It Looks Like the Best “Creative” Ideas Aren’t That Creative…Share
The best creative ideas are essentially rip-offs, but why are some successful while others are deemed knock-offs?
I was invited to speak to a design class a few months ago at Iowa State University by Lu Lawrence, a sharp student and vice president of Iowa State's Graphic Design Student Association. The group's primary focus is to bring in different professionals with graphic design experience to speak to students about topics in design.
Acting in a recognized creative industry, design students are constantly looking for the most original and creative concepts to evoke reactions from the audiences they are seeking to influence. Designers strive to create the new and unseen, pulling inspiration from the most obscure places. Every time, after creating something they believe is truly original, they are stunned to see something similar that had been created long before their own work. It happens all the time and it’s a big disappointment for beginning design students. It’s almost as if they had ripped off another designer, even without being aware of the work in advance.
The desire for an original idea is shared by designers and creatives alike, but there's a problem: it’s not really possible. I’ve come to realize nothing is truly original. As much as creatives of any kind want to be original and fresh, they are only capable of making re-organizations or re-interpretations of what has already been done. Despite this, creatives struggle to attain something that cannot be obtained and their misplaced focus ends up hurting them. Their focus on originality inevitably robs them of their vision. Garthen Leslie can relate.
Leslie is the Quirky inventor of a new device called Aros. Tiffany Markofsky with Quirky explained to me Quirky is a community that rewards collaboration and invention by rewarding 10% profits to it’s inventors. Quirky handles all the heavy lifting like manufacturing, marketing, and business stuff, such as the partnership with GE to make Aros a viable product. (GE will be helping Quirky bring 30 more smart home products to market in the future.)
Aros is a window unit air conditioner with connected home functionality built in. It’s Wi-Fi enabled, so it can do the nifty stuff you’d expect, like automatically turn off when you leave and on when you come home. It can read the weather report, it can save you energy and you can control it with your smart phone from anywhere on the planet.
I asked Leslie about his inspiration behind the Aros. Having spent years working at the Department of Energy, he told me of a commute where he noticed hundred of air-conditions sticking out of apartment windows, sucking up lots of energy. Most were working even when people weren’t in the apartment, no one wants to come home to a furnace. The sheer volume of wasted energy got him thinking, in this day and age someone had to come up with a solution. After developing what he thought was a pretty good solution, coming up with a concept, only then did he realize that some elements of his idea were already in the market.
Another product called Nest already had similar functionality. Created in 2010, by Tony Faddell the original father of the iPod, this smart thermostat had similar smart home features, expect of course it was only useful for a home with central air and heat. Leslie didn’t exactly have a completely original idea, but that didn’t stop him. “There is no monopoly on ideas” he told me, "Don't give up on your idea because there is some big company that has already done something similar. Stick to your guns”
By sticking to his guns, he succeeded not only in helping bring a viable product to the market with GE + Quirky due out this month (May), but he developed a product that brought meaning to an entirely new audience. Namely those without the finances to install a central air unit in their house or wire up their own smart home. Aros, simply plugs into the wall and replaces what every single window unit air conditioning consumer already has a space for. Markofsky calls this re-invetion, and it’s one of Quirky’s common playing fields. Taking products that already exist, but making them more useful or meaningful to consumers.
Leslie's story is certainly nothing new. Consider the Cushman Motor scooter. You haven’t heard of it? How about the Cushman Airborne? Still haven’t heard of it? The Cushman was the first scooter on the market back in 1936 and after a contract with the United States Military during World War 2, the company was gaining steam. Ten years later however, in 1946 the industry took a turn.
As these Cushman scooters made their way into Europe, designer Corradino D’Ascanio took notice. Working for Italian based Piaggio, he re-designed the scooter using his aeronautical background and it was a hit, earning the name Vespa or “Wasp” from the owners son, Enrico. I'm sure Vespa is a name you're familiar with.
In just two years, production reached 19,822 scooters per year, passing Cushman who peaked at 15k units per year in the 1950s. Vespa’s sales only sped up faster, passing 60k in 1950 and then over 171k units by 1953. Vespa expand globally, even into the US in the 1960’s.
Cushman had a head start, funding from a government contract, and a high quality product with scooters that would function despite being dropped from the sky, but in the early 1960s, scooters imported into the US began to erode the company's market share and they stopped building them 1965.
Vespa had made a fortune off an idea that wasn’t even their own and today they've sold over 18 million scooters. The idea wasn’t original, it was only an improvement on what Cushman had already achieved.
Despite the definition of creativity in the dictionary, it turns out the best creative ideas aren’t actually that creative. Written thousands of years ago, even the Bible offers perspective on this. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ESV). True originality isn't possible.
Secondary innovators or "re-inventors" are successful when originality isn’t their primary goal. What then should innovators and even designers focus on? I’ll leave you what I left the Iowa State students: Don’t be original. Be meaningful.
Justin Brady likes to write, speak and work with loving leaders on how to organically cultivate creativity in their organization. Find him on Twitter @justinbrady. This piece and others like it can be found on his blog.