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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy or Hungover: What May (or May Not) Help Your Creativity

I read with interest about a study that says people are more likely to come up with a creative idea if they felt happy the day before, and then they feel happy when they are creative. Which, because they are happy makes them more likely to come up with a creative idea, etc...

The finding seems to contradict all those who insist they have to have a deadline to come up with an idea. How can you be happy if you're stressed out over a deadline? What if you've had a really bad day the day before your boss is waiting to hear your brilliant idea? And, if you're not one of those perennially perky people, will you ever be creative?

Contrast this with another article I read recently which said that writers such as Cheever and Hemingway wrote when they were hungover and the article implied that this contributed to their brilliant storytelling. Granted during the 1960s and 1970s drug-fueled songs and art were produced and there could have been some masterpieces amongst them.

Bottom line is you shouldn't depend on any chemical reactions to force your creativity. Not good for your health or soul. And while I like the idea that happy equals innovation you can't wait until you're happy in order to be productive. Get into the habit of using ideation methods daily and your idea quota will automatically increase.

And the more ideas you produce, the more likely one or more will be just what you need.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sparking Creativity-The Wall Street Journal Approach

I don't normally associate Wall Street Journal with in-depth articles on creativity, but now and then I get surprised.

A recent article entitled "Tactics to Spark Creativity" caught my eye and unlike many of the inane and overly simplistic "how-to" articles you find online nowadays, the article is well-researched and worth the read. It begins:

Why is it that some people rack their brains for new ideas, only to come up empty—while others seem to shake them almost effortlessly out of their sleeves?

Whether creativity is an innate gift or a cognitive process that anyone can jump-start is a question so intriguing that researchers keep studying it from different angles and discovering new and surprising techniques.

As it goes with serendipity, I happened to watch a video online regarding the "designing mind" and one of the interviewees said, "many of the techniques we teach here are over 40 years old." Unlike the article, the people in the video seemed to be saying that there's nothing new, just variations on the old stuff.

Certainly many authors and innovation experts like to come up with their own models for creativity and creativity processes. One of my favorites coined the phrase "stage gate" where all the many ideas you have swim up to the dam and can't move forward unless you examine them and help them "through the gate."

As with any other readings, what you get out of it is up to you. I have the best visual, courtesy of a quote towards the end of the article:

"you have to be able to float through your environment with your antennae up, like a butterfly, and just let things ping your antennae."

Read the entire WSJ article here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Colliding Slow Hunches and Connectivity for your Best Creative Ideas

I read a lot of creativity texts. Some are easy to read, some seem more like a thesis. I also forage for old books on creativity (there's some really fascinating reads from the 1950s) and I cruise Amazon to find the latest editions.

One of my favorite authors, as far as getting ideas, is Steven Johnson and his book "Where Good Ideas Come From." He debunks some myths as well as presents some common-sense theories, and illustrates them with interesting stories.

I didn't know he was on YouTube, but if you like your information in bite-size video pieces, try this link:

He explains and illustrates one of the biggest creativity myths in which ideas come in those great "eureka" moments. Not so. Ideas need time to germinate and sometimes that takes years.

He puts forth the idea that ideas are "slow hunches" and that they may need to collide with another "slow hunch", either your own or someone else's, before they coalesce into a great idea.

Finally, on the possibility that the Internet is killing creativity, he says that's not the case. Instead, having access to the Internet is connecting us with people or sites with that missing piece of information you need to collide with your own slow hunch.

The next time someone complains to you that you are wasting too much time surfing the Internet, you might tell them that you're looking for something to collide with your slow hunch. And watch the confusion explode on their faces.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Swipe Files-A Creative Memory Bank

Those who are in creative industries know the value of "swipe files." Despite the name, this is a good idea. To keep a visual record of what you like gives you a jumping off point for inspiration. Note that I am not advocating plagiarism, ever. But let's say you keep images of gardens-as I do so that if I ever have the time/money/energy for a knot garden, I have visual references as to how I might do it.

Graphic designers may keep files on typography, layout, color scheme, etc. Architects may keep files on entryways, siding options, or facades. Interior designers may keep ideas on furniture, small room layouts, or window treatments. You may keep files on rooms you like, places to go, or types of houses you may want to buy at some point in the future.

It is now easier than ever to keep inspiration files online and subsequently save lots of trees. Sites like Flickr or Pinterest make it easy to have online scrapbooks and new sites pop up every day. Search online for other portfolio sites for your images.

Pinterest screenshot
Then, of course, you can do it the "old-fashioned" way, which is to tear images out of magazines (once everyone has done reading them!) and paste them into a scrapbook. I still do this and there's something very zen about arranging ephemera into a pleasing scrapbook layout. It's also one step from here to creating a collage that may be frame-worthy.

Which is very creative.

Either way you do it, saving inspirational images helps you focus on what you like and reminds you of your favorite ideas.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How Not to be Creative

We all have those times when we're in the zone, when ideas seem to come with ease and we are grateful-especially those of us in creative jobs-for those wonderful days.

Then there are other times when we panic and think we'll never ever have another creative thought in our lives and begin to worry how to pay the mortgage.

There are enemies of creativity that you need to be aware of and find strategies to deal with them.

First up, perfectionism. When faced with a project that has to be just right in order to please Mr. Big Boss or Mr. Influential Customer, you may feel that everything has to be prefect. What you need to know here is that perfection isn't necessarily needed and that your best effort may be sufficient. That isn't to say that you get away with inferior quality work, but you may be being a little too finicky.

Second, fear. Given the chance, our internal editors can come up with six million reasons why our project isn't good enough or our product isn't going to work the way it's supposed to. A small amount of anxiety is healthy and is almost necessary to ensure that we double-check our work. Fear, though, needs to be put in its place.

Thirdly, procrastination. There are those thrill-seekers who like to live on the edge and insist that a tight deadline gives them brilliant ideas. Personally that has never worked for me and from what I've learned about the creative mind, you need time to let your ideas grow and come to fruition. So, as far as possible, plan your project and build in a couple of days extra so you don't panic (see fear above).

No situation is ever perfect, but with a little insight and pre-planning, you can keep those enemies of creativity at bay.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Observation: A Critical Skill for Creativity

Do you consider yourself observant? Most of us would answer yes, but then, have someone show you a photograph for about 15 seconds and then take it away. How much can you recall? To be really creative you have to be involved in your surroundings because only then will you notice the "gaps" that stimulate problem-solving and inventive thinking.

For example, observational research is conducted by companies who want to find out how people interact with their products. Watching participants gives them ideas as to what works and what doesn't, and is the basis for coming up with new and improved products. Market research companies and departments conduct focus groups with this in mind. This type of observation, however, needs to be conducted in as close to the "natural environment" as possible.

IDEO, a design firm successful enough to be featured on the television show 60 Minutes, calls its observational approach "human centered," meaning a product must be able to be used intuitively without having to resort to reading a thick instructional manual first. As demonstrated on that program, a design for a new shopping cart started with IDEO teams going out to retail stores and observing how people used their carts. At this point people are unaware they are being observed so the results are authentic. This type of observation is closer to what scientists do when they begin to investigate their hypotheses.

Let's take another example. Suppose you witness a crime and the police need you to identify the perpetrator. Could you do it?

For the individual, good observational skills will help improve creative thought. Many start-up entrepreneurs have done this intuitively by observing a problem and coming up with a solution. You may not want to start your own business, but companies are always looking for employees who can solve problems. It's a valued skill in any enterprise and one that's worth cultivating.

Friday, June 14, 2013

From Photo to Pattern

Let's suppose you are browsing through some of your photos and you think (if you're creative), "there's something that might look good as a pattern for a bedsheet fabric."

Unless you're a quilter or an interior designer, that's most likely not the first, or even the second or third thought that comes to mind. However, does it surprise you that you can easily create your own fabric from your own design? Imagine impressing your friends and family when they see your wonderfully unique sofa pillows! Not to sound too much like an infomercial, but yes, you can do that by using an online site like Spoonflower, which prints your design out on a variety of fabrics and mails it to you. Prices are very reasonable for fabric yardage.

If you have a digital camera you most likely have digital imaging software. If not, you can get basic photo editing software or you can splurge for Photoshop. You can crop and resize your photo and then run it through several filters to get a simplified, or cartoon version. Then look for a way to save your design as a pattern. Now this varies from program to program so take some time to explore your software and find out how to do it. The Spoonflower site offers a link to a relatively simple design program which may be enough for you to format a pattern.

In my case, I used photos from an air show as a reference to draw simplified airplanes. In some drawing programs you can "trace" your photo for a hand-drawn look.

As a creative exercise taking a photo and turning it into a pattern serves to open your eyes to design possibilities. Even if you don't turn it into fabric, just manipulating your photo will strengthen your artistic skills in composition and color, and give your brain a workout. Which is always a good thing.

Here's the children's toy bag I made from that aviation fabric:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Looking at Patterns: A Creativity Exercise

To someone whose life is a long to-do list and who spends time running from one spot to another, one might say "slow down and smell the roses." To someone who is interested in being more creative, I say "slow down and observe." Not as poetic, but a reminder that observation is a key part of creativity. How can you be expected to produce a new idea if you don't examine the ones that are already out there?

So a good exercise in taking note of your surroundings is to find patterns. A better idea is to sketch those patterns, but let's take it one step at a time.

Buildings are a good source of patterns, but you can find them anywhere-whether that's a line of street lamps down a road, a set of tables in a restaurant, a line of boat piers along a lakefront, or a row of arches in a civic building.

Above is a railroad (railway if you're on the British side of the pond) station in Knaresborough, England. The Victorian arches and columns that hold up the roof set a distinctive and pleasing pattern, as I've highlighted in the left of the picture.

Sketchbooks can be easily found, quality isn't paramount, but you can record your ideas any way you want. The key is to keep drawing. You do not have to be an artist and your work isn't going to be judged, so ditch the voice in your head that says you have to be perfect and draw away.

Creativity is a habit that needs to be practiced. Drawing patterns is just one way to do that.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Connections, Effort, and Creativity

In my last post I said that creativity is based on connections and that you need to be able to pull expertise from one area and combine it with new knowledge in another area.

For example, it is widely known that the Wright Brothers were successful in building a rudimentary airplane, even though one had never been built before. They applied their knowledge of bicycle building and forward motion to the new concept of enough forward motion to create lift. Using concepts you already know and applying them to something you don't know is how a lot of products are developed.

The concept of moving outside of your areas of interest and expertise is uncomfortable and requires effort. Who wants to read a physics book when you really want to go and paint a landscape? (Maybe you can tell this is a personal whine?) What I am saying is that you do not have to become an expert in physics. Start with an introductory book or maybe find grade school level texts that present concepts in a basic manner, (and this is not as embarrassing as it sounds!) which will make it easier for you to understand the subject.

It has never been easier to learn something new and who knows, you might find a new interest.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Connections and the Case for Life Long Education

Making connections between different areas is the backbone of creative thinking. So if you spend all your time watching football on television, reading about football online or in sports magazines and generally ignoring anything that isn't football based, then you aren't going to know anything except football.

You aren't going to make the connections that the football can be used as weapon, or that it's trajectory when it's thrown (or kicked if you are anywhere other than the United States) is an arc impacted by gravity, or any laws of physics regarding mass and motion, as in linebacker vs quarterback.

A creative person is one that reads widely outside his/her own area of expertise. A creative person is one that asks questions about subjects that they don't know about. A creative person is someone that can realizes that education is a lifelong experience and it is not necessarily gleaned from traditional sources.

How, then, can you go about expanding your knowledge?

One of the advantages of living in the age of the Internet is that you can learn online easily, that is, if you don't take everything you read online as the truth. Be discriminatory about your sources. You can take classes online for free courtesy of trusted institutions like MIT or you can search YouTube for short informational videos.

Here's a few places to start:

MIT OpenCourseWare makes the materials used in the teaching of almost all of MIT's subjects available on the Web, free of charge. With more than 2,000 courses available, OCW is delivering on the promise of open sharing of knowledge.

Open Culture
Free online courses from the world’s leading universities. This collection includes over 700 free courses in the liberal arts and sciences. Download these audio & video courses straight to your computer or mp3 player. Note: you can find a new collection of certificate-bearing courses  here.

Classes offered on Coursera are designed to help master new concepts quickly and effectively. Courses in a wide range of topics, spanning the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, Computer Science, and many others.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Do You Need to Be Creative?

"You creative types."

Maybe you've heard this, if you are in a creative field, and maybe it's been directed to you as if you're from another planet. In my experience, this is something engineers, accountants, and lawyers say when they don't understand you and what you're trying to accomplish.

There's a distinctive "them" versus "us" tone as if creativity is something artists "do" and they "don't."

Well, surprise, everyone is creative, it's just a matter of how much. Artists, writers, marketers, musicians, they seem to have more it than say, a finance manager. But creativity is a life skill that everyone needs and here's why:

  • You can make better decisions if you can envision all the possibilities. Good strategic thinking skills require you to see all sides of the argument.
  • You have a better chance of moving up the ladder at your job if the boss sees you as the employee who comes up with ideas for products and services, and new solutions for old problems.
  • If ever you want to be entrepreneurial, you'll need to come up with a product or service to start your business and then you'll need ideas to sell that product or service to potential customers.
  • Your brain is a muscle and it needs exercise. Giving yourself creative exercises to complete is just that type of exercise program your brain needs.
If ever someone accuses you of being creative, just say thank you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Inspiration from Random Generators

One of my favorite things to do when bored or when I need a mental jumpstart is to check out random generators. These little online gems can provide hilarious and/or thought-provoking ideas which can produce just the inspiration you need for a project you're working on.

A recent meme I came across was the method for creating your own rock band CD cover. Using the random picture generator on Flickr and the random page generator on Wikipedia, you come up with a picture and title for your very own rock band CD cover. Obviously, you're being presented with copyrighted material, so this is just for fun. However, what comes up can give you the spark you're looking for.

Click here for Wikipedia. In the left hand column you'll see a button for "Random Article."

Click here for Flickr. You'll end up on the "Explore" page. Match any picture with your random article result.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Imagination Muscle, Use it or Lose it.

In a Forbes article here, Carlos Santana, music legend, had this to say about imagination:

Imagination and vision are essential in my music and in the way we conduct our business. Sometimes the mind gets in the way, and we start thinking that we’re this or we’re that or that we’re separated. The way it translates is that you take time to feel your heart. For example, your imagination is like a muscle. If you take the time to just sit down and just close your eyes and imagine things, it’s like a muscle you develop. That’s why it’s good to turn off all the computers, TV and noise and just sit with yourself for a while.

I like the idea of comparing imagination to a muscle. The more you exercise a muscle, the more toned it gets. You want to keep in shape, then you exercise. And you need to keep exercising, because once you stop your muscles atrophy and it gets harder and harder to get them moving again.

And so it is with imagination and creativity. You need to keep using your imagination in whatever ways you can, because when you need it, as in, the boss needs you to come up with a new product idea by Monday, you need the well-toned response.

So take a little time to enjoy doing nothing. Daydream, meditate, cloud-watch, just take the time to use that imagination muscle. Because if you don't use it, you lose it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Conform or Be Creative? Your Choice

Here's a quote from a recent Adobe-sponsored study called State of Create:

“One of the myths of creativity is that very few people are really creative,” said Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. “The truth is that everyone has great capacities but not everyone develops them. One of the problems is that too often our educational systems don’t enable students to develop their natural creative powers. Instead, they promote uniformity and standardization. The result is that we're draining people of their creative possibilities and, as this study reveals, producing a workforce that's conditioned to prioritize conformity over creativity.”

Maybe it seemed like a good idea when first dreamed up, but the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 which made teachers and school districts responsible for their students' achievements had the unexpected result of "teaching to the test." In many cases students were now tutored to pass the institutionalized tests and too often this was achieved by rote memorization of the one answer on a multiple choice exam.

I'm not saying that's there's no need for rote memorization, but it should only be a small part of learning a subject. There should be experimentation, research, and exploration. Yes, there's a right answer but hey, there's more answers out there that might be worthy of consideration.

Do you know what's going on in your child's school?

Let's not prioritize conformity, let's allow the students to be creative.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What if? A Creative Question.

You look at a pair of scissors and think, why not use them to cut up salad leaves? (Always supposing you haven't already used said scissors to cut up something dirty and unhygenic, say an oil-soaked rag.) Have you ever used a hand can-opener to cut open those otherwise lethal pre-formed hard plastic new product covers? What about putting a small rag rug underneath a heavy box to pull it across a wooden floor?

In each case you're coming up with new uses for a product meant for something else. And that's what creativity is all about-taking a look at something and saying, what if I used it for this instead?

The technique of "what if?" can be used to stimulate creative thinking. To try it out, take a common object and ask yourself "what if?" to come up with at least five other uses for it. Don't limit yourself to only practical solutions, an idea may sound silly at first, but it can spark a chain reaction that could be a new product.

Here's an example. Take a common household bucket.

1. What if I inverted it and wore it as a hat? (Definitely keep the rain of my head.)

2. What if I drilled small holes in the bottom and hung it from a tree branch? (There's an outdoor shower for you.)

3. What if I inverted it and used it as a stool to reach something from a tall cabinet? (Just how sturdy is this bucket???)

4. What if I drilled a hole in it, threaded a wire fixture through it and used it as a lampshade? (Might be a pretty ugly lamp shade, but if you can't stand looking at a naked bulb, why not?)

5. What if I filled it with sand and left it outside so that my smoker friends would have somewhere to dispose of their cigarette butts? (Again, might not be the Martha Stewart suggestion, but still practical.)

You get the idea. Try practicing the "What if?" technique because you never know when you might need it. For example, I've seen this type of question asked on a job application-the applicant needed to come up with 10 uses for a paper clip. If nothing else, it's a mind exercise to do when you're bored...