Does Innovation Come "Out of the Blue"?
Are creative ideas entirely new or are they inventive remixes of old ideas?
Posted August 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- The most conspicuously and enthusiastically celebrated ideas are often claimed to be entirely new and revolutionary.
- Some believe that the origin of creative ideas lies in our experienced past and our immediate present.
- Variations, extensions, or combinations brought about by bending, blending, and breaking breathe fresh life into the world of ideas.
Creative ideas are all too often bedecked with extravagant romance. Innovative ideas are believed to arise in a blinding flash, seemingly out of the blue. They are alleged to transcend the ordinary and to be produced only by preternatural prodigies.
This grossly distorted view of the creative process has been criticized by writers including Scott Berkun, Steven Johnson, Mark Turner, and co-authors David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt. For them, the origin of creative ideas lies not in shadowy sources but in our experienced past and our immediate present. Furthermore, each of us—not just the élite few whom history has so prominently and effusively fêted—are engaged in creative endeavors as we adapt to the ceaseless challenges we confront daily.
How we go about that process is largely a trial-and-error affair in which our varied efforts—whether we are pursuing a specific end or are simply engaging our curiosity—are affected by their consequences. And, more often than we might like to admit, our successes are serendipitous—arising not "by design" but "as if by design."
As to the origin of novel ideas, Brandt and Eagleman proposed at least three routes to innovation that derive from existing ideas. See if you don’t agree that truly creative outcomes can nonetheless spring from well-worn precedents.
In bending, an original idea is altered or twisted from its normal shape. I saw firsthand one such dramatically transformed idea on October 30, 1966, at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix held at Riverside International Raceway. Sports car racing was on the ascent at the time, and this Grand Prix was the premier event on the newly formed Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series. Highly renowned drivers from the United States (A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Phil Hill), the United Kingdom (Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, and John Surtees), and New Zealand (Denny Hulme and Bruce MacLaren) competed. However, the man of the hour turned out to be the far-lesser-known driver and car builder Jim Hall. Let me set the stage for his prominence at the race and in the pantheon of motor sports.
Having attended previous races at the Riverside track, my dad, my brother, and I strategically positioned ourselves beside the fence along the tricky "Esses"—a serpentine series of switchback turns—where daring passes were often attempted. A few seconds after the green flag waved and the first left-hand turn had been negotiated, the snarling swarm of 38 low-swung race cars came into sight. The nearby fans first burst into cheers but then caught their breath as two of the first eight cars approached. Each of these shiny white race cars—numbers 65 (driven by Phil Hill) and 66 (driven by Jim Hall)—sported a huge horizontal wing perched atop two black pillars. What bizarre contraption was this? What useful function could it serve? After all, wings send birds and airplanes aloft, something that would be counterproductive for race cars.
Here is where Jim Hall bent the wing to suit a different purpose. Automobiles speeding straight ahead ought to be aerodynamically slippery—they should offer the least possible wind resistance or "drag" to attain maximal speed. But, turning left or right would be extremely dangerous for such sleek machines; now, "downforce" is demanded to negotiate tight turns. Hall, a California Institute of Technology graduate, mechanical engineer, and licensed pilot, reasoned that such needed downforce could be achieved by simply inverting the pitch of the standard aviation wing. That twist was Hall’s unique and widely heralded innovation on his revolutionary Chaparral 2E race cars and the reason for his moniker, the “Father of Downforce.”
But wait! Don’t you want minimal downforce on straightaways and maximal downforce on turns? Indeed you do! That’s the other innovative feature of Hall’s rear-mounted wing: It could be kept level on straightaways and pitched downward on turns by means of a foot pedal the driver could depress. Today’s Formula 1 fans will no doubt be familiar with the Drag Reduction System. Now, you know how it originated.
For those wondering about the race results, Hill’s number 65 started in eighth place, but fuel pressure problems forced the car’s early retirement. Hall’s number 66 started in third place. Over the 203 miles of the race, Hall waged an epic seesaw battle with John Surtees’ Lola, finishing in second place.
In blending, two or more sources are merged. Such mergers can be highly original and outlandish, as in the 18-minute 1932 Colortone Musical movie from MGM, Over the Counter.
Here's some background for the film’s premise. Imagine it’s winter and you’re going to visit a museum. You check your hat and coat. You get a claim check that allows you to tour the facility without the burden of these garments. You retrieve your items after the tour when you return your claim check. Or imagine you’re going to exercise at your health club and you need child care. You can check your child into the playroom while you work out and retrieve your child when you’ve finished.
Now, to the film. Imagine you’re the energetic and ambitious son of a department store manager. You’d like to increase sales to impress your father, but you recognize a problem. When wives come to the store with their husbands, sales are hindered because the husbands soon get bored and rush their wives out of the store. The innovative solution: Wives can check their husbands while they shop. What might entertain the husbands? How about a chorus line of pretty young women?
That was the madcap blend offered in the film, which was set to the snappy song and dance number, "Check Your Husband." The wives could now shop at their leisure and thereby spend more money. The husbands could relish the company of the chorus girls with little or no concern for their wives’ spending spree. A perfect blend, no?
Not quite. Some of the husbands were reluctant to rejoin their wives, sparking marital mayhem. Needless to say, outside of this obscure madcap movie, this specific creative blend never made it to Main Street. Creativity doesn’t guarantee celebrity.
In breaking, a whole is taken apart. In this specific example, three complete wholes were broken apart and their pieces reassembled into a new entity.
Working with the prominent librettist Stephen Sondheim, the famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for the groundbreaking 1957 musical, "West Side Story." The most poignant song in the show is indisputably "Somewhere." How did Bernstein create this moving melody? Did it emerge fully formed in a blaze of creative inspiration?
Most assuredly not. Thanks to the remarkable structural analysis by composer and faculty lecturer at The Juilliard School, Edward Barnes, most of the melody was constructed from well-defined fragments extracted from the compositions of three illustrious classical composers: Ludwig van Beethoven (“Piano Concerto Number 5”), Richard Strauss (“Burleske for Piano and Orchestra”), and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (“Swan Lake”). Barnes’s video offers compelling evidence that Bernstein’s rich musical background enabled him step-by-step and piece-by-piece to painstakingly put together these three musical fragments to produce a most memorable and successful musical payoff—in just the way that Sondheim had suggested in his own earlier song "Putting It Together."
Out of the blue?
Given these and many other examples, how plausible is the contention that new ideas actually arise out of the blue? Not very plausible at all.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers posited that “nothing comes from nothing.” More recently and colorfully, Mark Twain commented that:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
This notion even applies to cartoons, as described by well-known New Yorker cartoonist Robert Mankoff:
All new cartoons are variations, extensions, or combinations of existing cartoons, with enough of a twist to count as different. And all that means is that, even though you’ve seen the previous ideas, you still find the new one funny.
So, although it might in some very limited sense be true to say “There’s nothing new under the sun,” those variations, extensions, or combinations brought about by bending, blending, and breaking breathe fresh life into the world of ideas and energize all manner of human creative endeavor.
Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.
Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The runaway species: How human creativity remakes the world. New York, NY: Catapult.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.
Turner, M. (2014). The origin of ideas: Blending, creativity, and the human spark. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Wasserman, E. A. (2021). As if by design: How creative behaviors really evolve. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.