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Epiphany: Notes on Design Thinking

A more arousing word for insight is epiphany—sudden revelations of truth, from aggregate experience, and triggered by the something trivial in the present. The feeling is part of what motivates and fulfills us as thinkers. Its surprise is its power, that the thankless labor will make itself worthwhile, in a sudden and unexpected instant. The labor though—the time spent trying to make sense of the problem, rather than the moment of unfolding—is what’s important. Waiting for moments, one loses sight of motives.

Scott Berkun, in his book The Myths of Innovation, dismisses the something-out-of-nothing epiphany as naive romanticism. “The most useful way to think about epiphany,” he advises, “is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems… When a powerful moment does happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. Even in the myths, Newton had one apple and Archimedes had one eureka. To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point.” Epiphanies are moments of synthesis, which bring to surface and purpose, the disparate chords we had already suspected would interrelate in meaningful ways. They’re the product of extensive and diverse efforts. And there are other electric ‘moments’ along the way: the hunch before, the study toward, and the articulation after that gives the epiphany its value.

The French mathematician Poincaré saw epiphanies as the accumulation of a life’s effort. He suggested that ideas become like “mobilized atoms in the unconscious, arranging and rearranging themselves in endless combinations, until finally the ‘most beautiful’ of them makes it through a ‘delicate sieve’ into full consciousness, where it will then be refined and proved.”

With cognitive frameworks like design thinking, we’d like to think we can somehow design our cognitive processes in a kind of rube goldberg mechanism arriving finally at a powerful insight, or epiphany. Can we? Part of that comes down to exposure. How do you bring together your influences? What do you spend your time reading, looking at, listening to, and discussing? How do you intuitively pull together the right bits of data and sparks of inspiration to maximize the quality of your output? I think of this as strategic or controlled exposure—creating a deliberately polymathic environment as the ‘studio.’


*A version of this piece was published in M/I/S/C Magazine’s Insight Issue.