Creative process aka why Jonathan Ive bothered me a bit

Jonathan Ive was at Design Museum a few days ago, as some of you may know. I was bothered by some things he said. Saying “I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process..” is beautiful and emotive. Saying “…the way it comes from nothing.” not so much. He talked about how on a given day at 3pm you have nothing, then at 5pm you have an idea.

Much as many of us are now full paid-up (and how!) members of the Apple fan club, this struck me as odd.

This is the sort of stuff that feeds into the myth of creativity, creativity as a “genius” thing, rather than a “process” thing; that encourages people to continue in the unawareness that even where there is a pretty front-end,there is likely a complex, messy back-end that enables that pretty front-end; that leads to many people — including customers of creative products and services — to expect “creativity on tap”.

I run a creative business, and all this bothers me.

I find that some people expect “creativity on tap” because they may have previously experienced a “creative” person ideating in real time, while they explained their problem. They confuse the process of ideation with what it takes to come up with that one perfect creative solution that will appeal to the creative and the commercial alike. The ideation, I am afraid, does not take place in a vacuum.

I also think that many people simply do not understand the creative process. The trope that creativity is an inborn talent or a “genius” element is perpetuated both by creatives and non-creatives alike, and sometimes, just sometimes, it comes back to bite us. Creativity, that can be scaled, that is sustainable and that does not run out of juice, is a process. When we create a new collection in our jewellery business, it can take us anywhere from 12months to 18months before we are anywhere close to saying “right, we are happy putting this out there!”. The effort that goes into the research, the brainstorming, the iterations, the prototyping that go into creating every single piece is not effort that can be overstated.

And last but not the least, people expect pretty things — outcomes of creativity are often expected to be pretty when it is equally true that creative problem-solving in complex organisations isn’t really a pretty process or a pretty outcome — to have pretty, magical back-ends. When people think, for instance, couture, they think Vogue magazine, fancy photoshoots, Fashion Week and models, who wear pretty stuff and feature in Tatler magazine’s party pages. They do not think months of toil, ideation, whittling down of perfectly good ideas, actual design process, sourcing of materials, trial and error, fitting, discarding of entire pieces, restarting, just the whole painful process of creation.

I do not believe in making or keeping the creative process mystical or mythical. If the product of that process is pretty — or meaningful in any other way — to the customer, most customers want to know more about what went into making it. The overused term “storytelling” is what customers often want. My experience is when they do understand what went into creating the product they are so taken by, they respect it more, they question the price tag far less and they “own” it. There is no greater reward for a creative person than a customer, who internalises the creative idea and the process so profoundly she owns it. Jonathan Ive and his team’s creativity has brought us to that point of emotional ownership, but as he said 99% of us will never look inside our iDevices where most of the magic lies.

More’s the pity.

What next for design? — Jonathan Ive at the Design Museum

Jonathan Ive was the last guest in Design Museum‘s 25th anniversary series of talks. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I stood outside the museum celebrity-watching as leading British designers steadily streamed in. The Conrans, Paul Smith, Ron Arad, and I think I spotted Anya Hindmarch.

Here are some quotes and insights from the evening.

On how objects embody our values, our identities

Talking of his first experience with a Mac near the end of his Design school education, where he had had frustrating experiences with the PC which he blamed on his technical ineptitude, Ive said:

Through the object, that I was sat in front (of), I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a clear sense of their values, their preoccupations, the things they cared about, the reasons they made it. Vicarious communication via the object, I had a really clear sense of this company in California, that I didn’t know anything about. And that had never happened to me before. This was the beginning of the realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are.

On the human condition, the imperative to create something (when asked how a company making desktop products went on to making things for our pockets)

Ive opened with a mention of the Apple Watch, a product, he said, you cannot buy yet. He said, “The parallels with what happened with the technology of timekeeping and what we are facing is really quite uncanny. .. I think it’s part of our human condition.” He later added, “And that is exactly what happened. It was a multi-century transition. From the clock tower to something that ended up eventually on your wrist. What we are doing has some robust historical precedence.”

There is this natural part of our condition. Which is when you see potent, phenomenal technology, there is somehow, I think, a desire to do a few things. You typically want to make it smaller. That always happens. The first thing you do is huge and you put wheels on it and drive around and stuff. Or you make it small, Or you make it cheaper. And therefore obviously more accessible. Then you make it better, more reliable.

On form and materials (discussing the merits of plastic and glass)

You cannot separate form from materials.

On the inseparability of making and designing (and hat-tipping Terence Conran)

Marc Newson wouldn’t be a great designer if he weren’t also a great maker.

On the creative process, its fragility, its evolution to being exclusive to being something that involves lots of people

Ive talked about the wonder of having nothing to having an idea to having a product.

I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process.. and the way it comes from nothing. … The best ideas .. start with conversations. If it is a big idea, you can distill the idea into a few sentences. I still think it is a very fragile process. Sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object.

Over the years one of the things i have had to learn a lot about is .. listening very very carefully.

A small change right at the beginning defines an entirely different product.

Part of the process is .. it always starts with a conversation and a thought. I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and could stand up in front of a group of people like you and try and explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile.

One of the things I have discovered over the years is that when you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea was, it changes. It is the most profound shift in the entire process. Because one, it is not exclusive anymore, it is not so open to interpretation, it is there and includes a lot of people.”

On the motivation behind design, respect and caring

A lot of it starts with motivation. … our goal is not to make money. It’s much harder for good design to come out of an organisation and to come from that as a driving force. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best product we can.

We are not naive. We trust that if we are successful and we make good products that people will like them.. and we trust that if people like them they will buy them. And we have figured out operationally we are effective and we know what we are doing so we will make money. But we know it is a consequence.

There are many decisions we make which may not make fiscal sense. Which is why the motivation I described is so important. And it can cost a lot more to make it the way we want to make it. And that cant justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it is the right thing to do. It’s made better. There is an integrity there.

I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness. 

And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.

On the idea that “good design lasts” and rapid obsolescence of objects now

They can not last so long because they are used, multiple hours of every day, they cannot last as long as you wish they did, because the technology relative to the technology that is now available is so much more compelling.

That is why we all find there is a certain delight in what tend to be singular function objects.

On how design has changed since Ive was a student

Ive once again referred to Terence Conran’s mantra about making being essential to design.

.. in design schools, workshops are expensive, computers are cheaper. .. It is just tragic that you spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not making them.

How on earth do you do that if what we are responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?

He talked about the physicality of objects, and how powerful devices now are in isolation and when connected, and what it means for designers.

In some ways .. the expectation that the contribution the object can make is more important than ever. Somehow for us as physical beings it is really important that the physical object is as compelling as possible. .. places a great demand on those skills to truly understand the physical world, to truly understand the nature of materials.

On copying by competitors and others

Ive discussed how a design studio plays with and develops ideas over extended periods of time, never knowing quite which one will work.

But once you have got a proof of concept “it works”, and then somebody.. it is not copying, it is theft. They stole our time. Time we could have had with our families.

“Do you think when somebody copies what you do it is flattery?”. No.

On being innovative

You know this George Bernard Shaw quote. .. it’s a beautiful thing to say “to do something truly innovative does require you reject reason“.

The conversation and the questions from the audience continued for just over an hour. A lot of thought-provoking points made. Time well-spent.

And one more thing…

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum, Nov 13, 2014

Watching The Watch

I think an awful lot about wrists.

I watch the spans of wrists and their thickness. I watch the sizes of things people wear, which require sliding over their hands (in which case I also watch their hands) and things, which can be strapped on to wrists.

It is the (jewellery) business, you see.

Cuffs that must be open enough to be slid sideways on to the wrists but not open so big that they slide off unnoticed by the wearer. If a closed bracelet, then how much circumference of wrist should we design for, so that it doesn’t hang off smaller wrists and yet not too tight for bigger wrists? Oddly enough hardly any anthropometric data is available on wrists in the public domain. But Apple chaps researched watchmaking and I am sure somewhere they found this information.

No matter what, the new Apple Watch face (not case, the face) at 38mm for small and 42mm for large is just too big. For dainty wrists, at least.

Steel and gold are not really imaginative choices for “fashion”, and pairing them with coloured rubber straps is meh. Not sure whom Apple visualises as their customer but it cannot have been many who live beyond Silicon Valley, which, let’s face it, is hardly the mecca for fashion. The “modularity” of swapping wrist bands is funky but not necessarily fashionable. No wonder despite bringing fabulous fashion editors — the grand dame Suzy Menkes and Vogue UK’s editor Alexandra Shulman — to California, the commentary is at best lukewarm. As a friend pointed out, it takes chutzpah to ask these editors to fly all the way — and to piss them off — just as they are coming off New York Fashion Week and going to London Fashion Week, which are more crucial to their businesses than the latest gadget.

And there was no Angela (Ahrendts) on stage, which hasn’t won Apple any fans.

Back to wrists. If I want to strap an iPod Nano to my wrist, I will go a step further and buy a Panerai or U-boat or some similar shit. If I want to buy a well-engineered watch, for its engineering, the choices are many.

I have never been able to get excited about digital watches. Nor do I find the prospect of wrist-gazing — is it an upgrade on navel gazing? I wonder! — very exciting. To me, watches are a thing of beauty and precision engineering, and conversation starters. They also show time, and there are plenty of people left on the planet, who can tell the time by looking at watch hands rather than read the numbers off a display, I find.

Jonathan Ive reportedly collects Patek Philippe. Which, as we all know, you “merely look after for the next generation”.

And by “next generation”, Patek doesn’t mean the next Apple product announcement.

———————

The flip side. Naturally.

“My prediction is this will bomb”, said a friend, who is not technology-phobic, nor a random naysayer or Apple-hater.

For what it is worth, and regardless of the Apple Watch’s low fashion cred, worse style cred, I don’t think it will.

It is one of the first to risk its high profile brand and its loyal following by creating a near-fashionable wearable technology product. I mean, one look at Google Glass and the Apple Watch suddenly looks quite low-key, wearable.

But more to the point, Apple leverages its existing platform, to begin with, with a health app. Monitoring one’s heart rate and activity is non-intrusively built in and well, with its chunky appearance, the Apple Watch looks comfortably much like the Polar heart rate monitors that some of us are used to wearing.

I also like the reinvention of some known-knowns, as it were. For instance, the morphing of the watch crown into a digital crown. Those, who don’t wear watches but have experienced the click-wheel (yes, that), will not find it alien. Those, who do wear watches, are already used to twiddling with it and may be delighted with the new uses it can be put to. Then there is the finger movement driven control of things that many iPhone and MacBook users are used to, which has been incorporated into the watch as the tap and the press.

Humans don’t necessarily interact with words alone. The ability to send a pulse to someone you are thinking of is cute (if somewhat limiting because that someone must also own an Apple Watch!). And ironic because one will likely only ever want to send a “pulse” to someone, who makes us skip one. The being is in the not-being (to wax philosophical a bit).

As a platform, the Apple Watch has enormous potential. Between the Apple ecosystem and the possibilities of haptics.

—————-

So what about it then?

It is an Apple. It tempts. Sometimes it succeeds.

With my tinkerer hat on, I am curious to buy it and play with it. With my jeweller hat on, I will likely restrict its wearing to my walks and Pilates outings and possibly weekends.

I still maintain that 38mm is too big for my wrist. Then again as enormous watches go, $349 (or whatever it will sell for in the UK) isn’t going to buy me a Breitling.

For now I am watching the Watch.

Technology and taboos redefined – part two

A friend recently lamented on Facebook that she was unable to reach a client on any of the three available contacts she had for him. “Ah, modern communication!”, she quipped.

It set me thinking. About two conflicting phenomena in my life. First, that I have 5 separate email accounts on my iDevices. I separate different threads of my life into those accounts. I also have active Whatsapp, Skype and Viber accounts for other uses. Second, that I disabled voice mail on my phones about 2-3 years ago. I do not encourage anyone to leave me voice mails, preferring text based messages from emails to Whatsapp to iMessage.

Then there are friends in big-cheese type jobs. They seem to use their work emails for everything. But they never take a phone call, preferring instead to use their secretaries and their voice mails as gatekeepers to manage access to themselves.

Thoroughly curious, I scrolled to see some of the status messages of my contacts on Whatsapp and Viber. I noticed that the Viber status message of a friend, who absolutely detests phone calls, reads “only if you must”.

This isn’t a new problem though. As a relatively early adopter of everything from Amazon reviews (first review written in 1999) to LinkedIn (in 2004) to Quora (just about 4 years ago at the time of writing), I have often found struggled with this overload. And about related issues.

About 7-8 years ago, a friend and I were discussing the etiquette for Google Chat. What happens when the green light on their names indicates they are “available” but they don’t respond when you ping them? Are there opening niceties we must engage in, or should we keep it short and sweet? How do we sign off? Soon after we had that conversation, I got quite tired being pinged, no matter what colour the “light”. I have solved the problem by going invisible on nearly all networks and channels I use. With a few closer friends, I have evolved a sort of linguistic shorthand which lets them assess whether I am seeking a real-time conversation or just sharing something they needn’t read or respond to right away.

So what is going on here? Why do we sign up to all these channels of access, and then put up these roadblocks?

Is there real access, or is it just an illusion?

Or are we just trying to cope with communication overload, while balancing it with our FOMO?

As I ‘fessed up, I have often struggled with this overload. But I was often saved, so to speak by the slowness of network effects materialising on social networks and communities. In other words, few people I knew in real life were on these networks so early.

But there comes a moment when a network — or a platform or tool — jumps the shark. A new normal must then emerge. I recall writing in 2000 about how some Goldman Sachs traders were using (bootleg) chat windows to be real time with their clients. I happened to mention it casually in a conference to a gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be their head of security in London. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A year or so later, authorised IM/ chat clients became mainstream. That is when the proverbial hits the fan.

Meanwhile we find ways to cope — we duck, go cold turkey, find other (emerging?) networks, or switch off our online lives temporarily or permanently.

There is a period of hyper-communication, there is a period of quiet. There is information overload, then there is information diet. Sometimes we go indiscriminately all-you-can-consume, sometimes we curate and retreat into filter bubbles of our own or of algorithmic making.

The wheel will turn again. We will find new problems we cannot manage. Until we can.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ga_M5Zdn4

 

Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.