Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ideas of a feather flock together

The original quote goes Birds of a feather, flock together, but when you think it is true for a ideas as well. Take any thought process and you will find a remarkable similarity across ideas in a particular generation.

This struck me as particularly obvious as part of our ongoing googling on car designs, something struck me as quite amazing. When you see car designs over a period, say the 50's, 60's or any other period - the majority of cars look similar. When I say similar, I mean that their overall structure, proportions, shape and lines are similar. There are variations in engine, accessories, interior layout and so on, but by and large they do appear same. In the sense, if you picked out a particular car it is easy even an untrained eye to observe the, quite obvious, similarity.

This was something I knew intuitively as a "car watcher", but the fact that this has repeated consistently over many eras was quite something.

There is an explanation for why this is so, in what is a very famous statement by none other than Steve Jobs.

You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! …What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.” [The whole piece from Time, in case you want to read it]

It is not that people are not creative, but when people get together to review someones design, collective decision making takes over. Then, there is this urge for everyone to contribute something and in that bargain, partly make it "less risky", partly put their stamp, partly want to conform to some vague established norms and ultimately make the conceptually brilliant idea into a wonderfully diluted caricature of the original.

Something fantastic to read, if you have never read it before "What colour is the bikeshed"

And the winner, almost everytime is the breakthrough idea.

When you think that is the normal procedure for any creative idea to become a reality, you suddenly have more respect for those ideators - one for coming up the idea and second for relentlessly pushing it through the system till it becomes a reality. Think of any standout design idea and the first thing that you think is "Respect". We stick to cars on Indian roads - say the Santro, fhe Swift, the Ace, the Nano and to a certain extent the Scorpio and the XUV5OO, but other than that, every car looks like every other car.

It is not necessary that breakthrough ideas are always successful, but mostly successful ideas are breakthrough ideas.

Now think about the designer who would have designed a "standout" car and then watches as his concept is whittled down. What happens to his confidence? It goes down.

But the actual process of whittling down creative confidence starts much earlier - at home and then at school. For more on this, watch this awesome video on a TED talk by David Kelley.

More later...

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