Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Little Light Reading

Since I work at a public library, I get to peruse magazines like Publisher's Weekly and the School Library Journal.  I don't read them cover-to-cover, but I get some ideas on what's new and what's popular.  The above book by Jonah Lehrer got good reviews, and since creativity is a topic of interest to me, I decided to check it out.

The book opens with a hilarious story of Proctor and Gamble trying to come up with a new floor cleaning product in the 1990s.  At the time, they were heavily invested in R & D and "had more PhDs on their staff than MIT, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard combined."  But it was very difficult to come up with a stronger floor cleaner that didn't actually damage the floor.  Finally, they turned to a design firm called Continuum to try to come up with something new.  These designers decided to avoid the chemistry of floor cleaners and do some very basic research by watching people clean floors and taking notes.
    When the notes weren't enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms.  "This is about the most boring footage you can imagine," West says.  "It's movies of mopping, for God's sake.  And we had to watch hundreds of hours of it."...  After several months of observation...the team had their first insight.  It came as they watched a woman clean her mop in the bathtub.  "You've got this unwieldy pole," West says.  "And you are splashing around this filthy water trying to get the dirt out of a mop head that's been expressly designed to attract dirt.  It's an extraordinarily unpleasant activity."  In fact, when the Continuum team analyzed the videotapes, they found that people spent more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning the floors; the tool made the task more difficult.  "Once I realized how bad mopping was, I became quite passionate about floor cleaning." West says, "I became convinced that the world didn't need an improved version of the mop.  Instead, it needed a total replacement for the mop.  It's a hopeless piece of technology."
The story goes on to reveal another insight the team gained when they watched a woman sweep up some spilled coffee grounds with a broom and dust pan, and then finish getting the last crumbs with a wet paper towel.  You've probably guessed by now that the product Proctor and Gamble released in 1999 was the Swiffer, more than three years after Harry West and his team watched those video tapes.

The book has many tales of creativity and invention similar to this one, and explores the creative minds of people like Bob Dylan, Dick Drew (who invented masking tape), W. H. Auden, YoYo Ma, and Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the "I heart NY" logo.  It is more than 265 pages, and reads pretty quickly for nonfiction.  I'll try to summarize what I learned about creativity from the book:

  • Flashes of creative insight (even in people with innate talent) are always preceeded by long periods of arduous work;
  • Often, "the act of invention was really an act of recombination" and "insights come from the overlap between seemingly unrelated thoughts";
  • The brain is more likely to make connections and have insights during periods of relaxed mental activity or when a person is daydreaming;
  • To encourage greater creativity, various artists (especially those who do improv) work at becoming more childlike by turning off the brain's censor or filter; 
  • Many people hit their peak of creativity around the age of 30, but being exposed to new ideas, concepts, techniques, places, or situations can spur creative growth;
  • People who work in cooperative groups where they bounce ideas around and freely critique each other are more likely to come up with better new ideas;
  • People who live in cities are exposed to more new situations, people, languages, and cultures and so are more likely to be creative.
In short, there is a lot of information about creativity in this book!  If I were planning on applying it to my life, I suppose I would give myself more down time so I could daydream, keep exposing myself to new materials and techniques, take more trips to NYC, and be more willing to open myself up for critques by trusted group members.  Sounds like a plan!


Vivien Zepf said...

I'll take any excuse to go into the city more often! :) sounds like a great book.

norma said...

It does indeed sound like a great book. I'll have to look it up.