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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

What Project Haven’t You Finished?

mesh-magazine-call-for-entries-art-design

So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

In the Age of Abundance, Software is Free for Creative People

Autodesk 123D

In the Age of Abundance, it’s amazing what’s free for creative people. All you have to do is look for it. As I’ve mentioned before, there are great classes offered online for free. The Y Combinator startup class in my last post is just one example. But in addition to education, the tools are free too. For 3D rendering, look to Autodesk. There are nine of these Autodesk 123D online apps that offer and incredible array of 3D rendering capabilities.

Catch: Create 3D scans of virtually any object.

Circuits: Design, compile, and simulate your electronic projects online.

Creature: Have a perfect character idea in your head? Bring it to life with this free app for iPad!

Design: 123D Design is a free, powerful yet simple 3D creation and editing tool which supports many new 3D printers.

Make: Turn your amazing 3D models into even more amazing do-it-yourself projects.

Meshmixer: The ultimate tool for 3D mashups and remixes. Mash, mix, sculpt, stamp or paint your own 3D designs.

Sculpt: Push, pull, pinch, paint, smooth, tug. More fun than a Renaissance studio, cleaner than clay.

Tinkercad: Get started with basic 3D modelling – no downloads required.

Sandbox: Here you’ll find some technology in progress.

 

If you think these are to complex and you’ll never figure them out, think again. Two years ago, I put my son on one to see how easy there were. He was ten at the time. Within a few hours, he had the Design app figured out and made the coffee cup below. Yeah, to him that’s a coffee cup. It look s more like a transformer/tank. You have to drink out of the spout on the right. He filleted and chamfered all the edges on his own. By the time he finished, he could manipulate the program to a high degree. The only thing I showed him was how to get into the program.

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I think the reason he did it so easily is that these programs are similar in nature to minecraft and the Lego Digital Designer. They have a modular sense of construction and the navigation tools are similar.

If you are still intimidated by software, take a look at this video. Using the Catch app, all you have to do is to take some pictures of an object and the program will stich the images together for you, creating a 3D rendering. Take some time to poke through these apps. It’s well worth your time.

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator Put Its Course Online, For Free!

Y Combinator is one of the best startup accelerators for tech entrepreneurs. It’s been around since 2008 and launched an amazing array of success stories including: Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit and Twitch. Now, they’ve launched an online course explaining their methods. And for the best part, it’s free. The course, “How to Start a Startup” is exactly how it sounds, a course on how to start a startup. And it’s great. I haven’t watched all the lectures. But the ones I have are really informative.

I recommend it for any creative person wanting to take control of their future.

How Sculptures Are Becoming Spaceships

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

For decades, the gravity defying sculptures of Kenneth Snelson have risen to the skies with a unique state of energy. These expansive nests of cable and steel rods possess a tranquil and rhythmic aesthetic quality linking geometry with art. It’s a process Snelson has perfected over the years. His sculptures are always a hit with the art-loving community and the not-so-art-loving community. He calls his combination of tension and compression, “tensegrity.” He and Buckminster Fuller seem to have come up with the idea together.

But as things go, good ideas have a multitude of applications. And now there is a new use for tensegrity—spaceships. NASA is now planning to build tensegrity robots called Super Ball Bots. These flexible robots are to roll like tumbleweeds around on the surfaces of planets sometime in the near future. NASA plans to drop the robots from high altitudes and just let them squish on the surface of the planet. Once they’ve done that, they’ll flex back into form and be good as new. Their combination of tension and compression makes these structures both flexible and durable. Without a central body, they basically look like a ball of sticks. Each little stick has its own brain and motor. Each brain works fairly independently and gang together to create an interesting system of interconnected computers that can continue navigating the robot even if some fail. The bots navigate by the each motor tightening or releasing tension in the cables.

How Sculptures Become Spaceships

It’s interesting to find useful solutions in one domain and then see those same principles jump to solve problems in other domains. You can call it synthesis, emulation, association or whatever. But in general, it’s creativity.

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

5 Questions That Make You More Creative

 

 

 

If you want a better solution, ask a better question. I first saw this statement in something by Edward de Bono, probably his book book Lateral Thinking. As I’ve written before, what you see is in part what you expect to see. Those who expect to see ordinary things, see those. And those who look for more unique things, find more interesting ones.

 

While lecturing on brainstorming, I often ask those in the audience a series of questions. The first one is “what am I wearing?” I have them write their answers in a few quick sentences. Following that, I ask the same question again, but with one word added, “specifically.” So the new questions is, “What specifically am I wearing?” It’s interesting how that one word, changes their answers. The responses to the first question are things like a button down shirt and khakis. The answers to the second question, as you may have guessed, include actual colors, patterns, brand names and other more informative insights than before. And that’s the difference one word makes.

 

To be more creative, you have to ask better questions. So here are five main questions you should ask yourself during projects.

 

How can I combine this with something else? Synthesis is the easiest method of generating unusual ideas. Any two things can be combined to make a new concept. And in the beginning of the creative process, this is a great question to expand your possibilities. How can a bridge be combined with a fan? Click here to see.

 

How can I adapt this concept to fit something else? The idea you have may be a good one, but it may work even better in another field. Who knew adding bike lanes to traffic would actually  speed up traffic? Click here for that. .

 

What can be substituted for this? There may be something out there that works better to solve your problem. This could be a different material, a different color or a different person to do it. Take time to switch out parts of the solution even though it seems to work well now. If you are trying to create light in an impoverished village with no electricity, maybe a liter bottle of water would do the trick. Click here for the video.

 

What negative could I turn into a positive? There are always shortcomings of products. But sometimes these shortcomings can be turned into assets if just looked at in the right way. A problem with roadways is that they take up a lot of space while reflecting a lot of heat and sun. What if we were to use them to collect energy? Here is an idea for solar roadways.

 

How can I simplify this? Usually, we tend to over-design products. As we keep improving the design, we keep adding more stuff. Eventually, they become confusing. The example here is an old one, the iPod. When it came out it was a revolution; it took only three clicks to get any song. If you can remember that far back, think of all the other mp3 players at the time. They had so many buttons it took an engineer to just turn them on. Here’s an idea.  Next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, take out half the words. See what that does. I bet more people pay attention to.

 

For more questions like these click here for a larger list called SCAMPER Questions on my blog.

 

How Does Creativity Relate to “Your” Job?

How Creativity Relates Your Job

When I speak with people at events and conferences about creativity, they tend to agree that creativity is a good thing. But for them personally, they don’t really see how it fits into their life. And I totally understand why someone would think this way. Historically, creativity has a confusing message.

But take it from me, creativity relates to your life and your method of doing business—no matter what you do. Wouldn’t you like for your employees to be more productive? Wouldn’t you like for your business to be more profitable. Or wouldn’t you just like to lead a happier, more meaningful life?

The skills related to creativity are flexibility, empathy, idea development, design, storytelling, problem solving, and so on. Creativity includes a huge range of skills related to contemporary life. As automation and outsourcing continue to change the nature of what we consider work, creativity becomes ever more relevant.

The definition I use is the production of something novel and useful. So when you solve a problem in a new and better way, you are being creative. Creativity can be big (paradigm changing) or small (personal). It doesn’t matter. Take for instance, if you decided to leave for work 20 minutes earlier each day in order to beat that traffic jam that occurs every morning as you get on the road. You may actually save time in your workday because you will be on the road for less time. As a result of not being in your car, you’ll be more productive and save gas. Let’s say as a result of leaving early, your daily commute is lessened by 10 minutes. Over the course of a year, you gain 40 hours of time. That’s like having a week vacation. Subsequently, it’s also a creative way for being more productive.

I’m using this example because where I live, leaving 20 minutes early can actually reduce my commute by about 20 minutes. But this is a small thing. What would happen if we were to scale up this type of thinking.

UPS did something similar to this a long time ago when they decided to just turn right. By minimizing left turns, they found that their truck routes were more efficient. Because of this policy, UPS has achieved the following:

  • Saved 10 million gallons of gas
  • Reduced CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons, equivalent to 5,300 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. UPS website

 

I think we often get confuse efficiency with effectiveness. UPS got it right. By thinking about the problem, running the numbers and including some unorthodox models, they were able to become much more effective, not just efficient. You can very efficiently do something wrong. Doing things effectively means doing things right.