Innovation is Art

And art is innovation...

A number of leading thinkers believe that innovation is more art than science. If that was the case, then how would your organisation achieve structured and repeatable innovation? To make progress it might make sense to examine the ‘art’ of innovation before delving into the more traditional realms of science and data.

Let’s start with a few definitions.

The word “innovation” comes from the Latin word “novus” meaning new. Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services.

“Art” is something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feeling. Art is a creative activity that expresses imaginative or technical skill. It produces a product, an object.

It seems as though the two are inexorably linked. Does that mean that by understanding how to create art we would be more likely to develop breakthrough products or services?

Some people argue that Steve Jobs, perhaps one of our greatest contemporary innovators, was in fact an artist. It gets to the heart of one of the most fascinating questions we can ask about Jobs. How, and to what extent, was he an artist? His company developed and sold beautifully made computers and devices while name-checking, in its advertising, artists like Pablo Picasso, Alfred Hitchcock, Ansel Adams, and Miles Davis. Was that comparison unwarranted? Or did Jobs, through his work, become like one of the artists he so admired?

“Art” is a capacious term. We typically imagine artists to be solitary people creating art by hand. But many artists work in more expansive, disembodied ways. We all recognize that film directors are artists, even though, in its substance, the work of directing often involves the management of teams and budgets on a corporate scale.

Jeff Koons employs hundreds of people, and the art works those workers create, at his direction, sell for tens of millions of dollars. Clearly, a vast distance separates Koons’s studio from the world of high-tech device manufacturing, but—at least in theory—the difference could be one of scale rather than kind. If a giant sculpture built to order by a team of employees can be a work of art, it’s at least possible that mass-produced computers could be art works, too.

Often, artists are integrators: in many art forms, discrete elements are fused together (melody and rhythm, form and color) to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Jobs seems to have believed that a similar process applied to computers.

It seems crazy to imagine that the outcome of this process might be an artistic product. And yet Jobs often acted as if that were the case. He likened himself and his employees to artists; he deployed his mercurial personality in the ruthless way that artists sometimes do. He cared about his products the way that artists care about their art. 

British sculptor Anthony Gormley explains how he stimulates his creative process to produce new art “by creating the right conditions for the artistic process to be able to happen”. You could easily substitute the word art in the previous sentence for the word ‘innovation’ or ‘product’.

Indeed, it seems that Steve Jobs was hugely successful at creating the right conditions for the creative process to happen - again and again. Perhaps this was his greatest legacy.

The Letts Group have developed an 100 acre creative campus in southwest England which attempts to fuse innovation and art. Its indoor and outdoor spaces have been carefully choreographed to stimulate breakthrough ideas which can equally turn out art works or product innovations. Artists mingle with scientists. Designers with environmentalists. Business leaders with performers.

Equally California tech campuses are increasingly attempting to develop informal creative spaces for idea generation and informal communication. As more employees work from home, business leaders are presented with a unique opportunity to reimagine their workspaces and working practices.

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci was onto even more than we give him credit. The artist and innovator shifted effortlessly from inventor and scientist to artist. An artist by disposition and endowment, he considered his eyes to be his main avenue to knowledge; to Leonardo, sight was man’s highest sense because it alone conveyed the facts of experience immediately, correctly, and with certainty. Hence, every phenomenon perceived became an object of knowledge, and saper vedere (“knowing how to see”) became the great theme of his studies.

He applied his creativity to every realm in which graphic representation is used: he was a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. But he went even beyond that. He used his superb intellect, unusual powers of observation, and mastery of the art of drawing to study nature itself, a line of inquiry that allowed his dual pursuits of art and science to flourish.


500 years later, the fusion of art and science could not be more du jour. Indeed, the approach could help us to unlock certain natural climate solutions. Either way, art and science might be the perfect 21st century marriage.

And on this path to creative enlightenment we might discover more about how to do innovation by examining how the art world goes about its business, than digging ever deeper into process and engineering.

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