I answered a few questions that I’d received, through the other places I frequent, a couple of weeks ago, and said I had a few more to answer – well, here they are.
Again, these are questions I’ve had through private messages or email from the various places I frequent, and I’ll try to answer them as best I can. This one’s a bit longer than some of my previous posts, though.
You’ve talked about innovation being based on imagination… what inspires you with some of the things you’ve innovated?
Honestly? This is the one type of question anyone with a creative influence basically dreads to receive, where their ideas come from. The honest answer is in my head, that’s where they form, but it’s always based on a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
I start by looking at what’s wrong with the current situation, either what it does that is undesirable, or what it doesn’t do that is desired – understanding what the problem is, is vital. As I’ve said, sometimes what seems to be the problem is actually a symptom of something bigger.
From there, I start pulling out the different facets of the problem, what’s needed, what’s not needed, and start relating that to what I’ve seen, my own experiences and what I’ve seen work in other environments.
Ultimately, each problem I encounter, and its eventual resolution, invariably teaches me something about the next, each problem being a journey of knowledge gathering, and that knowledge will be useful later.
For example, last summer I was struck with a problem with respect to handling user permissions in a project I was working on; the ability to grant users permissions, to restrict and permit as necessary and was ultimately faced with writing a framework basically from scratch to make it work.
On a technical level, this is nothing particularly intimidating, nor should it be. But going from a years-established system to something new was rather daunting, and I spent several hours trying to figure out how it should function, and finally it struck me quite firmly. This was for a helpdesk/ticket tracking system, being bolted onto a forum, and the forum is rather generous in its approach, offering arbitrary grouping facilities for members, and normally permissions are tied to groups – a matter which I noted at the time to be of no small confusion.
Consequently I designed the system to have a degree of separation from the existing groups, that permissions were given to roles, and roles tied to groups, making it easier to cleanly grant permissions in a logical fashion – and as noted at the time, making it easier for expansion later. But the notion of role-based permissions itself isn’t innovative, just in the setting it was used in made it quite so.
I guess, it was a combination of seeing other systems handling a similar problem and taking that in a different direction – inspiration, iteration, innovation.
Where do you get the ideas for this blog from?
All around me. I have a diverse collection of friends who read and often link to various things they find around the internet. Some of them strike a chord in my brain and prompt me to write a bit more about it, some of them get filed away for later use.
Do ideas for innovations spring fully formed, or do they take time to brew?
That’s one of the things I’ve found, actually, and it’s an observation I hadn’t really made, although vaguely aware of it, until I started writing InI: I have a tendency to take an idea, and put it on the back burner, and it’ll simmer away out of mind for a bit. I won’t be aware of it, at least not actively, but sometime later, something else – often totally random and seemingly disconnected – will prompt me, and it’ll be the missing piece of the jigsaw, at which time, the oven timer will ding and I’ll get it out, serve and enjoy.
So, no, really, ideas come in bits and pieces and get assembled when all the pieces are there. Sometimes it’s an innocent comment about something that will prompt me to put the pieces together, sometimes it’s something directly related to a problem, but almost never do I face a problem, then directly find a solution to it; invariably I’m solving one problem and I’ll dream up the answer to another one that bugged me a bit back and was still unsolved.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Who’s inspired you in the past?
Hmm, that’s a hard question. My background is computing primarily, even as a child, and as such my inspirations have come from that area – several of my teachers were pretty motivating and so on, but I couldn’t credit any of them in particular towards my current leanings; I was always a self motivated kind of learner in my youth.
Later though, I find there are two people who I’ve looked up to as innovators, though. Firstly, Peter Molyneux. For those of you who don’t know the name, he’s the guy who basically was Bullfrog’s leading light for a number of years before EA swallowed them, the designer behind the Populous games, Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park and Black & White. Each game breaking new ground, doing things that simply hadn’t been done before – Populous introduced the ‘god game’, for example, Dungeon Keeper putting you in control of the god game but firmly as the ‘bad guy’.
I remember reading about him, that as a child his parents worked in a toy store, and that he’d get the games with pieces missing to play with – and he’d make up his own rules to fit.
The second is more esoteric, one Andrew Plotkin. Known to many as Zarf, or @zarfeblong, Plotkin is one of the mainstays of the interactive fiction scene, but poking at his ‘Zarfhome’, reveals a far more broad-minded individual, having dabbled in all kinds of creative endeavours. His site’s about page, http://eblong.com/zarf/about.html sums it up very, very well for me, of which this is just an extract:
I do a lot. If you wander this site, you’ll see that. I have things that are art, things that are games, things that are programs, things that are tools. I think some of these things are pretty cool.
I want you to see my cool things, sure. But I want more. I want everyone to do more cool things; I want more cool things, more than I can produce, more than any one person could produce.
If that’s not a call to innovate, I don’t know what is.
Quick, time for one last question.
Do you write these in advance?
Yes. Practical constraints, most notably that I have ideas quite when I’m right in the middle of something else, tend to dictate that I write in advance. It’s rather liberating, actually – today, I’ve written three articles, but I hadn’t written any in over a week before that. It means I can write when the energy and time permits, but release content on a semi-consistent schedule of every 3-4 days.
I tend to have a buffer of 6-9 posts at any one time, I find a month or so’s worth of articles deep enough that I can concentrate on whatever I’m implementing and not worry about having to find a new article every few days, without ever getting big enough to be complacent about – so that keeps a little focus there, keeps it fresh.