New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I’ve made three. It’s been a couple of tough years filled with change and I finally feel more settled with a company I respect and a comfortable home, so it’s time to challenge myself again! Here are my three challenges for this year.

1 Say Yes To Scary Stuff

Seek out and say yes to opportunities to speak at conferences or write for professional sites. I always get a lot out of doing this, and saying yes to one often leads to more opportunities. I’ve connected with a group of friends and we’re going to encourage and mentor each other to step up and take these opportunities.

2 Be More Creative

My job and my hobbies lead me to spend a lot of time staring at screens, and I want to have more fun and be more creative.

I want to get back to crafting, when I’m not looking at a screen I like knitting, sewing and fabric art. I want to complete at least four craft projects this year. One is something for a friend’s baby, that shouldn’t take long!

I’ve started a new Instagram account called 101 Good Things, where I make very bad drawings of things that make me happy. It’s a nice combination of making me notice the happy moments and have some fun trying to draw it. I am really bad at drawing hands, there may be improvement over the year.  Not sure whether I’ll stop when I get to 101.

Back in 2010 I reviewed Caffeine for the Creative Mind but rediscovered while unpacking, it’s 250 exercises to help you be more creative. I’m going to test the exercises and see what works. I may even post some of them here.

3 Read More Books from More Diverse Writers

I didn’t read enough last year, and I missed it. This year I want to read more, and from more diverse writers. A friend of mine posted this list, from R. O. Kwon, and I’ve added about 10 books from it to my wish list. I received an amazon voucher for Christmas but it’s not going to cover it!

  • by a writer who identifies as LGBTQI
  • a classic (not a re-read)
  • a poetry anthology
  • a Booker or Pulitzer prize-winning writer
  • by a writer from Africa
  • by a writer from China
  • by a writer from another Asian country
  • by a writer from a country I haven’t visited

I’ve started Middlemarch, so that’s the classic covered, I’ll take recommendations for the other options.

 

Let’s see how well I do – I’ll review at the beginning of December.

How to Fly a Horse

How to Fly a Horse; The Secret History of Creation and Discovery

Kevin Ashton

Who discovered how to cultivate vanilla?  How did the American Airforce develop jet engines in a matter of months?  Why does Woody Allen (almost always) avoid the Oscars despite almost two dozen nominations?

This book is a collection of lessons about creativity with a myriad of examples – some of which will be familiar and some of which you won’t have heard of.  It begins by attacking the myth of creativity, the very pervasive idea that creativity is the province of a certain type of person, that creativity is a gift, an amazing flash of inspiration.  Instead he posits, with significant evidence, that creative thinking is in everyone’s reach, in fact it’s just thinking. We only get to call it creative when we see the results.

creative thinking

While we’re all possible of thinking, and of generating creative results the outcome, or rather the impact may vary. New ideas aren’t believed, our own cognitive biases make us favour the status quo. It takes the remarkable persistence of someone like Judah Folkman, whose work on blood supply to tumours is now considered a breakthrough. But for more than ten years he pursued what his colleagues considered a “dead end”.

In order to move our opinion away from the status quo we need extraordinary, convincing evidence.

evidence for new ideas

The challenges to creativity and inventiveness grows as organisations grow and compliance becomes more important. But the history of the development of jet engine at Lockheed Martin offers an example of how creative results can be supported within an organisation; it took leadership, a dedicated team in their own environment, a clear goal, freedom to challenge the status quo. They benefitted from an existing culture of “show me”, so an inventor can convince their colleagues by showing their idea works rather than endless discussion. (In another chapter Ashton laments time wasted in meetings with discussion)

The book is worth reading for the histories of inventors and creativity alone, but it goes beyond that in encouraging everyone to practise their creativity, setting out the work needed, and showing the challenges you’ll face. passion fuels creativity

How to Fly a Horse was awarded a “best business book” award earlier this year, however to me the specific applications for business seem less than those for individuals. I would recommend this book for anyone who feels “stuck” in their creativity.

image: books via pixabay

Creativity Inc

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 17.37.28This was the best non-fiction book I read in 2015, hand’s down. I bought it because I heard Ed Catmull speak at the Dublin Summit and liked what he had to say. I add notes as I read, and this is my most annotated book. I was texting quotes from it to a friend – who has now bought his own copy.

In part it’s the story of Pixar, but from that there are distilled lessons for business leaders of all sorts. There’s a touching afterword titled “The Steve We Knew”, which details how Steve Jobs worked with Pixar, and shows not just the level of commitment he had to the company but the enjoyment he got from Pixar and how much he learnt from them.

In someways Pixar is a special case; it’s a highly creative company with a string of movie hits. Those movies have been chock-full of technical innovation, but it’s the story arc, and the “realness” of the animation that has won them fans, earnt the dollars and won the awards. They are relentless in their pursuit of quality, and take unusual steps to achieve this;

  • On the ground research; animation teams experience first hand the real life environments they’ll need to create on the screen. The makers of Brave had archery lessons, and a chef made ratatouille for the makers of Ratatouille.
  • Honest feedback; movies go through multiple rounds of feedback on every aspect of the film, from the story itself to dynamics of animation. Often the focus is on pinpointing what is wrong rather than prescribing a fix.
  • Trust; while the process might seem messy, the direction is right and the quality story will emerge from the messiness.
  • Open Communication; anyone can talk to anyone.

This creative DNA has meant that the company was more willing to test ideas on how to work. The feedback loop on the creative output could be re-engineered and applied to the creative process and then to the company culture. The result is some real lessons for businesses.

I think the most powerful idea is that if you have the right team, then the chances are that they’ll get the ideas right. This is so often overlooked in companies where the emphasis is placed very strongly on process.  It’s backed up by the ideas of hiring people smarter than you, and people with great potential to grow.

Pixar always looked to improve, so even with a string of hit movies and good growth figures when managers got a sense that the company culture was tilting away from their vision they held a “Notes Day”, designed to collect specific improvement points for action. The day itself was compulsory, and it was opened by John Lasseter, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, sharing the feedback he’d received about his own behaviour. This radical honesty set the stage for more openness. After the event there were more than a dozen specific ideas to implement, but much of the value came from the event itself. It served as an explicit re-inforcement of the company’s open culture and commitment to honest feedback.

Catmull’s love of the company he founded, and his belief in it’s continued success shines through every page. He seems very aware of the impact of his style of leadership and his decisions and very focussed on building excellence into the company, the output and most importantly the people.

In the final chapter called “Starting Points”, Catmull summarises the learning points from the book and adds this caveat “I know that when you distill a complex idea into a T-shirt slogan, you risk giving the illusion of understanding – and, in the process, of sapping the idea of its power”. The ideas, though, have potential as mantras for managers and employees. He talks about how imposing limits can encourage a creative response, which is true, although the story behind this that is related in the book shows that it needs to be tempered with some common sense so that the limits don’t kill your team. His comments relating to risk are instructive as well – it’s not for managers to prevent risk, but to make it safe for to take them. The attitude to failure is a positive one “It’s a necessary consequence of doing something new”. If the leadership of your company said that and demonstrated belief in it, what might you achieve? Another favourite and one that I’ve put into practice “Be wary of making too many rules”, you can spend a lot of time making rules to prevent something that almost never happens. It’s better to focus on building the behaviour you want and address issues individually.

But my favourite, one that I would put on a t-shirt is “Protect the future, not the past”.

This book is on my “favourites” shelf, partly because it validated some of the things I’ve already been thinking about working with creative professionals. I was fascinated to have a glimpse inside Pixar, the style of writing is conversational and easy to digest, and there was a lot to learn.

Ignore Everybody

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.36.50Ignore Everybody; And 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Hugh MacLeod

Hugh MacLeod is most famous for his GapingVoid cartoons, a mixture of optimism, cynicism, humour and philosphy. This book, a version of which can be downloaded from ChangeThis, encapsulates his thoughts on being creative. He takes particular joy in pointing out the counter-intuitive, although somehow once he’s said it I end up thinking it was obvious.

I’ve dipped into the book, rather than read it cover to cover. Each chapter is a “lesson”, written in fairly direct tones but with plenty of humour and examples. And of course there are the wonderful cartoons – all drawn on blank business cards.

The content is aimed at people being creative for a living, although rule 8 is ‘keep your day job’, but there’s plenty of inspiration and advice here for those of us just wanting to spice up our day jobs with a dash of creativity. Even if you think you’re not creative, the charm and wit of this book might convince you otherwise.

Hugh MacLeod’s quirky point of view.

Wake up your brain

Caffeine for the Creative Mind
Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.40.08“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” says the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. And pushing our brain into the realms of the impossible is just what “Caffeine for the Creative Mind” is all about.

It’s sub-titled “250 exercises to wake up your brain” and there are some great and original exercises in the book. For example;

“Draw a pictogram that describes each of these six words; Pressure, Delirious, Lucky, Suspense, Dangerous and Joyful. Use only four straight lines and a circle for each one…”

My pictogram for “Pressure” is shown left, which is the one I found easiest to imagine. Dangerous came out looking a lot like the symbol for mars and it’s pretty hard to distinguish between delirious and joyful when I draw them. But it struck me as a fun concept to remove writer’s block as well as waking up my brain.

Some of the exercises involve building something, some are about writing, some are reminders of games once played in school (or at strange parties) such as Mad Libs.

The book is sprinkled with interviews from some creative types; artists, writers, entrepreneurs offering wit and inspiration for those days where exercising your brain is just too much.

It’s a good book, a rich source of fun challenges to wake up your brain. Now if only I could think of an animal with a number in its name.

4 Keys to a Great Briefing

Selecting the right company to work with on a creative project can be tricky. If you work in marketing or communications it’s a skill worth developing; you’ll need it for website development, photography assignments, visual identity development and ad campaigns. Any marketing manager will find themselves developing a briefing several times a year, whether it’s part of a selection process or a new assignment with an existing supplier. I think there are four key areas of information that need to be covered in a briefing; context, aspiration, process and logistics.

Help the potential supplier understand who you are. What are your brand values? Describe your brand personality – if that sounds weird describe who your brand would be if it were a person. Who are your customers – how do you want them to describe you?

Provide visual information, existing brochures and websites, brand and/or photography guidelines – even if you’re moving away from that look, it will help the designers understand your company and the legacy.

What is the big idea?

What is the one message you want customers/visitors to get above all else from this project?

Try to inspire the creatives; you could include songs, images, quotes, words that support your aspiration but; resist the temptation to “spell it out”, too much factual detail at this point won’t get the best out of your creatives. You want them to be inspired and creative – not just implement to the limits of your creativity.

Here’s a great presentation on what should be in briefing from the creative’s perspective.

How do you want to work together? This is possibly the most important part of the briefing, but it rarely gets attention – this is partly because it’s very difficult to assess on paper. I treat the whole process as a test for the company; all contact from the moment the brief is sent to the decision date. Easy ways to get disqualified in this period include; not being able to say my company’s name correctly (yes, it happened even after being told how to say it), being rude to anyone you meet from my company during the process (the Richard Branson approach), or wasting my time (yes, it’s happened).

People recognise it when it’s right though, if your team walk out of a briefing with a potential supplier saying things like “they really get us” you’re probably in the right direction.

I look for four things; do they listen, do they build on our ideas, do they do anything extra and do they get my jokes.

The last one might seem frivolous, but if you’ll be working together intensively for a longer period of time it’s important that the relationship is there. Getting each other’s jokes is one sign that you’re on the same wavelength, and that you might enjoy each other’s company.

Possibly the least interesting for the creative – but very important for the account manager to know! Set out who from your side should be the contact person, I recommend a single point of contact if possible. Explain what you expect to be delivered. State what options they have for presenting those deliverables (eg: we sometimes need to be able to email design examples – so I’ll need a standard format file less than 1MB). State the deadline. Are you paying any fee to support their development work – and is the written off against the costs of the successful company? If the briefing is part of an assessment process then explain the criteria for assessment and how (and when!) the decision will be made.

These details are not interesting for a creative person so I usually set them out on a separate page to reduce distraction.

Keep the document short. If you can’t convey what your company is about and what your brand means in under 200 words then perhaps you need to give that more thought before you start an ad campaign.

There will very likely be a group of people round the table when it comes to the decision, two things worth keeping in the front of everyone’s mind are the customer and the aspiration. It can help to name the customer, in our case we called her Iris,  and then the discussion became “would this appeal to Iris?”

What do you think? Do you recognise these as the four most important keys? What else would you suggest?

Creativity and Play

I’m working on a brainstorm relating to video content. We’re going to pretend that all the technical issues are solved, and focus on the content and the process. I’ve been looking for some ways to increase our creativity for the workshop – and I came across this video, suggesting that more play at work would lead to more creativity.

He’s specific and points to three ways that play can be part of the creative process;

  • playful exploration; trying things, being unashamed of your efforts
  • playful building; building, children build towers designers build prototypes
  • roleplay; being someone else, children use a costume to try a new identity, designers can put themselves in the place of the customer

But he emphasises play is not anarchy – there are rules – and children will quickly point out and breech of the rules. Without the rules it can be more difficult to establish the necessary framework, and the necessary trust to have effective play. Without the play you won’t get the creativity.

The result is that I’ve added the 30 circles trick into the workshop – I think it’s a really fast way to get people involved and being crazy. Each participant is given a page with 30 circles of the same size arranged evenly, in one minute they have to adapt the circles, turning them into tennis balls, faces, globes, wheels. The emphasis is on quantity – not quality – and the task is designed to get you playing.

I’ve also been off to Think Geek, looking for those finger rockets.

 

image child via pixabay