November 29th, 2011

How to be Creative

I’m slightly swaying – fastidiously shifting weight from foot to foot while gazing blankly at the confining tile wall, which appears to consume my attention. The grout lines begin to blur as I scrutinize the subtle brown hues of the Italian tile. As my body drinks in the warmth of the shower spray, my mind drifts miles away to la-la land, where I’m considering various solutions to the design puzzle that has been set before me. Just as I think it may be time to leave this trance and suds up, an inspiration hits. It is subtle, transient and I’m dangerously close to letting it completely drift away.

With the water still running, I frantically give my hands a passable dry-off before I snatch my notebook from the towel shelf and scrawl a tangible name to this elusive intimation. Relieved, I finish up my shower and head to the computer, where I quickly prototype the concept for my client. This simple idea initiated a visual campaign that marked a fundamental shift in the way my client presents themselves in the marketplace.

But what happens if this lighting strike of ingenuity fails to hit? All too often, the divine idea is nowhere to be found, but deadlines need to be met, and the show must go on, as they say. Without the right tools, the creative is left to trudge onward through the bog, mired by their own humanness and mediocrity.

There is a lot of pressure on “Creatives” to be perpetually inspired, and dream up confoundingly awesome feats of originality on-demand. But unfortunately these “fast-food” acts of inspiration are rarely possible.

It’s the fear

The ruthless combination of an expectation for perfection, combined with the perpetual stress of relentless deadlines, creates roadblocks that strain the creative process. David Boyle and Ted Orland write in Art and Fear, “To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do, away from risk and exploration… You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.”

Art and Fear was one of the seminal books that helped me understand that the creative process isn’t something mystical and talent-induced. Rather, it is a semi-chaotic, organic process that helps the problem-solver define the tenuous connections between an unresolved dilemma and their insight. These insights are most often derived from previous life experiences, or from catalytic cues provided by others.

When I’m under the gun, I can ply away in front of the computer for hours with little productive result. But those short, 15 minute mind cleansing sessions, mindless walks around the block or jogs on the treadmill have produced some of the most successful and profitable ideas I’ve ever had.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how to increase the quality of creative ideation, and how to produce better work. What has emerged from these introspections is both a process and lifestyle that I use to remove external stress points and focus the mind on producing more effective work:

Seek new experiences

The intertwined myths of the misunderstood genius in exile and the tortured artist have permeated our culture so much so that even artists themselves hurry off to emulate these fabled creatures. Unlike the caricatures in Hollywood movies, for most people creativity never happens in isolation. Our creative output is a mashup built from the sum of our experiences. To be creative, you must intentionally pursue variety – in relationships and in adventure.

Be curious! It isn’t enough to just passively consume information. It’s more important to seek out life’s novelties and experience without any expectations. Continually question your motivations, assumptions and viewpoints. Connect with others and implore them to share their unique perspectives. Become well-traveled – if you cannot journey to foreign lands, investigate the world around you. Open your eyes actively seek out details that you overlooked in the past. You’ll be surprised at what you’ve missed. Pursue active and engaging activities and beware of the vacuous nonsense on television. Read regularly, and implement what you learn. Ask someone to teach you something new and return the favor. Your diverse skills and experiences accumulate over time, and they lend vast resources to your mental dexterity.

Examine old solutions

Almost all creative output builds on the work of others. The renaissance students had their masters, and we have the Internet. Carefully examine previous solutions to your problem and consider why they succeeded or failed. Immerse yourself in the challenge – allow it to consume your thoughts. Don’t try to go it alone – large burdens need to rest on many shoulders. Bounce your challenges off others and use the results of these conversations to catalyze your thinking.

Another valuable technique is to consider solutions from other sectors and try to draw parallels with your own. For instance, Jonathan Ive has famously drawn inspiration from Dieter Rams’ work at Braun in the 1960s, and Rams has said that Apple is the one of only a handful of companies existing today that follows his ten principles of design.

Mind Cleansing

Once you understand what lies ahead, as well as the journey others have taken, it is time to let your mind take a journey of its own. This often requires abandoning the problem completely and doing something physical and mindless. Your subconscious will continue to attack the problem as you weed the garden, go for a walk or yes, take a shower. Occasionally this results in an immediate “stroke of genius,” but it is better to assume that your mental journey could last hours or days. This can be a frustrating period for the creative, since the clock is still ticking even though their solution is not yet apparent. Even if the “a-ha! moment” doesn’t present itself at the right time and place, this breakaway period will provide your mind with the necessary rest to continue on to the next part of your journey towards a solution. Keep a small notebook or pocked-sized scratchpad handy – you never know when the inspiration will strike or what future issues may be solved via your perfunctory activities.

Wash, rinse and repeat

Multiple showers may get you squeakily clean, but they may not help you achieve that great idea every time. If your flash of brilliance doesn’t occur, at some point you must push yourself back to work and plod ahead. At the end of the day, when the hourglass has completely drained, all that will matter is your executions. Ultimately, mere ideas are of little value in the marketplace, and successful, useful creative work is more about the discipline of prodigiously creating, then cherry picking the best solutions. Coerce yourself to relentlessly create without prejudice. Work up your energy and pursue quantity instead of quality. Don’t work in isolation. Team up with others and work collaboratively in sprints. At the end of your allotted period, organize all of your work for review, then let it go and walk away. You deserve some rest.

Is it still fresh?

Like parents, we become infatuated with the “babies” we have created, and it’s often hard to disassociate our emotions for a rigorous review of our work. By giving ourselves a break, we can come back to the work and challenge its validity. Art and Fear states, ” ‘Artist’ has gradually become a form of identity which…often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all!” The key is to detach any part of “your soul” from your creation and reexamine it in all of its stark nakedness. Look for gaps in your thinking and both technical and logical blunders. Submit the work for peer review and encourage feedback by asking probing questions. This is a cyclical process that may involve many rounds of modification and enhancement. It may even require that you completely reexamine the problem and restart the creative process.

Armed with the right process and expectations, creativity can be practiced within the realms of our humanness and imperfection. Perhaps the next time you are struggling to find a creative solution, it may be best to just take a shower.