November 01, 2007
Absurd Collisions: No Breakthroughs Without Them

Crawling Dustmop.jpg You say your kid's starting to crawl AND your floor's dusty? This handy pre-toddler mop garment was "invented" by Kenji Kawakami, a Japanese inventor and writer who works in a parallel innovation universe he calls Chindogu.

Chindogu translates as "strange tools," but a Chindogu invention isn't really a tool. It's a humorous insight into how two unrelated things might do something useful. Its visual punnery relies on a certain something two things have in common, a shared intersection. Crawling kids and mops have the floor in common, and floors get why not a mop suit for baby? Silently, in our heads, we add the caption: "Hell, honey. Put the kid to work." Shazam! Baby as time-saving device.

What does Chindogu's absurd universe have to do with real world innovation? Well, think about it. The insight process is the same. What was the undiscovered intersection shared by music filesharers and early mp3 music players? Single song downloads. So not only did Steve Jobs launch the Apple iPod in 2001; he thought two sales ahead and had his team design the record store to go with it. Armed with rocketing i-Pod sales, Jobs was able to finalize deals with all the major labels the next year and launch Apple's iTunes music store in April of 2003.

Get it? Catching links and intersections, like dusty floors and single-song downloads depends on the same kind of insight. It makes no difference whether the resulting invention is absurd, like Chindogu, or highly strategic, like the iPod/iTunes-store disruption. The point is to keep exercising the mental muscle that crosses wires, tries absurd combinations, and associates the previously unassociated.

Some artists and designers (like yours truly) use tools to spark these happy collisions. Randomizing oracles, lists, cards and computer programs can all be used to force pairs and triads of things together that wouldn't normally be near each other. And once the muscle is working, no aids are needed at all.

The visual pun long predates Kawakami. Dadaist Meret Oppenheim did it in 1936 with her Objet: dejeuner en fourrure (Luncheon in Fur).
OppenheimFurLunch.jpg Magritte, Dali, Man Ray - the list is huge. Rock bands, too, have collided words absurdly since the sixties. And the inventions in Philip Garner's 1982 Better Living Catalog, now out of print, were as funny as Kawakami (and debuted more than a decade earlier).

Try giving yourself a regular absurdity workout. For a few minutes, just stop making sense, collide two or three unconnected things and see what impractical AND practical ideas arise. Think of Chindogu-like thinking as yoga for keeping the creative mind flexible, receptive and original.

You'll have plenty of company, by the way. Kawakami's two Chindogu books have sold close to half a million copies in Japan alone.

Oh, before you go (and while our increasingly spammed comments are still open): What's your favorite absurd band name? Let us know. We'll add it to this post. And if you're already into Chindogu, drop us links to pictures of your favorite and funniest Chindogu inventions. I'll share a few in future posts.

Posted by Tim Moore at November 1, 2007 11:20 PM

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