What makes something cool?

Part of the art of marketing is making something cool, but not too cool.

What?

Research shows that we gravitate toward the familiar, but that we’re also bored by it. We cherish the new, but we’re also scared of it. The art is in finding something innovative that still has roots in things we already trust and understand.

This is why Apple so rarely pioneers technology and, instead, leverages things that have already been tried and haven’t yet been optimized, Then they nail it.

And it’s why truly innovative companies can be “ahead of their time” and tank.

An article in The Atlantic provides some interesting examples in the context of a long piece on the brilliant designer Raymond Loewy who coined the term MAYA (“Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”) and said: “To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

There’s plenty of science to back this up:

In 2014, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University wanted to know exactly what sorts of proposals were most likely to win funding from prestigious institutions such as the National Institutes of Health—safely familiar proposals, or extremely novel ones? They prepared about 150 research proposals and gave each one a novelty score. Then they recruited 142 world-class scientists to evaluate the projects.

The most-novel proposals got the worst ratings. Exceedingly familiar proposals fared a bit better, but they still received low scores. “Everyone dislikes novelty,” Karim Lakhani, a co-author, explained to me, and “experts tend to be overcritical of proposals in their own domain.” The highest evaluation scores went to submissions that were deemed slightly new. There is an “optimal newness” for ideas, Lakhani said—advanced yet acceptable.

We can lament our intolerance for innovation. But it seems that understanding it is a good place to start if you want to effect change.

Read more, including how Spotify figured out that Discover Weekly playlists should include songs you already know.

 

Quadcopters + Cirque = Creativity

“No CGI used or needed” says the title at the end of this beautiful little video. It’s more Cirque du Soleil magic. There’s probably no company on earth that concentrates so much technical expertise, expression, agility, art and music into one physical space. The company embodies creativity. It’s embedded deeply into their DNA. So it’s always a pleasure when they break new ground and we get to see it happening.

Cirque du Soleil, ETH Zurich, and Verity Studios have partnered to develop a short film featuring 10 quadcopters in a flying dance performance. The collaboration resulted in a unique, interactive choreography where humans and drones move in sync. Precise computer control allows for a large performance and movement vocabulary of the quadcopters and opens the door to many more applications in the future.

Sources of creativity

My cousin Paul asked me to send him the names of some books I like that deal with Creativity. Titles that have been particularly helpful to my own creative process. I looked through my bookshelf, and found that, while I have bought a few of these kinds of books, I don’t have very many of them. And I haven’t been terribly inspired by most of those I’ve acquired.

So I started thinking about what books have truly inspired me. And, then, what other activities have stoked my own creativity over the years. This list is anything but definitive. But here’s what comes to mind.

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Dr. Edward de Bono

I heard de Bono speak at a Westweek conference at the Pacific Design Center several decades ago. It was one of the most interesting, simple, inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. I loved his way of talking about the subject of creativity. Totally low-tech — just him doodling on an overhead projector. I bought a couple of his books, including this one, and ended up teaching from them at Art Center. We’d start every class with one of his exercises. It was a fascinating experiment. And I still use his techniques from time to time to jumpstart the creative process.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

This book is somewhat related to Lateral Thinking. It explores all sorts of ways to think creatively in a little less theoretical and perhaps more practical way. To be honest, I’ve read chunks of it, but not the whole book. Good chunks. (But I devoured de Bono.)

Seth Godin: Pretty much anything he writes or talks about

I find Godin incredibly smart yet accessible. Fun to read. Fun to listen to. Full of ideas and new ways of looking at the world around him. He inspires me to see things differently and take nothing for granted.

And creative process development, other than books?

Improv classes

When you’re interacting with other people and making up dialog and situations in real time, you learn something critical: you learn to trust yourself. People are inherently creative. They just censor themselves too quickly. Staying open to the what’s going on in the moment is the trick. Being here. Now. If you’re open, you can see connections quickly. If you’re trusting, you’ll write them down or speak them out before they disappear. And a trusting and trusted partner only adds to the process…and to the fun.

Music

I play blues harmonica. Guitar, too, but the harp is the only thing I play well enough to get into a state of flow. If making music is creative, then improvising is even more so. You have no time to think; you just do it. You listen to the other musicians and to yourself, let the ideas come, and balance it all out so it sounds as good as you can get it right then. When you get too involved in “doing it right” you choke, or you sound rigid and over-controlled. Letting it flow is far more fun and usually sounds better. And if you hit a clinker, well, big deal. In the next moment, it’s gone and you’re making more music. Vocal harmonies are like that, too. You get that buzz, and you create something larger than the sum of its parts.

Museums

Art, natural history, science. All good. All expose different parts of your brain to different stimuli. All of which triggers new ways of looking and new ways of thinking. Travel works the same way.

Forget what you think you know

I think the creative process is this: fill your head with information, then forget it. Your unconscious mind will sift what you learned and help you stay pointed in the right direction. But when you’re creating you’ve got to let go of your knowledge and come at the problem like someone who knows nothing. Play more than you analyze. Trust. Step off the cliff. It’s only a metaphor. You can step right back on if it doesn’t work out.

The death of comics? Hardly.

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I have always loved — and been fascinated by — the comics. As a kid, I read them every day, even the boring ones. I marveled at the incredibly economical writing and the simple, graphic illustrations, and I copied everything I felt I had a chance of drawing even halfway decently.

I inhaled every Peanuts book I could get my hands on, along with Pogo and Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. I bought all the comic books my weekly allowance could handle: The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Spider Man, Green Arrow, Superman, Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto the Superdog. I read Archie, Richie Rich, Mickey Mouse and all his Disney cohorts. I pored over MAD magazine, where Mort Drucker was my god. I leafed through books of political cartoons (Bill Mauldin, Herblock, Paul Conrad), gag cartoons (Charles Addams, Peter Arno, James Thurber, Gahan Wilson) and caricatures (Al Hershfeld, Gerald Scarfe).

While our family was living overseas, I took a correspondence course in cartooning (for credit!) and I wrote to my best friend back home by sending him comic books about our life in Greece.

In high school, I would start every day by doing an illustration on the class blackboard of whatever interesting thing was being announced in the school bulletin in homeroom. I drew political cartoons for the underground high school paper. And for the “official” school paper as well.

I entered UCLA as a Fine Arts major, with the full intention of becoming a cartoonist. Though my career veered into graphic design, I still love the comics in all their wild permutations. So you can imagine my excitement when I received an invitation to attend the world premiere of a new documentary about comics and cartoonists: Stripped.

My younger son and I hit the giant, venerable Cinerama Dome at Sunset and Vine on Wednesday night. With no reviews to go by, and very few expectations, I had no idea if it would be a total turkey, or not.

From the first frame, I was hooked.

Directors Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder had originally intended to answer the question, “Can the comic strip survive the seismic shift in the newspaper publishing industry?” With the demise of the two-newspaper city, and the shriveling of the daily paper in general, what will happen to our beloved comics? How will people find them? How will their creators make a living?

After two and a half years of work, a Kickstarter funding campaign, and 300 hours of interviews with some 90 of the world’s best cartoonists, the scope got wider and deeper. (Their list includes many of my faves like Stephan Pastis and the amazing Bill Watterson — and Dan Piraro, Keith Knight, Cathy Guisewhite and Matt Inman, who all spoke at the premiere’s Q&A session.)

Stripped asks what drives an artist to create a joke every single day for 30 years? What makes these geniuses build tiny worlds of imagination inhabited by strange-looking humans with cubist eyes on the same side of their heads, or sarcastic talking animals, or a weird little boy with a stuffed tiger for a best friend? How does their business actually work? How do they work? And, finally, where is this whole cultural phenomenon heading as newspapers fade out and the Internet takes over?

If that all sound like interesting stuff, then do NOT miss Stripped. Dave and Fred did the subject justice. Beautifully shot, smartly constructed, full of insights and revelations, it’s a love note to the comics, their creators, and to all us fans. Editor Ben Waters has honed the avalanche of footage into a crisp, entertaining, inside view of the social impact, personal commitment, insane humor, massive talent and sheer luck that creates these little illustrated stories we love so much.

Stripped aims to top the iTunes charts as their Number One pre-ordered documentary. And why not? It’s as good a way to spend your money as that copy of the new Pearls Before Swine book you were planning to buy. Hell. You’ve already read most of those anyway, right?

 

Consuming content makes me queasy

I was listening to an interview with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. He was told by his team that they had a multimillion-dollar offer from Nokia who was looking for content for their phones.

His response was, “Content?”

‘”You know. Content.”

“What? You mean music?”

“Yes. Content.”

Yorke explains, “I think really my problem with it is, like, it’s now something to fill up the hardware with…The music itself has become secondary, which is a weird thing to me. And I think that will change because there’s only so many different permutations of the same hardware you can make before people go, ‘Well, actually I have an iPod now, so thanks.'”

I have hated the term “content” used to describe music, films, videos, literature, art, photography, since the moment I heard it uttered. It’s the ultimate commercialization and diminshment of creative work.

And what makes it worse is when people talk about “consuming content” as if there’s a ravenous public out there, bloated and gorging itself on the huge amount of junk food that all this creative work represents. While that may be the case, do we have to lump everything under this lame, lazy umbrella?

I can go with “content” to describe stuff I’m not that enamored with. Reality TV. YouTube videos of cats. And, yeah, I can see that those are consumed like Cheetos. Pop ’em in your mouth and they go straight to your hips.

But putting that disposable crap in the same category as thoughtful films like Philomena and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the powerful writing of Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon, or the innovative music of Laurie Anderson or Radiohead, seems absurd. Not only does it belittle the creators, but it belittles the reader, viewer or listener. It denies the power of art and its impact on our thinking, on our society.

I realize there’s a blurred line here. Malcolm Gladwell to me represents fascinating insights packaged in accessible ways. But to other people, he’s a huckster. Steven King produces both cheap thrills, and vast admiration of his craftsmanship and intelligence. And painting is highly subjective: Was Jackson Pollack an example of groundbreaking innovation? Or a perfect representative of non-art, as in “my kid could do that.”?

But whatever it is, it’s not “content”. It’s not a stream of thoughtless Hostess Twinkies of the mind and spirit designed to fill mobile phones and MP3 players and keep us fat and sitting on the sofa. It’s the work of real people, with real talent and something real to contribute to the human story. And I would love to see their work spoken about and thought of in that way.

As Yorke says in the same interview, “What’s weird about putting a record out now, really – and this is not like sour grapes at all – is just the fact of volume, literally the sheer volume of stuff that gets put out. It’s like this huge frickin’ waterfall and you’re just throwing your pebble in and it carries on down the waterfall and that’s that. Right, okay — next.”

Guess what? A pebble like that has value to the people who love pebbles. You admire it. You play with it. You keep it in your pocket. And perhaps you skip it across the surface of the water so someone else can enjoy it.

But you don’t “consume” it.