Killing Creativity…Or Not

If you’ve been with us for more than a few posts, you’ll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstorming, asking questions, breaking routines, finding the right environment. But what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn’t it look like?

In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn’t look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it’s one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who “come out on top” in the current system, after all; who “win all the brownie points and do everything they’re supposed to.” As children grow, Robinson argues, we “progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It’s a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here’s the one that got the loudest applause: “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Sir Robinson’s argument goes beyond standard complaints about teaching to the test or facilitating equal access to education. Instead, he suggests that the entire structure of public education is geared towards producing workers for an industrial workforce and is predicated on a hierarchy of learning with math and science on top and the arts at the bottom. Strong stigmas are associated with any learning not critical for getting a job after school, and the entire k-12 education system ends up functioning as a protracted university enrollment test (click that link, it’s terrifying). Because success within the educational system is defined so narrowly, “a lot of highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they’re good at wasn’t valued in school.”

Robinson’s call to action is a grand one, but persuasive nonetheless. Math is important, of course, and none of us would be here but for the countless innovations and technologies that our relentless pursuit of the scientific frontier has allowed. At the same time, I’m receptive to the idea that the system is imbalanced. After all, no one would argue that all of our students should be dancers, but it might not hurt if our biochemists knew how to dance. In the end, creativity is about divergent thinking and the intersection of ideas. The more diversity we have, and the more we celebrate that diversity, the better off we’ll be.

Watch the talk at, or check out Robinson’s book “The Element” at Amazon.

We Think You Need This

Nobody likes commercial breaks, but advertising is what keeps so many of our beloved products like WordPress, Gmail, and ABC’s The Bachelorette online and available. And it’s not just a necessary evil, it’s a really interesting and really valuable opportunity for creative thinking. Advertisers have a fascinating problem: how do you convince someone that they should purchase a product, given that they’re likely bombarded by around 5,000 ads per day and that even if they do notice you they’ll probably resent your interruption?

Google goes for data. With their giant suite of products they’re able to capture ever more data about you, and if you read up on their business plan it’s to (eventually) present ads that are so targeted and so relevant that you’re glad to see them. In conventional media, ads can be bright and flashy (Sunday Sunday Sunday!), loud and annoying (Head On! Apply directly to forehead!), or downright subtle.That’s the idea behind product placement, which is designed to sneak past your anti-advertising filters and make you think, “yeah, Doritos really would be good right now.” Companies can appeal to childhood memories (Coke), sports heroes (Nike), heartstrings (SPCA), or national pride (Bud). But the ones that I find most exciting are those that engage our minds and our curiosity.

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The Most Creative Music Video of All Time

I recently stumbled across this music video by David Fain called “Choreography for Plastic Army Men”. It’s for an instrumental piece by the Portland band Pink Martini, and – you guessed it – it’s got some creativity. Which led to an interesting question: what is the most creative music video of all time?

I had a hunch that the internet might have an opinion on this, but it pays to be scientific. First off, let’s define what we mean by creative. One useful definition comes from Amabile (1996), who defines creativity as “the production of novel or useful ideas” that are “valuable or expressive of meaning.” That’s great, because it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily looking for the best song or even the best video.

Next, I did some science of my own. I fired up a Google search for “The Most Creative Music Video of All Time” and looked at the top twenty hits for the sites that were discussing the most creative music videos. Then I started collecting the nominations. There’s a lot of taste to this sort of thing, so my list below includes only the videos that were named on two or more sites. Drummmmmrolllll please!  Continue reading

What Rock Climbing and Creativity have in Common


El Capitan, a towering 3,000′ monolith of granite located in Yosemite Valley, presents a brutal challenge for any climber. Here’s how legendary climber Mayan Smith-Gobat describes her 2011 ascent the mountain’s Salathe Wall:

“My brain switches off to everything else, and only that moment exists…that’s probably when you feel most alive, but you’re not thinking about life. It’s just being there, right there.. Most of it’s just body and mind coming together, everything focused on one task.”

Interestingly, that type of language is exactly how creative always people describe their creative process; regardless of their age, nationality, or the project they’re working on. And while it is surprising enough that people from all walks of life would describe creativity in the same way, it seems even stranger that the language they use also describes rock climbing – or even religion. As it turns out, all of these activities are manifestations of what creativity scholar Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has termed “flow”.

Flow is the automatic, effortless, and highly focused state of consciousness that comes along with stretching one’s capacity and engaging in novel discovery and creation. Flow is that feeling that we’ve likely all had of “losing oneself” entirely in an activity, only to “wake up” minutes or hours later to find that the world has gone on without us. Through in-depth interviews with dozens of highly creative people, Csikzentmihalyi found a few common factors that allow people to find flow:

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Theo Jensen’s Strandbeests

Here’s a really excellent artist who blurs the distinctions between engineering, art, and philosophy. Theo Jensen has set out to create “life” from silicon and PVC, creating ambulatory works of art that react to stimuli and can move to evade danger. Irrespective of  Jensen’s philosophical argument, the engineering (and art) in his work is certainly beautiful. Check out his work on the BBC [link] and a related TED talk [link].