Just Wondering

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2016

By Meleah Maynard

What can we learn from the history of toilet paper? A lot, says Barry Kudrowitz, assistant professor and director of the College of Design’s product design program.


Your research focuses on understanding creativity. What’s the state of creativity in the United States?

I agree with other researchers who say we’re in a creativity crisis. One of the most well-known creativity tests is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, developed here at the University in the 1960s by psychology Professor Paul Torrance. It’s used to evaluate an individual’s level of creativity, not based on what they produce but on how they think. Some research shows we are in serious creative decline based on creativity test scores. That’s a problem because we want to be innovative leaders globally.

Why the decline?

It could be a result of the emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. STEM is important because we need engineers and technical-minded scientists. But we also need to encourage the arts, creative thinking, and play. In order to invent new things you have to have a creative mindset in addition to technical skills. That kind of mindset evolves from being encouraged to play, build, and think in different ways. Creative people aren’t afraid to try new things and make unusual combinations of ideas and disciplines.

What role does society play?

We like things to be different, but not too different. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy called this the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle: The public won’t necessarily accept logical innovations if those items are too far outside what we’re used to. We prefer incremental innovation to radical innovation, meaning that we love small advances, like when we make a product faster, less expensive or smaller. Radical innovation involves changing our daily routines, and that’s more difficult to adapt to.

What’s an example?

Toilet paper was once a radical innovation. Colonial Americans used corncobs to wipe themselves after defecating until the 1700s when newspapers became available. Newspapers were replaced by the Sears catalog, which did a serviceable job until the 1930s when Sears began printing on glossy paper. People complained about that. By then, toilet paper had been around since the mid-1880s, but people thought it was strange and taboo.

Now, more than 120 years later, it’s crazy that toilet paper is still the norm. It’s clearly not very practical or sanitary yet we persist in using it as long as companies keep making it softer, with more layers, and for a lower cost. Other countries, like Japan and parts of Europe, have used bidets or combo bidet-style toilets for decades. They’re more hygienic and environmentally friendly, but Americans think they’re weird.

The easiest way to get people to accept radical innovation is to slowly change things over time, usually with the help of early adopters. Electric cars, which began with hybrids using some gas, are familiar to us now. Nissan’s Leaf is all electric, but it still looks like a regular car on the outside even though the interior functionality is different. Tesla is now making it cool and a luxury to have an electric car. Eventually others will follow.


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