In August 2002, French Canadian singer Avril Lavigne released her alt-pop anthem “Sk8er Boi” to much acclaim. It’s a catchy track, and listening to it now brings back memories of that slightly earnest, underdog-championing early 2000s musical landscape, where Sk8er Bois and Teenage Dirtbags were all the rage. No matter that one of Lavigne’s lines—“He was a boy. She was a girl. Can I make it any more obvious?”—was later voted one of the worst lyrics of all time, the song built on the success of her breakout hit Complicated and catapulted its singer into the mainstream.
But if you hear Lavigne talk about it now, she fixates on the risks she took with the song. It was a risk to sing about a subculture, it was a risk to write it in the third person, it was a risk to throw spelling and grammar out the window by calling it Sk8er Boi. “I wasn’t sure if people would get the ‘8’ thing, but they did,” she has been quoted as saying. “It goes to show that when you take a big creative risk, it can really pay off.”
If you work in the creative world, you hear about risk a lot. It’s talked about at design conferences and written about on design websites and championed as the lodestar we should all be following. Safe and sober and stable is out; risk and bravery is in. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book called Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear, in which she wrote that “the central question upon which all creative living hinges” is “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” Cripes.
The designer Neville Brody has banged the drum for risk-taking too, telling Bloomberg, “We need to take more risks. As risks are no longer taken, minority interests become extinct and individual tastes are ignored… For mass communication, mediocrity is the goal, homogeny and vanilla the outcome… We use our devices to know what’s around every corner. We no longer allow ourselves the risk of allowing something to just happen, to risk the unknown, to experience something unpredictable. We must embrace chaos and trust to chance.”
For Steven Kotler, risk isn’t a nice-to-have, it “creates mandatory conditions for innovation.” The creative act, he argued in this article for Forbes, is inherently risky and those bizarre and beautiful leaps of the imagination that characterize great creative work are only possible if you are prepared to jump into the unknown. The downside of risk, of course, is failure, but failure has been rehabilitated as necessary, desirable even. Erik Kessels’ new book Failed It! celebrates the mistake and the misstep as a vital part of true creative daring. He writes: “If you’re anything like me, you’re called an idiot at least once a day. And that’s okay.”
Risk has become fetishized as a prerequisite for the best creative thinking, repackaged as Tweetable slogans and inspirational on-stage exhortations.
It sounds great. It sounds sexy. Who wouldn’t want to “bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you,” whether that means blowing a client’s mind with your new logo design or spelling skater with an 8?
But it feels like we’ve stopped thinking about risk-taking in a critical way, embracing it unquestioningly as a good thing, and not really considering if and when it is the right thing. Michael Bierut will often begin meetings with clients looking for a new logo by extolling the virtues of their current look and feel. It’s a clever way of checking the inbuilt prejudice for neophilia that he believes is at odds with how real people think about design. Just this week in fact, British retail group The Co-op announced it was returning to its “clover-leaf” logo first introduced in the 1960s.“We thought, let’s not invent something new when there’s a perfectly good logo here,” Co-op’s head of design Ben Terrett told It’s Nice That. In a creative culture that values risk over continuation and subtlety, we are in danger of making decisions that are fundamentally flawed.
In a tour-de-force takedown of the Cannes Lions advertising awards, Tom Goodwin, senior vice president of strategy and innovation for Havas Media, railed against what he saw as the creative industries’ wrong-headed obsession with impressing themselves. “The last few Cannes Lions festivals show all the signs of the industry unbundling itself further from reality,” he said. “At a time when businesses face existential challenges, we seem determined to provide silly, self-serving solutions… Cannes has become a self-serving fetishization of the newly possible and the highly improbable.” Here risky creative thinking has careered out of control and doing something unexpected, something crazy, or something audacious has become the be-all and end-all.
Risk-taking has become the new norm and mavericks have become must-have. Architects and designers construct workplaces that provide the right conditions for off-the-wall thinking, while “visionary” leaders bang on about the need to think differently. This isn’t real risk, of course, but a carefully calibrated and controlled approximation of what risk looks like.
Permission to be risky? Permission granted. As the artist Ren Hang once said, “True freedom should be forgetting the concept of freedom.”
So let’s reevaluate risk and acknowledge that sometimes that devastatingly left-field solution is not always appropriate. Let’s be clear that while challenging fundamental preconceptions is an important part of the creative process, risk should always be connected with purpose.