FX brought together experts from across architecture and design to consider the very meaning of creativity
Photography by Gareth Gardner
Taking part were
chairman, Barr Gazetas
design director, HLW
design manager, Bisley
head of interiors, Knight Dragon
creative director, Basha-Franklin
associate director, tp bennett
(chair), editorial director, FX Magazine
creative lead, Rainlight
Most people reading this magazine will probably consider themselves to be ‘creatives’. It is a word widely used as a neat collective term to describe those working in interiors, architecture, plus a whole host of other professions such as advertising, theatre and music. But not science, medicine, anthropology et al, or indeed the rest of the world. Who is genuinely entitled to use the ‘creative’ title, and how do we each maximise our creative potential? FX invited a group of lively guests from across the industry to discuss these issues courtesy of Bisley in Clerkenwell.
Jane Lawrence, head of interiors at Knight Dragon, said: ‘I suppose I’ve always thought of creativity as a purely imaginative process, but the more I have read and thought about it, I realise that it’s not just about the imagination, but it is also about the realisation. It is not just the idea itself – it is the manifestation of the idea. So for something to be totally creative, it has to have an end result of some kind.
‘It’s the ability to think laterally, to then look at it a number of different ways, before hopefully arriving at something that is unique. Ultimately, it has to reach some kind of conclusion for it to really be creativity, otherwise it’s imagination or bright ideas.’
Yorgo Lykouria, creative lead, Rainlight
Is this concept of creativity the preserve of just the ‘creative’ sectors? Can science or academia be equally creative for instance? Nicola Osborn, creative director at Basha-Franklin, said: ‘Creativity exists across all industries, although it perhaps varies how each “understands” or recognises creativity. Some accept it and run with it a lot more than others. For example, there is in some quarters a desire to intellectualise it, so for those who are stoically academic in background, they may not be able to fully understand that being creative can sometimes come from several people stood around a table and deciding that something is a good idea, rather than bringing something forward that has several reports behind it to prove the theory. It doesn’t always need the data and graphs.
‘Whether one route is better than another is hard to say, but it can certainly be a good starting point for problem-solving, and a lot of what we do as designers is to problem solve. So if people present you with a problem, or at least an aspiration of where they want to be, without really knowing how to go about getting there, then you’re providing them with the directions for the journey.’
Lawrence responded: ‘That’s analytical creativity, looking at things in many different ways and not just approaching it from a linear perspective. The really creative part is in realising that there could be 100 solutions to a problem, and going through those solutions until you arrive at the one that feels like the right one.’
Experience counts — Alistair Barr, chairman of architecture practice Barr Gazetas, said: ‘There’s often this myth that there is often some kind of “lightbulb moment”, where you wake up one morning and say “that’s it!”, and I don’t think that’s right. Maybe I’m getting older and grumpier, but equally misleading is the idea that a good idea or solution will come from just one person, when that’s usually not the case. The most creative projects I’ve been involved with are when there are several likeminded people around the table who are bouncing ideas off of one another – that’s when the sparks can happen.’
Yorgo Lykouria, creative lead at product design studio Rainlight, added: ‘But when we get older and grumpier, do we also become more creative? It’s what I feel is happening to me. When you look at children, they’re incredibly creative without even trying or thinking about it too much because it’s just life as they know it. Then we get to a certain point where we are taught and told to do things a certain way, and we do lots of inward learning too as we move through life and our careers. Then, as we start to gain a little mastery of some of that, we start to relax, and the ideas start to come.’
Jane Lawrence, head of interiors, Knight Dragon
However, Gavin Hughes, design director at architecture and design practice HLW, said: ‘That doesn’t happen for everyone, so I wonder what makes it flow like that for some and not others. I read that as soon as a child starts in formal education, the use of the creative part of their brain is diminished, and you use it less and less the more you go on.’
But in the big wide world of work, are some sectors more likely to possess creative enlightenment than others? Rosie Haslem, director at design practice Spacelab, suggested that ‘scientists and other professions are creative, but they’re creative in a different way and that’s what brings extra insight to the table. We have a number of teams within our business and the designers have traditionally been called the “creatives”, while the design research team has been seen as the “analysts” who deal primarily with data. Within that team are a number of people from different backgrounds, such as research, design, or architecture, and the things that spark their creativity can be entirely different to the things that spark the designers’ creativity. The most effective time is when we bring those people together because they look at a problem from different perspectives, and that’s when the real creative sparks happen.’
Nicola Osborn, creative director, Basha-Franklin
Collaborative sparks — This meeting of minds – both internally within an organisation and with external clients – can help to refine the creative process believes Phoebe Settle, associate director at architects tp bennett: ‘Sometimes when working with legal clients we might put together a presentation that we think is visually clear and talks about the process and conclusions, but they don’t quite view it the same way that we do. They are often looking for more in the way of tests or data. That’s when we start working with our strategy teams and you end up with a whole melting pot inputting into the design process, which challenges us, and in turn challenges the client, which I think is good all round.’
Hughes posed the question of whether it is possible to design by committee. Greeted with a unanimous ‘no’ from around the table, he wondered what’s the difference between that and what had just been described.
Barr said: ‘If the people in this room were given a design problem, I reckon within an hour or so we would have some work achieved because we’re all like-minded people and open to creativity. It might not be as straightforward if half of us were from hugely contrasting fields.’
Jade Surtees, design manager, Bisley
Jade Surtees, design manager at Bisley, believes that the driver for much creativity comes from confidence: ‘Just because you have an idea, you don’t always know how to convert that into something tangible, which then can cause you to become frustrated. That acts as a virtual block to the creativity because there’s a sense that you’ve almost gone as far as you can go.
‘But in industry you tend to have other teams who can go on and make things happen, so you can be that creative who brings the idea, and then give it to your colleagues who can help you work through what might be possible. That in turn leads you to become creative again in developing the idea further because you’ve found a way of taking it from being “just” an idea.’
Basha-Franklin’s Osborn added: ‘I think what enables us to do that is because we’re an industry of like-minded people. Stick any of us in the financial services organisation, for example, and we’re less likely to be surrounded by people who would enable that. There are businesses in that sector who try to “box up” creativity and structure it in a certain way. Well, that’s just going to kill creativity as we understand it because creative thinking is about providing a space where there are no barriers and you can just throw ideas in.’
Alistair Barr, chairman, Barr Gazetas
However, Lawrence stated: ‘I don’t think that an industry like the financial sector is inherently not creative, it’s just that it has not been enabled to be creative. There will be creative people working in the financial sector, for example – it’s just that that profession hasn’t facilitated it in quite the same way.’
Borne of frustration — Earlier this year, the third edition of the FX Talks event brought together a series of speakers from wide ranging backgrounds to discuss ‘radical thinking’, exploring the concept from a number of different perspectives. One of those who made a big impression on the audience was inventor Tim Hunkin, whose eccentrically brilliant hand-built machines can be found in his amusement arcades on Southwold pier in Sussex and also at the new Novelty Automation arcade close to London’s Holborn station.
Surtees said: ‘Tim Hunkin comes up with these insane ideas and makes them come alive by building them in his workshop. This is nextlevel creativity.’
Phoebe Settle, associate director, tp bennett
Hunkin is a Cambridge-educated engineer whose interest in the left-field led him to a less well-trodden path of inventing, creating his highly entertaining machines for the amusement of others. Surtees added: ‘It seems like it was borne of frustration for him really, of having this urge to create but not quite knowing what to do with it, before tinkering away in his shed and coming up with these crazy ideas.’
The inventor had the foundation of his engineering education – and the resulting skills – to put his ideas into action, so is having a skill set key to being able to unleash creativity? Barr pointed out the example of Sir Paul McCartney who managed to become one of the most successful songwriters and performers of all time despite not being able to read or write music. ‘It’s a great example of intuition, where people can just do it,’ he said.
Lawrence added: ‘He and John Lennon created a formula, which they then applied to their music, which I think shows that there is a form of analytical process to creativity that gets you from the inspiration to some unique end result.’
So for some, creative brilliance is backed with academic grounding, while for others it somehow manages to flow without. So what factors stimulate the process and lead to the creation of inspired, inventive work?
Hughes believes creativity exists in pretty much every possible plane and dimension: ‘Whenever you are designing anything, you’re tapping in to everything that’s ever been done and all the influences you’ve ever been exposed to. It’s almost like a magpie stealing things from different places and using them to produce something new. A lot of that is intuitive, but there’s also something a little magical about it too, when you find yourself processing things at a speed we can’t quite understand ourselves.
‘In a sense, I don’t want us to figure out what it is exactly. It would be like when you see a magic trick – it amazes you, but then you’re shown how it’s done and it suddenly loses all of that wonder. The outcome is the really important thing – who needs to see how it’s done?’
He suggested that inspiration can come from anything, but feels that the internet could pose a danger for young designers of all disciplines: ‘The internet is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong – and I don’t have any issue with Instagram or Pinterest, which are not much different from the way we used to scan through books for ideas years ago – but my point is that there is potentially less digestion.
‘So before, you might have once walked back from the bookshop or library, or would perhaps be physically cutting things out to create moodboards – this all involves processing what you’re seeing, and developing those thoughts to create something more original.’
He added: ‘The danger for interior designers is also that for many: all they’re looking at is interior design, and that’s why you see loads of trends, shapes and colours repeating themselves, whereas ideally you should be looking at everything, across products, film, dance, art etc.’
Osborn senses that links closely to changing methods of education: ‘We are of a generation that was taught to look at a broad range of sources and to be inspired by what’s around us in the widest sense. The internet is amazing – I’m certainly not anti-internet either – and Pinterest certainly holds a position for sourcing inspiration, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only place that you look.’
Tried and trusted formulas — What about designers – including hugely successful and famous ones – who, on the face of it, stick fairly close to their own style, without deviating very often towards new and contrasting types of output? Lawrence said: ‘Creativity is self-limiting; you still tend to have a propensity towards a certain direction. Your brain is inevitably going to be wired in a certain way so your synapses are going to come to a not-too-dissimilar conclusion. We are who we are and you tend to have a creative philosophy to much of what you do.’
The discussion touched on the work of the much vaunted ‘starchitects’ whose buildings continue to make headlines around the world. Does replication of a similar style across multiple projects over a sustained period of time suggest a lack of creativity, or is it merely a continuation of a longer-term thread of ideas on that architect’s part? On the latter, Hughes referenced a quote attributed to the poet Paul Valéry in which he said ‘a work is never completed, merely abandoned’.
Settle of tp bennett said that it is understandable that some of these giants of architecture stay true to something resembling a ‘signature style’: ‘In many ways, there is an expectation for them to continue their style. Clients go to them for more of what they saw and liked. Otherwise, it would be like going to a music concert and the performer playing only their new material and none of the older favourites that the fans might want to hear.’
Spacelab’s Haslem said: ‘It’s easy to say that creativity simply comes naturally to some people, but in a way, that could be belittling their creativity. In most cases, it comes about through something they have had to work really hard to achieve.’
Gavin Hughes, design director, HLW
Creative flow — Can true creativity be forced, or is it a natural, instinctive process that simply flows? ‘Outside of our industry, if you take the example of writers, they talk about creativity in a very different way,’ said Rainlight’s Lykouria. ‘For them, it can be about discipline, about sitting in the same chair, and having the same routines. I’m writing my first novel and I did the whole experience of getting up at 5am to write, and sometimes the words would just flow and I’d wonder where it was all coming from.’
FX editorial director Theresa Dowling, chairing the discussion, asked: ‘But isn’t it the case that the more you write and the more you distil ideas, the more ideas come? Although it’s an insular process, you’re working flat out to capture all these thoughts, and so the more you produce, the more choice you have in terms of where to go and how to develop it.’
Lykouria posed the question: ‘So what about when you’re under time pressure, and you’re still expected to be brilliant?’
Hughes suggested that urgency and deadlines focus the mind, but Lawrence said: ‘Does it enhance creativity or does it, in fact, stifle it? It’s all too easy to fall back to something you’ve done before when you’re up against it. You know that it works, you know that it fits the budget, and when you’re on a really tight timeline it must be tempting to lean back on that.’
Lykouria replied: ‘That’s where faith comes in. It’s key in the creative process to have a bit of belief and you sort of have to forget the pressure, act like it doesn’t exist. That’s the real discipline and I think that comes a little easier from being older too.’
‘But can’t being truly creative also be a little bit scary?’ asked Dowling. ‘You often have to park everything you know and go off on an adventure and out into the unknown. It’s good to do that, of course, but it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience, is it?’
Osborn pointed out: ‘Well, there are two sides to the issue of a deadline. For example, I can’t stop designing for my own house because there’s no client or fixed deadline, so I just can’t stop doing stuff . The bonus of doing a job like that for a client is they’ll give you a date that it needs to be finished and will make decisions on some of the options you come up with. So, do deadlines enable us to find a solution, or do they restrict the options because we’re forced to cut the process short?’
Haslem suggested that constraints of all kinds can be an aid to innovative thinking: ‘Sometimes the real creativity comes when you’re working on a project and the budget gets cut halfway through, so you’re forced to come up with even better solutions for even more problems.’
Hughes added: ‘A good example of that is the film Jaws, which was supposed to have been heavy with special effects, but the mechanical shark kept breaking down so they were forced to improvise with point-of-view camera angles and an emphasis on the music – and it’s all the better for it.’
So how can we be more creative, and how do we find the inspiration that enables us to achieve it? Surtees said: ‘It could be very different for each of us. If you have your best ideas going out and walking along the seafront then go and do that. But then not everyone works for the sort of company that is happy for staff to do that sort of thing in the name of aiding creativity.’
Hughes said: ‘It goes back to trust and belief. If an employer can believe in its people and as long as they are delivering the goods then how they achieve that shouldn’t really matter.’
Theresa Dowling, editorial director, FX Magazine
Pearls of wisdom — Barr – who last year contributed to a book, Creative Superpowers, offering thoughts on how we can all prepare for the ‘Age of Creativity’ – brought with him to the discussion a small black box containing what looked like playing cards. Printed on each was an individual suggestion or phrase intended to ‘reset’ the creative mindset, or to encourage a problem to be viewed from an alternative angle. Called Oblique Strategies – Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, the concept was created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975.
‘Eno is a very creative person,’ said Barr. ‘First of all, he was in a band, then he worked with David Bowie and loads of other incredible music artists. He is brilliant at focusing other people’s creativity. He once said that he didn’t feel he was a particularly creative person, but he became good at working with so many different talented people and managing to channel them in a highly creative way.’
The cards were a form of putting down all of the tricks or strategies he had learnt for working to get the best out of people and the projects they were working on. Examples of some of the pearls of wisdom they contain include: destroying nothing will destroy the most important thing; define an area as safe and use it as an anchor; slow preparation, fast execution; don’t be afraid of things just because they’re easy to do; listen to the quiet voice.
‘We sometimes turn to these cards in the office whenever there is a creative block, as a way of just opening up the mind and finding a way out of one of those common traps that we can all fall into from time to time,’ said Barr.
Dowling suggested that such thinking could help with any number of ‘obstructive stalemates’ that we all come across: ‘Any one of those cards could potentially throw it all up in the air and help you see the problem from an entirely different angle.’
So maybe the key to unlocking our full creative potential lies in addressing the ways in which we’re taught – or some would say ‘programmed’ – from an early age. HLW’s Hughes said: ‘At school we’re all taught about text and formula. It was mostly measured on how well you’ve memorised content, and very little on how you had processed it or thought about it.’
Education reformer Sir Ken Robinson said in a 2014 TED talk that education will fall when children are not allowed to fail, when arguably it’s only through failing that they can explore creativity. In a similar vein, the writer Madeleine Bunting once pointed out that we are told throughout our lives to always pay attention. Experience suggests that real creativity may more likely come about through distraction. Perhaps we should consider paying a little less attention, and allowing ourselves to risk failure every once in a while.