Leave Conventions Behind: What Designers Can Learn from “Hamilton”

What if the story of Alexander Hamilton’s “rise from an orphaned West Indian immigrant to America’s first Treasury Secretary” were told in hip-hop verse?

Lin Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and envisioned his story told as a hip-hop stage biography. Miranda changed the language of Broadway musicals. He is a MacArthur genius grant recipient and his greatest work to date, Hamilton, was the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner in drama.


A polymathic connector, Miranda is someone who can bring together knowledge or ideas from different fields, creatively relating the seemingly unrelated. Polymaths are Renaissance thinkers of sorts, or what designer Bill Moggridge called T-shaped thinkers. In every discipline there are creative thinkers who expand forms and, in turn, our thinking about each form.

Taking a unique approach can lead to innovation, whether it was Albert Einstein using “thought experiments,” conceptual rather than actual experiments, to fathom general relativity or an architectural firm, The Living, using bricks that are compostable, entirely organic.

Here are some avenues for leaving conventions behind:

A New Lens

Control the narrative. Reclamation through a different lens creates a new experience for an audience. Ingrid Michaelson’s “Hell No” music video is constructed with SnapChat filters.


An acquisitions editor asked designer/illustrator Rose Gonnella to write a series of books about design fundamentals: color, composition and type. Rose didn’t want to follow textbook or even trade book conventions, so she and her collaborators, Christopher J. Navetta and Max B. Friedman, explained design basics through the lens of a student’s sketchbooks.


Change the Channel

On Twitter, The New Yorker tweeted Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” in 140-character bursts over 10 days. David Mitchell also published a short story, “The Right Sort,” in a series of over 280 tweets, but it’s his novel, Cloud Atlas, with an accordion structure of six nested stories, where we see him leaving conventions behind. With the exception of one story in Cloud Atlas, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After,” we encounter each story in the novel twice in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Dare to Pair

As writer William Plomer advised, finding connections between unrelated things is the function of creative people. Think of writer Maria Semple who helped form her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, using letters, e-mails, correspondences with the main character’s personal assistant and psychiatrist, FBI documents, and hospital bills.


Ty Montague pairs brand storytelling with doing good services for society in his StoryDoing method.



Miranda cross cast Hamilton and director Ivo van Hove cross cast his recent production of The Crucible. Interconnectedness expands understanding.

Volunteer agency R/GA and the Ad Council try to help us better understand implicit bias (discriminating unintentionally) in the poignant and different PSA campaign, “Love Has No Labels.”


Make Polymathic Connections

Can encryption techniques inspire a web font? For Amnesty International, Sergio Gordilho and Africa, a Brazilian ad agency, designed Mutant Font, to protect online privacy.

Mutant Font – Amnesty International from Agência Africa on Vimeo.

Take a dance class and think how dynamics in movement might relate to graphic design composition. Practice yoga and think of how the body’s midline is like the midline axis of a page or screen. Listen to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and relate the blending of voices to how you unify graphic elements in a composition.

Transferring what you know or learn about one field to another can lead to an insight. In order to do this, you have to look and listen for it. I listened to my physician husband’s lecture on the subject of how epigenetic changes affect neurotransmitters that lead to pair-bond formation in voles and related that to how people respond to branding.

Moving beyond the narrow span of your own discipline leads to becoming a T-shaped thinker, a polymath, someone interested in a variety of subjects, who values diversity and many points of view. Concentrate on making connections between and among subjects, genres, and forms. Lin Manuel Miranda wanted something to read on vacation. He chose Chernow’s Hamilton. And you see how his career turned out.

T2895_500px_72dpi_3Read more from Robin Landa in Nimble: Thinking Creatively in the Digital Age:

In graphic design, creative thinking skills are undoubtedly important, but oftentimes the importance of critical thinking skills is overlooked. In Nimble by Robin Landa, discover how to develop a creativity that is strategic, and able to cross platforms, industries, or sectors. Find a creative thinking process that allows you to generate scalable ideas that are both sticky and stretchy. Learn how come up with ideas rich in not just quantity, but quality, as well, and develop a flexible mind ideal for visual communication, digital marketing, or social media. Find it in MyDesignShop.