We often credit visionaries with the ability to conjure up their work. To simply imagine the end product and construct it from the tools they have around them, be it a paintbrush, a chisel, or a team of developers and designers.
What if it weren’t a matter of creating, but an effort of revealing? What if the process were really the reverse?
Michelangelo the sculptor once described his process:
In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.
When we think of sculpture we think of something constructed. After all, this is how buildings are built — why not art as well? But of course if you begin with a block of stone, the art is in what you remove, not what you add.
A more modern example is Edwin Land, the creator of the Polaroid camera, who spoke about the invention of the camera:
I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me before I had ever built one.
And of course Steve Jobs, who felt the same way about the Macintosh:
It’s like when I walk in a room and I want to talk about a product that hasn’t been invented yet. I can see the product as if it’s sitting there right in the center of the table. What I’ve got to do is materialize it and bring it to life
This type of philosophy strongly aligns with the Bauhaus design movement, which has its roots in 1920s and 1930s Germany, and owes its recent resurgence in popularity to Apple’s dedication to many of its basic tenets. Bauhaus philosophy seeks to understand the innate nature of the objects being designed. According to leading Bauhaus designer Walter Gropius:
a subject is defined according to its being. In order that it – a dish, a chair, a house – could be designed in such a mode that it will function well, you have to study its nature to begin with
Which lends an interesting twist to the role of industrial design in general: it elevates the successful design to an almost Platonic ideal.
Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts that for everything in this world, there is an “ideal form.” In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato explains how we see the world as made up of shadows of these ideal forms, cast against the wall of a cave.
the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.
Plato’s philosopher, then is today’s visionary. Michelangelo’s lovely apparition is the “nature to begin with” that is sought by Bauhaus designers, and the products brought in to this world by the likes Edwin Land and Steve Jobs are as close to the forms beyond the cave as we are like to encounter.
But it is important to remember that they discover rather than create: a subtle difference which (cynically) allows you to both claim piety and elevate your product near to an object of worship and perfection, or (less cynically) reflects the realities of being a visionary leader — your role is less a creator and more a conduit, and your skill is in revealing something wonderful to other eyes as yours see it.