A blank sheet of paper can be liberating — and intimidating. where do great new ideas come from? How can you and your company create more of them? We asked 14 creative people to answer those questions. Nike's Tinker Hatfield says creativity is one part inspiration and many parts collaboration. David Kelley, the world's most celebrated industrial designer, urges creative people to "fail faster so they can succeed sooner." Clar Evans, a 40-year veteran of Hallmark Cards, calls the creative process "civilized tenacity." Bill Flanagan, vice-president of programming for VH1, says the real test of creativity is whether you can rise to the challenge when you don't feel like it. So read these contributions and be more creative. Unless you have a better idea.
Vice President, Design and Special Projects
Creativity is a two-step process that starts with collaboration. When Michael Jordan and I sit down to design a shoe, the first thing I do is listen. We're trying to design shoes that help Michael run faster, jump higher, stop quicker, avoid injury, and look as cool and fashionable as possible. He usually has a clear sense of where he wants to go and then we work together to create a road map.
The next step is inspiration. I never know where my design ideas will come from. Air Jordan VI was inspired, in part, by the Batboot I designed for Michael Keaton in Batman. The inspiration for
Jordan VII was a colorful poster for National Public Radio that I saw while wandering around Portland. Soak up everything: fashion, art, architecture, music, graphic design, whatever relates (or doesn't) to your field. This varied palette, blended with the science of research, is what inspires the creative spark.
Tinker Hatfield's creations include Air Jordan basketball shoes, Air Max running shoes, and Andre Agassi footwear.
Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
The most creative people I know always expose themselves to a wide range of perspectives — cultural, organizational, personal. They understand that breakthrough creativity occurs at the intersection of previously unconnected planes of thought. What goes for people goes for companies. Here are four ways to connect the unconnected in your company:
- Hire opposites. Gerald Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International, hires people in pairs — and makes sure the people he hires bring different perspectives to the job. First he'll hire a Bauhaus designer, someone rational and structured in her thinking. Then he'll hire an artist obsessed with pure form, color, and rhythm. This pair won't agree on anything — which can spark wonderful creative abrasions.
- Create diverse teams among current employees. Not diversity by just race and gender; you also should create intellectual diversity. Mixing cognitive perspectives — different ways of seeing the world — yields new creative insights.
- Invite visitors from alien cultures. Xerox PARC recruits anthropologists to work with computer-science teams. At the Harvard Business School, we bring in pure scientists to complement our engineers, economists, and operations researchers.
- Visit alien cultures yourself. Don't just benchmark companies like yours. Visit companies that are decidedly unlike yours.
Dorothy Leonard is the author of "Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation" (Harvard Business School Press, 1995) and has conducted innovation courses for corporations such as Kodak, AT&T, and Johnson & Johnson.
Chief executive officer
Ideo Product Development
Palo Alto, California
At Ideo, we believe that enlightened trial and error beats the planning of flawless intellects. In other words, we fail faster to succeed sooner. The reason is simple: the best solutions to most problems are rarely the most obvious. So we brainstorm lots of ideas, prototype the most promising ones, and learn from those that don't work.
It's much easier — and safer — to bog down in elaborate planning exercises. It might seem irresponsible to start without a clear direction, but if you invest a lot of time in this stage, there's a tendency to stick with an idea even if it isn't the best one. This is a prescription for real failure. Learn to let go. Risk choosing nothing over something. The more you experiment, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you create.
David Kelley's first creation was a milestone in aviation history: the Lavatory Occupied sign on the Boeing 747.
Vice President of Programming and Editorial Director, VH1
New York, New York
We all want to be judged by how good we are when we're at our creative best. But the real test is how good we are when we're at our creative average. Hemingway once said there are no failures of talent, only failures of character. If you watch creative people go through their unavoidable ups and downs, you'll see exactly what he meant. People who are consistently creative can face the blank sheet of paper even when they don't feel like it. That's important. Most of us don't have the luxury of waiting for the perfect moment. We have to be creative on demand. But you'll find that the tenacity to plow through often creates its own forms of inspiration.
Learn to clear your head of debris so that new ideas can enter. Mine the good ideas with the bad ones — and then be ruthless in editing. Creative people are like cartoon characters running on air after they've run off a cliff. They're okay as long as they don't look down.
Bill Flanagan is executive producer of "Storytellers," and "VH1 Archives," and the author of U2 at the End of the World (Delacort, 1995).
Manager, Decision Support Product
Analysts, 3M Health Information Systems Murray, Utah
You can't force-feed creativity. But you can create an environment that encourages it. At 3M, we're building an Innovation and Learning Center to do just that. Don't worry — you won't find creativity facilitators, Nerf guns, or beanbag chairs. The center offers books, videos, and technical training items geared to spark new thinking.
We understand that an innovation center can't transform people who don't have the internal drive and desire to create. But we also know it doesn't work to urge people to think outside the box without giving them the tools to climb out.
Laurie Dunnavant is a founding fellow of Innovation University, a one-year advanced learning program affiliated with Innovation Network.
Director of Research and Design Planning
In my second year of architecture school, a professor asked us to create an innovative office tower. He insisted that we not reference outside resources — no books, no photographs. "Just be creative!" he shouted. The result? A depressingly familiar display of foam core and hot glue. We had no context from which to innovate.
The moral: you can't be creative just by trying to be creative. You need a deep understanding of the problems you are trying to solve.
At ZIBA we use what we call "design machines" to create the context for innovation. These machines can be complex — elaborate models of home media viewing based on exhaustive research. Or they can be as simple as a single question. But it is this informed context that allows us to make those unexpected connections. We have found that the result is consistent innovation and creativity.
Steve McCallion creates information-based products for such clients as Xerox, Coleman Company, and Kenwood USA.
There's no creativity without authenticity — a core sense of purpose that drives your creative endeavors. To make that sense of purpose explicit, I suggest posing four questions at three different levels — person, team and, organization: What am I here to create? What talents and abilities are my natural resources? What might I have to let go of to create what I want? What real need in the world will be met by what I create?
In answering those questions, be sure to start with the personal. Without intrinsic motivation, you'll never survive the ups and downs of the creative process. Then look at everything with fresh eyes. You'll be amazed by what you see.
Suzanne Merritt was Polaroid's senior creatologist for four years and has developed an unusually effective approach to creativity based on aesthetics in both art and science.
Director, Creative Advisory Group
Hallmark Cards Inc.
Kansas City, Missouri
Creativity is the act of bringing an intangible idea to productive life. It requires absolute persistence. It also requires a generosity of spirit to include others in the action.
I think of creativity as civilized tenacity. You have to defend your ideas, educate your colleagues, and recruit allies. You also have to be willing to rethink and revise. Most breakthroughs are the result of a series of creative insights, each of them as fresh and innovative as the original big idea.
In her 40 years at Hallmark, Clar Evans has had several careers in hands-on product creation and management.
Professor of Human Development and Education, University of Chicago
Dr. Ashley Montagu once wrote that your goal in life should be to die young — as late as possible. The most creative people I know live by that maxim. They are as curious, engaged, and innocent as children. They keep asking questions, wrestling with interesting problems, looking at the world through an ever-changing lens.
How do they maintain such fresh perspectives? By refusing to do anything they don't want to do. That doesn't mean they never do unpleasant tasks. But they manage to transform even those tasks into something that comes closer to their interests. "I have worked every minute of my life," creative people can say. "And I never did a lick of work in my life." Both statements are true.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's most recent book is "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention" (Harper Collins, 1996).
Executive Vice President and Executive Creative Director, Ketchum Public
Relations Worldwide, Chicago, Illinois
To encourage our staff and clients to solve their problems as creatively as possible, I usually offer these five tips:
- Never give up on a good idea, even if it doesn't sell at first. When people resist innovation, it's usually because they need to trust more before they can commit.
- Don't hurry creativity. Impatience is the enemy of innovation.
- Be generous. Creativity is intensely personal. Those who offer you an idea are offering you a part of themselves.
- Make creativity a mainstream activity. Respect it. Acknowledge its role in future growth. And don't let anybody dismiss creativity as soft.
- Become a cheerleader for ideas. Give permission for people to pursue the new. People and companies always learn more from taking risks than from playing it safe.
New York, New York
Creativity requires a certain optimistic naïveté. You have to develop simple solutions to complex problems and ask, "Why not?" My best ideas are usually sparked by some innocent observation or comment the client made in the initial meeting. I've found that if I don't get an idea immediately thereafter it's because I have too much information or I've done similar projects too many times before — and I have become jaded.
In my work, I always try to adopt the perspective of a first-time user. If I'm designing a package, a book, or a magazine, I approach it as if I've never heard of it before. If it's signage or an identity project, I approach it as if I were a foreigner and didn't speak the language.
The more I push myself into the position of a first-time user, the more likely I am to find a simple — and unique — solution. Maybe that's why my most creative work seems to be on projects where I'm inexperienced and uniquely unqualified for the job.
Paula Scher created the graphics for the hit Broadway musical "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and redesigned the "New York Times Magazine."
Deputy Associate Commissioner
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Talk about an unlikely place to find creativity: a 200-year-old government agency steeped in a "we've always done it this way" attitude. But by designing an environment where people are free to express their ideas and by building confidence that good ideas will prompt action, creativity is exactly what we get.
A few years ago, our senior leadership realized it was time to find dramatically new and different ways to manage the process of granting patents. Rather than create a top-down change program, we allowed more than 125 people to go "off the line" two days a week for several months. This unprecedented commitment to innovation helped people lose their inhibitions. Jacket-and-tie bureaucrats acted out skits to describe how a new patent process might work. Old-school managers generated new-wave ideas about change.
The result was a radical redesign of the process — one that slashes cycle times, reduces how many times a file is "touched" from 67 to 8, and supports electronic patent applications. All thanks to the creativity of people who always did it the old way!
Theresa Brelsford led the Patent Office's successful effort to win the 1995 Department of Commerce Customer Service Excellence Award.
Senior Manager, Creativity and Innovation
Institute for Learning
Bank of Montreal
The key to creativity is clarity. Never work on a creative challenge without first writing down a problem statement in the form of a question. If your work involves a team, post the question throughout your office where everyone can see it. Then get people to agree on the words you use. For instance, if your creative goal is to improve a product, you have to be sure that everyone has the same definition of "improvement."
Remember, if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.
David Hardy had some of his most creative ideas and insights during a seven-month trek across North America.
Betty Sue Flowers
Professor of English,
University of Texas
I've learned lots of lessons from watching creative people at work. But I learned the most surprising lesson from a scientist I worked for as an undergraduate. He asked me to sort through applications for post docs in his lab. I picked out the best and the brightest. As he leafed through the stack, he kept a few of the straight "A's," pitched out the "B's," and then told me to go back to the pile and find students who had made both "A's" and "F's." These would be more than just the smartest. They would be the ones who loved something and followed what they loved.
He was right. People who love a project will be the most creative members of a team — the ones who pitch in to do any job necessary, are willing to go to the very edge of failure, and aren't afraid to reach the limits of their capacities. Their passion for the work energizes everyone else. They know how to engage in the high play that makes breakthroughs possible.
Joseph Campbell deepened this insight when we worked together on "The Power of Myth." "Follow your bliss," he told me, "and what look like walls will turn into doors."
Betty Sue Flowers has collaborated with Bill Moyers on several of his books, including "Genesis: A Living Conversation" (Doubleday,1996).
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.