Salvador Dali’s Surrealist Paintings: A Surprising Catalyst for Creative Solutions

The way that Salvador Dali, the famous surrealist painter, approached the subjects of his paintings holds within it some important lessons for those of us seeking creative solutions.

Throughout history icons have emerged that have fundamentally changed the future direction of the world through visionary quantum leaps in thinking. Salvador Dali was one such person. But more than that, he, like other aficionados of surrealism thoroughly challenged our approach to conventional thinking and at the same time was able to visually and physically represent the concept of unconventional thought in his works.

The innovative thought process draws many comparisons in surrealism.

The innovative thought process draws many comparisons in surrealism. Both challenge the norm, take an alternative view and use the element of surprise and unexpected contrasts to the point of being absurd, dissociative, confusing and unpredictable and in so doing come up with previously neglected associations. Ever present in the background is the omnipotence of dream. They both dispense with traditional cognitive mechanisms, substituting these with anti-conventional thinking to solve principal problems.

In Dali’s famous work The Persistence of Memory, he challenges as the innovative thought process does, the notion of a fixed cosmic order. We are asked to accept the possibility of a different reality. This is one of the principles of innovation. However here is where surrealism and innovation part ways in that while surrealism lives in a theoretical world, innovation has the potency of uncovering an actual future possibility.

Dali unlocked a gem of innovative thought when asked if the melting watches in the artwork were inspired by the theory of relativity based on the suggestion of time warping. He replied it was not, but that it was actually inspired by the surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun. This statement tells us to not take things at face value, but to take a totally different tangent on the subject, to shock our minds onto a different track to find a new result.

This hints to the potential problem one may encounter when a user-centric approach to innovation is used in isolation. The users don’t see the cheese. They are fascinated by the clock, its look and feel and its current reality and how they interact with it. Thus any input they provide may be limited to this reality as opposed to providing real value on an alternative possibility. The danger of this is over time all you end up with is a more complex and more expensive clock that has small incremental changes in its appearance and functionality and no real pizzazz.

The answer to this may lie in one of Dali’s follow-up works, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, in which Dali took the earlier famous work and systematically fragmented it into smaller component elements thus implying something beneath the surface of the original work. This artwork was inspired by Dali’s interest in nuclear physics after the first atomic bomb explosions in 1945. He replicated this in this work by recognizing that matter is made up of atoms and depicted this by suspending the items and having them not interact with each other.

Let’s take Dali’s fragmented and disassociated components and the notion of deconstructive innovation to overcome the problem of not seeing the cheese to arrive at a totally different outcome. By deconstructing the clock we remove it from reality and the danger of getting too much user-based and potentially superficial input. This innovation exercise is not definitely user-centric.

Dali was quoted as describing the atom as his “favourite food for thought.” With this in mind let’s take the individual clock’s deconstruction level 1 components, such as the alarm mechanism or the face or the casing, and look at each one in isolation as a unique disassociated entity – without the baggage and influence or preconceived ideas of any of the other components.

When your chosen creative thought process is applied to a smaller simpler component set, there will most certainly be more focus and crystallization of thought around that specific component. This in turn should facilitate a more rapid turnaround time in design improvement and even spark a radical change of design. Tie that in with the concept of rapid prototyping and a collaborative approach to product construction and you may end up with a fundamentally different and innovative clock, maybe even a Camembert cheese.

The question is, is your innovation portfolio revealing the underlying opportunities, the functional equivalent of Dali’s melting cheese, or are you still focused on the superficial level, the melting clock?