The Creativity Trigger

Our creative thinking is quite dependent on technology and our connection to others. Take a moment to consider to what extent we are connected: Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble, Forrst, blah blah blah… I don’t have to go on. That connection to the community is something we tap into everyday. We rely on it for knowledge and inspiration.

You are here on my blog reading my personal thoughts on design. If you weren’t here, you’d likely be on someone else’s blog. You might even be looking for a quick inspirational fix and not finding it here, and within milliseconds you’ll be leaving to find that spark somewhere else. Before you leave dear internet traveler, answer me this: Are you looking for that creative spark out here because you can’t find it inside yourself?

“Any one of a million things could fail and cause our complex civilization to collapse for an hour, for a day, or however long. That’s when you find out the extent to which you are reliant on technology and don’t even know it. That’s when you see that it’s so interdependent, that if you take one thing away, the whole thing falls down and leaves you with nothing.” – James Burke

A Creativity Crisis?

There is a creativity assessment1 that was designed by E. Paul Torrance, some fifty years ago. The tasks are designed to measure creativity, where the subject generates as many unique ideas as possible and combines those ideas into what they see as the best result. Something like, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” What is fascinating is how well this creativity index, or CQ, is able to predict the creative accomplishments of kids that were tested, and what they did as adults. The kids that did well on the tests ended up moving on to be inventors, authors, and entrepreneurs.

The creativity scores, like IQ scores, have been steadily rising. That is, until around 1990. From that point they (CQs) have started to slowly decrease, while the IQ continues to rise. Although it’s too early to say, some think it’s the amount of time kids play video games and watch TV. Another culprit could be the way schools are shifting to standardize curriculum and focusing on memorization, and not nurturing creativity as much.

Consider the parallels of the potential reasons behind these falling creativity assessment results to what we experience currently in design. We are exposed to so much distraction on a daily basis. Some are needed distractions, others are damaging to our keeping focus on the task at hand. And it’s not just pure distraction, but looking for the quickest design solution.

I hate to bring up the inspirational lists and regurgitated content, but I’m sure as hell going to. How many designers would dare to admit they are not going to these sites to find that spark of creativity? Or, perhaps even find something more specific like a layout or color that might just work for their current client? I would guess a lot. In fact, while researching for a previous article2 I conducted an unscientific poll of designers and found that they spent most time looking for inspiration, rather than reading more in-depth stuff.

The argument this brings up is how much of this is a normal path in design and that everyone steals… oops, I mean, gets inspired by others. I can accept this to a point. It makes sense, since that is how things begin. They are built off of each other.

“You know, the lonely genius in the garage with a lightbulb that goes ping in his head. None of these guys did anything by themselves; they borrowed from other people’s work.” – James Burke

The Creativity Trigger

Science historian James Burke3 introduces us to the notion that the complex technology in our lives would not exist without a web of interconnected events. He rejects a linear path of history and claims that it is more of this group of events made up of a person (or group) acting for reasons of their own, like religion or profit. They have no real idea of the future or big picture. He also says if our world’s technology is created by this is sort of synergy where these events build off of each other, then the number of these innovations and complexities will accelerate and at some point become too much for the average person to deal with. Is that world the one we live in today?

It is interesting looking at it from the perspective of the design community and the amount of blogs that have erupted over the past few years, as well as the social-type sites sharing code and screenshots. Together they are pounding out information daily that none of us are able to physically keep up with. It is logical to think that there was not some big initiative years ago to someday have an extensive design community with so much information coming out daily. It makes more sense that it was individuals or small groups building off of each other after seeing the success of other blogs.

Finding our creativity trigger does depend on the world that surrounds us. We need that to kick into gear our creativity and help make design that is relevant. I’ve read so many “How to Get Inspired” articles, I think I am uninspired from ever reading anything with the word inspired in the title. Looking at other designs is a tough one too. The line between inspiration and stealing is a hard one to draw. Everyone draws it based on his or her own motivation. I think the only way we could really discover our own creativity is to remove the distractions, the poorly informed articles, and stop using the design crack we know as galleries or searching around Dribbble. Turn off everything.

Turning Off the Right Things

Love him or hate him, Stefan Sagmeister4 is an interesting designer. I don’t relate to him on an aesthetic sort of level, and he doesn’t live as much in the web and application design realm like I do. Nonetheless, he has a lot of relevant things to say when it comes to creativity and finding inspiration.

Consider how much we work everyday and the amount of years we do this for. We take this linear path of learning, working, and finally retirement. Well, Stefan felt like his ideas were getting tired and almost copies of previous ideas or of other things that he had seen. He needed to refresh himself (and team) so they could find that inspiration, or creative trigger. He decided to take some pieces of his retirement and pepper it into his working career.


So every seven years he closes his agency taking a year off to explore the world, learn new things, and refresh their creativity. The resulting work I think speaks for itself. I find something like this very inspiring and a simple idea. It is creativity by doing not just seeing it or reading it. It’s not just going outside for an hour and taking a walk. It’s not going to a movie then coming home feeling fake refreshed. It’s really going away and experiencing something completely different. Removing the connection you are so dependent on for your creativity.

For me the overall idea has a lot of merit. Many other companies practice this. Google and 3M give their employees a certain percentage of this discovery time. Although I doubt many could afford to take a year off by any means, I think it would be a good experiment to turn off things like Twitter and not read anything online for maybe a month. Instead, take the time to read a few design books and spend time somewhere else besides staring at a screen searching for a spark that no longer lives inside you. I think by turning off the right things for a length of time that is uncomfortable, we can return to design some amazing things.

Think about it.

1) The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek
2) Connections – James Burke
3) The Dying Art of Design – Smashing Magazine
4) The Power of Time Off – Stefan Sagmeister