Media Magazine

Create Your Own Serendipity This Year

Posted on the 08 January 2016 by Themarioblog @garciainteract
This is the weekend edition of TheMarioBlog and will be updated as needed. The next blog post is Monday, January 11.

The headline in this New York Times piece had me in a second: How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.

For one thing, I have always loved the word serendipity. It sounds musical to me.  I remember when I first heard it, in my sophomore year of college, in a creative writing class.  The professor devoted what seemed like a full class period to the benefits of serendipity for writers. “Be observant, take in your surroundings, and let serendipity appear,” he said.

Since English is my second language, I immediately turned to the dictionary to find a translation for serendipity in my native Spanish. No luck.  For years, I have tried to find le mot just for it when doing workshops in Latin America and Spain. I, too, urge those with whom I work to be serendipitous (that even sounds more musical!).

Aside from the linguistics of serendipity, there is also the meaning of it.  Is serendipity a surprise? Well, it could be. Many discoveries are surprises, as when a runner who usually takes the same route suddenly takes a detour and discovers a garden where tulips grow, or suddenly sees a butterfly with shades of purple, pink and yellow on its wings.

However, The New York Times piece, by Pagan Kennedy, presents serendipity as something that, while surprising, is something that we can help create. How can that be?

First, the origin of the word (fascinating, indeed, and one I had never heard before). 

“In 1754, a belle-lettrist named Horace Walpole retreated to a desk in his gaudy castle in Twickenham, in southwest London, and penned a letter. Walpole had been entranced by a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendip who possess superpowers of observation. In his letter, Walpole suggested that this old tale contained a crucial idea about human genius: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And he proposed a new word — “serendipity” — to describe this princely talent for detective work. At its birth, serendipity meant a skill rather than a random stroke of good fortune.”

So, according to this definition serendipity is a series of things beyond surprise: it is discovery, a fortuitous accident, and a stroke of good fortune.  How can we, then, push our serendipity, or be on a quest for it?  Wouldn’t that defeat the very idea of serendipity?

In a way, we can “help” serendipity appear, perhaps.  In his piece Kennedy describes how different type of personalities approach serendipity.  The “non-encounterers” are those who are quite regimented and seldom deviate from their to do list. No chance of a detour here. The “occasional encounters” venture into moments of serendipity now and then.  Then, alas, there are the “super encounters” who can get lost in an activity——perusing old books in a bookstore, for example, or taking frequent detours. These are the lucky ones.

Gay Talese, one of the most famous members of the New Journalism wave of the 1960's and 70s, apparently was one of the super encounters. In fact, he wrote a book that he titled “New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey.”  In it, he took detours around Manhattan that allowed him to discover things all the way from the bathrooms of Yankee Stadium to a colony of ants at the top of the Empire State Building.

Serendipity is not always about stumbling into the colorful butterfly or the gem of a restaurant hidden away somewhere. It can be the type of significant serendipity that translates into the discovery of a cure for a disease, or the invention of the microwave oven, smoke detectors or artificial sweeteners.

I like the idea of pushing our own serendipity.  Newsrooms, especially, should be turned into serendipity laboratories. Good publishers, editors and designers have always  profited from serendipity. They are the ones who dared to improvise, to get out of their comfort zones, and to take daily detours.

My own encounters with serendipity

I have had the fantastic opportunity to see serendipity in action, starting with my first internship at The Miami News in 1968, where one of my mentors, Howard Kleinberg, a man who inspired me to pursue newspaper design, was the Master of the Serendipitous Detour——as in turning the broadsheet page around to show a full stadium and its parking zone prior to a major sports event, or experimenting with the front page of the street edition to see how a certain headline size would attract busy commuters on the way home.

There were also many serendipitous detours when color began to make an appearance in newspapers.  Red and blue were the colors that were on everyone’s “to do list”, but some of the super encounterers ventured into orange, green, etc.

Serendipity seems to be desired goal for many of today’s digital publications—especially the ones with no legacy issues.  Legacy and serendipity do not mix well, as one would expect.

In my own work, I have always allowed for serendipity to come into the room.  I remember specific moments when I stumbled upon something that led to a path I would have never followed otherwise.  I remember in the 90s, while redesigning the Danish newspaper, Arhus Stiftidende.  It was the afternoon of my first briefing with the team, and I sat at my desk, pencil and paper ready, to do some sketching. Outside, a group of young boys was playing soccer, one kick after another.  I remember playing with the grid, and abandoning the static for a “kick” where on column moved up, an interesting effect that became a trademark of that design.

I also remember discovering just the right color palette for a specific newspaper in Brazil while running each morning by the beach and seeing the graffiti on the sidewalk.

And one of my books, Pure Design, could have been titled Pure Serendipity for how it came to be.  It was the aftermath of 9/11 and I was in Santiago de Chile, working with El Mercurio. There was no way to travel back to the States for several days.  I discovered the fantastic collection of incunabula in the home of publisher Agustin Edwards.  Among the rare books, an early edition of Aesop’s Fables.  Those very short stories that had a beginning, middle and end, inspired Pure Design.

So, can we create our own serendipity?  

I believe we can. Let your senses guide you. Be prepared to abandon notions of what should be and trade them for what could.  Tell yourself “why not?” when that strange idea pops into your head.  But, whatever you do, don’t be on a quest for serendipity.

The start of a new year is a good opportunity to open ourselves to serendipitous moments, so take a detour to your own Isle of Serendip---and not just professionally!

Design approach to life

Here is a fascinating piece: Design thinking can be applied to your daily life on issues ranging from losing weight to reconnecting with friends and refocusing energy. Who’d know? Great New York Times article tells you how! Indeed, as a designer I know well that when we design anything we begin by asking the question: what is the goal? What needs to be done? How do we get there? Surprisingly, 99% of the time projects are completed to everyone’s satisfaction. So why not apply the same principles to our own lives?

TheMarioBlog post # 2078
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