Archive for February, 2007

Not such a bright idea

Monday, February 5th, 2007

lightbulbimage1.gif
What do you think this image means?

Probably you thought the light bulb was a symbol for someone having an idea because that is how the light bulb image is most often used. It is shorthand, a tradition, a part of our visual language.

We can see how this became part of our culture. The invention of the light bulb was a breakthrough in its time, revolutionizing the way we lighted our darkness. And it gave off bright light immediately which provided the perfect simile for the concepts of ‘shedding light on a problem’ or a ‘sudden flash of inspiration’.

It means having an idea, usually a great idea. We’ve been using this image for decades, which funnily enough means it’s an old idea and when an idea becomes old and universally familiar something strange happens to it.

It becomes a ‘given’ – an assumption that requires no thought.

But we are constantly reminded that times move on and nothing can be taken for granted anymore – especially when it concerns technology, so we should regularly review our assumptions.

Let’s look closely at the light bulb today as a representative of a good idea.

Well the light bulb is an invention that has not changed much in design for nearly 130 years – no significant new ideas in all that time. Imagine a technology that hasn’t had a major innovation in 130 years – it must be near perfect!

Alas, nothing could be further from the truth. As an engine, the incandescent light bulb is one of the least efficient we have. Ninety-six percent of the energy sent to the devise is wasted. It is converted into heat which is an unwanted by product. Ninety-six percent! If this invention were proposed today it wouldn’t even get onto the drawing board. Its not actually a light bulb at all, its a heat bulb. But probably every household in the country has at least one somewhere.

It has been calculated that 40% of our electricity energy consumption goes towards lighting our homes, offices and factories. If the majority of that lighting comes from incandescent bulbs then most of it is wasted on an unwanted by product. Imagine the contribution that makes to global warming.

So as a representative of a good idea, of new thinking, the incandescent light bulb is now a joke. Anyone want to buy a computer that has a memory of 16k?

Thought not.

If there was nothing else to take its place I could understand its survival, but there is an alternative. Low energy light bulbs destroy incandescent light bulbs in any efficiency contest. So lets start a trend. If we insist on using the light bulb icon to represent a good idea let’s at least make it an energy saver.

So what the image is actually trying to communicate is ironically, the idea I had about how inadequate the incandescent light bulb is as a metaphor for bright ideas. What we need is a new cartoon that replaces the redundant incandescent light bulb image with something more up to date and innovative. Any ideas about what that icon could look like?

Old and powerful ideas need to be evaluated from time to time. Can you think of any in your life, in your products, in your company, that might be worth scrutinizing a little more closely?
But if you think you might just be re-inventing the wheel… go ahead! The reinvention of the wheel from a solid disk to a spoked circle improved performance dramatically.