaissance is over, but it’s time to revive it. As recent events make clear, if we ever needed a Renaissance, now is the time. The design community can be one of the prime drivers.