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Creativity is a blue collar profession

The image of an idea coming in the form of a light bulb and a clap of thunder is a myth so how can you learn to summon your creativity on demand?

It’s late at night and you are sitting in front of the TV doodling in your sketchbook trying to work through a concept for a client project at work. In a single moment of clarity the heaven’s part, the planets align and you are struck with that iconic light bulb of inspiration as the solution to the problem hits you in one big rush.

The only problem is that if you have been working as a creative professional for any period of time you know that these ‘light bulb’ moments only happen in the movies. Ideas are born out of the power of a team bringing together different viewpoints to work on one problem, they are born out taking the time to understand your creative process to make connections no one else sees and they are born out of working through the obvious answers to find something new and unique.

Lately, I have seen a trend in a lot of designers I interview where they want their entire creative process to be based on the instant gratification of those ‘light bulb’ moment. Maybe it is a result of the new millennial mindset but none of them seem to understand or want to hear that this approach is a trap that will stagnate your creativity and your career. I’ve spent years working to get to know and sharpen my creative process, working to be able to summon my creativity at will and coming to understand that being creative takes a work ethic and approach that makes it a blue collar profession.

I have found that through working with my team, speaking with other creative leaders and speaking at design conferences, there are two areas that come into play when it comes to being a great creative who can solve real problems.

Every creative process is different

When I speak at design conferences the questions I’m always asked is ‘what is the secret to coming up with great ideas?’. My answer is always the same and always disappoints the crowd – there is no secret and there are no magic bullets to creativity. The fact that I even get asked this question shows just how little people understand what goes into creativity and how little time they have spent trying to understand it. Here again, they are looking for the instant gratification of an easy answer that will solve everything.

The reality is that getting to know and understand your creative process is work because everyone single person has a completely different creative process. This happens because creativity comes out of your personal life experiences, opinions, emotions, strengths, weaknesses and personal emotional baggage that you have accumulated over your lifetime. All of that variable come together to create your point of view and it drives what happens in your brain when you sit down with a blank piece of paper to start to work through a problem.

As a creative director I feel that it is my job to work with my team to get them to start to be aware of all of those variables so they can start to pay attention to what exactly happens when they have a great idea but also what happens when they get to a place where the ideas just aren’t coming. It is this self-awareness that is the mental foundation of every great creative mind I have ever known. It gives you the ability to start to understand how to have ideas, to understand what do you need to do mentally to let those ideas happen and then start to work on how you can make it happen faster and with great regularity.

Some people have this self-awareness come naturally but I have found that the majority do not. This means that you have to hone your craft with what is the definition of blue collar work – the investment of a lot of time, repetition and a relentless work ethic to hone your craft.

Divergent and convergent creativity

Once I have started to work with a designer so they can start to be more self-aware about their creative process then the next thing I work with them on is to understand the critical need to be able to do divergent and convergent thinking in their creative process.

Divergent thinking means that you can work quickly to create a lot of different ideas. In my group we do through a process called ‘riffing.’ I took the term from someone my musician friends I saw would regularly sit with their instrument and quickly experiment with a lot of different musical directions based on a central chord or harmony. I took this into the design world where I want designers to quickly put out a lot of different designs around a problem. Depending on the talents of the designer and their creative process it can be done through sketching, wireframing or even done in Photoshop. One of the tricks I use with younger designers is to start the riffing process as sketches but I give them a very thick Sharpie marker because when you are drawing it forces you to keep to bigger picture ideas since you physically can’t draw small details. I am very clear that I do not want them to take one idea and do a lot of minor variations and a theme because that isn’t going to help the final design and it isn’t going to help them get a better understanding of how they can improve their creative process.

Once we go through that riffing process then it becomes important to understand convergent thinking where you can take all of those ideas or all of the riffs and combine and extract the best parts into a great result. The focus of the riffing process is to keep constantly building on your ideas, to push yourself into new thinking, to work through a lot of different ideas and to embrace the fact that not all of those ideas are going to be great. I think they can learn just as much from those failures as their success during this process. Part of the convergent phase is them to make sure that they are self-aware enough to understand what you did when you had a great idea and what you did when your ideas went bad. We then take the best ideas and go through the entire riffing process again to make those ideas stronger and more refined.

Final Thought

I have found that the most highly creative people are the ones who are very good at getting their brains into a bilateral mode of divergent and convergent thinking and the more creative they the more they can do it at the same time to dual-activate the process. But that takes a lot of work and a lot of blue collar like dedication to the art and science of ideation. I think that creative directors need to understand that they are only going to get better work out of their teams if they invest the time to understand their process, put concepts in place like ‘riffing’ which will help them grow their creativity and stop taking the lazy route of  hiring a stream of new designers thinking that will fix the problem. No one teaches a class on how to be a great thinker and it is about time that we all understand that they never will.  The problem is personal so the solution has to be personal. It is up to all of us to own our creative process and own the daily and never-ending work it is going to take to make your ideas go from good to great.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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