Thursday, May 07, 2009

"How do we come up with new ideas?"

Alison Arieff, blogging on design in the New York Times, asks this always-useful question, by way of giving some serious room to a gentleman who vividly "illustrates" the practical value of plain old seat of the pants blue-sky imagining.

She begins by listing a battery of common distractions we're all fighting through to remain optimistic enough to keep creative and productive, remarking,

"I can’t help thinking that we’re all so mired in it that we’ve forgotten how to get out of it — how to daydream, invent, engage with the absurd.

"That’s why I am so enamored with the work of inventor/author/cartoonist/former urban planner Steven M. Johnson, a sort of R. Crumb meets R. Buckminster Fuller. Many of his musings are simply whimsical, existing primarily as a source of inspiration or delight. Others tackle very real issues, from environmentalism to alternative transportation to homelessness."

(Johnson's caption:)
"Auto Abandonment Zones are built to acccomodate growing numbers of drivers who lose the will to proceed further in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. Drivers may pull off, leave car keys with an Abandonment Officer, and board a nearby train, phone relatives, or calm themselves in 'parks.'" (Bolding mine.)
As one who has spent far-r-r too much time edging along in traffic, in the pre-mostly-virtual world when the only way to get paid was to show up somewhere every day and be there throughout regular work hours — thus condemning you to rush hour drives — I found that to be wickedly dry humor. Arieff continues,
"In Johnson’s oeuvre, nothing gets to exist if it doesn’t have at least two functions: the skylight uses solar energy to cook the dinner, for instance, and the exercise bike operates the washing machine (cleaning clothes and toning the wearer’s muscles simultaneously)."

"Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas" (On Design blog), 5/4/09
For more examples of witty yet functional doubling-up, Johnson has visually proposed an array of gardening tool footwear, including the Weeding Oxfords, Shear Shoes, Lawn Aeraters, Lawn Edging Spurs, and the Watering Sneakers. Presumably, you could accomplish a lot of tasks among the dirt and weeds just by walking around — in a very deliberate manner, one would guess. Afterwards, you can relax in Johnson's Ten-Speed Hammock, or the Blooming Rose Chair with Ottoman (p. 62 in the book preview).

Now, a lot of this stuff is intentionally (we hope) zany; besides demonstrating some fairly precise drafting skills, the man's also a comedian. But the creative thinking on display, focused on real-world objects, can only spark a few fresh thoughts in anyone trying to see where things can progress in their own sphere of influence.

A vast number of such thoughts are drawn out in Johnson’s 1984 book: “What the World Needs Now: A Resource Book for Daydreamers, Frustrated Inventors, Cranks, Efficiency Experts, Utopians, Gadgeteers, Tinkerers, and Just About Everybody Else.” Let me recommend the final, how-to chapter, "Author's Tips for Inventing Useful and Useless Things," which is excerpted there at the other end of that link.
"I sit on the living room rug at home and look out the window at the garden. …I avoid my desk and drafting table, as such furniture has the connotations of serious endeavor, deadlines," etc.
He places a stack of typing paper and a pen or pencil on the floor next to him.
"I find that a few key words and a blurry scribble are all that I need for capturing an idea, but it is important to note down all ideas, since like dream images these products of the imagination evaporate easily and are usually impossible to retrieve."
Related, here:
Building 'Living Space' Around Railroad Stations

Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

Posts tagged innovation and creative thinking

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