April 15, 2009

Creativity as an egotistical, solitary, (profitable) endeavour

Colin asks on 38minutes whether good design could save newspapers, having spent six minutes watching Jacek Utko's TED Talk about his own redesign revolution throughout Eastern Europe. But the talk raises another, more widely applicable point in creativity: working alone is often better than working as a team.

Utko's principle point is that by handing power over to the designers, newspapers can change their whole recipe, from writing and editorial to the type of person, the demographic, that reads the paper. But he also makes an interesting point, particularly interesting for me in the light of the two posts I've recently written on the processes for encouraging and management of creativity:

"I'm not going to tell you stories about teamwork or cooperation. My approach was very egotistic [sic]. I wanted my artistic statement, my artistic interpretation of reality... We were experimenting... and we had fun."
2"25 into the film

The idea that the best creative thought can come from not working in a team, from not working collaboratively, but is derived from solitude and being headstrong with one's peers, pushing one's own ideas through regardless of whether "the team" feels comfortable with it is, in many education circles (and professional ones), treated as a selfish, dirty, shameful notion to possess.

Yet, it's not the first time I'm hearing this. John Cleese makes the point that we all need to carve out private time for creative thought, free from the distraction of naysayers and, er, Twitter. And last year, as I worked my way through Gordon Torr's Managing Creative People, I was well aware that throughout history the best creative solutions to challenging problems have come from individuals working in isolation or skunkwork groups working away from the main part of an organisation.

All too often we fall for groupthink, a magnolia shade of creativity where everyone is happy with the outcome. What one ends up with can often be the result of a process with which everyone was delighted, but a result which is vaguely unsatisfactory for all concerned.

Consultation and speaking with others is important, but often when it comes down to the execution of an idea it's the solitary craft of creativity that makes something exciting, groundbreaking and, yes, something which someone, somewhere won't like.


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Before teaching I was a graphic designer and I agree. In fact I teach my students to find their own creative space, or as I like to call it, your creative wardrobe. Like in C.S.Lewis' The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the wardrobe was a tool to enter a new world. I like the metaphor of your wardrobe a place where you can enter your creative world, and place where you can visit creativity - and you know what? You go there alone!

Right on. I think there needs to be a balance. The creative needs to be humble enough to get constant feedback, weigh it seriously, and at the end of the day, if it isn't helpful feedback, go back to their room and search out design answers personally and execute them. It is immensely hard to communicate the vision you see so clearly to one person so they can come close to grasping it in the same measure. The effort needs to be made, but the designer should be trusted as the visionary. Afterall, that is their profession. The trick is getting the money crunchers to see the dollar signs connected to viable ideas. And a good designer can do that as well...with a bit of prodding.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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