What’s the creative process all about? That’s the question designer and creative thinker Michael Wolff has been exploring. After a long and luminous career, he appears in a number of videos talking about inspiration, creativity and making an impact. I’d like to share some of his insights about the creative process – his ideas speak directly to anyone trying to find an innovative way to meet a challenge or solve a problem. As he comments at wearegoat.com:
The task of designing has too often become one of persuading people to absorb some facts and think positively about them, rather than to evoke feelings of interest, pleasure, empathy, delight or inspiration. If we could move our clients into story telling, we’d be able to tell their unique stories and trust people to decide if it’s an interesting story to them or not.
In other words, building empathy and forging an emotional bond are key to communicating with your audience. It’s not just about ideas or information – if you don’t create a personal connection, you’ll quickly loose their attention. In making a video, for example, one of your primary goals is to help the viewer build an emotional bond with your subject. The same is true in documentaries, commercials or political spots. Once you like or feel good about the person, then you’re ready to learn more or hear what they have to say. When I work on video projects, I put a lot of effort into making that first impression a good one.
I recently watched a video profile of Michael Wolff from Intel’s Visual Life series that I’d like to share with you. By hanging out with Michael as he wanders his townhouse, makes tea, peruses his wardrobe of colorful shirts and prepares a meal, we get a sense of how everyday moments of life are a reflection of his way of looking at the world, and thinking about design and the creative process. Produced by m ss ng p eces, the video shows great attention to detail, with lots of well-chosen closeups to ponder as you accompany him through his day.
I like the video’s unhurried pace. As Michael talks about paying close attention to the world around you, the video’s style – lingering on closeup images that echo his words – works elegantly with what you’re seeing and hearing, and gives you time to absorb and reflect upon his thoughts.
Some Observations on the Creative Process
Michael Wolff talks about the value of a holistic education. I’ve found that useful too, in this age of specialization. Often, something I’ve learned in one area aides my ability to explore and understand another. Also, creative people need variety to grow and flourish. Once you master something it no longer holds the same fascination and seduction that first drew you to it. Specialization easily leads to boredom – and boredom dulls the creative process.
Michael goes on to describe “three muscles of seeing” – curiosity, appreciation (what I would call mindfulness) and imagination. In Michael’s view, creativity underpins innovative solutions to problems – that’s one reason we should value the creative process. If we hope to develop creative solutions to meet our challenges, how do we get there? That’s where Michael’s three muscles come in.
Curiosity – asking “Why?” – is the first step on the path to understanding. Being curious allows you to dig more deeply, challenge conventional wisdom and discover underlying issues or facts that can clear the way to more elegant solutions. Instead of making assumptions based on what you already know, asking “Why?” can lead you to surprising answers and insight. Michael Wolff likes to clear his mind of assumptions, start out fresh and ask questions. Asking “Why?” can help you uncover information that might otherwise be overlooked or ignored. As Michael said in the video:
“Everybody knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What few people realize is it’s only through the parts that the whole gets delivered. I see “seeing” as a muscular exercise, like I see curiosity. It’s a kind of being open, really: if you walk around with a head full of preoccupation, you’re not going to notice anything…”
I live in a cornucopia of sight, smell and sound we call the city, but most people passing by focus their attention on a little electronic device and shut out everything else. In a sea of sensation it’s difficult to practice mindfulness and be open to the ever-shifting environment.
I speak from experience. For years, each weekday morning I would leave home, earbuds in place, and let my music provide a bouncy soundtrack for my morning walk to the metro. One day I realized I was so intent on the music powering me to my destination, I was blocking out everything. No birds, no wind rustling the leaves, no footsteps, no traffic, no rush of everyone else scurrying to work. So I reversed course, left my iPod at home and began to observe the day.
There was so much to take in. Now I often pause to watch the little dramas playing out around me, like the time I saw a robin chase a squirrel up and down a tree, across a lawn and into a hedge – and then strut back like some mini-macho cowboy who just rode the rodeo bull.
Mindfulness lets you be open to experience without preconception or judgement. The less you prejudge, the more likely you can find an innovative response to the problem at hand. Steve Jobs liked to take walks to mull over problems. Walking gave him a quiet space to explore, consider and ponder. Also, being mindful leaves you open to receive what others have to offer.
Curiosity and mindfulness spark the imagination. Giving your imagination full flight can lead to break-through solutions. The three together are the wellspring of creativity. Michael Wolff would also encourage you to give up your ideas. As he puts it, if you don’t hang on, if you let them go, then you create the space for new ideas to bubble up. Your first idea may not necessarily be your best, it may just be the first step on the way to getting your creative juices flowing.
On Michael Wolff’s website you’ll see some pithy thoughts about design and the creative process along with a series of favorite cartoons. It’s well worth a visit. Two thoughts in particular stand out:
Goodbye to letting the data decide. And a warm welcome back to reflection, intuition and judgement. Great leaps forward come from asking the right ‘big’ questions. That’s why I always start thinking with not knowing any answers.
I like his reminder to keep an open mind, to question assumptions, to give yourself time to explore and then delve deeply for answers. To all of that I would add this – be quick to listen and slow to speak.
So what’s your experience with the creative process? Do you find Michael Wolff’s ideas useful? Do you like what he has to say? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.