Looking for Your Next Breakthrough Idea? Try This Unique Method to Find Inspiration.
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As the CEO of a best-in-class university in an exceedingly competitive industry where colleges and universities vie “for students, faculty, research dollars, external funding, donations, visibility and prestige, and in some cases, survival,” I devote my entire being to the continual evolution of SCAD. What programs and resources can we invent to remain a preeminent academic destination, serving our students and launching careers? If you aspire to lead an innovative business in a crowded market, then you, too, will spend the lion’s share of your mental energies on coaxing out your next breakthrough idea.
For me, the search for inventive inspiration starts with the legendary rule of threes. Trinities are ubiquitous in history and culture, from the Golden Triangle, which helps one create more visually pleasing compositions, to social media feeds laid out in thirds. In interior design, the most appealing spaces have three colors and textures, just as The Avengers “Infinity” saga of the MCU features three phases, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic features six books within three published volumes. There’s magic in threes.
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What is triangulation?
I’ve developed my own tripartite approach to ideation, which I call “triangulation” (a term borrowed from land surveying and astronomy), where I draw upon two seemingly unrelated ideas to chart the course to a third. In a bit of mathematical alchemy, you can make 1 + 1 = 3, where two good ideas, when combined, yield a sum greater than the constituent parts.
You can see triangulation at work in the example of Swiss engineer, George de Mestral. One day in 1941, out for a stroll in the Jura mountains, de Mestral noticed that burrs from the burdock plant had latched onto his pants. The average trekker might have plucked off the unwanted hitchhikers and walked on, but the inquisitive engineer looked closer and observed a curious thing: the hooks of the burrs adhered to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants. An idea began to take shape. After much trial and error, de Mestral replicated nature’s fantastic fastener, and voila! — Velcro® was born.
The zipperless zipper might never have existed had de Mestral not taken a moment away from his daily work for a stroll through the mountains of Switzerland and if not for the curiosity and tenacity that helped him see an opportunity and run (or hike!) with it. He looked more deeply into the world with his sixth sense (or third eye, if you prefer) and where others would have observed a simple quirk of nature, he saw an opportunity, an untapped marvel of design, and he developed his million-dollar idea through a process that has led to many of the world’s foremost inventions and business ideas. The inspiration that lay inside the burr, like many exceptional ideas, was there for the taking, gently calling “Pick me! Pick me!” to anyone listening carefully enough to hear.
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How I’ve successfully applied triangulation
At SCAD, rather than hike through the Swiss highlands, I walk the factory floor of our university, participating in classes, paying studio visits, observing with my own eyes how our expert faculty are teaching and what our students have created. For example, during a series of classroom visits last year, I observed that many of our students were, of their own initiative, creating campaigns, colorways and innovative designs for sneakers. Sneakers were on their feet and on their minds. “We’re sneakerheads!” one student told me, pointing out how everybody (even the professors) was shod in the hippest of kicks.
Not long after, I noticed something else in my reading. (by the way, reading is essential to triangulation and ideation! Leaders should read far and wide: biographies, histories, novels, magazines, newspapers, etc. Any given night, I’m reading things like New York Times, Financial Times, Vogue, Architectural Digest, The Economist and Bloomberg. So there I was, reading The Wall Street Journal, and right there on the cover of the Style section was the headline: “Why Asics and Salomon Sneakers Are Fashion’s Hottest Shoes.” This article sent me down a rabbit hole of online research, where I learned that the athletic footwear market is valued at a staggering $80 billion and rising fast. A LinkedIn search showed me that many of our alumni from fashion, industrial design and other majors work at Nike, Yeezy, Adidas, Reebok and more. Several alumni already have their own brands, like Q4 Sports and Michael Grey Footwear.
These two observations — a) SCAD students are sneakerheads, and b) sneakers are big business, and many of our graduates are already in the industry — led me to a new idea there for the taking by anyone listening closely enough to its plea for attention: the world’s first academic program for sneaker design. And now was the time to do it.
The best ideas strike a chord. Call it what you will: The mood of the age, the spirit in the air, the zeitgeist. Greek philosopher, Aristotle, called it kairos, which means presenting the best ideas at the opportune moment. Inspired, I marshaled our academic leaders to launch a breakthrough minor in sneaker design, the first in the world. There you have it: 1 + 1 = 3! (As a bonus, the sneaker design minor also serves as a fitting example of my “layering of learning” approach to education, combining elements of fashion, engineering and marketing in a single academic program.
The development of SNKR at SCAD was a revelatory moment, but not born of chance. It was the result of careful observation and creative application at the right time for a ready market. When CBS Evening News heard about the new program and its relevance for students and graduates who want cool, creative careers, they featured SCAD and our sneaker design program in their American Innovation series.
I’ve applied triangulation to all aspects of SCAD. I’ve long known that collectors and interior designers attend our Open Studio events to purchase SCAD art. Combine this fact with another: A few years ago, Atlanta Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, approached SCAD to curate more than 1,000 works of art for the newly built Mercedes-Benz Stadium (now the largest permanent exhibition of art at any major stadium or arena in the world). I combined these two insights — a) collectors and designers want SCAD art, and b) the world recognizes our reputation for spectacular exhibition curation and artwork installation — to create SCAD Art Sales, a full-service art consultancy that has installed the work of our students, alumni and faculty in hotels, homes and corporate offices around the world.
Likewise, I employed triangulation to conceive of what is perhaps the university’s most celebrated initiative. In the early 2000s, our industrial design department had begun partnering with companies like Kicker Car Audio, JCB, Gulfstream, Rubbermaid and others to develop new products (i.e., serious real-world research assignments that brought products to market and often resulted in students being hired by these companies). This successful program, when paired with the professional focus of the SCAD mission, inspired me to scale up the industrial design department’s in-house research lab into SCADpro, a university-wide global innovation studio with locations in the U.S. and Europe.
Clients now include Delta, Deloitte, Google, Disney, Club Car, Volvo, BMW and hundreds more who partner with students and professors from film, fashion, user experience, service design, architecture, immersive reality and others. Last academic year, SCADpro generated more than $3 million in revenue and helped launch the careers of students who were offered jobs with these companies before even graduating.
Related: Don’t Wait For a Lightbulb Business Idea to Come to You, Go Out There and Find It
How you can apply triangulation
Triangulation is accessible to any leader with imagination, requiring three simple ingredients:
Research and observation (read voraciously and never stop visiting the factory floor)
Creative application (combine unexpected insights with seemingly disparate observations)
Excellent perception and timing (pick the right ideas at the right moment)
Leaders are able to triangulate because they know their business so well that they can spot fortuitous opportunities others simply do not see — and they’re always thinking, always on and possessing a vigilant hunger to devise and invent.
Who will spot the next fortuitous opportunity to invent the next Slinky, Post-It Note, Play-Doh, or Popsicle? Like burrs on the cuff as you stroll the high country of your career, winning ideas are everywhere, just asking to be discovered.