The Secret to Big Ideas?

It was the 1930s and the global economy had plummeted. Almost everyone was hit hard. Jack, a friend of mine, was just a kid living on a farm in a small town called Palestine, Texas. He remembers his mom sewing clothes for the family out of big linen flour sacks that replaced tougher canvas material. This wasn’t an unusual practice back then. In fact, it became so common that a flour company, like Bembis Brothers or Percy Kent, thought to print decorative patterns on the linen flour sacks knowing that they would be reused to fashion clothes. By 1943, a reported 3 million Americans owned at least one article of clothing made of feed and flour sacks.

Instructional booklet for sewing patterns for flour and feed printed cotton bags. (Circa 1940s)

That connection isn’t as obvious as it might sound. There was a distinct moment when someone reimagined one thing as something else. A person saw a pattern of behavior early enough to visualize alternative potentials, to capture it, and to reframe it as a new or revised offering. But those inventors are rarely given credit, because these kinds of pivots or serendipitous innovations happen as a necessity, workaround, or outright lack of other options and resources.

Women wearing dresses made from feed bags with preprinted patterns. Image attributed to National Geographic (1947)

It occurred to me that these chance creative moments happen more often than we might think, and I started to wonder if we could actually design for them. While I believe you can’t create instant serendipitous innovation, I think you can create conditions for it. Each of the stories shared below — snapshots of evolutions that happened during Jack’s childhood — illustrate at least three ways we can set ourselves up for serendipitous innovation.

Observe to Connect

In 1933, stoves burned hot with coal, but the residue accumulated on walls. It was hard to clean with regular soap products, which would lead to smearing or ruining wallpaper. Enter Kutol. The company was commissioned by Krogers grocery stores to design a product to clean the residue in an easy way that didn’t damage the walls. It worked — but when coal stoves started to be replaced­­­ by gas stoves, and there was no need for it. Kutol was in trouble, until a young new hire, the founder’s nephew, Joe McVicker, saw a bunch of nursery school kids playing with a version of their product that a teacher had concocted as pseudo-modeling clay. Observing these children mold ornament figures out of the color-modified goop, an idea sparked: This was the future of the obsolete wall cleaner. Joe and his team pitched the new idea for a children’s modeling clay to folks in the education industry, and Play-Doh was born. But without the initial teacher making the key connection between the need and the solution, as well as Joe for that matter, Play-Doh as we know it, wouldn’t have been created. In a 1996 Wired Magazine interview, Steve Jobs said: “Creativity is just connecting things.” How might we start thinking of new ways of using existing services and products by making connections?

Kutol Wall Cleaner transformed and repackaged as Play-Doh.

Adapt and Adopt

In the late 19th century, the folks at Frisbie Pie Company in the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut noticed kids tossing inverted pie pans back and forth to one another. The new sport was picked up by college students nearby at Yale University. When the discs would fly too close to by-standers, as a signal of warning the youth would usually yell out “Frisbie!” Though you won’t find a single Frisbie Pie bakery, Frisbee discs can be found in the hands of practically any kid and grownup at the park.

Frisbie’s Pie delivery truck. (Circa 1920s)
A Frisbie Pie pan that would have been tossed as a disc. (Circa 1920s)

In 1939, Fredrick Morrison, a Utahan returning from the war, noticed that kids were tossing saucer-shaped tins and that no one was taking any proactive steps to make the disc any better. He designed an object that reflected the behavior of those playing with the discs, and created the flying saucer toy. Fred went on to make a more aerodynamic lightweight version of the pie pan using a novel material emerging during this time — plastic. Later, popular toy company Wham-O would buy Morrion’s patent of the “Pluto Platter” and rename the toy Frisbee, which people were already using

Morrison promoting the Pluto Platter. (Circa 1950s)

Like Fred, when we allow ourselves to reimagine something, and embrace its multiple uses — often, unintentional ones — we can find opportunities that expand beyond the limits of the original design. My colleague Tom Hulme, a design director and entrepreneur, calls this process of observing behavior and slipstreaming designs into their behavior, desire paths. He says if you look closely, “you’ll find that people’s desire paths are really creative.” Instead of forcing a single way forward, how can we start opening ourselves to existing desire paths that might present unseen opportunities?

Let go, to go forward

Sheet of synthetic rubber coming off the rolling mill at the plant of B.F. Goodrich Co. (1941).

The ravages of the Second World War brought many shortages in supplies and basic materials needed for the war effort in the United States and Europe. Rubber was especially necessary, but hard to come by. The U.S. War Commission Board called for cheap synthetics to replace the scarce resource. In a General Electric lab nettled in Connecticut, James Wright came up with a series of alternative materials, none of which were adequate substitutes for a variety of reasons.

One of these materials had a bounce to it; it was malleable and stretchable, but wouldn’t keep its shape. After the product was circulated among a group of engineers, it almost got scrapped, until it found its way to the owner of Block Shop Toy Store in 1949, Ruth Fallgatter, who hired Peter Hodgson to market it. Peter saw the potential, and bought $148 worth of the slick and sticky peach-colored synthetic. He packaged small quantities in little plastic eggs with the slogan “the real solid liquid” — now known to us as Silly Putty. Within three days, he had sold 250,000 units.

The Packaging For Silly Putty Looked Like a TV to Tie in With the Flood of Television Advertising. (Circa 1950s)

An accident turned into an unpredictable success. My colleague Colin Raney, former managing director of IDEO Boston, has reflected on the theme of designing for serendipity. He suggests that serendipity is the outcome of the collision of “pre-existing knowledge, behaviors that encourage you to see new patterns, and, most importantly, stimulus that reframes what you’ve known to see something new.” How can we not give up on the potential of a thing, while allowing ourselves to reframe it in new ways that we didn’t imagine before?

So if we’re interested in creating the right culture and conditions for serendipitous innovation, here’s how to start. First, be open: observe and look for connections between things that may be disparate. Second, adapt whatever you’re doing to existing paths and behaviors and see if you can adopt funky ways people reimagine your “thing.” Finally, let go of attachments of what “it” is suppose to be, but don’t give up so easily on the seed of your idea because you could have something big — even if it is by accident.

Steve Jobs finished that statement above about creativity by adding, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

The next big innovation could be in your garage, nephew’s closet, that forgotten computer hard drive disc you left at your mom’s place, or right in front of your nose. Keep looking, connecting, and iterating.

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