In the unpicking of innovation, we invariably find stories – of solutions for problems, of unusual alliances, of unexpected endings, of happy accidents, of tiny tweaks and seismic shifts, of trials and triumphs on every scale.
It’s no coincidence that the companies we consider as leaders in innovation, are also expert storytellers. Some say the stories we tell lead to innovation; that great stories are a valuable by-product of our efforts to innovate; and, of course, the greatest stories of all are the ones that tell us something we don’t already know – they are, themselves, innovations.
It doesn’t take the sharpest of trend spotters to work out that the ancient art of storytelling has been receiving some fresh appreciation. We’ve always valued a good yarn, but now more than ever it seems they’re regarded as a precious commodity.
Through scribing, we capture content as it unfolds. But as our drawings inch across the wall, growing organically, changing direction as the conversation dictates, they don’t present a polished story so much as a living document in which array of stories can unfurl and flourish: Stories that would never have existed if we’d confined them to a more rigid structure and an expected outcome – beginning, middle, and end.
We’ve come to realise that the best, most valuable stories, just like many of the best innovations, usually emerge from an unexpected place. Like plants, they need the right conditions – space, freedom, patience – to reach their full potential. Sometimes, not knowing where something is going when you start out, is a valuable part of the process.
So, what follows is a gallery of mould-breaking visual stories. Innovations all, but perhaps more importantly they are great examples of what can happen when you dare to give an idea the time and space it needs to take on a life of its own, and become more extraordinary and wonderful than you ever thought it could be.
Picasso’s Guernica might not immediately seem an obvious example of this kind of storytelling. It might sound odd to describe one of the great 20th century works of art as something over which the artist wasn’t fully in command, and cheeky to compare his work with ours, but there is a connection. Like scribing, Guernica was shaped by a combination of creative judgement and forces beyond the artist’s control.
With civil war raging in Spain, Picasso had been asked to create a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. He’d found it hard to settle on a theme for the work until, on 27 April 1937, the German airforce bombed the small Basque town of Guernica for three days and killed over 600 people. This was a subject Picasso couldn’t ignore. But even as he was creating his masterpiece, he was constantly adapting his plans. He was very open to possibility of new information arriving and influencing the image. The horrifying details of the bombing took time to reach the wider world, but as more information emerged, Picasso allowed it to shape the final work.
In an intense period of activity after the bombing, Picasso pieced together the painting as he was piecing together his own understanding of what had happened. Obviously, the image is a symbolic representation, but it was allowed to grow spontaneously in the hothouse of reports, eyewitness accounts, photographs and sketches that the artist built around the project. Stories from the frontline lead to innovation on the canvas.
Few new works of art can have gained quite as much appreciation as many as Mobstr’s 2015 graffiti battle with Hackney council. It’s a real gem.
As the artist says: ‘Unlike other works, I was very uncertain as to what results it would yield.’ But his perseverance (and that of his nemesis) results is something uniquely brilliant: a story born from innovation.
If you haven’t seen it, it documents a silent, year-long tussle between a guy with a spray can and a guy with a big pot of red paint and, presumably, an ever-shortening fuse.
Here’s a very different example of the organic growth of a visual story: Russian criminal tattoos. Much loved these days by hipsters and T-shirt designers, these tattoos originate from a much less comfortable environment. During the Communist era, these tattoos – usually violent, obscene and anti-Soviet – formed a complex symbolic language that, over time, would turn an offender’s body into a visual record of their own criminal life.
Documented meticulously by a Leningrad prison guard, his project was actually sanctioned by the KGB who recognised that the stories the tattoos told gave them detailed knowledge about the individuals they were dealing with. Once decoded, a prisoner’s body could reveal information ranging from their date and place of birth, through to criminal record, previous prisons and even insights into their psychological profile. A cat denoted a thief, a skull told you the bearer was an experienced and hardened criminal, crosses on the knuckles kept a tally of prison terms, and so on.
These are pieces of visual storytelling, but they evolve unpredictably, crime by crime, prison by prison, echoing the erratic lives of their owners. There’s no plan here but, like scribing, there’s method and intent to capture the details as they occur over time. And those are the conditions that allow a visual
story to take root and grow even in this most unpromising of environments.
This is Dale Irby, a retired PE teacher from Texas, who accidently wore the same outfit for two consecutive yearbook photographs, and so decided he would continue to wear the same clothes in every yearbook photo for the next 40 years. This is another lovely visual story. The story of a man growing older, fairly gracefully, the consistencies serving to highlight the differences as time goes by. There’s even an eyewear story and riveting moustache narrative in there too if you look closely! Irby didn’t know exactly how the story would play out, but spotting the opportunity after year two, and donning that fetching sleeveless sweater annually thereafter was an act of storytelling nonetheless. He recognised the green shoots of a narrative emerging, and spent the rest of his career cultivating it.