Book Review: The Art of Invention: The Creative Process of Discovery and Design

    By: PDMA Headquarters on Oct 04, 2013

    Book Review: The Art of Invention: The Creative Process of Discovery and Design     

    By: Steven J. Paley. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010. 236 pages. 
    Review by: Gerald Mulenburg

    Book ImageOf the many books available about invention and creativity, this author is over the top in providing the reader with not just what invention is but how to do it using clear definitions of the principles of design to make his points. This book provides unique value in its clear language explanations of real-world invention using great examples. Both an inventor and a businessman himself, Steven Paley is familiar with not only the need to develop an exciting new product but also with how to get it to market and capitalize on its value. He cogently describes what goes into creating an invention and makes the essential leap in product development about how to create a product that will be salable in the market. He does this from the business viewpoint of an employee, selling the result, starting your own company, and obtaining patents and practical advice about how to succeed at invention. As he states it, “inventions evolve” (p. 22), and he describes how this happens from the paper clip to the electric car and many unique products in between. He acknowledges that sometimes others find uses for your invention you had not thought of, or they may not accept the invention for its designed use.

    Although the author describes his book as “written for the aspiring inventor” (p. 15), it is equally valuable to anyone involved in design including, and maybe especially, product developers. Saying his ideas often “fly in the face of convention” (p. 13), he describes the need for unlearning in the invention process being almost as important as new learning. He puts practical emphasis on problem solving to bring an idea from concept to reality including commercialization, how to market it, and how to capitalize on its value. Much of what he describes is not new information and can be found piecemeal elsewhere, but what is most useful for anyone involved in invention is his description of the invention process itself, from the conception of an idea to a completed product in clear, definitive, and easy-to-apply methods for any product design innovation. He recognizes that invention is fraught with getting things wrong as you go along, but he does not waste words emphasizing things that we know do not work. He develops approaches and techniques for what does work, going well beyond what happens on paper or in the laboratory, and delves into the unique processes happening inside the inventor.

    Paley describes the fundamental hard work needed, the fear, and the fantasy involved that drive us to invent to fill a gap in our existence. To accomplish this he provides descriptions of how it is essential that we need to think again as children do: “We must not be afraid of making things up” (p. 194). The foundation of invention is to create something that did not exist before. And sometimes we get it wrong and have to stop, back up, and sometimes even completely change our approach: “The nature of the art of invention is that you will make many mistakes [and that] we must learn to recognize when we are wrong” (p. 196). Minimizing these events requires a heightened awareness to recognize the hidden obvious around us using what he calls “relaxed attention” (p. 57). It is important in “moving ideas from thought to paper [which he sees as] a continuum rather than a progression” (p. 63) and that “The process of invention is really theprocesses of invention” (p. 98, author's emphasis). To ensure the workings of an invention are correct, he urges testing in a controlled but realistic way. This involves first testing each system, then testing the systems together on simple tasks, and finally, increasing task complexity and continuing to test.

    In describing the business of invention, Paley focuses on the big three of simplicity, elegance, and robustness. Applying these to all facets of problem solving and iteration, he stresses the need for maintaining simplicity, elegance, and robustness and then elaborates on what these are individually and how they interact in the invention process. He describes the characteristic of elegance as “ingenious simplicity; multiple and flexible uses; functionality derived from intrinsic properties; self-regulation; and growth, customization, and development through use” (p. 142). He emphasizes that elegance in design opens a window to ingenious simplicity that is often “hidden right within the problem itself” (p. 119). The Internet is one example that he says is an “exemplar of an invention that changes with change” (p. 133). Wikipedia is an example of this phenomenon as it is a never-ending development and change by millions of contributors. A spreadsheet is another example of multiple uses filling a variety of business needs. Robustness, he states, “requires an awareness of failure right from the beginning. . . as part of the initial design” (p. 153). This includes strength, redundancy, simplicity, self-healing, and finally, managed failure. As examples of robustness, he describes a fuse that protects a fragile system from catastrophic failure, and a software restore function to allow the return to some previous acceptable state. Simplicity is one element of robustness fulfilling the definition that “the simpler a system is, the less that can go wrong” (p. 147).

    Important to invention, Paley says, is a heavy dose of curiosity: “Curiosity leads to connections—often seemingly bizarre connections that can form the basis for new ideas. Most great inventions are only obvious in retrospect” (p. 198). He provides examples of how we use all of our previous experience, even though it sometimes seems unrelated to what we are trying to accomplish. One example he cites is the patent examiner work involved in synchronizing clocks that “gave Albert Einstein the physical vocabulary with which to describe his revolutionary theory” (p. 195). A more recent example is of Steve Jobs taking a calligraphy course that “Ten years and an entire world later. . . became an impetus for the design of the Macintosh computer user interface” (p. 195). And he is not afraid to say that sometimes it is serendipity; good things sometimes just happen.

    In showing how to make invention happen, the author walks the reader through the development of an original idea, using not just intellectual processes but also how it feels as the invention begins to become real. In maintaining focus on the main goal he advises to “connect the big pieces first” (p. 158). The functional needs to be met must be clear before focusing on achieving them. He does not shy away from the fact that this is not a smooth and easy set of steps that will take you from idea to finished product. But he also includes what you need to do when things do not work as planned. What if you have chosen the wrong path, or made incorrect assumptions, or missed a critical piece of information? These all happen, of course, and he recognizes this as a natural part of invention and emphasizes what to do when they do occur with an admonishment that “Ideas are easy. Invention is work” (p. 171).

    With all this useful and interesting material as foundation, Paley summarizes the book without the usual restating of the material you have already read. He brings previous information in the book together into a relevant model of invention. This model views invention progress as moving step-by-step up a staircase with short periods of progress toward your goal (the stair riser), followed by longer periods where not much progress occurs (the horizontal tread of the stair) until the next progress (riser) occurs. He also emphasizes you must know when to stop—when “you have solved your problem in a manner that is simple, elegant, and robust” (p. 167). If there is any fault to be found in this book, it would be to have an expansion of the in-depth information presented in the summary. This could be another book by itself.

    Released: October 4, 2013, 11:27 am | Updated: November 20, 2013, 10:33 am
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

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