Creativity as an Active Process

“One approach to innovation and brainstorming is to wait for the muse to appear, to hope that it alights on your shoulder, to be ready to write down whatever comes to you. The other is to seek it out, will it to appear, train it to arrive on time and on command.”- Seth Godin

I’ve come across a few pieces on creativity lately, bits that I’m stringing together. There seems to be a popular conception of creativity that is at odds with what I view as the actual process. There’s another bit from Godin, that I can’t find for the life of me now, about the myth of inspiration. That truly creative people don’t sit around, waiting and hoping for that spark to strike them.

“There’s nothing worse that you can do as a person that wants to be creative than wait until you’re feeling inspired. That’s when you find yourself in ruts. It’s when… you need to create from a wacky compulsion or because you’re on a strict regimen… and you’re forced to think about how to do things in a different way than you’re comfortable, that’s when shit gets cool and weird.”
– Brendan Kelly, Bad Sandwich Chronicles

“Amateurs wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”
– Chuck Close

Creative people work, consistently. Certainly, not everything that they create is a gem, and it takes quite a few terrible ideas to create a good one. Kelly admits that he throws away about 99% of what he writes. The thing with creative folks – musicians, designers, artists – is that you really only see the 1% that sticks. It makes it easy to believe that ideas just come to them, fully formed, and they’re somehow just different from the rest of us. Inspiration is not some magic fairy that comes down from the ether, it is the reward of research, of thought, of trial and error.

Creativity is technical, analytical, and a lot of the time, it’s work. If you read the Bad Sandwich Chronicles article in its entirety (and if you’re offended by language, well, I would skip this one) Kelly goes on to outline how he writes lyrics. He uses word association, writing for a specific feel, and other exercises that “shock your brain into creating something.” When writing their last album, Green Day mounted two drum heads on the wall – one with different genres, the other with different eras. They spun the wheels, and wrote for whatever came up. Did any of those tracks make the album? Doubtful. Did they influence or inspire the tracks that did? Probably. My point is that when the inspiration well came up dry, they did something. They started working. They started thinking, and asking questions, and coming at the problem in a different way. That’s what creativity is.

“Rules and routines may be tolerable or even comforting in the short term. But eventually, they need to be scrutinized and in many cases rejected to make intellectual or emotional progress. Rebellion has to be part of the response to rigid social institutions, or stagnation is assured.”
– Greg Graffin, Anarchy Evolution

Creative people tend to see the world differently. They view the world through a different lens, question standards, and make connections. They’re curious. I’ve been asked where I start when I get a new project, and my answer is always the same – research. Whether it’s a logo, a website, or a tv stand, I have questions. Who is your audience? What are you trying to accomplish? What are you competing against (you need to be familiar with standards in order to question them)? Sitting around, waiting for a genius logo design to strike me isn’t a part of my process.

Creativity means making connections where they may not be obvious, and this is where I hop on my soapbox to explain how important interdisciplinary education is to people in creative fields. Having a broader view of the world, having more varied experiences, and having knowledge of other systems and cultures gives you more to work with. Being curious enough to seek out those experiences, and those connections, cultivates the kind of mind-set that creativity requires. How many great works of art or engineering started with someone asking, “What if we did it this way?”



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