Creativity and Regression to the Norm

21 Jan


I was listening to Stuff to Blow Your Mind’s War on Creativity (a cute play on the War on Christmas, which I had to stop the podcast to explain to my son) today in the car.

This episode asks why it is that we say we value creativity and that businesses want to bring it in-house, but very few businesses actually act like this is something it wants. Creativity is disruptive, it requires risk-taking, and it often results in failure.  Yet, no one hits a homerun by playing it safe.

Regression to the Norm

This is the phenomenon where new, statistically significant observations tend to evaporate upon re-examination. The now defrocked Science writer at The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer wrote about this back in 2010   in an article describing the diminishing effects of psychiatric medications over time – meaning that the experiments actually showed these medicines to have less potency every time they were tested – not that they are less effective for a particular person over time. Lehrer explains that a lot of this may be the way that we involuntarily allow confirmation bias  into even the best designed experiments, and over time, as investigators with less personal investment in the results repeat the same work, they lose the confirmation bias and subsequently see less convincing results.

I would argue that the same effect occurs in design. It’s something that I’ve always personally thought of as the Taurus Effect. I propose this to mean that there is the occasional breakthrough in unique, engaging design, but this gets co-opted by the more conservative elements of the business who (not to mince words) suck the life out of these designs bit by bit until there is nothing left. In this way even the most unique, exciting automobile design eventually gets eroded into the most boring of all cars, a 1999 Ford Taurus.


Consider the Camaro, one of America’s most iconic muscle cars. What starts as great design gets whittled away year after year into what I assume must be more and more aerodynamic designs that completely abandon any semblance of cool.

Another icon of American Design is the Chevy Malibu. This car started as a mean hunk of metal that demanded to be noticed. By the 1980s it way reduced to … well, not a Taurus, but something possibly worse.

malibuA lot of these cars have seen a renaissance with the introduction of new designs that can only have been inspired by real designers, not committees of businessmen and engineers hell bent on perfect aerodynamics.

Last week, however, I was at the Chevy dealership to get work done on my truck when I noticed the new 2014 Camaro. At first, I only saw it from behind and thought, ‘is that a Ford Taurus?’

Welcome back to the norm, Camaro.Image

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Posted by on January 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


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