Everyone is creative, including you

Surprisingly when I ask that question of students in my introductory creative class only about half the class raises their hands. They’re often taking Fundamentals of Creative Development because it’s required for all advertising majors, not just those interested in becoming a writer, art director, or designer. If I have one goal it’s to convince everyone in the class that he or she is creative. We’re all creative. Everyone is creative.

Sadly, most of our public schools, in their misguided efforts to prepare students for standardized test taking, destroy kids’ natural creativity. Studies have even shown that creativity drops precipitously as early as first grade when you’re told that a house has four sides, a door in the middle and a triangular roof, contradicting that amazing half bird house, half ant hill you’d been drawing. Conformity is not a friend of creativity.

There’s also some confusion about what it means to be creative. So it might help to distinguish between being artistic and being creative. Not everyone is artistic. That requires both imagination and the skill to draw, paint, sculpt, or compose music. Creativity simply asks that we use our imagination to solve problems. You don’t have to draw to do that.

You do have to look at the world around you in new ways, find hidden patterns, and connect seemingly unrelated phenomena to generate solutions.

It’s a process that can be learned, practiced and mastered, as James Webb Young explained in his 1940 classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas. I suggest you read it. Or perhaps Neil Pavitt’s How to Be Creative, a variation on the same topic. Both adhere to Mark Twain’s claim that there is no such thing as an original idea, just new combinations of old ideas. The trick is simply to have a drawer full of thoughts, images, facts and experiences out of which you can try combinations.

There’s actually a process that you’ll find works well. Eventually you won’t have to think about it. It will come naturally.

Step one, of course, is to define the problem you’re trying to solve. Once you have that figured out, it’s time to get inventive. (Note: it’s possible you don’t even know what the problem is, but let’s assume you can, in fact, get that far.)

I’ve put this twist on it.

C is for collect

Collect everything there is to know about the product you’re advertising, the community or user you want to reach, the market, the competition, etc. Don’t be lazy. A few Google searches aren’t enough. Visit a retailer. Talk with a loyal customer. Read customer reviews. Track conversations on social media.

Regarding your user, take the time to understand her relationship to the category and any motives for purchasing. Learn how she makes decisions, spends her day, finds time to shop. Consider her relationship to media and technology. Identify her influencers and affinities.

This isn’t merely about getting smart, which in and of itself is a good idea, it’s about giving you more ingredients to mix into the curious combinations that become an interesting creative idea, whether an ad, an app, or digital experience.

R is for remix

For most creative people, the process is exactly Mark Twain described it. We remix. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson referred to the idea of collisions. Old ideas bump into each other and create yield new ones.

It’s why more creative ideas happen in cities. Or centers of concentration. Tech innovation in Silicon Valley. Film in LA. Advertising in NY. The more people and ideas you fit into a space, the more interactions occur as half assed ideas and bits of inspiration mingle, merge, and mate, producing offspring in the form of something even more interesting or innovative.

You, however, are creating collisions in your brain. Combing words and pictures. Solutions and media. Sounds and patterns. Spaces and messages. Think and focus on the problem you’re trying to solve, but keep mixing different elements into all the creative forms available to you. Posters, videos, stories, social media, experiences.

Volume is essential. The more ideas you generate the greater the likelihood that something will be good. Most of your ideas will suck. But that’s OK. Remember that all great creatives work this way. Even Mozart, Darwin and Edison. They were successful because they failed a lot. But they were prolific. So eventually they got to great.

Keep in mind that strokes of genius have more to do with strokes and less to do with genius.

E is for escape

You remix until you can’t stand it anymore. Or think you’ve run out of combinations. At that point, you should have dozens, or perhaps hundreds of ideas. None will be quite right. You’ll be straining to get something to work. Your brain will hurt. Maybe even feel as if it’s about to explode. That’s OK, too. It happens to everyone. This is when you leave everything on the table and get the hell out of there. Take a walk. Go for a bike ride. Hit the gym. Visit a museum. Anything to get your mind off of the problem you’re trying to solve. That’s right, escape. You’ve done the most important part of the job. It’s OK to walk away for a while.

A is for aha

You’ve heard people say, “I get my best ideas in the shower.” Or read about how Steve Jobs got his brainstorms on long walks. That’s sort of true. But, it only works because you have all the gears going from the previous “R” part of the process. Your brain, which is a very cool partner to have in this effort, can’t help itself. It’s working away in a more casual manner while you’re off amusing yourself. Little windows are opening and closing and all of those previously assembled combinations and components are floating around.

When you least expect it, an idea will actually come to you. Presuming that you jump-started the process with enough of those combinations. This is the aha moment.

Note: this is also a reason why you can’t usually come up with a great idea on the spur of the moment, so all the more reason for starting your creative thinking early in the process. Don’t wait until the last minute or you won’t have time to follow the sequence.

T is for tend

All creative ideas are fragile. Even at this point you probably have a partially formed idea, not a complete one. It can live or die based on how you tend to it. Steve Jobs knew it. IDEO knows it. GE has even made a commercial about it. A new idea, if truly good, is unfamiliar, different, perhaps even a bit frightening. It’s easy to give up on it, or let someone talk you out of it. This is when you head back to the so-called drawing board and work on it. Push it, prod it, polish it. Make it better. You’re now focused on something with potential.

E is for evaluate

Finally, it’s time to share it. You want to protect what you’ve created, but you also want to be honest. If you have a partner, teammate and collaborators who you trust, share it with them first. In most cases, they were probably involved. They may have even been on that walk with you and were part of the aha moment. Either way dare to ask questions about what works, what doesn’t, what could make it better. You may learn that it’s partly flawed, which is OK. You can fix that. Or you may get the kind of positive reinforcement that gives you the confidence to make sure your idea gets sold and produced. You had the courage to think up a creative idea to begin with, so don’t be afraid to share it.

Combine. Remix. Escape. Aha. Tend. Evaluate. What will you create? I look forward to seeing it.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.