Saturday, October 27, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 11, Getting A Handle on Creativity

Download Episode 11

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we're talking about the creative process. And in earlier episodes, we discussed the preparation that precedes creativity, which namely takes the form of information gathering. In graphic design, there's always a message at stake - one that we need to craft for an audience. So, we're concerned early on with doing our homework. And once we've laid the groundwork for our project in this way, we're ready to get creative. And, as we said last time, this can go well or poorly, depending on certain factors.

Sometimes creativity seems effortless and automatic. We come to our project bursting at the seams with ideas, and everything almost seems to build itself. We fly through the entire process with ease, and we finish our work exhilarated, knowing that our solutions and the execution of them were right on target. But as many of us know well, that's not always the case. The ideas that came fast and free last week aren't coming anymore. We find ourselves facing a barren page or a blank screen, and we wonder what's wrong. And, as the clock ticks toward our deadline, we begin to despair, or to tie ourselves up in knots of anxiety. It's those problem moments that catch our attention and cause us to wonder what's going on under the surface, what is this creative process, anyway? How does it work? Why does it seem that our best ideas come at random? And can we get some degree of control over our creativity?

I think the best way to get at all this is to start with some definitions. First off, we can rightly describe creativity as a process. Now, granted, it doesn't often feel like a process. In fact, it's frequently a messy, non-linear, and elusive affair, but it's a process nonetheless. And The Oxford American dictionary defines the word "process" as "a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end."(1) Which at least gives us some clue concerning our role in all this. The definition goes part-way to answering the questions, "Are we passive in this process?" "Do ideas just happen to us?" And the answer is "no," because it IS a process. And like any process, there are actions or steps that we can take to encourage creativity. So, we can take heart in the fact that there's a practical side to this, complete with methods and techniques, things we can busy our hands and minds with and DO. But let's home in on our definition of creativity a bit more.

Creativity is usually described as a work of imagination or as a mental process that yields ideas. Ideas, then, are an output of this process. And since we know that the success of our work greatly depends upon the strength of our ideas, we should take the trouble to attempt a definition of this word, also.

Now, it's tempting to think of ideas as something completely new. But that would only be part right. The trouble with thinking of ideas as something that's brand new is that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come up with something that the world has never laid eyes on before. And when we think in these terms the task of producing ideas suddenly becomes daunting and out of the reach of mere mortals. But the biggest problem I see is that it puts us completely on the wrong track. People sometimes become mystical about this pursuit of ideas because they think they're channeling something from another world, when the truth about ideas is that they're born out of the common and mundane things of the everyday world. And while it often feels as if we've plucked our ideas from the air, it's safe to say that they're plucked from this terrestrial air that we're all breathing. The truth is that when you break an idea down into its component parts, there's really nothing new or otherworldly about it. It's made out of common stuff.

What IS potentially new or unique about an idea lies in the combination of elements that it contains, and not the elements themselves. As James Webb Young pronounced in his advertising classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas: "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."(2) This is an important one, so let me state it again, "An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."

This statement offers reassurance and solace to us because it lets us in on the secret about ideas, which is that the stuff of ideas is all around us. The trick, if it can be called a trick, is to put them together in a new way, which places us into another realm of discussion, which has to do with our lifelong and constant habit of observing the world around us. I mentioned in earlier episodes that a chief attribute of designers is that they take an interest in the world around them. And I'll go one better today by advising that you stand on your head while you do it. Learn how to really see and learn how to see differently. Don't just look at the positive space of things around you, look at their negative space. If you don't know what negative space is, not to worry, I'll get to that discussion one of these days, too. What we're after are new associations. If ideas are new combinations of old things, then we want to look for relationships. We want to marry things together to produce something different and unique. And we'll talk more about how do that next time.

But that'll have to do for today. Hopefully, this provides us with an initial toe-hold on the creative process.

As usual, show notes are posted at my web page, which is Music is by Thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


The New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press, USA, 2005

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, McGraw-Hill, 2003

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-8dd9ca9a3dc9ca1b7041f4bef69e47ad}

No comments: