how to be creative on demand

November 19, 2008

How to be Creative on Demand

Why do my best ideas come when I am on a bus, in the bath, just about to fall asleep? Because this is a part of the creative process that can be taught. Not only do artists give examples of ideas occurring in such states, but scientists do too. The mathematician Jacques Hadamard used to get his ideas on being awoken by a loud noise, Henri Poincaré tells of leaving his work on a difficult theorem and taking a tram ride around the city for a break. As he prepares to leave the tram, the solution to the problem appears fully formed in his head. But perhaps the most famous (and now possibly discredited) example is Friedrich von Kekulé dreaming the molecular structure of benzene while dozing in front of a warm fire. Hadamard later devised a set of phases: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification (very similar to those below) to describe the creative approach to solving problems. So much for the difference between artists and scientists.

This is how I lay out the basic (and I do mean basic) mechanisms for students to be creative on demand:

1.         Gather all the data and information you can on the subject (illustrators often form a personal opinion first and then research around this).

2.        Think about the subject of the brief. Don’t be frightened of it, take risks, jump into the unknown. Play with it. Don’t be scared of it. It won’t bite you.

3.        Forget all about it. You have the information, now let it go.

4.       The Idea. This often comes when you least expect it.

5.        Show it to other people and get their opinion (remember you are trying to communicate with others, not yourself).

Looks too simple? Well, it works.  There are more expansive versions of this (in Synectics for example). But this is basically it.

Teresa Amabile notes that creativity and its development “depends very importantly on the social environment, and the context in which those individuals find themselves. Even gifted children are strongly influenced by the constraints, inducements, and social supports that they find in their environment.” In order for students to reach their full creative potential she says it is “extremely important to carefully craft the environments in which they learn and in which they work.”

This is what I mean when I talk about the personal creative process that has to be observed, learned and managed. As an example, I can only solve problems under the following circumstances:

– Complete silence

– Being mobile

– Holding a drawing implement in my hand

– Consuming large amounts of coffee

I cannot have ideas sitting down with lots of background noise. I seem unable to think if I cannot draw at the same time. Other illustrators and designers have given me their own personal ‘working methods’ and indeed patterns are emerging in these. Displacement activities are very common. Additionally, the physical environment is a key factor in the ability to create. The shape, temperature, light levels, furnishings etc. etc. of the space in which you work have a direct effect on your ability to create. This is hardly ever considered in institutions for learning, but artists and designers know- consciously or otherwise- that their work spaces have to be ‘just so’.

Now, I am by no means suggesting that creativity is a simple mechanical process and that by following the steps listed above you will automatically come up with great ideas. Creativity is the result of a complex set of processes. All I am laying out is what I think underpins those processes. If I laid out the basic operation of a combustion engine and how it drives a motor vehicle, merely reading this would not make you able to drive a car, nor would it make you a brilliant Formula One driver. However, someone driving to the supermarket in a car and someone careering at high speed around a race track are both operating within the same basic system. Their ability to use that system, and how much they can control it, will depend on them.

Thinking is like breathing; a mostly unconscious, habit ridden act. You may not believe you need to be taught to think, but then if you were a swimmer would you not be trained to breathe? To manage and control your breathing, to breathe effectively, appropriately so you got the best out of that act when in competition?

I don’t believe artists and scientists think differently, I believe they think in similar ways about different problems. I am unimpressed by the recent surge of neuroscientific theories which seem to try to do what I am refusing to do- to reduce all of our thoughts and feelings to some basic mechanism occurring in our brains. Our brains are not computers. And they do not exist in a jar in the corner of a room, they are in our bodies. Raymond Tallis, a doctor with a great interest in art and culture has demolished the neuroscientific approach to literature . Neuroscientist Semir Zeki wrote a book about how artists see and to which I responded by trying to correct his misunderstandings of the history of art education. I am sticking my neck out here: I think neuroscientists have got it wrong and, in time, they will discover this for themselves.

One thing Blakemore and Martin did agree on in the radio programme was that it was only in art that you could show the ‘impossible’. The specific example they talked about was the holding of two things in the mind at once. Well, they should read the physicist Richard Feynman‘s book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” where he talks of observing himself going to sleep to get an understanding of how he goes from consciousness to unconsciousness.  He finds that, at a certain point, he is able to think of two things at once.

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5 Responses to “how to be creative on demand”

  1. Oscar Grillo Says:

    The character played by Montgomery Cliff in “From Here to Eternity” says: “A man should be what he can do”.

  2. Oscar Grillo Says:

    Clift, I meant.

  3. sharrock Says:

    I am hoping that I can help people do things better! Or at least know how they do them…’why’ is another matter altogether!

  4. Josh Says:

    Really enjoyed your talk at salford uni on this, really changed the way i look at and approach design, Amazing! Thankyou.


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