Since creativity can be manifested in countless ways, discussions of creativity can run both deep and wide. One goal of the Practice Profile series is to reveal, over time, the richness in those discussions by highlighting individuals’ personal practice. Every Profile is unique, as no two individuals share the same creative habits. This month I am excited to feature C. Todd Lombardo, whose creative habits happen to be rooted in visual thinking. The more familiar I become with visual thinking, design thinking, studio thinking and handmade thinking, the more clearly I understand the benefits of each.

Recently, C. Todd shared with me his thoughts on the value of visual thinking:

“I am a sketchnoter, which is a fancy word for notetaking doodler. I like to visualize things as I hear or think about them. This could be in a meeting, at a lecture or a conference or even when I am just thinking about something. At its simplest, it’s boxes and arrows. It is not about being a great artist, nor being “good at drawing,” rather establishing relationships with concepts in a visual manner. I sketchnote for myself, but I have found that other people find value in them, so I post most of them to Flickr. This doesn’t change my practice. In fact, because it is for myself I give myself permission to really screw up (read fail!). If I was doing this for others I’d feel more pressure to elevate the level of quality, which wouldn’t allow me to discover what many like to call “happy accidents.” This is helpful because some are really amazing. I think “wow, I did that,” while others are pretty terrible.”

Posting sketchnotes to Flickr makes his creativity accessible for others to observe. The images, drawn by hand, become an opportunity to learn about the ideas or concepts depicted in the drawings. Topics range from Glen Kelman’s presentation “Where do Ideas Come From?” at the Harvard Innovation Lab to “Human Centered Design, Methods for 21st Century Challenges”. Each pictorial rendering is dense with information, with only the most essential details communicated.

When asked how sketchnoting informs his professional practice, C. Todd explained: 

“This practice of visualizing helps me think about anything, and gives structure to my thought process. The story below shows a great example of how it helps with communicating in my professional life. I also think that there’s a kinesthetic value actually doing something with my hands and creating helps solidify concept in my brain so that I can recall them at a later date or even better, when I refer back to the image I can tell the story just as vividly as when I first heard the concept. I also find that it pulls out things that others may not have noticed or thought about. For example, I took notes at a talk given by Hacker Chick (Abby Fitchner) and she mentioned something about “leap and a net will appear” which she dismissed as something unimportant, but when she saw the notes she realized that it was quite integral to her talk and was surprised that picked up on it.” 

Finally, I asked for a memorable example that would speak to the relationship between his creative and professional pursuits.  His reply:

“A few months ago, I had a phone call with Eli Stefanski from BIF. As we chatted I started drawing out our conversation on the whiteboard and circled areas I wanted to circle back on and dive deeper into. I took a photo and sent it to her as a record of our conversation. Last week we were on a phone call with a few others and she was explaining something to the group. I repeated back to her what I understood the concept was and her reply was something to the effect of:  “Yes, that’s exactly correct, can you send me the picture you’re drawing that explains that? I’ve been trying to distill this for a while.” I chuckled because indeed I had drawn it and she rightly called me out.” 

C. Todd’s stories about sketchnoting speak to the value of visual thinking, with the examples posted to Flickr demonstrating that value further. With the promise of deeper comprehension and better retention (not to mention the possibility of the occasional happy accident!) I am certain to be putting pen to paper more often.

______________________________

C. Todd Lombardo, often known as “CTodd,” has over 15 years of experience creating change in the corporate world and is very comfortable navigating ambiguity. When it comes to creativity he believes the power of three simple skills: convergence, divergence and withholding of judgment. He can be found working on a variety of project types such as user experience (UX), communication, design and strategy. In addition, he serves on the adjunct faculty at Madrid’s top-ranked IE Business School where he teach courses in design thinking, innovation and communication. His sketchnotes are often found online, and he believes chocolate chip cookies are one of the secrets to creativity.

© 2013 Kira Campo

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Every idea has an antecedent.  Last February, when Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist was published it offered readers a close up view of the people and things that shape his work. Kleon’s first book, Newspaper Blackout, was a nominee for the 2010 Goodreads Choice Award in the Poetry category, and became a Poetry Foundation 2010 Best Seller. Recently, I asked the author to participate in a brief Q&A, to highlight a few concepts mentioned in Steal Like An Artist.

You speak about keeping a ‘swipe file’ and the importance of collecting good ideas.  What are some of the more unlikely or memorable source materials that have made it into your file through the years?

AK: Oh, most of what I collect is pretty mundane: newspaper clippings, pages from old books, magazine photos, etc.  

You indicate that you have gained inspiration from the poems that  others share on your Newspaper Blackout website.  How would you describe the creative community that has grown from this reciprocal exchange of ideas?

AK: It’s a funny community, because I don’t know any of the members personally or any of their biographical details, really — we’re all just working in solitude but then sharing that work publicly. The exchange of ideas just comes naturally out of the sharing, not necessarily any back and forth dialogue. 

Keeping a calendar and logbook ensures that structure is built directly into your process. What are some of the measures you have built into your process to ensure sufficient experimentation and exploration? 

AK: For experimentation, I try to structure my work time so that there are no expectations about the results of the work — it’s more like play, like a kid with building blocks or something. As Bob Ross used to say, there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

For exploration, I find that sticking to a day-to-day routine means that when you break that routine, the strangeness of the upset and the unfamiliar things you experience work on you even more. It makes the travel and the moments of serendipity in the stacks that much more effective.

You have a number of ‘Deleted Scenes’ near the end of the book. Please select one and elaborate. 

AK: Let’s just take “mutations” — sometimes the process of transforming your influences into something new is a matter of the imperfections in your copying. For instance, human memory is a very imperfect device — sometimes our faulty memories of a thing means when we try to replicate it was come up with something new. The voice actor Billy West put it this way: “A bad impression of somebody is a voice no one’s ever heard before!”

Steal Like an Artist will be the focus of the next #creativereads Twitter chat on Tuesday, January 22nd at 8pm ET.  Join us!

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Austin Kleon is a writer who draws. He’s the author of two best-selling books: Steal Like An Artist (2012) is an illustrated manifesto for creativity in the digital age, and Newspaper Blackout (2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker.

His work has been featured on 20×200.com, NPR’s Morning Edition, PBSNewshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalNew York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”

He grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but now he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Meghan, his son, Owen, and his dog, Milo.

© 2013 Kira Campo

Last year marked the start of the Practice Profile series.  Each post in the series captured a glimpse of what we can learn of creativity.
I’m delighted to be starting 2013 with a feature of David Timony. Both a musician and an educator, his commitment to learning was immediately evident to me when we met several years ago. His blog is often insightful, and his Twitter stream often humorous. Among the things I have learned to expect from the Philadelphia native: candor.

About his personal creative practice, David remarks,

“I’m restless. Learning new things is pretty much a constant activity for me. It is not always purposive learning, sometimes it is just a matter of mental diet. I many ways I treat my mind the way a competition athlete may treat their body.”

Curiosity and the drive to learn are essential to creative output.
Without the benefit of diverse input, from which thoughts and ideas are gathered, the likelihood of seeing a familiar topic anew is slim. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to expand our experiences, so that novel input can be explored.

In the examples that follow, David describes ways he has sought novelty in his creative work:

“It’s all about the process and how that process influences the rest of my life. I’m my own coach and devils advocate–I don’t trust my tacit mind. If I love or hate something, I want to know why and how I could change that if only for a while. I started learning Romanian and Italian just to see what it would be like to be in that situation. I’m strongly considering a Scandinavian language because it is unlike anything I know. If I’m not actively learning new things I get out of shape and dull. I guess I can get really annoying really fast. 

This is a parallel to how I approach everything. A composition professor told me years ago, ‘you’re not going to write intervals or chords that have never been heard before.’  The next thing I did was go out and see how I could change that. I pulled the frets off of my main guitar. The luthier said, ‘you’ll hardly ever use that, it’s impossible.’  Well, that became my main guitar and still is.”

Like many others who thrive creatively, David understands the value of stepping outside the lines of certainty and beyond the comfort of the known. He explains,

“Being a learner requires some basic rules for living. There is no sanctity or superstition in my work. I’m willing to be uncomfortable. I’m willing to be wrong. However I may seem on the outside I’m terribly sensitive to others and hold no defense or pride to my method. I do, though, want to be sure and thorough. Some people have told me that they are not comfortable with my willingness to be uncomfortable. 

It’s been said that while Shoenberg was the primary architect of serialism, it was Berg and Webern who did it best. I’m alright being out front and setting stages for others. Sure, pioneers get slaughtered but hey, we all have our roles.” 

One of the greatest (and most damaging?) myths about creativity perpetuates the common misperception that discipline is somehow at odds with creativity. Significant creative outcomes require discipline.
David regards his training this way,

“I am familiar with the intensity of focus and practice required to learn. It has made me very honest about the work I am willing to invest to achieve in a domain. My calibration and tolerances are very finite. I love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’m willing to improve slowly knowing that I cannot dedicate the practice necessary to improve at a quicker pace. In other areas, there are differing amounts of those resources.” 

When asked about the ways in which his creative practice influences his work as an educator:

“I can’t think of one. It’s all just living for me. I really don’t see my life in compartments like that. Everything that I do has a reciprocal influence–it’s a performance, a rehearsal, a critique, and a classroom. Life is pretty surreal sometimes.”

As 2013 begins, I see many opportunities to integrate creative practice and professional practice.  I look forward to sharing some of that work here.  And, as always, I look forward to the learning!

______________________________

David D. Timony holds a PhD in Educational Psychology and is a teacher, speaker, and researcher with more than 20 years experience in the classroom. He is a regular presenter at local, national, and online conferences and seminars. David draws upon his life as an artist and musician to bring creativity to his educational work and has been recognized for his approach in creating and developing tailored programs for individuals, groups, and institutions. When not at his desk, he spends his time with his family and chairs the Board of Directors at Miro Dance Theatre.

David’s research focuses on the demonstration and development of teacher expertise, student perceptions of teacher expertise, and the effect that the interaction of these constructs has on the outcomes for teachers and students.

A regular invitee to national and international conferences, his research has been presented at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Temple University’s Department of Psychological Studies in Education, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and Phi Delta Kappa International’s Summit on Teacher Quality and Retention.

© 2013 Kira Campo

Each Practice Profile in the series highlights the personal creative practice of an individual, in order to demonstrate one of the most reliable and inspiring elements of creative expression: variety.  In an increasingly complex world, the outlets for creative expression, and the tangible forms of such expression, are both exciting and staggering!

The nature of creative practice defies narrow definition.
There is consistency within practice, but practice is often mercurial. There are some common elements between individuals, but personal practice is also highly idiosyncratic.  Fortunately, the many benefits of maintaining a practice are far easier to describe.

Len Kendall describes his personal practice this way:

“In a word, accidental. My creative practice is generally spurred by discovering interesting new ideas, projects, and people online. My output usually comes in the form of writing, sketching, and “non-technical hacking” which involves using digital tools in unexpected ways. When I come across something that excites me or challenges me, I block off time in the future to tinker with it or write about it. The majority of the time, my creative practice has little output, but the process of sifting leads me to new creative avenues. Once in a while, I land a real gem.”

Len’s emphasis on the inherent value of process renders output, temporarily, to a secondary concern.  What Len refers to as “new creative avenues” are a necessary part of the process which ultimately lead to new creative territory.  Although this craggy territory may be harder to explore than territory which is already known, the input we receive from such exploration is key to creative output.  To explore is to be willing to investigate new avenues without knowing the terrain, or exactly where the road, on or off the macadam, might lead.  Reserving time  to investigate a topic that excites or challenges, as Len mentions, truly embodies the spirit of exploration that is needed to “land a gem”.

Much has been written about the importance of flexible thinking in the 21st century, and adaptability as a significant life skill.  On the topic of flexible thinking, John Dewey once wrote, “Only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspects and qualities in familiar scenes and objects.”   Although it is true of the artistic process, this openness to new fields of experience, described by Dewey, is a necessary part of exploration in every domain.

Len acknowledges the role of experimentation:

“With my new venture CentUp, I’m building a product that requires a behavior change in a large group of people. Taking on creative projects requires a person to learn something new, try something different, or simply be uncomfortable. Ultimately, there are hurdles that need to be overcome and I’ve been studying the specific issues that have prevented me, and others, from wanting to pursue a creative idea. The same process takes place with a new digital product.”

Although Len chose the word accidental to describe his practice, it is also clear that there are some important moments he isn’t willing to leave to chance.  Here he describes the resourcefulness that characterized a recent milestone:

“When I proposed to my now fiancé via something I called Operation SayYesKatie, I had to build a viral campaign extremely quickly and leverage the power of a large media partner and my friends.”

The examples in this Practice Profile speak to a personal creative practice that prizes the process, and also demonstrates where the avenues of such a process might lead.  Other examples of his handiwork found on the internet demonstrate where else the process might lead!
So what has all this exploring and experimentation taught Len about the nature of creativity?

He explains:

“The biggest lesson I learned is that people are more inclined to help you with creative projects if there is a large component of good involved. With my proposal that component was helping a guy profess his love, with my new professional pursuit, it’s raising money for charity. So much creative talent today is leveraged to sell commodity products. My practice with creativity in the past has taught me that if you want lots of collaboration in your creative pursuits, you need to be building something that makes people’s hearts feel good.” 

What has your creative practice taught you?

 ________________________________________________

Len Kendall lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Expert at nothing. A Social Entrepreneur.
He is the founder of http://centup.org and former Digital Director @GolinHarris.
The internet is his box of LEGOs.

© 2012 Kira Campo

While in DC last spring I paid a visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to see The Art of Video Games, one of the first exhibits to document the forty-year history of home video games.  The sophisticated aesthetics that we have grown to expect of games speaks volumes about the marriage between artistry and technology.  For example, the beauty and fluidity embodied in games such as Flower and Journey would not be possible without advancements in technology. Although attention was paid to the talent that contributes to on-screen artistry, overall there was little emphasis placed on the artistic elements that contribute to video game graphics.  However, there were a number of interviews with media scholars, video game designers, and producers, most of which offered insightful glimpses into another form of artistry: that of the gamer.

Storytelling and emotional connection through gaming were dominant themes in the interviews.  One of the best articles I have read about the exhibit includes a quote from Chris Melissinos, curator of the exhibit.  Melissinos notes that one of the things about the exhibit that has been most rewarding is “helping to elevate the argument about what video games can mean to society at large”.

More recently I was in NY and paid a visit to the MoMA to see Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000, an exhibition that demonstrated, among other things, some of the major influences upon learning throughout the 20th century.  Among the early influencers were individuals such as Freidrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner.  The exhibit was an invaluable opportunity to see how learning and artifacts of play have changed over time.  For example, while I was aware of Froebel’s influence on early childhood education, the exhibit enabled me to learn more about his methods.  The exhibit featured Froebel’s “Gifts”, a series of twenty-one playthings he designed with the intention of fostering curiosity and creativity in children.

Among the many things that struck me was the history of playgrounds in the United States, which developed in concert with the Arts and Craft movement in Chicago.  John Dewey’s contributions in the realm of education also added momentum to what was then only a nascent concept of playground, as Chicago was the location of his Laboratory School.

Overall, the thing I found to be the most though-provoking was the method of rapid chalk sketching Rudolf Steiner relied upon for mark-making, in order to communicate “his sense of thought as living, creative energy” and of the individual as part of a larger whole.  As I considered Steiner’s methods I realized that part of the appeal was the sense of vitality those methods exuded.  The sense of immediacy found in Steiner’s markings reminded me of an experience I had last summer when I participated in my first Gamestorming session.  More recently, I experienced a similar vitality, while helping to build a temporary playground in one of Philadelphia’s most famed neighborhoods, Rittenhouse Square.  A mere two hours of building reminded me of the intrinsic value of playgrounds, not to mention the significance of the individual as part of a larger whole.

Reflecting on these two exhibits, along with my recent experiences engaging in various forms of analog play, the experiential differences between digital and analog stand in contrast.  In a recent online discussion about Gamestorming, there were various remarks made about the benefits of working in analog.

One of the most compelling arguments I have encountered about analog play comes from Katie Salen, DePaul University, the Executive Director of the Institute of Play, in this remarkable seven minute video.
To quote Ms. Salen:
“Play creates in people a reason for them to want to engage.”

As the influence of digital and virtual are increasingly blended into our lives, we face many new questions and new realities in our analog space.  Games such as Minecraft seem to have myriad applications with respect to learning.  And, as I write this post, in the wake of the most destructive storms I have ever experienced, I am acutely aware of the way technology helps to connect us, and, in doing so, elevates our human experience.

My hope is that the dialogue that Mr. Melissinos refers to regarding video games will continue.  Books such as Jane McGonigal’s, Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, certainly make a very compelling case for why the dialogue ought to continue.

As we endeavor to enrich our communities, I hope we will also choose to take full advantage of games and modes of discovery that are purely analog in nature.  Why?
Because these experiences will also make us better and will help to change the world.

© 2012 Kira Campo

Since its publication in 2010, Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, has received a great deal of high praise.  The authors, Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo, have written an informative and engaging read.  But, as the title indicates, the book was written with a more specific purpose; it was written to catalyze action.  And so it has.

Over the last two years, the principles and strategies featured in Gamestorming have enjoyed steady momentum with an ever-widening audience.  It’s hard to imagine finishing the book without becoming partial to the dynamism of gamestorming methods versus traditional brainstorming methods.  At a recent event in Philadelphia, I learned about the genesis of Gamestorming in greater detail.

(Many thanks to Tactile Design Group for hosting the event and also to Jessica Ivins for facilitating!)

Dave Gray explained (via Skype) that many of the practices he, and others, had been employing for some time are now codified in the book.  Listening to Dave describe those practices that evening, many other questions came to mind.  Below you will find some of those questions, as well as Dave’s responses.

1. How does your training as an artist inform your work with organizations?

DG: “Art training differs from many kinds of professional training in that it tends to be very experiential.  In art school we learn by doing.  This means most theoretical learning is informed by practice.  And as everyone eventually learns, just because something works in theory does not mean it works in practice.  I do think that the experience of going to art school has made me more skeptical of ideas that cannot be tested in the crucible of experience.  My bias is to try and test new ideas before accepting or discounting them.  A good idea applied is better than a great idea that remains a theory.”

2. How has your use of visual thinking strategies within organizations evolved over time?  More recently, how has your own work as a practitioner been influenced by the writing of Gamestorming?

DG: “Certainly the work of putting the Gamestorming ideas into a book forced me and my co-authors to make sure there were no gaps in our experience and understanding.  Only exercises that we had thoroughly tested ourselves were allowed into the book.  In addition, after we released Gamestorming into the world, people have embraced it and amplified it in ways we could never have anticipated.  I might add here that open-sourcing all the material at http://gogamestorm.com has involved many, many people in building up a library or pattern language of activities and exercises that could not have been easily compiled any other way.”

3. You have described PRACTICE as essential. What benefits or results have you observed in individuals who commit to the practice of Gamestorming?

DG: “This probably goes back to my art training.  Facilitation is a skill, and it takes an investment of time and energy to develop a skill.  The best facilitators I know take it seriously as a discipline and work hard at it.  The good news about Gamestorming is that in a game-like structure, the burden of facilitation is distributed among a group of people, so you don’t bear that entire burden alone.  And with only a little bit of effort you can get good enough to get positive feedback from your team, which gives you the energy to learn and try more things.

It doesn’t take too much effort to set a positive feedback loop in motion in your organization.”

4. In your experience, which aspects of Gamestorming are organizations or individuals often resistant to, unsure of, or slow to embrace?

DG: “It depends on the organization, but some people have a harder time with physical activities like role-playing, improvisation, bodystorming and so on.  There’s a lot of personal risk there.  People are reluctant to do anything that would make them look foolish in front of a group.  So I like to lead up to that slowly by having people do simple things first, like working with sticky notes, or exercises they can do individually on a table-top, like making simple sketches.  If you let people ease into things they build up their confidence and are often ready for more. 

That said, I do think the physical activities can be great for keeping a group’s energy high and provoking stimulating, breakthrough ideas.  The whole idea of Gamestorming is to get people out of their habitual thought patterns and spark new kinds of thinking.  So I do try to get there.  But like anything big, it helps to start small.”

Among other things, Gamestorming outlines the benefits of utilizing visual thinking strategies.  These methods are a springboard to critical and creative thinking.  In fact, the book concludes with a compelling case study that beautifully illustrates the impact these methods can have on problem finding and problem solving.  But don’t take my word for it…check it out and share YOUR thoughts about Gamestorming!

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, will be the focus of the next #creativereads Twitter chat on Tuesday, October 23st at 8pm ET. 
Join us!

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Dave Gray, SVP Strategy, Dachis Group, is a management consultant, focused on innovation and change. He works with companies to spark breakthrough thinking, to find and clarify their greatest challenges and opportunities, and to design their way into the future. His previous book, Gamestorming, has sold more than 50,000 copies and has been translated into 16 languages.

© 2012 Kira Campo

Tina Seelig’s inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity has been my favorite read this summer.  Each chapter emphasizes principles that are key to producing creative outcomes, in addition to memorable examples that illustrate the creative process in vivid detail.  In short, the book offers a great deal of practical information and is written in a style that maintains a perfect tempo from beginning to end.

I was delighted when Tina agreed to elaborate upon some of the themes addressed throughout inGenius.  Those additional thoughts are found below.
Enjoy!

Imagination:
“There are many ways to stretch your imagination. Three that I focus on in my book are framing and reframing problems, connecting and combining ideas, and challenging assumptions. Each of these tools allows you to hone your ability to generate fresh ideas. By questioning the problems you ask, you open the landscape of possible solutions. By connecting ideas you come up with new and surprising ideas. And, by challenging assumptions, you push beyond obvious solutions to the problems you face.”

Mindset:
“Fostering a mindset of creativity is critically important in problem solving. If you don’t believe that you can find a problem, then you won’t find one. The more you practice coming up with innovative ideas, the better you get, and the more confident you become. This is like any other skill that must be practiced to master.” 

Focused Attention:
“Learning about art and using your artist skills is a key to creativity. Essentially, you are learning how to look at the world and how to capture it in interesting ways. For example, if you are painting a still life, you must look at the same bowl of fruit for hours in order to capture its essence. The same type of focused attention is used to see interesting problems that need to be solved and solutions that others don’t notice.”

Failure:
“Whenever we do things that haven’t been done before, there are surprises. In many cases we call them failures. I prefer to call them “data” and to mine them to learn something interesting. This is one of the secrets of truly creative people…. They try lots of things and keep what works, using the failures as fertilizer for the next idea.”

Among the many things that make inGenius distinctive is the six part Innovation Engine model, which Tina describes at length in the final chapter.  She discusses its conception below:

“I spent months creating the Innovation Engine because I wanted to find a way to accurately capture the things that influence creativity and how these factors are interrelated. The Mobius strip graphic was perfect because all the parts are interwoven illustrating that these factors influence one another in surprising ways. Creativity requires paying attention to all six parts of the Innovation Engine, since all components influence each other.”

inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity will be the focus of the next #creativereads Twitter chat on Tuesday, August 21st at 8pm ET.
Join us!

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Tina Seelig is the Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the entrepreneurship center at Stanford School of Engineering, and the Director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. She teaches courses on innovation and entrepreneurship in the department of Management Science and Engineering, and within the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school).

Dr. Seelig earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University Medical School where she studied Neuroscience. She has been a management consultant, multimedia producer, and the founder of a multimedia company. In addition, Tina has written 16 popular books and educational games. Her newest books, published by HarperCollins, are What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, and inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.

© 2012 Kira Campo

For the last few months I’ve been working on a series with the title Noticing: An Homage in Analog. The earliest stage of this series began with my participation in Mary Ann Reilly’s CrowdSourcingLove project. Even as I rendered the first notecard I had already begun to envision what might be included in other works.  Each piece contains unifying elements—hand lettered notecards, postmarked stamps, a line of text excerpted from various poems, as well as imagery rendered in pencil and watercolor.

Acts of noticing allow us to experience any moment in a rich, full fashion.  When we pause, to allow ourselves to become absorbed in the moment, we break from routine and the typical pace of our everyday lives.  Though the unique things that capture our attention may vary, these acts of noticing begin to develop the invaluable skill of observation.

Last month there was an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, How to End the Age of Inattention.  The article describes the value of sharp observation skills within the medical profession and cites “museum interventions” at Yale’s School of Medicine as an effective means of strengthening such skills.  While the practice of medicine benefits from heightened observation skills in significant ways, the benefits are not limited to the field of medicine.  Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project, also made a remarkably convincing case for paying attention in his post, Slow Down, You Move Too Fast.

This summer I have been revisiting the writing of Ellen Langer, whose research examines Mindfulness.  Also on my summer reading list is Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart.  Rheingold advocates that we establish tactics and practices to balance the manner of “information scanning” we have grown so accustom to in the digital age.  As I read Langer’s writing again, Mindfulness continues to feel like an important avenue to consider as we strive for balance.  In fact, early in Rheingold’s book he asserts, “It’s impossible to separate signal from noise without exercising attention, so mindfulness is a prerequisite to effective crap detection.” (Loc 205)

As for my series, Noticing, the process of conceiving each work, along with the execution, is the point.  I look forward to completing these works later this summer, but it will not mark the end of my noticing.  Quite the contrary.  The series is one of many ways to emphasize, embody and record a commitment to noticing and observation.  One of the things I value most about having a personal creative practice is each new opportunity to give tangible form to a lifetime of observation.

The popularity of digital sharing platforms such as Instagram or Pinterest reminds us that noticing can take many forms.  Responding to something posted online or posting a new photo are among the ways we demonstrate our instinct for noticing in the digital era.  On the other hand, the appeal of a sketchbook, used by artists and scientists to document observations for centuries, is hardly lost. It’s not as if digital and analog are at odds; they may just serve our noticing in different ways.

© 2012 Kira Campo

Each post in the Practice Profile series captures the distinct perspective of one individual, in order to highlight some of the ways a personal creative practice can impact professional practices.  Recently I asked Paul Williams, founder of Idea Sandbox, what he relies upon to maintain his inimitable style of playful creativity.  In this Practice Profile, Paul shares some of the tactics that aid him in his work as a professional problem solver.

Paul’s first suggestion: Write It Down.  He explains,

“That situation or problem you thought about last week has been mulling in the back of your brain.  Our brains fire out ideas when we do things that don’t require a lot of thought, when doing things that are routine.  Driving to work.  Taking a shower.  Exercising.

For me it is the shower.  I’ll be struck with a brilliant idea, an idea so great I know I’ll remember it.  Only to lose it when another idea hits.  So, I bought a diver’s slate.  A small piece of white plastic with a pencil attached to it.  This is what underwater divers use to make notes.”

Although it would be convenient if the ideation process occurred in an orderly fashion, that just isn’t the case.  Any idea is just one of many possibilities.  And, as Paul describes, often when the possibilities begin to flow they flow fast and furious!  When problem solving, capturing ideas in their earliest stage is an important step in reaching a refined and quality solution; much like the artist or designer whose process begins with rough sketches in order to eventually yield a refined composition or design.  While the habit of keeping a notebook to capture ideas is not a new method, relying on a diver’s slate in the shower spins that concept, making it quite an effective variation of the norm!

Paul was clear that he always has something to capture thoughts and ideas, whether it is the Notes app on his iPhone or a Field Notes brand book and pen.  His philosophy is simple: it doesn’t matter what you use—as long as you are using something.

Another technique Paul recommends is mind mapping.  He maintains that part of the value in mind mapping is the ability to represent certain connections in a visual fashion.

In his words,

“We get uncomfortable when new ideas are so different they do not link with old ideas. It makes us nervous.  Feels risky.  As a result remarkable ideas are often not adopted or modified so they feel more familiar (and ultimately no longer remarkable).”

The visual nature of a mind map makes it easier to observe what connects the new with the old.  Seeing the relationship between the ideas tangibly expressed on the page can help to mitigate some of the nervousness around a new idea. Paul suggests that this type of nervousness, “is one of the problems with the adoption of new ideas within organizations.”

Reluctance may accompany the unfamiliar, but, when evaluating possibilities, we benefit from the willingness to put reluctance and judgement aside.  Taking the time to pay attention to unrelated facts and ideas, even if the information initially seems at odds, can make all the difference.  Such was the case with an example Paul shared about exploring the common ground between farming and advertising:

“An ad agency was experiencing employee churn.  Designers would often quit after only working for 9 months or so, complaining they felt ‘burned out.’

The problem caused me to remember a lesson about farming.  If you planted the same crop in the same field too many times – the soil would become tired, lose nutrients, and not produce.

I wondered if the same way you kept soil productive and nutrient-rich would work for the agency.  Instead of designers doing the same type work until they became worn out, what if they rotated the types of projects they worked on?

The firm tried the idea – and everyone was happy. Designers cross-trained for a variety of project types.  This enhanced productivity and made for an overall more creative team!  And, instead of specializing, having a depth and breath of knowledge made each designer better at all types of projects.

While this technique – stealing and applying ideas from seemingly unrelated fields – isn’t the ONLY tool in my creative shed, it is one that has come in handy many times.”

When asked about his personal practice, and how it informs his professional practice, Paul replied,

“There is a great quote by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee.  It goes something like this… ‘The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.’  For me being creative is fun, so when I do it for work – it is always play.”

Whether the line is between farming and advertising or work and play (or anything else) very often it is our willingness to blur the line that leads to the most creative outcomes!

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Paul Williams is the founder of Idea Sandbox, a brainstormer and professional problem solver. Through hand-crafted strategy and brainstorm sessions he helps people create remarkable ideas to grow their business. As one client put it, “Idea Sandbox turns brains into idea machines.”

Paul has spent the past 20 years building marketing, branding, and customer-experience strategy for The Disney Company, the Aramark Corporation, and Starbucks Coffee Company. He founded Idea Sandbox in 2005 driven by his passion to help others create remarkable ideas. He blends the skills and lessons he has learned through the years to build a sandbox – an idea sandbox.

He help brands solve challenges, grow their brand, think-up remarkable ideas, and create innovation. Clients include: Starbucks Coffee Company, Starbucks Coffee International, Panera Bread Company, Seattle’s Best Coffee, BGR The Burger Joint, USA TODAY, Woodhouse Day Spas, The Microsoft Corporation, and Wells Fargo Mortgage.

He lives just outside Washington DC in Alexandria, Virginia.

Last month, the Practice Profile featuring Jon Mueller marked the beginning of a new series.  Each post in the series will highlight the creative practice of one individual, in order to explore the theme of this blog from another perspective.  Celebrating creative expression through dialogue in this way creates opportunity for interesting threads to be revealed.

This month I am excited to feature Linda Essig.  I have followed Linda’s blog, Creative Infrastructure, for more than a year, and it is my great pleasure to have her thoughts included here.

I began by asking two basic questions:

How would you describe your personal creative practice?

and

In what ways have you observed this practice informing your professional practice?

To which Linda replied,

“I find it difficult to separate the two. There is creative activity that I undertake that is not part of my professional practice, but a lot of my professional practice is creative or is about enabling the creativity of others. If creativity means coming up with new ideas (which is how I define it for my students) then perhaps creative practice is bringing those ideas to some level of actualization or, at least, publication.”

Emphasis on action, rather than sheer ideation or imagination, is integral to any conversation about creativity and creative practice.  Particular elements of creative practice may vary greatly from person to person, but commitment to action is a necessary constant.  The impulse to act upon a creative idea takes place in all contexts, and genuine creativity is not readily contained.  As Linda suggests,

“Creativity happens everywhere. I mean that in terms of my personal practice of creativity (some of my best ideas are developed while thinking sideways, thinking about something else) and in terms of the loci of creativity in our culture. Creativity happens in central city classrooms, in artist’s studios, in business conference rooms, and in every part of the country. This has always been true, but the democratized digital distribution of ideas makes the pervasiveness of creativity more obvious.”

As digital culture thrives, we gain the capacity to record and share evidence of actualized creativity with far greater ease.  Consider the presence of sites like Kickstarter and Etsy, and each software or app du jour that enables us to engage in some form of creative or artistic expression.  We only have to look as far as our mobil devices to access memorable examples of creativity such as Caine’s Arcade, Talk Back: The Bubble Project, or the story of a game designer now well-know for his solar system app. And certainly what circulates digitally represents only a fraction of the creativity that takes place in our daily lives.

Does the sharing move our collective creativity forward in some way?  Does the ubiquity of examples serve to catalyze more abundant creative impulses within ourselves and in our communities?  And, if so, does the impact occur closer to the stages of inspiration and ideation or does it also have an impact upon execution?

Execution, in contrast to ideation, favors consistency.  Linda offers the following thoughts,

“However, just because creativity happens everywhere doesn’t mean it is practiced everywhere. Practice implies intention and repetition. Thus, when I go into my kitchen and cook an interesting meal, I (or you) may consider that action creative but not part of my professional creative practice.

Conversely, when I approach my desk on Monday morning to write, that is creative practice ­ I create with intention, discipline, and practice.”

Many books have been written which describe the discipline needed to achieve a creative outcome.  Among my favorites is Twyla Tharp’s, The Creative Habit.  Certain lines from the book stayed with me long after the first reading.  For example,

“No one can give you your subject matter, your creative content; if they could, it would be their creation and not yours.  But there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it.  And you can make it habitual.” 

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Linda Essig heads ASU’s arts entrepreneurship program, p.a.v.e, which has helped launch 27 arts-based ventures into the Phoenix area and beyond since its inception in 2005.  She was Founding Director of the School of Theatre and Film in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts where she also served as Artistic Director of the school’s MainStage Season from 2004–2010. A professional lighting designer, Essig’s design for the ASU production of Suzan–Lori Parks’s “Venus” was part of the USA National Exhibit of theatrical design at the Prague Quadrennial in 2007. Essig has designed lighting for theatres throughout the country including Cleveland Playhouse, Milwaukee Rep, Missouri Rep, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Skylight Opera, La Mama ETC, Pioneer Theatre, Madison Repertory Theatre and others. She currently has funding from the Kauffman Foundation for her work on the p.a.v.e. program and has previously been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Tempe, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She is the author of articles and book chapters on both arts entrepreneurship and lighting design as well as two books: Lighting and the Design Idea (to be published in a third edition January 2012) and The Speed of Light: Dialogues on Lighting Design and Technological Change. She is a member of the boards of directors of the Phoenix Fringe Festival and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.  Her blog, http://creativeinfrastructure.wordpress.com covers arts entrepreneurship, arts policy, higher education in the arts and, occasionally, cooking. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix

© 2012 Kira Campo