Beautiful Innovation

In building or remaking our work, organizations, and communities, beauty has never been more relevant.

At a time when governments and organizations of nearly every type worldwide seek to plan for ‘what happens next’ as the COVID-19 pandemic continues (amid other global social changes) certain themes like resilience, adaptability, remote-work, and low-touch economy are prominent in the discussion.

One word that I’ve not seen in these grand plans is beauty.

One might be prompted to say: “These are difficult times, why would we focus on something trivial like aesthetics when lives, jobs, and communities are suffering and at further risk? “

The reasons are many, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. There is a strong, emergent field of organizational aesthetics that shows links between productivity, commitment, job satisfaction, and organizational performance. A new book by Steven de Groot on Organisational Aesthetics provides a brilliant, accessible, and practical set of evidence-based examples for why, how, and when beauty can create enormous value for organizations.

But before we can put to use some of the great resources in Steven’s book, we need to free ourselves of some mind-traps.

Beauty is not an Either/Or

Integrative thinking is about being able to hold multiple perspectives in your head while you sort through strategic options for what to believe, do, and create. One of the hallmark features of integrative thinking is the ability to work with what might seem to be opposite ideas, yet reposition to see alternatives beyond the false dilemma we often position for ourselves.

It takes about the same energy to create and maintain an organization with rigid command-and-control systems (out of habit, not industry necessity), ugly workspaces with poor lighting and mobility, and impersonal communication flows than the inverse. These are performance and design myths that persist from an industrial era governed by outdated Taylorist-style ideas around what motivates people and keeps them focused on work.

We can create beauty in our work, our workplaces, and communities while we adapt, build, and adjust what we’ve done to match our current context.

And lest you think we can’t have beauty in places that are serious (e.g., hospitals) consider a pediatric hospital. Ever notice how much more colourful, friendly, and more alive children’s hospitals are than regular ones?

The Value of Beauty

Another trap is equating aesthetic things with ‘frivolous’ or inessential aspects. Consider the example of the hospital. What is a hospital for?

Writing in 1921, the Secretary-Superintendent of the Middlesex Hospital in the UK articulated that the purpose of a hospital was (pdf):

  1. To teach the coming generation of medical men (sic), and to inspire in them the desire, not merely to practise the best that is known, but also themselves to take their share in the advancement of knowledge.
  2. To carry out research work; for it is only in the laboratories of the hospitals that the necessary steps of investigation can be taken under those exact and perfectly controlled conditions which are essential to the evolution of new discoveries in medical science.
  3. To afford treatment to those whose circumstances are such as to debar them from obtaining the highest standard of medical and surgical skill at their own expense.

Reviewing this article, written in the near aftermath of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, we see language about the promotion of wellbeing in the community and for the public to come in and see what hospitals are all about. This is also written before health insurance and about the Voluntary Hospitals, which operated as charities. Today’s hospitals are not much different. They teach, do research, and support the care of their community.

Consider this: what about ‘inspiring’ desire to learn and have doctors share what they known is not supported by beauty? When did ‘ugly’, or unfunctional environments, services, or settings inspire something in you?

The value of beauty in discovery is well-known. The late Nobel Prize winning scientist Kary Mullis, connected his initial abilty to ‘see’ the polymerase chain reaction structure of DNA with his daily period of surfing and spending time out on the water. For him, discovery was tied intimately with aesthetics, even if not named. Aesthetics also can influence how we judge scientific merit.

Lastly, there is some evidence that the built environment and healthcare surroundings positively influence health workers and patients alike. I can’t imagine anyone who is unwell that would not appreciate being in a more beautiful space than an impersonal, ugly one.

Principles for Beauty

The pathway to beauty is paved with some principles that we all know in our everyday life.

While there is a personal quality to aesthetics, there is also some shared experiences. Not every arrangement will please everyone, but there are some principles that can be worked with from a design perspective that can meet most peoples.

Keeping things simple and uncluttered helps. This approach works with communications by keeping things simple, transparent, and uncluttered. The same is true with physical spaces, particularly when facing issues associated with a pandemic where there is a need to keep things clean and low-contact situations.

Natural elements — plants, sunlight, clean and fresh air — have never been more important for wellbeing when many of us have stuck indoors for many months. Whether its a pandemic or not, the benefits of our physical environment have never been made clear. This was something I discussed with architect John Peterson as part of the Quantization Podcast conducted in April, 2020.

Providing space to move and interact and to be safe is another.

These are all functional issues, but also aesthetic ones. They are about enhancing beauty and promoting well-being and performance. It’s not an either-or thing.

This is the time we are innovating with almost everything to do with our work, our organizations, and our communities. We can create a world that is more beautiful in the process of making it better. It is an innovation advantage that we have the opportunity to take, if we are willing to see it and design for it.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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