For the next tech breakthrough, look to creative pairs


Rocket scientist and aerospace engineer Dava Newman designs space suits that could one day help astronauts walk around on Mars. On a stage at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in sunny Marin County, California on Tuesday, Newman showed the attendees of Wired Magazine’s design conference her latest suit designs and engineering innovations for creating a pressurized planetary atmosphere inside a sleek-looking cat suit.

But Newman also showed the audience something much more personal and intimate. She co-presented with her partner Gui Trotti, an architect and industrial designer, whom she collaborates with on suit design and whom she called her “soul mate” (they’ve sailed around the world together). Newman and Trotti are that seemingly rare pair that inspires in each other great creativity and a shared vision.

Dava Newman and Gui Trotti talk about "Designing for Space Travel," image courtesy of Lester Cohen/Getty Images for WIRED.

Dava Newman and Gui Trotti talk about “Designing for Space Travel,” image courtesy of Lester Cohen/Getty Images for WIRED.

However, while that creative duo isn’t always (or even very often) a romantic pair, creative pairs are actually much more common than we’ve come to believe in our society, which tends to laud the power of the lone creative genius. In a new book by author Joshua Wolf Shenk, called The Powers of Two, Shenk argues that the pair unit itself is actually the fundamental generator of creative work. It’s the union itself that helps elicit such creative productivity in many successful people, he says, and he lists dozens of examples of creative pairs (mostly not romantic) like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and Marie and Pierre Curie.

In particular, some of the most creative and successful folks in Silicon Valley have seemed to have been part of creative duos and embraced this type of union — whether the partnerships are well publicized or not — Shenk pointed out. Steve Jobs first found a creative pairing with Steve Wosniak, and later Jony Ive. Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are still thriving together. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has a tight pairing with COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Image courtesy of Google.

Image courtesy of Google.

If you scratch a bit at the surface of Silicon Valley, the creative pair, as Shenk described it, is what can happen in the best “co-founders” out there, like Brin and Page. And even if both parts of the union aren’t officially co-founders, this type of creative synergy can be seen at the tops of companies, like at Tesla with Elon Musk and CTO JT Straubel, and at Musk’s other company SpaceX, with SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

In Fast Company’s recent cover story on Nest CEO Tony Fadell (who will be speaking at our Roadmap design conference) the reporter ends the piece with a quote from Fadell on one big reason why he agreed to sell Nest to Google — he’s looking for a mentor in Google’s Page:

Moderated by: Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom Speaker: Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

Tony Fadell, Founder and CEO, Nest Labs, in discussion with Om Malik at Roadmap 2013

In an interview over coffee in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco last week, Shenk told me that “Silicon Valley gets it better than most.” Perhaps that’s because tech founders are often times developing something potentially disruptive (or even crazy) and they need the pair relationship to keep them grounded and to bounce ideas around. Or sometimes one part of the pair is so extreme and specific in his or her thinking that they have a deficit in other areas and are looking for a union to make up for what they lack. You know, the whole yin and yang thing.

Creative pairs will only become more important in Silicon Valley as the tech industry embraces design and as the value of technology products moves away from the infrastructure level and closer to how a user experiences the product. That’s the thesis behind our annual experience design conference Roadmap, which will take place on November 18th and 19th in San Francisco this year. We’ll feature creative talks from speakers like designer Yves Behar, Kleiner Perkin’s John Maeda, production designer KK Barrett (the movie Her and Where the Wild Things Are), Google’s VP of Design, Android, Matias Duarte, Adobe’s VP of Product Jeff Veen, and designer Elle Luna.

Creativity isn’t something that necessarily has always come naturally to the tech engineers that built the Valley off of chips, PCs, broadband networking and coding. But as this fundamental transformation occurs, creativity will become a core value to big tech companies and startups alike. Google and Apple know this and that’s why they’re in an arms race for designers.

But perhaps seeking out and cultivating creative pairs could do wonders for tech companies. Shenk has been exploring this and digging more into how companies can help foster these creative units.

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