John Cowen

Artist & designer

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What is Creativity

14 August 2014

What is Creativity

Too few people understand what creativity really is and are losing out because of it.

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about what creativity is.

We’re all accustomed to putting a label of ‘creative’ onto disciplines such as drawing, acting, writing, playing music or making furniture. The skills that would come under the umbrella of ‘Creative Arts’ in any university prospectus.

These disciplines are creative — or at least require a large degree of creativity — but, when you think about it, the most successful people in any discipline are the one’s applying high levels of creativity to it.

You can probably be a perfectly competent lawyer or dentist with little or no creative thought. But the best lawyers are those who take established legal knowledge and get creative with their research, presentations and examples of legal precedence to better support their client’s case or better debunk the opponents case.

The same with a dentist. They will need a rigorous, academic, knowledge of dentistry — but can distinguish themselves in the field by creatively adapting a process to be quicker, less painful or intrusive for patients.

Deciding what to draw or, more importantly, how to draw it, is creative. The core creative skills aren’t really the doing of the activity (drawing, acting, building) but the ideas of what to do with these skills.

Being able to draw or play guitar isn’t creative. It’s a skill you can learn like anything else.

In the case of our lawyer, she is applying creative thought with the objective of winning her client’s case. Success here is not entirely black and white — the client could win the case but only be awarded minimal damages, or win and be awarded substantial payout from the opponent. However, on a simplistic level, the process will result in a win or a loss. Success or fail.

The lawyer must make the journey on behalf of a client, where they start at point A with an accusation they must either prove or disprove — and get to point B which is a legal ruling in their favour. There is little scope for creativity at point B — a win in court is success and a lose is failure.

For an artist this isn’t necessarily the case, they will often have a wider remit of what can be defined as success.

The artist also makes the journey from point A to point B; but point B isn’t already defined. They can make a creative journey from point A and decide themselves what, or where, point B should be.

In the case of a band making an album, their objective is to record a collection of songs that will appeal to fans who will buy the album and be financially successful.

Success here is harder to define.

The album might be released to mixed reviews and fail to sell many copies. The record company might define this a failure. The band however might still believe in their work, and over time, public interest in the album might pick up, a slow burner or ahead of its time. It could be years before a particular album is recognised as a classic — but over time the project shifts from failure to success.

This domain intimidates many people. It requires a lot of experience, gut instinct and fearlessness to be the judge of what is a successful solution in such an open-ended context. It’s perceived as too subjective, too difficult to track within an accounting system — so is not recognised as a valid part of business, legal or medical practices.

So, it seems, we have come to define creative as a project where point B can’t be identified at the outset.

This mis-understanding of what creativity is and where it fits within a project journey — has led to lots of industries not recognising it’s relevance or giving creatives just reward. Sometimes organisations really don’t allow much creativity to infiltrate their workflow — and they are probably stagnating and struggling against younger, more creative, competitors. While other organisations do have a creative process as part of their workflow — but don’t recognise it as such because: ‘we’re professionals, not creatives’.

The problem for businesses with a lack of recognition for the value of creativity is:
At best they’re iterating on existing products and services based on known marketplace demands. This might be OK for a while, but causes serious problems when the known marketplace demands are blown apart by an innovative new product.

if they’re not embracing creativity, they’re not innovating.


The costs of small scale production has dropped. 3D printing, crowd funding, online marketplaces, social media and easy digital payments have made it easy for small businesses to get an idea to market. Established organisations can’t afford to not invest in creativity.

Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum or The Lean Startup by Eric Ries go into much greater depth of examples of how businesses can benefit by embracing creativity. And Dan Roam’s Unfolding the Napkin or IDEO’s Human Design Toolkit show how anyone can think creatively, or how creativity can be brought into a structured and quantifiable workspace.

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