Human beings are instinctively inclined to believe that there are giants among us who are the sole architects of great art, big ideas and superhuman feats of invention. This need for heroic figures is widely prevalent in design.
We love our solitary geniuses: the Paul Rands, the Alan Fletchers, the Wim Crouwels. But according to a new book called Where Good Ideas Come From, by the science writer Steven Johnson, the notion of the sole architect, and of the ’eureka moment’ itself, is misguided.
Discussing his book in a recent Guardian interview, Johnson puts forward the notion that ’It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody
on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.’
Instead, he advances the theory of the ’adjacent possible’. The term was coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman and describes the notion that, at any given time, only certain actions and ideas are possible. ’The history of cultural progress,’ Johnson explains, ’is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.’
Johnson encourages us to acknowledge the power of networks – a force he sees at work in the collective energy of cities: in the coffeehouses
of 17th-century Europe and today via the Web. As he says, ’Chance favours the connected mind.’ And the best way to have good ideas, it seems, is to resist fetishising the solitary genius of the individual and embrace the collaborative approach. Design is full of heroic figures and
studios with a famous designer’s name over the door, yet in reality assistants, collaborators and partners often do much of the work.
Increasingly, I tend towards the view that design is a collaborative process, and rarely, if ever, a solo one. This is a problem for many designers, since most (and I include myself in this camp) are initially attracted to design by the concept of personal authorship. We mostly
become designers so that we can hold up a piece of work and say, ’I did that’.
I was so infatuated with this idea that when I had a studio, I actively encouraged the use of personal credits for individual designers.
I wouldn’t do this now, mostly for the reasons Johnson describes – namely, that creativity is almost invariably a collective activity that needs
the ’adjacent possible’ to exist. But also because design has now become so complex that a networked or collaborative approach is obligatory. No single designer can master all the technical and creative disciplines needed to function as a 21st-century practitioner: we have to share the load with others to a much greater degree than ever before.
But the urge for personal authorship runs deep: it starts with the education of designers.
Our entire design education system is predicated on the assessment of the individual.
Collaborative working among design students is sometimes tolerated, but final assessments are based on individual performances. This creates designers who envisage themselves in the mould of a Fletcher or a Rand. Yet the reality is that most design is done in groups – and is
the better for it.
Progressive design studios have long since worked out that the collective approach is the most productive. The universities are lagging behind here: a new way of assessing the individual is required. The old way is out of date.