The upside of friction

As establishment outsiders, Uber, Airbnb, and BuzzFeed are shaking up the transportation, vacation housing, and media worlds in a way that causes people to question conventions. They are forcing entrenched businesses and consumers to reexamine the status quo through their new and innovative business models.

For the most part we try to avoid friction and confrontation, especially in groups or collaborative team situations. Few people want to make sparks fly. But friction, and more specifically, creative friction, is a key element in every design engagement. Used well, it can lead to better questions, answers and ideas. Seemingly counterintuitive, creative friction, used in the service of innovation, should actually be encouraged.

In his seminal book The Creative Priority, legendary designer Jerry Hirshberg, who founded Nissan’s first West Coast Design Studio, introduces a number of fundamental concepts important to nurturing creativity in teams. One of them — called “embracing the dragon” — is where Jerry essentially encourages creative friction.

He introduces an exercise in which a designer makes the argument of why and what needs to be done: which aesthetics are important, which human needs are being met, and why there is a need for investment and costs. Next, an engineer responds in kind, regarding the realities of, for example, manufacturing: what it takes to get there, where the costs may exceed the benefit, what kind of investment is required, etc.

Next, the two exchange places. The engineer makes the design argument and vice versa. It’s great exercise in self-examination that is not easy. Adopting another’s view is hard when you just argued against it. But if the team “embraces the dragon,” there’s potential for an amazing degree of empathy. The exercise almost always results in a newfound respect for the other side’s concerns.

Designers and engineers naturally come from different vantage points. If both perspectives are seen as equally valid (rather than one voice having more influence or even more “power” over the other) the resulting friction leads to better solutions.

Creative friction, and the natural discomfort that goes with it, is all around us, challenging our conventional thinking in exciting ways. As designers and engineers (and clients), rather than doing what we can to avoid friction, we need to learn to embrace it.

Author Mark Dziersk is Managing Director of LUNAR’s Chicago office and the executive editor of INNOVATION, IDSA’s flagship publication.

News landing page