When Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile was published in 1996, I bought it immediately, looking forward to reading this new play by the “crazy” man whose comedy always made me laugh. From interviews, I knew that he had been a philosophy major in college, giving him a intellectual perspective that I admired, even in his farcical comedy.
I was disappointed, however, when I read the play with its inane dialog and never-ending non sequiturs. It took attending a production of the work this spring by the American Southwest Theatre Company at New Mexico State University to bring it to life for me. Seeing the play made me realize the power of live performance.
Yes, the dialog was absurd and hilariously silly, but as I relaxed into the action, I began to construct a broader view of the play. I realized that I should have been a lot more interested in this work when I read it nearly 20 years ago.
There are a couple of themes in the play, and the first one is more explicit. It is about the future and the monumental changes that were afoot in the early days of the twentieth century. It may be that Martin was exploring the idea of change itself, but certainly he was thinking of the concept of the future. Set in 1904 in Paris, it posits a hypothetical meeting in a bar of two young men about town, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. The two get into an argument over who is more talented. To win the affections of a woman they both want, they decide to “duel” by drawing their ideas on bar napkins.
The second theme, and the one that I had missed in reading the play, is that this comedy was about the serious subject of genius and creative talent. Martin was exploring the nature of creative ability. Broadly speaking, the play implicitly poses the question, “Is creativity the domain solely of the artist, or can the term apply equally to scientists, inventors, philosophers, and, possibly even, entertainers?” Throughout the play we see examples of ordinary people being creative and examples of those who are creative geniuses. We see the courage that is necessary to express one’s unique creativity. We also see that everyone makes his own evaluation of the creativity of others, and that thoughtful judgment of creative products is important.
While there are still those who think only of the arts when they think of creative achievement, apparently Martin (along with the psychologist Howard Gardner and others who study creative-thinking styles) saw similarities in the thinking of both Einstein and Picasso. Both used visual imagery in the problem-solving that led to their highly creative products.
Like Arthur Koestler who saw creativity as a process of putting together existing ideas in new and interesting ways, Martin showed the similarities in their ways of thinking. This can be seen in Picasso’s fractured images and in Einstein’s famous “thought experiments.” Both Picasso’s and Einstein’s ideas existed in four dimensions, and thus were difficult to show on bar napkins. Both spoke passionately about their work in visual and aesthetic terms.
There are several of other interesting characters of the play. One, Gemaine, is a down to earth barmaid who shows great insight about the value of art. She is one of the few in the play who can imagine the future. Another, Schmendiman, is a foolish inventor who tries to sell his product that nobody needs, “an inflexible and very brittle building material” made from asbestos, kitten paws, and radium. Mistaking mere newness for creativity, he wants to be seen as a mover and shaker, but when he shares his take on the creative process he says, “Follow the path of least resistance.” Most intriguing is the shocking creativity of a mysterious man from the future whom the audience recognizes to be none other than Elvis Presley. He speaks of inspiration and the joy of creation. His view literally transforms a mundane painting above the bar into Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but only Picasso (and the audience) can see the changed painting.
Entertainers, Martin seems to say, can also be creative geniuses who shake and shape the world around them. In the case of Steve Martin, this is certainly true.
In the previous two blog posts Philip Thompson, Vice President, Design and Planning Strategy at Newell Rubbermaid, and I have shown how the products designed under Steve Jobs’ watch at Apple and Pixar illustrated two important factors in creativity: Novelty and Resolution. But the aspect of design creativity that comes first to mind when thinking of Apple products is their Style. Here we’ll tease apart the facets of the qualities of design Style that mark Apple’s success.
Steve Jobs brought design creativity to the mass market with his many exquisitely designed products, from the iPod, to the iPhone, to the iPad. The teams led by Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs created the signature look and feel of the Apple products. Job’s design values clearly illustrate the Style Factor of the CPAM. The Style Factor is concerned not with how “stylish” a product is, nor with the era or decade of its creation, but with something more like a “personality” or how the product presents itself to the user, viewer, or listener. Some products are playful, some are boring, and some are “friendly,” while others are off-putting.
There are three facets or sub-scales in the Style factor of the Creative Product Analysis Model. They are Organic, Well-Crafted, and Elegant. The first facet, Organic, is about how the component parts of the product relate to each other. Do they flow naturally from one part to another of the product, or do they look disconnected like boxes piled on top of one another as in the old 1980s stereo systems?
The original Mac contrasted its form with the boxy modularity of 1980s computers like the IBM PC of the day. Jonathan Ive commented upon this in the earlier mentioned interviews in The Telegraph. Before college, Ives was intimidated by computers, feeling inept. When he saw the Mac with its Organic curves and its harmonious visual relationships, it gave him confidence immediately. He said, “I suddenly realized that it wasn’t me at all. The computers that I had been expected to use were absolutely dreadful.”
Steve Jobs was impressed by the attention to detail that his adoptive father, Paul Jobs, applied to whatever he made or built. Any carpentry job or auto-body restoration taken on by the elder Jobs was finished perfectly. He emphasized taking time to do the job right in his work and taught Jobs that the care that Well-Crafted products display doesn’t stop at the surface of the product. Isaacson relates that the back of a cabinet or the detaining of the auto was always performed with careful scrutiny, whether it would be seen or ultimately hidden from view. Steve Jobs made this an important part of the design aesthetic of his companies, insisting on a neat and orderly appearance to the printed circuit boards of the Macintosh, although the consumer couldn’t open the case and admire the handiwork.
The third facet of the Style Factor is Elegant. Apple products are known for their sleek lines and the restraint which characterizes their design. The Online Oxford English Dictionary gives among its definitions for the term “elegant” the following: “pleasing by ingenious simplicity and effectiveness.”
Simplicity is a watchword at Apple. Again, Ive said it well in the interviews discussed above. “The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process.” The emphasis on simplicity was not one simply focused on the lack of clutter in the design. It is a conceptual simplicity that gets at the essential function of the product.
The success of Jobs’ companies, especially Apple, shows that when products are Organic, Well-Crafted, and Elegant, people will pay a premium price for a high level creative product that they’ll value in a very personal way.
Design leaders are now choosing the brand focused value creation model that puts design at its heart. The processes they use to do this vary from company to company, but modern product development processes are team-centered, with designers having a seat at the table, taking an active role in bringing the product to its physical form.
Some design-centered organizations use the CPSS as a metric for their design process. Without a Steve Jobs and his excellent intuitive judgment, the CPSS can be a valuable tool for design managers to assure that their products are Surprising, Original, Logical, Useful, Valuable, Understandable, Organic, Well-crafted, and Elegant.
In our post on Steve Jobs’ use of Novelty we’ve shown how his introduction of Novel designs and new ideas in his products have contributed to their overall creativity. Now we’ll move on to a less glamorous, but equally important aspect, the down-to-earth workability and functionality of his output.
The four facets of the CPAM’s Resolution factor are Logical, Useful, Valuable, and Understandable. This facet considers how well a product works, functions, or does what it supposed to do. Steve Jobs held an almost Platonic view of products, believing that each product had its own unique essence: a function that was more important than anything else.
One of the first things that one notices about products designed on Jobs’ watch is that they are so intuitive and Logical. Looking back at the development of the Mac, released in 1984, we see the use of icons for the user interface on computers that were intended for the average person. This approach to calling up the different functionalities of the computer was infinitely more Logical than the earlier approach. Few can remember a time that a “trash can” was not a universal symbol for deleting files, or when computers didn’t have “desktops.” The very idea of the desktop as a place to put the files you are working on was a Logical, yet revolutionary, concept. In Jobs’ quest to make his computers ubiquitous tools for every home, he knew he needed to make them thoroughly Logical.
A great example of Usefulness is found in the iPhone. The cell phones before the iPhone had lots of features and functions. But getting to the features was difficult and complicated. Isaacson tells us that the designers of the iPhone were motivated to come up with something better not so much by consulting ISO Usability Standards as by channeling the frustration that they experienced in using their own mobile phones. This led to the development of a much more Logical and Useful device, the original iPhone.
Another facet in Resolution is Valuable. In July 2012 two interviews in The Telegraph of Jonathan Ive by Shane Richmond show how Valuable the iPad and iPhone are to millions today. These devices, too, have become ubiquitous. iPads have been installed as order terminals for fast food restaurants, and as devices for games and other entertainment at the boarding gates of some airports, placed there by airlines in an attempt to improve the customer experience at the gate. People value products that help them work, relax, communicate and create.
Jobs’ career history is full of examples of his desire to make his products Understandable. According to Leander Kahney, in his 2011 cover story article for Newsweek, when preparing for the launch of the Apple, Jobs studied Sony’s fonts, papers, and layout to produce the best and most understandable brochures to promote his computer. Isaacson reported that in designing the Mac, Jobs visited department stores and examined the kitchen appliances, trying to emulate the immediate understandability of products like blenders and food processors. He wanted his computers to have an intuitive user-interface that allowed you operate your computer easily and directly, without the need to search and study the instruction manual. Jobs’ products have always been known for their user-friendly Understandability, made especially more impressive by the profound complexities of the design engineering that lie just beneath the surface.
In our next blog post on Jobs’ creativity, The Transformational Creativity of Steve Jobs: Style, Philip Thompson and I discuss examples of the hallmark of Apple products, their excellent design aesthetics or Style.
Steve Jobs was a transformational figure in design creativity and innovation. His contributions were on a global scale, affecting whole industries, and creating irreversible worldwide changes. I’ve been visiting with Philip Thompson, Vice President, Design and Planning Strategy at Newell Rubbermaid about the contributions Jobs made to the design world. Although much has been said already about Jobs, interest in his work and his personality doesn’t seem to have ebbed.
In this series of three blog posts, we’ll show how his products illustrate every factor and facet of the Creative Product Analysis Model (CPAM). The CPAM and the measurement instrument derived from it, called the Creative Product Semantic Scale or the CPSS, identify the three principle components of design creativity: Novelty, Resolution, and Style. It turns out that Steve Jobs’ products map beautifully onto the CPAM. This post shows how surprising and original Jobs’ products were.
Walter Isaacson, in his superb 2011 biography entitled Steve Jobs, states that Jobs was an interesting combination of contrasts—he liked to think of himself as philosophically located exactly between the humanities and technology. From that vantage point, he could use the intuitive, humanistic insights and judgments from the “right brain,” then use the “left brain” with its rational, quantitative logic from technology and business strategy to make decisions and improvements. Regardless of whether new products are created using mostly “left-brain thinking” or ”right-brain” thinking, most people prefer those that look good and work well.
For those unfamiliar with the Creative Product Analysis Model, or the CPAM, it is a three-factor model that describes design creativity in products. The model was devised after an extensive literature search, looking for the characteristics of creative products. We were trying to answer the question, “What makes products creative?”
After two decades of empirical research, I published the final factor analysis studies confirming the model and the derived measuring instrument, the CPSS, with its three factors and nine facets or subscales. The three factors of the CPAM and the CPSS are like the three legs of a stool, with each leg necessary for the stool to stand. Each of the three factors of the CPAM and the CPSS are necessary for a thorough understanding of the product’s creativity.
Jobs’ products and achievements demonstrate the two facets of Novelty: Surprise and Originality. For example, the Pixar products from Toy Story to WALL-E and Ratatouille are full of the delightful Surprise of so many of his products. Jobs even designed the Pixar headquarters building to facilitate random encounters among employees as they passed through the central atrium because, according to Isaacson, he loved the idea of Surprise.
Near the conclusion of his book, Isaacson lists a series of industries which were literally transformed by Jobs and his colleagues. Many of these contributions were radical, paradigm-shifting transformations bringing about societal changes. For example, the Macintosh and the earlier Apple II established the notion of home computing. While Apple was not the first microcomputer, it was the first intended for a mass audience, not solely for “hardware hobbyists,” as Jobs called them in the video, Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, which came out in 2012.
The Mac introduced icons, and the graphical user interface was accessed with a mouse, not by typing complex command codes. The iPod changed music storing and collecting forever, even affecting the fate of record stores and the recording business. The iPad has affected the publishing business, and may throw a lifeline to publications that are struggling to survive the loss of subscribers to their paper versions. Although the iPad may well prove to be the most transformative of all of Jobs’ creations, all of these examples illustrate the outstanding level of Originality in Jobs’ creations. Having this much transformational impact on whole industries, not just on individual products, is a mark of Jobs’ performance at the highest levels of creativity.
The next post in this series, The Transformational Creativity of Steve Jobs: Resolution discusses how Jobs’ products excelled in the difficult business of creating products that really work well, another critical aspect of creativity in products.
Yesterday’s Dilbert.com comic strip showed our hero at a party, drink in hand, trying to impress a young lady. When she asks why he’s wearing a flowerpot on his head, he announces that he’s creative. Hmmm…
Is wearing a flowerpot on your head, an act of creativity?
He then states that creativity is random. I guess he means that it just happens without a method or plan. I wonder about the colleges and universities that teach courses in creativity, and about the many scholarly articles published every year that aim to describe, understand, and test the theories (which Dilbert calls “the algorithm” ) that explain creative behavior.
What do you think? Is creativity random? Can it be planned, or encouraged with a method?
Please share your thoughts below, in a comment.