Sunday, September 10, 2017

3 Books about Innovation, the Power of Simplicity.

I read some books about innovation, and they all say the same thing: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

1.  One of them is Ed Catmull's Creativity, IncOne of my respected colleagues, Cheryl Lloyd, sent me an email with the subject line, "My book choice for you to read, Greg!"  The email had no text in the body of it, just an attached photo of the cover.  I was intrigued and read the whole thing over the next couple of days.  Catmull told really interesting stories about Pixar, one of my favourite movie studios.  They consistently produce high quality, entertaining, and imaginative movies that appeal to a wide audience where age really doesn't matter.  The one thing that drives every movie, and drives every decision of making each movie is one thing: the story.

The story is the thing that is the conduit for the characters, the setting, the animation, the music, the marketing, etc.  Everything.  It becomes really apparent from the anecdotes and examples that Catmull describes in the book that the directors, the producers, and animators have to understand and be committed to the story or the project does not work.  I loved the book as a good read about corporate insight, an understanding of the creative process, and (from a follow up email from Cheryl) how the physical building affects communication and creativity.  This entire blog is devoted to how a creative environment enhances people's (students') productivity (learning).

2.  The second book, Insanely Simple by Ken Segall is about Apple and Steve Jobs, and how Jobs was always striving for simplicity.  Examples are: the one button iPhone, the two word ad campaign, "Think different.", and the clean lines and user interfaces of iPods, iPads, and iMacs. Not only are Apple's products minimalist and streamlined, but their processes are too.  There aren't meetings about meetings, in fact Segall explains how Apple's meetings are a small number of creative people who have the authority to make decisions.  Segall tells the story of Jobs politely but clearly asking people to leave meetings because their roles and functions are not clear, nor necessary to making decisions.  Similarly, there are no focus groups.  Jobs eschews focus groups because they tend to yield mediocrity, not innovation, or try to please everyone which leads to feature bloat.  

3.  The third book is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May.  I wrote about this book years ago (here), but I was reminded of it while reading these two other books because of its message of simplicity.  Elegance in design is the reduction of the unnecessary and distracting; the ability to pare something down to its core but still allowing the user to modify and personalise.  

What does this mean for education and classroom design?

I love elegance.  In the things I have created and designed, I have tried to keep everything as simple as possible, rejecting the ornate.  Reading these books, I am reminded of how important simplicity is.  

As we've been getting ready to go back to school, I've seen countless images of classrooms on line Classroom design has really taken off in the last few years, but with the influence of Pinterest and TV design shows, I think we have created a monster.  In the name of classroom design, people are creating these beautiful and interesting spaces, but they are beautiful and interesting the same way that I find Las Vegas beautiful and interesting.  

We are packing classrooms with homey borders and accessories, lighting that rivals something from Cirque de Soleil, furniture that is varied in colour and design presumably to give students choice, but might turn out to be clunky because they don't fit with the rest of the classroom, etc.  Maybe it's because I value simplicity, or maybe it is because MY purpose of classroom design is to help self-regulation while kids learn and to remove distractions, but I think we need to dial back and edit some of our design choices.  I am definitely guilty of this and need to relook at my classroom.  

These three books uphold the power of simplicity.  I think this concept is directly applicable to education as well, beyond classroom design.  Why not keep the users' (students') experience (learning) as clear and as simple as possible?  By simple, I don't mean boring, but how about a clean, clear way that keeps distraction and abstraction to an absolute minimum?  You know, elegant?

I took this picture to remind me what simple looks like.

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