In this excerpt from the book Do Improvise, author Rob Poynton shares pointers on how to spark your creativity. The Do Book Company is an independent publishing housed based in London, producing a series of inspirational pocket guidebooks.
Rob's simple suggestions include looking at the world from different angles, and remembering the importance of play. Find out how he uses a simple coffee mug to solve a work problem, and read questions you can ask yourself to jolt your creative vision back to life.
Want a free copy of the complete book? Read to the end to find out how you can get one!
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Creativity sets humans apart. Everything we make or do depends on our creative history. From stone axes to supercolliders, the ability to create things for ourselves is one of our defining characteristics.
If creativity is our past, it is also our future. According to Sir Ken Robinson, ‘creativity is the new literacy’. It is that important. In a global economy, driven by rapid technological change, creativity at every level is fundamental. Organizations of all kinds, including businesses, governments and NGOs, constantly need to create new products and services, or find new ways to deliver old ones. Or, to reinvent themselves completely.
The same is true for individuals , who need to become more creative not just to keep themselves employable but in order to shape their lives, which will not proceed along the predictable, professional paths that they used to. As Robinson points out, most of the children in school today will do jobs that haven’t been invented yet. This is new.
Furthermore, all the most interesting and important human dilemmas, like how to reconcile liberty and security, are problems that we can never ‘solve’. Instead of single answers, we have to come up with a stream of creative responses, as we adapt anew to changing circumstances. The demand for creativity will never diminish.
If creativity is to become the new literacy, we have some work to do. Using improvisation as a source of inspiration is one good way to challenge many of the assumptions we make about creativity. It also provides some specific pointers about practical things we can do to develop our creative abilities. Let’s explore three key ideas:
- The importance of play
- Creative doing, not creative thinking
- Embracing constraint
The importance of play
Improvisers mostly perform comedy, which means that they tend not to take themselves too seriously. We don’t enjoy the same advantage. We tend to take our work (and ourselves) more seriously. ‘I am a senior executive in an important business, I can’t be larking around like a clown,’ is the kind of belief that many of us hold dear. Play is neither part of our job description, nor our self-image. If you want to become more creative, you need to change that. Or at least be willing to let it go from time to time. The actor John Cleese has suggested that creativity is not so much a special talent, as a willingness to play.
Play is more than just fun (though we will get to that). Play is important because it opens the door to new possibilities. New ideas are, by definition, strange at first. Through play we explore what they might have to offer. We flirt with the unknown.
"Play is more than just fun. Play is important because it opens the door to new possibilities." [Click to Tweet]
Play around with things at the edge of what is normal or known. Read a magazine you would never normally pick up. Rabbit Owners Monthly will show you a whole world you didn’t know existed (and thus, if nothing else, the limits to your own). Speak to someone you don’t know. Eat different food. Allow yourself to wander off rather than always ‘pushing on.’ Look up. Look sideways. Fertile territory often lies in the margins or overlaps. If you are too direct, or in too much of a hurry, you will never come across them.
Playfulness also helps you to stop self-censoring your own ideas. If you are only ‘playing’ it doesn’t matter so much how you come across. It is easier to stop worrying about whether you sound stupid. Musicians jam and lark around until something definable emerges. Apparently the famous riff in the Queen song ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was ‘discovered’ this way.
By contrast, for most of us, fun is a barrier. It makes us see play as trivial, or childish. We believe that we shouldn’t be happy, or have fun at work. When I work with senior executives, it is striking how many of them are deeply uncomfortable and highly suspicious of play. As a result they enjoy neither the play itself, nor any of its benefits.
This rather perverse attitude owes something to puritans and engineers (both strong influences on the culture of modern business). To puritans, work is virtuous whereas play is indulgent and sinful. The two are separate and opposed, so play has no place at work. Engineers add another negative interpretation. To an engineer, ‘play’ is looseness in a mechanism, so you don’t want too much, or things become sloppy. Precision is good, play is bad. No wonder we find it hard to engage in play.
If you want to become more creative, a willingness to play is something that you need to cultivate, both individually and collectively. Not as a distraction or a reward, but as part of the work itself.
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Creative doing, not creative thinking
When people in business talk to me about creativity, they normally talk about creative thinking. Improvisers, by contrast, don’t have much time for creative thinking. Their focus is on creative doing. As actors, what matters to them is action. An audience won’t pay to watch someone think, however creative their thoughts might be.
Ultimately, action is what counts in business too. You have to reformulate the ingredients, or make new packaging, or get people to behave differently when they answer the phone. To be creative we have to do something, not just think, or talk, about doing it. Creativity is embodied. It is physical not abstract.
Improvisers will step into a scene before they have an idea. They may make a gesture or movement, without defining either to the audience, or to themselves, what it is that they are doing. Only when another actor says, ‘Looks like you’re having trouble opening that tin,’ do we discover what it is (or to be more accurate, what it has become). By committing to action we allow someone else to add their own interpretation, which may be one we would never have thought of. Thus we get creative.
"Creativity is embodied. It is physical, not abstract." [Click to Tweet]
You want new ideas for next year’s strategy? Don’t sit at your desk. Walk the factory floor or visit the shop. Phone your own customer service line and see how you get treated. Get your hands on the product (or your competitors’) and play around with it, so that you really get to know it.
Try reframing your consumer research as action not talk. Instead of testing ideas with consumers, find the people who use the product a lot and watch what they do with it, for real. Find out what matters to them and what could be made better through the doing. Don’t ask them what they think, watch what they do. Or better still, join in and play around with them yourselves.
A group of car engineers, who were all men, but who were designing a car for women, did exactly that. The female consumers suggested that one of the engineers acted out a woman getting into her car (for fun they insisted it was the one who had a beard). When the bearded ‘woman’ walked up to the (imaginary) car and put his (imaginary) handbag down on the ground while he unlocked the car door, the women all screamed, ‘You don’t ever do that!’ Putting their handbag down was unthinkable. This prompted a rich and creative conversation about issues of security, ways of unlocking the car and so on.
Making the action visible created possibilities that would not have occurred if they had just been talking about it. The women would never have mentioned this because it was so obvious to them. Acting first also means not trying to anticipate. Anticipation slows things down. It is much better to try stuff out. Make a model or a prototype as soon as you can and see how it works. If what you make isn’t tangible, design an experiment or game, instead of a model. One way or another, play your idea out. Learn from the experience. Incorporate that learning, then make a new prototype. That’s what design studio IDEO, one of the world’s most creative companies, does. They make prototypes of whatever they are designing as soon as they can.
If you want to get creative, don’t just sit there and think about it, do something.
The easiest thing to do is move. It is also, quite possibly, the most productive. This is the direction I most frequently give people in workshops. It is often the only direction I need to give people.
When you move, a lot happens. You see things from a different angle. The light falls differently, different sounds reach you, you touch a different surface or feel a different movement of air, with a different scent or temperature. You receive a wealth of new information. When you move, you shift your point of view.
You change your internal environment too. Blood pumps and muscles contract. Your senses, which are only really interested in change, become more alert. Millions of nerve cells fire. Different sensations lead to different feelings. Changing your posture or position changes what you receive, and how you perceive it. This all happens very fast. It is automatic and powerful.
Sit in a different chair. Stand up. Lie down. Walk around the block. If you want a more creative meeting, move people around. Don’t let them get comfortably stuck in a particular chair, or their ideas will get comfortably stuck as well.
If it feels too strange to do this explicitly, be sneaky. Have frequent breaks, move furniture, disturb the physical layout so that people can’t stay put, sit somewhere else yourself (to create a domino effect) or break them into groups or pairs for conversations. Variation and physical movement helps people stay alert as well as increasing the chances of them having a new idea.
Creativity is stimulated by embracing constraint; not by a complete absence of constraints. In the arts, it is often the materials used that present limitations and constraints —whether it’s clay or canvas or the sound of a sax. Improv games invariably involve limitation of some kind. You can only say one word or when one actor stands the other has to sit (and vice versa). These impositions stimulate creativity because they provide something to rub up against. The constraint gives the mind traction and that creates impetus. It is much harder for improvisers to create a scene or story with no suggestion from the audience and nothing at all to limit them.
Creativity is about making choices and, when you can go anywhere, it is much harder to choose. For example, in workshops, when people get stuck it is not because they can’t think of anything to say or do. It is because there are too many things they could say or do and they clam up trying to decide which one to choose. Too many options make us anxious.
Embracing constraints gets beyond these unhelpful pre-judgements about whether an idea is a good or a bad one. Understand this and it becomes easier to be creative. Don’t flee from constraint, learn to use constraints constructively and seek them out. Let’s try it now. Think of something you need new ideas about. Got something? I am going to do the same. My issue is how to engage more actively with my colleagues in America, without getting on a plane. Since we each have our own clients the relationship has become dormant and we don’t learn from each other or work together as much, or as well, as we might.
Now, let’s take an everyday object that is to hand. I am going to take the coffee cup that I have here on the table. We are going to use that as a constraint to get new ideas. Here’s how. We forget, for the moment, about our issue, and focus on the coffee cup.
First, we list attributes and qualities of the coffee cup—plain, obvious things. I am also going to introduce another useful constraint here—time. You will have to take my word for it, but I get two minutes, no more, to list whatever comes to my mind about the coffee cup. Here goes.
White, round, drips, rings, sediment, dregs, container, handle, everyday, hot, distraction, everyday, leftovers/dregs, smooth, drug, ceramic, hot, narrow, cheap, simple.
It doesn’t matter that I repeated some words—what matters is letting them out quickly. Here comes the creative bit. You take these words and collide them with your issue. Remember, my issue is resuscitating the relationship with my US colleagues. I ask myself, ‘How could that be white? What would it mean if that were white?’ I have to let go of being literal, ignore the fact that it sounds like nonsense, embrace the constraint and force it onto my issue. This only takes a few seconds. Starting with ‘white’ sets off a stream of consciousness that went like this:
White, white sheet of paper, blank sheet of paper, we should start again, relaunch the relationship, instead of taking it for granted or trying to have it evolve, create an event or an artefact to relaunch myself to them, like a menu of the things I could do for them, yes, in the form of a menu, as if they were ordering takeaway, an Indian restaurant-style menu.
A white coffee cup got me to realize that I need to disrupt the relationship and send a concrete signal of change and then to the specific idea of a mock Indian takeaway menu of services. In the context of our agency, where humour and levity are part of our brand personality, it is quite an appropriate, practical idea.
It took much longer to type this up than it did to do (even though I type fast). Along the way, in a matter of seconds, I also got two other ideas - from ‘drips’, the idea of a drip ‘campaign’ - regular, small drops of information that put me on the radar of my American friends. From ‘round’, the idea of a Skype round-table session to share learning or client contacts.
So if you want to get new ideas, find a way to embrace constraint. Ask, ‘If the mafia ran our company, how would they act?’ Instead of bridling under a constraint push it further, by asking, ‘If we had to cut the time and budget for the project in half, what would we do?’
Use constraints in time. If you have an hour to come up with ideas, don’t design an exercise that lasts an hour. Do six different exercises for ten minutes each, or the same ten-minute exercise six times.
If you can do this, it not only fuels your creative process but it changes how you feel about constraints. Instead of being problems, you start to see constraints as offers, which is perhaps the single most creative thing you can do.
Understanding how improvisers do what they do gives us some very clear indications about the conditions required to make a group act more creatively. It gives us, if you like, a little of the grammar for the ‘new literacy’ of creativity that we require if we are successfully to confront the many challenges we face.
Improvisation suggests that by becoming more playful, more focused on action and flow, and willing to embrace constraints, you will become a lot more creative. Improv groups show us that in the right conditions, anyone who wants to can make a creative contribution. Which is just as well, given how many contributions are needed.
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