As a musician, I get this question often: “Who is your favorite composer?”
Without hesitation, my answer, for as long as I can remember, has been and forever will be, the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For me, there are many reasons why.
Bach’s music moves me like no other. Though challenging to play, his music is filled with pure joy. Understanding the music of Bach is a lifelong pursuit. Never static, each time I hear or play a work by Bach, I hear something new. Bach’s complex layers are constantly revealing themselves to the focused listener or student. My list could go on and on.
In addition to all of these attributes that I attach to Bach, I am convinced that Bach embraced principles of design thinking throughout his musical career. For instance:
Bach combined the analytical with the intuitive. He coupled research (listening and learning from others) with his amazing intuition, moving things forward by imagining new possibilities. Bach was a master at synthesizing past, present and future into nearly everything he wrote. Even his staunchly well-loved B Minor Mass is now believed by many to have been somewhat of an exercise that Bach used to convey his latest musical discoveries.
Bach employed iterative prototyping. Bach would often reuse his own earlier compositions, revising and improving them. He regularly created three or four versions of a single cantata movement. Referred to as parody in the classical music realm, Bach would re-work a movement from a harpsichord concerto into a cantata movement or parody a minuet from a Brandenburg Concerto in a chorale.
Bach took inspiration from a broad range of experiences and cultures. As a young man of only 20, Bach supposedly walked more than 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the older, well-established organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, play. Surely, ideas generated by this experience worked themselves into his music. Bach incorporated a variety of music styles from throughout Europe into his works. For example, Bach composed each of the four movements in his Partita for Unaccompanied Flute in a popular dance style of the day with German, Italian, French and English styles all represented.
Bach co-created with others. Bach knew he couldn’t go it alone. He regularly looked to others for inspiration and new ideas. One of his most frequent collaborators was the librettist, Picander. Together, they created a large volume of cantatas and other works including, most notably, the St. Matthew Passion.
Bach regularly embraced constraint as a source of creativity. Probably the most famous example of this is The Musical Offering, inarguably one of Bach’s most striking works. In 1747, upon a visit to the palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the aging Bach was challenged to improvise on a difficult theme given to him by the king, himself a formidable composer. On the spot, Bach improvised a complex fugue at the keyboard. Within two months following his visit, Bach completed The Musical Offering, based entirely on Frederick’s theme. The piece was immediately printed and presented with a dedication to the king.
Bach wrote music for the people. He composed music for the enjoyment of the listener. In Bach’s words, music was “for the recreation of the mind…” Bach’s music can sound simple and elegant, yet beneath the surface exists a highly detailed system of counterpoint and fugue. In addition to his responsibilities as church organist and Kapellmeister (chapel master), Bach directed a Collegium Musicum off and on during his tenure in Leipzig. Actually founded by Telemann, this group of amateur and semi-professional musicians met for informal music making at the coffee-house of Gottfried Zimmermann. Through these performances, Bach was able to hone his skills in writing for a secular audience while giving the people of Leipzig exposure to music outside of the typical church setting. Read A Rollicking Bach Time Is Had By All in today’s New York Times for a modern-day reference to these coffee-house performances.
When we think of early examples of design thinkers, the first person often cited is inventor, Thomas Edison. Yet more than a century before Edison was born, Bach composed a set of 15 keyboard pieces in two contrapuntal parts and termed them inventions. I’m convinced that we can all learn more about design thinking by studying Bach and listening to anything from his large output of work, be it his cantatas, oratorios, solo partitas, concertos and yes, his inventions.
Let me know what names you’d add to a list of early design thinkers.
During the past several years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring design thinking. I’ve read inspiring and insightful books and blogs on the subject, heard in-person keynotes by design thinking experts including Claudia Kotchka and Roger Martin, attended a design thinking conference, engaged in numerous online discussions around the topic and have had many face-to-face conversations with others on this often elusive topic.
My still looming question: Is design thinking a methodology, a mindset or something else?
David Kelley, a founder of IDEO and co-founder of the d.school program at Stanford, in a video interview with Reena Jana of Business Week, stated that design thinking can be learned. Design thinking is not a new methodology, according to Kelley, “it used be to be called design.” Companies are finally recognizing the value of design and many are working to make design thinking part of their corporate DNA.
I tend to agree with Kelley in that design thinking can be learned. But, at the same time, I feel that design thinking is a mindset. According to the World English Dictionary, mindset is defined as “the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.” If this is an accurate definition, then I’m convinced that design thinking also falls into mindset mode.
OK, so design thinking is both methodology and mindset. But, which comes first? How does one acquire the design thinking mindset?
In my case, design thinking has been a way of life for as long as I can remember. At the age of 10, I (luckily) embarked on a path towards becoming a serious classical musician. That meant years and years of developing both sides of my brain and, just naturally, blending analytical thinking with intuitive thinking.
Of all the arts, music is the one which best grooms the mind in that hybrid way. During tens of thousands of hours in the practice room, a musician taps into a blended skill set of analysis and intuition. In learning a new piece or re-learning a piece from our past repertoire, we prototype hundreds of times. That prototyping is done alone, with a teacher, in rehearsal and then again during each actual performance of the work. Whether in a chamber music ensemble or in an orchestra, the nimble musician combines what he has analyzed with what he has prototyped and then adds the layer of intuitive thinking so necessary when interacting with other musicians onstage.
So, for some, design thinking seems to come naturally. Design thinking is a blend of years of learning, prototyping and doing.
What are your thoughts? Are there other fields of study that naturally train us in design thinking? I’d like to hear from you.
I just returned from a private* screening of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” the Jan Kounen film which closed the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is now showing in U.S. theaters. Beautifully filmed and acted, the film spoke to me on multiple levels. As a serious classical musician, lover of Stravinsky’s music and passionate devotee of French culture, Kounen had me from the downbeat.
And, what a downbeat it was! The opening scene depicts the tension leading up to the 1913 world premiere of Diaghilev’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, set to music by Stravinsky, at Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The unsuspecting audience, so accustomed to ballets like Swan Lake and others from the late-Romantic Russian repertoire, riots. The dancers and orchestra musicians are barely able to continue performing. The entire scene is wildly disruptive.
Interestingly, Coco Chanel is in the audience and she seems to be one of the few listeners who understands Stravinsky’s music. The complicated love story (and aren’t all French love stories complicated?) picks up again in 1920, once she and Stravinsky have each made names for themselves in Paris.
I was struck by the fact that Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky were immediately simpatico, perhaps because they were both innovators. He, a Russian composer then living in Paris, was writing music with uneasy, syncopated rhythms and disruptive harmonies new to the world’s ears. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel turned the women’s fashion world upside down, designing clothing that was not only chic, but thankfully, comfortably corset-less.
Mark Bernstein, CEO of the Palo Alto Research Center, defines innovation as “a valuable change, unconstrained by the way things are.” If his definition is accurate, then Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel should take their places at the top of a list of early 20th century innovators. Although we usually see the term “innovation” attributed to late 20th century corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Apple, let’s not forget some of the world’s earlier innovators who helped to change the way we think.
Which other early 20th century innovators would you add to this list?
* My screening was private only by accident. Pity no one else showed up to enjoy this incredibly insightful film with me.
Note: Hearing that 10 is a magic number as far as the search bots and retweet-ers are concerned, I’m consolidating my two earlier posts into one.
Aren’t Feeling Particularly Creative These Days?
You’re not alone. Many people admit to being so distracted by the avalanche of stimuli demanding their instant and constant attention that they have lost the ability to be creative. Here are ten tips to help get you back on a more creative track:
1) Do a little something new every day. By challenging yourself to make even a small daily change to the status quo, you’ll unleash some pent-up creativity. Examples: Take a different route to the office or to the coffee shop. Or, order something you’ve never tried before at the cafeteria or lunch counter. Who knows? All this newness could become a creative habit.
2) Talk to interesting people. Seek out people who challenge you to think about topics that are new to you. Everywhere you go, try to catch the eye of someone who looks interesting or different. Start the conversation yourself. You’ll both benefit.
3) Take a walk. When in doubt, take a walk. (This one, I learned from my dog). Walking out-of-doors stimulates your brain cells. Just the act of moving around puts a creative new spin on things.
4) Turn off the TV. As “creative” as some of those sitcoms may be, just sitting and staring at a screen is no exercise for your brain (right side or left).
5) Listen to Bach. More than any other composer, Bach’s music is so orderly and exquisitely structured that, just by listening, we get the equivalent of “defragging” the hard drives in our minds. You’ll immediately feel less cluttered. Trust me: it works and you’ll enjoy yourself in the process.
6) Get away from your computer. Many creatives claim they are creating at their computers. I disagree. I believe creativity happens when we disconnect from technology, at least temporarily. Our computers and accompanying software are simply tools for executing our creative ideas.
7) Limit yourself. Yep, that’s right. Research shows that when you have too many options (the proverbial blank slate), you can actually hinder creativity. When you begin a creative project, allow yourself just a few tools and make up some ground rules. By boxing yourself in a bit, you’ll force yourself to be more resourceful and creative. Try it!
8) Learn to tango. The true Argentine tango is the most improvisational of all dance styles. After only a couple of lessons with a good instructor, you’ll learn the few basic steps. Then, you and your dance partner can step out at a milonga and create your own dance according to the mood, the music and what you wish to communicate to each other. Argentine tango may be the only dance form that allows for unlimited creativity. There are no wrong moves in tango.
9) Fall in love. (Note: Can be combined with #8.) According to a new study at the University of Amsterdam and recounted in Scientific American last week, thinking about love triggers global processing which, in turn, promotes creative thinking. According to the researchers, romantic love induces a long-term perspective and allows the mind to make remote and uncommon associations. I’m convinced!
10) Travel. Akin to the global processing theory of #9, traveling spurs creativity in most of us. Getting away, near or far, stimulates our minds and clears out past clutter. In particular, travel to unusual locales opens up our minds to new ways of looking at things. Supposedly, even just thinking about traveling can get those creative juices flowing. (And, yes, you have my permission to book that trip to Buenos Aires to learn the tango right away!)
Let me know your thoughts. How do you get creative?
As a followup to my earlier post, here are five more ways to spark your creative fire.
1) Get away from your computer. Many creatives claim they are creating at their computers. I disagree. I believe creativity happens when we disconnect from technology, at least temporarily. Our computers and accompanying software are simply tools for executing our creative ideas.
2) Limit yourself. Yep, that’s right. Research shows that when you have too many options (the proverbial blank slate), you can actually hinder creativity. When you begin a creative project, allow yourself just a few tools and make up some ground rules. By boxing yourself in a bit, you’ll force yourself to be more resourceful and creative. Try it!
3) Learn to tango. The true Argentine tango is the most improvisational of all dance styles. After only a couple of lessons with a good instructor, you’ll learn the few basic steps. Then, you and your dance partner can step out at a milonga and create your own dance according to the mood, the music and what you wish to communicate to each other. Argentine tango may be the only dance form that allows for unlimited creativity. There are no wrong moves in tango.
4) Fall in love. (Note: Can be combined with #3.) According to a new study at the University of Amsterdam and recounted in Scientific American last week, thinking about love triggers global processing which, in turn, promotes creative thinking. According to the researchers, romantic love induces a long-term perspective and allows the mind to make remote and uncommon associations. I’m convinced!
5) Travel. Akin to the global processing theory of #4, traveling spurs creativity in most of us. Getting away, near or far, stimulates our minds and clears out past clutter. In particular, travel to unusual locales opens up our minds to new ways of looking at things. Supposedly, even just thinking about traveling can get those creative juices flowing. (And, yes, you have my permission to book that trip to Buenos Aires to learn the tango right away!)
So, what ways have you found to get creative? Post your comments.
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