The Search for a Yakacorn

Where do I begin.

This is about the past and the future…the mystical and the magical…the fur and the fervent…and the best damn chance we have to design an end to poverty before the end of our lifetimes (or the end of the small island states, whatever comes first). This is about the Yakacorn (yak-ə-kôrn).

Early depiction of what we believe is a Yakacorn, c. 40,000 B.C.E.

I first learned of the Yakacorn quite serendipitously. I was knitting Alpaca wool socks to go with a mohair infinity scarf my grandmother made me, and a friend suggested I read the literary masterpiece “Fuzzy Navel Gazing,” which has enjoyed a relatively reclusive life in the archives of Fleet Library at RISD. Those that are lucky enough to find and read the piece are gently propelled into the author’s (who has yet to be identified) enthralling investigation of the world’s most revered designers, dating all the way back to the Greeks.

“It started with a thatch,” the author writes, “a common thatch of fur around the navel area mysteriously appearing in many of the early, unreleased, an often ill-documented portraits of some of the world’s great early designers, like Archimedes, DaVinci, and Thomas Edison.”

A rare glimpse of a thatch of fur on Archimedes shortly before the Eureka moment.

The author, who discovered this during her thesis on portrait artists, goes on to expose the lore of and worship behind a mythical creature with the magical sparkle of a unicorn and the grit and reliability of a yak. While its origins are unclear, the Yakacorn, as it would become known, was most certainly emblematic of an aspiration for all of the world’s greatest designers. It stood for a standard of design excellence marked by intrigue, impact, curiosity, and creativity. The fuzzy navel was a discreet nod to this standard (read: horns are not discreet). And as for the the whole gazing bit, well, let’s just say that this was a less-than-discreet nod to our unknown author’s penchant for getting lost in innies and outies.

I would later come to find out that what was once a mythical obsession of a small few in the design community became the very real obsession of a large many around about 2005. This small-town farmer in upstate New York was fascinated by long-tail ecommerce strategies, and after reading Fuzzy Navel Gazing, fancied himself a breeder of highly niche animals like, you guessed it, Yakacorns. After what can only be described as a truly transcendent mating activity/dance/ritual/procedure/game between a unicorn and a yak, out comes the Yakacorn.

Artist’s depiction of a Yak and Unicorn mating.

Straight from the womb, its beauty, verve, and gravitas are unrivaled. Its commanding hooves are delicately draped in elegant rainbow feathers. Its horn—oh boy, that horn—is piercing in its intensity and radiance and gives off an aura of pure fricken’ brilliance. In many places where a unicorn would be bald, it’s covered in voluminous, deep brown yak fur that has a fragrance which can only be described as that of a log cabin in Bali filled with spiced orange pomander balls. And those eyes. They have a twinge of delirium that provides a window into the pure genius in the creature’s mind and soul.

True to their origins, instead of putting the Yakacorns to work on the farm, he strategically deployed these beautiful beings (as any good farmer would do) toward solving some of the world’s biggest design challenges: global warming, population growth, and urban density, and airline seats that can finally comfortably accommodate a range of butt sizes. Before you knew it, Yakacorns were becoming the world’s preeminent design researchers, strategists, makers, technologists, and problem solvers. And behind the scenes, everyone was hiring Yakacorns. They were at Apple reinventing how we listen to music and use our phone, at Trader Joe’s scheming up Cookie Butter, at Tesla imagining a fossil fuel-free future, at Deutsche Zeppelin designing the Hindenburg (hey, yakacorns fail too), and they were even in the White House masterminding Healthcare.gov (take two).

So today, the Yakacorn is very alive and very real. What was once an aspirational thatch of navel fur that stood for so much more is now a cadre of design leaders that stands for so much hope. At IDEO.org, we, like many, think Yakacorns are the future. Yet, it turns out they are incredibly hard to find. And no, we’re not talking about the hooved, glitter bomb variety of Yakacorns that got their start in upstate New York. We’re talking about the greatest designers of our generation. Those that aspire to be the Bucky Fuller, Charles and Ray, and Samuel Mockbee of our time. Designers who want to use their talent, craft, and career to address some of the most wicked poverty-related challenges that have no place in our world. These are people who live and breathe the strong tradition of the Yakacorn.

Help us find more Yakacorns.