The next big thing? Not doughnuts

It’s tempting to imitate what’s already popular but that’s not progress

How would you go about designing or making something successful? For all the mantras about blue sky, out-of-the-box thinking, the most successful films these days are sequels, prequels and re-hashes. Cars look pretty much the same as they've always looked – since they stopped looking like carriages-minus-the-horse, that is. And, after Apple made them colourful, computers have settled into looking like, well, computers. So do we only think we like the new? Or are the worlds of design and filmmaking holding us back from glorious and exotic newness for sinister purposes of their own?

Welcome to the world of the familiar surprise, or as Raymond Lowey put it: Maya. A French émigré, Lowey turned up in New York in 1919, with $40 in his pocket and an introduction, via some pen and ink sketches he had made on board the SS France, to Mr Condé Nast, the magazine publisher. Thirty years later, Cosmopolitan magazine would write: "Lowey has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any man of his time."

So what is Maya, and what did Lowey do? First up he redesigned the Coldspot fridge, then turned American trains into sleek chrome bullets, created the Lucky Strike logo, made cars sexy, designed the livery for Air Force One, and even put the window into SkyLab, so astronauts could see home from the stars. All this was based on his very simple insight – that we are both neophilic (curious to discover new things) and neophobic (afraid of anything that's too new).

It’s a deep-seated survival strategy – we need new things: pastures, sources of food and fuel; but we also need to know these are not going to kill us, hence the sense of safety in the familiar. Maya, as Lowey coined it, stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”. Get that right, and the design world is your oyster.


Make it surprising

All this is fascinatingly detailed in Derek Thompson's new book Hit Makers, published by Allen Lane this month (stg£20). As Thompson puts it: "If you're selling something familiar, make it surprising – and if you're selling something surprising, make it familiar."

It also gives possible truth to the story that technology designers use science fiction films and TV to soften us up for future developments. Remember the mobile video phone in Total Recall? That was 1990, years before Facetime. What about the swipe screens in Minority Report (2002)?

Thompson traces Maya through melodies in music: the same chord progression turns up in the Beatles' Let It Be, U2's With Or Without You, Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry, Lady Gaga's Paparazzi, and on it goes; into the cadences of political speech writers, via art appreciation and into teenage rebellion.

The second part of the book explores, and then explodes, the idea of the viral hit: essential reading for anyone who believes in the dream of overnight success, by going in to the back stories of phenomena such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Tinder, as well as those that initially failed, including the iPhone and Harry Potter.

While Maya nudges progress forward bit by bit, and gives clues as to how to camouflage huge leaps of design or thinking in familiar guise, it's still depressing to think of all those movie sequels and comic book hero franchises. Then, along comes something like The Lobster. As William Goldman, screenwriter of serious hits such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President's Men and The Princess Bride, wrote in his biography, Adventures in the Screentrade, "Nobody knows anything . . . Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess."

Innovative hits

No wonder so many “creatives” copy. “Imitating recent successes,” however, as Thompson points out, “is a game that everybody knows how to play. But seeing the next big thing before anybody else sees it is far more valuable.”

He describes it as being, like Apple with their iPhone, "a little bit wrong at just the right time". Innovative hits, as he says, are the freaks, the outliers, the exceptions. While it's hard to imagine a franchise spawned on the intriguing oddity of The Lobster, what a film like that does is give other filmmakers and studios the permission to be new.

A design, film or media industry built on what people have wanted in the past, or reflecting current habits, can quickly, as Thompson writes, "become pure sludge". In online media, this is what journalist Steven Levy describes as "the dozen doughnuts problem". We know they aren't good for us, but if they're there, we'll probably eat them anyway – welcome to Buzzfeed . . . Caught between our behavioural and aspirational selves, it can be hard to ignore the doughnuts.

So, what if your idea is so new you can't even imagine any familiarity with which to dress it up? Take comfort from Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who was working on quantum theory 100 years ago. "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light," he said. "But rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Welcome (eventually) to the new world.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture