During his lifetime, the now celebrated painter, author, and illustrator Norman Rockwell was either dismissed or loathed by serious art critics. To many, his work was thought to be bourgeois, idealistic, and sentimental, and, in its perceived embrace of the status quo, an assault on art.

To many who work in the world of design and innovation, this perception may seem fair. While the art world around him was exploding with new ideas, he appeared to be doing the same old thing. Born in 1894 and actively working throughout the better part of the 20th century, Rockwell was privy to what might (anachronistically) be termed the “disruption” of the art world. While Dadaism, Cubism, Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism and all the other art-isms of the time were distorting, obliterating, exploding, hacking away at and turning the art (and the world) we knew upside down and inside out, Norman Rockwell was fully employed producing drawings, paintings and illustrations in a style which, even at the time to some seemed old fashioned.

Rockwell died in 1978, and like many artists, he did not enjoy the accolades of the art world during his lifetime. 40 years after his death, his work is now collected and exhibited by the most prestigious art museums in the world and sells for auction alongside Picassos and Matisses for millions. It is also very nearly synonymous with our idea of the American Dream–with all of the sentimentality, idealism, and hope the phrase evokes.

A magazine illustrator who illustrated the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for more than 50 years, Rockwell is famous for depicting scenes of everyday life and for capturing a certain American spirit of the time. Often critiqued for his idealism, he was quoted as saying, “Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn't the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be, I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be, so I painted only the ideal aspects of it.” It seems he saw his work not as representing a reality as much as it did a hope–a hope in a world that could or should be, but which is not yet fully realized.

One such illustration, which is characteristic of much of his work, was a part of an ad campaign he did for the insurance company MassMutual. This particular drawing depicts an insurance agent sitting down in the living room of an American family. The agent is reviewing a policy with a captive, concerned couple as a small child plays on the floor at their feet. The drawing has come to represent an enduring ideal within the insurance industry in which insurance agents (and customers) are known by name, are perceived as trusted advisors and members of communities, and are attuned to the personal concerns of families and their futures.

Agent Interview "Agent Interview" Norman Rockwell, c. 1950s–60s

If we are to take Rockwell at his word (and remember that this is an advertisement), then we should view the drawing not as depicting the actual experience of buying insurance in 1956, but rather an ideal of what people wanted the experience to be like in 1956. In other words, the drawing was aspirational.

Fast forward to 2017, and for most it likely seems that not only have we failed to achieve the ideal depicted in Rockwell's 1950s drawing, but in fact we have never been further from it. The fact that Rockwell’s work is now enjoying a kind of esteem it never experienced during his lifetime suggests that perhaps all along, as he was being ridiculed by the art world for his “conventional” ways, he was quietly engaged in communicating something prescient–how the longing for an ideal (present or past) is at once a kind of hope in the future–and, as is so often the case with artists, only decades later are we truly beginning to understand the depth and transcendence of his work.

For businesses and people tasked with innovation, there is much to be learned from Norman Rockwell–from his reception in the art world (now and then), and in particular from his 1952 MassMutual ad campaign and all that it represents. Namely, that as the world of technology and innovation pummels forward into the future of AI and VR and IoT etc. and continues to disrupt industry after industry (think the art world of Rockwell’s time), sometimes a closer look at the past (what it aspired to and perhaps did not achieve) and the present (when are we encountering these “ideal” moments in our lives already?) can be a way of looking toward the future.

And wherever we look we find people. And when we look to Rockwell’s work specifically, we find people who, like us, desire genuine human connection, even when conducting business. For businesses, putting the customer at the heart center of everything we do is something many of us have forgotten. And while this idea is nothing new (MassMutual knew it in 1955), this old idea may in fact be the tried and true force behind the most transformative and enduring innovation.

The word innovate comes from the latin verb innovare, meaning to change, to alter, to restore, renew or return to a thing. To start thinking about innovation as a constant effort of transformation and even of renewal or return (to an old way of thinking or doing ie. the customer agent relationship a la Norman Rockwell) rather than just invention, may free us from the exhausting race to always be coming up with newest sexiest idea, only to have it turn old over night. If we start thinking of innovation as making something better, not just new, a world of possibility opens up. One where we can then return to old ideas, aspirations, even technologies and apply these to new frameworks and problems to see how they work together; where we can work more quickly, with the understanding that a product, a service, or an experience is always in a constant state of transformation, so perfection matters less; where we can do what we have always done, and do it better.

As we leave 2016 behind and look forward to a year of new things–of new people, new presidents, new ideas, and new technology–lets not forget the lessons of the past, but rather use them to aspire, not just to something new, but to something better. Something people love.