You can’t sell an idea

money

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects

schrodinger

A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


Footnotes:

[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

3 thoughts on “You can’t sell an idea”

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