A new year, a creative you: 8 tips for the inventor and artist in you
Design guru Stephen Bayley and advertising expert Roger Mavity have co-authored an informative and entertaining book, How to Steal Fire: The Myths of Creativity Exposed, The Truths of Creativity Explained. Their earlier book was Life’s a Pitch.
Their new book spans 230 pages, and the chapters are written alternately by each co-author. The material is witty and humorous, and cites a number of sources from the worlds of art and literature. The authors show that there are no definitive answers on exactly how to be creative, and there are many contradictions and balances that need to be weighed.
My eight key clusters of takeaways from the book are summarised below. See also my reviews of the related titles The Art of Noticing, Quirky, Messy, InGenius, A Beautiful Constraint, Seeing what others don’t, How to get to Creative Ideas, The Creative Curve, and The Art of Creative Thinking.
The importance of creativity
“Ideas are what move civilisation along, giving it point, style, and meaning,” Stephen begins. “Creativity is as essential to our lives together as a pulse to our bodies,” Roger affirms. “It is our creativity that has separated humanity from the beasts,” he adds.
Creativity has appeared not just in the arts but also in the invention of shoes that use Velcro instead of laces, the sandwich, and the highway, Roger explains. Creativity involves an element of originality, but not all acts of creation are intended to solve problems, as seen in some examples of abstract art.
An intense creative desire to improve and innovate has led to path-breaking changes over the centuries. “No inventor ever tried to find a better way of doing something unless they were dissatisfied with present methods,” Roger explains.
“It is discontent with how things are today that inspires the mind to seek a better route for tomorrow,” he adds, pointing to Henry Ford as an example. “Essential to creativity is a ferocious dissatisfaction with the status quo,” Roger emphasises.
This dissatisfaction has led to successive ways of artistic movements, for example. These include realism followed by impressionism. Impressionists like JMW Turner wanted to show not just what a storm looked like, but what it felt like. Constant dissatisfaction with his own work led him forward in his artistic journey.
Oskar Barnack had a passion for photography but was, unfortunately, an asthmatic. That led him to tackle the problem of bulky and heavy cameras by inventing the portable Leica camera.
Michelangelo and Einstein are regarded as some of the most iconic innovators. Many such creative minds are “able to reveal things that others cannot even imagine”, Stephen explains.
“The uses of creativity may be pragmatic or they may be cerebral, even spiritual,” Roger explains. Creativity may involve objects and images that already exist, but are combined in different and original ways, eg. iPhone. “Creativity is connecting things,” Steve Jobs has said.
Imagination and fantasy play an important role in creativity, as well as a certain amount of imitation followed by improvement. Creativity involves skills in pattern recognition, and being able to see things or see wider and deeper than others.
Creative people are variously described as contrarian and centrifugal in nature; some are social, others are loners. They are able to see things from the outside-in and inside-out. They are also willing and able to buck herd instinct.
They are “bored by tedium and dismayed by mediocrity”, Stephen explains. Over time, others have agreed. “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible,” in the words of Frank Zappa. “Creativity is an endless struggle against the status quo,” according to Nietzsche.
The first stage of creativity is curiosity and external inputs (“conception”). The second stage is growing that inspiration internally into a creative work (“gestation”), Roger explains.
From external sponge to internal imagination, these two stages are fundamentally different in character. “Writing involves observation as well as imagination,” he adds. This also leads to lightbulb moments in the case of many innovators.
Technical skills are needed to bring this vision to reality via execution. This helps create new things, or make existing ones better or cheaper. But not all creative acts are planned down to the last detail, as seen in the world of jazz music.
All creative acts are also not moral or ethical, the authors caution. As examples, they point to the tobacco industry as well as uses of technology for mass destruction during wars.
Obstacles to creativity
There are a number of obstacles to creativity, such as the comfort zone of existing habits, fear of the unfamiliar, lack of open-mindedness, complacency, and mediocrity. Many times, creative people face obstacles like writer’s block.
There are external obstacles as well, such as rejection by peers, important stakeholders, critics, and society, eg. the first 12 publishers who rejected JK Rowling’s work. There are times when a work has been judged as creative, correct, or successful only much later, eg. Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Galileo Galilei, and Oscar Wilde.
Too much knowledge can also lead to biases and preconceived notions. Empty and unconstrained minds can wander more and find new inspiration and insights, Roger explains.
The role of stimulus and communities
Hard exercise, holidays, and even a sense of risk or danger can be stimulating. So are sexual desire, alcohol and drugs, but there are limits, the authors caution. Deep immersion and exploration in the problem space can help unearth the solution, Roger explains.
Contacts, connections, and crowds can help build a diverse pool of resources, but there is also much to be said for solitude and isolation in the creative process. Many artists have formed colonies, but several authors have preferred to work alone (“solitary genius”).
Creative connections can result from serendipitous activity and open-mindedness as well. Creative sparks arise from community clusters, “weak ties”, chance encounters, random discussions, and spontaneous acts, Stephen explains, pointing to Silicon Valley as a great example.
“A swelling of interesting people and opportunities has now made the area around San Jose the most prosperous place on earth,” he observes. Orderliness may help, but so does turbulence and chaos, as seen in cities like Liverpool and Mumbai.
There are times to plug into broader networks, but there are also times for innovating in stealth mode, Stephen explains. Lockheed’s Skunkworks is a notable example, with a string of products spearheaded by Clarence Johnson, eg. U2 spy plane, Blackbird ram-jet, and NightHawk.
Much has been debated about the merit of group activities for creativity, such as brainstorming. But with a lack of diversity, short duration, tendency for groupthink, and no real ownership of the problem, such offsite corporate activities merely create the “consensual illusion of a good result”, and only benefit the hotel industry, Roger jokes.
Many forms of creativity do indeed involve collaboration, and complementary skillsets and mindsets help cross-fertilisation in this regard. For example, ad agency teams have people with verbal and visual skills; many successful bands combine lyrical and musical skills. Diverse people bring different ideas and attitudes into a team.
Creativity also needs commercial support to succeed. Examples include the rich families of Venice and Florence who supported many inventors and artists during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci stands out as a unique combination of scientific and artistic thinker.
Interestingly, pressure, discomfort, and adrenaline from looming deadlines can also spur creativity. Some successful people have been systematic and regular throughout their creative process, while others deploy “creative procrastination”.
Family problems and social trauma have led to inner turmoil and depression in many cases – and also some extraordinarily creative outputs, as seen in the works of Van Gogh and Beethoven. Unfortunately, suicides among creative people are not uncommon, Roger laments.
It is hard to quantify creativity, Stephen explains. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers claims that 10,000 hours of practice are needed to become an expert in a field. But it is hard to show how this applied to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, Stephen jokes.
However, a certain amount of deliberate practice is important for creativity. There is balance between “disciplined structure and intuitive mysticism”.
Calculating the worth of artworks can be a particular challenge. Weight, area, amount of time, and technique used to create a painting are not always accurate or appropriate measures of price, Roger cautions.
He suggests: “The only question is: how good is it?” He also jokes that some advertising professionals do not reveal how quickly they came up with a solution, so that they can bill a longer time for the contract.
“We are born with a natural gift for play and fantasy – two forces that are at the heart of creativity,” Roger explains. Children have more of a fun and “why not” attitude than adults. “But these gifts are drilled out of us as we grow up,” he warns.
The authors also cite research that shows that there is no simple correlation between IQ and creativity. Many school dropouts have gone on to become successful artists and entrepreneurs.
A major problem with the modern education system is the way science and arts are treated as two utterly different ways of thinking, Roger laments. “The arts are at the bottom of the heap, almost regarded as an inconvenience,” he cautions. The educational focus is more on exams, degrees, jobs, and careers, and not on true fulfilment and purpose in life.
Practical and imaginative ways of thinking are unfortunately seen as separate worlds. But outstanding scientists are cerebral as well as imaginative, as seen in the case of Charles Darwin.
Dealing with failure
The prevailing attitude of “show up, keep up, shut up” in many companies constrains creativity, Stephen warns. Experimentation, critical feedback and learning from failure should be encouraged.
“In failure, there is something noble and beautiful,” he explains. This is not the same as being a loser, but being proud of having experimented and being able to learn from mistakes. Creative people have no fear of failure and embrace errors as the “portals of discovery”, in the words of James Joyce.
“Success depends on error,” Stephen affirms. Tolerance of mistakes should be encouraged, rather than stigmatising them. Unfortunately, in fields like politics, accepting criticism and making a U-turn are regarded as a sign of failure.
Digital threat – and opportunity
The rise of social media, AI, and targeted advertising has posed serious challenges for the earlier creativity model of traditional advertising. Earlier forms of ads are seen as boring, intrusive, and irrelevant.
But creativity matters even more in a “data-driven, collectivised, faceless culture”, Stephen explains. While online crowdsourcing opens up new frontiers of creativity, this does not entirely rule out private spaces and even solitary eccentricity, he adds.
The road ahead
The creative world holds power to account, Roger explains. Some of Picasso’s paintings have vividly exposed the horrors of war, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have warned of dystopian political worlds. Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes tend to crack down on independent media, critical artists, and dissenting citizens.
The book also touches on the importance of reinterpreting boredom as a launchpad for a sense of purpose or excitement. “The New Boredom” can help overcome the noise of conflicting signals in an over-busy world.
Creativity also has an interesting relationship with a sense of dread, repulsion, and phobia, as seen in the creation and appreciation of horror movies. The use of obscenities, foul language, and creative insults in literature, movies and comedy draws mixed responses as well.
The book ends with a call to keep heeding what may seem absurd at first. For example, the bicycle may look inherently unstable, but remains a popular form of transport. There are humble but outstanding examples of innovation all around us, such as the paper clip and Post-it notes.
There are also unintended but delightful consequences of some innovations. For example, suspending fish in hot smoke was an early form of preservation, but it also led to a new kind of flavour popular in different forms today as well.
“Creative thinkers enjoy – and exploit – fluency of thought,” the authors sum up. “Creative thinking never stops,” they sign off.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)