Penguin books are running a summer holiday reading campaign called Travel by Book. Great idea. I took part in their quiz and was told I should be “walking the streets of Amsterdam”. OK. I have done that. (Yes, I think this was in relation to my saying that I liked art galleries, not anything untoward!). But I’ve never read much in Amsterdam; just looked at art and tulips and canals. They also suggested a romantic novel for me… Erm, yes, well, not my cup of tea really….But last time that I was abroad, in lovely Cape Ann, I did read – a lot. Once I was really ill there and could do nothing but read a lot too – without any guilt that I should be doing something else “useful”. Do I really have to be ill to read?? And actually, is there anything more useful and enjoyable than reading?
Of course – you know I’m going to say this – reading is one of the best things to do to be more creative. Not only do you observe the skills, writing techniques and imagination of the author, but you also hone your own ability to create other worlds and to see potential in the “what if…?”, in magic, science fiction and happy romance. All places where innovation can be born and ideas grow without boundaries. When I am teaching and my students struggle with ideas I say to them, “Think of what your project might be if it is in a magical book like the Harry Potter series, or if it is set way in the future in a science fiction novel”. It works because it is hard to free your mind of the boundaries of everyday life without a lever.
Travel by Book inspired me to think of where I have been through literature. Indeed, many, many places. But I felt the yen to list some of the most life-changing armchair travel. It all started with fantasy worlds when I was a child. The maps in the Milly Molly Mandy books were the staple of many games with tiny paper cut out figures, or even just with beads, moving around the lovely little village. Small travel for small people. But it was important where each character lived, somehow.
This then progressed onto the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. I’ve mentioned these before because of the fabulous illustrations. I don’t mean just the cuddly characters but the miniature landscapes that are sublime in the most scary and small-making manner of the best Romanticism. These books are about philosophy dressed up as kids’ books and the images show that too. I loved most of all the frantic journey to the observatory and then to the safety of the cave that features in Comet in Moominland. These fantastical, slightly Finnish places were as real to me as any real country. I think it was my first acknowledgement of the epic journey and the thriller rolled into one.
Unsurprisingly, next I shall mention Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. More epic journeys and plenty of maps, with a sprinkling of languages thrown in for authentic travel flavour. I remember well reading the scene in the inn in which the hobbits first meet Strider (Aragorn) as well as the mountains, towers and woods. This is a large book and my well-worn copy has 1077 pages. Yet because it meant a lot to me to read this at age 11 I found it more than the sum of its parts. It helped my perception of myself as a reader to read the lot (it took a few months) which is something I have never managed to do again, despite several attempts. A teacher took me aside to say I might like it and my parents bought it the next day. I felt special and wanted to live up to the challenge. The epic-ness of the book’s content, not just its size, helped me to see it as something important. Nowadays it is criticised for the depiction of the East as evil. But really, like Harry Potter and many other classics, it is a basic story of good, ordinary folk standing up to evil elites. I don’t think the direction is more than a red herring.
And talking of the East, my next nomination is a factual travel book, that reads with all the passion and excitement of a novel: Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. Again, it is an epic journey in which Thesiger crosses vast, lonely and dangerous deserts of the Arabian Empty Quarter with a handful of local companions and guides. Thesiger saw it as romantic at the time and so did I when I read it. It is filled with exotic names and places and the kind of spiritual way of living of nomads. Again, nowadays you might judge it colonial and patronising. There are clearly no women in it at all for so many reasons. I found my already old and worn edition out by the dustbins where a neighbour had chucked it away so it seemed like a discovered treasure.
After reading Arabian Sands I found myself living in the Middle East. Possibly a coincidence but perhaps not. While I was there I pined for academic reading and spent a lot of time in the British Library. My best friend there, Khalil (who also travelled a lot), gave me a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Heavy? Would I manage this? Too Russian? Too morbid? In the end reading it was like an imaginary kind of urban exploring – excitedly visiting a run-down and indeed sublime city of overcrowded flats and moody streets. I found it Dickensian in character and with a head-on attitude of anti-Utopia. I loved it. Here I was travelling not only abroad but across time too, even if underneath it all the story is about morals and guilt. Possibly just another good versus evil story, with a lot of “evil” (for “evil” read humanity). If you don’t know the story, it is about Raskolnikov, a young man who bludgeons an old woman to death and tries to conceal his guilt. It was a relief to be in the book sometimes and not in the world. But my Middle Eastern friends and in-laws got cross when I wanted to read instead of translating American films to them which frustrated my desire to be depressed by my book travel to St Petersburg.
Talking of murder, another fantastic bit of travelling by book is The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a double act account of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and the nefarious, psychopathic goings on of “America’s first serial killer”, H. H. Holmes. Before you get the impression that I dwell upon murders (though people who are interested in serial killers are, so they now say, more intelligent…!?), yes, before you get that impression let me just make clear that most of the book is about Chicago, its influx of people for the Fair, the status of lone women, the smelly slaughter house as spectacle (not a lot to say about this dreadful idea – except perhaps if we saw more of them today we may realise the cruelty…I digress) and the actual design and building of the enormous and complex Fair. Interesting to see how Walt Disney got many of his best ideas from here, such as a Main Street and rides. His dad worked in the World’s Fair. Actually, it is interesting to see how many ideas per se were invented for the Fair and how even things like the electricity supply and things we now take for granted were developed especially for it.
Two other historical books that made me travel through time and space are Daniel Defoe’s novel-as-diary, A Journal of the Plague Year (written in 1722 about the events of 1665) and John Prebble’s factual narrative of the 1692 massacre by royal forces of the highland clans in Glencoe, Scotland (Glencoe: The story of the massacre). I live near London and go there often. London, like other cities, is haunted by its fascinating past and the plague and Great Fire are, to me, always present in another layer of dimensionality. Defoe was a politically minded writer who sets the true story as if written by a contemporary citizen. This makes the written depictions of the hot summer suffering, the red crosses on the doors of stricken houses and the fantastical medicinal masks worn by those who had to face the streets, all very vivid. The reader travels through time to the rickety pre-fire city and can smell the odours and hear the sounds of the dead cart. The story of Glencoe, on the other hand, takes us to a colder, snow-stormy place where the disease is not a germ but systematised hatred and a plan to exterminate the innocent. This story of Highland hospitality, dinners and card-playing ends with mass shootings and children in the cold dying of exposure. Knowing that a few soldiers broke their swords rather than commit a massacre redeems this travel a bit but it is, nevertheless, grim. Yet Prebble’s book is one of the best I have ever read. Good authors can take us anywhere.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I often mention Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects. This is his description of how he built a museum to go with his Nobel Prize winning love story, The Museum of Innocence. The factual book is not just an account of Pamuk’s growing collection, but is a fond description of an Istanbul lifestyle that is fast disappearing. It is nostalgic for times past, for parents and families, all through the lens of the characters of the novel and Pamuk himself. It becomes hard to know (and care) where real people end and the fictitious ones begin. Istanbul itself, seen through words and photos of places and objects, seems both very normal and family oriented but also very mysterious and “historical”. I had a yearning to go there and handle the objects, drink from the ordinary cups and compare contemporary life on the Bosphorus with Pamuk’s old, torn photos. I think any place could be made to seem as intriguing by displaying our old photos and ephemera and just the stuff from around our houses. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Obviously a creative project or several in there.
It is interesting to me that many of the books I have mentioned are non-fiction books that read with the gusto and charisma of novels. Perhaps I like reality dressed up as if it were invented. I admire a well-written book and think perhaps I could read about anything if it is well delivered. Maybe I should read that romantic novel Penguin suggested to me in their quiz results. After all, creative people embrace new things…
Photo credits: (Woman reading a book) The Dead Sea by Patrick Neckman, Wikimedia Commons
Books photos by Sancha de Burca
Amazon links to the books mentioned:
What distinguishes creative people and/or artists from another type of person is perhaps a willingness to go headlong into that uncertainty. Brandon Boyd
Can we really say that there is such a thing as “a creative person”, when there are so many different people who are creative and these people are making so many different kinds of creativity? Maybe not. But it has been shown time and time again that the vast majority of creative people, however we want to define them, do share many characteristics that enable them to put their skills to use.
Below is a list of the traits of creative people. Our list is compiled from the most frequently occurring characteristics as seen in a variety of research studies and books describing the lives of creative people. Please note that the list is in no particular order of importance.
A creative person is:
Curious – interested in a wide range of things and likes to find out about new experiences and knowledge.
Observant – notices and appreciates a wide range of things, including the mundane, the everyday and the behaviour of others.
Divergent thinker – produces a large number of ideas, many of which are quirky or innovative. Uses thinking skills effectively.
Hard worker – works when best suits self but usually puts in regular and frequent hours of work. Usually gets into a state of flow and does not notice work time passing.
Self-motivated – is “autotelic” because needs no other spur to create than own motivation or drive to do so, often feeling compelled to create.
Open to new experiences – is willing to try new things and to engage with them in both an emotional and intellectual way and is psychologically androgynous, having intellectual and emotional traits from both sexes.
Not afraid to fail – views failure as a necessary experiment and learns to conclude from it.
Risk-taker – new ventures, ideas and productions are always risky but the creative person seeks these opportunities to make ideas into material and practical outcomes.
Honest – evaluates own work with honesty and integrity and is often considered to have high moral standards (though some reports disagree with this).
Daydreams – allows time for musings and letting ideas build subconsciously.
Empathetic – listens and takes note of others and is able to understand how others feel. Not afraid of solitude – is happy, or at least productive, in own company.
Anti-authoritarian – non-conformist and can be seen as grumpy when refusing to take orders or refuting unjustified assumptions.
Intellectually nimble – plays with ideas, words or images and can take someone else’s idea and develop it in new ways, or can look at obstacles from an improving point of view.
Mindful – reflects on plenty of aspects of life, including self and is not judgmental about self or about the little things. Is usually happy just to be creating. May be interested in the spiritual, religious or especially the philosophical big questions of life and of humankind.
Sense of humour – humour helps with things like inhibition and risk taking, but creative people’s humour can sometimes be seen by others as insensitive or weird.
Beauty and self-expression – likes the chance to express themselves in a creative way and has own opinions about beautiful things. Sometimes likes to collect beautiful things.
How many of traits do you think you have? Which is your strongest one? Or your weakest one?
The above post is based on an excerpt from The Graphic Design Project’s new book/course, Creative Training: How to be More Creative.
Top: Paint brushes of Leon Brazil from the 2016 exhibition at Mascalls Gallery, photo Sancha de Burca
Middle: Disruptive chess, photo Sancha de Burca
Humans who notice real things are dangerous.
The other day I had a conversation with a good friend and colleague on The Hashtag Noticing Project Facebook group. So, all about #noticing then, especially in order to help you be more creative. Our online chat was about the childhood books that had that had sparked our curiosity and therefore had led to the creative things we do now as adults. Part of that conversation asked if going out with an I-Spy or Observer book and #noticing, and indeed, ticking off the objects in the environment and world around us, was “better” than today’s Pokémon Go phenomenon.
Let’s get one thing straight at the start. I am not anti-computer games of any format. I am convinced that much of the skill you need to play them helps your creative skills and your ability to get along in life in general. But that is a separate post for another day.
Another thing I should mention is that Pokémon Go, which I have not played, is clearly a huge amount of fun and that in itself is a good thing. You cannot have too much stuff that makes you cheerful (if it does! It seems it might make you frustrated and angry.). But we have all heard of the people who have been wandering about in an obsessed daze hunting the Pokémon critters only to find themselves in the middle of the highway with cars bearing down on them. Then there were the players who entered a tiger enclosure. Or the person who discovered not a cute Pokémon, but got a real cadaver instead. We have all, no doubt, seen the videos of daft people furiously holding up the traffic while they figure out where the Onix is. Someone we know bought a rural retreat only to find it is now a Poke Stop surrounded by the walking dead with their eyes fixed on the their smart phones. And then there are the people who were attacked or even killed because they were not paying attention to the real world. This week a video has been released expressing frustration that while white people in America can play the game, it is a different story for a young black man walking round in circles “looking for a Jigglypuff” – how long before he is arrested or worse?
All of that has led to the belief that Pokémon Go players are the best new butt of jokes replacing village idiots, dumb blondes or Irish/Kerryman. That is surely unfair as it only takes a couple of twits worldwide to blacken the name of millions of others. How often do we see that kind of stereotyping in today’s aggressive world (and aforesaid jokes)? And anyway, there are also the nice, shiny stories of good occurrences, like the Pokémon Go player who found a cage of, not Pokémon, but twenty-seven abandoned hamsters and gerbils which they promptly rescued. Not to mention the theory that the whole thing has been got up by certain mobile phone companies in cahoots with the Pokémon makers trying to flog more 4G.
You could write a thesis about why Pokémon Go shows up all the ills of our society, especially the control corporations have over us “lemmings”. See this interesting article for a start. Nevertheless, my issue with the game lies in the fact that many gaming companies, especially those where kids might be the main players (perhaps!) think that by adding a footstep counter or taking the game outdoors might make the games healthy and avoid thrombosis. I can see why they might want to rebuff criticism and this is not so much of a bad thing. But is having your face buried in a miniature screen out in the wild really that good for you? And in any case, it is only a nod to healthy living to sell more games.
Getting outside and walking, even just walking itself, is known to be good for your health as an all-round panacea. But what is less well known is that walking is beneficial to creativity and coming up with ideas. Many, many creative people have used this technique deliberately to help prompt their thinking and Charles Darwin, while wrestling with the theory of evolution, actually had a path built in his grounds to walk around to generate ideas. I often send my design students off on a walk to help trigger their ideas. I send them off individually or in teams to come back with 100 ideas on a specific topic. It really works. I see them mentioning their “divergent thinking walks” in their reports. They think it works because you see – #notice – lots of things around you that jog connections in your neurons and give you new ideas. The point is that you are looking around you and the things you see are interesting in themselves. Above all, you cannot have fresh ideas if you don’t add more ingredients into your brain’s recipe.
And then there is mindfulness. Very trendy at the moment, but nevertheless really useful. We live in a frantic, screen-driven world (read corporation-driven). But we also need to calm down, get out and see what Mother Nature has done for us. If we don’t appreciate the real, living, blooming world out there, how are we ever going to save her? To stop ravishing her and to count her and her myriad children of any species of any value? It seems not many of us do that now. It also seems that many people also value made-up creatures more than the real, living breathing, sentient ones that surround us. Mindfulness is a way of stopping everything to notice (I am not going to facetiously write “#notice” here; doesn’t seem appropriate). Mindfulness is about seeing and indeed enjoying the small details of our day-to-day lives and the environment around us. It is about being kind to ourselves and fostering empathy. Getting out and about is good for mindfulness and for being open. But can you do this when you are obsessing over which way lies a Pikachu or Charmander (yeah, or whoever)? What about the actual birds, foxes, colourful beetles and wildflowers?
So the problem for me, as a creativity educator, is that the game is taking a lot of time but not giving back any real value. It is competitive (“I have a better find than you!”). And it is a distraction – not only from the real world but from the fact you are being literally steered by your phone, not by your own decisions. I am not asking to ban it or take away people’s fun. The people I know that play it are having a really good time. I am just asking, why does it take a computer driven game to get people outside but then still it has them looking at and exploring via the screen?
But maybe this political clash between existing and noticing is not a new thing at all. Back in the 1960s the radical French art group, The Situationist International, used a “game” called Derive, in which they wandered the streets of Paris in a “random” manner. They let the architecture of the streets waft them along as they gave themselves up to the affordances of the environment and noticed the detail of the byways they found themselves in. Unlike Pokémon, they were looking at the places themselves. They were in the moment and the site, feeling the experience. It was considered avant garde to do this. Modern humans, it seems, need a purpose to be anywhere. That purpose or direction or focus often masks the better opportunities around us. PS: Nowadays the affordances of places, or the way the terrain (or your phone) induces you to move around it, is deliberately used in design; in the case of supermarkets not always in our favour and indeed the companies making Pokémon Go and other similar games now drive where you go and they can monitor it too.
Of course, before The Situationists were the Impressionist flâneurs; men-about-town who sumptuously lounged around Paris and elsewhere, as if casual, but were really hawk-eyed hunters of the mundane and the normal, turning their petty findings into innovative and daring art. Art that is now the best-loved of all art movements, but was at the time too cutting, too new and too critical not only because of the “unfinished” style of painting, but also because they saw and reported the polarised world of homelessness, prostitution and working class people and compared it with the so-called normality of the opera and racetrack. Humans who notice real things are dangerous.
Creativity is a human drive that powers us forward, that has built civilisations and has enabled each of us to manage our lives. We all have the potential for it. But we need input for it to develop. We need to have curiosity and I am not sure that things like Pokémon do that. Sadly, we are too easily distracted from curiosity and we are lazy. If some bright spark has been creative enough to invent a Pokémon game where you go out into the real world and catch your virtual creatures, then we will settle for that (Another PS: It is a very innovative idea and praise to the inventors, though remaining sceptical about the agenda behind it). Meanwhile, there are some Pokémon-less, possibly geeky, possibly loner kids outside right now, who are actually noticing their material world, considering it and storing real experiences in their memories who will one day retrieve these thoughts and connections and hopefully, save the planet.
Meanwhile, keep enjoying Pokémon Go. Have fun. Play. All good. Just have a look around you at what is really there too. Oh yeah, and watch out for the traffic….and anything else that is behind you…..(“Oh yes it is”).
If you would like to try out some #noticing, such as Derive or Divergent Walking, you might like our course, Creative Training: How to be more creative.
Top: Pokémon GO, London Massive Lure Party, July 23 2016 by J S Lubbock, Wikimedia Commons
Centre: Pokémon Go traffic advisory, Florida by CycloneBiscuit, Wikimedia Commons
Bottom: Pokémon Go by Roger Lew, Wikimedia Commons
YouTube Video: Elen Sandra Alves Source: YouTube: https://youtu.be/ERWcdOOr1A8
Above: Why books are always better than movies? by Massimo Barbieri, 2009,
Sleep is the best meditation. – Dalai Lama
It would seem likely that getting enough sleep would be good for creativity. However, there are more ways to use your sleep regime than just getting a lot of it.
Why is sleep so good for you in general? One of the main reasons is that when you have at least eight hours uninterrupted sleep the neurons in your brain move slightly apart to let cerebrospinal fluid literally wash your brain. This helps prevent the sticky plaques that are a cause of diseases like Alzheimer’s, from attaching to the ends of your neurons and destroying the connective synapses. So it stands to reason that keeping those areas “clean” will provide you with the most potential for creativity. Having the optimum eight hours amount of sleep and regular sleeping patterns can also help stave off mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and can strengthen your general health and well-being and even prolong your life. Creativity is easier to achieve when you are well-rested, healthy and cheerful.
Memory is also boosted by sleep and it has been shown that trying to learn something, say a new language, is helped by revising not long before you sleep. Next day you will recall it more easily than trying to remember it on the day of learning it. A research activity conducted on sleepers found that performances on a well-known test for creativity, making analogies, was performed pretty much the same by those who were awake, those who were in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and those who were asleep without REM. REM sleep is when you are deeply asleep and dreaming and it is characterised by the darting around of the eyes under the closed eyelids. However, the groups were all secretly primed with words in the analogy test. But only the REM sleepers recalled and used these words the next day. This is thought to be because the deeply sleeping brain removes waking inhibitions to the connectivity of firing neurons, thus allowing a more wide-ranging set of ideas and memories to form, which, of course, is what creativity is all about.
Research has even shown that REM sleep can help you to be as creative as when you are awake. Researchers woke REM sleepers and tested them with ability to solve anagrams. They were as accurate as people who were awake, though it is suspected that the abilities used to solve the puzzle might be different. Those woken from non-REM sleep were drowsy and did not test well. Moreover, when sleeping via hypnosis, people were found to increase their abilities to make jokes. Jokes often use surprising connections as punchlines, which might suggest the sleeping brain is able to make useful connections.
However, that is not the end of the story. Strange things happen to your creativity when you sleep and when you are drifting off to sleep. Hypnagogia is the mental state you are in when you are just falling asleep. You are neither fully awake nor completely asleep. Many creative people believe that while in this enigmatic state they will find ideas. Edgar Alan Poe used hypnagogia deliberately to search for creepy and weird ideas for his horror stories, as did the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. Dali sought his surreal half dreams by falling asleep in a chair holding a set of keys. As he drifted off and relaxed they would slip from his fingers and fall on a carefully placed metal plate, so that the clatter would wake him enough to record the visions of his partially subconscious imagination. Dali said he learnt to do this “slumber with a key” from Capuchin monks. The prolific ideas-man, Thomas Edison, performed the same kind of action using metal balls to wake him as they fell from his relaxed hand. This is just a few of the many, many famous creative names who believed that some form of sleep or hynagogia helped them to form ideas.
Other people use the naturally awakening state, hypnopompia, as a way to grasp fleeting and unusual ideas that have manifested during dreams. You may be reminded of the composer who jotted down a wonderful idea for a major musical work, only to find, on checking, that he had just dreamt his country’s national anthem. Dream ideas still need to be checked for usability. Friedrich August Kekule’s benzene shape idea and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein were also generated in this state.
You may have experienced a side-effect of hypnagogia which is known as the Tetris Effect. Some intense activity you have been doing all day, such as playing the moving-block computer game, Tetris, or sailing, stoking a bonfire, coding, indexing books or rock-climbing, is repeated as hallucinogenic sensations as you drift off.
It is believed that the transition from the waking beta brainwaves (which can cause anxiety) to the drowsy sleeping alpha and theta waves can cause the fertile visual and sometime audible “hallucinations” of hypnagogia and – in reverse – that of its sister state of waking-up, hypnopompia. For a short while the brain is swamped by both sets of waves causing a loosening of its usual conscious control, though the state is not yet proper dreaming. Sleep researcher Sirley Marques-Bonham calls this state “brewing”.
This idea of hypnogogic brewing goes right back to the Incubation stage of Graham Wallas’s model of creativity. During the day we have been preparing our minds by deliberately or incidentally filling them with data. During hypnagogia and dream sleep the brain, while it is thought to be trying to make sense of the day’s data, opens up its connective ability and makes surprising or usually unrelated combinations. You may have looked back at a dream and wondered why two or more elements in it came together in such a surreal way. When we say something is “dream-like” we often mean precisely that it involves oddly combined elements or things that don’t usually occur. This is the very essence of divergent thinking, so it is no wonder that dreams can give rise to powerful new innovations.
Above: Woman with Autumn Leaves, oil painting by Andrew Stevovich, 1994, 36″ x 72″, Private Collection
But there is one more aspect of sleeping that is often vouched for as a productive area for giving birth to ideas and that is insomnia. This seems to go against everything that sleep and creativity stand for. Yet many people find that the nuisance and health-hazard of staying awake deliberately can induce hallucination-like ideas that are very fruitful. The Russian writer, Nabokov, remarked that “sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world.” Others concur, even when their insomnia is not looked for but has occurred in an unwanted fashion. It would make sense to think that in these cases the victim of insomnia is kept awake by his or her mind being so active in seeking ideas that sleep is pushed away and as sleep deprivation worsens, so the subconscious pokes through to suggest “nonsensical” ideas. Again this is a form of divergent thinking, albeit this time of an accidental nature.
There is one more positive aspect to sleep in terms of creativity and that is that is the fact that everything looks different after a good night’s sleep. When a tired person is struggling to cope they are often advised to “sleep on it”. Ben Stein has remarked, “When I seemed to be irritable or sad, my father would quote the learned Dr. Knight, and then say, ‘Just go to sleep.’ Like all smart aleck kids, I thought the advice was silly. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized just how smart Knight was.”
By the same token this fact can help you evaluate your creative ideas and your work in progress. You may have gone to bed the previous night delighted with your day’s work but upon picking it up again the next day you find that a few tweaks are needed (or more). Many creative people suggest that you work hard one day and start the next by checking for corrections or developments. You see things with fresh eyes having put a little distance between you and the act of creation. Your brain has washed and organised itself and is ready to tackle harder problems again.
Activity: The Tetris Effect
Describe an example that you have experienced of the Tetris Effect.
Try to get some ideas by waking yourself up as you go to sleep.
You will be helpful to think about a topic or a questions that you need ideas for or answers to. Prepare your mind by giving this a good deal of consideration and even discussion. Then settle wherever you are most comfortable and likely to fall asleep. Dangle your arm over the chair arm or out of the bed and hold a metal object, like a set of keys or spanner, over a carefully placed metal plate or tray (placed upside down for greatest sound effects and make sure the tray is quite a large one to ensure that the keys land on it). Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas quickly when you drop the metal object. Hypnagogic ideas can flee away very quickly so don’t delay trying to catch them. As in divergent thinking don’t dismiss or censor an idea before or as you write it down.
This extract is from The Graphic Design Project’s forthcoming major course on creativity, which will be available in August. The course is in three parts, of which Creative Training is the first – an opportunity to boost your creative skills.
McKay, Brett and Kate, 2015, Nap like Salvador Dali did, available at http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/02/18/hypnagogic-nap/
Mosher, David, 2012, How Your Brain Cleans Itself—Mystery Solved? National Geographic available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/08/120816-brains-health-science-cleaning-body/
Pate, Neel V., 2014, Sleeping on, and dreaming up, a solution, Science Line available at http://scienceline.org/2014/06/sleeping-on-and-dreaming-up-a-solution/
Schamis Turner, Maria, 2009, Frontier: REM Sleep Stimulates Creativity, The Dana Foundation, http://www.dana.org/Publications/Brainwork/Details.aspx?id=43783
Barbieri and Stevovich images Wikimedia Commons
Goya images courtesy of NGA Images
Above: #noticing the Observer Building, Hastings, UK
If you want a golden rule … [the] true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. William Morris
I recently read an eighteenth month old article by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian that argued that Instagram and other social media was killing creativity. The comment was backed up by reference to a case in which two photographers on a cruise both took shots of the same iceberg. Not surprisingly their photographs turned out to be pretty much identical – they were after all on the same boat at the same time. However, one of the photographers claimed that the other had plagiarised her work. Jones was annoyed that neither photographer had done anything very creative or, especially, original. I guess if you want to claim your photography is art this might be an important case to study and consider. But what if you are just having fun or simply trying to boost your own creative abilities?
So let me try to counter Jones and to show why social media and the internet at large can help you be more creative too. Although I can’t argue with the cliché, “Get off that screen and get out into the real world!” there are some good reasons to get back on that screen when you come back. These reasons have to do with fostering the habits that make you a creative person. They include knowing where to find inspiration, being more observant, reflecting on your experiences and browsing cat memes!
Arranging your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds and followings to enable you to build your own personalised library of inspirations, is, obviously, a great start to creative social media watching. This is like having a newspaper or iPlayer kind of channel that brings you the material that you want. It is a significant source of research and information. This is the so-called democratising of the internet (not just in a political way) to enable smaller voices to be heard, to see the creatives you would not normally come across. And to be seen by them. My own modest Instagram followers and following are from all over the world. On a daily basis I see creative stuff coming out of a range of places such as Turkey, the Lebanon, Russia, Texas, Massachusetts, India, Poland, Japan, Australia and most rural England. This is why social media can be really rich and rewarding.
However, in your personalising of what you receive, just be aware of not keeping your interest too narrow, because the creative person gets excited by all kinds of information, not just the news from their favourites. In graphic design, for instance, there are plenty of sources of really fantastic works. But everybody else will be seeing this too. You might need to add some farther flung research sources (such as say, a nature source, or engineering, or philosophy, or sustainability, cookery) to boost your knowledge and to help you make connections. The best ideas and most innovations come from cross-disciplinary connections. So, my first challenge to you is to go and follow three pages on your Facebook or other social media, relating to things you know or care little about and to try to find ideas from these too. You can always change or rotate these choices later. Creative people relish the unknown and ambiguous.
Above: framing and re-composing – #noticing vignette of front window at the House of Illustration, London
Creative people feed their brains with stuff. It is the only way that new stuff – ie: ideas – will come out. So noticing more is really important. But it is not just having a quick glimpse at interesting things. The habit should include seeing interest where others do not and then recording what you have noticed. What better way than taking a photo for Instagram. In other words, “#noticing”.
OK, you may say that shooting off loads of snaps with your smart phone is not really that creative. But I’d disagree. For one, you have to look to see in the first place. Noticing is all about going about with a prepared mind to spot the opportunity. This is the best creative habit – the power to see what is in front of you and to take nothing for granted.
Above: framing – #noticing the view from a dirty window at Tate Modern, London
Then you have to consider how to “frame” your image carefully. Even if your phone photo is taken really quickly you need to re-compose it when you post it to Instagram or other social media. Thinking about framing fosters the ability to think like an artist and to consider the impact of each element of the image. What scale might you choose for the main objects? Are you looking directly at something or through or beyond something else? How does the composition alter the overall meaning of your image? Sometimes a naff looking image can suddenly become eye-catching when you zoom into specific details via your app.
Above: Pareidolia – #noticing #iseefaces
You may soon be able to develop your sense of pattern recognition and be able to quickly see things like faces or accidental letter forms in the world around you. This is know as pareidolia. There are a lot of hashtags for this, such as #iseefaces.
Above: abstracting the ordinary – #noticing #abstracting rainy car park
Further to this, these kinds of #noticing pictures help you to see beauty or interest in the small things of life, such as a patch of light on leaves or a rainy windscreen view in a dull car park. You can play with abstracting them and create a tiny piece of art or design there and then. This appreciation of the small things is very good for you and your happiness. From William Morris to Buddhism, it is recognised that the happy person takes joy in so-called mundane things. And art, after all, is about helping your viewer to see and know, not just to glance.
Above: abstracting – ~noticing #abstracting chandelier; Marc Quinn’s Frozen Waves at Somerset House; window
A few weeks ago a post did the rounds on Facebook suggesting that Instagrammers were cheating by using white marbled paper as a background or surface against which to place ordinary objects to make them look better. Anything form sneakers to flowers, they said, can be made to look so much better (perhaps more commercially valuable) by using this simple trick. Well good. There is a natural trend amongst Instagrammers to compose mini still life photographs, even if they perhaps don’t think of it in this way. Earlier in the year, for example, I was bird watching for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. When I wanted to post about that fact I arranged my scruffy notebook and carefully placed Biro (!) on top of some nice bird books. When I uploaded my image I found that many birdwatchers had done similar things. That strategic placing of elements, even very ordinary ones, into a composition is developing a creative habit; that of communicating that an event, place or object is more than the sum of its parts. “You cannot not communicate”. (See #biggardenbirdwatch to check this out along with plenty of amazing wildlife images).
Above: still life moments
So my second challenge to you is to go about your daily life with your phone at the ready. Take pictures of “boring” things and make them interesting by the way you compose or abstract them when you post them.
Above: photos from the Facebook 7 Day Nature Photo challenge (centre by Sean de Burca)
My third challenge is similar: join one of the many social media challenges in which you are asked to upload an image from a specific topic. Things like the Design Museum’s weekly type challenge on Twitter, #fontsunday, Instagram’s Weekly Hashtag Project #WHP, or the Facebook challenges to post a picture of nature (or other) every day for seven days and each day to challenge a friend to do the same. If you cannot find a challenge, invent your own.
Above: #noticing still life of paintbrushes at the Leon Brazil exhibition at Mascalls Gallery
Now I hear you say, but we all do this all the time, why is it so good for creativity? The answer, dear reader, is in the fact that you are reflecting about it. Having many and varied experiences is good for the creative brain, but it has been found that reflecting on it afterwards helps the memory become more embedded and retrievable when your mind wants to make creative connections. So in this sense, Facebook posts are good but blogging is better. The act of writing or sketching helps your brain think further as your hand moves with your pencil or keyboard. Better ideas develop in the process. You become more aware of what went well and what you need to improve for creativity the next time. So while full blown reflective writing is the best, simply uploading to social media and selecting hashtags are still ways of considering the photograph or event a little more closely and photos are a good way of committing something to memory. Anyone, like me, who used to keep a hard copy photo album will know that the events that were not recorded tended to fade from memory much more quickly than even the silly, mundane days that did have some snaps captured.
Right, so now you are tired of reading this and you want to go and browse some cat memes on Facebook. That too is good. Your brain needs downtime when you are doing something not too focused. This is so that you can incubate subconscious ideas. Conscious creativity needs a focused input and reflection but it also needs a supposed break. So wandering aimlessly around your social media can also be creative. Just don’t overdo it. Everything, as they say, in moderation. My last challenge is to create a meme and post it! Help others be creative!
Now get off that screen and get out into the real world…and don’t forget your camera…
The Graphic Design Project’s Creative Training course will be published shortly. Stay tuned or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Above: GDP sceptical cat meme challenge!
Above: Post It comment board from Pick Me Up.
Art for art’s sake
Back in the 1940s and 50s the US government held up to the world as a beacon of freedom, the splash paintings of Jackson Pollock and the colourfield giants of Mark Rothko. These, they said, prove how liberal America is because we can accept this kind of art for art’s sake. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t even have to look pretty. It is an expression of the free West. And you, Communist Russia, they said, are terrible because you have quashed your explorative, avant garde artists and have decreed, ruled, that only certain kinds of middle of the road art are acceptable.
Art for art’s sake. Hmm. Cool, why not? Yet Rothko said his works did mean something; something very deep and cosmic and if you could understand it you would be changed.
You cannot not communicate
Potentially anyone can see some message in any form of communication. I see plenty in Rothko’s works. I see the void and back again, dialectical tension like a roller coaster ride. I see meanings in Pollock, but he might not have agreed with me. I see his anger, his masculinity, his experimentation. The Intentional Fallacy, of course, says a maker can never guarantee that his or her meaning will be understood. That is accepted.
So what to make, in terms of philosophical aesthetics – the meaning of art – in this year’s Pick Me Up. I suppose one has to say it is a kind of contemporary banner of freedom of expression. Look! London holds up the work of young collectives as a flag of democratic artiness. The graphic artists can do what they like and we will display it and grimly love it. Hell, we might even have a go at a workshop or buy a small pile of wood for £45.00. Yep. We are free to do all of this and no-one can argue it is wrong. If we add glitter to the word “amazing” it’ll make it amazing, right?
Comparison is the thief of joy
Above: Detail of Mohammed Yousef’s documentary series, Art in the Wild.
Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – I went into the other Somerset House exhibition first, the world’s largest photography competition. The Sony World Photographic Awards 2016 is superb. Each year it is a photographic onslaught of the beautiful, the harrowing, the amusing and the enigmatic from all over the globe. Here you will see the brave documentary photographers smashing secrets, stifling their own emotions to provoke ours, calling for understanding and action. You’ll see very youthful photographers capturing their environments in thoughtful and witty ways that make you proud. You will see sets of photos telling mysterious stories that engage and delight you and occasionally repulse you. It is so full of elements, issues and narratives that you need a sit down or a stiff drink afterwards. But what you do always feel is the sheer, heavyweight value.
Above: Documentary selection from Sony World Photos. Left to right: Giles Clark’s The Bophal Medical Appeal: Toxic Trespass; one of Antoine Repesse’s Unpacked series about packaging pollution; one of Kiki Streitberger’s Travelling Light series depicting the treasures of Syrian refugees.
These photographers want to share the world with us in all its glory or nastiness. Here is art in the form of communication. It communicates through visual elements, composition, colour, scale and often, though not always, through topic. Always you want to know more, to find out the context, the origin and – though we rarely find out – what happened next. Things matter here. They are not always real, in the sense that they are sometimes constructs – photographic paintings and stories created or viewed from specific standpoints. Yet it is art that means something.
Above left to right: Enrico Finottere, La Boheme, and Taehoon Kim, Eiffel Tower; Jason McGroarty, Totem Fox; Mingzhen Tang’s Untitled pattern of matches; Maoyuan Cui, Ancient Chinese Villages; Daniele Robotti, Surgical Instruments
Moreover, this year the curation was a feature in its own right. The photographs were arranged to form patterns of their content. Red curtains through which we glimpse the Eiffel Tower, red theatre curtains slightly opened, red wall with a fox peering underneath, a fox on a stool and so on. Chains of ideas flowed through otherwise unrelated imagery because of the way that they had been assembled. Comparison worked here as a bridge between each scene so we could see lively bodies in the air (divers, gymnasts) against the sharp contrast of buildings or the colour and shape of large architecture. This added richness that helped each photograph yield its subject matter or flavour in a connected way, like complementary dishes in a haute cuisine feast.
Above: Dina Belenko, A Study with Freefall.
Perhaps to go, reeling, from this mental symphony into the (literal) cacophony of Pick Me Up was a bit unfair. My colleague and I have been taking our graphic design students to this show now for, I believe, seven years, since it started. On our first visit we remarked that it was like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. You know the one; vain emperor gets conned into paying a huge sum for a magic suit of the finest clothes that only the good and clever could see and doesn’t want to look like an idiot for admitting he cannot see it. The upshot is he parades through his kingdom in his “suit” only for a little boy – who knew no better – to shout out “Why is the Emperor in his underwear?”
Above: Rachel Lillie’s pile of wood Artefact 7 (Gravel Pile) 2016, £45.00.
Nevertheless, annually we joined the Pick Me Up parade and have indeed admired many good qualities. In particular the idea of small collectives working together and producing graphic art is both exciting and provides a counterpoint to big organisations who may or may not be too mainstream. It is an alternative way of being a professional graphic artist and communicator. So why isn’t anyone communicating? OK, so not all art or design or illustration or photography has to be worthy. Of course, some of it can just be for entertainment and fun.
I am certainly not the naive little boy who calls out the lack of the Emperor’s clothes through lack of tainted mediation, experience or agendas. I am not an art innocent. Perhaps I am just a grumpy old woman who can’t understand young people these days. Or more likely, perhaps my own tendencies are more towards activism and Russian Constructivism. Maybe my subjectivity is too much related to the need for communication to say something or to be socially responsible and do something for the global community at large.
Above: selection of Pick Me Up content and stalls
I staggered round Pick Me Up looking for some piece to be a saviour or to provide some of the richness, beauty or emotional sting that Sony World Photos provides. There are some attractive pieces but they are overshadowed by drivel. Yes, comparison certainly stole my joy on this occasion. But if I am going to use the Emperor analogy I’d like to take it a bit further. Pick Me Up content is like Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burns. I felt it was a lazy, vacuous, head-in-the-sand event with all eyes on cartoon-trendy, “swearing tweeness” and no thought for a globe out there that is on fire. I came out feeling like I had walked round a nursery open day.
Above: selection of Pick Me Up content and stalls, including Isabel and Helen’s prints and kinetic art, third from let
So, does art have to have a purpose? No. The Institutional Theory – that I do agree with – states that anything anyone says is art, therefore is art. It works on the basis of what is known as a “performative verb”. If, for example, I say “I promise” (performative verb!) I do promise via the act of saying so. It makes no difference I am not sincere or if I fail to carry out my promise. Promise I did through my spell-like utterance. The same applies to the performative “verb” art. We assume it is a noun. The word should have the verb version, I artise, you artise and so on. If someone “artises” an object as art it magically is art, whether they mean it or not, have any agendas and crucially, whether anyone else agrees or not. Mostly, though, people and especially the “institutions” of the theory – the galleries, critics, buyers – will agree and stage shows of urinals, of bricks on the floor and contemporary graphic arts. Duchamp, with his urinals and shovels, was trying to philosophically push and question the bounds of said art. Not sure that Pick Me Up content pushes any boundaries, except that of our tolerance to invisible suits.
Above: selection of Pick Me Up content and stalls, including Marie Jacotey, third from left.
The question then remains, why am I so cheesed off with it? I accept that not all art or communication has to have a purpose, function or message. It does not have to be worthy or thought-provoking to be art, especially graphic art. If I accept that it is art, it must mean that I am saying it is not good art. Marie Jacotey’s drawings, for example, look fine in a different context in a graphic novel or comic strip where they usually reside. They’d work as editorial images, conveying a friendly yet sinister style and mood. After all Quentin Blake’s illustrations are simplistic, so is the style of the Simpsons and even much Pop Art. Yet these still hold meaning and their styling suits and contributes to what they want to say. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially when they are having a good time. Maybe just having so much of the same kind of thing in one place does each contributor a disfavour. So much lightweight “fun” all together wears a bit thin. Everything looks like a funny greetings card or a piñata and nothing looks like a piece of activism or serious attempt to communicate anything that matters. It is the consistency of the shallowness that annoys.
Keep calm and carry on being vacuous
Truly, if you cannot not communicate, then what was communicated to me? One: don’t bother visiting again. Two: don’t advise graphics students to visit it – or at least warn them not to be Emperor’s cronies. Three: Suggest the artists in Pick Me Up see Sony World Photos and maybe, just maybe, one or two of them could make some graphic art that responds…Four: ask Pick Me Up and Somerset House to shift the focus of the show and include some more, er, serious (am I allowed to say that?) work? Then the entertaining (sic) graphic art might make an amusing counterpoint to things more solid and thus dilute the avalanche of candy floss.
Above: A selection of Pick Me Up content, including sketchbooks of Alice Bowsher, far left, who likes “being daft and goofing off”, and Jack Sachs body part images, second from left.
Thank goodness for the section downstairs of the letterpress work of Alan Kitchen (A Life In Letterpress). Here was one typographic poster that questioned in his bold lettering style, the war in Iraq.
Above: Letterpress work from Alan Kitchen: A Life in Letterpress
As for the rest of Pick me Up, if communication is to help save us from the mess it has already made through political spin and advertising, this is not the place to look for it. My mistake. I thought the show communicated a strong message of “keep calm and carry on being vacuous”. Just what the powers that be want us to think. I guess I am just not liberal enough to accept art for art’s sake.