Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton(LV)’s men’s artistic director, and founder of Haute streetwear label Off-White, admits he learned a lot from his LV predecessor, and former mentor, Kim Jones, now creative director for Dior Homme.
The two first met in 2007 when Virgil was a virtual unknown and Kim, a prominent designer renowned for successfully blending high fashion and streetwear. Virgil reflected on his dream of collaborating with Kim, who he had admired for years: “I slept on his couch in a front room in Maida Vale and forced him to teach me stuff; I spent a summer sitting there with him.”
Like every aspiring innovator, Virgil knew that working closely with stars such as Kim would be good for him. Indeed, stories of junior designers learning from creative masters are common in various industries. However, what do you get by working with a creative star beyond fame and connections? And does it actually make you more creative?
Creative stars contribute far more than just status and additional knowledge to a collaboration. They bring with them a superior set of creative skills that allow them to push existing paradigms into new territories; see new possibilities that others overlook; uncover similarities across different perspectives; and iteratively refine the most promising ideas.
They typically have the ability to synthesize diverse ideas in a way that maximizes creativity, leading to exceptional innovations. One example is that Kim Jones built his prominent career by successfully blending high fashion and streetwear, which are commonly perceived as different or even contradictory.
Collaborating with stars provides non-stars with the opportunity to learn and develop these superior creative skills, increasing the likelihood they will go on to create a series of radical innovation. This can make the non-star more creative, and even gain their own star status.
Star designers are adept at creative synthesis
To understand the benefits of working with a creative star, it is crucial to recognize the role of creative synthesis in the creation of breakthrough innovations. This less understood approach to innovation, focuses on the notion that radical innovations are likely to emerge by taking a single idea and persistently reframing, refining and retesting it until it shines.
Although the quality of the raw idea is certainly important, it is the work that follows that determines whether an idea becomes great. Creative synthesis has been likened to sculpting a complex shape or creating vanguard cuisine. It is a holistic and artistic approach to creative tasks, requiring wisdom and experience.
People who master creative synthesis share certain tacit, intricately linked traits and behaviors. They are consummate questioners who constantly challenge common assumptions and are more adept at connecting disparate fields, problems and ideas. They are better at being able to clarify and define complex problems, and focus collective attention not only on the “what is” but also on “what could be.”
When collaborating with others, they attend to ideas in a way that each member of a group can understand, helping to facilitate communication that pushes innovation forward. They are also persistent and are better at pacing the creative process, knowing when to continue evaluating ideas and when it is time to start enacting them.
Creative synthesis is the mystical touch that will transform you
These tacit skills are not something that can be fully or easily learned by reading a book or attending a design class. For many creative stars they are intuitive or gained through experience. However, the likelihood of someone learning these skills (and eventually becoming a star themselves) is significantly higher if they work in close proximity to someone who possesses them.
In our recent study, we examined the collaboration patterns of 144,288 designers with granted design patents by the US Patent and Trademark Office over 35 years. We found that star designers who created the most influential patents (those mostly cited by other future patents) exhibited more creative synthesis behaviors than non-star designers.
Specifically, they spent more time refining a potentially ground-breaking idea than non-stars. We noted that non-stars working with stars were more likely to imitate this behavior of stars, suggesting that non-stars learn creative synthesis from the stars with whom they collaborate.
Optimum conditions for star power
Admittedly, creative synthesis is not the only approach to develop breakthroughs. There is the well-established approach to creativity that sees innovations as a new way of combining existing elements.
This view is central to an evolutionary theory of innovation put forward by Nobel laureate Schumpeter in the 1930s and supported by a stream of academic research. It involves the combination of as many diverse ideas as possible increasing the chance of creating a potentially ground-breaking combination. Based on this claim, you need to rely on a pool of diverse collaborators to ignite the creative sparks.
Creative synthesis and the combinatorial approach of creativity can both bring extraordinary results and work well in tandem. However, creative synthesis is the skill, if mastered, which will transform your creativity after that.
It is important to note, that optimal working conditions and collaboration processes differ depending on whether innovators are working with stars or non-stars.
Our research confirmed previous findings which showed that when teams of non-stars work together, diversity is the key to creativity. The greater the divergence in knowledge and ideas brought to the project, the greater the chance something new and significant will be created.
In these cases, to maximize the likelihood of a breakthrough and eventually nurturing a creative star, managers should make decisions that limit redundant social connections to the team and bring in new members whose expertise and experience are different from others in the group.
On the other hand, when collaborating with stars, a very cohesive environment brings better results. Shared social connections and closer similarities of expertise help to build a common understanding of new paradigms and encourage collaborators to see similarities among their different perspectives.
As well as increasing the likelihood of breakthrough innovations, this facilitates the transfer of creative synthesis knowledge and skills to non-star collaborators, significantly increasing their chance of one day becoming a creative star themselves. Indeed, organizations like Pixar and El Bulli (the former highly influential three-starred Michelin restaurant) have generated remarkable innovations in their small, close-knit creative teams where creative synthesis skills were learned from star members’ superior abilities.
In short, when working with a star, creative synthesis is the key skill an aspiring innovator should focus on – a skill more likely to be learned by working with those who exhibit it. To magnify this effect, special attention needs to be paid to maximizing shared social connections and expertise similarity around star collaborations.
Haibo Liu, Jürgen Mihm, & Manuel E. Sosa. “Where Do Stars Come From? The Role of Star vs. Nonstar Collaborators in Creative Settings,” Organization Science, 2018.
Image: ulrichw via paxabay