Yves Saint Laurent and Pablo Picasso — brilliant entrepreneurs as well as celebrated artistes — claimed inspiration from muses.So, apparently, did Steve Jobs. Perhaps the newly-knighted Sir Jonathan Ive has one, too. Creative dynamos have always sought the frisson of the divine revelatory spark. So they look to a muse for energy inspiration. Does your business — should your innovators — have a muse?
For fashion houses and the arts, having a muse teeters on cliché. Aesthete-centric brands like Burberry's, Zegna and Chanel have as their ambassadors aspiring icons who give creative light and focus to the design portfolio. But an Apple is as much a design and creativity champion as any haute couture venture or perfumerie. So it shouldn't surprise that its founder — long a devotee of all things Zen — would be inspired by Paramhansa Yogananda and his Autobiography of a Yogi — reportedly the only book Jobs had downloaded onto his iPad.
Of course, the term has historically been used by men to describe the women they loved and made the subject of their creative work. The original muses were the mythological daughters of the Greek gods Zeus and Mnemosyne who represented the arts, science and history. But in this post-modern era of gender transcendence, a muse has come to mean a particular individual or category that profoundly inspires and influences one's creative work.
The aesthetics of software and silicon design demand every bit as much of creative elegance as a little black dress or a diamond bracelet. Why shouldn't design engineers have muses? Crafting a compelling user interface for the cloud is, in its own way, a work of art. Why wouldn't web designers and user experience gurus look to muses to provoke and inspire? Anyone can hire a focus group. A muse offers the promise and potential of epiphany.
I once worked with a Korean electronics company user interface designer over a decade ago who was obsessed with how Japanese school girls used, played with and decorated their mobile phones. As Humbert Humbert creepy as it sounds, these giggling but technically curious adolescents were his design muse. They inspired how he integrated the aesthetic look with the functional feel of the phones. His product designs did particularly well in Asia.
While Clay Christensen is unlikely to publish "The Innovator's Muse" anytime soon, the empirical fact is that innovative organizations are desperate for sources of design differentiation. Why not a muse? Why not an assiduously cultivated relationship with an individual or a sensibility that can really transform energy and perception? After all, executives hire coaches; why shouldn't creative innovators budget time and resources for a muse or two? To the extent that a business is creative, the role and impact of the muse might constitute "best practice." There's no reason why ad agencies, retailers or professional services firms shouldn't "muse different."
Even the most technically intensive disciplines have their muses. John Markoff, who's been the New York Times' Silicon Valley correspondent for years, describes Douglas Engelbart as "the canonical muse" for innovative interface design since his famous 1968 "Mother of All Demos" presentation at San Francisco's Brooks Hall.
Engelbart has quietly influenced generations of interface designers who've come to him for advice. Similarly, Caltech's Carver Mead has been a "silicon muse" for design engineers fabricating the densest and most complicated chips around.
Neither gentleman looks remotely like Audrey Hepburn — who was Givenchy's fashion muse — but their design influence is at least as enduring and certainly more profitable.