What is innovation? The dictionary defines it as “a new idea, device, or method.” Innovation is about the future — imagining and, more importantly, creating the products, services and ideas that will change our lives. Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of, imagine or portray the future when our minds are being trained to use their left sides, which are sequential, literal, functional, textual and analytic. Metaphor, aesthetic, and imagination, which represent the right side, are for artists and the dreamers, those who, we tend to believe, live somewhere on the clouds. While they allowed to dream, we, the majority, are told that we need to focus on the here and now.
If that is the case, and if innovation requires the ability to imagine and draw the future, why not turn to artists? We can work together with them, we can learn for them, and in collaboration, we can actually achieve good results. Here is why I think every business that really and genuinely wants to be innovative (and not just say it to the press or shareholders) should work with artists:
Artists Challenge the Way We Think — Part of the innovation process is the ability to look differently at the world and to try to understand where the faults, the opportunities, and the problems to solve are. One way to do so is by asking questions; artists are very good at asking questions and challenging the way we think. Think for a moment about Marcel Duchamp in 1917, when he took a porcelain urinal, named it “fountain” and claimed “this is art”. The question of whether a urinal is an artwork is not the key takeaway here; rather, the important part is the process that Duchamp initiated, the challenge that he laid in front of us all. 100 years later, it is obvious that Duchamp changed the course of history with his urinal.
Engineers, programmers, and scientists are wired to think in a certain way, and challenging their way of thinking can actually lead to different results. Many inventions and emerging technologies are killed because marketing departments judge that no money can be made from them; years of research are thus blown away due to corporate politics. Many good ideas are abandoned, orphaned, or unheeded in the wilderness, and this is where artists can assist. Artists can be independent research-agents, creating a place where these abandoned, discredited, and unorthodox inquiries could be pursued. Artists might use different criteria than those in the commercial and scientific worlds to value research and its potential implications. And these exact artists can be the inventors, hackers, and entrepreneurs who help us in the discovery process.
Art Reflects our Current Culture — I believe that understanding customers’ desires and aspirations is a big challenge, and it can be even harder to translate this knowledge to products and services. Many of the future trends in products, services, and behaviors are out there in the streets among the public and especially the young. Artists have always held the role of reflecting our current culture. The art created within a culture communicates important ideas about religion, politics or just contemporary life; it also reflects the culture and its concerns, with its particular focus, with choices of subject, with the materials used to create the art.
Artists tend to be associated with the fringes of society, the underground, or the counter culture, but history has shown again and again that these outer edges become the mainstream. Think of the Pop Culture that Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, and, of course, Andy Warhol evangelized. Look at Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started as graffiti artist in New York and represented that lifestyle, or Delacroix’s Orientalism and its effects on Turkey.
If you are looking to learn about our current culture and try to understand the ideas spreading around, talk to artists. Art is created in response to culture and vice versa.
Artists Imagine the Unimaginable — If innovation is about imagining our future, how can we do so if we are not trained to imagine? Our educational system and work environments have trained us to use our left brain only — to be logical and linear in our thinking, with little or no ability to think creatively. Einstein famously said, “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
In my opinion, artists can be our imagination agents; they are the ones that imagine the unimaginable. Take, for example, a project conducted by artist Stephen Wilson and researchers Jock Mackinlay and Polle Zellweger in Xerox PAIR, the company’s famous Artist-in-Residence program in Silicon Valley. Back in 1994 they worked on a project called “Portraits of World Wide Web Searchers,” in which they were looking to learn what searches say about people. Sound familiar? Isn’t that the way Google makes their fortune? By telling advertisers what we are interested in by analyzing our searches? There are many other examples of artists that imagined products or services 10, 20, or even 500 years ago that eventually developed (can you remember the Helicopter by Da Vinci?).
Artists can connect us to the past, the present, and the future, sometimes simultaneously, and with this help, business becomes more innovative.