David Bernstein : A case of ‘I’m right, jack’

At a creativity seminar for junior creatives David Bernstein set an assignment to devise a new card game – with some interesting results. Here’s what the deal was

There are 28 appointment ads in a recent issue of Design Week. All but two, not surprisingly, contain the word ‘experience’. The exceptions asked for knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator and the like, which may mean the same thing

I was running a creativity seminar for junior creatives. I gave them an ordinary pack of playing cards. ‘Invent a card game. You have 20 minutes.’

They formed two circles, inner and outer. The inner were experienced card players. They went through a familiar ritual – shuffling, cutting, dealing, sorting out hands, discarding. Their modus operandi, common in creativity exercises, was to take an existing format and make changes. They invented a modified rummy. However, had the knowledgeable paid more attention to the remarks of the ignoramuses, the outcome may have been somewhat different.

‘Why do you always throw away just one card?’ ‘Because that’s what you do when you discard.’

‘Why don’t you put your red nine on his black ten?’ ‘Don’t be silly, that’s patience. We’re playing a game for four.’

I was intrigued by the open minds of the ignorant and the closed minds of the knowledgeable. Had the latter suspended judgement for a few minutes they could have got out from under the rules of discards and crossed the borderline of solitaire.

Interaction between those with knowledge and those without can stimulate creativity, unless the senior person pulls rank or comes to judgement too quickly. Caution may seem an unlikely characteristic of a creative head until you appreciate what damage instant rejection can do.

Creativity, said Koestler, is ‘the defeat of habit by originality’. Self-evidently the problem with habit is that we rarely recognise it. What we do habitually we treat as normal behaviour. On my first Eurostar journey, two minutes prior to departure, I pushed up the table I was in aircraft mode. Programmed.

The young arrive un-programmed. When Orson Welles had finished shooting Citizen Kane, a senior cameraman told him that you don’t shoot ceilings. Luckily, Welles hadn’t known that. Ignorance can break the mould precisely because it doesn’t know it exists. Mind you, it helps if ignorance is coupled with genius.

That cameraman represents one sort of mature adviser. They’ve spent a lifetime assembling knowledge. What they offer the young is the benefit of their experience. Or so it would seem. But experience isn’t simply an accretion of rules, knowledge or even skills.

‘Don’t tell old Charlie your idea. He’ll just say they tried it ten years ago and it didn’t work.’ Sound familiar? This is the mature adviser as boring old fart. The BOF knows – and is eager to tell you – what went wrong. He is unlikely to tell you why, to relate the idea to its context, to consider it in a different environment. Could it now be an idea whose time has come?

There is another sort of mature adviser. Not BOF but VOE – the voice of experience. And here I am endorsing the Chambers Dictionary definition: ‘wisdom derived from the changes and trials of life’. The VOE will tell you not just what happened, but, more importantly, what was learned.

Who’s the VOE in your company? Not there perhaps? A victim of down-sizing? Alternatively, a VOE may be biting his or her lip, opinion mute since unsought, as colleagues reinvent the wheel. Creative VOEs don’t parade their experience, rarely intervene. They know what might be lost – a surprising solution. The first lesson I learned as creative director was that an idea wasn’t wrong just because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Which brings us back to habit. How easy it is to set a brief which, instead of defining the problem, pre-empts – consciously or unconsciously – the solution.

Little Johnny on his birthday gets a package. His Uncle Bill has sent him a PlayStation. ‘You must write a letter to Uncle Bill’, says his mum. Johnny knows what that means: a chore. A large piece of paper and words of thanks to craft. Whereas had mum briefed thus: ‘How are you going to thank Uncle Bill?’, the task would have become a project, which would have fired his imagination. Johnny could ring, or send a postcard or e-mail, or a photo of him playing the game. Or – how about this? – an invitation to come over and play. And that’s what his uncle, not being a BOF, had been hoping for.

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