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August 18, 2009

Inspiration - Some Of The Best Ideas Come From Unexpected Sources


The items in the images on the left inspired the products and brands on the right.

In his 2005 book, "A Whole New Mind,"  Daniel Pink proposed that we have entered an era in which creative conceptual thinking has become increasingly important. Right-brain thinking that is emotionally and observationally based needs to take its rightful and valued place next to the left-brain thinking of logical analytical and theoretical thought. Both science and business often say that the result of creative thoughts need to contain both originality and appropriateness. To get to that final stage, there is a process (the 4I's) that takes inspiration into idea into invention and later into continuing innovation.

So with creative thought a valued process, where does the "first I of Inspiration" come from?  Some examples follow that demonstrate that some of the best ideas and solutions come from truly unexpected sources that are about as far removed from the "industry of record" as possible.  A humble kitchen. A walk with a dog. Street art in some dicey alleys.

1940’s - Velcro

The inventor of Velcro (Swiss engineer George de Mestral) was inspired by the burrs stuck in his dog’s coat.  Returning home from a hunting trip in the Alps, he noticed all the burrs, specifically burdock seeds, stuck fast to the coat of his dog. Examining this scenario under a microscope, he saw that the burrs had hundreds of "hooks" that caught on anything with a loop, dog fur for example.  Thus was revealed the seed of the idea for a new and simple way of binding two materials together if he could figure out how to duplicate the hooks and loops that he had found in nature (burrs and fur). Ten years after that walk with his dog, he submitted the patent for Velcro that was later granted in 1955.

1970’s - Nike

A waffle iron led to a revolutionary athletic shoe sole design and the birth of a global mega brand.  Track coach Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon was experimenting with ideas for shoe outsoles that would better grip the newly resurfaced track at the university. One Sunday morning, he poured liquid urethane into his wife’s waffle iron.  This evolved into the famed Nike “waffle sole” which was first mass manufactured and distributed in the iconic Nike Waffle Trainer in 1974. In 2008, Nike’s revenues were nearly $19B. That’s a lot of waffles.

1980’s - MTV logo

On August 1, 1981 MTV launched on a small New Jersey cable system with a theme song in the form of a crunching guitar riff playing over a montage of images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The MTV logo on the astronaut’s flag is the iconic symbol of the company that was inspired by the graffiti and street art that Creative Director Fred Seibert and his team would see walking the streets of NYC. Contrary to the “industry standard practice” of never touching a corporate logo/icon, the MTV logotype, true to its street art origins, is constantly changing and simultaneously existing in many different creative manifestations.



21st Century - Twitter

I'm not sure what the real story of the initial inspiration for Twitter is.  Maybe it's as "mundane" as some form of evolution of SMS.  But I am intrigued by a recent tweet from Twitter co-founder and chairman Jack Dorsey that read:


Lesson?  In the creative idea economy, you never know what the source and timing of initial inspiration is going to be.  More often than not, inspiration springs from unexpected sources far removed from the confines of the particular business or problem at hand, which says something about the value of an "informed naivete" in the approach to the creative process ...well that, and taking a lot of walks and spending time in the kitchen. Egv_tiny_blogicon


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The relationship of New York City to Twitter is fascinating given the question posed by how the brain makes connections between unexpected unrelated, and rather large quantities of perceptual input--and the creative spark that generates novelty. Of necessity, our senses reduce the scale of a pandemonium producing place like New York to bite size--Twitter extends the brain's organic filtration system further to a transhuman reduction cup of syllables. At the other end of the scale, Big Apples and Big Ideas are Big to us because they somehow magnify a quality that is essential and therefore, useful in some way for we mortals who are cursed to just think small.

How does the brain choose amongst randomness in the sensorium of a New York City? Is it because New York somehow represents an extreme, just in sheer numbers, that it has the storied, magical power to inspire creative people? Leonard Mlodinow's new book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is a recent treatment that adds to the conversation about chaos. Its title suggests that we are sometimes irrational in thinking that we have more control over our fortunes than nature affords.

The serendipity of "the inspired moment" seems to align with this idea that intent or will may not be the keys to generating our most desired result or the best idea. Accident is probably the norm. Statistically speaking, creative thought is outside the norm. Statisticians have a term "regression toward the mean" which refers (according to Wikipedia), "to the phenomenon that a variable that is extreme on its first measurement will tend to be closer to the center of the distribution on a later measurement. To avoid making wrong inferences, the possibility of regression toward the mean must be considered when designing experiments and interpreting experimental, survey, and other empirical data in the physical sciences, life sciences, behavioral science, and social sciences."

Usually, we are all card-carrying representatives of the mean in our daily lives or in what Carlos Castaneda called "consensual reality". It follows that creative souls are biased to explore the places outside the mean for inspiration--and they also may not have a problem in being called "wrong".

The key here is the prefix to the word "insight"--the idea of "in" affixed to "spire" yields our familiar word and the subject of your post--"inspire" or "inspiration". What is interesting about the suffix is that it is based on the Latin word for "breath" or "spirit".

Our language, itself, reduces our understanding and ability to create because we no longer know its roots--"inspiration" is one example. Maybe the answer is that all we have to do is breathe to find inspiration. Maybe every idea is already out there like some Platonic supermarket of forms. The practice of creativity may benefit from spiritual tools like meditation if we are to become empty vessels for the unexpected to blow into or the elixir be brewed in, much like the alchemist's alembic.

Chaos theory is another avenue that can be useful in seeing how Creation, itself, does not especially care for human logic. If randomness is like a drunkard's walk, then, how does the unconscious factor into the equation and manipulate the playing field?

There are enough cases of dreams or altered states giving birth to ideas and invention--one famous example is that of the German chemist, Kerkule, who while madly drunk, and seeing a vision of a snake biting its own tail in a fire, had the insight that the benzene molecule is a ring.

Maybe we should start spilling the wine right now...is that a New York tweet or what?

Can I say "WOW!" to this thoughtful comment. It deserves a whole post in and of itself, but a few things back here.

(1) From you: "The relationship of NYC to Twitter being defined in part by how the brain makes connections between unexpected unrelated, and rather large quantities of perceptual input. That of necessity, our senses reduce the scale of a pandemonium producing place like New York to bite size--Twitter .. "

Me: A great observation on how the brain has an inate ability to filter what many from the outside might see as pure noise. A probably also a good case for smart "personalized" search with Twitter.

(2) From you: "The serendipity of "the inspired moment" seems to align with this idea that intent or will may not be the keys to generating our most desired result or the best idea. Accident is probably the norm."

Me: OK, you have already guessed my follow-on post to this being about accidents that lead to inspiration and inventions. This includes the vulcanization of rubber, 3M post-its, and silly putty.

(3) From you: "...creative souls are biased to explore the places outside the mean for inspiration--and they also may not have a problem in being called "wrong"."

Me: This is so true. Not having a fear of being called "wrong" or even "being wrong" is a critical trait for creative exploration. In so many companies, it seems people are trying to "breed this out" of their employees. Being right 100% of the time is probably pretty boring. Where is the opportunity for "product or experience delight" in that?

(4) From you : "...cases of dreams or altered states giving birth to ideas and invention"

Me: So true. How many times have we jumped up from bed in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem we struggled with all day? Clearly, a lot of problem solving smarts are held in the unconscious. I like some of the points Marc Ian Barasch makes about this in his book "Healing Dreams" - a recommended read.

Thanks again for such a thoughtful comment. And for those who appreciate your polymath-like approach, I encourage them to visit your blog www.tribalmedia.blogspot.com

Nice post and thread, Liz. Would like to add one bit of factual clarification on the Nike history and genesis of the Waffle, speaking as a former Oregon track athlete, student of Bowerman, and present during those formative years of NIKE (then Blue Ribbon Sports or "BRS"). Fellow teammate Mike Friton worked for Bill on formulating the rubber mixes for the soles baked in Bill's wife's waffle iron. The actual motivation for the sole was the need for a shoe that could provide traction when running on roadway surfaces, namely asphalt and concrete (on tracks we use spiked shoes). The jogging boom was underway, led by Bowerman and Arthur Lydiard in New Zealand. And the need was to make a shoe that could provide traction on wet roads (think: Oregon). To that point, BRS had been distributing Onitsuka's Tiger running shoes in the U.S. (today, known as ASICS). And Tiger used a slick outer sole that had no traction. Their 2 famous models, the Montreal and Boston were the shoes of choice in marathons... run on the streets. And the trouble was in rain (as was present for part of the famous Montreal Olympic marathon of '76 -- the last Olympic Marathon in which US runners were a medal force, namely Rodgers and Shorter), Tigers were a traction liability. The waffle sole was a breakthrough solution... one which Onitsuka in Japan was not interested in. And thus, BRS ceased to distribute Tigers, gave birth to their own shoe model, the Waffle Runner (and Waffle Racer) and NIKE was born. Minor point in some sense I suppose, but being a history buff and a fanatic about the intersection of technology and athletics, I couldn't resist offering this bit of detail to your interesting thread. Robin Bahr speaks highly of you. I look forward to connecting.


Wow! Thanks for the personal insight and additional Nike history details. The intersection of technology and athletics is a fascinating space. Some potential new innovation (just launching) I have seen in the space is FitBit at www.fitbit.com

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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.