In 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter so that his blind friend could write letters more legibly.
Inspired by a moment of unique empathy, this invention created a solution that changed the world for billions of both disabled and able-bodied people. Likewise, in 1872 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as an experiment to assist the deaf with communication, and in turn changed the world for every single one of us.
One could argue that both of these breakthroughs were simply a product of looking and listening in interesting places. By taking inspiration from a small audience with very pronounced needs, their creations solved a problem for all of society. By giving the deaf and the blind a power, it gave the rest of humanity a superpower.
Whatever business you are in, we are all to some degree, in the business of understanding people, and searching for those powerful human truths.
Often brands are interested in the truths and insights that relate to the bulk of the population, not the niche or the fringe. So as a result, we collectively run to the middle and stare in the same place, uncovering the same familiar observations.
But in the same way that we need to be more creative about how we execute on insights, we equally need to be more creative in how we find them. To, like Turri and Bell, start looking and listening in unusual places.
Over the course of this year our agency has had conversations with a mix of folk from cult members, to nudist colonies and even the grown men who dress up as My Little Ponies (and call themselves Brownies). It has been a refreshing reminder that everyone (even a Bronie) has something relevant to teach us. We just need to take the time to listen.
Two booming fringe areas that are worth looking at are the “Preppers” and the “Dungeons & Dragons” community.
Preppers (commonly known as doomsdayers) are the ones infamous for stockpiling, upskilling and prepping for the end of the world. But when you get close and look past the seemingly bizarre, what is clear is that they (and their skyrocketing membership numbers) are simply representative of humanity’s urge to regain control.
After all, in the light of the great grenade that is Covid, we all feel a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Our bubble wrap and our “she’ll be right” spirit have well and truly popped. So as a result, we’ve all felt an urge to build our own safety fort for our lives and our futures. There is arguably a growing prepper in all of us.
Likewise Dungeons & Dragons (the infamous board game that’s recently had a huge resurgence) echoes those same themes. The game has been a welcome way for many to feel a sense of control, when their lives feel otherwise out of it. The events of the past few years have attracted a new surge of players, who seek the game as a remedy for their mental health. A place where they can control their own story and battles, in ways that in their real life, they simply can’t. What was originally designed as a place people would go to escape, is for many now a place they go to control.
Like the canary in the coalmine, both of these communities remind us of larger themes emanating through society. Because, in our own ways, this chapter of crisis has had us all craving some sense of control.
For any brand, perhaps there is a lesson to take from them both. How can you help people build their fort? How can you be an antidote to this wave of vulnerability? How can you arm people with a feeling of control, when so much feels out of it?
It’s a reminder that creativity starts with where you look, not just what you make. That looking in unusual places can unlock universal insights for us all. So take time to listen to the mavericks. Design firm Sense Worldwide collaborated with dominatrixes to get tips for a foot care brand on how to avoid blisters.
Acknowledge and learn from the ones that don’t just use you, but misuse you too. Facebook’s innovations of groups, events and pages were inspired by a group of users who were misusing the traditional Facebook profiles. And don’t just merely accommodate disability groups, but look to organisations like Microsoft who inspiringly “use disability as another engine for innovation”.
Explore on the edges, rather than running straight to the centre. You never know, you may inspire the next typewriter or telephone.