Book Review

By B. Collins

Author Steven J. Paley has done the near-impossible – written a worthwhile book on inventing.

His book seemingly was the last thing the world needed. The category already is bloated with warmed-over “how-to” and “Dummies” and “Idiots” guides, not to mention the first-person drivel that poses as insight written by carnival-barking blowhards masquerading as gurus.

That’s why Paley’s The Art of Invention – The Creative Process of Discovery and Design (Prometheus Books, 2010), is such a breath for fresh air. He accomplishes one of the tenets found in the pages of his 206-page book – he’s made the familiar new.

Well-researched, accessible and crisply written, Paley celebrates daydreaming, exploring, observing, talking, serendipity and kinetic interaction as building blocks for creativity.

For Paley, the world is non-linear, where learning to be an inventor is un-learning the rote stuff that society has drilled into us. Although chromatic, colorful and multi-dimensional, Paley’s world is not chaotic.

Early and often, he underscores simplicity – number one on his list of six characteristics of a meaningful invention. To wit, the paper clip, which meets all of his criteria.

The paper clip is:

  • Simple – just bent wire
  • Adaptable – you can bundle two to 20 pieces of paper
  • Easy to use – doesn’t need an instruction manual
  • Robust – “the paper clip always works”
  • Unintended functionality – you can pick locks with a paper clip
  • Elegance – it does a lot with just a little

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent,” Paley writes, perhaps a not-so-subtle comment on government. “It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

Readers will delight in Paley’s cogent discussion of disciplined creativity and how he supports his points by drawing examples from the iPhone and Roomba to teepees and road reflectors.

Entrepreneurs, however, may be disappointed. Paley wrote his book for aspiring inventors, “the high school or college student with a technical bent who is interested in creating the future.” He didn’t write it for business majors.

Commercialization of inventions comes almost as an afterthought toward the end of the book. But Paley makes no apologies.

“This book is about creativity and invention,” he admits at the outset of Chapter 9. “Not about how to make an invention profitable.”

Therein lies another virtue of this particular and charming book – it’s honest.

And in an era often defined by cynicism, greed and self-interest, honesty may be reason enough to add this book to your library.

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