Orangutans teach the need for creative space

Katie Wilhoit
Aug 6 · 6 min read

From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. Creative Creature is your collection of lessons from nature and tools to practice creativity, so Welcome! I’m your host, Katie Wilhoit, a designer curious about animals and the stories they have to share. So, swim, fly, and jump on in!

Swingin in today we have some orangutans!

Born wildly in Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are the only great ape native to Asia. The word orangutan is Malay for “People of the Forest”, and accurately so because orangutans spend most of their lives towering in nests in the rainforest canopy.

Photo by Tim Laman via National Geographic

Out of all the great apes, baby orangutans spend the longest time with their moms, up to nine years! And orangutans even pass on cultural knowledge to younger generations. One example: from generation to generation orangutans are taught how to make “umbrellas” out of leaves to protect themselves from the rain (see male orangutan photo).

So what can we learn about creativity from orangutans?

Female Orangutan by Katie Wilhoit

These natural teachers are here today to teach us about the need for creative space.

One of the greatest feats and perhaps ecological niches orangutans have is their stupendous engineering acumen. (Check out an orangutan building here). But seriously, orangutans have mastered the art of nest construction. They are material scientists, understanding the folds, strength, and weaknesses of different kinds of branches, and they are master weavers.

Let’s take a look at what I’m talking about:

Source: National Geographic via Youtube

Orangutans build nests for a comfortable safe place to sleep. To weave their nests they seek out branches where they can create a “greenstick” fracture. “Greenstick” is where larger branches are broken in half but have a natural resting break — helping orangutans weave stronger nests. This sturdy method allows peace of mind when sleeping sometimes more than 20 meters high in the canopy. After creating a solid base, orangutans will then line their nests with leaves and findings from the forest.

“Greenstick” fracture of a branch broken by orangutans to build a sturdy woven canopy nest. Source

Having a space at night is paramount for orangutans but also having physical space from each other is important too. In fact orangutans, especially males, are some of the most solitude apes. Most males live alone and to maintain space will roar a loud solitary call, echoing about a mile away, to communicate their location and need for no disturbances from others.

So how can orangutans’ nest-building and need for alone time help us be more creative?

  1. Create your creative nest (physically and mentally)

Crafting a place for you to feel creative helps change your mindset so you are ready to let ideas flow.

Do you have a space you go when you want to make, write, or think? Maybe this is a chair in your house away from technology. Maybe this is the coffee shop that when you walk into, you are ready to focus. Or maybe it’s a special tea you drink that gets you in the zone or a soothing song you play. The point is: if you don’t already have one, set a safe space to create.

For me, to get into the creative zone and tell myself (and mind) I am ready to rock, I make some rooibos tea, walk toward a desk by my window, close all the tabs and applications on my computer, plug in my earphones, and write without a filter.

Having a physical creative space helps let my mind know, “Katie, stop making excuses. It’s now time to make!”. I find it’s easy to make excuses about why I’m not sitting down to make. Sometimes the creative space is more about finding the motivation to start. As Mark Manson writes in the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F* k, “sometimes motivation comes from having to actually do”. When you sit down to make, even when you don’t have the motivation, sometimes through doing motivation will find you. Maybe the creative space needed to build isn’t a physical one but is more about triggering a mindset to do. Having a set time and designed space lessens the barrier to doing.

For more inspiration about creative space, check out the book, “Manage Your Day-To-Day” by 99u. In the book, creators share their unique nests and surrounding rituals.

2. Find solitude time

As mentioned, the male orangutan spends most of their lives alone. Unlike humans who need social stimulation for mental health, solitude soothes the soul of the male orangutan. They avoid others (except for mating) so much they even have a solitude call to warn other male orangutans of their whereabouts.

Leo Babauta, a writer on habit creation and mindfulness, proclaims solitude is the number one creativity habit. When you are forced to focus on nothing, it clears your brain up to ideas. When you have space to be alone with your thoughts, it is easier to reflect and iterate on ideas. Many of the greats from Mozart to Tesla attribute grandiose ideas to their practice of solitude.

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” — Pablo Picasso

Some ideas:

  1. Roar your own version of an orangutan call. When you are about to create, send a message to friends or family who might normally disturb you. Giving them a heads up can help you stay accountable but can also help them respect your space.
  2. Practice meditation to be calm with spending time alone. Try headspace, the calm app, or any guided meditations on youtube to learn how.
  3. Lock up your devices for a day to avoid distraction.
  4. Go for a long walk without your phone.
  5. If you feel you don’t have time to practice solitude, try one of Babauta’s many tips to create time.

Channeling your inner orangutan, practicing solitude and building your creative version of a nest, will help you set up a safe space for the protection and flow of ideas. Even the smallest amount of time going for a walk without distraction or the simplest gesture to let your brain know you are about to create can go far. I can’t wait to hear about the spaces that make you feel creative. You are creative. And orangutans think so too.

Orangutans teach us a lot about the importance of space. How can we ensure they still have space in our world?

Orangutans are critically endangered. Because they live in forests, the rise of deforestation due to palm oil plantations threatens the habitat and lives of orangutans. Illegal wildlife trafficking and climate change are also large factors to their endangered status. Here are some things you can do to help:

  1. Learn more about the palm oil industry’s effect on orangutans
  2. Be mindful about what you purchase with palm oil (beauty, food, etc.)
  3. Support good eco-tourism and stay away from sketchy shows involving orangutans
  4. Support organizations helping to support orangutans
  5. Share facts about orangutans to help others learn from and see how cool they are

Thanks for reading!

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a blog and a collection of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems teachers on earth. Feel free to recommend animals or concepts in the comments. #creativecreature #casefornature

Creative Creature

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a guide of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. #design #creativity #biomimicry #animals

Katie Wilhoit

Written by

Designer and lover of animals. Founder of Unsize and former @IDEOColab fellow.

Creative Creature

Inspired by animals, Creative Creature is a guide of tools to practice creativity. From those who crawl to those who wag a tail, there is much to learn about how to be creative humans from our neighbor creatures and ecosystems on earth. #design #creativity #biomimicry #animals

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