On Creativity

I was reminded of this by rewatching the excellent Sir Ken Robinson Ted Talk.


Several lifetimes ago, I worked with a girl who could do a quite amazing thing.

What captivated people about her was that you could give her a couple of ideas: Getting old and rainforests, running the marathon and losing out on a bet, and she would come up with something new; normally something surprising and something which you very rarely would thought of yourself.

She was very well educated, she was very bright and very interested in cultural things, but I don’t think any of those facts in their own right were responsible for her ability. It was just something her brain would do, that mine doesn’t, firing off these ideas, not really knowing what to do with them, like a kind of lucky, positive Tourette’s syndrome. The ideas would rarely be commercially useful. You couldn’t really use them for anything. But it didn’t really matter because they would make you think of other ideas, to make new connections you’d not made before.

Of course, what she had was a fairly extreme form of what people mean by ‘creativity’. It means – in part – being able to deconstruct ideas and then put them back together, it means, in part at least, the ability to make imaginative connections, to find new things to put with the old ones. And when it’s used commercially, it also means you need to have the ability to work out which ideas can achieve a business objective. So it’s what a ‘creative’ does in an ad agency, and a little bit of what a planner does.

I’ve been made to think of this by a number of things recently. I live in a world where creative and artistic become extremely blurred terms. Of course there is a very old and broken syllogism I’ve mentioned several times before which confuses necessary and sufficient conditions: my house has a roof, your house has a roof, therefore my house is your house. Or: a lot of artists are creative. I’m an artist, therefore I’m creative.

Some artists aren’t creative, they replicate art, or pastiche art without interpretation. The creative services in most marketing companies are full of artisans like art workers, typesetters or graphic artists, who often produce beautiful work, but in a very synthetic or reductive way. It’s an incredible skill – and another one I don’t have – but I don’t think it’s about making new things from nowhere.

A colleague, again from a previous life had a funny take on this in the agency setting, asking why one team of people were allowed to call themselves ‘the creatives’, although the planning team weren’t allowed to call themselves ‘the clever ones’, or the account men ‘the responsible ones’.

Where do we see creativity in our day-to-day lives. I don’t see that much of it coming out of ad agencies, I see a lot less from digital ad agencies. Old ideas done in new ways is not creative, it’s barely even craft.

Take a trip on Google and follow some of the connections that bloggers are making on various topics. Often rather brutally done, but very creative.

And here I think is where we find the most exciting ideas about creativity. Where brainstorms work, it seems to be because on hearing one idea linked to another, we are able to start constructing new maps of the world, leading to different connection, and new ideas. If two is better than one, and three is better than two. Can we think together on the web in a way which can be harnessed.

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