Copyright © Jeffrey Ediger 2012
Thank God for malaria.. .or at least for the attempts to prevent it.
William Perkin, an assistant to an English chemist was attempting to synthesize the organic compound qui-nine, which was being used as a pre-ventative medicine for malaria. By accident, some drops of this mixture dripped down onto his rag. Perkin took one look at the deep and per-manent purple stain the drops had created and quit his research position. With the help of his father, he opened a factory where he produced and marketed his discovery, the first synthetic color in the form of analine dyes (the precursors to modern-day wood stains). Perkin’s accidental discovery had unlocked and opened a door no one even knew had existed. But once that door was opened, others soon followed. The result was the synthetic replication of organic colors.
We call it “the happy accident.” Its the Oops@#! that, for some mysterious reason, prompts us to take a second look–Huh???–which reveals something we may not have been consciously searching for but which seems like an answer nonetheless…to which we appropriately respond with an Ahaah!!! (or, as one notable inventer once cried, “Eureka!,” meaning ‘I’ve found it!’) What we thought was an accident has turned into discovery.
This flip-flop from accident to discovery has happened to so many artists and inventors that one is tempted to make mistakes on purpose! But not all accidents are happy ones. Many are just plain failure leading to lost revenue and discouragement. What, then, is the difference between mere failure and the “happy accident”? Is there a discernible pattern to the latter which we could learn from and incorporate into our work without having to wait for an accident to happen? This would be particularly helpful for the decorative artisan, who is already inclined to embrace accidental events–for instance, the accidental brush stroke that captures a spontaneity of veining while rendering faux marble. The most lively and convincing faux marble results when we don’t overwork it but, instead, we let the paint flow in a spontaneous, accidental way. The aesthetic skill lies in then selectively manipulating the most interesting flows to create real-istic looking veins and drifts.
The task we face, then, is how to expand and develop this availability to spontaneity so as to incorporate it into the design-stage of inventing new finishes. If the decorative artisan can develop this creative edge, all of his or her finishes will achieve that same liveliness we prize in the best faux marble. In an increasingly competitive business where the novelty of a sponged wall has long worn off, maintaining this creative edge is hardly a luxury. It is a necessary part of sustaining a successful decorative painting business.
The title of my article gives us our first clue about how to develop the necessary skills. The “happy accident,” it turns out, is not as arbitrary as one might first expect. It follows an ordered path from mistake, through wonderment, to discovery. But if we look more closely at a number of the discoveries that have emerged from accidents, we find other similarities from which we might derive principles which will help us become available to discovery. In Part One of this article, I will consider two characteristics of the person who is the recipient of the accidental discovery. In Part Two of this article, I will discuss some hidden reasons why accidents contain the potential for discovery.
Consider, then, the person himself. Taking Perkin’s experience as exem-plary, we note that the accident which turned into a discovery did not hap-pen in an arbitrary, out-of-the-blue sort of way. It was related to what he was doing at the time. While he was not trying to synthesize color, he was trying to synthesize something. All the accident did was to shift his focus of attention from one experiment to another. Notice, also, that it did not happen while he was in a production mode of operation, intent simply on getting the job done (see my article, “What Kind of Time is Money?”). Rather, Perkin’s discovery happened while he was busy about the task of experimentation. And so, the first thing to note is that the happy accident, more often than not, happens to persons who are busy about the task of exploring. Its as if the person were concentrating so deeply on discovery that even his mistakes fail to throw him off track but, instead, reveal something worth finding.
How might the decorative artisan translate this principle into his or her work? First, by setting aside time for experimentation. The artisan who becomes obsessed with making money, accepting one job after another with never a pause for education or experimentation or even the slightest variation from his or her portfolio samples soon finds him or herslef dominated by the production-mode mentality. Eventually, this artisan’s work will become stale.
On the other hand, one doesn’t have to quite everything, clear the books for a week, and lock oneself in the studio. While concentrated times of experimentation provide an important and distinctive opportunity for growth, there’s a less demanding way to incorporate experimentation into one’s work. A slow, steady growth in creativity is least likely to produce artificiality and affords deeper integrations than the sudden bursting forth of a life-changing epiphany. Like most of life’s achievements, maturity in creative design comes gradually. For myself, the best way to break up my experimentation into small units that can be routinized is by incorporating it into the process of making sample boards. When I prepare sample boards for a particular project, I set aside more time than I think I need. I begin by rendering the explicit finishes the client and/or designer and I have agreed upon. But then I expand my focus. I open myself up to other possibilities. I ask myself “what if” questions and see where it leads me. In the process of this questioning, I focus more upon the effect the client and/or designer said they were intending to achieve than I do upon the particular finish that had been chosen to express this effect. I call this “creative listening.”
In creative listening, we listen not just to what is said, but to what the speaker would like to say if he or she could find the words. Creative Usten-ing attends to unspoken desire—in the case of the designer and/or client, it is listening to the design that is imagined which is not clearly visualized enough to put into words.) I also recollect other details that reveal the client’s taste— things they have said about themselves, past design decisions that have been made in and around the space, even books I see lying around. All of this material is fodder for my sample-board research-mill. It was in the context of just such an experimentation mode that a happy accident recently happened to me which resulted in the finish on a fireplace surround pictured at left. The designer had skillfully selected two colors for the wall treatments which harmonized with the coloring of the furniture in the room. But she had not specified a particular finish, nor had she specified that they be combined together. She just said she wanted some kind of “textural finish” on top of a neutral background.
When the client and I sat down to look at my portfolio, she chose the feather-finish which is on the walls adjacent to the fireplace. She then asked if I would do the same finish on the fireplace surround, but using the deeper of the two colors the designer had specified. I dutifully complied with this request, but I had a feeling neither of us were going to like the effect. And so, in addition to the specified finishes, I experimented with other possibilities. I focused, in particular, upon the designer’s choice to match the coloring of the furniture. Noticing that the cushions on the couch were made of suede, I asked myself if perhaps the designer’s intention to echo the furniture in the wall finish might be carried one step further—that is, by rendering the coloring she had chosen in a suede-finish on the wall surface.
After many frustrating attempts to render a monochromatic suede finish, none of which I liked, I became a bit more careless. This freeing up of the self from constraints may very well be a factor in the prompting of discovery from accidents. Spontaneity in experimentation is as elusive of a rhythm as the “happening” of jazz in its most improvisational mode. I think we do well to consider the many ways in which the decorative finishes rely heavily upon a performative mode of aesthetic activity not just in the rendering of them, but also in the design-phase. In fact, there may only be two important modes of our craft—preparation and perfor-mance.
When I let myself go in this improvisational way, that’s when it happened. In a random, almost desperate gesture, I ragged on a second color over one of my first sample boards that had already dried. But the glaze went on too heavy. So I tried to lighten it up by stippling it. But I had forgotten that I had just washed out my stipple brush but had not shaken out the excess water. The washed out, stippled glaze that resulted from this mistake created an effect which caused me to cry “Ahaah!” Surprisingly, I had created an effect which not only was perfect for the space but which, oddly enough, reminded me of a finish I had tried, but failed to create about a year ago. (I’ll say more about this observation in the second part of this article) Of course, it took me 20 more sample boards to reproduce the effect! But the end result was worth it.
And so, the “happy accident” more often than not happens to the person who is doing to work of experimentation. One almost comes to recognize the failures of work done in this mode as just another way of going about the creative task.
But besides the Oops#@!, we need the Huh ? ? ? if the Ahaah!!! is going to happen. If the happy accident is dependent upon diligence in experimentation, to what do we attribute the discovery of something worthy of attention when an accident happens?
Let’s consider Perkin’s experience again. We have to remember that Perkin wasn’t trying to synthesize colors when he discovered analine dyes; he was working on a preventative medicine for malaria. What quality of mind accounts for this leap? A second example will make it more apparent.
Consider the accidental path which led toward the invention of Post-it Notes. A man named Spencer Silver was working in a 3M research lab, trying to produce a super-strong adhesive. But it was an absolute, unde-niable failure. Ironically, his adhesive was not super-strong, but super-weak. The failed mixture sat on the shelf in despair for four years until another research scientist named Arthur Fry happened to become frustrated while singing in his church choir. When the markers he used to keep his place in the hymnal kept falling out, Fry remembered Silver’s adhesive. He coated these markers with the mixture and discovered what he had hoped to find—they stayed in place when he wanted them to but, when lifted, they did no damage to the page.
Happy accidents remain mere accidents if they are swept up off the floor and tossed in the waste bin. But Spencer didn’t do this. Even though he could think of no immediate use for his failure, he valued it enough to save it. Along comes Arthur Fry, then, and he not only has the proverbial “necessity is the mother of invention” working in his favor—I’m referring to the necessity of keeping track of his place in his hymnal—but he also has the capacity for inquisitiveness. Sitting there in his choir seat in the basement of his church, Fry slipped into reverie. He wondered. He dreamed. He was curious. AND, he remembered…
Perkin had this same capacity. He wasn’t trying to synthesize color, but he was trying to synthesize something. But when he failed to synthesize what he had intended, he didn’t stop looking. Instead, he noticed the unexpected thing that had happened along the way…which is what led him to Ahaah!!! Curiosity may kill the cat, but it can sometimes yield gold for the explorer. Diligence in experimentation is what causes even a person’s mistakes to become just another part of the process. But the mistake doesn’t go any further unless diligence is combined with the genius of curiosity.
But we don’t have to wait for accidents to incorporate curiosity. It can become a habitual way of going about our business. More important than the individual acts of attending to curiosity, we benefit most from developing a habit of wonderment. The decorative artisan who is working on a design project, for instance, might be walking down a city street when he notices a stain on the side-walk or a pattern of cracks in the cement that inspires discovery.
Nature is another well-known source of discovery for design ideas. But one has to be prepared to find something. Agility of intuition and perception is an essential quality of the explorer. By means of this acrobatic mind, the explorer is able to bend and stretch understanding in ways that allow the mind to leap from one place to a seemingly unrelated place and, in so doing, to discover the bridge that integrates them in a lively way. The discipline of attentiveness in experimentation, then, combined with the agility of mind that is receptive to unexpected, but lively connections are two qualities of the person which enable the Oops@#! to prompt the Huh??? which then erupts into the Ahaah!!! of life’s “happy accidents”! In the second half of this article, I will consider qualities of the accident itself which contribute to this flip-flop from accident to discovery.
Copyright © Jeffrey Ediger 2012
Hope, Augustine and Margaret Walch. The Color Compendium. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.
Jones, Charlotte Foltz. Mistakes that Worked. New York: Delacorte Press, 1991.