Cross Pollination

Every year beekeepers from across the United States truck their bees to almond groves in California, where up to 80% of the world’s almonds are grown. In fact, at the height of the season in February, about half of the beehives in the US (over 1 million) will be in the almond groves. The almond growers pay the beekeepers handsomely for the privilege of feeding their bees because the natural cross-pollination that the bees provide boosts yields and makes for healthier trees.

There’s a problem with this scenario though. It’s the lack of diversity. All those bees and all those trees are all the same. While cross pollination does help the almond groves, the pool of genetic material is still pretty shallow. As much as I love almonds, especially when they’re covered in chocolate, I wouldn’t want that to be the only thing I ever ate. It’s the same for designers — when we continually work in our same narrow field, the diversity of influences and inspirations that we are exposed to becomes less and less. We become like those bees buzzing around the almond grove — we’ve got a stale diet with a limited supply of new DNA in the form of ideas.

Contrast the almond groves with a crowded perennial garden. Any flowering plant has a good chance of getting pollinized by any other via the bees. All those genetic influences strengthen the next generation of plants. And so it is with designers and our influences. The more we cross pollinate with other disciplines, the stronger our designs become. It doesn’t stop there though. We can absorb valuable insights by exposing ourselves to other places and cultures, and by being open to what they have to offer. Travel is a huge eye-opener if you go with an open mind and a willingness to try new things. How about different media? If you work in print, try paying attention to what’s going on in movies and video. ¬†Animator? Check out Illustrators. In my own work in wayfinding and exhibits I find web and software UX and UI to be a rich source of inspiration. A lot of the principles and ideas from those disciplines inform my work in unexpected ways, and even if I don’t learn something I can use right away, I never consider time spent learning to be time wasted.

So tell me, what flowers are you buzzing around these days? What are the most interesting and unexpected influences you’ve encountered? Where are you planning on looking next?

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  • […] benefits of cross-pollination in innovation are well known. In fact, the phrase “interdisciplinary innovation” yields […]

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