Thoughts on Creativity

September 25th, 2008 Posted in [Re]encoded $1000 Contest

It would be cliche, dated and pointless for me to write yet another article rehashing the age old question “can creativity be learned”. I say “cliche” and “dated”, because there have been countless articles and books written on the subject of learning creativity. I say “pointless” because I can answer that question very simply. Yes.

The objective of this article is not to re-examine this old question, but to give hope and inspiration to those designers out there who fall into the same category as I do when it comes to creativity. In talking with a co-worker (and fellow designer), the subject of designing for oneself arose. We were discussing how it’s always hardest to design for yourself (whether it be a blog, a portfolio, a business card or a website for a business that you are involved in), because inevitably, you get about 1/3 of the way through the design, see another design that you love, and immediately, your inspiration or vision changes. From there, an inevitable string of insecurities and questions of your own abilities arise, and you are left thinking how you could ever arrive at a design that is as creative and well-presented as the one you just came across.

I had never really thought about it before, but apparently a lot of other artists are in this very same boat. Fortunately, I have great news for anybody that might fall into this category! There is a light at the end of the tunnel! Despite what you may think, it IS possible for you to be among the ranks of all of the great artists that inspire you. But first, let’s talk a little bit about what creativity is, and where it comes from.

Let me start by saying that I think all of us who are born with a normal functioning brain have an equal capacity for creativity. Many of us think of creativity as a character trait, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think that creativity is composed of (and consequently can be improved by) four things:

1. Knowledge
2. Ability to let go of inhibitions
3. Technique
4. Motivation

So to ask if creativity can be learned, is to ask if one can improve their knowledge (yes), if one can let go of their inhibitions (yes), if one can improve on their technique (yes, practice makes perfect), and if one can boost their motivation (this one might be a bit tougher).

The more you know
The true key to creativity lies in having a deep understanding of what it is you are trying to do. For a designer, that includes having a knowledge of the software you are using, the industry, the project at hand, the technology being used, etc. The deeper we understand everything involved with what we are trying to achieve, the easier it will be to reach a certain goal. Great artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo did not create their masterpieces by drawing/sculpting human figures from memory alone. Their masterpieces were not a result of going to the local art store, purchasing a canvas and some paint, and cranking out the “Madonna on the Rocks” on the first go. They actually studied their subject matter completely and thoroughly before creating one of their masterpieces. Their masterpieces were a result of thousands of “preparation” efforts – sketches, miniature models, notes, examinations, etc., before actually creating the piece itself. Similarly, a writer does not write a novel straight to paper. A writer always spends months researching, documenting, and plotting out their stories, before they even think about sitting down at the typewriter. In the end, the better you know your tools, your trade, and yourself, the better you are able to utilize and manipulate those tools to produce inventive results.

Dance like nobody’s watching
Our inhibitions are probably our greatest setback when it comes to creativity. Often times, we get so caught up in worrying about something not looking perfect, or something being seemingly absurd, that we do not attempt it at all. I myself became this way with drawing. I was so afraid of the things that I drew not coming out perfect, that I just stopped attempting to draw altogether. The result, was that I would just draw the same boring things over and over again; the things that I trained myself to believe I was successful at. As an artist, this is practically like committing hara-kiri, because you are preventing yourself from learning, and growing. You are, in essence, putting walls up. Most of us however, do not even realize that we are doing it. You hear so often, people talking about other peoples creativity, and how others seem to be naturally creative. I think this is an incorrect mindset. Our inhibitions are the only things preventing us from being creative. Our inhibitions are the only things that say no… you cannot put a carrot as the pilot of that airplane. From the time we are little, we are molded into who we are today by our parents, teachers, friends, enemies, society, experiences, etc. The combination of the things we learn, and who we learn them from is what makes us all unique. In relation to creativity however, our unique set of experiences also tends to be what dictates our capacity for creativity, as it is these set of experiences that build our inhibitions and close our minds to absurd ideas. Unfortunately, it is usually in these “absurd” ideas that “novel” ideas come from. As the industry likes to call it; “thinking outside the box”.

The other thing we need to realize about creativity is that our ability to be creative is not a result of some special part of your brain in charge of creativity, but the ability to stop caring so much about having the perfect outcome, and doing everything perfect the first time through. I believe it was Thomas Edison who said “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”. So with that sentiment, I challenge you! Take an object, put it on a desk, and start drawing it. Make 1,000 (or even just 100) drawings of it. Don’t just doodle them out, but really put all of your focus and energy into each one. Once finished, compare your very first one to your very last one, and see if you have not improved in the process.

As clich� as it sounds, the reality is, the end result is rarely as important as the journey in getting there. It is in the journey in which we learn, correct, fail, and succeed. In the end, it will not be the praise your artwork or designs get that will provide lasting gratification – it is the inner feeling, knowing in your own mind of what you went through and struggled with to arrive at that end result.

Wax on, wax off
If the martial arts have taught me anything, it’s that regular and constant practice are the key to becoming better at something. Through practice, not only do you learn the theory and philosophy behind things, but you also begin to refine your technique, and make it into something that is your own. When you constantly repeat something over and over, you don’t just learn how to do that something really well. You also learn what doesn’t work, why it doesn’t work, and why what does work, works (did you get all that?)

I hesitate to bring up the idea of proper technique as being part of creativity, because it borders heavily on being rigid, and setting boundaries. I think it would be naive however to pretend that some ways of doing things aren’t “better” than others, in certain circumstances. For example, if you were attempting to draw a photo-realistic portrait of somebody, the end result would probably be better if you used your hand to wield the pencil, as opposed to say, your mouth or foot. While using something other than your hand to draw with might produce interesting and creative results, if you’re going for photo-realism, using your dominant hand would probably yield results closer to your intentions.

The problem with mentioning “technique” however, is that it’s a double edged sword. While using “good technique” can lead to better results, if you worry about technique too much, it tends to raise inhibitions, and make you self-aware of what you’re doing, having quite the opposite effect. This, again, is where repetition and practice come into effect. Through repetition and practice, you learn to utilize proper technique so that it becomes natural and instictive, making it so you don’t have to think about your technique. This, in my opinion, is true mastery of an art.

Your inner Tony Robbins
Perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve in getting better at anything, is having the motivation and drive to work at it, and strive to be the very best that you can be. I always say that if you want something bad enough, motivation will not be a problem. Some people however, are just naturally unmotivated. Whether they were always handed everything to them, or they just like doing nothing way too much, it’s a safe bet that if somebody is not motivated to put the work in, then their heart was never into it in the first place. Like with anything in life, if you want to be truly great at something, you have to be willing to put the time and effort into becoming the best you can be at it. Contrary to how easy some artists make it seem, truly masterful artists are not made over night. And while some individuals had a more “fortunate” combination of experiences that have allowed them to have lowered inhibitions, the potential to be great lies within each of us. Some of us just have to work a lot harder to get there. This doesn’t just apply to art and design, but in everything you do in life.

So, in taking a thorough look at the components that lead to creativity, you can see that in improving your knowledge, working on opening your mind, lots of practice, and a lot of motivation are what will enable you to become as creative as you want to be. Ultimately, if you take nothing else from this article, take this: do not be discouraged by how effortless, or easy other people make things seem. There are ALWAYS going to be people out there who are born into better circumstances, which allows them to achieve what you are attempting to achieve with less effort than you. This does not mean that you should give up and not try. If you really put your heart and soul into something, people will take notice. To quote ___ “The greatest tragedy is not to fail, but to fail to begin.”

An Article by John Hubler

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