Fire, Agriculture, Design: How Human Creativity Built Society

A new TV series flips the paradigm for art as an accessory to culture, proving that our need to create is actually what drives society’s success.

Darius the Great

The tomb of ancient Persian leader Darius the Great serves as a “political billboard” carved into an Iranian cliff.


Ever since the Renaissance, we have been told that art is a product of a noble society, one that is rich enough and functional enough to support the muse. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs made that belief into science: In order for humans to reach the peaks of artistic thinking, he postulated, they must provide for their most basic needs such as food, shelter, sex and more. This social science axiom has been introduced to me more than once in meetings about design, effectively suggesting that design (and art) are secondary and may exist only at the benevolence of functionalists, those people who satisfy our core existential needs first. With that idea so deeply ingrained in our culture, society is now programmed to see art and design as luxury we can afford only after our basic “needs” are met.

I was not too old when I noticed that humans do quite extreme things out of wish, rather than necessity. Great poetry was created through misery and truly horrific deeds were born in the comfort of well-to-do societies. Without getting too much into politics or philosophy, I simply wasn’t buying the Maslow theory. Now comes a possible proof for a complete reversal of this hierarchy: How Art Made the World is a wonderful TV series, brilliantly hosted by Dr. Nigel Spivey.

Dr. Nigel Spivey

Spivey, an art historian and University of Cambridge lecturer, hosts the PBS show How Art Made the World.


Spivey presents the viewer with a provocative and scientifically-proven concept aiming to topple our Western function-first paradigm. It provides compelling evidence that the need to tell stories, visualize dreams and congregate for rituals drove humans to settle, evolve social structures and develop functional skills like crafting objects. In plain English: art, design, storytelling and rituals are essential–and a precondition to much of human society.

How Art Made the World takes us to the deepest caves, showing us paintings of beautiful animals created about 30,000 years ago, in the full glory of the artist’s abstract and nuanced control. Counter to popular belief, these animals depicted are not the common game animals. These are in fact rare creature of majestic presence, appearing in dreams and ritual–we know that since the bones found in those caves were of different animals, the ones that were actually hunted and consumed.

cave paintings

Cave paintings in South Africa are not realistic depictions, rather they show fantasy imagery that humans saw in their trance state.


Then we are told that for tens of thousands of years humanity stopped living in caves and transformed its society from hunter-gatherer to agricultural–how did this happen? Well, the first human villages were created for ritual, as a central place of worship. These places saw the creation of architecture, cultivation of wheat and massive public-works projects, designed by a society with skills, artisanship and structure. The evidence found in a remote site in Turkey as well as at Stonehenge show a clear link between the ritual, the structure made for that ritual, and the establishment of a settlement, social structure and the calls of artisans.

The series goes on to suggest to origin of branding through the story of Alexander the Great literally “coining” himself by putting his likeness on currency. Although the program uses “art” as its topic, the actual pieces of evidence are more works of design than pure art.

As John F. Kennedy, Jr. said, we chose to go to the moon not because it was easy–and not because we had a score to settle with the other guys. It is a dream humanity had and we fulfilled this dream because the moon was there. We humans are unique in our drive to climb mountains, physical or not, just because “it’s there.” This is how Sir Edmund Hillary described the rationale behind his quest to climb Mount Everest.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great’s face was placed upon a coin, paving the way for other world leaders to assert their power in this way.

“Because it’s there” is a great design philosophy: Do things not only due to the direct, calculated merits. The risk is clear and yet some, like Apple’s Steve Jobs, opt not to take the easy road. The Macintosh was not born out of a mere evolutionary thinking. It was not born out of problem-solving…or design thinking. It was born out of a dream, a vision and passion.

In design, the notion of pure “form follows function” is remedial. In reality, great design is about “form follows emotion,” the term my ex-boss, frogdesign’s founder Hartmut Esslinger coined. The story, the vision, the ritual drove the need for function to catch up and fulfill it, not the opposite!


The need to gather as a community and share our stories and rituals drove the establishment of permanent settlements, architecture and social order. Art and design preceded government, urban planning and engineering. Art and design provided the “why,” while construction and business provided the “how.” It only makes it easier for me to use Apple’s latest creation–the oddly-named iPad–as an example of the power of storytelling as a key factor in creating technology.

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such
clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and
Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is
passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and
generates real world success.


About the author

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards