Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]

Story Tellers, Super Powers And Second Lives

Quick Read: For the first time in the history of story telling we seem to be having the means to explore the dimensions of *actual* time and space in building narratives. Story telling might just be at an inflection point.

Andrew Stanton while talking about The Clues to a Great Story quotes an incredibly insightful definition of what constitites drama.

Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” 

Now, while keeping the uncertainty element constant, what if you can build anticipation at the rate of actual human experience?

Wouldn’t the drama get amplified?

Let’s elaborate.

World’s Most Boring Television 

Stick a camera to an ordinary train on an ordinary day. Shoot the entire 7 hr + footage of this ordinary journey as the train pulls from station to station, and put it on national TV with almost no editing.

Sounds like the most boring television show in the history of mankind. Right?

Wrong.

The results of this Norwegian TV show were extra-ordinary, fascinating and even bizarely insightful.

Welcome to the world of ‘Slow TV‘.

What began as a pilot by the Norwegian TV producer Thomas Hellum and his team turned out to become a national phenomenon leading to more shows such as an 18 hour fishing expedition, a 5.5 day ferry voyage along the coast of Norway and many more.

These went on to receive extensive attention in global media, and were considered a great success with coverage numbers exceeding all expectations and record ratings for the NRK2 channel!

But why were these ostensibly boring shows so popular?

To paraphrase Thomas Hellum from the following must watch TED Talk..

Slow TV is so popular because it builds drama by letting the viewer make the story themeslves. 

In otherwords Slow TV is an amazing example of a narrative that rides on building anticipation at the rate of actual human experience in time.

Not to be left behind, the advertising/marketing world has also begun to experiment with the concept.

Virgin America has produced a six-hour-long commercial (!) about how unbearably dull the average plane ride is. The video shows passengers on a flight across the US, playing out its events in real time.

And it has clocked around 850K views till date!

Now moving over to the other dimension.

A New Photographic Language Is Born 

..so says dronestagram – an instagram for footage shot with dones. We even have drone film festivals celebrating the art of films shot with drones.

Meanwhile, YouTube this year has begun supporting 360 degree videos.  And we already see several brands experimenting with this format to create truly amazing ads like the one below by Nike that lets you be Neymar on the field as you check out the action in all its 360 degree glory.

And then you have the likes of Oculus and Google Cardboard pushing the envelope in bringing immersive VR experiences to life. The Economist in its recent feature has in fact taken a serious take on VR and believes that its time may have truly come.

This year the Tribeca Film Festival has even called for ‘virtual reality’ submissions.

So why are we raving about films shot with drones, 360 degree videos and VR experiences?

It is possibly because they all have one thing in common.

Thanks to these, for the first time ever, we see possibilities in constructing narratives that can build anticipation at the rate of actual human experience in space

So what’s next?

From Story Telling To Crafting Experiences To Creating Parallel Lives

As story tellers build increasingly immersive narratives that progress at the rate of actual human expereince in time and space, it ceases being just a story and moves on to becoming an experience.

Now throw in sensory elements to this and you suddently have multi dimensional multi sensory experiences that could possibly shift the business of story telling to that of building parallel realms of existence.

What does that mean?

I don’t know.

But at the least it could herald a second life for the likes of Second Life.

(Featured Image, Source)

The New Marketing Mindset

Invention and Innovation could sometimes be polar opposites.

Seems counter intuitive, right? But when you read this brilliant piece on Segway, it would seem almost commonsensical. Segway, the article posits, failed because it was focused solely on inventionbelieving that it alone has come up with the perfect idea for a great product. The company didn’t spend as much time or effort on innovation the ongoing iterative process of going back and forth with the consumers to test and understand what the market wants and ensuring that the product meet their needs.   

This on going iterative process with the consumer to test and understand what market wants and applying these learnings to make your product meet their needs has a specialised name today.

Growth Hacking.

Depending upon who you are / what you’ve been smoking / or what you’ve been reading recently, this could possibly be the first time you hear this term or probably even the zillionth! Whichever be the case, Growth Hacking as a term is topping the charts in popularity, appeal and relevance to describe a must have mindset in the world of product design and marketing.

Coined by Sean Ellis in this legendary article, Growth Hacking is essentially marketing albeit repurposed to the evolving dynamics of consumer, product and consumption today. Chances are that most of us would have been witness to, experienced, and were target consumers of live Growth Hacking experiments. Don’t believe me?

  • Did you yearn for an invite for a Gmail account back when Gmail was introduced? That was neat Growth Hack from Google!
  • Did you refer your friends to try out Dropbox to get free storage space in return? You were being Growth Hacked!
  • Do you remember those end lines in mails that said something like Sent from my Blackberry/iPad/iPhone..? Growth Hack, it was!

Read about the 10 of the best growth hacks of all time here. Aaron Ginn’s page is a great place to start on a journey to explore more resources on Growth Hacking and Ryan Holiday’s book Growth Hacker Marketing could make for a great primer on this topic over an afternoon meal.

Today ‘Growth Hacker’ as a term has gone mainstream even in the jobs’ lexicon. For it is not unusual to run into marketing job postings that come labelled as “Wanted Growth Hackers”!

While case studies of how Growth Hacking has worked out for (now) big brands like Instagram, Pinterest or Airbnb make for a fascinating read, lesser known examples can give an equally compelling perspective and an insight on how Growth Hacking can actually move the needle. The story of Bilingual Child – an iOS App to teach Spanish for kids – is a recent example. Not content with how their sales were panning out, the team at Bilingual Child went on to delve a bit deeper into the data and discovered a Growth Hack. The result:  they tripled their revenue by adding one button! Read the story here.

Bilingual Child

(Source, Medium. Click on the picture to read the story)

Well, if you have come this far you could be forgiven for thinking that Growth Hacking is majorly applicable to software products or startups. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Amy Webb was having no luck with online dating. So she figured out the system, monitored and measured the impact of her  ‘hacks’ and went about achieving what she set out to do – finding her match. Hear this story of how she went on to hack her online dating life — with frustrating, funny and life-changing results.

Is this Growth Hacking? You bet it is – Amy’s bold and calculated attempt to drive growth in the quantity and the quality of potential matches for her. The core essence of her approach is equally (if not more so) applicable to something like say updating my LinkedIn profile. And that for me is a compelling takeaway from her TED talk.

So the bottom line is clear, irrespective of the field of application – a company, a product or even a person, the ability to delve into data, bring in curiosity and operate with a mix of creativity and an analytical ability has huge implications in driving growth. No wonder then, Growth Hacking is said to be redefining the very mindset of marketing as we know it.

After all, when was the last time you had a name for a discipline that neatly encapsulated the objective and the enabler of the activity in a single breath?  

(Featured Image, Medium’s collection on Growth Hacking, Another great resource on this subject)

Soundscapes And Sonic Tapestries: Part 1/2

See: Visualize :: Hear: (?)

Can you believe that there is officially no word in the English language that can encapsulate this? Doesn’t exactly do justice to our ability to invoke our mind’s ear to identify, create, re-create and remix sounds and thereby trigger emotions, memories and associations within us. No wonder, the aural realm remains an under exploited, and in some cases, under appreciated dimension to inform and enrich our perceptual experience. Take two of our most common habitats:

(1) Our Constructed Spaces (Architecture)  

So far the practice and purpose of architecture was anchored by the ‘eye’ and for the ‘eye’. Ears – apparently – were compelled to take a back seat and thereby had limited influence over design decisions (unless we speak about amphitheaters). Result –  offices, schools, homes, malls, restaurants and the list goes on, that are so poorly designed so much so that they actually do us more harm than any possible good! Not entirely convinced? See this TED video by Julian Treasure:

(2) Nature  

There was a time when wild soundscapes were considered just some exotic/charming artifacts of nature. But as it turns out,every habitat is believed to have its own unique sound signature – a sonic tapestry that can potentially convey an incredible amount of information about the present state and the future fate of any given place/habitat.

First a quick dose of general knowledge. A soundscape is made up of three basic sources:

  1. Geophony: these are non-biological sounds that occur in any given habitat, e.g., wind, water, waves etc.
  2. Biophony: these are sounds  generated by organisms in a given habitat at a given time and place.
  3. Anthrophony: these are sounds that we humans generate. e.g., our music, noise from machinery, automobiles etc.

So at any given point in time and place, anything that we hear is composed of these three kinds of sounds, and can be graphically represented in a Spectrogram – a graphic illustration of sound with time represented from left to right and sound frequencies represented from the bottom to the top, lowest to highest.

In an incredibly ‘earopening’ TED talk that is insightful, shocking, profound, inspiring and immensely thought provoking, Bernie Krause – a natural sounds expert –  proves that while a picture may be worth 1,000 words, a soundscape is worth 1,000 pictures. If there is one TED video that you need to see this week, let this one be the one – a must see:

In many ways these two talks could be said to be a call to action for us to resist our ‘natural’ instinct of zoning out most of the sound that reaches our ears and to start appreciating our faculty of hearing for how it can enrich our perceptual experience.

On a related note, let me submit my following hypothesis:

I started off by saying that in the English language we don’t seem to be having a word that can effortlessly fit in the following context

See: Visualize :: Hear: (?)

My guess would be that there might be some language out there (Chinese? Japanese? Korean? etc) that might have just the apt word for it. If so, my hypothesis would be that, such a country/culture must be having sonically richer traditions, must be producing relatively higher number of music prodigies and must be having general public with greater appreciation of sound and our faculty of hearing. And as an extension, I would also risk a bet that people from such a culture would also be adept at living in the now and here and appreciating everything about it.

Does your language have a word for this?

To Be Continued…

(Featured Image, Source)

Adjacencies and Algorithms

30.56 degrees Celsius.

That’s the temperature at which fungus is normally known to thrive. Now, since fungus is the staple diet for termites, even in the scorching heat of Sub Saharan Africa, they are known to meticulously maintain this constant level of temperature within their mounds.  But how do they pull this off?

The answer for this question has been the inspiration for the design and construction of Zimbabwe’s largest commercial complex – The Eastgate Centre. Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication.

During a Formula 1 race, a car sends hundreds of millions of data points to its garage for real-time analysis and feedback. So why not use this detailed and rigorous data system elsewhere, like … at children’s hospitals?

These tangents of thought are some of the several examples that stand out for the power of combining seemingly different ideas to  arrive at breakthrough concepts and revolutionary designs.  Frans Johansson calls this The Medici Effect in his insightful book by the same name – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of creativity, innovation and ideas. This is very similar to the concept of The Adjacent Possible that Steven Johnson speaks about in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.  

Essentially it is about two things:

  1. Identifying seemingly different or intuitively unrelated ideas and
  2. Combining them together in new and unexpected ways to yield  actionable insights or practical – yet unforeseen –  solutions to existing problems.

One related concept of The Adjacent Possible is what could possibly be called as Meaningful Adjacencies.

Two very interesting ways in which the application of this concept has panned out in the recent past. One in the field of stylometry and the other in ‘commemorative design’.

(1) The Algorithm that declared “It’s J.K. Rowling” 

When The Cuckoo’s Calling – a detective story was released earlier this year, the novel has received lavish praise and the writer one Robert Galbraith was marked as someone to watch out for. But, reportedly The Sunday Times believed that Robert Galbraith was just a pen name for an author who could possibly be a bit more familiar. So on July 11, Professor Patrick Juola received an interesting mail from The Sunday Times. The task? To verify that Ms. Rowling was indeed the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling!

So what did Prof Juola – the stylometry expert do do?  He deployed a computer program called the Java Graphical Authorship Attribution Program (JGAAP) that he had designed to recognize writing styles undetectable by human readers.  He loaded the e-version of The Cuckoo’s Calling into JGAAP, along with several other texts, including The Casual Vacancy, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter novel, set the program running and sat back to watch the fun.

Essentially, the JGAAP algorithm works by comparing the following variables in each of the book within the comparison set:

  • Word-length distribution
  • The use of common words like “the” and “of”
  • Recurring-word pairings and
  • The distribution of “character 4-grams,” or groups of four adjacent characters, words, or parts of words.

While the first two variables are more distribution and frequency related, the last two are adjacency related. Now this was an insight for me-

– that a set of adjacent words / characters / or even part of words can potentially have a unique pattern of their own so much so that they constitute a distinctive signature of their own and can thereby possibly bring out unique attributions to a specific author!

So in just 30 mins, Prof Juola’s JGAAP did confirm J.K.Rowling as the ‘suspected’ author and to his delight the conclusion was later confirmed by Rowling herself!

The interesting question that this now begets is – Should we teach literature students how to analyse texts algorithmically! Well, if an author’s literary signature is hidden deep within the recess of adjacent characters and words and if algorithms can squeeze out meaning from these adjacencies – then, I’d say Why Not?

(2) The ‘Commemorative Calculus’ Of The 9/11 Memorial

Nearly 3,000  men, women, and children were said to have been killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993 on the Twin Towers.  In order to commemorate them, the 9/11 memorial has a very unique feature – the names of every person killed inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the 9/11 Memorial’s twin pools.

National-9.11-Memorial-4a-Credit-Amy-Dreher

(Image Source)

As Michael Arad – an architect of the memorial puts it “(the idea of having the names of all the 3,000 men, women and childen) allows families’ and friends’ stories to be told.” He says “the river of names, without other identification (like age or title or company affiliation), was meant to convey simultaneously a sense of individual and collective loss.”

But it’s here that it gets interesting. These names on first look, would seem to be randomised in their grouping.

However on deeper inspection it becomes apparent that this grouping has been the result of some truly complex set of algorithms based on the concept of Meaninful Adjacencies – whereby each name has been meticulously mapped to each other on the basis of specifics like location, floor, company of a person and laid out in relation to other people based on relevant relationship contexts .

The result?  An intricate mapping of names that commemorates those laid to rest in a deeply compelling way by reflecting thousands of complex interpersonal relationships among them – and thereby telling a story with a real emotional impact.

193921

(Image, Source)

So there we have it – an analytical process that brings in a new twist to the adjacencies of words inherent in an author’s writings and a design paradigm that is predicated on bringing out narratives based on adjacencies of the underlying elements. 

So the next time when someone tells you that new ideas thrive at the intersection/adjacency of seemingly different concepts, tell them that it can literally be the case.

(Featured Image, Termite Mound in Namibia, Source)

The Wabi Sabi Edge

The Ise Grand Shrine – a Shinto Shrine – in Ise, Mie prefecture in Japan has been preserved exactly like it was around 2,000 years ago. Despite such a rich legacy, the UNESCO has refused to list the shrine in its list of historic places.

Why?

Shinto Shrine

(Shinto priests walking beside the Ise Grand Shrine, Japan. Source)

This is because the shrine is not built of a ‘permanent structure’. The ISe Grand Shrine is built of wood and hence it  gradually loses its structural integrity over years. So the Shinto priests have a solution;  every 20 years they tear down the structure and rebuild another – in an adjacent plot –  in exactly the same specifications as the original using the wood from the same forest that the original structure was built from. Result: the shrine  is  forever new,  ancient and original! The present structure, dating from 1993, is the 61st iteration to date and is scheduled for rebuilding in 2013!

A centuries old Shinto belief of death and renewal of nature and the transience  of all things called Wabi- Sabi underscores the philosophical and artistic significance of this shrine. To quote the wiki  page ….

Wabi Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Burning Man

Further to the west, in northern Nevada US is the Black Rock Desert –  an open swathe of desert land where a week long annual cultural festival called Burning Man is held every August/September. This iconic event is described as an annual experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance – a week long celebration of extreme creativity, art, spirituality and innovation. Often compared to TED for its potential to provoke, inspire, connect, indulge or just ‘let be’, Burning Man regularly attracts stalwarts like the Google founders, Eric Schmidt, Chip Conley among many many others. But what makes Burning Man stand out as an exceptional event is the fact that it is transient by nature. The whole venue, the structures and the shelters for the event are practically built from scratch and again torn to dust without leaving a trace at the end of the week!

See below the time lapse video of 2011 Burning Man to appreciate the ‘dust to dust’ cycle typical of the Burning Man.

As Business Strategy

Transience as a method, an approach or a strategy is not just  an expressionist arts style or some exotic charm of a shrine.  It also has far reaching implications on contemporary business strategy. The June 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review features an interesting article by Rita Gunther McGrath on what she calls as Transient Advantage. She argues that  in a world where competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year, companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy. She introduces what she calls as The Wave of Transient Advantage and explains its ‘curve’ (below). Companies possessing this edge constantly start new strategic initiatives, build, exploit, re configure and if need be even actively disengage from an initiative as a means to reprioritise, reinvent and renew their approach to growth.

Transient Advantage

(Wave of Transient Advantage, Source)

She posits that the thinking in this field “has reached an inflection point” leading to an acknowledgment from a multitude of strategy practitioners that “Sustainable competitive advantage is now the exception, not the rule. Transient advantage is the new normal.”

The latest post in the Gaping Void newsletter by Hugh Mac­Leod pays an artistic tribute to this concept through this delightful piece of ‘office art’.

permanent_state

(You must subscribe to his newsletter, sure to make your day!)

Essentially from which ever perspective you look at it – artistic, personal, emotional, professional or even strategic, the ability to accept transience as the new normal, the ability to let go of the status quo to rethink, re-invent and renew our  approach forms the bedrock of the new competitive edge – The Wabi Sabi Edge.

Sustainability Inc – A Case For Profitability In Charity

Can ‘Marketing’ and thereby a monetary value exchange  have a major role to play in non profits, NGOs and charities?  2 recent examples seem to prove a point.

Once Again

Once Again is a Bangalore based NGO that stands out for two reasons:

1. It accepts donations only in the form of old items. Not money.

2. It uses social media in a unique, relevant and a compelling way to trigger ‘action’ for its cause.

See its case study here:

The brilliance of their social media campaign to rake in donations notwithstanding, the big idea for me here is their fundamental business model: It collects items people don’t use anymore, and instead of donating these to the needy, it sells them at a  price (although minimal) to the underprivileged and uses this money for the empowerment of their community.

The exchange of monetary value in this equation triggers a chain reaction from ‘donation of the giver‘ to the ‘dignity of the receiver‘ while making the whole model sustainable. 

Cola Life

Can a crate of Coke save life? Most Likely – proves ColaLife, whose concept can be explained in 100 words as:

“You can buy a Coca-Cola virtually anywhere in developing countries but in these same places 1 in 9 children die before their 5th birthday from simple, preventable causes like dehydration from diarrhoea.

ColaLife, an independent non-profit, is working with Coca-Cola to open their distribution channels in developing countries to carry ‘social products’ – oral rehydration salts and Zinc supplements – to save children’s lives.”

Get a low down on its business model here.

The big idea for me here is two fold:

1. The design of AidPods: The oral rehydration salts (ORS) in the ColaLife network are distributed in specially designed packs called as AidPods. These are  wedge-shaped containers that are designed to fit within the unused space of a coke crate, i.e., between the necks of the bottles. The design of the AidPod also serves as a contaier for the salts, as a measure for water, as a storage device and as a cup for drinking the ORS. No wonder it won the Product Design of the Year Award for 2013.

Yamoyo Kit

2. The ‘Social Marketing’ Model: At the heart of ColaLife is its ‘Social Marketing Model’ –  in which users value the product more because they pay for it. (ORS products are typically provided free of charge by medical centres in Africa, but are frequently unavailable and misused as there is virtually no monetary exchange taking place at any stage of the value chain). As this FT article says,

“the idea was to copy Coca-Cola’s model, which includes giving financial in­cen­tives along the supply chain from factory to store in order to ensure that people at all stages are rewarded for getting the drink to the customer. By turning a public health commodity – the salt and sugar mix – into a branded consumer product and using marketing to create demand, everyone would benefit, and help make the project sustainable.”

These are just a few of several recent examples out there that have one point to prove:  ‘Marketing’ and thereby a monetary value exchange do and should have a major role to play in non profits, NGOs, humanitarian agencies and charities  in order to remain sustainable and have truly far reaching consequences to the needy.

In his recent TED talk, Dan Palotta  nails it when he says: “Business will move the mass of humanity forward, but will always leave behind that 10% of the most disadvantaged and unlucky- which is why we need philanthropy and nonprofits. But the non profit sector as we know it doesn’t seem to be working.”

And that begets the question – couldn’t the nonprofit sector use the same strategies as the businesses to sustainably serve the needy?   

The Most Iconic Photograph Ever – On Perspectives

Lunch atop a skyscraper is believed to be one of the most iconic photographs of all time.

The photograph shows 11 men having their lunch, seated on a crossbeam with their feet dangling some hundreds of feet above the New York City streets. Many of us might possibly remember seeing this picture over the years and sometimes even wondering if this was just a work of some smart ass CG. Else, what on earth could they possibly be doing there? 

Power of Perspective as an Evocative Device

When I think about it, this iconic shot – that was apparently taken by an unknown photographer on September 20th 1932 from the 69th floor of the RCA Building during the last months of its construction – captures our imagination precisely because it presents a unique perspective of a moment frozen in time and space to evoke a multitude of reflections (and questions) from us: historical, metaphorical and  physical. It is these very questions that an upcoming documentary Men at Lunch seeks to answer. See this trailer:

The historical significance aside, what stands out to me here is the power of ‘perspective’ to make us react to, reflect upon and realize the multiple facets of a story.In other words, the power of perspective as a compelling story telling device. 

Power of Perspective as a Provocative Device

It is known that our preferences are mostly shaped by our perceptions. Hence when we are presented with something in such a way that our perspective shifts, it challenges us, provokes us and sometimes even immerses us in new ways.

Willow – a Belgian band has recently released a music video for their song ‘Sweater’. It is a tour-de-force in 3-D projection mapping that creates an outstanding optical illusion. Play the music video below and see your perceptions getting provoked as your perspective rapidly shifts (and possibly gets restored):

Obviously the guy just ‘strolls’ on a treadmill in a room while the projections on the walls play with our notion of perspective every passing second. That is for me, the impact that gets created when our perspective shifts – even for a moment –  despite our best struggles to restore it.

Power Of Perspective as a Narrative Device 

Did you see the website for 2012 Air Jordan Collection from Nike? Click on the pic below to land on the site:

(No. Seriously.  Browse through this site before reading any further)

How did you like it? Were you intrigued to scroll down till the end of the page? This is called as Parallax Scrolling Effect.  Essentially it  uses multiple backgrounds which seem to move at different speeds to create a sensation of depth and an interesting browsing experience that challenges your perspective of a web page.

No wonder then, Parallax Scrolling can be a powerful device that can in itself become the narrative of a page. (See some brilliant examples from the WWW that employ this UI design technique.)

And lastly and more importantly the Power of ‘Perspective Restored’ 

Recently Candy Chang has envisaged an experiment called “Before I Die” in New Orleans. What followed was an extremely thought provoking story about how she has taken up a neglected wall and transformed that into a constructive space where one can restore perspective. See her soul stirring TED talk here:

‘Before I Die’  has been recognized as one of the most creative and transformative community projects ever and has soon begun to expand to a number of cities around the world.

In Summary: 

While our formative years shape up our perspectives, these certainly need to get challenged and shifted as we grow up, in order for us to learn and unlearn. But may be sometimes when we get too caught up in our day to day, perhaps we just need to take a step back and seek strength in this power of our perspective, restored.

What is your perspective?

From Feeling Beauty to Capturing ‘Living Pictures’

I had always thought to myself sitting in a theater as the lights slowly fade out making way for the picture on the screen to come alive – “this is just brilliant!” I never knew why, but somehow I liked the idea of the lights slowly and pleasantly fading out, rather than getting switched off/on abruptly. This was and obviously still is being used in most cinemas around the world. Why am I writing about this here?

Because of Richard Seymour. The co-founder of Seymourpowell – A ‘global design & innovation company’.

I chanced upon his TED talk here and was reminded of this incredibly subtle and  pleasurable sensation of ‘warmth’, a feeling of ‘wow’ whenever I see the lights getting off slowly. And that’s exactly what he starts his TED talk with: BMW car designed in such a way that whenever the door is closed, as opposed to the lights getting on/off abruptly, it takes exactly 6 secs for the lights to get off…slowly. Exactly 6 seconds. Each time. And he goes about to deconstruct the fundamental set of feelings/responses it evokes and makes his main point. He brilliantly sums it all when he finally says ‘Form IS function’ and that, a new lens with which design has to be viewed is asking if a design is ‘emotionally functional’. This video along with these 2 key takeouts were incredibly insightful to me and set me thinking about so many brilliant things that we see, experience, feel, smell, taste etc that strike ‘that’ chord of rapport with us instantly and evoke responses and reactions that could sometimes be difficult to rationalise or codify.

On the same tangent, I discovered that there is a fast developing, parallel school of thought evolving in the world of design, something that taps into frontiers of neuroscience, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and anthropology, neuro-marketing and neuro-linguistic programing. This is called as ‘Persuasive Design’. Though the concept of ‘emotionally functional’ design and ‘persuasive design’ can sometimes mean different things and can potentially go about serving different purposes, for me, it is clear that they all speak about very similar things: Of design speaking to our sub-conscious and making ‘that’ impact, evoking ‘that’ response/reaction in just micro seconds long before we even ask ourselves ‘why’.

A very recent example of a refreshing design is Lytro – a camera that introduces a paradigm shift in the way we look at photography.

Even for a moment, if we were to forget the fact that this magical camera enables re-focusing of photos after they have been shot, at a fundamental level, the very shape and design of this piece of optical machinery seems suddenly so commonsensical, so inuitive, and somehow evokes a ‘this-is-how-a-camera-is-supposed-to-be’ kind of response. While there is no doubt about the sheer brilliance and mastery of optics that must have gone into the conceptualisation and development of this game changing technology of ‘light field optics’, I am sure that the work that must have gone into the design/form of this piece of ‘optical magical cuboid’ could nothing be short of genius. A persuasive design example? I bet it is. Is it an example where ‘form Is the function’? I bet it is. Is it emotionally functional? Hell it is!

As cliched an example as it has become over time, Apple usually score high on these design ethos. Hence it is so refreshing to see, for a change, a horse from a different stable all set to rock the derby in the race to engage, delight and win over consumers. And perhaps also redefine an entire market on its way?