October 24, 2019

Calling All Shape-Shifters

Sometimes we get stuck. We need the big idea—the hot new product concept, the clever business model, the catchy tag line. We’ve done our homework on users and their needs. We’ve analyzed the market and identified white space. But we’re missing that flash of insight, that lightning bolt that catalyzes all the good homework into a big WOW.

So we pull out our brainstorming toolkit, a mishmash of physical goods (post-its, sharpies, visual inspo) and frameworks (Venn diagrams, new business model-old business, 2x2s). Then we usually hang out in the conference room for a while and it all comes together (usually).

We are always adding to our toolkit (we have a Slack channel devoted to the topic). Lately, we’ve been flagging ideas that are fueling brainstorming around changing the shapes of things. It's a good starter question: What if __________ had to fit in a _____? Here are a few examples.

A Novel Novel

People have tried for years to reinvent books for the digital era, with mixed success. Indeed, the resurgence of print books and bookstores suggests that digital books have not quite hit on the right formula to effect a full transition from analog.

But now the New York Public Library (with some help from outside agency Mother) has reinvented the novel for Instagram. And if you thought you would never read Alice in Wonderland or A Christmas Carol, you might find yourself surprised.  Found in the NYPL’s Instagram Stories are a range of classic stories in new shapes—customized for small screens with fonts, illustrations, and animation. Try one here.

What took so long? Creating an appealing reading experience is about more than just hopping from one flat surface (paper) to another (screen). In this case, it was about choosing the right novels to adapt  (sorry, War and Peace) and integrating interstitial content in formats that met Instagram users' expectations.

The Shape of Things

Can the MVP be saved? Absolutely.

Recycling is increasingly about porting materials that started out in one shape and remaking them into another. It’s a way to create new products, and it’s a great metaphor for developing new businesses, too. Some of our favorite sustainable shape-shifters:

Freitag. What if truck tarps become backpacks, bags, and luggage?
Kungsbacka. What if plastic bottles become kitchen cabinets?
Billion Oyster Project. What if oyster shells from restaurants become reefs and breakwaters?

Arguably, everything that is piling up in your closet, warehouse, or cloud can have some other life—it's just waiting for a new shape.

A Little Big

Remember when tiny backpacks became fashionable? Or when giganto sodas (Big Gulps) at 7-11 were a huge deal? Size is an interesting way to think about concept development, even if it’s only for line extensions like Warby Parker’s five frame widths for eyeglasses or six-second ads on TV.

Someone has already invented giant rolls of toilet paper but paper towels are up for grabs. We love the tiny doughnuts at Chelsea Market and, frankly, we would be just as excited about a doughnut as large as a dinner plate.

Small can be strategic: tiny loans that jump-start economic activity or well-designed micro apartments that open up low-income housing options. Large works, too—giant phone screens, all the world's music in a single app, and so on.

So think big. And think small, too.


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