Why we should look to the edges to learn more about the middle

Dave Hartmann is a strategic partner of Special Group Australia

In 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter so that his blind friend could write letters more legibly.

Inspired by a unique moment of empathy, this invention created a solution that changed the world for billions of disabled and able-bodied people. Likewise, in 1872, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as an experiment to help deaf people communicate, and in turn changed the world for all of us.

You could argue that these two breakthroughs were simply the product of finding and listening in interesting places. Drawing inspiration from a small audience with very high needs, their designs solved a problem for the whole of society. By empowering the deaf and blind, he has given the rest of mankind super power.

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No matter what activity you find yourself in, we are all, to some extent, in the realm of understanding people and seeking out these powerful human truths.

Often, brands are interested in truths and ideas that concern the bulk of the population, not the niche or the fringe. As a result, we collectively run towards the middle and look in the same place, discovering the same familiar sightings.

But in the same way that we need to be more creative about how we execute information, we also need to be more creative in how we find it. For, like Turri and Bell, start looking and listening in unusual places.

Over the course of this year, our agency has had conversations with a mix of cult members, nude colonies, and even adult men who dress up as My Little Ponies (and call themselves Brownies). It was a refreshing reminder that everyone (even a Bronie) has something relevant to teach us. You just have to take the time to listen.

Two booming marginal areas worth visiting are the “Preppers” and “Dungeons & Dragons” communities.

Preppers (commonly referred to as Apocalyptics) are those infamous for stockpiling, improving skills, and preparing for the end of the world. But when you step closer and look past the seemingly bizarre, what is clear is that they (and their growing membership) are simply representative of humanity’s urge to take back. Control.

After all, in light of the great grenade that is Covid, we all feel a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Our bubble wrap and our “she will be right” spirit have indeed burst. As a result, we all felt the need to build our own strong of security for our lives and our future. There is undoubtedly a growing prepper in all of us.

Likewise, Dungeons & Dragons (the infamous board game that has recently seen a huge resurgence) echoes those same themes. Gambling has been a welcome way for many to feel a sense of control, when their lives otherwise feel outside of it. The events of the past few years have attracted a new wave of gamers, who are seeking gambling as a cure for their sanity. A place where they can control their own history and their battles, in a way that they just can’t in their real life. What was originally designed as a place for people to escape is now a place for many that they will control.

Like the canary in the coal mine, these two communities remind us of larger themes emanating from society. Because, in our own way, this crisis chapter made us all want to take control.

For any brand, there may be a lesson to be learned from both. How can you help people build their fort? How to be an antidote to this wave of vulnerability? How can you give people a sense of control when it hurts you so much?

It’s a reminder that creativity begins with where you look, not just what you do. That looking in unusual places can unlock universal ideas for all of us. So take the time to listen to the non-conformists. Design company Sense Worldwide collaborated with Dominatrixes to get advice for a foot care brand on how to avoid blisters.

Recognize and learn from those who not only use you, but abuse you as well. Facebook’s innovations in groups, events and pages were inspired by a group of users who were abusing traditional Facebook profiles. And don’t just welcome groups of people with disabilities, but look to organizations like Microsoft who are inspiringly “using disability as another driver of innovation.”

Explore around the edges, rather than running straight to the center. You never know, you might inspire the next typewriter or the next phone.

Dave Hartmann is a strategic partner at Special Group Australia

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