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A lit globe shows brilliant ideas that never saw the light of day. Illustration by Brigitte La.

Branding & Marketing

Brilliant Ideas That Never Saw the Light of Day

Five designers reflect on creative prospects that could have been.


We all have brilliant ideas that never came to fruition: smart hacks and world-changing solutions that don’t make it out of the drawing board stage. Maybe the product was impossible to build. Maybe you got distracted by a summer romance. Maybe your creative director killed it on arrival.

So we asked five creatives to revisit their brilliant ideas that never came to be and judge whether they were genius or madness.

***

1. A digital bookmark for printed books:
Wai-Loong Lim, founder of Y Studios

I love reading, but I thought the traditional book experience could be even more enriching. I had this brilliant idea to create a digital bookmark called Lexicus. This was way back before the iPhone and Kindle.

My idea for Lexicus was to make it look like an old-school bookmark with a tiny camera and flexible display. The magic was that when you came across a word you didn’t know, you could use the camera to scan it, and bam! – the display would show the results. You could look up any word, like a hypertext link, without having to reach for a dictionary or – God forbid – a clunky encyclopedia. When you weren’t using it, it would tuck among the pages and not interfere with your reading experience. It felt so right that the digital and analog worlds could work together so seamlessly.

“How hard can it be, right? Turns out it was harder than anyone thought.”

To make it possible, everything about Lexicus had to be supernano. The camera would be tiny, the circuit board and display would be flexible, and the battery would last forever. How hard can it be, right?

Turns out it was harder than anyone thought. It was just too early for its time, and probably still is. These days I read only on the Kindle. I don’t see myself going back to analog, ever. But here’s the thing: There are tons of analog books out there that will never be digitized. So I think there’s a viable market for Lexicus. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to keep having harebrained ideas. As Stephen Hunt said, “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.”

2. A window that tells you the history of what you see:
Alexis Lloyd, head of design innovation, Automattic

A couple of jobs ago, I was working as the creative director of the New York Times R&D Lab. We were tasked with looking at emerging technologies and building experience prototypes that explored how those changes might impact news and media – specifically the Times.

We had a lab space on the 28th floor of the New York Times Building, which had floor-to-ceiling windows. We were right across from the old McGraw-Hill Building, which has this incredible mosaic work that you can’t see unless you’re in a skyscraper next to it. I’m fascinated by New York’s density of history and stories. I would look out those windows and want to know the stories behind all the buildings, those invisible layers of history embedded in the built environment.

I had this idea of that window becoming a transparent overlay, where I could point at a building and get some contextual information about the architecture. How do you take historical stories – stories that the Times might have covered – and situate them in a physical space?

“That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.”

It turned out there were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t feasible to do. Transparent displays are hard to come by, and back then they maxed out at 16 inches. We were looking at those big, metal binocular telescopes they have at the top of the Empire State Building, thinking, Maybe we can use these and hack the display. But there was never quite the combination of the impetus and technological ability to pull it off. The lesson I learned was not to be too literal about your ideas or too attached to one particular manifestation of them. Some of these ideas made their way into other really cool projects. That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.

3. An ad campaign that reminds you you’re going to die:
Ben Hughes, executive creative director, Stink Studios

Early in my career, I worked at an agency pitching campaigns for the Chrysler 300, a.k.a. “the poor man’s Bentley.” People bought that car reluctantly; the mindset was they really wanted a luxury sedan, but for now they’d settle for the more affordable option.

My solution was a campaign called “Live Now,” which asked viewers to consider whether a Chrysler 300 today was better than a Bentley in the future. After all, no one can say with 100 percent confidence they’ll be around to enjoy it. Climate change, avian flu – life is full of uncertainty, and tomorrow (and that Bentley) may never come. 

At the time, I was in love with the idea of a car company dispensing with the clichés of luxury and performance and leveling with their audience. I believed it had the potential to be another landmark in the tradition of disarmingly honest advertising, up there with the likes of VW calling their cars ‘lemons’ or Avis proudly owning their status as the number two rental company.

“Here at Chrysler, we recognize that you will surely die, perhaps sooner than you would like. So consider driving off the lot in an all-new 300 today.” 

I presented it to my creative director with an almost religious fervor. I remember he paused. There was a tic visible on his forehead. He said, in measured a tone, “I’m not sure Chrysler wants to be associated with the inevitability of death. What else do you have?”

Looking back on it now, I must have been radiating a mix of naiveté and madness. My creative director later admitted that he had been worried about my mental state. But if I’m being totally honest, I still think I was right.

4. A set of ‘Disposable Friends’
Safwat Saleem, designer and artist

A few years ago, I was mildly obsessed with the idea of making these small, robot-like sculptures that I wanted to call Disposable Friends. These friends would talk to you if you pressed the button on their head. Basically, they’d cycle through a series of pre-programmed audio recordings. I wanted to make several versions with different personalities. You could pick what kind of personality your disposable friend would have. The choices were: a Muslim friend, a Latinx friend, a black friend, an LGBTQ friend, and your general immigrant friend.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials.”

I was excited to make a satirical work of art that would speak to the homogeneity of our social circles. The internet and social media held such promise of exposing us to different points of view, but that never quite materialized. If anything, the ideas we are generally exposed to have become even more limited and insular. I wanted the project to encourage the viewer to take stock of their own bubbles and social circles, and think about how they could expose themselves to diverse points of view.  

With Disposable Friends, there was a lot of new stuff to learn – how to program an Arduino microprocessor, which would allow the disposable friend to essentially “talk.” I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials. It took so long to make tiny amounts of progress that I eventually gave up on it.

I still think about the project occasionally and I get excited again. But then I think about all the weekends I spent trying to solder circuits. If I did it again, I’d look for a collaborator who excels at the things that I don’t. As the famous saying goes: Every graphic designer needs a friend who is good at electronics. Okay, that’s not really a famous saying, but I could use a collaborator like that. Do you know anyone?

5. A beacon-equipped playground: 
Ruby Steel, senior design strategist, Smart Design

Back in 2017 I was invited to be a “fixer” on BBC Two’s television series The Big Life Fix. The program sees teams of the United Kingdom’s top designers and engineers take on challenges at an individual level. One such challenge was that of 8-year-old Josh, a profoundly blind child in southeast London. His parents had made the decision to send him to a mainstream school, but his disability prevented him from using the playground with the other children at break times. The uneven surface, along with the many kids running in every direction, made it an intimidating place for Josh. He became increasingly isolated at playtime, sitting in a corner listening to Spotify.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones.

The biggest barrier to him entering the space was his overall lack of understanding about where he was at any given time. So we set about designing a playground that would allow Josh to navigate the space and feel confident. Our original plan was to use beacons, leveraging Bluetooth technology, to map out the playground. When Josh walked past one of these beacons, it would provide him with a navigational cue. I was excited that it seemed technology could bridge the gap between Josh and the playground.

In our enthusiasm to prototype and rapidly solve the challenge, this initial approach was a blunder on our part. The idea broke one of my fundamental design principles – we were not designing inclusively. To solve for Josh, we couldn’t ignore the needs of the other children. Our solution needed to consider all the children in the playground.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones. In the end, we created a network of guidance paved with special sound tiles that would indicate to Josh where he was and also allow other children to make their own games. Rather than stigmatizing Josh by giving him a separate experience, everyone enjoys an integrated experience. The result was amazing. Josh now goes out into the playground several times a week –  a long way from the lonely little boy who sat inside at playtime.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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