Industrial Design in the Modern World

What does industrial design mean in today’s connected world? frog industrial design and mechanical engineering teams discuss the evolving principles at the core of making physical products real and meaningful to people today.

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Why Great Ideas Get Rejected

Have you ever debuted an exciting new idea to the world only to receive a lukewarm or even highly critical response? Well, get used to it. Mounting evidence shows that we all possess an inherent bias against creativity. The good news is there’s something we can do about it.

On May 29, 1913 in Paris, Igor Stravinsky debuted perhaps his greatest work, The Rite of Spring ballet. Up until that point, most ballets were graceful and elegant, full of traditional music. Rite was different. Stravinsky had written intentionally inharmonic notes and arranged around pagan themes.

Within minutes of the show’s start, the audience began to boo the performers. Supporters rallied against the discontented audience members, and the show quickly degenerated into an all-out riot. Before the first intermission arrived, police had to intervene to calm the raging crowd. During the second half of the performance, riots broke out again. Surprised by the reaction, Stravinsky fled the theater before the show even ended.

Of course, history would vindicate Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring is now regarded as a milestone in the history of ballet and musical composition. Yet, even this legendary idea was initially rejected, which likely came as quite a shock to Stravinsky after he spent years crafting and refining the piece.

Similar rejections can leave us wondering what we did wrong or why others just couldn’t appreciate our creative idea. Fortunately, recent research in human psychology is finally shedding some light on how our brains accept (or reject) new ideas.

Creativity requires an element of novelty.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable. Despite our oft-stated desire for more creativity, we also hold a stronger desire for certainty and structure. When that certainty is challenged, a bias against creativity develops.

This bias was first discovered in two studies by researchers from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina. The research team, led by Penn’s Jennifer Mueller, studied our perceptions about creative ideas when faced with uncertainty. In the first study, the team divided participants into two groups and created a small level of uncertainty in one group, telling them they would be eligible for additional payment based on a random lottery.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable.

The participants were then given a series of tests. The first test presented pairs of words on a computer to the participants and asked them to select their preferred pairing. The pairings shown always came from two groups: creative versus practical (novel, original, functional, useful) or good versus bad (sunshine, peace, ugly, vomit). In each round, participants would chose their preference between pairs like “novel vomit” or “useful peace.” The test, known as an “Implicit Associations Test” uses the speed of participants’ reaction time to measure the strength of their mental associations.

The second test was more overt; it measured participants’ explicit perceptions of creativity by asking them to rate their attitudes toward creativity and practicality on a seven-point scale (from strongly negative to strongly positive). When the researchers calculated the results from both groups, they found that the baseline group (the one given no chance at extra compensation) held both implicit and explicit associations between creativity and practicality. The uncertainty group, however, was different. This group held an explicitly positive association between the two, but implicitly their minds separated creative from practical. In other words, they had an implicit bias against creativity relative to usefulness.

Novelty provokes uncertainty.

If this bias is present in most people during periods of uncertainty, then it could well explain why society has a history of rejecting its greatest innovations. To test this thesis, the research team returned to the lab and this time studied a new group of participants’ ability to judge a creative product idea. The participants were again divided into two groups – this time into groups with a high tolerance or a low tolerance for uncertainty.

The high tolerance group was primed by being asked to write an essay supporting the idea that multiple solutions existed for every problem. The low tolerance group was primed by writing an essay arguing the opposite. Both groups were given the same implicit and explicit associations tests and then asked to rate a creative idea for a new product, a running shoe that automatically adjusted its fabric thickness to cool the foot in hot conditions. As anticipated by the first study, the low uncertainty tolerance group showed the same implicit bias against creativity and was more likely to rate the running shoe idea poorly.

Mueller’s results have powerful implications as we think about how to “sell” our own ideas. We now know that regardless of how open-minded people are, or claim to be, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations. This isn’t merely a preference for the familiar or a desire to maintain the status quo. Most of us sincerely claim that we want the positive changes creativity provides. What the bias affects is our ability to recognize the creative ideas that we claim we desire. Thus, when you’re pitching your creative idea, it may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling, which in turn is overriding their ability to recognize the idea as truly novel and useful.

Regardless of how open-minded people are, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations.

If the implicit bias against creativity is triggered by uncertainty, then crafting your pitch to maximize certainty should improve the odds of the idea being accepted. You can do this in a variety of ways. Reaffirming what the client or your manager knows is true about their project should prime them to be more accepting of novel ideas. Connecting the idea to more familiar ideas, such as previous successful projects or similar works, will also increase the odds that your idea will be seen as practical and desirable. Lastly, try leading clients toward your idea with a series of statements they agree with and then pitching your idea as if it’s theirs. Thus, counteracting the bias against creativity with an even more powerful bias – the bias for our own ideas!

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How I Feel Designing Late at Night

Source and other cartoons by Tom Preston

Far-Fetched Ideas Are Fun, But Innovation Usually Starts Small

Despite what New York Times  editors might think, innovations aren’t always way-out-there ideas. Rather they can be small, incremental changes that better the lives of people.

Innovation is about more than cool. Many of the ideas presented in the feature seem to ignore key elements of human behavior, motivation, and desire. Moreover, the coverage glamorizes innovation and presents it predominantly as those far-out-there ideas, while missing that sometimes innovations with the most impact are the smallest, most obvious ideas. Innovation is about solving people’s problems in a way that’s meaningful to them in the context of their lives. It’s about finding ways to design services, products, and experiences that help people achieve their goals. It’s about making life better for people, on people’s terms, however they define what “better” means.

So beyond the Cool Factor, what else should we keep in mind when we develop innovative ideas? Here are some of our thoughts:

1. Powerful Ideas Can be as Small as a Sack of Beans

When we’re faced with a major problem, we often expect that we need a huge solution to solve it. But innovation doesn’t have to be some big new technology. A solution to a problem as large as global health, for example, may be as small as a sack of lentils. Esther Duflo, of the MIT Poverty Action Lab, has found that incenting Indian families with a kilo of lentils for immunizing their children significantly raises vaccination rates. Duflo’s idea is so effective because it’s based on an understanding of what’s meaningful to the families involved, on their terms. A bag of lentils may seem like a small idea, but it resulted in real, measurable impact.

2. Good Innovations Meet Consumers on Their Terms

It’s the late ’90s, and the diaper wars are on. Huggies and Pampers are caught up in full-fledged battle, trying to come out with the World’s Best Diaper. At the time, both companies thought that “best” translated to “most absorbent,” and they designed their diapers accordingly. But in doing so, they lost sight of what moms cared about: being good moms. Diapers became so thick that wet and soiled diapers could sometimes go undetected for hours.

Continuum partnered with Pampers and helped them redesign their diapers in ways that not only addressed key functional concerns–such as absorbency–but also aligned with what mattered most to moms: supporting the developmental growth of their babies. Something as simple as putting an Elmo graphic on the seat, so moms could easily know which side was front and back, a wetness indicator, and tabs on the front to line up the tape made it easier for moms to change the baby, especially in the middle of the night. We also rebranded the diapers as Pampers Stages to speak directly to moms’ desires to support their babies’ growth, from Swaddlers to Cruisers. Other diapers branded by age; we focused on developmental stages. These small changes made moms feel confident and reassured that they were effectively aiding their babies’ development and shot Pampers to the number-one spot on the market.

 3. Start With Your Vision, Then Work Back to Today

There is value in thinking about pie-in-the-sky, seemingly unattainable ideas. But it’s a matter of how you use those ideas. Often, companies are looking for the strategic ideal to work toward but need some quick wins for right now. And even small changes can have major operational implications that take years to execute. So when we innovate, we first come up with that “lighthouse”–that ideal, almost unattainable experience that we ultimately want to deliver. And then we backcast. We ask ourselves: What are the steps that we can take today that will make an impact while moving the needle on the path toward our ideal? By using this backcasting model, we are able to ensure that each stage of innovation–no matter how incremental–can deliver something that makes an impact for people in the near, mid, and future terms. We always strive to arrive at our ideal, but often we’ve just gotta get there one step at a time.

Small innovations may not garner front-page attention the way big sexy innovations do, but they often make a larger impact in the long run. In fact, I think that some of the most compelling innovations in the Times Magazine‘s innovation issue actually came from the reader-generated “innovation whiteboard” section, tucked away behind the feature article. Most of these ideas are not splashy or particularly wild. But when you read about them, you think to yourself, “Wow, I could really use something like that,” or “Wow, that would really help me,” instead of “Wow, that seems cool.” Because at the end of the day, this is what innovation is really about: Meaningful ideas that solve our problems and make our lives better. No matter how small.

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