On Creativity

Using the word “creative” to describe only the arts and crafts is selling oneself short, if not an artist or craftsman. As an artist (a designer, to be precise, but you can see it as part of the arts) I am often described as “a creative.” A description I detest.

You see, I’ve found that creativity stems from something else.

One is not “just a creative soul” or “so imaginative.” Perhaps some innate affinity for arts and crafts can exist, but if so than surely also for other areas? Such as maths, being a conductor or politics.

A type designer does something quite different from a sculptor and artists can have widely varying methods, specialities, backgrounds and inspirations. And I haven’t even mentioned the horrible synonymy the word has gained with that other word: “Hipster.”

Calling a painter, sculptor, illustrator, type designer or graphic designer a “creative” sells the individual specialities short and suggests creativity does not exist in other professions. Which is false.

What is creativity?

Wikipedia summarises it as “a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” I don’t think that description cuts it. It does note items can be tangible (paintings, books, inventions) and intangible — such as an idea, scientific theory or musical composition.

Ancient cultures didn’t have the concept of creativity and saw arts as a form of discovery. This hints at finding something that is there but not yet known, something covered that needs to be revealed. Symptomatic, perhaps, of a time in human existence in which individuals were more entrenched in classes, stuck in the rut they were born into and more prone to believe in myths and magic.

That is not the case in modern society. Our world is well known and we can move between jobs and even classes, insofar they exist.

Creativity has also been described as a process of sensing problems, testing and communicating solutions. Which is all right but not a very pragmatic description of how to recognise creativity in the real world.

Though, the description Google provides when searching for the word creativity, best describes what I’ve found it to mean in my own experience: “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.”

Too often do I talk to someone who describes one’s self as “not being creative.” Though when pressed they confess to enjoy gardening, raising their children or even something as craftsy as knitting.

Obviously one presumes “a creative” to be an artist or craftsman of some sort. But again, that’s selling creativity short.

I’ve been shown beautiful gardens where they elaborate upon the problems they’ve solved, plants, shrubs and what clever tricks they used to keep the place lush and healthy, from people who describe themselves as “not creative in the slightest.”

I’ve met well-behaved children who have developed real personality and I’ve seen people knit the most awesome, unknittable things. And yet they are “not creative?”

I call bunk.

Tools, media and rules

Creativity is very much inventiveness, but within a set of parameters: Tools, media and rules. Finding solutions within those boundaries with a set of tools and perhaps a set of rules (even self-imposed) is exactly what creativity springs from.

Those tools, media and rules can be anything. Where tools can be verbal, mental and manual. Media can be any carrier, from plants to paper to human beings. And rules, whether self-imposed or not — set further boundaries, limitations, although they are not necessarily required since your tools are probably limited and the medium too.

Within a set of rules, you apply the tools to the media you have at your disposal.

This applies to maths, the stock market, race car driving and engineering, too. Even accountancy and policing requires one to be inventive within the rules of law, with the tools you can legally use and through the medium of human interaction or Excel.

I, for one, am not creative when it comes to accounting. I do not know the tools, am foggy on the rules and I dislike the medium (Excel…). Perhaps it’s arrogance but I’m pretty sure that with time I could be moderately good at it, were it not for a total lack of motivation. But my accountant has stunningly obvious solutions, communicated with an air of confidence, and answers to what seem like insurmountable problems, to me.

I won’t ask him to design a logo, though.

With practise — and everything requires plenty practise — you get to be more and more familiar within your options, which let you be increasingly inventive within your job. You can impose rules on yourself to further test your mettle and hone your skills.

Rules such as “I will only draw with a 2B pencil” or “I will try to argue my points without using hyperbole” or “whatever the opponent does, I will try the opposite.” These self-imposed limitations force you down new avenues that will yield discovery, whether they work or not: You’ll have learned something and further honed your skills.

All those quotes about creativity and failure? They do have a point.

Boundlessness

This, to me, is the essence of creativity: Limits. If you have all the tools in the world, every medium at your disposal and no rules one becomes apathetic. You needn’t master any one tool since everything is there already.

It’s a personal theory of mine that therefore so many super wealthy people have such poor taste: Too much money to care.

You needn’t make a deadly weapon out of what you find in the bushes if you’ve got an M16 or perhaps even an ICBM. Nor would you need to make a hammer out of a rock: You’ve got the best damn hammer in the world, one that hammers for you. Ace, right?

Not quite.

Think of Native Americans, African tribes or Australian Aboriginals, who all developed many survival techniques with very little means but a lot of inventiveness.

A great source of inventive examples is the Primitive Technology channel. Here’s a forge blower:

Even if one has many drawing tools and lots of paper to choose from, one makes choices, an experienced person does this perhaps subconsciously. Suppose you’re working on an assignment, which will have certain rules, or you want to doodle and make up rules for yourself as you go along: “Only right angles” or “I’m only allowed to create plains using hatching, no outlines.”

My point being: This is how new discoveries are made. How one learns about one’s self, the world, the medium, the tools, you name it. If you have boundaries you work within them to expand your possibilities — perhaps even expand those boundaries if you can.

This is very much akin to playing, something an accountant can do, too.

The accountant might “play around” in Excel and discover new features — new options — to add to his toolset should an opportunity present itself. Or the race car driver finds just the right setting during testing — after playing around with some knobs and switches — to find that 0.1 second.

Expanding the possibilities and perhaps winning the race.

Or the 3-year-old, with some Duplo blocks, figures out that they will only go so high before tumbling over (which makes a loud bang on the wooden floor and is endlessly funny…)

Practise

As I’ve stated before, everything requires practise. Everything. From riding a bike to having a relationship. The same goes for your job or passion project or assignment or hobby, within which you can be or become creative.

With practise you can become good at almost anything you set your mind to, I believe that, although caveats do exist, such as age or health. But one should enjoy what one does, the best work is born out of working in a state of flow.

Whatever you do, do not force yourself to be creative, obsessing over it won’t help you. Creativity follows with time, practise and passion. Therefor it’s better to find out what it is that gets you in that state of flow, something that absorbs and motivates you.

And if you’re stuck in a dead-end job you hate? Try and find some time to play with the tools you’re given, the media available (perhaps you can add one?) and within the law (and perhaps the rules).

Or quit (that’s hard).