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We all know the story: Isaac Newton discovered gravity—one of
the more important innovations in all of history—because of a
chance encounter with an apple tree. We know this, and many stories
like it, because it inspires us. Stories of discovery give us hope
that innovation can come in a flash, that eureka moment when
disparate pieces fall easily into place. But the reality is that
the Newton story, and many like it, are just myths. Innovation
doesn't happen that way at all, in fact.
Berkun's The Myths of Innovation.
Enter Scott Berkun. Berkun has been writing about design and
innovation on his website for close to a
decade. His first book, The Art of Project Management
(reissued as Making Things Happen), helped design-minded
individuals think about how to structure a well-run project. In his
follow-up, The Myths of Innovation (O'Reilly), he took on an
even bigger challenge: to debunk those pervasive tall tales of
Berkun's own innovations have included managing the development
of internet products at Microsoft. Recently, we caught up to talk
about myths, discoveries and the art of having an idea.
Danzico: Tell me about the inspiration for The Myths of
Berkun: Well, I had this magic moment when a bolt of
lightning came from the sky and... just kidding. The ideas in the
book were with me for a long time. Over the course of my career, I
discovered that many of the things I'd learned as a student—about
how creative people work and turn ideas into things—weren't true.
And when I quit my job at Microsoft to write books, it was a
natural topic to write about. Most books on innovation are so full
of hype and pet theories that I was certain that people wanted to
be inspired by true stories and the insights that come from
Danzico: How did your role at Microsoft influence the way you
think about innovation?
Berkun: I had a wonderful five or six years working on
Internet Explorer 1.0 to 5.0. I was a young team-lead with good
managers and peers and a huge set of responsibilities for what was,
at the time, one of the most important products in the industry. I
got to experience first-hand all the challenges, frustrations and
rewards of working with ideas all day. There was a ton experience
compressed into those years, and I was exposed to many perspectives
on how things in the world get made.
Danzico: What does innovation mean to you?
Berkun: “Innovation” is a buzzword. Often the word means
nothing—crammed in press releases or as one of several vague
adjectives used to describe a not-so-innovative product. I think
most people would say that innovation means “good” or “new” or “new
and good,” but I doubt it's a word used by most people in everyday
conversation: “Hi, Sally. How was school today? Did you
The paradox is that instead of focusing on what people want—good
products that look good, work well, are reliable and reasonably
priced—many corporations insist on advertising abstractions. Why do
that if your product is good?
Newton's story inspired Apple Computers.
Danzico: What's your favorite example of a theory or myth
that your book was able to debunk?
Berkun: There are too many! If you told me you'd torture
puppies until I picked one, single, specific myth, I'd have to say
it's the attack on history in Chapter Two. We really don't know
much about why things happen, certainly not with the certainty
we're told as school children.
If someone says, “I want to innovate! I want to make the world
better!” they have to realize that the simple tales we're told
don't tell us much about how it feels to make history. All
histories are stories, and all stories, since they can never
represent all valuable perspectives, have serious limitations.
Designers and anyone working to make the future should read Chapter
Two and rethink their assumptions about how the future gets
Danzico: We strive to be more innovative—or our companies
encourage us to strive. Companies hold offsites to inspire
collaboration; Human Resources requires dress-down days so we can
feel more creative; business journals give us “10 easy steps to
being innovative.” Do these things help inspire people? Can we have
Berkun: If a boss wants to inspire innovation, all he or
she has to do is reward people who have the courage to propose
ideas, even when they're ideas the boss doesn't like or are better
than the boss' ideas. If a boss says, “Yes, we will fund that
idea,” or “If you can prototype it, we'll present it to upper
management,” that's all the inspiration most human beings will ever
Casual Fridays, innovation offsites or giving people copies of
Who Moved My Cheese are all nice things, but have zero
direct impact on creativity in the workplace. It's the behavior of
leaders and managers that determines how innovative a group is, and
most of what enables creativity is entirely free. You can spend a
zillion dollars on creativity efforts, but if the basic behavior of
managers doesn't change, you're wasting your money.
Danzico: How does the behavior of our leaders and managers
need to change, then? What kind of behavior has been productive in
Berkun: First, say what you mean and do what you say.
Predictability is huge. It saves time. It helps people focus on the
work instead of managing their manager. Second, build trust. To
protect people, look out for them, work in the best interest, and
make sure they know when their best interest and the project's or
the team's are in conflict.
These seem like basic things, and they are. But there's no sense
in trying to be Grand Master of Managing Super Breakthroughs if you
can't do a Version 12.0 release of a boring, old website without
the entire team hating your guts and burning you in effigy. The
basics always matter.
(top) The Wright brothers' third test glider being launched at
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902; (above) a
1911 glider in flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Danzico: We've all probably seen our own super-breakthrough
ideas done faster and better by someone else. Sometimes done not so
well. Does the first or the best idea win? How do plausible ideas
Berkun: Sometimes the first idea does win. QWERTY
keyboards and English measurements in the United States are good
examples. They were around early and gained dominance so fast that
newer alternatives were ignored.
The path that ideas have to take to get from a sketch on a
napkin to a thing in popular use is complex and unpredictable.
Politics, business, market timing and social factors all come into
play along the way and can derail what most would agree are good
ideas or support what most would think are bad ideas. Much of the
book explores the path ideas take and why these complexities are
Danzico: So if there's no magic bullet to creativity, there
must be paths to get on the right track to creativity—you mention
some in your book: “self-knowledge,” “growing,” and “size.” How can
leaders and the people who work for them find these paths?
Berkun: Know thyself. Creativity hinges on being yourself
and allowing your unique set of experiences come out in your work.
This is very hard to do if you don't know what your own opinions
are or you are uncomfortable expressing them. So get a journal and
write or sketch or doodle in it every day. Have a place that is
safe from anyone else's criticism and spend time there. See what
you do when no one is watching. Explore and experiment there.
Danzico: Everyone knows a famous story about a flash of
brilliance—a eureka moment when innovation happened. Where can
designers look for an “ah-ha” moment?
Berkun: I do think moments of brilliance happen. It's
just that if you look at the history of creativity, these moments
are overrated. You can't put them in a box and take them out
whenever you want. When they do occur, it's almost always after
long hours of working at the same problem. Even when they do occur,
there are often long hours of less exciting work that still needs
to be done to bring the idea to the world. You can be creative and
famous without ever having a singular, jaw-dropping, orgasmically
mind-blowing magic moment.
A science teacher demonstrating the concept of methodology
(image from The Myths of Innovation).
Danzico: In your book you point out that “developing new
ideas requires questions and approaches that most people won't
understand initially, which leaves many true innovators at risk of
becoming lonely, misunderstood characters.” Who do you think are
today's misunderstood characters?
Berkun: Even creators of the past are largely
misunderstood. Van Gogh is remembered more for his ear than his
amazing passions for life. Einstein is an icon for intellectual
brilliance, yet his greatest contributions regard the importance of
the imagination over logic and the risks of our techno-centric
culture. Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King were all
peaceful innovators, yet many of their followers regularly betray
their heroes' ideals.
Danzico: Who should we be paying attention to that we might
Berkun: If I picked just one, the folks at the Clock of the Long
Now deserve way more attention than they get. It's only when we
take a longer view that we see the significance, or insignificance,
of the things we're worried about in the moment.
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