We need to talk about ideas…

An image from the Ideas Report 2018, commissioned by WeTransfer and TCO London

Or rather, we need to talk about the inspiration industry. The creative ideal has moved on since the picture of the absinthe-addled artist alone in their garret, battling their demons as well as their way through the creative process.

Today we have beautiful magazines that promise to unlock our creative potential. We sit in over-air-conditioned conference halls and listen to inspirational talks, opening our minds and clutching our new Tote bags. Online, when the mood strikes us, we seek out talks from other conferences we couldn’t be at.

So there’s never been more chatter about what it means to be creative, and yet I’m not sure anyone is any the wiser. The noise has increased, but has our understanding?

Partly I think that’s due to the nature of the creative process itself. It’s maddening, mysterious and messy. There are dead-ends, wrong-turns and all manner of false starts. This is hard to distill down to a tight 20-minute presentation.

But partly I think the inspiration industry needs to ask itself a few tough questions (and I speak as the editor of a website which aims to spark creative ideas in unexpected ways). Do we hold ourselves to high enough standards? Do we accept the clichéd and the eye-bleedingly obvious when we should be pushing for real insight?

One of the few excellent talks about creativity that are worth your time

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are people and platforms that bring rigor and intelligence to their creative coverage. But I fear these are the exceptions and we’ve let mediocrity become the norm.

Anyone who’s spent time in this world will recognize what we might call the Creative Process Greatest Hits. At the right — or maybe wrong — events, you can tick off this pat, simplistic advice in a game of banal inspiration bingo. Take risks. Do side projects. Work with great people. Thanks. For. That.

It felt to me that the conversation around creativity is quite one-sided. How do creatives really feel about the work they do? What insights are not being talked about? How, when and where do they develop their ideas? So we decided to ask them.

This summer we ran a survey through the WeTransfer wallpapers that asked a series of questions about creative ideas. We were slightly overwhelmed by the response — more than 10,000 creatives in 143 countries gave us their thoughts.

We deliberately focused on ideas, because everything starts with an idea, a spark, but it seems this is one of the lesser-talked-about parts of the creative process (beyond the lazy and useless question, “Where do you get your inspiration?”)

Some of the answers confirmed our hunches. Some came as a complete surprise (I remain bamboozled that so few creatives note down ideas on their phones).

Some were less glamorous than we’d hoped. I’ve always liked the idea that ideas can strike anywhere, at any time. Not so much, we were told — the main place people had good ideas was at their desks and in their studios.

Other things were even less comfortable. For a company like WeTransfer that builds digital tools to help creatives, the triumph of offline over online gave us pause for thought.

The worst thing about the internet is that it’s built on the idea that if you like something, you’ll get shown more of the same thing. We are familiar with the idea of filter bubbles, online worlds which funnel individuals towards the recognizable, the agreeable and the non-challenging. Psychologists call this fluency, and we’re hardwired to seek it out because our brains don’t like to work harder than they have to.

The WeTransfer Ideas Report logo

But creatively, it’s a real problem. So the challenge is, how we can build moments of disfluency into our lives? How can we expose ourselves to ideas, stories and opinions which might not immediately satisfy us? How can we build better digital spaces that aid idea generation?

We hope that our first Ideas Report starts a conversation. We’ll certainly be spending some time reflecting on the findings and they will feed into lots of the work we do over the next 12 months, from the stories we tell on WePresent to the ways in which we think about our products.

Above all, we hope it gives people pause to reflect on the gap between creativity as you know it, understand it, and struggle with it, vs Creativity, the shiny, simplistic and neatly-packaged thing we barely recognize.

Welcome to the WeTransfer Ideas Report 2018.