Posts Tagged ‘understanding creativity’

understanding creativity

November 18, 2008

Understanding Creativity

Philosophers, poets and psychoanalysts have all tried to understand what creativity is and how (and why) it occurs.

Aristotle refers to natural processes of production as well as spontaneous, chance occurrences (although he states the latter play no role in the creation of art).

Plato and his belief in creativity being generated outside of the individual by ‘divine inspiration’ and ‘the muse’ only muddied the waters, starting the ‘inexplicability’ of creativity which we are still trying to shake off, (the mad/drug-induced/visionary artist) in spite of the work of –

Kant who emphasised the individual’s role in creativity and thus the possibility of art not merely reflecting the natural world but following rules set down by its creator, the artist.

Galton wanted to develop a comprehensive theory of creativity, believing there was some sort of inherited mechanism responsible for it, thus laying the ground for the search for ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ later mined by such Behaviourists as-

B.F. Skinner in his attempt to define creativity through response and reward.

Freud, typically, saw the creative urge as a sublimated sexual urge and believed creativity was the same psychological process as fantasy or day-dreaming. Freud added pointedly that he believed that psychoanalysis would never solve ‘the problem’ of the creative artist. Thank God for that.

All of these commentators discuss creativity solely in regard to the making of art (paintings, sculpture, literature, music). They do not consider that there is any other kind of creativity. Current work on creativity and the processes that help manifest it focuses almost exclusively on non-artistic creativity, as if there was some sort of separation of creative processes (this one for scientists, that one for artists) and De Bono in the introduction to one of his books positively rails against the use of his techniques by artists and designers stating they were not meant for such people.

I believe that this is not the case: there are a wide variety of creative processes and methodologies, just as there are many different kinds of individuals, and there a numerous problems that have to be solved. Any one process or combination of processes can be applied by any individual or group to solve any problem they may encounter, whether it is coming up with an idea for a topical illustration in a daily newspaper, designing a mobile phone or building a bridge. It is for this reason that I am concerned about the adoption of CoRT [Cognitive Research Trust] Thinking Lessons (De Bono‘s own amalgam of all of his different tools for thinking specifically aimed at education) by some in education as if it is ‘the answer’. It is just one of many possible answers.

Recent research has moved away from trying to identify general attributes of creativity and more towards domain specific abilities. Teresa Amabile (assisted at various times by Ruscio, Phillips and Collins) has developed a componential model of creativity. The three components are domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant skills and intrinsic task motivation.

In her 1995 paperHow Does Creativity Happen?” she defines domain-relevant skills as those sets of information, facts, principles and opinions that directly relate to the subject domain (e.g. chemistry, product design) of the problem. This body of information and knowledge is usually acquired through formal education.

The nature of this information and the way in which it is stored also contribute to how it is deployed creatively. If it is organised according to general principles rather than specific, narrow applications it is more useful in solving problems. Thus, says Amabile, the more you know about the domain- if the information is correctly stored– the more successful you will be utilising it creatively.

Amabile defines creativity-relevant processes as those which deal with the cognitive style of problem solvers. She identifies a number of aspects of cognitive style which are advantageous: a facility in understanding complexity; an ability to abandon old patterns or sets of problem-solving strategies in order to explore new ways of thinking; the questioning of rules or accepted methods; keeping response options open as long as possible; suspending judgement (during brainstorming, for example); using wide categories to be able to link apparently diverse pieces of information or thought; accurately remembering large amounts of detail.

Also involved is the ability to concentrate for long periods at a time; a knowledge of when to leave a problem alone for a while and a high energy level. Creativity-relevant processes are dependent on personality traits such as “self-discipline, ability to delay gratification, perseverance in the face of frustration, independence and an absence of conformity in thinking or dependence on social approval.” [Amabile quoting Campbell; Hogarth; Simon: Feldman; Golann; Hogarth; Stein]  She also adds that an implicit or explicit knowledge of how creativity works, the methods or processes by which problems are solved (whether discovered or learned), is an essential part of creativity-relevant processes.

Intrinsic task motivation is, for Amabile, the most important. No matter how skilled a problem solver is in the other two processes, she writes, if they do not feel engaged with the problem, if they do not find it “interesting, enjoyable or challenging”, then they may well fail to solve the problem. In her experience, “the motivational role in creativity is often overlooked.”

Here I must again respectfully disagree with Amabile. My experience as a teacher of illustration and graphic design (and my own professional experience as an illustrator) led me to the discovery of the motivational role in creativity in the 1980s. However, many professional illustrators and designers (and most students of the subjects) are regularly required to be creative about problems that are of no direct concern or interest to them. How then do they achieve this successfully? Amabile maintains (and says she has the laboratory experiments to prove it) that being creative for extrinsic motivation is always less successful than creativity for intrinsic motivation.

This would mean damning about 80% of all the illustration and graphic design ever featured in award annuals as second rate. The only works of a first rate calibre would be in the unpublished section since these would be the product of intrinsic motivation. Does this sound reasonable?

Amabile quotes the journals of numerous artists (everyone from Mozart to Woody Allen) as all evidencing the fact that people are most creative when they are intrinsically motivated. She makes particular mention of Pablo Casals talking of his passion for playing the cello and then quotes physicist Arthur Schawlow saying that the difference between a very creative scientist and a less creative scientist is “the labor of love”.

I willingly admit to the importance of passion in the creative process. From Ron Kitaj advising the young, despairing David Hockney at the Royal College of Art to ‘draw what you love’ through Sir Peter Blake advising students to make their passion the focus of their work, to the Talking Heads’ lyric “if your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right”, artists and designers have long known the value of passion. But surely then the key to being successfully creative working to extrinsic motivation is to find a method of injecting this passion into the problem and its solution? If, as Amabile rightly says, curiosity is a key element in creative people, why can we not be curious about extrinsic problems?

In my own work, and in the teaching approaches I have used with students for over twenty years, I have developed a methodology for treating external, given briefs as if they were self-generated projects. Otherwise, it would not be possible for students (or professionals) to generate satisfactory work for clients. The money would simply not be enough of a motivator (no matter how large an amount- and it often isn’t a very large amount in illustration). My methodology requires the student to know what motivates them, what interests and passions they possess and to try and ‘pull’ the external brief towards these until it engages them intrinsically without losing validity to the external references, since the resulting artwork must satisfy the client and the illustrator. Incidentally it is the ability to do this that often distinguishes painters trying to be illustrators from illustrators. The painters cannot manoeuvre the brief until it both pleases their creative criteria and the client’s; or perhaps they don’t know how to.

Next: How To Be Creative On Demand

what is creativity?

November 14, 2008

What is creativity?

Yesterday I listened to a programme on BBC Radio Four (Material World –  only available for a week as a Listen Again link?) part of which was devoted to ‘creative brains’. This was a discussion about the differences/overlaps between artistic creativity and scientific creativity. The two speakers, neuroscientist Prof. Colin Blakemore and artist Daria Martin, were the first lecturers in a series on the subject of creative brains to be held at Bristol University.

When asked to comment on whether or not artists and scientists used their brains differently Prof. Blakemore said creativity was a complex process but that in the end (my emphasis) scientists’ and artists’ use of creativity came to different things. Scientists, through experimentation, come to truths about the world independent of themselves: the truths don’t belong to the scientist. Artists, he maintained, are experimenting on the emotional reactions of their audience. In this he said the identity of the artist is central. Ms Martin said that there was some overlap but the two ‘types’ work in different modes. Artists are, she says, intuitive, scientists are methodical.

Well, I am no neuroscientist (and I may not be considered an artist either) but this seemed to me to be plain wrong. First, Prof. Blakemore is talking about the products of creativity not the processes. Of course the outcomes are different, but research carried out by many experts in this field (and evidence from scientists in the past) indicates that there are common approaches to creative problem-solving in all aspects of our culture. From my own research and my work with illustration and graphic design students over the past twenty years I know that while creativity is a complex set of processes, there are basically two methods for the induction of  creativity. One is generic and can be taught, and the other is a personal process that one has to observe in oneself and learn to manage. Secondly, Ms Martin’s distinction is not only simplistic and clichéd, it is wrong.

There is so much rubbish and mystification talked about creativity that I would like to set out some clear and fairly simple statements. Our pre-historic ancestors, using pieces of shattered flint, sharpened twigs, animal gut and bits of bone to solve the problems they faced in order to survive are surely all the evidence we need to prove that we are a naturally creative species.

At this point it becomes necessary to define what creativity is. My own definition is the generation of anything new.  This may seem far too simplistic and short a definition to be of any use and indeed Teresa Amabile, (Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and Co-Head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School) a leading expert on creativity and its methodologies adds “and useful” to the end of that sentence in her definition.

You will find many more lengthy, dense and diverting definitions elsewhere, but I believe while they often add heat to the debate, they rarely add light. The ‘lone wolves’ who populate the world of creativity like the mystification and the enigmatic power it gives them. It is true that the methodologies by which creativity can be taught to and developed by individuals and groups need to be expanded upon; but it is this simple definition that is the kernel of the activity.

And while I tip my hat to Ms Amabile’s expertise in many things regarding creativity and the processes that generate it, I must disagree about that “and useful”. The ‘use’ may not exist yet: the solution generated may be for a problem that has still to occur. It would be unwise to discard it for reason of its lack of immediate application, or to deny its creative potency. It is untapped potential, but that does not stop it being creative.

When we practice creativity we play. Einstein defined creativity as “combinatorial play.” We play with notions, images, shapes, scenarios, words. The infant child learning to speak mimics its parents as they try to teach it the basics of communication: ‘mama’, ‘dada’. Then at a point in the journey to fluency a small child will say something like “Daddy threwed my toy away.” When did the child hear its parents say ‘threwed’? What is happening is that the child is beginning to expand its vocabulary and its understanding of grammar by playing with the rules it feels it has already stored away in its brain. It knows that a word that refers to a past event often ends in ‘-ed’ and it is intuiting that this form can be applied to all words regarding past events. It is playing with words: it is creating.

Whenever any one of us speaks to another (without reading directly from a printed text) we are being creative. From where do the sentences come that you speak to me? From where does my response come? Before we uttered them, they did not exist. We created them. The nature of language is such that most of what we say or hear is produced for the first time, rather than remembered. We have a storehouse for language in our brains, full of speech sounds, word patterns, rules for creating words and putting them together in sentences. This ability to make and comprehend language has become so automatic that it has perhaps become the most unobvious creative act we all regularly engage in.

It is perhaps this ubiquity of our ability to be creative that has blinded us to its existence and made us think, falsely,  that only ‘special’ people (artists, musicians) can be truly creative. This is simply not so and to continue to think in this manner institutes a divisiveness in society that benefits no one.

Next: Understanding creativity