Disruptive thinking?

Simon Ellis | December 19, 2018

I’m currently reading the quite brilliant ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’ (Yuval Noah Harari, Vintage). Something struck me from the very first chapter – humans are the original disruptors.

For the advantages of a big brain and walking upright we sacrificed rest time, physical strength, reliable birth, resilient offspring and the idea of reaching for your shoes without unconsciously grunting. It may have taken a further 300,000 years or so and the invention of cooking, but once we got the hang of it that big brain enabled us to organise ourselves behind a common purpose – to create wonderful fantasies, to imagine a future. To solve problems together, prevail over hardships and progress.

Despite being the near antithesis of an apex predator, we managed to lift ourselves from the sidelines to dominate the world and take us beyond natural selection to designed evolution. It didn’t happen overnight mind you. Prior to the Cognitive Revolution some 70,000 to 30,000 years ago we remained an ‘also-ran’: big brained, sure, but not as hardy, sophisticated, compassionate (or as big brained) as our Neanderthal cousins. We could control fire enough to keep us warm, scare away predators and burn things down but we were still “a mere blip on the ecological radar,” scavenging marrow when the lions had had their fill of the good stuff. But whatever the cause, around 70,000 years ago we started doing “very special things” (which happened to include wiping Neanderthals from the face of the earth). (Pictured: Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens skulls alongside each other. Evidence suggests Neanderthals cared for their sick and infirm)

Suddenly we started getting big ideas about, well, everything.

Disruptive? You bet. And we got a taste for it too. Like a giant Stone Age light bulb going off above the heads of every early human, suddenly we started getting big ideas about, well, everything.

And since then we’ve had ever more frequent disruption to the currently accepted norm. Agriculture, war, industry, combustion engines, war, flight, automobiles, war, computers, the internet, war, the digital age, medicine, gene manipulation, a bit more war, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented physiology, 24-hour news and war (although now it’s cyber warfare, just to keep things fresh). We’re addicted. We demand change even if we know it’ll stress us out.

So everyone wants to disrupt – as we’ve read it’s written in our DNA. We want to be the midnight car screaming fan belt agony just as we’re finally on the cusp of sleep. We want to be the cast of Fame dancing on bonnets in rush hour traffic. We want to be… actually, what do we want to be? An earthquake? Sounds great but earthquakes take a lot of energy and they’re not that popular.

A disruption is only given a name in hindsight

Like the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Devonian, a disruption is only given a name in hindsight, when the period can clearly be defined against the preceding eon; when change has taken place, been adopted and proven to be more than a brief but failed experiment.

When the Bee Gees tried falsetto for the first time that was pretty disruptive. When recording the song ‘Nights on Broadway’, the producer said, “Someone’s got to go out and scream.” And Barry gave it a go. And never stopped. Bit of a weird moment in the studio mind you, but what was innovative was that they gave it a go. They didn’t necessarily know people would like it – it was an extraordinary idea – but their mission was music and that’s what the song demanded. They knew their purpose and were prepared to pursue that even if it risked ridicule or criticism. Even if it’s not to your taste there’s no denying their sound is differentiated from everyone else – and we know that because we recognise an imitation immediately. Only in hindsight might we call it genius or a master stroke. (Pictured: The brothers Gibb in full flight. The Bee Gees sold more than 120 million records)

In art, disruption is part of the very fabric of being an artist – it’s up there with chain smoking and wearing baggy threadbare jumpers

In art, disruption is part of the very fabric of being an artist – it’s up there with chain smoking and wearing baggy threadbare jumpers. Cubist painters ‘rejected’ the concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt daft things like perspective, modelling and foreshortening. In their exploration of two-dimensionality they blew apart objects into geometric forms and reassembled them from different viewpoints to create bizarre but often engrossing representations of our world. But they didn’t call themselves ‘Cubists’. That came from the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1908 after seeing Braque’s landscapes of what he described as ‘cubes’. (Pictured: Trees at l’Estaque, George Braque, 1908) 

Similarly, Pop Art emerged from the UK in the mid-1950s, oxymoronically as both a reaction to, and expansion of, the ideas of abstract expressionism. It disrupted the accepted norm by including imagery from popular and mass culture, emphasising the banal or kitsch through ironic juxtaposition or through mechanical reproduction methods (as opposed to hand rendering). But the term ‘Pop Art’ wasn’t officially introduced until December 1962 by which time it had become a widely adopted style not only in art, but also in commercial design and marketing. In the end it became so ‘popular’ it rather deflated its own purpose.

So while we may like the idea of being a disruptor, it’s not really our place to decide if we have disrupted.

So while we may like the idea of being a disruptor, it’s not really our place to decide if we have disrupted. But I would also argue it’s not the best way of focusing our efforts either.

At EllisJames, we won’t be the only designers who think if a client asks us for a specific output – a poster for example – they’ve already gone too detailed in the brief before speaking to us. Why? Well a poster might not be the best solution. The effectiveness of the initiative has already been limited to how effective a poster can be. We’ve already converged our thinking.

However, if we set out with the commitment to diverge our thinking right at the beginning – to create and support an environment of ideation – then we’re really giving the initiative the best opportunity. We may ultimately decide a poster is the ideal solution. But we may decide that a video would work better after realising no one looks at posters because they’re too busy looking at their smartphones.

Early humans made sacrifices to evolve to the top of the food chain but that was over the course of 70,000 years following a random genetic flash of inspiration. They weren’t conscious of the plan their DNA was cooking up for their descendants. But they were nevertheless part of a huge disruption in the evolution of life on earth.

Cubists and Pop Artists may have set out with a purpose – to challenge the norm they’d found distasteful or restrictive – but I doubt there was a ‘Cubists’ day one’ workshop where they wrote down what they were going to do before they’d even put paint brush to canvas. They had a shared purpose – to explore new ways of doing things – and they came together to support each other in their explorations. They created an environment ripe for creativity.

When purpose in business is so important, there is no point chasing disruption because it’s so vague and ill-defined a pursuit – it’s out of our control and forces convergent attitudes.

When purpose in business is so important, there is no point chasing disruption because it’s so vague and ill-defined a pursuit – it’s out of our control and forces convergent attitudes – the very thing that those setting out to disrupt are trying to avoid. Instead, I argue, if what we want is to be able to rethink, reimagine, rework, renew, refresh, reposition and revise what we already have, we should commit to cultivating a creative environment constrained only by the values we choose to live by.

It’s not about trying to disrupt – it’s about a willingness to evolve.

But there’s already a name for that. It’s called ‘Design’.

Si Ellis