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What I learnt about design from Avatar

Aside from its technical wonders, there's a lot of design lessons that can be learnt from watching James Cameron's Avatar, says Creativate's Jeremy Suisted.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Titanic - but a big chunk of the world was. Once it was released, it became the first film to gross over one-billion dollars and tied the record for most Oscars won by a single film.

James Cameron, the film’s director, had enjoyed success before with The Terminator series - but was now launched to a whole new level of fame. And Cameron attempted to leverage that fame to create his dream project - a script he had written in 1994, called Avatar.

Unfortunately - the world had to wait 12 more years to see this film. Why? 



Because the technology wasn’t ready for James Cameron’s dreams. 



TryCinema reports that, “Cameron’s visual effects team literally told him he was mad. Although Cameron was more than ready, the 90’s technology wasn’t – the idea was there, but the tools were not.”

James Cameron had created a world in his head - an entire ecosystem of language, visuals, race and narrative. The technology could not deliver.

In the previous five years, however, I have seen a reversal in this situation.

Technology has continued to develop, with a wealth of new products and prototypes appearing each day. So often, these are solutions for problems I did not know existed. 



Yet - very rarely do these solutions come with an understanding of the future client, or an imagination of the ecosystem that they belong in.

And it is an understanding of this world of the customer that truly allows a solution to flourish.

Case in point - as I write this piece, I have eight different apps open on my laptop. When I made lunch, I used seven different solutions - from plate to pan to microwave.

To be a successful lunch, each of these must interact with each other well. If the latest, most innovative plate doesn’t fit into a microwave - it will cause friction.

Most products today are framed by a small-horizon. The business has a myopic love of their solution - resulting in an imagination that is bound by their offering.

The result? A new mail client that promises to transform your workflow. A new app that claims to bring peace to your life. A new technology that vows to change farming.

Successful innovators spend time meeting with customers, understanding their world and imagining how their world will change in the future. Then they deliver solutions designed to fit into system - rather than assuming their solution is all that is needed.

To better fit your innovation in a future horizon, consider:

Understand the trends facing your customers.

Most businesses do a fantastic job at understanding the market trends that are facing them. Most businesses don’t consider looking at the trends that going to impact the world of their customer.



For example, home appliance industries were well aware of the latest trends in whiteware technology, sensor development and engine and pump design. Many of them were unaware of the trends impacting their customers, such as the increased connectivity and demands of smartphone use, the small house movement, and the growing concern towards ecological footprint. 



If the dominant trends you are aware of are technological and highly specific to your solution - be warned. Pick up a design magazine, read editorials, and try to gauge the trend-beat of your market.


Pursue open innovation.

Every solution will exist in an ecosystem - whether a SmartPhone app, a self-driving car, or a new service. These solutions never exist in isolation - but are part of a system of other solutions and offerings. Not all of these need be your competitors.



Imaginative innovators seek to collaborate where possible, and compete where necessary. By innovating in partnership with other solutions, you are more likely to develop offerings that integrate into the future world of your customer - creating a win-win for all.



Additionally, it is through the intersection of this collaboration - with new ideas being formed and colliding - that a new environment will be imagined.

Go and watch.

User-centred design is becoming more widely practiced, with businesses hiring researchers to watch their customers use their offerings, and measure their feedback. This is fantastic - however, many businesses miss one thing.



The other solutions being engaged with. 


For example, when testing a new online educational offering, the research team had a wealth of research on how the customer had used the offering - but neglected to observe what other apps, sites and programs the users had running the background.



If you create a solution for farmers, go and watch them use it - but look at what tools they carry with them. Notice what they are doing that isn’t directed at your technology. What do they do prior? What do they do after?

Technology and new solutions do not exist in isolation. They exist in a world that must be considered and imagined to provide the best-fit for your customers.

Most businesses deliver solutions. Few businesses deliver an imagined world - a bigger horizon of where their customer lives and breathes.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann said, “Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.” This is a challenge to companies as well as churches - to be active in imagining as we implement.


Jeremy Suisted is the director of Creativate, a New Zealand-based innovation + design agency. He's now offering clients the services of the Innovation360 Assessment, which analyses and benchmarks an organisation’s innovation in 16 different categories. More information is available by emailing jeremy@creativate.co.nz.