Thursday, December 20, 2007

Some thoughts on the creative process

One of the most common comments I get when talking about designing a new project is something like, “How do you come up with ideas?” or “Where do ideas come from?” or “I wish I was creative.” - something along those lines.

I thought I would throw out a few ideas on creativity and then how to get those ideas flowing. I know people are stitched up (literally and figuratively) right now finishing Christmas projects but maybe this will come in handy for the new year.

I think about the use of creativity a lot both because it’s important to me and because I see such a sadness in people’s eyes when they tell me they wish they were creative.

So issue #1 is, how does creativity work? I think the biggest hindrance for people using their natural creativity is our general perception of what creativity is and how it works. This is by no means a complete list but here are some misconceptions I think a lot of us have about creativity:

  • Creative people just have ideas popping into their minds – complete and in a finished form – all the time, effortlessly.
  • Creativity is a mystical, ethereal process that can only be accessed by the chosen few.
  • Creativity is inherent, not learned. If you weren’t born with it, sorry Charlie.
  • Creativity only happens in regards to the “Arts,” not in everyday, mundane parts of life. Mary may be finding creative solutions to problems at the office but she may not see that as being creative. After all she’s not painting a portrait or knitting a shawl, she’s just doing her job.

These kinds of perceptions can be the hardest to overcome because they are really grounded in our culture but I think a way to overcome them is to acknowledge the misconceptions and make a choice to try to step beyond their confines. Once you do that a few times, I think you’ll be surprised how quickly those walls can fall down.

In regards to the first point, my experience is that ideas do pop into my mind. Sometimes they are really clear but most of the time they are vague, sort of “I wonder what would happen if I did this…” or “I wonder what it would look like if I did that…”. But that’s only the first step. It takes a lot more to bring that idea to life. What happens more often is that I try to think of ideas on purpose. Sometimes I want to learn a new technique or I want to use a particular material or make a particular item. With that in mind, I will sit down and get the juices flowing (more on that later).

On the second point, I think this perception comes more from the mystery of the fluency of the highly skilled person than the process of creativity itself. When someone is highly skilled and we see them using that skill, it appears so effortless, so easy. Of course, we’re not seeing the hours and hours the person has spent honing his/her skills, practicing and experimenting with techniques, learning new techniques, talking to and learning from others. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (the Yarn Harlot) was talking the other day about how she knits so quickly. She talked about her style of knitting and how her Grandmother who taught her to knit made a living by knitting and therefore had to be fast and other factors but the point she kept coming back to was the fact that she’s been knitting for 35 years. Building your skills will allow you more fluency in your creative process – more tools are always better!

That’s not to say there’s not an element of mystery to the creative process. Of course there is. But it’s not limited to a small group of people. I firmly believe the mystery is available to everyone – it’s just learning how to let it happen.

I grant you, there are people who from their first breath are inherently chosen to do a certain thing – an actor who knew at the age of 3 he wanted to be an actor, Tiger Woods who from the youngest age was able to golf, the child prodigy violinist. Those people undoubtedly exist. But what child do you know doesn’t use his or her imagination? By now it’s become a little clichéd but all children are creative. I know of no better answer to this misconception. You may not feel creative but it’s in you, even if life or others have beaten it out of you. There are ways to get the creative juices flowing again and we’ll have a look at those in a later post.

As for the last point, let’s face it, creativity at its most basic is problem solving. We solve problems all day every day whether it’s writing a report at work, solving an operations problem or getting all the kids everywhere they need to be. The creativity you use to keep the toddler occupied is the same creativity you can use to design a purse and the creativity you use to schedule your employees is the same creativity you can use to adapt a sweater.

Next time, where to start.

1 comment:

Roger von Oech said...

These are great observations. Thanks for sharing. I've enjoyed looking through your site!