Defining principles

Creativity is the word which is currently on everyone’s lips. Lynda Relph-Knight reports on a discussion session on its definition and implications on design.

Creativity is the currency of great design. The idea, the spark, the magic – all are used to describe that ethereal thing that sets the creative sector apart from other businesses. But now the term is being bandied about by everyone, from Government outwards, to mean many different things in areas as diverse as science and management practice.

Over the past few years the sparkle has gone out of much “creative” output, as design groups have to battle to win work, apparently afraid to challenge the client. All too often they undercut fees, free pitch and work all hours for minimum gain. Few have the nerve to fight for quality or the courage to take a risk.

Design Week and British Design and Art Direction both promote creative excellence. And both are keen to see “creativity” reclaimed by the creative industries and given new vigour. But how?

To open up the debate, we invited 12 top people from design, advertising, the arts and business to thrash out the issues over lunch. In the chair was Professor Christopher Frayling, who opened the proceedings with his own questions (see opposite).

Three main themes ran through the discussion: what we mean by the term “creativity”; how it translates to business; and Government’s obsession with it.

Definitions

“It’s a process,” according to Janice Kirkpatrick, “which is seen as less exotic if people are encouraged to use it properly from an early age”. “It’s a naff word like ‘sketching’ that students here would never use,” said Frayling, implying that it’s implicit among creatives.

But while the Government uses “creativity” to instil a sense of optimism in just about everything, it does also have its downside. It’s in danger of being “hijacked”, said Malcolm Garrett, in the way the word “designer” was in the Eighties. And it already has a bad connotation. Just as we have “designer drugs”, so we have “creative accountancy”.

The meaning depends where creativity lies, and, for Mike Dempsey, that’s in the arts. It’s about “individuals born with some magic”, he said. “Someone emulating God with a blank sheet of paper, perhaps,” retorted Frayling, adding that for him that original meaning no longer applies.

“Creativity is about having a vitality, not about genius,” said Lorenzo Apicella. “It’s not creativity if it’s completely unharnessed. It’s an intelligence rather than a divine inspiration for designers.” The idea of constraint as a positive stimulus was to recur throughout the debate.

But creatives need to guard against being dismissed as surface designers and stylists, said Tim Mellors. “You can’t have creativity without understanding,” added Aziz Cami, in support. “In movies, the designer comes across to the front stalls as an inventor,” said Frayling. Maybe that’s a view we should encourage.

Industry and commerce

Frayling is concerned that creativity has been taken up by the service sector, and separated from what are perceived as the “heavy metal” areas of engineering and production. Yet, said Philip Dodd, in the 19th century manufacturers saw themselves as creative – and were.

Simon Bullimore maintains that industry is still very creative, hence buzz words such as “change culture” and “creativity”. It’s not obvious in large organisations, he said, and it’s more difficult for them to do, but creativity and change are coming through. It’s easy to fall into a trap though, of thinking you’re being creative when you’re not. “Mission statements tend to reflect what’s already there, rather than to create something to look towards,” he said.

Richard Branson was cited by Anthony Simonds-Gooding as the epitome of creativity in business. He applauded Branson’s “simple, consistent approach” and Virgin’s tendency not to create new markets, entering existing arenas where the big players have become muscle-bound. Constraint again appeared as a key to creativity, coupled with calculated risk-taking.

Individuals were seen as key to fostering creativity in its widest sense. BAA design director Raymond Turner, for example, can speak the same language as the board and so put the case for creativity in business. And then there are the thousands of design graduates, who won’t work directly in design but who remain ambassadors for creative thinking and the design process. Things may be changing.

Government

On the subject of the Government’s obsession with the word, Dodd said the idea was “borrowed” from Australia’s Creative Nation project, following Tony Blair’s visit there. It is to do with Labour’s bid to rebrand Britain and “offer back to the Brits what they might be”.

Tim Mellors suggested the Government had adopted “creativity” as a “powerful, positive, proactive word”, that has taken over from the previous political buzz word “ecology”. And it is part of a political agenda. “The management of change is what they’re on about,” said Dodd.

Taking the idea further, Simonds-Gooding feels the Government is using “creativity” in an attempt to tap into the younger set. It’s “to give Britain a bit of rhetoric”, to create “a place for truth in this barbaric nation”.

The Government’s focus on creativity could be used to help design – and vice versa – if designers make the effort to harness the interest. But, as Bullimore pointed out, political patronage isn’t always good. Remember Harold Wilson’s obsession with “the white heat of technology” – a political fad that back-fired.

Conclusions

No real answers came out, only more questions – providing fodder for further debate. But there was consensus on definitions. The Romantic notion of a blank piece of paper doesn’t work any more. And creativity only makes sense if there are some constraints.

Participants summed up Government’s promotion of creativity as the obverse of Wilson’s “white hot technological revolution”. This time it’s about developing the software to enhance Britain’s standing, not the hardware.

Frayling’s closing words were from a new statistical gazetteer, which states that the cultural sector now has more manpower than the steel industry and car industry put together. Now there’s a challenging thought.

Champions

Chair: Professor Christopher Frayling, Royal College of Art

Lorenzo Apicella, Apicella Associates

Simon Bullimore, Mars Confectionery

Aziz Cami, The Partners

Professor Malcolm Garrett, AMX Digital

Mike Dempsey, CDT Design

Philip Dodd, ICA

Adrian Holmes, Lowe & Partners Europe

Janice Kirkpatrick, Graven Images

Tim Mellors, Mellors Reay & Partners

Paul Priestman, Priestman Goode

Anthony Simonds-Gooding, British Design and Art Direction

Ringsiders

David Kester, D&AD

Lynda Relph-Knight, Design Week

Opening speech by Professor Christopher Frayling

At the launch of October’s Design In Business Week, Margaret Beckett made constant use of the word ‘creativity’, and referred to the difficulties of absorbing the concept into new institutional and management structures. Too often, she implied, the word has been applied exclusively to the design and cultural ends of the spectrum – on a designer label – rather than to the management of business in general.

At the same time, I recall a conversation I had with David Ogilvy, in which he complained about the misuse of the word ‘creativity’. ‘I’ve even’, he told me, ‘visited an American company where they said “we have a very creative mail room”‘. Creative directors, creatives, creative problem-solving, I can’t understand this fixation of everyone to call themselves creative: the point of the exercise is to do business and, maybe, enhance the world we live in, not to go around calling yourself creative.

A bit of history: up until the Romantic period, at the beginning of the 19th century, the verb ‘to create’ was confined to descriptions of the book of Genesis. God did the creating: human beings did the best with what they were given. But, with the Romantic period and the emphasis on individual genius, artists started describing themselves as ‘creative artists’. Hence William Blake in Jerusalem: ‘I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.’

Creativity meant flying without a net; risking all; using a different part of the brain to the reasoner (today, we’d say right-hand side equals creativity, left-hand side equals reasoning and structures); and being arty. But more hard-headed business people at the end of the last century – such as Thomas Edison – began to say that creativity was (and I quote) ‘1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration’. Today, the emphasis is on all of us adopting a creative approach to all problems and not just the sensitive creative outfits: the Tory party going off to a seaside resort to get in touch with their feelings; awaydays with facilitators for business people; questions at board level about how lateral thinking can best be payrolled into everyday practice. We need rearguard action – David Ogilvy-style – against seeming too dressed with creativity – in case it looks as though you have both feet planted firmly in the air.

D&AD, in its annual report, claims to be ‘fighting creativity’s corner’, not just because visual innovation is at the heart of its project, but also because it is good for business. The report illustrates this idea with a picture of yellow boxing gloves. For the past 35 years, the word ‘creativity’ has regularly appeared as part of D&AD’s mission statement. But I’m not sure that Margaret Beckett – creativity in management – David Ogilvy – creativity as an add-on, as added value – and D&AD – fighting against short-termism and stodginess – are using the word in exactly the same sense.

Some questions, therefore:

Are we debasing the coinage by going on about the word ‘creativity’ so much? The creative economy, creativity in business etc?

Do we think of it as an add-on, an arty version of VAT, when the point about creativity is that it is a process?

Do we think of it as something we buy in, leaving the organisation just the same as it always was?

And what of the implications for the non-creative economy – by which the Government seems to mean engineering and manufacturing? They understandably resent the implication.

Are people using creativity as a synonym for ‘visual excitement’ – or does it go deeper than this? Is there really a shift going on?

Is the whole debate a repackaging exercise? Yesterday: ecology – today: creativity?

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