When lightning strikesCreative ideas when you least expect them

In a previous post, Creativity is not a personality trait but a moment in time, I discussed the Ted talk given by Ms Elizabeth Gilbert about the concept of a ‘genius’. It raised some very big questions in me about my own creative process and how and why I have these ‘moments of genius’ where an idea seems as though it’s presented itself on a silver platter with all the trimmings. I’ve started to track when and where I get hit by these lightning bolts; I’m not that surprised about the results:

My best ideas don’t happen at work.

Have you ever solved a problem that’s been bugging you for months – at a time when you least expected? In the shower? Staring mindlessly out of the train window? Running, walking, or doing some other repetitive exercise? This is when I have my ideas, and it turns out I’m not alone.

I’m sitting at my parents place as I write this, visiting for the weekend. Mum and I sat down to watch SBS, a documentary called “Finding my mind“. She was asleep within 15 minutes but the presenter, Professor at Oxford University for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy, caught my attention immediately with his story about his PhD. To keep it short, Professor du Sautoy had been wrestling with a maths problem during his PhD for many months. He tells of everything he tried simply not working, this problem had him stumped. One day he was staring out of the train window, a trip he does almost every day, simply enjoying the scenery flying by as usual until all at once, he simply had the solution, it just ‘came to him’.

It reminded me of Cameron Moll’s talk that I watched a some time ago (I can’t find the link to it so I apologise). In it, he too speaks of those moments when you just have an idea that slaps you in the face, completely out of nowhere at a time where you’re thinking about, well, what you thought was nothing in particular. Mr Moll goes on to discuss preparations and measures he takes to capture that moment so it doesn’t escape. Moleskines, iPhones, audio note-takers etc. My favourite though has to be a diver’s slate in the shower, for those occasions where you may be shampooing your hair, letting the hot water run down your back and you’re suddenly presented with the meaning of life and just need to write it down.

The more you start to investigate this idea, that creative ideas or solutions to problems you’re facing simply come when you least expect it, the more examples you come across. The only way many of us can explain it is that “It just came to me,” these moments of… do we call them inspiration? Sparks? Lightning bolts? Genius? Does it even matter what label we give it? The fact is that this phenomenon has happened the world over for as long as we’ve been able to diarise it. Yes we can take personal measures to help us capture it but I started thinking a little more deeply about it. Design studios the world over, companies who sell creativity, don’t seem to create or provide the environment that fosters the creation of these sparks.

I can’t imagine telling my boss that I was taking the rest of the day off after lunch to go for a walk, maybe have a shower and forget about the brief we just spent 3 hours talking about with our new client. In fact, I can’t imagine any studio giving the freedom to their employees to do that. But, I’d love to know how often the best idea (or at least the most off-the-wall creative idea) comes as a result of a 3 hour meeting on a Thursday afternoon that runs late until 7:30pm.

Inspiring creativity, finding  the creative spark, hugging the genius, whatever we call it requires time and sometimes, simply some personal, quiet space where your brain can disengage. Even a repetitive task where your mind can begin to wander (as Mr Moll puts it) could be enough to do the trick. It seems to make sense when you think about the way Paul Rand discusses Wallas’ Art of Thought paper from the 1920s, his name for it was the ‘incubation period’.

The problem with design and working in design studios is that time is money. No client is going to pay you $180+ per hour for you to go for a run, have a shower and stare out of a train window as it heads out in to the country. The reality is, that’s when the best ideas are likely to happen. There’s evidence to prove it. I find it funny actually, the illusion of ‘getting work done.’ Everyone is happy, clients and art director’s alike, if we sit inside a cubicle or a space that’s considered more ‘creative’ (like a 33rd floor ‘open-plan’ office overlooking water) to produce ideas that ‘will do’. Of course the other option is to take a day or two out of the office, out and about, forgetting about the brief altogether, to produce ideas and work that is out of this world. Are we all just settling for OK work providing we appear to be working between the hours of 9-5, giving the illusion of value? If that’s the case, is it still the designer’s obligation to present ideas for studio work that may come to them outside of these regular office hours, when you inevitably get the creative spark for a project while chopping vegetables or playing golf? It seems as though OK is OK until something better comes along. If a better idea is sparked inside of you while you’re off the clock, art directors of design studios would expect to be presented with those ideas because it’s all the better for the success of the studio right? Not to mention the possible promotion you might get out of it? The illusion you’ll present as being “one of the most creative employees we have here at Studio X.” Do we hand over our off-the-clock ideas because creatives, by nature, love the ego boost we get when our creativity is confirmed to us from something or someone outside of our own heads?

The truth is, I love where I work. No, we don’t take showers to come up with creative solutions to client problems but we recognise that creativity doesn’t just happen, it takes time, incubation. Sure, there are still moments where we need to produce ideas and work on demand and to be honest, those projects never seem to make it on to the portfolio pages of the studio website. I do wonder though whether a radical shift in the way we do business with clients, a change of process to help create the utopian creative environments that time and time again produce sparks of creativity would actually produce innovative ideas that aren’t just OK but literally blow our minds.

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