How Creative Acts Are Different

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Creative acts are not all the same. They vary by magnitude, originality, influence and intention. The following are types of creativity and novelty as described by psychologist Stephen Smith.[i]

Types of Creativity and Novelty

  • Individual versus social definitions of creativity
  • Deliberate versus non-intentional creations
  • Goal-defined creativity
  • Subjective sense of novelty
  • Degrees of novelty
  • Continuousverses discontinuous problem solving

Individual versus Social Definitions of Creativity:

Every quarter students make new discoveries. They have moments of enlightenment that dramatically change their understanding of the world. These breakthroughs don’t change the world, but they do change the person. During my time teaching high school, a student described his discovery in the field of mathematics.  While doing his math homework the night before, he had invented a new way of solving his equations. Slump shouldered later in the day, he told me how his math teacher explained it was centuries old. His discovery was creative non-the-less. It didn’t change the domain of mathematics in any way. But it did change his understanding of the subject. This is an example of individual creativity: particular to the individual.

 

So a particular act “may be novel for all of humanity, for a specific social-cultural unit, or for an individual.”

Deliberate versus non-intentional creations:

Often times, inventors consciously work toward their inventions as lifelong pursuits. However, many times they are not deliberate. Take, for example, party conversations. Informal conversations go in any number of directions that are not premeditated. They just flow. Each participant in the conversation freely and effortlessly adds to the progression of thought. Since the conversation is novel it is creative. In these creative acts, it is not the intention of each participant to be original. Therefore, they are not deliberate. Maybe the best example of non-intentional creativity is the verbal development of a young child. Kids experience an amazing rate of development as they learn to talk.

Goal-Defined Creativity:

Being deliberate implies working toward a goal. One sets a goal and then works to achieve it. Problem solving situations are goal oriented and they involve creative acts. Searches for solutions are novel because the problems to be solved are novel. If the problem weren’t’ in some way new, it wouldn’t be a problem. As each incremental discovery is made on the path to solving a problem, the nature of the problem changes and therefore new creative acts emerge. All problem solving situations have some relevance to past experiences and require the transformation of that past knowledge so that it may be applied to the present task.

For example, when Amy Windom was restrained during a home invasion in Atlanta, she needed a novel way to free herself. Her solution was to “toe-type” an instant message call for help. Obviously, this was an unusual experience for her. The perpetrator tied her up and had taken her digital camera, phone, iPad, and car. The thief didn’t take her laptop because she was able to convince him it was outfitted with a tracking device. After several hours, she said in an interview with The TODAY Show, she decide to use her feet to open her bag: “I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give this a shot, and I pulled the laptop over and propped it up on top of the down comforter at such an angle I could see both the keys and the screen.” She gripped the end of the power cord with her feet and started tapping the keys. Eventually, she was able to communicate with her boyfriend to call the police.[ii]

In this situation, creative problem solving led her down a goal- oriented path (to get free) that culminated in a solution that was new to her. Each stage of advancement led to a new problem solving situation. Her laptop was not outfitted with a tracking device; she told him that so he would leave it. Even though the cord is not used for typing, she associated its properties as similar to something that could.

Subjective Sense of Novelty:

The novelty of our acts is not always as apparent as you might think. Going back to the party conversations, each conversation, or more specifically, each phrase, is a creative act. No one in the conversation has experienced that exact situation before, nor will they again. Therefore, each phrase is new—novel. Trying to “get the phrase just right” is more deliberate. By consciously constructing phrases or arguments, we become aware of the process and the novelty of the act. An even more deliberate approach would be to plan a speech or presentation. And the scale goes up from there in intentionality. Frequently, we are more of aware of the novelty produced by others than ourselves.

Degrees of Novelty:

Creativity is mostly associated with “truly novel” acts. But the less revolutionary acts that make up our day to day existence can also be creative. It could be said that in some way, everything we do is novel to a degree. Each day is different and we react to new situations as they arise. Disparities between strikingly creative acts like inventions are easy to differentiate. Differences in more habitual acts like getting ready for work in the morning are more difficult to distinguish. Both big and small creative acts, however, are creative.

Continuous verses Discontinuous Problem Solving:

Some problem solving instances require that a continuous series of problems be solved until the final goal is achieved. The lady toeing her way to freedom on her laptop is an example. She was literally “bound” and determined to get free.

Other times, a period of rest or incubation occurs once or several times before a final solution is found. Epiphanies in the shower relate to ongoing problems we have yet to solve. During the day we take in new information. Having a problem at work or with a girlfriend, or more commonly now, Facebook, that doesn’t seem to have a good solution is considered off-and-on throughout the day. During the relaxing environment of the shower, attention is taken away from the problem. This period of rest allows the subconscious to organize the data and decide on a novel solution.

Creativity is in everything we do. In its smallest form, it helps us get through the day. In larger applications, it makes the world a better place. But the best thing about creativity is that it is teachable. Anyone can do it better. I know, I teach it to students all the time. With the new understanding of creativity that researchers are bringing to light, it is no longer such a mystery. It is a process for improvement.

[i] Smith, Steven M. The Creative Cognition Approach. MIT Press, 1995.

[ii] Rothman, Wilson. “Tied-up woman uses toes to IM for help.” MSNBC.com. MSNBC, August 4, 2010.

 

 

 

Creativity Lesson from the Stoics: Practice Virtues

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Think of a time when someone really pushed your buttons—when some jerk was rude, broke in line or did something totally inappropriate.  What was your reaction? Did you treat it as an opportunity?

Going back to the times of Ancient Greece, we find a group of people who did think these moments were opportunities. They were the Stoics. To a Stoic, a time of adversity is an opportunity to practice virtue. To the Stoics, virtue is similar to excellence. And as a good citizen, you practice being virtuous. I lifted a list of these as described by John Stobeaus from UC Davis’ website. They are below.

  • Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
  • Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
  • Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
  • Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither.

So what does this have to do with creativity? It’s about seeing opportunity where no one else does. To most of us, we see problems as problems—things to be avoided. But in a pursuit of excellence and practicing virtue, a Stoic engages with problems as a means of practicing virtue.

Let’s take temperance for example. Say, a stranger comes up and says you’re an idiot for blocking the sidewalk while waiting to cross the street. Then, instead of firing back an insulting a jab of your own, you decide to temper your response and counter with a witty comeback humorous in its approach to engage that person in a moment of reflection. You might not change that person’s mind, but you practiced changing people’s attention to a topic of your choice.

That kind of skill might come in handy during a pitch. Often times in pitches, committee members make off the cuff or rude comments. And you should be ready for those situations. Real pitches are not the time to practice skillful retorts, those are the times to capitalize on them. Having practiced temperance in the past can help you skillfully seize on the opportunity to turn an insult into insight.

Next time you run into adversity, practice a virtue.

Thinking About Thinking

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Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

Let’s Teach Students How to Guess

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Here’s a true story, kind of. I changed it slightly for confidentiality.

Problem:

A lotion manufacturer seeks new technology for dispensing hand lotion in the work place. They are doing well in the home market, but they want to expand their business through stores like Staples and Office Depot. The goal is to develop patented technology associating their brand with commercial use.

Solution:

After noodling it for some time, a friend and I decided dispensers weren’t the issue. We thought it to be a conceptual problem, not a technological one. So, instead of inventing a dispenser, we designed a unique line of office organizers centered around sanitation with the manufacturer’s lotion as the anchor. We submitted the design. The client loved the idea, and we got paid.

How’d we get our idea? We guessed.

Surprisingly, guessing works pretty well for solving complex problems – especially ones less clearly defined. To the dismay of many, guessing is actually a form of logic; one that isn’t talked about much in school though. But it should be. It goes by the term abductive reasoning. You could say it’s reasoning through inference.

When thinking about reasoning or logic, deduction and induction are the types that pop up most. Deductive reasoning leads to definite conclusions. Inductive reasoning leads to probable conclusions.

Deductive example:

All bachelors are single > Sam is a batchelor > Sam is single

Inductive example:

Atlanta, GA is the city with the most mosquitoes > Sam lives in Atlanta > Sam has been bitten by a mosquito

While Sam is definitely single, there is a chance he’s never been bit by a mosquito, even though Atlanta has a lot of mosquitoes.

How, you might ask does guessing qualify as reasoning. Well, it gets you get started and helps you arrive at a better hypothesis. It also helps you draw conclusions leading you in a direction. I’ll give you an example.

Sherlock Holmes often used it. For instance, in the case of “Silver Blaze,” he figured out who stole the horse.  In this exchange Sherlock, explains to a detective how he solved the mystery of a stolen racehorse which should have been guarded by a dog.

Detective: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

How did that help Holmes?

Holmes: I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others… A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in, and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.

There are many reason a dog might not bark. By guessing however, Holmes jumped quickly in a direction from which he could draw better conclusions. Without guessing, Holmes wouldn’t have gotten far. And without it, he also couldn’t do that annoying thing where he told a people their life story by judging the smudge on their collar or a torn piece of luggage.
Abductive reasoning is especially good for artists and designers. Their problems are rarely simple. Usually, they are vague. The studio model in which art and design classes are taught promotes this well. Students are regularly give vague problems like, express your feelings. These problems are are actually structured like real-life situations in that figuring out the question is half the problem.

The Most Creative Painting…Ever

Roy Lichtenstein Bananas and Grapefruit

Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.

Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.

Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.

Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating.  The higher the rating, the more creative the work.

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According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.

So, did the computer get it right?

Creativity Tip for Old People: Hangout with Young People

 

Men-Mature

One of the main reasons I teach is to be around young people. I know as I grow older, I become more practical. I’m less apt to take chances or to embark on new endeavors. I also moan and groan more. But as a professor, I’m forced to be around hordes of energetic individuals (students) who push me to be more open, less judgmental and less grumpy. In turn, my students help me to seek out new opportunities where I normally wouldn’t. They help me see possibilities where I’d normally see dead-ends. In turn, they make me more creative.

Too often, we worry about the troubles kids bring and don’t focus enough on the benefits of youthful behavior. Here are some beneficial qualities of young people:

  • They are adaptable
  • They are eager to learn
  • They are enthusiastic
  • They learn quickly
  • They are tech savvy
  • They want to make a difference
  • They like challenges
  • They are aware of trends
  • They embrace change

On the flip side, another benefit associated with hanging out with kids or young adults is they get to be around you. Young people need mentors as much as old people need energy. It’s a two-way street. Young people gain valuable life lessons from emulating mentors. Over time, we’ve lost many of the apprentice/mentor relationships in education due to the heavy reliance on testing as our main source of assessment. Constant interaction between generations brings some of that back.

We all benefit from relationships that cross over generational boundaries. Older people become more flexible and younger people wiser. If your personal or professional networks don’t include young people, I encourage you to begin adding them.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Business Model Canvas, A Great Tool Getting Creative People Organized

Business-Model-Canvas

The main ingredient for a sustainable artistic practice is money. You don’t have to be rich, but you do need money to survive. And to reliably make money, you need an organizational plan. But artists and designers don’t care much for creating a traditional business plan. I know I don’t. Those plans aren’t interesting, and they are difficult to understand.

However, the Business Model Canvas puts the basic business type stuff into a visual structure that is easy to visualize and easy to understand. There’s even a video that shows you how to do it. It breaks down the structure of your business into nine elements:

Customer Segments: who are you serving and what do they want

Value Proposition: what are you doing for your customers

Channels: how to you reach your customers (interaction points)

Customer Relationships: why type of relationships are you looking establish (longterm, personal, automated, etc…)

Revenue Streams: where’s the money coming from

Key Resources: essential assets and basic resources needed

Key Activities: what you need to do well

Key Partners: which suppliers or partners do you need

Cost Structure: what drives costs

 

Here’s what it looks like for a lemonade stand.

Business Canvas

It’s not the end all for a business plan. But it really gets things going. All you have to do is guess for each section and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to maintain your practice. Visit their site Business Model Canvas, get the app, or get the book. They are well worth looking into. Get started and you’ll be glad you did.

Big Data Art

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Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”

 

Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.

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Masaccio, Holy Trinity

 

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Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.

This is Water

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There are these two young fish swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them a says, Morning boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks to the other and goes, What the hell is water?

 

 

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 2005 is one of those speeches that deserves revisiting every once in a while. I often show the video made from edited parts of it to my classes. Above is the opening. Wallace follows by stating that the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The gist of the speech is that we have choices. And if we choose to acknowledge that we have choices, then maybe we can see the world through many lenses, not just through our default “me” setting.

Empathy may be the most underrated aptitude of the modern era. Being able to view reality from another person’s perspective is an incredibly powerful tool.  It opens the door to real conversations that can lead to a greater understanding of the world in which we live. We just have to understand that no matter how substantiated our view may be, another may exist that’s just as valid.

As Wallace states later in his speech, the “real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”