What do we mean by the word ‘creativity’?
This is a course for creative professionals called The 21st Century Creative. We’ve talked about creativity, the creative economy and the creative industries. And the next few lessons are going to show you some ways to develop your creative talent. So it makes sense to pause and consider just what we’re talking about.
Here are a couple of classic definitions of creativity — and how you can use them to make your work better.
Creativity = Ideas + Execution
According to one classic definition creativity is a combination of fresh thinking (ideas) and effective action (execution).
Creative thinking is often the first thing we think of when we think of creativity. But any real creator knows that creative thinking isn’t worth doodly squat unless you do something with your ideas.
On the other hand, if you focus too much on execution, you can get caught up in foolish productivity, busy all the time yet somehow never creating anything remarkable.
So the challenge for us as creative professionals is to strike a balance between thinking and action.
In many developed countries there is a kind of cult of productivity, where working hard becomes an end in itself, regardless of the results achieved. One of the most popular productivity systems, Getting Things Done, actually uses the catchphrase ‘cranking widgets’, without irony, as though that were something to aspire to.
In many organisations there’s a political dimension to the productivity ethos — people are anxious to ‘look busy’ in front of their boss and colleagues. Anything else looks lazy and unprofessional. Creativity is seen as something silly and a little childish, to be confined to creative thinking sessions, preferably held off-site.
All of which can put you as a creative professional in a difficult position. You know that sometimes working harder is the least productive thing you can do. Chatting in a cafe, strolling in the park or otherwise doing nothing will yield much better results — yet I’ve even come across creative agencies where the creatives complain that they have to be at their desks 9-5 or risk the wrath of their supervisor!
Creative director Simon Veksner summed it up in the original tagline of his blog Scamp:
When you see me staring out the window, that’s when I’m working.
Even if you’re working alone or among like-minded people who understand how the creative process works, it can be a frustrating process of trial and error. The stroll in the park doesn’t always lead to a brilliant idea. You can work all night to finish something for a deadline, then realise you’ve wasted your time.
But it’s not all bad news. Variety is the spice of life, remember? On a good day, or even an average one, you get to do all kinds of enjoyable and diverse things — reading books and blogs, watching videos, listening to music; having stimulating conversations with interesting people; letting your mind wander in search of the next great idea. And there are those magical moments when it all comes together and you get lost in creative flow. If you’re a creative professional working on things that matter to you, the joy of work is never far away.
Start to notice what patterns of activity and rest come most naturally to you — during the working day, the week and even over the course of the year. Do you have most energy in the mornings, afternoon or evening? When is taking a break most likely to benefit your work? How do you know when you’re procrastinating, and what can you do to get down to work? The better you know your own creative process and working habits, the less frustration you’ll experience, and the more creative and fulfilled you will be.
Creativity = Novelty + Value
According to another classic definition, something must be both new and valuable before it can be considered creative.
A daydream may be new, but it’s not much use if it stays as a daydream, so from that point of view it’s not creative. Clothes pegs are useful, but they’re not exactly new. Once upon a time they were a creative invention, now they are a commodity.
New doesn’t necessarily mean ‘created out of thin air’. Very few things are completely new. Shakespeare famously never invented a plot. He didn’t see the need, with plenty of tried-and-tested stories to hand. He also worked in conventional forms — the popular stage play, with characters speaking in prose and iambic pentameter, a well-established verse form. And yet … when he put the elements together he created something new and magical in the crucible of the Globe Theatre.
Most products are even more derivative, building on previous innovations. Apple are rightly trumpeted as one of the most innovative companies on earth, yet they are really masters of improvement. They didn’t create the first personal computer, laptop, MP3 player, smartphone, tablet computer or music download store — instead, they made design improvements that transformed each category from geeky gadgetry to must-have items for mainstream consumers.
Here are a few different types of novelty:
- combining previously existing elements (e.g. mobile phone + e-mail = BlackBerry)
- changing genres (e.g. turning Dracula into a comedy)
- bringing something into a new context (e.g. Netflix taking DVD rentals off the high street and onto the web)
- making something bigger or smaller (e.g. Sony developing the Walkman, a far smaller cassette player than any others on the market)
- making something cheaper (budget version) or more expensive (luxury item) (e.g. cheap air fares or the collector’s box set)
- offering something in a different format (e.g. music downloads instead of CDs)
- turning a service into a product (e.g. turning your training seminar into a DVD or e-learning course)
- turning a product into a service (e.g. offering bespoke consulting based on the ideas in your book)
When starting a new project or piece of work, try not to put pressure on yourself to reinvent the wheel. Because of your unique background and talent, what seems obvious to you could well be a revelation to other people. Try the simplest, most obvious idea you can think of. You may be surprised how it turns out.
This doesn’t just mean commercial value, although money is an obvious way to measure value. All it means is that whatever is produced is valued by at least one other person. The more people who value it, the easier it is to demonstrate value (and earn money from it). But that doesn’t mean you need a large audience to be considered truly creative. Very often, the smallest audiences make the most passionate fans.
For example, one of my favourite poets is Geoffrey Hill. He is what’s known as a ‘poet’s poet’ — i.e. he’s read and appreciated more by his fellow poets than by the public at large. Even his admirers concede that his work is ‘difficult’, meaning you might be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t make sense. He’s said himself that when he looks at his royalty figures, he seems to have hardly any readers at all. Some critics loathe his work, and yet others describe him as “the greatest living poet in the English language” (Nicolas Lezard) and even “probably the best writer alive, in prose or rhyme, in the English language” (A.N. Wilson).
You only have to think about the arguments you’ve had with friends about music, books or movies to see how subjective our sense of value can be. On the one hand this can be the cause of much anxiety, with creators wondering whether they are ‘really’ creative or just kidding themselves. On the other hand, it means we shouldn’t be discouraged if others dismiss our work, since it’s entirely possible that they just don’t ‘get it’.
Here are some different types of value that are found in products, discoveries, experiences and works of art:
- Financial — are we willing to spend money on it?
- Aesthetic — do we find it beautiful?
- Useful — does it help us solve a problem or perform a task?
- Informative — does it supply us with news or other important information?
- Educational — does it help us learn?
- Social — does it help us connect with others?
- Fun — does it give us pleasure?
- Power — does it give us an advantage?
- Authenticity — does it help us understand or express ourselves?
- Generosity — does it help us to help others?
- Security — does it keep us safe?
Occasionally I come across a creator who responds defensively to feedback: “I guess I’m just creating it for myself.” I don’t buy this. I think everyone who creates something new, beyond the most banal solution to a practical problem, wants to share it with others, to make a difference to their lives in some way, and to receive validation in return.
Here’s the bottom line: whenever you create something, ask yourself who it’s for, and what you can do to introduce it to them. However small your audience and however little money (if any) changes hands, it’s hard to beat the feeling when you see someone else’s face light up at your creation.
A Creativity Compass
Here’s one way of orienting yourself in the creative process, by combining the two definitions into the shape of a compass:
It might be nice if we could spend most of our time in the bottom right-hand quadrant, cranking out hit after hit and becoming rich and famous as well as creatively fulfilled. But you’ve probably noticed it doesn’t work like that.
The top left quadrant may look like the least useful place to be, but we wouldn’t be very creative if we didn’t give ourselves the freedom to daydream and play around with ideas, sometimes just for the fun of it.
The bottom left quadrant is where critical thinking comes into play, evaluating ideas and sifting out the promising ones.
And the top right quadrant is where we start experimenting, producing drafts, sketches, demo tracks and prototypes. More often than not, we have to go back to the top half of the compass and come up with new ideas before we make it to the bottom right-hand quadrant and start producing something our audience will love.
Writing about the other three quadrants has reminded me how much fun it is to spend time on the thinking and tinkering process, before we get to the finished result. So maybe the bottom right quadrant wouldn’t be so enjoyable if we spent all our time there. I know it’s a cliche, but if you enjoy creative work then you’ll know that this is one of those cases where the journey really is as important as the destination.
Written by me, unless otherwise indicated