It started when Steve Mykolyn’s son shamed him into action. The two were walking home from a sporting event on a cold evening in Toronto, and they passed a homeless person on the street. “My son stopped to give him money but since it was really cold out, I just wanted to keep moving,” Steve told me. Afterwards, his son asked him: “Dad, why is it that sometimes you stop and give money, and sometimes you don’t?” The question stuck in Mykolyn’s mind. And it got him thinking about what he could possibly do to help that cold guy on the street and others like him.
Soon thereafter, Mykolyn was reading a news article about how Tour de France bicyclists use newspaper for warmth by stuffing it under their jerseys. That sparked a glimmer moment: Mykolyn envisioned designing a coat for the homeless, made so that it could easily be filled with insulating newspaper.
He spent several months working on the concept with a fashion designer friend. They started out making a rainproof slicker that was thin and lightweight enough that it could be folded to fit into a pocket (or, could serve as a small pillow when not being worn). But here’s what made the coat special: Its lining was designed with a series of hidden Velcro pockets running along each seam and in other strategically placed areas—so that all of these pockets could be opened and stuffed with crumpled newspaper. At which point that small, thin, foldable slicker transformed into something more like a down-filled parka.
Mykolyn wanted to put his design prototype to the ultimate test, so he decided that he would hang out in a local commercial meat freezer, wearing the newspaper-stuffed coat. “I was nervous as hell, and it didn’t help when I saw that all the guys who worked at the facility were taking bets on how long I’d last in there,” Mykolyn says. The plant manager didn’t think he’d make it past an hour in the 15-below conditions. But Mykolyn lasted eight hours in the freezer and still wasn’t cold. So, for good measure, he ventured into the “blast” freezer, where they kept the ice cream at temperatures that dipped down to minus-40 degrees Celsius. He says: “I spent 45 boring minutes in there before I thought, ‘You know what, the coat works, let me out.’”
Using the web and his contacts in the media (Mykolyn, above right, works at the ad/design agency Taxi, which sponsored his project), Mykolyn began to circulate word about his “15-Below Coat.” Before long he had celebrities like Jon Stewart and Yo Yo Ma agreeing to sign coats that could then be auctioned off, so that more coats could be made. And Mykolyn teamed up with the Salvation Army, which handled the logistics of handing the coats out to several thousand homeless people in Toronto.
Mykolyn’s coat is a great example of taking resources that already exist (such as old newspaper and a slicker) and finding fresh ways to combine them to form something new. The designer John Thackara refers to this phenomenon as a “smart recombination.”
If you think of innovative design this way—as a method of cobbling together ideas, influences, and resources that already exist—it makes the act of invention slightly less daunting. “Designers are needlessly constrained by the myth that everything they do must be a unique and creative act,” according to Thackara. What they really need, he says, is “the capacity to think across boundaries” and to “put old knowledge into a new context.”
In working on GLIMMER, I came across lots of smart recombinations that I describe in the book—including clever DIY devices like the “Wovel” (which combines a shovel and a wheel to make it easier to move snow) and the “Clocky” (an alarm clock with wheels—you have to chase it to shut it off, thereby ensuring you’ll get out of bed!)
Let’s make this section a gathering place for all smart recombination ideas—and maybe even some not-so-smart ones.
Have any good recombo examples you’d like to add to the mix? Leave a comment…
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.