The Cure for Innovation Inertia

Editor’s note: Kristina Loring manages content and community at frogdesign. Below, she responds to Kyna Leski’s 2009 PopTech talk about design and creativity, which will be released later today. For more background, see the liveblog post on Kyna’s talk, and read Kyna’s own response with notes on her talk.

Kyna Leski
cc image of Kyna Leski at PopTech 2009 by Kris Krug.

“Dwelling in uncertainty is key to growth and moving beyond the known through the imagination,” Kyna Leski told us at PopTech last fall. Leski, a principal at 3SIXØ Architecture and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, is less concerned with what her students know than she is with their “journey towards knowing.” Leski advises her students to “reach for the ground to find that the ground isn’t there.” In that way they’ll be able to let go of their preconceptions about ways of working (or ‘knowing’).

For me, this talk was a call to action, a challenge to break out of the box in order to discover visions and solutions that exist but that are usually hidden by our own applied filters. Stepping outside of our learned systems — departing from our routines in order to enliven our perception — is the perfect prescription for activist fatigue, writer’s block, or, indeed, any kind of innovation inertia.

Leski shares her experience sketching a design for a chapel that would expand the size of an existing church and give it more light, room, and space (or as Leski says, “allow the space to breathe”). When she created the 3D model of the church she kept forgetting to add the spire because it wouldn’t work with her design. Leski began to wonder why the spire was needed at all, so she turned to a dictionary to find the original meaning of “spire” in order to gain some insight into its architectural significance. She found that it comes from the Latin word for “spirit,” and is the root of words like “inspire,” “respire,” and “spiral.” So, instead of creating the traditional spire on the church’s façade they incorporated it inside the space by interpreting the meaning of the word in the church’s walls. Leski literally shaped the interior walls into a spiral that was integral in helping the space “breathe.”

When Leski moved away from her medium of understanding (modeling and sketching) and focused on linguistics in order to understand how the notion of spire could be understood in a different context, she solved the design problem with an aesthetic solution that actually embodied the word’s original intention. It is only when our mediums are in flux that we can disrupt our routine and gain a new perspective.

Leski’s emphasis on “arriving somewhere other than where you expected” is the ultimate motivation to completely break routine in order to gain an understanding, not only of your design problem, but to engage with larger social and political challenges. Applying Leski’s mode of Material Reasoning — the process of working with material to find, form, and develop ideas — helps us prototype a new set of systems, norms, and structures instead of defaulting to old ways of thinking. Leski wants us to embrace the unknown and create a space for both receiving information and using that information to “form a concept of the world and our place in it.” In other words, just having information (which is made ever more accessible by Google and new forms of search engines like Twitter) will not be helpful in finding creative and socially impactful solutions if you aren’t able to transform that information into an action with personal resonance.

Leski’s idea has implications beyond just design. It is, in fact, related to creating social change and fostering communal and personal empowerment. It is a matter of stepping outside of the system we are working to change in order to gain an understanding of what is lacking or needed in that system. If you do that, you are able to dive back into the challenge, and contribute fresh new insights into whatever change you are trying to create in the community.

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