What The Story of Polaroid Taught Me About Innovation

It’s been quiet on the blog — I have been hard at work in graduate school. 

Fortunately, my program emphasizes topics like innovation and design thinking, ideas that are rife with applications to everyday life. And, over my 4th of July break I ran into a wonderful case study of design and innovation in Christopher Bonanos’s Instant: The Story of Polaroid.

I was unaware of the fantastic history of this company and its visionary founder, Edwin Land. Land was innovating in the 1950s using techniques that would only decades later be known as design thinking.

Land knew that true innovations come from sterile labs or tailored focus groups but instead from the imaginations of the most creative teams he could assemble.

Innovation needs design. Design needs the liberal arts. 

It’s too easy to dismiss the importance of design as the dismissal of engineering. No, innovation needs both. Polaroid constructed engineering marvels, including a film factory in Massachusetts that is still the stuff of legend in photography circles.

Engineering, though, is only part of the equation for innovation. For the other half, design, Land embraced the liberal arts like few entrepreneurs. Befriending an art history professor at the all-girls’ Smith College, Land hired recent graduates at the entry level with no background in chemistry, marketing, or other skills you’d assume one would need to work at a massive corporation like Polaroid.

Instead, Land set his graduates on the winding journey of design:

When Holly French (now Sarah Hollis Perry) was hired in 1957, Morse sent her a memo saying that her chief assignment was “the study of how to make our kind of photography an indigenous American art.” She was expected to do so by engaging the residents of an entire small town to take pictures and see what they came up with. This is not the sort of project that corporations typically hand to 22-year-olds, but Perry says it was not all that unusual at Polaroid. “You know, they used to invent jobs for people,” she explains.

It’s so counterintuitive to the utility-maximizing engineering thinking we are so used to. Land understood that innovation needs design, and design needs the liberal arts. 

Related: Is Data Science a Liberal Art?

Innovation engages culture.

It sounds bombastic to say, but innovation is not just an economic but a cultural enterprise. Land was not afraid to engage the culture and change society’s perception of photography.

Polaroid was of course in the business which made a natural partnership with artists. But was this really so obvious? Polaroid was much more intentional about making photography a social enterprise than their larger rival, Kodak.

Artists took advantage of the unique chemistry and materials involved with Polaroid’s instant photography. Rather than demanding customers use the product correctly, Polaroid embraced the bohemian arts scene built on the medium. 

Maybe not every innovation will catch the attention of its generation’s most famous artists. But every innovation should change how people think and create — a social endeavor.

Innovation takes time.

We think that innovation must run at break-neck speed to succeed. Not so. Land’s introspective management style meant there was a lot of sitting around, waiting. “We created an environment where a man was expected to sit and think for two years,” Land said. 

Sure, that was sixty years ago, before the digital economy forced everything to, well, instant speed. But innovative does not imply fast. Sometimes only when we are slow do we become detached enough from the problem to reframe it.

Still designing today

I am not a photographer, and Polaroid is just a fog of memory from my youth. Well, maybe more than that. Bonanos mentions how even as early as 2003, OutKast’s “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” could be a taken-for-granted lyric. That was not that long ago! 

Of course, Polaroid fell from dominance in the move toward digital photography. While Land may have been an innovator, he did not lay a solid succession plan for Polaroid (The book’s later chapters offer an analysis of Polaroid’s fall from dominance.).

The book also informed me that Polaroid still exists, with about thirty employees. I was pleased to see the company holding to its innovative values of arts and culture.

Unlike most others, this book combines the history of an iconic brand with a walk through the culture of the late 20th Century. The result? A case study of innovation is born. Back to school now — I will be sure to use Polaroid as an insight toward the nature of design and innovation. 

 

 

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