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Creativity + Failure = Compelling Visual Thinking

Posted by John Telford on Sep 19, 2016 12:05:52 AM

People are amazed by creativity, whether it's the perfect turn of phrase in the latest bestseller, a catchy bassline in a chart-topping pop song or the beautiful cinematography in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. There's something mystical about creativity in the minds of most of the human population.

That's understandable because so many people don't think they have a creative bone in their bodies. It's natural that, because of that mindset, people begin to see anyone who does exhibit some level of creativity as a "genius." This is particularly true if said creative genius is able to produce and be creative on a consistent basis. "Non-creative" people (and there is no such thing, as we'll get to in a moment) can't imagine being able to be creative at all beyond a rare flash of brilliance (if ever), much less coming up with creative ideas over and over and over again.

However, this idea that people have about themselves not having creative abilities is patently false. It's a lie they've convinced themselves is true, but I'm here to tell you it's 180 degrees wrong, and I'll share with you how anyone can be creative and have consistently great ideas and how those great ideas can be translated into compelling visual thinking.

First, it's accurate that some people are truly creative geniuses. They were born with some inate ability to see things and make connections easily that other people don't. Those people are few and far between, but for the rest of us, creativity is like a muscle, and the more we train it, the more creative we can become.

So, what steps can we take to learn to be creative? Allow me to share a few things I have found to be critical for generating and implementing creative concepts on a consistent basis.



1. Embrace your failures and learn from them

Let's face it, not every idea is a great one. In fact, some ideas are stinkers, but that's a good thing. In my experience, some of the best ideas I've ever been a part of sprang from truly awful beginnings. There's nothing wrong with having bad ideas. Everyone does. The trick is how quickly you can recognize a concept's faults and spin those negatives into something positive. That's the most important part of creative thinking, and that's why it's Step 1 in our process.

When James Dyson, the inventor behind the groundbreaking Dyson vaccum cleaners,  was trying to design his first vaccum, he cycled through over 5,000 prototypes before coming up with his final design. Here's a guy who many people see as a creative genius for his innovative products, and he failed more than 5,000 times en route to success. Dyson embraced his mistakes, learned from them and allowed them to propel him forward.


2. Generate a lot of ideas

Creativity's dirty little secret is that great ideas rarely emerge fully formed in a flash of sheer, unadulterated brilliance. The truth is, as with most things, it's work. It generally requires you to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. We already established that you're going to have bad ideas, and James Dyson's example from Step 1 proves the need to crank out lots of concepts before you arrive at success.

Remember when I said that creativity is like a muscle? How do you build muscle? By training and working out for countless hours on end. The old bodybuilding adage, "no pain, no gain" is relevant when it comes to creativity as well. The idea that creativity is something bestowed on a chosen few is a myth. The rest of us just need to work a little harder, and the evidence of that hard work is all about generating a massive amount of ideas. That hard work will payoff and being a creative thinker will become easier with practice.


3. Relax and let the ideas come to you

Studies have shown that people who are relaxed are more likely to arrive at creative solutions. An Australian team of researchers showed that people who were lying on their backs — a relaxed posture — were more likely to solve puzzles than if they were standing .

This, naturally, makes sense, but is a point that often gets shoved aside when processes or environments can sometimes rachet up pressure for participants to be intensely focused on solving a problem. This kind of atmosphere can severely limit creative thought.

Allowing your mind to be free to wander, explore and do a little blue sky thinking is the key to creativity. You need to get into a frame of mind that enables you to consider a wide variety of possibilities, which goes hand in hand with generating a lot of ideas as we discussed in Step 2 above.

This is also why, in many brainstorming sessions, participants are encouraged to throw out every idea, no matter how outlandish, unrealistic or bad they may be. We know from Step 1 that bad ideas are really a good thing. Learning from our failures is key to arriving at a creative solution, and giving people permission to have bad ideas creates a more relaxed environment.


4. Develop a process that feeds on itself

One thing you might notice is the first three steps above all reinforce each other. Accepting and learning from your failures (Step 1) means giving yourself permission to have bad ideas, which creates a relaxed environment (Step 3). A relaxed environment allows your mind to be open to more possibilities and to see a broad array of options, which will help you generate a lot of ideas (Step 2).

I'm a big believer in setting goals at the start of the new year. To help me achieve my goals, I try to think of goals that feed into each other. For example, one year I decided I wanted to do more sketching to improve my drawing ability. I also decided I wanted to read more books and to retain more of what I read. To help me remember and retain what I read, I decided to sketch visual notes as I read. This visual notetaking effort not only helped with my reading/retention goal, but it also helped me with my goal of sketching more.

Any process, system or environment that takes this kind of compounding into account is one that will have a higher probability of success.


5. Consider eliminating your first "good" Solution

This one is more optional than the other steps. It's something we experimented with years ago in an effort to expand our thinking and to consider a wider spectrum of options (Step 3). 

Often times, after further developing all those ideas you generated in Step 2, that first good solution that bubbles to the surface during this refining effort is seen as THE solution, particularly if it's a solution that was arrived at with some difficulty. The temptation is to just go with that concept when that concept is simply the most obvious one, and if that's the case, is it really the BEST concept?

If the rule is to throw out the first "good" solution — to not use it no matter what — so you can arrive at other less obvious, and therefore, more creative solutions, by the very nature of this step you are reinforcing Steps 2 and 3 in our process (there we go letting our system feed on itself again).

Sometimes the first good idea really is the best one, and that's why this step should be considered somewhat optional. However, even though you've generated lots of ideas to arrive at this first good one, you should really be taking all the ideas you have and try to develop and refine them into as many good, viable solutions as possible.

As I said before, these are simply things I've used over the years to help us develop and strengthen our creativity muscle. These steps are part of a larger visual thinking process that helps us to create dynamic visual storytelling options that communicate a message to an audience in a compelling way, but they can be applied to any function that requires consistent creative solutions.

Demystifying creative thinking becomes easier when you take the pressure off and allow yourself to fail, to learn from those mistakes, to realize that true creative geniuses are rare and building your creative muscle just takes a little elbow grease.


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Topics: Visual Storytelling, visual notetaking, visual thinking, Brainstorming, Creatvity

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