Risk intelligence and creativity

Over the past few days a number of fashion designers have started following me on Twitter. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but whatever the reason was, it got me thinking about the role of risk intelligence in fashion, and in creativity more generally.

As my colleague at the American University of Beirut, Arne Dietrich, recently explained to me, creativity can be thought of as a product of two mental processes; one that generates new ideas, and another that evaluates these ideas. It is in the second of these processes that risk intelligence has a role to play.

Suppose a fashion designer is playing around with ideas for the next season. As new images flash across her imagination, she covers the pages of her sketch pad with simple line drawings. Then she puts down her pencil and reviews the designs she has generated. When evaluating these patterns, she will consider a range of criteria, some conscious and some implicit; her own aesthetic preferences, current trends in the fashion industry, technical aspects of production, and the likelihood that a given design will be unusual enough to get noticed and yet not so weird that it will never be worn.

Estimating that likelihood requires risk intelligence. A designer with low risk intelligence may overestimate the chance that a particular pattern will be a hit, or underestimate the probability that  a given design will catch on. A designer with high risk intelligence, however, will tend to get it just right, regularly providing realistic estimates of each new piece’s chances of becoming the must-have item of the season.

Good fashion designers construct mental models of what makes a good design slowly, often unconsciously, as they gradually accumulate experience.  These models may involve many different variables – the shape of the hemline, the way the folds fall, the texture of the material, and so on.  People with high risk intelligence manage to keep track of all these variables in their heads, but the process is unconscious; they need not be mathematical wizards, since most of the cogitation goes on below the level of awareness.  It is here that the difference between an average designer and an Alexander McQueen lies. Anyone can brainstorm a diverse range of crazy patterns; only a skilled designer can reliably pick out the ones that will sell.