January 2009


speechEveryone is familiar with the sound trademark and the emotions it can evoke and impressions it can leave on the hearer. Case in point: turning on your Mac and all of the associations (work, fun, design, challenge, communication, search, opening the world…) that surround it are, I think, one of the most powerful features of my MacBook Pro and iMac. There are also the less loving sound trademarks, like cell phones, that simply remind you of the financial bondage you are stuck with through your provider.

But what about the ideophone?

“A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity,” according to C.M. Doke in Bantu linguistic terminology (1935) are we ready for the ideophone to take its place in product naming, branding, marketing and so on?

Ideophones evoke sensory events. They are expressive and dramaturgic in nature, a fancy way of saying that they help us perform lingusitically in ways that other ‘words’ do not. Of course, most make sense (meaning to listeners) only in the context of an individual language and, in some cases, a specific context. But they’re everywhere: Cantonese, Yoruba, Hausa, Ewe, Navajo, Hindi, Finnish, Vietnamese and more. To some extent, bling-bling is close to being an ideophone.

But imagine rather than word-based representations of, in the above case, ‘sparkly’, ‘ostentatious’, ‘luxury’ etc, we named products based on the sounds they actually make or that we make while using them: ideophones for Febreeze (psssst), Pepsi (aaaaahhhhh), Tylenol (insert gulping sound here), BMW (vroom, or more accurate purring sound of a motor) and so on.

Just a thought. Maybe a crazy one. Doubt it.

logan-s-run-the-70s-686598_1024_768In the interest of internet anonymity there will be no naming of names. Suffice to say, congratulations to the man who rides strategy shotgun to my right and his beautiful wife. And to the new man in their lives, you’re two centuries early! Go Logan, go!

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I spent enough time writing this post to the Transforming Transformation group I subscribe to that I felt my much neglected blog would feel cheated on if I didn’t share it with her…

I’m one of those lurkers GK has referred to in the recent past, something who highly values this space for the interactions and ideas that occur here but who rarely pipes in with contributions. Beyond thinking about, constructing and following through on the ‘design’ of anthropological research projects, this is because I’m not a designer. But the topic of transformation (the title of this space is what initially drew me to it) is a  personal and professional (more scholarly) sweet spot, so I have to contribute this time round.

 

I was struck by Nussbaum’s words when they first hit, not for their AHA! value but for the WTF? effect they had on me. Same goes for some of the discussion here. A number of things bother me about his Innovation Is So Last Year/Transformation for ’09 theme.

 

It takes very big social ideas and reduces them to buzz words for industry pundits. As someone who works for an organization (Idea Couture) that engages its clients in innovation projects, I sometimes feel like Dexter examining the blood splatter of overkill that occurred around “innovation” this past year. But just because Burger King calls a left-handed sandwich a “sandwich innovation” doesn’t mean the word or its significance to and role in social change is dead. Given the rate at which marketing and communications has caught up with and attempted to reflect and/or mock efforts in consumer research and design (something Grant McCracken has noted a number of times on his blog) it suggests to me that innovation has finally made its big dent in the consciousness where it counts most: the commercial mainstream, not the folks who have the education, experience and luxury to debate whether it’s ‘dead’ or not.

 

As someone who has done a good chunk of research and a smaller chunk of writing on youth subcultures, the Innovation Is Over thread reminds me of the kind of distancing tactic hipster kids engage in when their parents and their parents’ media discover argot, music, dance and dress styles that were once exclusively their own. Is Nussbaum just defending his cool quotient?

 

Those quick to rush into the warm embrace of transformation after eulogizing innovation and before the corpse is even cold seem to be. More alarmingly, they seem to be forgetting that innovation – or new things, ideas, experiences that have the ability or chance to change the old – don’t just happen because designers and others say so. It’s the social adoption of innovation, sometimes a slow process, which brings the new to life in culture. The ideas being spoken about here are bigger than seasonal colors, dress cuts, fabric inspirations and the like. In treating innovation like last year’s trend we only set up transformation to be drole in 2010.

 

Another thing that irks me is the suggestion that this is the year for transformation. Now, I recognize that Obama fever swept us all and that a change is gonna come. I also recognize that it’s gotta come, given the seismic events and economic tsunami that rolled from the U.S. across the world and, in the process, got everyone talking about very real needs for all types of change. But change has always had to come. Transformation has been the leitmotif of more years that this, more generations than ours. I worry that the buzz over transformation is so tied to the inspirational political climate of the past year that, should change not come from Main Street or the White House, it too will be on the eulogy block come next New Year’s Eve.

 

Finally, some thoughts on the intersections between innovation and transformation. In part, these are a building on Peter Jones’ recent posting to this space.

 

Transformation does not have to be monumental. It can be incremental. It can come in stages.

 

Innovation is something we do and something we have some control over. But transformation is also something we do. More precisely, it’s something we perform. None of us ‘know’ that we, or others, have been transformed or are in the process of engaging in transformation if there is not a ‘doing’ factor, a displaying factor, to the process. Here, I’d like to conjure the writings of Victor Turner and Richard Schechner to remind us all that transformation, like innovation, is inherently social and, ultimately, performative.

 

When we say that a human being who is transformed shows up as a different person, we are saying that they are innovative and/or creative. Transformation is, at its most liminal core, an innovative and creative process. Or, to be more precise, it’s the outcome of a gestative process.

 

Transformation is ‘done’ when constituents realize that they have changed and, as such, their place in the world and, thus, the world itself has changed (for them). It is, as Peter says, palpable and obvious.