I’m returning now from a few thought-stirring days in Austin at SXSW. On Friday, I gave a
talk on what you can learn about innovation from cartoonists. This is a
topic I’ve been evolving since I spoke at conferences in San Francisco
and London last year.
SXSW created this short video montage (it’s
four minutes out of an hour, so there are a few things out of context,
like my “bloodsucking corporate parasite” comment which referenced a
Bill Watterson quote I gave earlier). Still, it was really cool to see
it picked up by Huffington Post and PR
Week this morning:
I hope to have a full-length version to share soon. Until then, I’ve
been asked to share some context on my blog, along with some of the
lessons I shared with the group.
started with the story of Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin &
Hobbes, arguably one of the most successful cartoonists of all time (and
a major reason I started drawing cartoons in the first place). After
ten years, Bill quit the strip and largely disappeared from the public
eye. I was struck by this quote he gave around that time at a
commencement address at Kenyon College:
“It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at
the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and
that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as
simple business decisions.”
Since Bill quit, traditional newspaper cartooning has only gotten
worse. If it was difficult then to break through the clutter on the
shrinking newspaper page and allow your material to thrive, it’s even
more difficult today. Traditional cartooning is one of the most savage
markets around. Launching a new cartoon successfully has far lower odds
than launching any other kind of innovation.
Yet there are cartoonists who are bucking the odds and making it work
today. In the talk, I described these modern cartoonists as “lead
users” that any of us who work in innovation can study. Any market where
we launch innovation has similarities to the traditional newspaper
cartooning path, in that both are cluttered and dominated by entrenched
players. Launching something mediocre that tries to appeal to everyone
simply won’t break through the clutter.
As one of the lessons, I shared the story of xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe, who
thrives because he is deliberately exclusive. Unless you’re a Unix
programmer, you wouldn’t get the following cartoon because you wouldn’t
know that “sudo” is a superuser-level command in Unix programming. This
cartoon is not funny to most, but it’s screamingly funny to a few. In
fact, when I gave this talk in London, someone in the audience stood up
wearing a t-shirt with this cartoon on his chest.
I think that being deliberately
exclusive is one of the ingredients to successful innovation. Who will
wear your innovation on their chest?
Tom, when not cartooning (eg. for Marketing Week), is method’s international managing director. Based in London, he frequently speaks at campuses, companies, and conferences about marketing, cartooning, and how to spread business ideas. @tomfishburne