Technology, Needs, Balance, and the Post-it: a case study

The Post-it Note is one of the most innovative yet simple products ever, yet it’s history  was anything but simple. The magic of the Pos...

The Post-it Note is one of the most innovative yet simple products ever, yet it’s history was anything but simple.

The magic of the Post-it is of course it’s glue, which isn’t very sticky at all. Invented in 1968 by Spencer Silver at 3M, no one understood why anyone would need such a weak glue. This was a true invention - something discovered that did not actually have any use. It was, as they say, "a solution looking for a problem”(1).

As it turns out, this is a case of Don Norman's principle that technology leads needs.

It took until 1974 for someone to figure it out. Arthur Fry, another 3M researcher, finally noticed the potential of Silver’s glue because he was already trapped in an undesirable situation. Fry was using simple paper bookmarks instead of damaging his books with dog-ears. The bookmarks would fall out. This created a long-term inconvenience for him: besides the immediate inconvenience of possibly losing his place in a book, there was a real risk he might lose that bookmark for the future as well.

This notion of an error happening "now" but having repercussions for a long time in the future is especially problematic: as errors accumulate over time (and they always will), the long-duration ones will begin to snowball, leading to ever more serious system degradation. We can call this an imbalance between the rate at which errors occur and the rate at which they are resolved. It can also be modeled with stocks and flows. If you can’t fix errors at least as fast as they occur, your system will inevitably collapse completely.

In other words, this is a functional imbalance between system elements in the as-is situation. It does not refer to the intervention (the Post-it) because Fry doesn't yet know it could exist.

When Fry heard about Silver's glue, he realized he could use it to create bookmarks that would not fall out, yet still be removable (and therefore, could also be re-organized as needed) without damaging the paper to which it was attached.

At that moment of design innovation, Fry finally had access to both the need (which he'd had for some time) and a technology that already existed, but of which Fry was theretofore unaware. It is at the moment Fry became aware of both need and technology that he conceived of the actual intervention.

If Fry had not come across Silver’s glue, he would very likely have not invented the post-it. Note, however, that the converse is also true: If Fry had known of Silver’s glue, but lacked a real and pressing need, he still would not have invented the post-it.

It's in this moment - the moment of connecting a need with a technology - when design ideas emerge. This is exactly what Norman wrote about: "New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies.” And it is on this principle that my idea of balance is constructed. The need is actually a realization that the balance point of the current situation is not preferred; the intervention conceptualized by a new (or re-tasked) technology allows the forces at work in the situation to be changed, which in turn changes the balance point to a (presumably) more preferred situation.

This is true for pretty much every other invention I’ve ever studied: the moment of “creativity” involves combining (1) something that already exists with (2) a need that’s really burning a hole in your skull. If you want to be known as a creative, you have to learn to put yourself in situations where these two conditions are met. Alternatively, you have to learn to feel or measure the balance of a situation, and look for ways to alter the forces to move the balance to a more preferred point. The open question is: how do you do that?

By the way, it took until 1980 to be able to figure out how to explain the Post-it’s use to people. The rest, as they say, is history.

1. The first case of that phrase that I can find was in 1960 and was used in reference to the invention of the laser.



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The Trouble with Normal...: Technology, Needs, Balance, and the Post-it: a case study
Technology, Needs, Balance, and the Post-it: a case study
The Trouble with Normal...
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