What can market researchers learn from Hokusai and the Great Wave?

Hokusai's The Great Wave

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Many of us from outside Japan are familiar with Hokusai’s picture the Great Wave, but I suspect that I am not alone in being less familiar with his other works. Luckily for me, that situation changed today. In learning more about Hokusai, I was struck by its significance for market researchers, insight professionals, and anybody looking for the story in the data.

I spent the afternoon attending an exhibition of Hokusai’s work. The exhibition showed Hokusai’s work and highlighted the enormous impact he had on painters such as Monet, Gauguin and Pissarro.

I won’t go into all of the many things that I learned today, instead I will focus on a few lessons for those of us trying to find meaning in data and information.

Hokusai's 'Rainstorm Beneath the Summit'

Rainstorm Beneath the Summit

One of Hokusai’s great works is his 36 views of Mount Fuji. The great wave is one of the 36 views, as are the other two on this page. In the West, at the time Hokusai was becoming famous (the mid-19th Century), painters rarely painted the same scene repeatedly. In contrast Hokusai did one hundred black and white views of Mount Fuji in one series, and in a colour series did 36 views. This re-visiting the same scene repeatedly was one of several elements that the impressionists picked up on, for example Monet and the 20 years he spent painting water lilies at Giverny.

But, and this is the key for insight professionals, Hokusai did not keep doing the same thing, he found multiple views of the subject. In the second picture on this page, Mount Fuji dominates the scene, in the third picture the trees and people in the foreground are the key element, and, of course, in the top picture
all the focus is on the wave, with Mount Fuji barely noticeable.

Hokusai painting

Hodogaya on the Tōkaidō

The exhibition illustrated the way that Hokusai developed his skills. There were endless sketchbooks on the topic of waves, where his ability to capture the essence of waves was honed. This enabled the Great Wave to be so impactful. To make good stories, you need good skills.

So, the lesson for insight professionals are:

  1. Look for alternative views, don’t stop with the first nice story you find. Remember to match the story to the problem, sometimes the mountain is not the story, even when it is the biggest thing around.
  2. Don’t feel you have to follow all the rules, Hokusai’s paintings do not follow Western notions of perspective, they are about communicating truth, not accuracy.
  3. Don’t throw the whole colour palette at the problem. Hokusai often used relatively few colours, few lines, and often left sections of the canvas blank. In market research terms, don’t think the story needs all of the questions from the survey, and does not need every analysis running.
  4. Remember Hokusai practiced and developed his skills, so that he could tell his stories in what looked like an effortless way. Market researchers need to build their storytelling skills on the foundation of good analytic skills.
  5. The stories work at an emotional level, they are not photographs, they are the result of removing the unnecessary, and simplifying the elements, to convey a message. In research stories too, we need to remove the unnecessary, simplify the elements, and convey the story at an emotional level.

 

PS, the images are from Wikipedia, who feels that these versions are in the public domain, unlike the ones I bought today at the exhibition, which probably aren’t.

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