The Myth of Youth in Design Innovation

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.
Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer, still innovating at the age of 81.

There is a brutal culture of ageism in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, and this ageism that worships youth above all else spills over into the design sector as well. When tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg declare that “Young people are just smarter” people take it as truth carved in stone. It must be true. After all, look at all the tech billionaires in their twenties.

Yet empirical evidence, common sense and personal experience tell me this is a fallacy. Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs did some of their best work when they were over the age of 40, and Ive is still one of the best designers on the planet at the age of 47. Burt Rutan was 41 years old when he designed and launched the Voyager, the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping, and he was 62 when he launched SpaceShipOne, the first private space plane.

The following is the top ten list of FastCoDesign Magazine’s “Most Creative People in Business of 2013”:

  1. Nate Silver, sports and political elections number-cruncher and big data innovator – 36 years old.
  2. Dong-Hoon Chang, Executive Vice President and Head of Design Strategy for Samsung – 52 years old.
  3. Hilary Mason, data scientist and hacker – 32 years old.
  4. Leslie Bradshaw, entrepreneur and social scientist – 32 years old.
  5. Diana Balmori, landscape and urban designer – 81 years old.
  6. Kirthiga Reddy, Director of FaceBook India – 40 years old.
  7. Daniel Graf, Director of Google Maps for Mobile – 40 years old.
  8. Max Levchin, computer scientist and founder of PayPal – 38 years old.
  9. Jill Applebaum, Creative Director at JWT – 43 years old.
  10. Megan Sheehan, Art Director at JWT – I couldn’t find her age, but based on her experience and accomplishments I’m guessing she’s in her early 30’s.

The youngest on the list are 32 years old and the oldest is 81. And unless I’m off about Megan Sheehan (who is a terrific designer, check out her work here: http://megansheehan.info/), there’s not a single person in their 20’s.

In my personal experience I didn’t start to do my most innovative work until I was in my mid-30’s. A combination of experience, perspective, and a deeper understanding of the conditions that foster innovation made me a more innovative designer and thinker.

And this is why the conditions of innovation, and building a balanced team, are more important than youth. I hit my stride in my mid-30’s for a confluence of reasons. First was that after a decade working as a designer at the cutting edge of dot com startups, I moved to Europe and enrolled in an MFA program in Art. Suddenly my time and my mental space were set free to experiment, but at the same time I had far more experience, knowledge and technical ability than most graduate students that I could apply to my work. On top of that, I had thrown myself into a completely different culture, started learning a new language and looking at the world from a different perspective, all conditions conducive to sideways thinking. Upon completing my MFA, I immediately started working as a professor at a university. Teaching students about design and media innovation taught me new perspectives, and being in academia further freed me to experiment, to do research, and continue to work as a consultant in industry. After several years I was appointed head of my department and charged with rebuilding the department and driving student enrollment, and I took the same approach to team building that I had taken as a Creative Director. I ran my academic department like I would a creative agency, creating conditions that encouraged my faculty to innovate with their curriculum and mentoring students to become innovative media makers.

The conditions for innovation rely on several factors, and here I’m adapting ideas in part from the management guru Peter Drucker, as well as from my own experience as a designer, leader and teacher. The first is that innovation is work that requires knowledge, ingenuity, risk-taking, and sideways thinking. In organizations this means building teams with complimentary strengths, respecting both the sideways thinking and risk taking of youth with the knowledge and expertise of experience, and rewarding experimentation, even when it fails. The second is to cultivate an acceptable level of chaos as space for ideation, balanced against order for getting work done. Brilliant ideas rarely happen when you’re staring at your computer screen, but on the flip side work doesn’t get done when you’re playing ping-pong with your coworkers. And a third factor is an inherent acceptance of change. Peter Drucker calls innovation “an effect of economy and society” (check out Drucker’s book Innovation and Entrepreneurship) that at it’s core changes people’s behaviors and/or conceptual paradigms. It’s surprising how many organizations say they want innovation, but are change averse. You can’t have one without the other.

Benjamin F. Jones, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, did a study last year on age and innovation. He found that the average age that inventors and Nobel Prize winners make their greatest achievements is 39. This is because innovation usually doesn’t come out of left field with no foundation. Innovation is built from an iterative process, learning from past mistakes, building on successes, and then drawing unexpected connections. This takes time, hard work, risk taking, experience, and knowledge. In organizations, this means it takes teams constructed of people with complimentary diversities.

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