It’s the Materials, Dummy. Building (a house, a business, or anything at all) to Last.

Focusing on what the materials have to teach us is a staple of design thinking, and a powerful mindset for anyone seeking to create anything with structural integrity. 

What’s the Big Idea? 

Michelangelo’s neo-Platonic statement that the sculptor’s job is to reveal the pre-existing statue hidden within the rock is so over-quoted as to be easily dismissed. To modern, literal-minded ears, ears raised with a Randian belief in human efficacy fused with Silicon Valley optimism about our godlike power to rewire the world in our own image, it’s metaphysical gobbledygook at best, defeatism at worst. 

But putting aside the literal for a moment, Michelangelo’s statement is a powerful exercise – a reorientation away from the mind’s power to visualize what it wants and onto the external world. This focus on what the materials have to teach us is a staple of design thinking, and it provides designers with flashes of insight that would elude the kind of effortful mentality John Keats described as “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Businesses, whose day-to-day logistics require a fair amount of “irritable reaching,” can easily fall into the trap of over-reliance on this mindset. Even creative thinking can become a systematic, aggressive exercise (brainstorming) in which people “throw ideas at the wall” to “see what sticks.” This isn’t to say that nothing productive can ever emerge from this isolate-and-attack approach, but equally useful is the habit of observation – of external focus and attention. In the case of businesses, and with apologies to any employees who may find the comparison to Michelangelo’s stone an unflattering one, people are the materials – and the statue is the unique role each individual can potentially play in the organization if allowed and encouraged to do so. 

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an artist, designer, and organizational leader. While his present position sometimes calls for a more traditional, top-down leadership approach, he is also adept at what he calls creative leadership – the ability to listen to and encourage others to realize their hidden potential. He recently shared a story with us – a Japanese twist on the importance of knowing your materials and the perils of over-reliance on abstract reasoning.

John Maeda: I was in Japan talking to someone who interviewed one of the last carpenters of temples in Japan.  In Japan the temples in the Kyoto, Nara area last for thousands of years.  For an architect, you might hope your building stands for 30 or 40 years.  These buildings last for thousands of years.  It's impossible.

So this last carpenter was asked how is this possible? The carpenter says back to the interviewer, "Why do you think it's possible?  And he says, "Well it must be the design, must be the architecture."  And of course the carpenter says, "You're wrong."  And he kind of laughs in a Yoda-type way.  He says, "No, you're wrong because it's really simple.  What we do is we go to the mountain and we take trees from the north side of the mountain.  We bring them back and use them on the North side of the site.  Then we go back to the mountain.  We go to the West side, take the trees and use them on the West side of the site. We go to all four sides of the mountain to build the temple."  So it has nothing to do with the design or architecture or engineering.  It's because the materials have been selected perfectly.

What I'm saying is that the materials matter so much whether it's an organization with people or it's an artist’s studio.  The materials can tell you everything.

What’s the Significance? 

Maeda’s Yoda-dropping raises an important point. We need to move past the clichéd Western/Eastern duality that labels receptive wisdom as appropriate in yoga class but ill-suited to the boardroom. Or that, conversely, attacks rational thinking as heartless and inflexible. Likewise, we need to recognize that we’re not faced with an either/or decision of which mindset to adhere to, but with the reality that mindsets are tools with varying uses. The trick is to become adept in multiple modes and in the careful art of judging which is most appropriate to the challenge at hand.  

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

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