Creativity is not easy to define. In its broadest sense it is the ability to create something new that didn’t exist before. Assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA parts by following instructions, by this definition, is creativity. In a narrower sense creativity is doing something which is mentally new to produce ideas and solutions that nobody else has thought of.
The building blocks of creativity
Even by the narrowest definition, designers use creativity in their work. It may be on a large scale like inventing a product that nobody thought possible, but most of the time we use creativity on a smaller scale, for solving small problems within a design. In many ways creativity is the building block used to solve small problems which then help with larger issues.
Embrace creativity but show respect
Creativity can be dangerous if not treated with the respect it deserves. Walking in new directions makes it difficult to detect all possible modes of failure – after all you have nothing to compare your journey to. There is always the risk of falling in love with our own ideas, unable to see the wood for the trees and failing to notice that the “standard” solution is better or cheaper.
Would you rather hire a fresh graduate with exploding creativity or an experienced builder to build your house? Think of all the ingenious patents that passed the filters for creativity but never made it to the market and compare these with experience and knowledge. They both have a role to play but which is more important to your situation?
Creativity is in our blood
Soon after we are born we start studying the world by trial and error. What are these trials if not bursts of creativity? As we grow older we start to invent games. We learn to tell lies – pure creations of our imagination. It is the education system that works hard to reduce our creativity, “dumbing down” to coin a phrase. Our teachers send us to the books rather than teaching us to use our imagination and later in life our bosses tell us not to reinvent the wheel. They do have a point, as creativity can be an expensive luxury few can afford, but we have such a lot to learn in so little time.
Small doses of creativity work best
Creativity is important, but like salt it should be used sparingly. What about experience? Like creativity, from early childhood we gather experience. We learn not to touch a hot stove. We learn how to place toy blocks on each other to create a tower. We learn to pour liquids and move objects then go to school and later to university to learn even more.
Are we sure that what we learn at school can really be considered experience? If this was the case we would have put our studies under “experience” in our resumes, not under “education”. There is something else that differentiates experience from studies. Sometimes knowing how to calculate the centre of gravity of blocks is less important than the experience we gained playing with them as kids.
Learning from personal experience
A gifted physicist was once asked to estimate the drag force on a certain toy pushed in water at a certain speed. He used formulas and reached a result of 0.3 grams. I knew he was wrong without bothering to check anything. How did I do it? I closed my eyes and imagined my fingers pushing it. I felt it should be about a thousand times as much. I might have been wrong by a factor of five, possibly much less but I knew in my heart of hearts he was wrong.
Eventually the physicist discovered that he used the wrong formula, assuming laminar rather than turbulent flow. I did not care about the flow, but I had the experience of life. For what was needed my estimate was nearly good enough. His calculation, however, could have led to the wrong conclusions altogether. Creativity and the ability to “think outside the box” are gifts we all possess, just in different areas of everyday life.
What can be learned from this story?
- We all have experience, even if we don’t realise it.
- Though calculations are more accurate, they may fail us completely at times – nothing is ever perfect.
- We must never fail to learn from our experience of checking calculations and assumptions.
- Rough estimates based on experience are never accurate, but they may be sufficient for many occasions. Those who strive for perfection may have an endless journey.