Plight of the Loner

shutterstock_71474599

At the turn of the last century, a brilliant young inventor, Philo T Farnsworth, learned the hard way some endeavors are too big to go it alone. Farnsworth had an incredible vision—one that changed the way we live. From childhood, Farnsworth was brilliant and precocious. He constantly fiddled with electronics and gizmos. As a child, he converted his mom’s sewing machine from a manual one into an electric one. Then there was one fateful day when he was fourteen.  On that day, he was struck by a vision of genius while working on the family farm. The parallel rows of potato fields in front of him prompted a moment of insight for transmitting rows of electronic information that could be reassembled to form an image. At that moment, Farnsworth conceived television.[i] That moment should have also ensured Farnsworth a place in the pantheon of great scientists, but it didn’t. Instead, it signaled the beginning of a lifelong battle of frustration.

Farnsworth was a loner and wouldn’t relinquish control of his invention to a large corporation. For this, he doomed himself into a revisionary tale of David and Goliath in which David lost. Farnsworth didn’t understand the complexities of bringing such a device to market, and he was outdone by the president of RCA, David Sarnoff. Sarnoff had the money and resources that large corporations do, and Farnsworth had little. Farnsworth had to do everything himself—even legal work. One of the saddest instances of Farnsworth’s troubles was when Sarnoff came to visit Farnsworth’s main laboratory in San Francisco, and Farnsworth wasn’t there. He was instead in New York combating a frivolous lawsuit. It could have been his chance to woo RCA’s media titan. Instead, what happened is that Sarnoff left San Francisco relatively uninterested and made a low offer for Farnsworth’s patents which Farnsworth turned down.[ii]

There are numerous occasions like this where Farnsworth either missed an opportunity or was not qualified for what he was doing, such as arguing a case before Congress. In front of Congress, he rambled endlessly.

In general, Farnsworth misunderstood how he needed others to help his invention succeed.  He thought it was clear that he invented Television, and therefore, should always be the King of Television. But as more and more creative endeavors go, television needed resources to come to fruition. There were many parts to it. What he invented was the part that brought it to life. It was expensive, and it was a race. As Farnsworth worked on his image dissector, many others were developing similar technology. Farnsworth just happened to be in the lead at the moment. When RCA engineer Vladimire Zworykin finally filed a patent in 1931 for the iconoscope—his version of the TV camera—there were at least six similar patents from five different countries being filed at the same time. Farnsworth couldn’t keep up and, in 1939, witnessed RCA’s televised coverage of the World’s Fair in which Sarnoff introduced both President Roosevelt and Albert Einstein before claiming television as his own.[iii]

[i]  Gladwell, Malcolm.”The Televisionary.” The New Yorker, May 27, 2002: 112-116.

[ii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 112)

[iii] (Gladwell, The Televisionary 2002, 116)

What Project Haven’t You Finished?

mesh-magazine-call-for-entries-art-design

So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

Why are Art and Design So Important?

http://joshuaspodek.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/supermarket-aisles.jpg

We live in a time when almost everything we do is related to art and design. This is different from times past. Utility, and scarcity determined value before. And there were few choices. It used to be that sharing a photograph was just that. You’d pass your friend a print. They’d view it, cordially comment and then hand it back to you. From there, it went back into its Kodak envelope to be filed in a shoebox under your bed. Other parts of life were the same; many aspects of life had little choice. For hardware, you went to the hardware store in town.

Now things are different, we have lots of choices for everything. We can choose an unbelievable number of venues to share our experiences. That’s great, but accompanying that is the curatorial and aesthetic decisions associated with doing it well. That’s design. And design is everywhere.

Additionally, we have the power to reach many more people than in the past. My posts are regularly read by people in a huge range of countries including Pakistan and Indonesia. Ten years ago, that was impossible. What that means is that when I post something, I should consider that. The flipside of that is more people have access to me. That means competition is greater than ever before.

When I go to the grocery store, I am overwhelmed by choices. My Walmart has 72 choices of tomato sauce, and the cereal aisle is five shelves tall and about 60ft long. Which cereal do I buy, the one designed to fit my interests. If I want healthy, it better be brown and green. If I want cheap, it better not look fancy.

Many of the skills related to artistic production like creativity, expression and design are important because we live in an era of abundance where choice abounds. To be heard, to be seen or to be chosen, one needs to consider that there are others out there who want to be heard, seen or chosen. So developing what are often considered soft skills, the ones related to art and design, is essential for anyone’s success.

Use LinkedIn As Your Personal Advisory Board

JobBridge evaluation

Monday, I got some expert tech advice from Kevin Lawver. He’s a software developer with an impressive resume including thirteen years of web development at AOL. He called me in response to a message I’d sent him via LinkedIn the previous week. I asked for some general advice on the pros and cons of Instagram as a revenue and awareness source for non-profits. I know next to nothing about technology. He knows everything.

How’d I know to contact Kevin? I went through my connections in LinkedIn. He’s local, knowledgeable and a nice guy. Plus, he’s wearing a Viking helmet in his profile picture. How could I go wrong?

I often use LinkedIn to answer questions like this. Rarely, am I disappointed in the results.

I reached out to Kevin because my students have created an awareness initiative through a collaborative assignment in my class. The project asked students to design a social innovation. It’s pretty open. Anything related to bettering humanity or the environment could apply. The problem now is that the students did such a great job, a local non-profit wants to use it. They even got a call during their final presentation from the head of the organization.

In situations like this, where I need good answers, I go to LinkedIn. And you should too. My experience is that people in there are helpful and smart. Since Kevin is an expert, I feel much better advising my students on how to move forward. He explained everything I needed to know, and he followed by saying he’d be willing to help in the future.

Creative projects are open-ended endeavors. In the process, we often get outside our skillsets. When we do, it’s best to get expert advice. Hundreds of thousand of experts are sitting inside that network. From my experience, most are willing to help.

This isn’t an ad for LinkedIn. I’ve just found that by being an active user, I’ve gained a greater ability to solve problems. In the long, messy process of experimentation associated with creativity, it gets scary when the project moves outside your area of expertise. By building your network of connections and joining groups, you essentially build your own advisory committee.

Here’s another example of how I got help.

A while back, I designed a solar light with an ex-student, Ian Nott. The only problem was that we had no idea how to make it work. We’re designers, not engineers. It looked cool, but we needed it to work. So, I posted a question in a LinkedIn group called, Invention Entrepreneurs. It was as follows, “I need help matching a solar panel with my LEDs.” It took a few days for anyone to respond. First, I got a short response that was very general. Then, Phil Rink, a mechanical engineer responded with a three paragraph explanation on matching solar panels and lights. It was amazing. He even directed me to specific websites. Our problems were solved.

 Use LinkedIn and Your Personal Board of Advisors

But that’s not where the story ends. Since then, I found that Phil writes children’s books. Recently, I bought “Keyston Species” on Amazon for my son. I read it first to make sure nothing weird was in there. It turned out to have a great storyline, and its education too. Now Phil has another positive review on Amazon.

 

I used to think of LinkedIn as a bunch of self-promoting ego-maniacs writing crap to sell themselves. And honestly, that’s why I started.  I have a book on creativity that I keep re-writing. I thought I’d post a bunch of times and build as many contacts as I could so I could sell more copies. My LinkedIn Rolodex is over 2,000 strong. But what’s really happened is that I’ve learned a lot from some enthusiastic and helpful professionals. In turn, I’ve helped anyone who has contacted me. For many of these, my unique skillset was exactly what they needed. The best part about all this is that I haven’t spent a penny. I use the free version of LinkedIn.

 

 

 

In the Age of Abundance, Software is Free for Creative People

Autodesk 123D

In the Age of Abundance, it’s amazing what’s free for creative people. All you have to do is look for it. As I’ve mentioned before, there are great classes offered online for free. The Y Combinator startup class in my last post is just one example. But in addition to education, the tools are free too. For 3D rendering, look to Autodesk. There are nine of these Autodesk 123D online apps that offer and incredible array of 3D rendering capabilities.

Catch: Create 3D scans of virtually any object.

Circuits: Design, compile, and simulate your electronic projects online.

Creature: Have a perfect character idea in your head? Bring it to life with this free app for iPad!

Design: 123D Design is a free, powerful yet simple 3D creation and editing tool which supports many new 3D printers.

Make: Turn your amazing 3D models into even more amazing do-it-yourself projects.

Meshmixer: The ultimate tool for 3D mashups and remixes. Mash, mix, sculpt, stamp or paint your own 3D designs.

Sculpt: Push, pull, pinch, paint, smooth, tug. More fun than a Renaissance studio, cleaner than clay.

Tinkercad: Get started with basic 3D modelling – no downloads required.

Sandbox: Here you’ll find some technology in progress.

 

If you think these are to complex and you’ll never figure them out, think again. Two years ago, I put my son on one to see how easy there were. He was ten at the time. Within a few hours, he had the Design app figured out and made the coffee cup below. Yeah, to him that’s a coffee cup. It look s more like a transformer/tank. You have to drink out of the spout on the right. He filleted and chamfered all the edges on his own. By the time he finished, he could manipulate the program to a high degree. The only thing I showed him was how to get into the program.

1

I think the reason he did it so easily is that these programs are similar in nature to minecraft and the Lego Digital Designer. They have a modular sense of construction and the navigation tools are similar.

If you are still intimidated by software, take a look at this video. Using the Catch app, all you have to do is to take some pictures of an object and the program will stich the images together for you, creating a 3D rendering. Take some time to poke through these apps. It’s well worth your time.

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator is one of the best startup accelerators for tech entrepreneurs. It’s been around since 2008 and launched an amazing array of success stories including: Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit and Twitch. Now, they’ve launched an online course explaining their methods. And for the best part, it’s free. The course, “How to Start a Startup” is exactly how it sounds, a course on how to start a startup. And it’s great. I haven’t watched all the lectures. But the ones I have are really informative.

I recommend it for any creative person wanting to take control of their future.

How Sculptures Are Becoming Spaceships

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

For decades, the gravity defying sculptures of Kenneth Snelson have risen to the skies with a unique state of energy. These expansive nests of cable and steel rods possess a tranquil and rhythmic aesthetic quality linking geometry with art. It’s a process Snelson has perfected over the years. His sculptures are always a hit with the art-loving community and the not-so-art-loving community. He calls his combination of tension and compression, “tensegrity.” He and Buckminster Fuller seem to have come up with the idea together.

But as things go, good ideas have a multitude of applications. And now there is a new use for tensegrity—spaceships. NASA is now planning to build tensegrity robots called Super Ball Bots. These flexible robots are to roll like tumbleweeds around on the surfaces of planets sometime in the near future. NASA plans to drop the robots from high altitudes and just let them squish on the surface of the planet. Once they’ve done that, they’ll flex back into form and be good as new. Their combination of tension and compression makes these structures both flexible and durable. Without a central body, they basically look like a ball of sticks. Each little stick has its own brain and motor. Each brain works fairly independently and gang together to create an interesting system of interconnected computers that can continue navigating the robot even if some fail. The bots navigate by the each motor tightening or releasing tension in the cables.

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

It’s interesting to find useful solutions in one domain and then see those same principles jump to solve problems in other domains. You can call it synthesis, emulation, association or whatever. But in general, it’s creativity.

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

 

 

 

If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.

 

While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.

 

To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.

 

How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.

 

How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .

 

What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.

 

What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.

 

How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.

 

For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.

 

How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website

 

I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Chance favors the prepared mind

Over the summer, I had the privilege of serving as a reviewer for the Ocean Exchange. The Ocean Exchange is a nonprofit organization awarding grants to innovative ideas for improving our environment. They give two main grants, the Gulfstream Navigator Award and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics Orcelle Award. Each is worth $100,000. It’s a very generous foundation with a great cause.

The conference for Ocean Exchange began on Sunday. The final winners will be decided later today. Starting the conference, the emcee Dain Dunston made an immediate impact. He opened with Louis Pasteur’s quote, “chance favors the prepared mind.” He followed with statements like, “prepare to see opportunity” and “observation predicts outcomes.” All these are profound and true.

What we expect to see largely determines what we actually see. Studies have shown that in situations with expectations, our first inclination is to think our expectations are being met. Take for instance, if I were sitting at a café table along the sidewalk waiting for a friend. Sitting at that table, I’m expecting to see the person I’m waiting for at any moment. Therefore, as each person walking toward me comes into view, I see my friend in them until otherwise proven wrong. First, it may be hair color that differentiates them as not being my friend. Or, it could be body shape.

This kind of expectation can also lead to what’s call change-blindness and innatentional blindness. These are forms of selectively seeing what we want to see. So if you want to see opportunity, prepare to see opportunity. If we try to see more opportunities, we will in fact do so.

One way to see more of what’s actually happening around us is to be more empathetic. That might seem odd, being empathetic to see better. But if we don’t understand someone else’s situation, it’s hard to see why they do things. Reality is very interpretive with many possible solutions for the same problem. Learning to see can help us be prepared for unexpected moments of insight.