Friday, May 27, 2011

I'm glad I picked this topic for my thesis...

...because it is just so interesting! Am actually a little excited at the moment, so let me back track and explain why.

First up, my sister Jessica is an incredibly creative person herself. She's a talented author and musician (her debut novel is out very soon, along with accompanying soundtrack!), and I'm sure she could tell you all about the hard work being creative actually entails!

Anyway, a few hours ago she mentioned me and my research journal on her blog - mentioning in particular my question as to why design hasn't been explored as a way of looking at the creative process in the same way art has.

So far, there have been some really interesting comments left by her followers. I'd like to share one in particular left by Stephen Parrish... and thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts!

Hi. I don't really understand the distinction between art and design, or at least the need for a distinction. Both are obviously creative, neither less than the other. I don't think the typical person sees a fashion designer as anything less than very creative.

My background is cartography, and most people don't think of mapmakers as graphic designers. After all, you have no control over the shape of the continents, or the layout of a city. Yet cartographers must make a myriad choices as they work, in every aspect of graphic design: balance, contrast, figure-ground, etc. My advisor and mentor went so far as to use the word "euphoria" to describe what he felt when he designed maps.

I can well understand how a fashion designer would feel the same, when all elements come together, and the project just clicks. Funny, I also draw and paint as a hobby (i.e., traditional "art"), and although the creative process is satisfying, as is nailing down something I'm depicting realistically, I never feel anything like "euphoria" when I work---as I did when making maps. Design not only deserves equal footing with other creative endeavors, there's something about it that sets it apart, and if I had to venture a guess, I'd say it's because the designer is always restricted in some way (the clothes have to fit the model, the continent has to look like Africa). That very restriction is what releases a powerful creative drive and results in, well, euphoria.

The idea of restriction benefiting the creative process has intrigued me ever since I took on this topic. A few posts back I related the idea of inspiration to constraint, a concept that has featured in a couple of the articles I've written as well.

I would say that designers (fashion designers or cartographers) have to be creative in their approach to a design problem so that functional or innovative solutions can be generated. Without that restriction, the possibilities are endless and I doubt any designer would know where to begin.

Having said that, art can have a function too... to provoke, for example, or to make a political statement. Perhaps art is considered more 'creative' because of its seemingly emotional, intuitive nature? But... if restriction is the guiding point, maybe the restriction in art is that a work is directed by a particular emotion, or a desire to make comment on a particular issue. Then again, fashion designs can be spawned from exceptionally emotional origins, and also make the wearer experience emotion in how the clothes make them feel.

Anyway, it has been a long day and I'm probably going to start talking in circles if I don't stop here. Thanks again to my lovely sister and all of the comments left by her followers!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In the back of my mind...

Summary of the things in the back of my mind as I have been researching, was well as a 'where to go from here' list of things to still do....
  • First up... of all the reading I've done into what creativity is (or different ways of approaching the creative process), there seems to be a lack of writing relating to design (specifically fashion). Many of the articles use either art or science to illustrate how breakthroughs are made when creating, or how inspiration might strike. Articles written from a neurological perspective in particular seem to use art as a point of reference, with expositions into how the brain interprets colour, line, etc, and how this is a fact of biology.
  • This leads me to wonder why design hasn't been explored as a way of looking at the creative process in the same way art has. Has design somehow been deemed to be less creative? Or perhaps less 'accessible' to the reader of these articles?
  • On a related topic... might be good to really define/highlight the difference between art and fashion design. At a superficial level, I suppose it would be easy to say that design concerns itself more with function and practicality, and perhaps even with considerations into production/mass production. Yet there are overlaps, too... some fuzzy edges. Fashion designers might occupy themselves with the creation of distinctly unwearable pieces, so the functional aspect (at least in the sense of it being a body covering) is rendered a moot point. Hmm... yes, definitely need some clarity here.
  • This brings me to definitions, of which I still need more. In particular, explanations for particular steps in the design process such as inspiration, theme, concept, prototyping... See earlier posts for more terms that might need defining.
  • Given the need for design specific definitions, it might be beneficial to look at textbooks to get a distilled view of the design process from a teaching perspective. These could then be evaluated from the viewpoints of different creativity theories, to see if the approaches in teaching design are in fact making the most of creative potential in students.
  • I need to start asking questions to people - to get different perspectives on their creative processes. I feel as though practicing designers, students and lecturers will be able to offer invaluable insight. Given that I want to focus my project on how designers might make the most of their creative dispositions, and on techniques that might assist the creative process (with what creativity might be as a background), featuring interviews with such people might be the best way to illustrate various approaches to being creative.
That's all for now. I'll probably be back in 5 minutes having thought of something else to add!

Where does creativity hide?

Interesting video of Amy Tan talking about her own creative procees. It's certainly very entertaining! As she put it, her talk is about "Nothing out of something, and how we create."

Some of the points/questions she raises are:
  • Are we innately equipped with something in our brains that cause this muse like effect? (Nature vs. nurture. An argument that never gets old, I suppose. Certainly, when it comes to creativity, this argument has not been settled. While some posit that creativity has much to do with how the brain functions (Einstein's brain was said to have a visible structural difference which assisted in the movement of thoughts/ideas from one hemisphere to the other), others (such as Edward de Bono) will insist that creative thinking can be taught to anyone. Though maybe there needs to be a distinction between creative thinking and creativity. Hmmm. Anyway, gone off on a bit of a tangent here.)
  • Creativity might be a function of neurological quirk, or a byproduct mental illness.
  • Creativity as a link to sense of identity.
  • Skill is different to creativity. Tan mentions being good at drawing as a child, but drawings were copied from book. (I do believe that skill is vital to being creative, however. If you are a skilled patternmaker or machinist, you can take your knowledge and be more creative in its application - perhaps developing a new system for drafting, or a new way of finishing a hem. Personally, I believe that you have to know the rules before you can break or bend them. Having said all that, maybe a new way of patternmaking might be viewed as innovative, more than creative. Bugger, another tangent.)
  • Reasons for creating: "looking for the about". What do you want to achieve by creating? If you try too hard, you will only discover the about, discuss the about and it will be boring. (I guess this is about openendedness and the offering opportunities for interpretation... that creating something of a journey.)

Also, the joy of related videos... Sir Ken Robinson: do schools kill creativity? and David Lynch - consciousness, creativity and the brain both look interesting. Will check them out later!

Reading: Serious Creativity

Oh, the idea of the different coloured thinking hats really tickles me. I'll be going into more detail on this article later. Right now the thing that is standing out to me the most is I might need to make a distinction between creativity and creative thinking. This raises a number of questions, too!

Edward de Bono proposes that anyone can think in a more creative way by using lateral thinking skills. But can you make someone more creative? Are there certain dispositions - genetic or otherwise - that make one person more creative than the next? And could these thinking techniques be of use to those already out there being creative and creative?

Know Thyself

This year I've just been telling myself, quite consciously and constantly, to be intuitive with my work, to go with my gut feeling.

Often as students, we wonder what we "should" be doing. I often see my classmates struggling with how to approach their work (we all do, all the time), or wondering about how to interpret their inspirational material.

Ideally, I'd love to be able to generate something useful to students at the end of this project... a bit of a guide as to what creativity is/might be, and outline some different approaches to being creative as a designer.

Creativity would certainly not be impeded by an understanding of yourself and how you work.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reading: Poincaré's 'delicate sieve': on creativity and constraints in the arts (Paisley Livingston)

Fascinating article on the nature of inspiration, insight and how this ties in with creativity. A lot of it confirms what I have been thinking anyway, and wrote about in my post this morning. Although it focuses upon the processes of mathematician Henri Poincaré, rather than those of a fashion designer, there are many universal processes that apply to a variety of fields... many parallels that maybe drawn.

Without further ado, here be some very interesting points:

  • "Poincaré famously reported that some of his best mathematical ideas simply popped into his head while he was on holiday and not consciously doing mathematics...
'...Disgusted by my lack of success, I went away to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought about entirely different things. One day, as I was walking along the edge of the cliff, the idea came to me, again with the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness, and immediate certainty...' "
  • Article is not espousing the idea 'that genuine creativity is largely if not not entirely a matter of sudden, involuntary illumination or insight', but rather that 'creative achievements are often the product of different sorts of interacting psychological processes, including the stages of preparation, incubation, insight, and revision that have become commonplace in the literature on creativity.'
  • conditions preceding flashes of insight should be that of a 'period of conscious work' in order to set in motion what Poincaré referred to as la machine inconsciente (the unconscious machine).
  • 'inspiration must be accompanied by conscious effort: unless the researcher or artist makes a prior selection of the elements upon which the mind is to operate, the search will be too open ended and will most likely be fruitless as a result.' (This is exactly what I've been saying about how we operate as fashion designers - inspiration as constraint in order to narrow the field and generate a lexicon of design elements from which we can create a collection).
  • Idleness might not actually be idleness - the times when an artist (or designer) sets aside their work in order to pursue other interests, when their minds are not consciously occupied with their work are still beneficial in finding solutions or insights. The 'unconscious machine' has been set in motion...
  • "the key to innovation, be it conscious or unconscious, cannot simply be the application of 'a tremendous power of attention'... Having said this, however, the solution to how to be more creative is not to 'assume that the unconscious mental process' can identify new information or combinations. It seems that a mixture of hard work, research and then reflection is key. (This, I suppose, is something that we've always been told as students, but it is great to hear the why behind this!)
  • "Invention consists precisely in not constructing useless combinations, but in constructing those that are useful, which are a tiny minority. To invent is to discern, to choose." (LOVE this - a beautiful way of expressing the process of refinement).
  • All up, "... artistic creativity often arises from a multi-faceted process involving hard work, periods of idleness, unconscious cognitive activity, and episodes of inspiration, appreciation, and revision."

So... yeah... maybe this is the answer to the question I posited at the beginning of the semester, which was why do I get sudden thoughts/inspirations when I'm in the shower? It really does seem as though relaxing and doing something different helps sort out problems.

What I am left wondering though, is whether or not the knowledge that 'periods of idleness' can assist in maintaining the creative processes will help or hinder it. Perhaps it would come down to a matter of personality. Would telling yourself that you need to stop in order to interpret and process ideas stress you out? Or could you be comfortable in the knowledge that it will probably be beneficial?

I guess if you were concerned that you were wasting your time in 'relaxing' and not doing anything, then there probably would not be relaxing at all... and this would not be conducive to the desired 'breakthrough'. Perhaps the solution would be to do something like physical exercise, where there would be enough 'doing something different' (and in my case, pain because I am so unfit) to distract from the original task.

The only way to know would be to try these techniques out, and I imagine the results would vary greatly from person to person. If they were found to be useful, perhaps they could be scheduled in, or one could get into the routine of going for a run every time stress was taking its toll. Routine, after all, has been shown to be conducive to creativity.

Inspiration or Insight?

Is it a sudden flash of understanding that we are in fact experiencing, when we talk about getting a sudden flash of inspiration? I has this thought just before as I was making coffee – and quite appropriately it hit me quite suddenly, too.

I rather like the idea (whether this is completely wrong or not), that when we study something, or ponder upon a particular concept, that all the information and associated thoughts just… sit in our brains for a while, as it tries subconsciously to sort out.

Then... those sudden flashes are akin to someone jumping up and down with their hand in the air, going, ‘Me! Me! I know!’ Because we have in a way hit upon an answer, or a new way of looking at something – we have achieved clarity that feels absolutely inspiring.

Reading: A Three Facet Model of Creativity (Robert J. Sternberg)

Small list of personality attributes which creative people are said to possess:

  • -tolerance of ambiguity
  • -willingness to surmount obstacles
  • -willingness to grow
  • -intrinsic motivation
  • -moderate risk-taking
  • -desire for recognition
  • -willingness to work for recognition

Am still trying to process this article properly, so I'll come back and edit later. Right now the idea of having a 'tolerance for ambiguity' intrigues me. I guess in a creative field you have to deal with a lot of overlapping concepts and general fuzziness.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Combinations and Permutations

If creating something is simply a matter of selecting different combinations - choosing colour, fabric, texture, shape, pattern - then why would we say that a machine making these selections was not creative?

Thinking about this last night, I pondered upon the idea of writing a computer program that could 'design'. In my daydream, all that would need to be done would be to select a few inputs such as fabric/colour/garment type, or perhaps even a theme... and design options would be generated.

Of course, there would be millions of permutations of each design, so there'd need to be a filter to draw out the less successful ones. Maybe you could set it to present designs that would cost a particular amount to manufacture... or were judged against a certain aesthetic (perhaps picking out ones that conform to the proportions of the golden ratio?)

Because here is where it gets tricky. What makes a design more successful or not? A group of designers looking at the range of options generated would invariably have differing opinions on what the better designs were.

All designers undertake a process that at least vaguely resembles this computer program, I imagine. As I wrote the other day, we select 'inspirations' in order to narrow down our choices when designing, so that we're not creating every garment there ever was or ever will be. So what drives the design decisions we make? Why put a seam in a certain place and not another? Why choose that particular print?

The only thing I can think of at the moment is that there is a deep seated emotional response, or a recognition of 'yes, that's what I wanted to create'. We pick things that we like, that please us aesthetically. Machines are not (or should I say, 'not yet'?) capable of making these choices rapidly, at what we would call an instinctual level based on emotion or personality. The human mind is excellent rejecting anything it deems to be irrelevant.

Yeah, that's all I've got right now. Also, this has set me off on thinking about what determines an individual's aesthetic sense. Hmmm...

PS. Would the process of creating this 'computer program' be deemed creative, even if the outcomes are not?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reading notes: Artistic Creativity, Style and Brain Disorders

Another definition: "The production of novel, motivated or useful material defines creativity, which appears to be one of the higher, specific, human brain functions."

From a neurological perspective, this article attempts to understand the creative process by studying brain disorders and their effect on creative output.

  • "Neurological diseases in artists provide a unique opportunity to study brain-creativity relationships, in particular through the stylistic changes which may develop after brain lesion." (Thought: do these brain lesions affect motor control, etc, which would alter physical appearance in the creative works?)
  • Four 'classical' phases of creativity are identified - "preparation, incubation, inspiration and production".
  • Psychological mechanisms identified as being behind creativity include replication, redefinition, forward incrementation, redirection, reconstruction, re-initiation and integration.
  • Characteristics of creative persons: openness, lack of conventionalism, playful thinking with risk taking.
  • "Imagination abilities and integration of dream memories into reality are... features which may facilitate creativity."
  • Ability to disengage from 'repressed' and 'controlled' mental processes can be beneficial in producing spontaneous expressions. Sleep and dreams have been connected with the dis-inhibition of brain mechanisms - 'next morning creativity'.
  • Interesting definition of 'ambiguity' - "a possibility for the brain to evoke several perceptions, interpretations or solutions simultaneously." (From other readings, a tolerance for ambiguity has been highlighted as a personality trait in creative persons).
  • Many areas of the brain are used in the process of creativity - a "complex combination of sensory, cognitive and motor activities" indicate that being creative is engaging the functions of the brain in an holistic capacity.
  • "... style is the most personal signature of artistic production, which corresponds to the uniqueness of each individual and each brain."

Reading: Teaching Creatively and Teaching for Creativity (David J. Brinkman)

A straightforward yet clear overview about the different degrees of creativity, as well as how teachers might be creative in the way in which they themselves teach. Despite focusing upon the tuition of musicians, this offered some interesting quotes and thoughts about what creativity is and how the creative process might be supported.
  • "Big C" and "little c" creativity - Big C creators are icons in the study of music, little c creators of 'ordinary' creativity... new interpretation of familiar piece of music.
  • Personality traits associated with creative individuals: willingness to take risks, tolerance for ambiguity, intrinsic motivation, sense of humour, wide range of interests, persistence.
  • "Creativity takes time. Although we may have flashes of insight, it takes time to work out the implications and uses of that insight."
  • "Creativity happens when expertise, creative thinking skills and motivation overlap."
  • "We can teach and model techniques for generating ideas, for being sensitive to personality traits the might encourage creative expression and risk taking in their work."
  • Time needs to be allocated to creative activity. (Have a set routine?)
  • 'Incubation' is part of the creative process - teaching situations can be structured so that students will recognise the value in allowing an idea to 'simmer'.
  • Important for students to have joy and interest in what they are doing/learning.
  • 3 facet model of creativity (Sternberg) - intellectual style (note to self: what is this?), intellect and personality are integrated in a creative person. They are also intrinsically motivated, curious, and have a desire to work for recognition.
... though I have to say, not a lot of this is 'new' or unexpected to me. But it is nice to have thoughts on this topic reinforced somewhat.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The trouble with language

So much of all this is just semantics… the inherent difficulty of language in defining and describing concepts as intangible as creativity, originality, innovation, inspiration, talent, skill, hard work, genius, value... (thank you, Sean for that list of concepts. I’m sure I could keep going and adding more into the mix).

Anyway, really feel like I should have a glossary at the start of my thesis. Even if I define these words in my own terms, it'll help people understand what I'm trying to get at. I hope.

Routine vs Inspiration, Inspiration vs Restrictions...

Speaking of scrawlings on tickets and the like, I just came across this surprisingly coherent piece of writing that I committed to paper a number of weeks ago while sitting on the tram...

I am always surprised at how many ideas I have when I just get out and do things, as opposed to sitting down and thinking right, I have to do work now. How does this fit in with the role routine supposedly plays in the creative process? Well, perhaps it should be a habit to immediately do something else if you're not being effiecient with what you are trying to do at the time... if there is no flow of ideas. You can't force creativity. Maybe I need to establish some structures for myself, or have a piece of music that always sets a particularly creative or cerebral mood?

I do like the idea that routine can help to provide structure... as a way of eliminating extraneous ideas, as well as helping to put the mind in a particular 'mode'. One idea can spark many, but to be efficient (timelines are incredibly prevalent in the fashion industry), one has to eliminate (survival of the fittest idea - how Darwinian) some of these ideas in order to simply get stuff done in time.

In fashion, we always talk about 'inspiration' as though it is some divine thing... as though we as designers are suddenly blessed with this fantastic thought that we just had to realise in the form of clothing. The fact of the matter is, this is so rarely the case. (Or is that just me?) We are compelled to make things on a fairly constant basis, so when the matter of inspiration is brought up, it is generally a way of us designers setting ourselves little projects. It is very hard to create something from nothing at all - a few wispy thoughts - but by picking a theme, we are then able to narrow down our choices in terms of colour palette, silhouette, fabric choice, etc. The infinite combinations and permutations and possibilites are refined to a particular language for a collection, and we can start making...

...there are many potential pots ready to be sculpted from one piece of clay, I suppose. But in the end, only one form is selected, shaped and refined... Oooh, imagery and metaphor. Was that creative?

Bringing it all in... ish

Have been reading LOTS over the past few weeks, but probably without a lot of direction… I just want to know what other people think about creativity, what drives creativity, and how it can best be harnessed. To be honest, haven’t really yet brought it back to the various questions I set myself to contextualize my research.

What I found I have been doing is sometimes responding on quite a personal level… as in, “Oh yeah, I work in that way,” or transversely, “My brain does NOT work like that.”

A friend of mine - a student of creative arts – was telling me of an author (she couldn’t remember who it was, and I haven’t been able to figure out who it was since) who used to set aside very specific times in which to do his writing… for example, from 9am to 12pm. Those were the only times when he would write – the rest of the time he would spend walking around his garden, thinking about what he would write the next day. This particular process was so effective for him that what he wrote during his was incredibly refined – so much so that next to nothing was required in terms of editing before publication.

I CANNOT imagine working in this way at all. Perhaps, if I gave it a go and it became a routine, it could be effective. Certainly, the process of reflection is (to me) highly important in reaching a successful resolution. However, I would find it amazingly hard to let go, and resist the urge to scribble a sudden thought and inspiration onto the nearest scrap of paper or receipt, tram ticket or even my leg. (These all at some time have been surfaces onto which I have scribed my thoughts).

Actually, that reminds me of what Roald Dahl once said about inspiration, and how it could suddenly strike from nowhere. (I’ll find the original quote, as it is really interesting). He once got an idea in the middle of nowhere while driving, and was stuck without pen or paper. In the end, he ended up drawing the word ELEVATOR into the dust that had collected on the back windshield. This lead to Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator).

Interestingly, I have probably been doing something similar with this research journal… not writing in the dust, funnily enough, but I had abandoned it temporarily while I fill my head with other people’s thoughts, trying to work out what I feel about them and comparing various different processes to my own. It is only now, after this period of thinking and meditation that I feel ready to write… and I am finding that the process of writing is triggering a lot of new thoughts. Trying to clarify and distill these thoughts is a fantastic way of thinking of new ones.


Sometimes I wish that I could record my thoughts, simultaneously grasp all the various tracks along which my mind runs, and be able to articulate all the fuzzy edges and fleeting thoughts with clarity.

Thoughts in Transit

I sometimes feel as though I do my best thinking while aimlessly wandering around... or when I'm waiting for trams. For this reason, I end up with lots of scrawlings on receipts or tram tickets. They're ideas that I simply cannot afford to forget, so they have to be written down!

It's not as though I'm necessarily relaxing in these situations, but I do feel like the different surroundings (and maybe the lack of other distractions) help me to contextualise and realise the intangible thoughts that have been floating around in my head (often for a number of days). I guess it is a bit like the sudden bolts of inspiration that can hit while in the bath or shower... that I had to relax in order to clarify an idea or sort out a problem.

(As a side note, I used to do maths problems in my sleep when I was at school. Going to bed after attempting to solve a difficult problem - my head still full and buzzing - was often the best way to get an answer. It was rare that I'd wake up with the exact answer in my head, but I'd always know what I'd done wrong the night before, and what I needed to do to solve it properly. To this day, I don't know if this was a healthy thing or not, but it did work. I just wish it worked with my designing!)

Speaking of side notes, this is another aspect of thought that really intrigues me... that we create branches of ideas in our heads, like vine tendrils... delicate webs of neurons...
...and that sometimes the very act of writing our thoughts down interrupts this incredible branching process and we lose some of what we'd thought in those moments. Even now, having written this, there's a niggling feeling of a lost, floating thought. How ephemeral our cognitive processes can be!

Monday, May 9, 2011

What makes a genius?

Just caught the tail end of the documentary What Makes a Genius? on SBS2. Was bummed to realise that I'd missed most of it, but the internet is a wonderful thing, and am currently watching it from the beginning.

Having seen the last 10 minutes, as well as the first 5, there seems to be a fair amount of discussion about the role of creativity and genius. The very beginning features a man capable of squaring large numbers in his head - up to 5 digits. However, he says:

"I wouldn't call myself a genius, and I'm not just being modest. I think genius is something that is a very creative process, whereas what I'm doing is a process that is somewhat mechanical. It's almost like, you know, genius is Mozart who can compose brilliant compositions. I'm merely someone who's playing the piano real well... and I think there's a real difference between a skill and something that's immensely creative."

Anyhow, I'm off to watch some more.

Here is the opening part of the documentary