Of subtractive creativity

In an earlier monograph, I wrote about transformation and emergence, the kind of inspiring creativity that everyone thinks leads to beautiful products.

But emergence isn’t intentional. It has a magic that is hard to understand and often replicate.

Intentional creativity and beauty however can come from removing things. But in any such intentional design process, we must begin by asking: what is our goal? What are we trying to achieve?

I have been contemplating subtractive creativity while I soak up some sunshine in the land of Tesla and self-driving cars. So naturally we are going to talk about cars! And since wall-to-wall sunshine makes me miss Britain and all things British, talking of a British car will be the perfect story to ponder.

Cars really just take us from A to B. We want them to do it fast. We want them to look pretty while doing that. And we want them to embody something magical in all that.

Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars said: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” There in a few words is the philosophy of design — subtractive creativity — at Lotus cars, who also power the Lotus F1 team.

Some high grade engineering and creativity goes into removing weight from a car to make it that noticeable bit faster. Some of that weight subtraction was made to serve a market for a two-seater car and some was powered by innovation in materials.

But as some of you may know, Lotus suffered financial difficulties which may raise the question I often ask about sustainable – which includes profitable – creativity.

Graham Nearn, the founder of Caterham Cars, bought the rights to Lotus Seven, which despite some regulatory challenges in the global markets, continues to be a popular — fast — car for the enthusiast. (Yes it is not for everyone. Just like any other luxury product!)

As environmental concerns become central to how we think about the transportation problem, subtractive creativity wins again. Lotus is a lead player in thinking about the environmental impact of their cars at every component level.

Indeed Tesla, which seems now to be everyone’s dream car, collaborated with Lotus in the creation of the Roadster. The relationship didn’t work out best for various reasons and now fewer than 7% of the components are common between the Tesla Roadster and Lotus’s EV. But as discussions abound about the weight of the Tesla S, mostly due to its battery, Tesla may yet have to rethink some of its design.

It isn’t, in the end, about Lotus or Tesla but about the homage they both pay to subtractive creativity. And by extension, to sustainability – of the creativity, of the environment, and of the human being’s quest for movement, speed and beauty all at the same time.

Best stated in the words of Colin Chapman, Lotus’s founder: “Simplify, then add lightness.”

Unflattered by imitation

Luxury marques trade partly on the tangible benefits of craftsmanship, provenance and history, and partly on exclusivity (i.e. some can only aspire to them not afford them) and the brand name’s signalling value.

While discussing the face-off between the democratic web and the exclusive nature of luxury, in an earlier post, I wrote that the democracy-exclusivity divide may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

Luxury brands like to connect with the fans of their brands on social media but they draw the line at being flattered by imitation such as offered by counterfeit, fake or knockoff goods that some “fans” of the brand may purchase. There may be uncertain brand building gains but there is potentially certain revenue loss. While in most cases, it is expensive and time-consuming to go after sellers of counterfeit or knockoff goods, in other cases, such as the litigation LVMH brought against eBay, it is possible to make a concerted effort to suffocate the trade in fakes.

Museum_of_Counterfeit_Goods_Wikimedia_CC3.0Who buys these counterfeit or knockoff goods, with intent, anyway?

Some are bought by people, who aspire to but cannot afford the brand, yet nonetheless wish to signal their worth to others. In that sense, one could argue, that knockoffs do not really devalue the original brand. They serve a different market. They serve aspirers. These aspirers may or may not have real social influencer status, so their purchases may not matter either way.

A knowing few (hipsters?) often deliberately choose fakes. Someone I know socially, who can afford to buy the real thing, wears a fake Patek Phillipe Calatrava. It is a topic of gossip amongst those, who don’t know him well. On the other hand, a person, who knows Patek Phillipe craftsmanship well can tell immediately and won’t be impressed with his fake watch. His defence was, “I wear the fake ironically.” That makes it alright then.

Amongst those, who knowingly choose to buy fakes, some find social embarrassment mortifying. If you carry a fake Birkin, but move in circles where many have the real thing, that embarrassment will find you sooner than later.

Some others I know socially first bought counterfeit goods because of the aspiration value of the counterfeited brand, and because they coveted the brand’s beautifully made products. But then they found the quality satisfactory for their purposes and have continued buying those counterfeit products.

This is where it gets tricky for luxury brands.

How do luxury brands then stand out so that they can bring these people seeking quality into the fold or at the very least make the genuine article stand out so dramatically that the aspirers move away from fake goods altogether?

I see three flavours of a new kind of exclusivity emerging.

The first kind, that has been running for a few years now, is to make the brand aura accessible via collaboration with a high street brand, as Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant and others have done with fast fashion H&M. Such collaborations create a kind of desire and exclusivity within the mass market milieu, satisfying some aspirers while probably nudging others into exploring the real thing.

Then there is the use of technology to create and enable an inclusive form of exclusivity, such as Burberry enabling customers to buy off the catwalk and have goods personalised for a limited period after a fashion show.

But above all, luxury turns to its roots in craftsmanship, the exclusivity of custom-made novel fabrics and materials, such as practised by Mary Katrantzou, who is having a special kind of lace and embroidered jacquards specially made in Swiss mills. This is near-impossible to knock-off and the goods are certainly far from anything the mass market can access.

Luxury will always have an uncomfortable relationship with the democratising effect of the web and emergent technologies. In exclusivity lies its allure.

What will emerge is innovation in ways of keeping that exclusivity alive. And in ways of influencing the intent of fans and potential customers towards the real thing and away from fakes.

Craftsmanship is the reliable foundation luxury can always turn to.

But will that suffice?

Pretty and other things about tech wading into luxury

I see a lot of chatter on Twitter about how some lollipop/ icecream/ sundae update on Android doesn’t work on this device or that from different manufacturers. Then there are the workarounds, the fixes that one needs to learn, and consequent boasts on Twitter. And the many exhortations to do factory reset and start from scratch.

And I wonder.

This is 2015.

I have been using a mobile phone for 20 years now.

A technology that is pervasive and unarguably central to our lives, like water and oxygen, needs to be easier than this Android malarkey. It needs to be low cognitive load. I think often and a lot about cognitive load because I research and teach masterclasses in better decision making. That is my beat. The decisions can cover a vast scope — from organisation design, to product design, to making it easy for a customer to find, buy and use the product.

My iDevices — the iPhone and the iPad in particular — are low cognitive load. The UI is intuitive, and the capacitive touch screen is sensitive and easy to use for older and younger persons alike.

Some may say these iDevices are dumbed down, and use derisive words such as Mactards (!) for people like me. Frankly I would rather use my cognitive surplus (thanks, Clay Shirky, for that wonderful coinage!) on things more productive than making my mobile phone work.

If one wishes to create a business or a product for high frequency or pervasive use, making it easy to use is essential.

Then there is designing for human follies. And real world use. And end-of-life considerations. In business speak, these are considerations for process and incentive design.

Have you ever lost an iDevice? Then again, have you ever lost any other mobile phone or connected device? Let me know how you got on with the latter!

Recently I have misplaced a device, and had a device stolen. The lost one was found because I could locate it and track its movement from the time the loss was registered with the authorities in charge to the time it was found and returned. The time one was stolen, at least I could trigger the remote wipe as soon as the thief tried to get in.

Insurance companies replace the device not they can not replace the data, which is far more valuable.

Which brings me to back-up and synchronisation.

Yes, the iTunes UI could be much improved. It is far from being the best showcase for user friendly design. But the back-up and synchronisation happen easily. Without much effort (or cognitive load, see above).

Then there is seamless recycling for old or end-of-life devices. Apple’s recycling partner agrees a sum of money during the online registration process. I wipe the data on the old devices and ship it free-of-charge to the recycling partner and receive the money. Apple is in compliance with the WEEE Directive in Europe. As a consumer, I am happy not to have old devices cluttering my shelves, and as a citizen, I am pleased I am not contributing to environmental garbage in the world.

JeanPaulGaultier_Barbican2014

Then there is pretty.

The iDevices are pretty. There is no getting away from it. I work in luxury. Pretty is luxury’s calling card. The iDevices fit the bill.

When a consumer spends a considerable chunk of money on one’s product, it behooves us as businesses to deliver a seamless, satisfying, low effort and pleasant consumer experience all round.

It is harder than it looks, it costs money, it needs a lot of imagination and profound understanding of the consumer’s journey with the business.But above all it takes commitment.

For the tech companies looking to play in the luxury or premium markets, there is a lot to learn from Apple. As well as from the fact that the best regarded luxury sector players demonstrate that serious commitment at every step of the customer’s journey with them. Those that don’t may not and often do not last. More’s the pity.

Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.

The importance of being prepared

Yesterday, a young friend of mine met with a well-regarded academic in her field. He has been teaching for over 2 decades. When she went to see him, he was preparing feverishly for a one-hour lecture he was about to give to an audience of young undergraduates, who wouldn’t know better if he sneaked in minor inaccuracies.

And yet he was preparing.

She was floored.

“Shefaly, he was preparing so hard when he knows so much already!”, she said. Of course he was, I said. It reminded me of when I had started teaching undergraduates and used to spend 4-5 hours preparing for my 90 minute class. I teach Socratically, so it isn’t like I was going to control all the content anyway. A dab hand had, in fact, helpfully advised me that with our experience, we could probably teach with 15-20 minutes of preparation, something I just could not accept.

But we had clearly articulated learning objectives in the session. As the facilitator/ teacher, my job included steering the discussion, keeping it productive, managing attempts at deliberate or unforeseeable derailment, concluding in time, and keeping the students engaged and interested all the time. All that needs intensive preparation — and being focused and centered mentally all the time in the classroom.

Then another friend of mine was invited to speak at an event. “I bet you will be the most engaging and fun speaker on the panel”, I said to her. She said, “There is no panel, there is an open floor whatever that means”. I was surprised. “You mean there is no speaker briefing other than the headline topic?”, I asked her. She said there wasn’t.

This is the same situation but from the other side. Because she has no brief, she cannot prepare. Like her, the other invited speakers will be speaking ex tempore.

Just as a minuscule proportion of people are actually good speakers, an even tinier percent of them are good ex tempore speakers.

In fact, good ex tempore speaking takes even more preparation. One does not just need to be focused and centered mentally at the lectern or stage. One also needs good self awareness, an ability to abstract one’s life experiences, and tell the story in a way that others can take with them and consider before accepting or rejecting. One is also required to be engaging, while not sounding like one is reading off a script, never mind it is one’s own life script. This works not just for autobiographical topics but also for technical or specialty topics. I can speak ex tempore on decision making, design thinking, the cusp of strategy and culture and a host of other things but I prefer not to. Even after 20 years or more of professional immersion in these things.

In his biography of CK Prahalad, the late management thinker, teacher and writer, Benedict Paramanand writes about his obsessive and meticulous preparation, whether speaking with Thinkers 50 or 10000 high school kids in Chennai, or teaching. His wife discusses how he threw away his notes and started afresh every time he taught his course.

Speaks for itself, I think.

Preparing and giving someone enough notice and time to prepare are both hallmarks of respect — for oneself, for one’s profession or specialisation, for one’s audience.

Not doing either doesn’t say much for anyone involved. The audience is being treated with derision and condescension by a soi disant “expert”. The organisers or coordinators of such events are merely interested in ticking boxes. The speaker should not even agree to be there, if he or she has an iota of self-respect.

If we know ahead, this is a situation none of us would wish to find ourselves in.

To understand the things that are at our door,” wrote Hypatia, “is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

Isn’t that the whole point of all teaching and speaking? To be able to understand — and deal with, may be — what lies beyond?

How do we expect to do it without preparation?