Monday, February 18, 2008

Creativity is a Goose that Lays Golden Eggs

Never try and get the goose to explain what it does,
you'll only irritate the goose and frustrate yourself.

There are often attempts made within creative industries to rationalize the creative process, to outline how it happens or to explain how the end product works or to evaluate on some level its effectiveness. This was the topic at hand between myself and Brooke Nanberg of IP Pixel on a lovely Saturday last month. (I believe we were poolside at the Peninsula.) Attempts to rationalize creative process happens to varying degrees across industries. Digital Shops and Web Consultancies tend to do this much more than say advertising agencies. I don't think it happens at all in music and motion pictures.

In the instances where it does pop up it is important for a number of reasons:
1. The valuation of creative "product".
2. The selling of the process which delivers creative "product".
(Which is really more about the transference of confidence.)
3. Interacting with and managing the people that create creative things.

Most often the way that "works of creativity" operate on us, the way they move and effect us happen on a level that is below the threshold of perception. Often we are unaware that we are being effected. Even when we are, it does little to change the power of the effect. Think about watching a sad or scary movie.

There is a poverty of language and literature when it comes to addressing "how things how" in the applied arts. You don't see books titled "How to write a great rock anthem" or "How to write a song that will make people cry". You do see books with titles like "Graphic Design that Sells" or "Words that Sell". They tend to have some useful suggestions but overall I would describe them as narrow in their vision and "iffy" works of scholarship. You can learn a lot more, in rich detail, by spending a day with someone who has developed a craft and understanding of a discipline.

On a fundamental level, I don't believe that creativity can be taught. This is not to say that there aren't process tools that can improve the upon the process, but if it isn't part of the system architecture, there isn't a way to download that. If it's there it can be honed, toned, nurtured and developed.

I've read a great deal of the literature on problem solving/creative process including everything by
Edward de Bono
Roger von Oech
Min Basadur
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
(guys, why are all of your sites so painfully bad?)
and all of the big management consultants like Dr Edward Demmings, Tom Peters etc.

All of these have their value and uses, but on a process optimization level. You're either a goose that lays golden eggs or you're not.

There is an important thing to understand about creative people. Very often they do not articulate what it is that they do very well. I find graphic designers and sculptors to very poor articulators of their process and poor at representing their work. Here is a remarkable case-in-point form the world of fashion, helped along by Bruno (Sasha Baron Cohen)

So, many creatives are not good at "giving word", and guess what, thats OK. It's is usually someone else's job to sell it, but this is where things get ugly. The people managing and selling creative product are often not creative practitioners and understand creative process as poorly as, well, almost everyone does. These people, however, are under pressure to sell.

I still remember the days during the dot-boom at the big web consultancies and the dreadful Powerpoint decks with slide after terrible slide describing the "how we do the do" process. Some people still do this. When you see those slides, run, it's a bad sign.

What I always loved/hated about books by IDEO is that they don't teach you one motherf***ing thing about how they make the secret sauce, and they are probably one of the few shops in the world that really do have a tight, disciplined way of going about what it is they do. This is an important lesson.

It's not that I don't think there is value in describing how one goes about what one does, but it should be more like theater and less like describing the mechanics of a Rube Goldberg machine or the insides of a goose that lays golden eggs. How would you respond when asked, how does the Goose work???... "It's an bloody, ugly mess... let me tell you a story instead.")

The books of IDEO are magnificent PR. They tell stories of challenge and success and recount tales of glory in the form of case studies (that don't read like terrible case studies.) And that is the point of them. It is theater whose job is to confer confidence to the audience. They best way to do that is to have past successes to point to. It's a lot easier for Crispin to sell challenging or risky work that it is.. well, everyone else.

I like referring to what I do as "making shit up" for a couple of reasons. 1. I like the bravado with which it speaks. 2. It creates an open sense of possibility for myself and for those that I work with. There is no challenge that can't be overcome when one remembers that anything is possible when what you do, afterall, is make things up. It's negative people and negative thinking that makes the work and the process suck when it sucks.

The point here is that creative people sometimes don't know how it is they do what they do and neither do you. So let them do what it is they do well and recognize the job of selling and rationalizing work as the theater it is: a transference of confidence.

Never try and get the goose to explain what it does,
you'll only irritate the goose and frustrate yourself.

Look forward to upcoming related posts:
• As Stupid as a Graphic Designer
• On Strategy: Faking It


Kelly said...

During a critique my professor stood back from my painting and said derisively "Do you even know why this painting is good".

My lack of articulation somehow minimized to him the power of the piece. Or he is just a tool.

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