Sunday 13 April 2008

Grey skies thinking

Creativity: Unconventional Wisdom from 20 Accomplished Minds, edited by Herbert Meyers and Richard Gertsman

The first thing you see on opening this book is a famous quotation from George Bernard Shaw: ‘You see things and say “why?” but I dream things that never were; and I say “why not?”’. This startling lack of originality in a book about creativity makes alarm bells ring.

Creativity brings together ‘Unconventional Wisdom from 20 Accomplished Minds’, selected and edited by consultants Herbert Myers and Richard Gerstman, whose ‘passion for creativity’ stems from running their global design consultancy for over 35 years. They promise to illuminate the paths of different creative minds and the social and personal factors that gave them status as ‘creatives’. And this is a veritable roll call of great creative thinkers – Daniel Libeskind, Dale Chihuly, Spike Lee, Erica Jong, Milton Glaser, along with lesser known names attached to great businesses: Chris Bangle (BMW), Nandan Nilekani (Infosys), Steve Wozniak (Apple). Unfortunately, the editors’ corporate conceptualisation of ‘creativity’ makes this collection about as exciting as a the spring show from Marks and Spencers. You know there is some good quality material, fairly well stitched together by a competent editor, which would probably fit a middle aged, size 14 secretary. But no way could you could be inspired by this book.

The problem is the editors take a top-down approach to understanding the complex notion of creativity. The interviews begin with the same question - what is creativity? - and the respondents give a rather similar (and by the end of the book, dull) answer – it’s thinking out of the box, it’s breaking the rules, it’s challenging convention… The result is a bland set of responses, not helped by the rather prosaic conversational form of the interview (even brilliant people can appear wooden in an interview transcript). Most importantly, this makes for quite a limited exploration of how these remarkable individuals have developed.

In fact, creative people don’t think of themselves as ‘creatives’ with a particular mentality to boot (unless, of course, they run a creative consultancy, in which case it’s necessary for promotional purposes). They think of themselves as novelists, engineers, software designers, journalists, artists, and so on: they are creative within a field of activity, in the concrete. They make things and are preoccupied with the things they make, unbothered with developing a ‘creative’ mentality. As these interviews show, such people come from a wide range of backgrounds, with very different family histories, experiences and opportunities. But it is their engagement with their chosen activity that drives them, rather than some kind of personal predisposition or character type. For example, in a recent television interview for BBC 4, VS Naipaul talked about the ‘strange luck’ that led him to become a great writer, but he also explained that there is no explanation for his greatness as a writer, ‘the explanation is the writing itself’.

The editors’ own strange view of creativity, to be fair, is not entirely their fault. We live in a society obsessed with cultivating the creative mind: on this view, the mental attitude is all that matters, regardless of what end product it actually makes. This shift has taken place most profoundly in arts education. In 1960s Britain, the Coldstream Report, chaired by artist William Coldstream, pronounced that art was no longer defined by a type of activity or genre (such as painting, sculpture, drawing, etc) but by an attitude. Although this articulated a very real fact – people who create things are frequently daring and irreverent in the way they see the ‘rules’ – it was too vague and psychologised a definition to make creativity mean anything anymore. And now, we have a deluge of state sponsored initiatives to encourage creativity in people (creative industries, Creative Partnerships, creative quarters, etc) but a dearth of the skills that allow people to create.

That is not to say the book is without merit, just that the most interesting points come when the interviewees stop talking about creativity and start discussing things they actually did and the challenges encountered. In some ways, this power of narration comes more easily from the inventors and the businessmen than the artists, because the former have more obvious ‘eureka’ moments that punctuate their life stories. Probably the best interviews in the book are with Nandan Nilekani, the head of Infosys, a major global company based in India, which provides outsourcing solutions to businesses all around the world. Nilekani had the canny insight to link India’s burgeoning educated, but affordable workforce with the market needs of developed economies. Even more impressive, he had the insight to use the surplus to support technology colleges and education in India, to build up the labour force even further.

Steve Wozniak, the inventor of Apple and father of the home computer, had a similarly remarkable journey, from a nerdy teenager obsessed with computer circuitry to a major rival to Microsoft and IBM. You can almost hear the famous folksy Apple advertisement music as you read his interview – he seems a charming and thoughtful guy who just wanted to make computers. I felt a shiver down my spine as I read about Wozniak’s ‘dynamic memory’ -  the thing that catapulted computing out of the dark ages of grey-green screens into the flashy, beautiful and controllable graphics we have now. It is amazing he was only 25 (his partner Steve Jobs was 21). Even more amazing that he became a fifth grade maths teacher and taught computing in Los Gatos in California, because it was something he had always wanted to do.

Importantly, there are many examples in the book when creativity is shown to be a team effort, rather than the spark of an individual genius – in the Porsche design team for instance, when creative minds all input their ideas and develop something that is tested collectively. Creativity is also something that requires hard work and intellectual energy, rather than spontaneity. Roland Heiler, head of Porsche design, states, ‘I believe that in the beginning, one brain, even if it’s a very creative brain, is not enough unless you know exactly from the start, what kind of style, what kind of solution you want to apply to the product’. Here he makes the case for thoughtful planning and consideration. Steven Holl, named ‘America’s Best Architect’ in 2001 by Time magazine, says, ‘If you try to do it with intuition alone it becomes just a mess. If you just try to do it with the pragmatics alone, that doesn’t lead anywhere either’.

Karl Marx pointed out that when people engage in creative labour they are required to pay close attention both to the concrete practice of creating, and the conceptualisation of the end product:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. (Capital, Vol 1. Chapter 7).

If this book had drilled down into the lives of a few people and really understood the sheer magnitude of what they’ve achieved, spelling out more specifically the achievements of their ideas, this would illuminate creativity far better than a few questions about their childhood.

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