Episode 1: Defining Creativity

Designing Creativity is a show about the theories, tools and techniques used by normal people to produce great work.

The show is very simple. A single topic, once a week, fifteen minutes. Something you can chew on, hopefully something that will help you in your daily life and work.

I’m your host, Ben Alexander, and todays topic is “Defining Creativity”

Just talking about creativity can be incredibly difficult because there are so many theories about just what happens inside the human mind when we make the creative leap. We’re going to take a look at many of these ideas and try to develop our own take on the creative process.

This isn’t an attempt to come up with some grand new theory - we’re less concerned with whats right and wrong in terms of the actual psychological or neurological or philosophical concepts in play as we are with the practical results: do the techniques and tools we examine work?

If you want to get in touch you can email me at ben@badesign.co and I’m @fiatluxfm on Twitter.

Episode 1 Script

Designing Creativity is a show about the theories, tools and techniques used by normal people to produce great work.

The show is very simple. A single topic, once a week, fifteen minutes. Something you can chew on, hopefully something that will help you in your daily life and work.

I’m your host, Ben Alexander, and todays topic is “Defining Creativity”

Just talking about creativity can be incredibly difficult because there are so many theories about just what happens inside the human mind when we make the creative leap. We’re going to take a look at many of these ideas and try to develop our own take on the creative process.

This isn’t an attempt to come up with some grand new theory - we’re less concerned with whats right and wrong in terms of the actual psychological or neurological or philosophical concepts in play as we are with the practical results: do the techniques and tools we examine WORK? 

Still, some basic definitions help.

So, the question is what is it?What is creativitity? 

Well, what it ISNT is a replacement for effort, skill or expertise. Genius is indeed 99% perspiration. That belief is reflected in the title of this show - design is hard work. We’re designing for creativity, designing ways to be more creative, ways to turn our dumb daily patterns into useful tools. This show absolutely isn’t about ‘working smarter not harder’ or using cheap tricks to replace hard graft. In fact I suspect we’ll find as we explore that repetitive, tedius, strenuous hard work can actually be a useful tool, but we’ll get to that.

Also, Creativity isn’t some inborn trait, or something you canlearn in a vacuum and while the products of the creative process may seem like magic, magic is, as far as we know, a quite scientific endeavor.

 Its a process, one that - if you ask so called ‘creative people’ one that seemingly happens behind the scenes, often at the most unexpected times: at three in the morning lying in bed, in the shower,while you’re driving, at the gym, cooking a meal - and theres something to that ---

--- Creativity is a process that requires hard work. But the hard work and the expected payoff will almost always seem disconnected until some seemingly unrelated thread ties them together.

Theres a great quote by Jony Ive that expresses this idea:

“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naive, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.”
And, it is remarkable conceptually - it really is, that you can be grinding away at a problem, frustrated, disappointed, confused and then some piece of the puzzle will fall into place and the problem you thought was insurmountable suddenly appears much smaller, and sometimes it vanishes outright.

But theres also an unsettling aspect, one that Jony's old boss, Steve Jobs alluded to, quote:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” 

And that too is true. If you’ve ever been praised for some creative work you probably know that feeling of guilt, the unease in acceptingrecognition for something that didnt seem entirely yours to begin with - and underneath it the fear, that you couldnt find that magic again, that you couldn’t recreate the spark.

And thats where I want to start with the definition: Creativity is a process by which the mind of an individual connects seemingly disparate ideas to produce novel and valuable solutions to a problem. 

And, forgive me for the highly compressed and messy history lesson, but the reason why I want to start with that definition is, well, we’ve apparently been arguing about this for thousands of years: 

We’ve been thinking about this a long time. Throughout history, societies evolved in their approach to the concept of creativity. Now, just looking at the Western World starting with theThe Ancient Greeks concept of art, “techne” - incidentally, the root of the words “technique” and “technology”, techne involved restricting the artists freedom in favor of strict rules. 

To me there is someting refreshingly simple if a bit reductive about the Greek’s attitude towards creativity. Namely that they didn’t seem to believe in it. There was no term for“to create” or “creator”, the expressionthey used was “poiein” - “to make” - and that only applie to “poiesis” - poetry.

The poet could create, could bring new things into the world, but everyone else, every other artist merely imitated. Musical melodies were prescribed, Polyclitus’s proportions limited the visual arts, Plato argued for his eternal forms. Poets could expriment, everyone else had to follow the RULES. 

The Romans, in typically Roman fashion,absorbed but expanded these greek concepts. Horace suggested that not only poets but also painters had the privilege ofdaring whatever they wished. “quod libet audendi”

Latin itself was richer thatn Greek in this regard. It had a term for creating “creatio” and for creator it had two expressions “facere” and “creare”, where the Greeks only had “poeien” - still the two terms meant largely the same thing.

And heres the thing that seems somewhat crazy from a modern point of view. The idea that a sculptor or painter could produce work that was divinely inspired was a significant expansion of the borders of creativity. While today we seem to just assume that the role of the artist is by his or her very natureto be ‘creative’ - this hasn’t always been the case, and the argument over the matter has extended and expanded from the ancient Greeks and Romans.

As the Empire became Christian, the split between Creatio and Facere grew. Humans made. Facere. God created. Creatio. 

In the Middle Ages the pendulum swung further in the direction of antiquity. Even poetry now had to follow rules. As an art it was a craft and therefore not creativity. Crazy, right?

Through these periods whatever was considered creative was also generally divorced from humanity. The muses, a daemon, a genius or later the Christian God inspired the work, and man acted as a conduit. 

Things changed in modern times. Rennaissance ideals valued the individual’s independence, freedom and creativity. Leonardi Da Vinci explained that he employed “shapes that do not exist in nature” and his words were echoed by proclaimaintions from the likes of Raphael, Michaelangelo Bonarroti, Giorgio Vasari, Paulo Pino, Paulo Veronese, Federico Zuccari, Cesare Cesariano, Johannnes Tinctoris, Francesco Patrizi...

...and finally Maciej Kazimeriz Sarbiewski, the 17th century poet and theoretician of poetry. Known as “the last latin poet” wrote in his treatise “De Perfecta Poesi” that a poet “invents”, “after a fashion builds” and, most importantly “creates anew” -- and Sarbiewski even takes the next step adding, “instar Dei” - in the manner of God. This was a big deal.

Still, Sarbiewski was only talking about poetry. And this battle over creativity intensified into the 18th century, particularly in France where the idea of man’s creativity met with particular resistance. And, well, we don’t have enough time in this show to go into the conflict between the mysterious process of creation and Enlightenment psychology.

Suffice it to say, in the 19th and 20th centuries, things changed. Art was not only regarded as creativity, but it came to be that, generally speaking, art ALONE was considered creative.

It really was only in the middle part of the 20th century that the scientific study of creativity began, from which more pragmatic approaches towards creativity grew.

---

Ok, enough of that history lesson. I’m sorry, really. The point of wading through that was just to show how conflicted and contentious the very subject of creativity has been throughout the years, and really remains today.

But we’re done with that. This is a practical show, so lets get down to work and start exploring one one of the first models of creativity suggested by Graham Wallas in his 1926 work “Art of Thought”

In this he presented a five stage model of the process:

1) Preparation
2) Incubation
3) Intimation
4) Illumination
5) Verification

In the first, preparatory stage, the individual focuses his or her mind on the problem and explores its dimensions. 

In the second, incubatory stage, the problem is actually internalized into the unconscious mind, and nothing appears to be happening.

In the third stage, intimation, the creative person begins to get a feeling that a solution to the problem is on its way.

That leads to the fourth stage, illumination, or insight. This is the moment, the spark. Where the creative idea BURSTS FORTH from its preconscious womb into conscious awareness.

Finally, the fifth stage, verification is where the idea is consciously applied, tested, evaluated, and iterated to satisfaction or rejection. 

Now, this is just one of the many models we’ll be exploring on this show, but I think whats really rings true about this approach are stages two and three.Incubation and intimation - the idea that after some strenuous and thorough conscious consideration we actually set the problem aside and wait for some emergent feeling to arise. And then, like Jony suggsted, boom, theres an idea. 

Its relaxing in a way, and something I’ve experienced a number of times. So often that I've I’ve developed a little technique that I think plays on the strengths of this model. It seems a little silly, but it goes like this:

On my iPhone, iPad, Mac - I have a couple sets of reminders, one iscalled “stoppers” and one is called “starters” and theres about a dozen reminders in each list, set to fire off at different times and places. Some xamples are:“stop worrying about this, it doesnt matter”,“the answer is right in front of you”, or “pick the one on the left.”

And what these reminders do, is, well, I forget about them, and when i’m deep in thought or frustrated or grinding away at a problem and one of these pops up its amazing how often it’ll be exactly the message I need. 

I adjust the content and tone of the reminders given my overall feelings every week or so. Maybe I’m procrastinating a lot, well then I make them more like a drill instructor trying to motivate me. Maybe i’m overcomplicating things, maybe I’m focused too much on one worry or issue. You get the idea.

Anyway, I’d suggest giving that a try, its easy and I think you’ll be surprised how often it actually helps out.

Now this technique is in a way a variation of something Brian Eno came up with,which we’ll go into in more detail in next weeks episode.

So thats all the time we have for this week. If you want to get in touch you can email me at ben@badesign.co, I’m @fiatluxfm on Twitter, and the show’s website is fiatlux.fm/dc if you want to read up on show notes or announcements. 

I hope you’ll get in touch if this show is helpful to you or if you’ve got some feedback, techniques or ideasyou’d like to share.

Thanks for listening.