From Muses To Music: Where Ideas Come From

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Each year, leaders and innovators converge on the Aspen Ideas Festival to "think big." But just where do great ideas come from? Sandy Speicher, Director of Design for Learning at IDEO, Amit Chatterjee, CEO of Hara, and artist Eric Fischl explain where they find inspiration.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, at the Aspen Ideas Festival here at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Jerome. For 60 years, thinkers, writers, artists, pols and business leaders have gathered here to discuss their work and exchange ideas. But where do those ideas come from? What makes the light bulb go off, or are those eureka moments a myth?

In the spirit of the Ideas Festival, we'll take a look at the origin of innovation and inspiration by picking the brains of some of the good minds here. Whether you're in business, art, medicine, where did your idea come from? We're talking about the process.

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We hope to hear from those of you here in the audience in Aspen, as well, and let me say thanks very much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CONAN: And we'll start with Sandy Speicher, director of design for learning at IDEO, a company that many business turn to when they want to redesign and grow. And Sandy Speicher, nice to have you with us here.

SANDY SPEICHER: Thank you, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you must get tons of idea on how to improve education. How do you know when you've hit on a good one?

SPEICHER: That's a great question, Neal. Our work is really about understanding people that we're designing for in order to design for them. So we actually go through a process of connecting with people, understanding their lives, getting inspiration from what they care about and then turning that into ideas - same thing in education.

CONAN: So is it in essence a research and development company, like, I guess, going back to Edison's original inventions factory?

SPEICHER: Yes, it is quite similar. So, IDEO is a design and innovation consultancy, and we've been around for about 30 years. We started doing product development, and over time, built into designing services, designing systems, designing strategies, designing spaces.

CONAN: And give us an example of a process that worked.

SPEICHER: We tend to take an anthropological approach. So, for instance, in doing some work with Bank of America a few years ago, they came to us and said: Can you help us drive debit card sales? And we said great business question. We understand why you're asking that. But that doesn't give us new inspiration to come to a new idea about what it would mean.

We tend to think, then, of: How do we convince people to do things? So we said: Why don't we start with understanding the human need? What do people care about? And so we go out and we talk to people, and we interview them. We understand how they think about money.

There's a great story in this one where we interviewed a woman who - what she would do is, in her bag, every time she got change, if she purchased something, she would put all the change into a little Ziploc bag and carry it around all week. And at the end of the week, she would take that money and put it in a savings account for her child's education.

Now, a lot of people do this, change jars. We can see this behavior everywhere.

CONAN: Sure.

SPEICHER: And so what we did was we saw the pattern of behavior, and we said: You know, we can actually create a response. We can create an offering for Bank of America that is built upon that behavior. It's now called Keep the Change. You might have heard of it. You might actually be a user of that service.

In their first year, they actually got 2.5 million new customers with that service, and over the past few years, have built to about 12 million customers for that.

CONAN: And I presume, along the way, your debit card - your debit line might have gotten a little bit bigger.

SPEICHER: Yes. And what you do is, on that service, when you use your debit card, you - if you buy something that costs, let's say, $2.50, they round up the purchase to $3, which is what a lot of people were doing to create these forced savings, right. So in that 50-cents gap, they put that into a savings account.

CONAN: We want to hear from our callers and people here in the audience in Aspen, as well: 800-989-8255. Where did your idea come from? And we'll start with Paul, Paul calling from Cincinnati.

PAUL (Caller): Hey. (technical difficulties) Neal?

CONAN: Well, thank you.

PAUL: Let's see, what did I develop? Well, I've done several things that are patents, but one of the things that I really like is one called the Coach in Motion, which is a lenticular card. So when you tilt the card up and down, you see motion. And this is designed for sports.

So, you know, I looked at - you know, if you take any of the golf magazines, for example, you've got this picture - you have these series of still pictures. And what this does is it takes eight frames. So you face the golfer and see what it looks like at the top part of the card. The bottom part of the card is looking down behind the plane of the swing...

CONAN: I'm hearing you describe an idea. What I want to hear about, though, is where did that idea come from?

PAUL: Okay. What it came from was I looked at the pictures in a golf magazine. I understand what lenticular is. And I said: Okay, what if and why not? And so I put - you know, I put some things together, and we went out and shot some stuff, and lo and behold, the sucker works.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sandy Speicher, I wanted to ask you: Your process, you're describing a very - well, a process. And - but does anybody in your shop ever come up and say: Hey, wait a minute, I've got an idea?

SPEICHER: We do have that a lot, of course. We call our process human-centered design. So as I mentioned before that we start with people, understanding people in order to come up with ideas. But we're all interacting in the world all the time. And we are wired. We're built to generate ideas.

The question, I think, is really, how do you know if those ideas are relevant? We think of ideas all the time, and so how do we know that those ideas are relevant in the world? Do they have value to somebody else?

CONAN: It's also - and Paul, good luck with your invention. Appreciate the phone call. It's a little like the homicide detectives saying, you have to have both motive and opportunity. You have to have the motive, the idea, but you also have to have a plan to put it into effect.

I mean, for example, when I had my first child, I thought of all-terrain strollers. I didn't have a company to make all-terrain strollers. I would have made a billion dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: That's a great point. You also need to know that people want all-terrain strollers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, I saw the need.

SPEICHER: Which, by the way, great idea.

CONAN: That was a great idea. Amit Chatterjee is CEO and founder of Hara, a provider of environmental and energy management solutions, and he's also with us here at the Ideas Festival in Aspen. Nice to have you with us today.

AMIT CHATTERJEE: Thank you very much for being here.

CONAN: And where did the idea for Hara come from?

CHATTERJEE: Hara came actually from what I'd call see a need, fill a need, to quote the famous kids' story, the kids' movie, "Robotz." I have a four and a six-year-old, so a lot of my vernacular these days...

CONAN: You not only see a lot of those movies, you see them over and over and over again. Yeah.

CHATTERJEE: Yes. But thank you very much, Brandon and Connor for giving me the inspiration to at least see a need, fill a need. I was actually sitting on a nonprofit organization called the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, for foreign direct investment into Africa, in Azerbaijan.

And the thesis of that organization was that George Soros said that foreign direct investment is - needs to be used responsibly, otherwise you create commentary between - conflict between two different sides of a country. Angola, for example, diamond miners are backing the rebels, oil companies are backing the government. This leads to perpetual strife.

The blinding insight I got out of that was if that's the political ramification, what's the corporate or business ramification? And if we could make energy and environment a topic that showed organizations what their impact on a country was or on a state or on a city, could we help them change behavior over time?

And so that was sort of how the blinding insight came, was I took a view askew, something that isn't the traditional way to look at this, which is that the money matters. It was actually take a look at it and say the natural resource matters.

CONAN: So think outside the box was, I guess, the basis of that.

CHATTERJEE: Basically, think outside the box. And, you know, when we think about new ideas, and as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, you generally sort of think about it in three ways, right. One, you're a painkiller. Two, is you're a vitamin. Or three is I've got to have a product, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHATTERJEE: Now, the last one is Steve Jobs, and potentially IDEO here coming up with blinding insights that you didn't know you needed it, but suddenly you all walk around with a new way to communicate.

CONAN: One of them in your pocket. Yeah.

CHATTERJEE: The other two are painkillers, which is where you see something that you do in your daily life, and you go: Gosh, this should be done better. And if we do it, we start to get people who immediately see the benefit of doing it. That's the painkiller.

The vitamin is more the evangelical sale, which is where you actually have to convince somebody that they need to do this because it's good for them. And that's a little bit too preachy sometimes, but sometimes those kinds of companies or those kinds of ideas are the ones that make the biggest impact in the world.

CONAN: What's the last good idea you heard about in business?

CHATTERJEE: The best - one of my favorite ideas right now is an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley named Jessica Herrin. She created a company called Stella & Dot, and it's a wonderful sort of revamp of what I'd call Amway or Avon has done. But what it's mostly done that I think is really unique is it's taken 20,000 women who were unemployed at one point and have put them to work being able to basically sell jewelry out to the rest of their community.

And it's given about - you've created 20,000 new entrepreneurs. And she recently won Entrepreneur of the Year for Retail in E&Y's effort. But when I saw that come out, I was really impressed with that, because it was something that not only touched, I think, an immediate pain point in the United States for jobs, but secondarily, did it in a very innovative way that an entrepreneur could get after it. And it was definitely fill-a-need.

CONAN: Sandy Speicher, what's the most recent really good idea you've heard about in education?

SPEICHER: Yeah. So Professor Sugata Mitra, who works out of the U.K., does a lot of work with schools in India. And one of the challenges they have is around great English teaching. And so he was interviewing some students to find out what do they care about, what do they like. And one of them told him: Boy, I really wish that we could have British grandmothers reading us fairy tales. Which, of course, who wouldn't want that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: So he ended up actually taking that inspiration and creating what's now called the Granny Cloud, which has a set of about 200 retired volunteers across the U.K. who, over Skype, are now teaching English in schools in India.

CONAN: That's amazing. Do they just teach school, or do they act as Mary Poppins to the entire class?

SPEICHER: Well, they do work with the whole class. And they - and so it's not just about reading. They actually - not just about reading fairy tales, although I still think that's brilliant. They actually teach concepts, too. So they're actually replacing a lot of the unskilled workers in India who are having trouble teaching English.

CONAN: And just going back, Amit Chatterjee, 20,000 women?

CHATTERJEE: Yes. That's what I believe is currently that many people actually playing with the package around Stella & Dot.

CONAN: That's a lot of people at work. And - but are they selling it door to door or in, like, parties, or...

CHATTERJEE: You know, I'm not much of a jewelry fan myself, and I'm not exactly the demographic. But the way I believe it works is that they host either a website, so they'll have a mini-e-commerce site, and then secondarily, what they do is they actually host parties.

CONAN: Parties.

CHATTERJEE: So I would liken it similar to the Tupperware.

CONAN: We're talking about ideas, what inspire them, where innovation comes from. Whether you're in business, art, medicine where did your idea come from? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: Talk@NPR.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from Aspen and NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We're surrounded, of course, by big thinkers in business, politics, education, the arts and sciences, the ideal place to talk about the origin of our ideas.

What inspires us? What drives innovation? Whether you're in business, art, medicine, where did your idea come from? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Sandy Speicher, she directs IDEO's Design for Learning Program; and Amit Chatterjee, CEO and founder of Hara, provider of environmental and energy management solutions. Both are with us here in Aspen. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and we'll go to Chris(ph), Chris calling us from Moorhead in North Carolina.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead please.

CHRIS: Well, our idea - and I say our, my wife and I - we're both in marine science in academia. I was at the UNC Chapel Hill's Marine Lab, and she was at the Duke Marine Lab. And, yes, everyone out there is probably wondering how basketball season is at our house, and it is quite difficult.

But anyway, we were both grant-supported researchers, and each year, we never knew if we were going to have a job or not. So, you know, our idea for starting a business - which what we do is high-resolution sea-floor mapping. So basically we go out in a boat and use a variety of sonar systems to see what's on the sea floor for mainly the federal government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Navy, things like that.

CONAN: And how did you decide that this would be - I know that there are devices that have been doing this for a long time. And they get better and better all the time. What was - how did you come up with the idea to make this a business?

CHRIS: Well, you know, really it stems from passion. You know, I grew up at the beach my whole life, surfing, fishing, diving. And my position at UNC was doing very similar studies, You know, seeing what's on the sea floor.

And so really - you know, of course, we were young and silly back then and didn't have any kids, and so we just went for it. You know, we had sort of a go-for-it attitude, and we wrote a business plan. Of course, we're scientists trying to be business people. But we've been highly successful. We've been in business for nine years now.

And, you know, one of the things that sets us apart is we took this research-quality science idea to the private sector, whereas a lot of the companies - although there's not, especially small ones, there's much bigger companies that do what we do - but one of the things that sort of sets us apart is the idea we've had is everyone at our company, which we have four employees, knows how to do just about everything.

So when we're out in the field, there's no disconnect between the data collection in the field, which there's always inevitably some issue, the waves are too big, or the tides are strong, and you have some nuance in the data, you know, there's no disconnect. We don't hand it off to someone to process it. So everyone kind of has their hand in just about every part of the project.

CONAN: But I wanted to get back to what you said. It's passion, and your entire background in diving and at the beach and all of that, Amit Chatterjee, how much of the success is going to be dictated by figuring out how to make your avocation your vocation, to make your - what you're passionate about pay off?

CHATTERJEE: You know, it's a common story in Silicon Valley, where you will want to take on a new idea, and you have got the passion for it. And everyone will tell you a reason not to do it. But we always go back to one of the very early lessons you learn in life, David-versus-Goliath story, right.

And what it was was it was the passion that he believed he had to win, and it was secondly the unique approach that he took around Goliath moving slowly and the extra perspiration - 99 percent, right - one percent innovation, 99 percent perspiration - was really what pulled together a complete story.

And I think what I hear here...

CONAN: A little practice, probably, too, but...

CHATTERJEE: A little practice, absolutely. But a little bit of what I hear here and why he's been able to prolong himself for nine years here is that there is passion and that there is a next level of depth or quality that can be delivered.

All too often, when we see the ninth generation of something or the third version of a movie, we wonder what's changed. The technical acumen has gotten better. Probably the VA and the audio, the quality of actors that you can spend has gotten better. But what created that first spark, what created the extra effort to really have the care almost as for me my third child, is the passion behind it. And I think I can see that, why this business has also been able to have been that successful.

CONAN: And thanks very much, and good luck with your company, Chris.

CHRIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: I wanted to say how do you retain the passion when - in a company like IDEO when you're - it's your job to do it every day?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: Yeah, well, we are a very passion-led environment, and one of the things that we consistently acknowledge is the kinds of things that people are interested in doing. And so being out in the world, being connected with the world is a great way - around the questions that you're interested in is a great way to kind of stay alive with the ideas that you're struggling with.

And to build on what Amid is saying here, as we have these ideas, and they kind of are fueled by this passion, we also have to let these ideas live. We have to try them out. And we have to get feedback on them. We have to know whether we should keep building that stroller, right.

And so that also comes with feedback from the world. We try things out. We build prototypes. We say here's something I really believe in. I think this is great. And then we show it to people, and no one wants it, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: And so then you have to question. I still have the passion. What's the right idea?

CONAN: Yeah, that - which raises another point: How much does failure play a role in good ideas because some good ideas just don't work.

CHATTERJEE: A tremendous amount. Failure, I think, is at the core of innovation because you have to have a couple of things. Number one, despite your passion, you may run into a brick wall, but you've got to have the resiliency to get up. And secondarily, I think if you want to capture a fast-moving market, you need to fail fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHATTERJEE: So you need to make decisions quickly and realize they're not going to work and then shift direction, and...

CONAN: So not too big to fail, too fast to fail.

CHATTERJEE: Too fast to fail.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - go to the mic. Steve is at the mic here in the Hotel Jerome.

STEVEN WICKS: Thank you, Neal. I'm Steven Wicks(ph). I actually have the privilege of working at the Aspen Institute, the even larger privilege of working here in Aspen year-round, although the institute is headquartered in Washington.

Neal, you asked me earlier to say a few words about why we put on the Ideas Festival, where we think ideas come from. At the Aspen Institute, we believe that ideas come from face-to-face conversations but not just any face-to-face conversations, a special kind of face-to-face conversation, one which is salted with great thinkers past and present round the table.

It's also been our tradition, though, to have people at the table who perhaps have not thought about a subject before, and that is why ever since 1949, the first version of this Ideas Festival, the townspeople were invited. It seems to salt the conversation even more.

We also believe that great conversations need a place to happen and preferably a beautiful place, a place that kind of encourages you to nourish your mind, body and spirit while you're thinking, and we think that's why Aspen seems to work so well.

CONAN: Hard to convince people to come out from Washington, D.C., in the middle of the summer to the mountains here in Aspen, really tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WICKS: Yes. As you know, this Ideas Festival is the seventh in this incarnation, but it in fact started in 1949, when it was not so easy to get here to Aspen. People didn't know where Aspen was or even how to get here. But in 1949, we hosted the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation to celebrate Johann Goethe's 200th birthday party here, and 2,000 people came.

CONAN: And it's grown from then. Thanks very much, but you talk about place, and I wanted to raise that with Sandy Speicher. Your company, for example, people talk about the place where you can come up with an idea being very important. You among other things design places for other companies. How do you design your place to be inducive to coming up with ideas?

SPEICHER: Well, it's a very collaborative environment. So we're always working in teams. And so our space is really configured for that flexibility also. So we can pull people together when they're working on a particular question.

CONAN: I'm just seeing cubicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: We actually started taking desks away because we're traveling so much, because we are looking for that inspiration in the world so often. So now there's - we have hoteling desk systems, where we can check in and check out depending on who we're talking to and who we need to be with, yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from - a tweet, rather, from Tiffany Lee Brown(ph), a writer for Eureka Idea Lab. Here, ideas frequently come from accidents and mistakes, not just marketing departments and problem solvers. Would you - either of you agree with that?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, I thought the most famous example of that is the Post-It note, right. I mean, they were asked to create a very strong adhesive, and they basically showed it, and they said it doesn't stick, but it doesn't also un-stick. And somebody looked at that and said: Gosh, that is brilliant. We could make a killing. And so 3M was very successful doing that.

CONAN: That was actually a two-part invention because they had to then come up with a process for putting glue on every sheet as they made it. And they said we only put the glue on the back, like, you know, tearing off sheet by sheet, we can't do this. One of the engineers at 3M says yes we can. He went home and built a machine that could make the Post-It note. Unfortunately, he made it in his basement, and it was too big to take out the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: But it was such a good idea they took out the door for him. Let's see if we can go to the microphone here in Aspen.

COLLEEN ROBERTSON: Hi, my name is Colleen Robertson. I'm from Seattle. When I was working with the homeless and at-risk youths in downtown Seattle, we were faced with many large and small problems. And one of them was youth who were being locked up in a juvenile detention center were frequently released, and then we ask them to join our work training programs, which required a state-issued ID. When they were in juvie, everyone knew who they were. The state knew who they were.

But they frequently lacked that identification and they would be released without an official ID and then be ineligible to work or get trained or enroll in the community college or access many different programs. So the idea, which is quite simple, was just that while they're in that place where we have an official identifier, we should issue a state ID. I don't know that that policy has been enacted in Washington state, but I found that these ideas would come to me when usually I was in kind of a meditative state, when I would run without music or when I would actually meditate. And it would - the obvious occurs.

CONAN: And that was - you saw a problem and eventually came up with a solution.

ROBERTSON: I always encountered that problem at work many times before the solution floated to the surface, but, yeah.

CONAN: Floated to the surface. That's an interesting phrase. Clearly, you've been working on it at least subconsciously for some time before that ding went off.

ROBERTSON: I think that people know solutions and have latent ideas that are ready to float to the surface, but it takes a quiet - you can kind of get in a place like the Aspen Ideas Festival and be surrounded with brilliance, soak it all in. But I really do think that the quiet process - that allows them to surface for me.

CONAN: Which raises another question - and we mentioned it at the beginning. Well, Sandy Speicher, you describe a process by which you can develop ideas. Is the eureka moment a myth? Or does it happen?

SPEICHER: I think it's not a myth, but it's not the only thing. It's a combination of sort of interactions we have with the world and who we are and the unique lens that we bring to it. And so throughout this process, we're both observing what other people are doing, but we're also gleaning insights. We're using our intuition to listen on a different level. I think that last person shared a great story of kind of seeing a problem, seeing a pattern, seeing it consistently, but then listening to her intuition to say, and what do I see in that. So I think there's a combination.

CONAN: What do you think, Amit Chatterjee?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. I think the, you know, if you're trying to enter a business market or you're trying to after a new region, you may not need the eureka moment. I think that if you want to build a sustaining, you know, built-to-last kind of idea, it has to come out at first point with the blinding moment of eureka. But very quickly after that, I think, to Sandy's point, you do need to point some meat around that eureka moment because it will fade.

CONAN: Is it interesting, though, once you'd come up with a great idea, isn't there sort of a relief. The rest of this is just hard work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. It's, you know, I met the guy who once claimed that, you know, he had thought of iPad before Steve Jobs did.

CONAN: Didn't do the hard work, though.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly, so you need both.

CONAN: We're talking with Amit Chatterjee, CEO and founder of HARA, a provider of environmental and energy management solutions. Also with us, Sandy Speicher, director of design for learning at IDEO. They're with us at the Aspen Ideas Festival. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And another person at the mic here in the Hotel Jerome.

BERNICE DURAND: Hi, I'm Bernice Durand and I'm from Aspen. And my husband and I are both physicists, and I want to talk about that kind of idea. So I can't particularly tell you what the results are or what the problem is, but I want to talk about the process. I also incidentally want to mention that we are attracted, originally attracted, to Aspen by the Aspen Center for Physics, which is anther great institution here in its 50th summer. First of all, I think that you need a prepared mind, and that's not just the education but it's a lot of reading and a lot talking with people. And I heard that in one of the previous comments - a lot of discussion, so that you have other people's perspectives.

CONAN: Face-to-face discussion.

DURAND: Yeah. Lots of talking. And then when you actually have a problem to solve or an idea suddenly appears, I think that you have to have not just the prepared mind, you also have to have some kind of structure in your mind. And I find that that carries over to when I'm working with organizations. That the kind of structure that you build as you're practicing science or mathematics carries over into people-related organizations also. And then, I think that the other key element is that you have to be relaxed before the idea will come to you, and I heard that from someone before. My husband got many of his great ideas shaving...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DURAND: And I got many of mine just sitting in the bathtub, staring into space.

CONAN: In the - well, that's appropriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It's interesting you're talking about - don't go away for a second. It's interesting you were talking about communication. We don't necessarily think that physicists or mathematicians as great communicators. These people are really able to - they're able to write out ides, but not necessarily talk about them.

DURAND: Well, if you were to visit the physics center, you would find 90 physicists over there at blackboards or in seminars, talking, talking, talking, talking. That's what's great about it.

CONAN: I may skip that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thank you very much for the contribution. Collaborative process, Amit Chatterjee?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, the old adage that when you want to launch a company, it's very similar to the old adage around real estate, you know? What are the three things that matter in real estate? Location, location, location. What are the three things that matter in building a great idea? Team, team, team.

So, you got to go out and you got to find the right set of people. And as they come and they all think like you, I don' think they're going to get very far. But I think the important thing is you have to find people who are going to come from cross-disciplinary stories and find away to bring them together. My own company has people who come from the energy and environment world, two very different pieces, as well as software.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Colin in Florida: I have had a number of patents while working for an R&D company. The ideas all came in quiet moments or, for instance, at the beach. Our company even allowed periods, usually an hour, where we could just sit quietly and let our minds wander. The best ideas come from those quiet periods that do not have distractions.

There's a lot of companies, Sandy Speicher, who say, wait a minute, we're not going to pay people to goof off. Do you pay people to goof off?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: Well, I don't know if I see it as goofing off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPEICHER: I think it all does go somewhere. Actually, I think there's an interesting parallel there to some of the changes that have happened in education as we eliminate recess from the day to be more and more productive, how much it takes away that time to let what you've just learned kind of seep in from a different angle.

CONAN: We'll talk more about where ideas come from in a moment. Also, artist and sculptor Eric Fischl will join us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Right now we're at the Aspen Ideas Festival at the Hotel Jerome, talking about - well, what else? - ideas, and where they come from. Call and tell us not about necessarily your great idea, but about what inspired it, how you came up with it. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is Eric Fischl. He's a painter and sculptor - world-renowned, I should say, in both those fields - and lead curator for the art exhibit "America: Now and Here." Nice to have you here with us in Aspen.

ERIC FISCHL: It's good to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And, well, I imagine, like most artists, you get this question a lot. Not where do your ideas come from, but how do you come up with them?

FISCHL: It is asked, yes. I'm a painter of people, so one of the sources of my inspiration is body language. And when I see people sitting, standing, moving, twisting, turning in very specific, very idiosyncratic ways, I'm riveted by it. I don't know why. If I have my camera with me, I take a photograph of it. And then back in my studio, I look at that photograph and try to find a context for explaining why I was fascinated by that particular gesture.

CONAN: So it's almost finding the quirk and then trying to figure out what inside you made that interesting.

FISCHL: Yeah.

CONAN: And do they all work out?

FISCHL: Not at all, no, but the process is always fascinating.

CONAN: And how many failures do you have for every success, do you think?

FISCHL: I don't count.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's probably a good idea.

FISCHL: Yeah, I think so.

CONAN: It's - do you always know where a piece will go when you start?

FISCHL: No. The process of painting for me is a discovery process. So, you know, I start out oftentimes just putting that one figure on a canvas and then asking myself, where is it? Is it - is this person in a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, outdoors, you know, et cetera, et cetera? And I throw things at it till something sticks.

CONAN: It's almost as if you create a problem for yourself and then figure out how to solve it.

FISCHL: Yeah. But it's a problem that stems from a emotional attachment that is not first formed by words. So the reason that I'm attracted to a certain gesture resonates with me on some experiential level that I haven't named myself. So the process of painting is one of the ways that I reveal that to myself.

CONAN: You're also a sculptor. How do you decide whether a subject is more appropriate for a canvas or for some more three-dimensional medium?

FISCHL: Yeah. Some gestures, they feel like more monumental than others, and sculpture is a medium that is more attuned to monumentalizing something. And so it starts with that.

But the other thing is - which I often say, to be reductive about it - is if you're making a painting, your hand follows what your eye sees. And if you're making a sculpture, modeling a sculpture, oftentimes your hand moves away from what your eye can see, and it begins to inform the eye and inform the mind in a totally different way because the hand is full of memory, but it's a memory that only touch can unlock.

So, for me, the process of, you know, choosing a painting or a sculpture to do something has more to do with kind of being interested in playing with that side of my brain and the other side. I don't even actually know what side of the brain they're on.

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CONAN: We were talking with Sandy Speicher earlier about the nature of the workplace. What is your studio like? Big open space? Do you listen to music? What goes on?

FISCHL: I - you know, I built my studio 10 years ago. And you would think an artist would build a studio that would be ideal, right?

CONAN: You'd think, yeah.

FISCHL: If they had the means to build one and they build it, it'd be ideal. It would have plenty of wall space, plenty of storage space, plenty of different work area type space. It would have northern light, blah, blah, blah. My space has two walls that I can use to hang things on, eastern light, so I can't use it in the morning. And I have, like, no storage space...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FISCHL: ...so go figure.

CONAN: Well, next time, you might want to get in touch with Sandy Speicher. She might be able to help you out this time.

FISCHL: Figure this out. Yes.

CONAN: We're talking about where ideas come from. We have someone else here in the audience in Aspen.

RUTLEDGE FORNEY: I'm Rutledge Forney, and I'm a dermatologist in Atlanta, Georgia. And my mission is to try to prevent skin cancer and to help prevent aging with my patients. My challenge has been trying to help them do that in a way that engages them rather than sort of punishes them. So one of the things I would talk constantly about was sun protection, particularly with hats for both men and women. And there was always an excuse why they couldn't do anything. And one day I went to market with my cousin and found a very reasonably priced line of very attractive, fashionable hats.

So it was my a-ha moment. Why don't I sell hats and try to inspire my patients to do that? So I bought 36, and I started wearing them all the time. I keep one in my car, and we put them all over the office. And it has completely inspired hundreds of people in Atlanta. The men demanded them. I started out with just women. Men started coming in, saying, why are there no hats for men. So we now have a line of hats for men. It's not a big profit item, but it has helped my mission go forward and has helped hundreds of people in Atlanta, Georgia, make a difference for their skin.

CONAN: It's interesting, your mission, of course, is to put yourself out of business - I'm not sure that's going to happen - but nevertheless, as you came up with that idea, is one of the first things that happens is you kicked yourself for not thinking of it earlier?

FORNEY: No. Actually, I was very proud of myself for finding out when I did, but the main thing was...

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CONAN: Good for you.

FORNEY: But I'm surprised other dermatologists haven't done it yet. I keep trying to hope they'd all be inspired by my activities. It hasn't happened yet.

CONAN: Well, congratulations and good luck in the hat business. All right. Here's an email we have from Scott in Boulder: When I painted a scene for a bluegrass festival, I wanted to show an upright bass prominently. Using that as my motif, I eventually came up with cowboys riding the basses like horses, herding the other instruments across the river.

It worked perfectly. But to actually come up with the idea required many hours staring at the walls, sky and ceiling while concentrating and loosening up simultaneously. Eric Fischl, do you spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling there in the afternoon light?

FISCHL: I spend a lot of time staring probably at the work that I'm working on. But staring is a big important part of it. I find if I need to write something that that requires motion.

CONAN: Really?

FISCHL: Mm-hmm. And so, you know, I find, you know, walking around gets a pace to the - to my mind that generates words, whereas for paintings, it's about staring at some stillness and...

CONAN: Let's see if got another caller in. This is Mark, and Mark is with us from Monte Sereno in California.

MARK: Hi, Neal. My eureka moment was not staring at the wall, but it's a little bit more energetic. I was sailing on a small catamaran off of Maui and I happen to cut my foot on a shackle, and without thinking put my foot in the water to make it feel better. And noticed we weren't moving very fast, and I saw this perfect blood trail in the clear blue water behind me.

CONAN: Hmm.

MARK: And - yes. So I said - thought to myself, am I in trouble? And I started thinking that had a big predator come on up. Well, he might follow the trail, but I realized I wasn't in trouble because he would see that I wasn't his food and what he would see would be a bunch of shadows of pontoons. So on that boat, I came up with the idea and said, well, how do you make a shadow disappear? And with that I landed up patenting a surfboard.

CONAN: A surfboard?

MARK: Yeah I own a patent for the bottom of all boogie boards, surfboards, kayaks that masks the outline of the shadow. And so I ask you the question, how do you make the shadow disappear especially in an emergency?

CONAN: It's interesting. I would have come up with a bigger - different solution. But I saw the movie and I know that you're going to need a bigger boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARK: Well, I find that in terms of asking other technologists, you know, that simple question if a shark's looking for a shadow and the shadow is supposed to be the shape of his prey, how do you make or alter that shadow so you don't look like his lunch?

CONAN: And how do you do it?

MARK: Well, I'm asking you. I'd love to find out if other people have - can figure out that. I only had a few moments to think about it. And the answer is light, obviously. The answer is light. What is a shadow? Absence of light. And so, I'm looking for - if your audience is interested, I'm looking for some volunteers to tow on this beautiful surfboard out in some shark-infested waters. And if they survive, they get to keep it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We'll do that right after we go to the physics lab.

MARK: Well, I'll let them keep the surfboard.

CONAN: Well, we may have some volunteers here for you, but we'll get you in touch with them if they decide to - they'd like to do this. They're in the mountains right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARK: Running for the hills.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

MARK: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Good luck with the company.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: Those - interesting questions like that, Sandy Speicher, how do you make a shadow disappear. I think that's probably part of a lot of your process questions like that.

SPEICHER: Yeah. Asking the right question, of course, is a really important step in coming to ideas. When - once you're asked a question, your mind can't help but come to answers. And so depending on how you frame the question, you'll come to many different answers. But one of the things that I thought was interesting in that last caller was the idea of constraints and how much constraints actually can prompt creativity, how if we have too many constraints, it may be very difficult to find new ideas. But if we have too few, it also may be very difficult to find new ideas.

CONAN: What do you mean?

SPEICHER: So constraints actually help us know what to bounce off of. So I've been - I think what the last caller was talking about, about being in a moment of dire situation. He's got a pretty big constraint in front of him. So what is he going to do? And in that moment, he's asked to come to a new idea to figure out a new answer.

Or even like a poet working within a specific form...

Yes. Yes.

CONAN: ...that's your constraint or...

SPEICHER: That gives rise...

CONAN: ...the 12-bar blues or whatever.

SPEICHER: Wonderful. Yeah, that gives rise to a new answer.

CONAN: All right. That's interesting. We're talking with Sandy Speicher, director of Design for Learning at IDEO, with us here in Aspen. Also Amit Chatterjee, CEO and founder of Hara, a provider of environmental and energy management solutions, and Eric Fischl is a painter and a sculptor, founder and lead curator for "America: Now and Here." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Eric Fischl, America Now and Here, is it here and now?

FISCHL: I deliberately called it Now and Here because I wanted, first of all, to slow people down and to maybe think of what that actual shift means. The inspiration for "America: Now and Here," like a lot of inspiration, I think comes - came out of an awareness of an absence. And in this case, there was an absence of art that could be put at the center of a conversation about America, which is sorely lacking at this point and on the level that art actually functions on, which is one of reconnecting us to our humanity, connecting to us to our feelings, connecting empathetically with others, et cetera, in a time when America feels so anxious and so uncertain about the future.

It occurred to me that it was a time for art to step forward as a way of trying to re-shift the conversation to something that might ultimately lead to a more productive kind of growth pattern. And so the idea was to get people to think of America as being where they are at this moment, which is now and it's where they are — wherever they are, which is here, and so that was part of the incredible cleverness of that title.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FISCHL: But the idea was and what the program is, is we've reached out to great American artists, poets, playwrights, musicians, filmmakers, singer-songwriters. I've asked them to give us work of arts, specifically about America. To make it not too broad, I said post-9/11, something you want us to think about...

CONAN: Contemporary, yeah.

FISCHL: That's - in a moment, yeah. And let's use 9/11 as a cathartic experience that put us into this timeframe.

CONAN: We have a question for you, I think, from here in the audience.

MELVA BUCKSBAUM: Hi. Melva Buckbaum from Aspen, Colorado, and I don't have an idea. I wanted to ask Eric about something. Eric, we're on the anniversary of 9/11 - you know where I'm going with this. And on the first anniversary of 9/11, Eric produced a sculpture called "Tumbling Woman," which my husband and I happened to own one of the pieces. What was the inspiration? I know what the inspiration was, or what made - gave you the idea of "Tumbling Woman?" I think the sculpture is so important. And I might say that it had been in Rockefeller Center.

And my husband and I went to see it and I looked at it, I think - know that this isn't going to last here. And it didn't. It was removed from Rockefeller Center because of some bad press. And we were privileged to have the dealer call us and ask us if we would like to have it. We said yes, of course, because we knew it would be very important, so...

CONAN: And I don't mean to interrupt, but I'm going to have...

BUCKSBAUM: But — you're right.

CONAN: ...to ask Eric to answer in about 30 seconds.

FISCHL: In 30 seconds, I'll say that the profound experience of 9/11 was that 3,000 people died and there were no bodies. And the conversation in America turned very quickly to questions and issues and dialogue about architecture. We couldn't process the real devastation of that experience. The only thing we saw was - and we saw it very briefly before it was censored was people who leapt or fell from the buildings. That image was so burned on our brain.

And it was also so terrifying to us because it brought into a clarity that people would choose one form of death over another, exactly how horrible that experience was. And I felt that I couldn't not honor the physicality, the human physicality, of that experience so I did "Tumbling Woman."

CONAN: Eric Fischl, Amit Chatterjee and Sandy Speicher, thank you all very much for being with us here at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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