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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Creativity, what is it?

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Larry Stout, who suggested I write this piece, sent me link to a recent article in Psychology Today. The topic is what makes scientists more creative. The answer, having interests in arts and crafts outside their scientific specialities, sounds plausible.

The idea that creativity lies in finding new combinations of materials from diverse sources has become conventional wisdom in the culture industries, like advertising, where I have spent much of my life. But the focus is very much on what makes individuals, here individual scientists, more creative. Here I offer a different perspective, grounded in social anthropology and the study of social process.

"Let there be light, and there was light." An almighty individual speaks. The words alone are enough. Where nothing was, something becomes.

This classic model recalls other images. A writer confronts an empty page, a painter a blank canvas, a potter a shapeless mass of clay. But even in the case of the writer saying, "The words alone are enough" misses the vital importance of moving the words to the page. Writing is not just words. The words become writing only when transferred to some physical medium, handwritten or printed ink on paper; carved into clay, wax or stone; or displayed in glowing pixels.

The painter chooses a brush, a pigment from his palette; the brush moves across the canvas, leaving behind a visible trace. Acrylic, oil, or watercolor, the effects are all different. Only if the potter is a toddler is the clay haphazardly gathered mud. The choosing and blending of clays that produce different results when fired at different temperatures is as much a part of the potter's art as deciding on the form of the vessel and the techniques needed to produce it.

As these examples illustrate, the medium brings creativity literally down to earth. The relation of creator to medium, the material in which the work is produced has long been a deep and contentious issue in the history of art. And recently it has also moved to the forefront of anthropological speculation as well, in work like Tim Ingold's Making (2013) or Kat Jungnickel's "Enquiry Machines." It is central in the emerging field of design anthropology, where anthropologists and designers work together on projects whose aim is to reshape the material stuff of the world. From kitchen utensils and furniture to smartphones, shopping malls, health care or complex business processes, the possibilities are endless.

Note here, however, the importance of "and." Some anthropologists are also designers. But the usual scenario is one in which the design anthropologist works with the designer, and both may be part of teams with roles as diverse as those described in Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation and include individuals with a wide range of craft and technical skills as well.

As Japanese copywriter and creative director Maki Jun observes in his multiple introductions to a book titled Hitotsu ue no Chiimu (One Bit Better Teams), a creative team is not a group of people all doing the same repetitive job. It is, instead, a collection of specialists brought together to produce something new. They bring different talents and temperaments to the table. If they don't quarrel, nothing exciting will happen.

Great creative directors have mastered the art of containing and focusing a team's quarrels. Think of a team as a nuclear reactor. Damp down the reaction too far and no energy is produced. Let it run away, and a meltdown destroys all hope of progress. The art is in finding the balance that maximizes the energy while keeping it focused on achieving the goal.

Which raises, of course, the political question, who sets the goal? In the advertising industry, where I worked as a copywriter, the ultimate goal is set by the client who has some business purpose in mind, to launch a new product, maintain or refresh an existing brand image, or improve a corporate reputation (worst case, one damaged by scandal). But between that goal and the advertising produced by the creative team lies a long process.

Step 1 is to formulate a communication strategy and produce two documents, a media plan and creative brief. This work is usually done by account executives, account planners, and marketing researchers, who come up with a broad framework that suggests the kind of message that will appeal to the target audience.

The media plan describes the mix of advertising for which the client is asked to pay: what proportions of TV, radio, newspaper or magazine ads, billboards, promotions, banner ads, websites, etcetera, are needed to achieve the client's goal. Budgeting is a critical issue. Paying for the media is by far the biggest expense involved.

The creative brief says,

  1. Here is the target audience
  2. This is how we want them to react
  3. Here is the proposition, the message we want them to take away
  4. This is why we believe that communicating this proposition to that audience will achieve the desire goal
  5. Here are the media for which the advertising must be produced, and
  6. Here is a whole bunch of stuff, client's tastes, corporate policy, current trends, competitor approaches, that you mustn't run afoul of.

Point 5 brings us back to the relation between creators and the media in which they work. Each advertising medium has its own demands. Consider the difference, for example, between a newspaper page full of text and a fifteen-second TV spot in which the copywriter's words are allocated only eight seconds max.

Point 6 reinforces the central point of this essay. Creativity isn't a divine gesture. It's a messy, often highly political, social process. Understanding that process is a critical element in any successful creative career.

Creativity isn't a divine gesture. It's a messy, often highly political, social process.

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Full Size Image
Creativity is a messy process, and not just in getting your hands dirty. Photo by Jennifer Rensel (Flickr: Let's paint!) [CC BY 2.0]
Creativity is a messy process, and not just in getting your hands dirty. Photo by Jennifer Rensel (Flickr: Let's paint!) [CC BY 2.0]