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Enhance Breakthrough Creativity by Getting Surreal

by Casha Doemland on 04/26/2017 | 5 Minute Read

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By: Ronald Voigt

April Fool’s Day pranks are a fun way to annually inject surrealism into our lives. I think we should do this more!

We are frequently surprised by what is happening in our world, things that once seemed impossible or unbelievable:

  • A person can receive a heart transplant and then stand in for its original owner at a wedding.
  • 10x thinking took over San Francisco years ago and continues to trickle down.
  • Fortunes can be amassed (and lost) in mere days, not over lifetimes.
  • Even children can print objects in 3D, literally forming things from “dust.”

Perhaps these occurrences are increasing in frequency? Surrealism seems to be bleeding deeper into our reality, swelling into a zeitgeist, and we’ve even seen it in packaging that superimposes conflicting scales.

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Simply defined, surrealism strives to reconcile our dreams with reality. Resolving such polarities is quite an ambitious mission, no? Well, therein lies its power, as Carl Jung wrote: "The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites."

One of my favorite quotes on this topic (though you’ll see lots of quotes in this article) is from Christopher Reeve: “At first, dreams seem impossible, then improbable, and eventually inevitable.

Surrealism is not only pertinent for artists, though. Former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch is a proponent of this thinking too asking employees to “reach for more than you think is possible” in the form of stretch goals that basically “use dreams to set business targets, with no real idea of how to get there.”

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Surrealism is not only a fun idea, it’s necessary.

It is necessary because innovation depends on it, and innovation has been stagnant. According to Robert J. Gordon, of Princeton, “With a few notable exceptions, the pace of innovation since 1970 has not been as broad or as deep as that spurred by the inventions of the special century [1870-1970]” (see his book and his TED talk).

I have found that surrealism is a way to outsmart stagnation. It is necessary to dream beyond our reality, as Elizabeth Gilbert exhorts us in Big Magic: “We simply don’t have time anymore to think so small.”

The practice of surreal thinking is required in order to attain breakthroughs of any kind. Whether via social evolution (MLK’s “I Have a Dream”) or transportation innovation (Ford’s answer to “faster horses”) or other leaps forward, we cannot achieve revolutions without dreaming of a future very different than our current reality.

For packaging design, here are some surrealism-provoking questions:

  • What if it didn’t take 6 months to see new designs on shelf? What if it took 30 days?
  • What if I could snap a photo of something in nature or while traveling that inspires me and find corresponding paint and ink colors for my design in that exact color, right from my phone?
  • What if we could virtualize the final 3D form of a new product without having to go through an expensive mock-up process?
  • What if we could see how a new design would look in many contexts on the retail shelf, the digital shelf, the pantry shelf, and in my hand before it was ever printed?
  • What if we could test new product concepts with photo-realistic packaging imagery through online consumer research panels to understand if we have a winner before we even create a prototype or comp?

What could an invasion of surrealism look like for you? For your work? How can we encourage ourselves and our teams to plunge into surreal thinking in order to bubble up truly innovative solutions?

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I recommend we:

  • Get to know the surrealists.
  • Think unreasonably, unrealistically. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
  • Get comfortable role playing or straight up acting, since putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, pretending to become someone else is literally the embodiment of surrealism.
  • Get over being surprised. Start asking questions instead of persisting in disbelief when someone brings you a new idea.

As Victor Hugo penned, “Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.” How much time to do you spend dreaming? (Probably not enough.)

(Footnote: For inspiration for your 2018 April Fool’s Day surreal antics, here is a great list of all-time best pranks.)

Check out the surreal packaging designs featured in this article for more inspiration: Corphes brand, Grut, Cern-Terminus, Tropical Brew, and Fantastique.

Ronald VoigtRonald Voigt has been President of X-Rite Pantone since 2013. Previously, Ron led Commercial and Services Operations at Tektronix and was President, Industrial Automation at Kollmorgen (both Danaher companies). Before Danaher, Ron held several leadership positions at Delphi including a European based assignment in Paris and an executive residency at NUMMI, where he immersed himself in the methodologies and practices of the Toyota Production System. Ron earned an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and a BS in Electrical Engineering from Kettering University. Ron and his wife Rebecca reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan with their 3 cats, 2 children and 1 dog.

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