‘The ability to invent and develop new and original ideas, especially in an artistic way.’ This is the dictionary’s definition of ‘creativity’. A lofty ambition, and sadly, it has to be said, there is very little totally ‘new’ or ‘original’ work being produced in abundance these days. At most, perhaps a handful of the 185 000 people working in design – a staggering figure released by the Design Council recently – are producing anything really noteworthy, apart from the ever-expanding and inventive world of new media.

This got me thinking about the deep need in Man (I’m not excluding women) to express himself creatively. Why, for example, would someone crawl on their belly through tiny cave tunnels, in total darkness, day after day, in order to decorate the walls with images of the world they saw about them?

This was happening 20 000 years BC in southern France. And we have been doing it ever since. For me it underpins Man’s innate need to create. Over the centuries there have been many examples of ‘new’ and ‘original’ ideas, but the majority of modern day designers spend their lives working and reworking earlier ideas and styles, in the hope that one day they will be regarded as their own – which reminds me of a theatrical story. A young budding actor asked the late Laurence Olivier, ‘Sir Laurence, how can I become a great actor like you?’ Olivier replied, ‘Steal, dear boy, and then make it your own.’

There can be very few designers that haven’t followed that notion for part of their lives. But, at the very heart of a truly ‘creative’ individual, burns an obsession that is so powerful that, at times, it is all-consuming. It starts at a very early age, infecting you like an alien. It busts out at regular intervals, sending clear signals that this person is different from the pack. Very soon you find that this inner force is thrilling and demanding, often taking priority over others.

It can be tough on relationships because there is another ever-present muse to draw on your emotional energies. Let’s face it, creativity is a highly emotional state to be in and one that, at its best, can be orgasmic and, at its worse, a pit of despair. If this all sounds a bit far out and hippyish to you, then it is clear that you are not one of the chosen few. I’m sorry about that.

Those of you who know these feelings that I speak of, well, you’re very fortunate because you’ll never be alone. Your creative muse will be by your side to embrace you. I know this to be true and I am not mad.

Last month I became Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry – a very humbling experience. This is an amazing cross-disciplinary body of designers who have been honoured as ‘Royal Designers’ since it’s inception by the Royal Society of Arts in 1936. This was in response to a need to recognise the industrial designer with an honour that was on a par with that of the Royal Academy’s RA. And over the ensuing period there has been a staggering concentration of ‘original thinkers’ elected to the faculty.

How’s this for starters, in no particular order: Derek Birdsall; Sir Peter Blake; Barnes Wallis; Robin and Lucienne Day; Matthew Carter; Alan Fletcher; Saul Bass; Lord Foster; Kenneth Grange; David Gentleman; Eva Jiricna; Rodney Kinsman; Roger Law; Martin Lambie-Nairn; Sir Alex Moulton; Alec Issigonis; Saul Bass; Paul Rand; Bill Brant; Eric Gill; Vivienne Westwood; Milton Glaser; Achille Castiglioni; Thomas Heatherwick; Jonathan Ive; John Pawson; and Matthew Hilton. That is just a fraction of this amazing collective of original minds.

To be blessed with a creative core is the most wonderful thing. Never knock it. With it, you can turn dull things into dreams. With it, you see where others can’t. With it, you have the ability to make things better. With it, you can lift the spirits.

But it can also be used to collude with commercial greed to hoodwink people, both old and innocent, into buying things they don’t need or that are even harmful to them.

Use your creative talent wisely. Have a social conscience. It is a powerful gift.

The writer Hanif Kureishi summed up perfectly how I feel about our privileged world of creativity – ‘To live a creative life is the best life to live’. I couldn’t agree more, Hanif.

Mike Dempsey

Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry and founding partner of CDT Design


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