In the myth-making that follows success, the beginnings of any creative endeavour or career always happen under the light of a guiding star.
Every creative breakthrough, this myth holds, is foreordained. It benefits and enriches us - we undeserving flock of consumers - through the work and preachings of a chosen one. A christos1, whose genius is to know something we don’t: what we really want.
Our own destiny, it seems, is to conserve the inertia of ignorance and wait for the moment when what we want is magically handed down to us on a platter of premonition.
This birth of the chosen one - or, interchangeably, the chosen idea - is greatly honoured and blessed by gifts sent forth by the three kings.
The first king is Akio Morita, founder of Sony and inventor of a product that famously failed research but didn’t fail history - the Walkman. His gift to the chosen one are these words: “We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready.”2
The second king is Steve Jobs, a phoenix among mortals, the inventor of the spiritual successor to the Walkman and übermensch above all3. His biggest legacy is, of course, his own extraordinary and multi-blockbuster career.
His gift, therefore, carries more than its weight in meaning; his words express the philosophy of a man who seemingly4 demonstrated their truth, time and again: "You can't just ask customers what they want then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."5
The last king is Henry Ford, an American icon who did more to transform the world (by making the car affordable) than we can possibly realise. His gift is the Hattori Hanzou6 sword of every creative ninja: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.“
As along as we have horses and period dramas set in Victorian London, this is the closest we will get to a Euclidean ideal of marketing.7
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If you lived in ancient Greece or Rome and wanted to be known as a genius, your only option was to hope for rebirth, preferably as a creature of fantasy.
Because until the 15th century, a genius was not a human being. Instead, some overachievers had ‘a genius’8 - an other-worldly spirit, divinely assigned to them, who was the true source of their godly prowess in their chosen art.
The gifts of the talented, therefore, were not their own. Their creations were the result of a coalition of humble human contributions subject to a tsunami of creative forces unleashed by a supernatural collaborator - their attending genius.
This construct - of a human amanuensis and a genius spirit - assuages much envy, but also captures a fundamental reality of the creative process.
The act of creation is inherently a dialogue. A dialogue between primal unknowable forces and an all too human interlocutor - while the former makes unbridled brilliance possible, the latter ensures it remains relatable to human experience.9 We cannot have a masterpiece without either.
The ancient duality of a genius-human tag team offers space, even a distinct identity, within the creative process for a proto-consumer.
The same is true for our own three kings. They indeed had genius, but this genius was not free-standing - it was in attendance to an inherent consumer.
Their gifts do us no service by equating an absence of a formalised dialogue between disjointed creators and consumers as proof of the absence of any dialogue at all.
And if there ever was a gift horse that needed its dentures examined, it is Henry Ford’s.
Even if the people of his time naively longed for “faster horses”, Henry Ford the astute listener and creator knew which one of those two words mattered more. This does not signify a breakdown in communication; it is the perfect example of exactly the opposite.
That creation is effected by dialogue does not mean all or any exchange is good and should go unchallenged. Much of the current apparatus of formalised dialogue in our context - market research - is based on outdated assumptions10. There has never been a greater need to inject genuine empathy, communication and understanding back into our creative processes.
But we do ourselves no favours by attempting a reformation of this process with fingers pointed squarely at the consumer11 - by endlessly repeating assertions that he cannot possibly know anything valuable and therefore has nothing to contribute12.