In most ad agencies there is one department with creative in its name. At best the label reinforces a belief that there are people in the business who are creative and others who aren’t. At worst, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetuating the fallacy that you have to be a copywriter or art director to conceive a brilliant idea. True you may need those skills to execute a beautiful piece of film or a visually stunning website, but not necessarily to think them up.
Next semester I teach Fundamentals of Creative Development in the College of Communication at Boston University. It’s a required course for anyone pursuing a BS in Communication with a concentration in advertising. Which means the class will be filled with students destined to work not only in ad agency creative departments, but also in account service, media, planning, and even research.
Certainly one could teach this course in way that acknowledged what all those disciplines need to know about creative. But I’d rather find a way to teach it so that everyone believes he can be creative. Or at least have the courage to try. The fact is we’re all born creative. It’s just that most of us have it pummeled out of us by public school, rigid teachers, critical peers and eventually self-perception.
Pummeling it back in is probably harder. Simply telling students that they are creative isn’t enough. We need tools and tactics and exercises to get them started. So I’ve been spending a fair amount of time researching what others do, glancing at everything from Hyper Island, Before and After, and Idea Management Lab to the numerous books that offer tips and suggestions. If you’re interested, here are a few sources worth checking out.
- Insanely Simple, The Obsession That Drives Apples’ Success, by Ken Segall
- Creative Workshop, by David Sherman
- The Creative Process Illustrated, by W. Glenn Griffin and Deb K Morrison
- The Idea Agent, by Jonas Michanek and Andreas Breiler
- Visual Literacy, by Richard and Judith Wilde
While I’ll have to teach the fundamentals – strategy, concept, execution, production – I’m not interested exclusively in making ads, but also in how to inspire people to think creatively across all the new disciplines.
Which is why I found myself gravitating to this recent TED talk by IDEO founder David Kelly. (Thank you Kazi Ahmed for sending it to me.) As you’d expect, Kelly believes that we are all creative if we just learn to overcome our fears and then master the right problem-solving process.
In his talk he shares two stories. The first is about Albert Bandura, a highly cited psychologist who developed the social cognitive theory known as self-efficacy. If people have high self-efficacy they see challenges as tasks to be mastered, not avoided. He used the technique to help patients overcome phobias. Kelly relates the story of Bandura enabling people with ophiophobia to overcome their fear of snakes, encouraging them to take small baby steps, one at a time, until they were comfortable actually handling snakes. Kelly suggests that with a similar approach to creativity and design thinking that anyone, even those who’d never anoint themselves with the creative label, can gain the confidence to think of themselves as creative.
As evidence he shares another tale. This one is about Doug Dietz, a GE designer of MRI machines. After 20 years as an engineer, Dietz was stunned to witness how frightened children were of his huge, noisy, vibrating scanners. (Why he should be surprised is another matter.) So much so that 80 percent of children needed sedation to calm them enough to endure the procedure.
Dietz was at Stanford’s D-School at the time and learned their design thinking process, which inspired and enabled him to change the entire MRI experience that kids went through. He turned the negative into a positive. The noise, the shaking, the claustrophobia all became positives as Dietz re-imagined the MRI as an adventure. The MRI became Pirate Island, complete with a re-painted exterior, a reason for the noise and vibrations, a place to hide from pirates, and a new story to describe the entire process.
I’m not sure you even need to follow the D-School approach if you learn to dissect good ideas. For example, you can look at the modified MRI and steal the following tactics and approaches for any good idea.
What are the negatives?
How can we turn them into positives?
What if we assembled a team from different backgrounds – a clown, a playground designer, a children’s book author — to solve the problem? (see other posts on creating collisions.)
All that represents is learning to look at a problem, product or experience from very different perspectives. Learn to look at bread from the perspective of a toaster. Represent the safety of Volvo with something other than crash dummies.
I too believe that everyone can be creative. Especially in an industry like advertising where ideas are no longer based on art and copy but include apps, experiences, digital events, gaming dynamics and clever ways to inspire participation. So I’m thinking I’ll focus on two things beyond the fundamentals needed to create standout advertising. The courage to believe one is creative. And tricks, tactics and tools to help get you there.
If you have any good ones, please share. Thanks for stopping by.