What Don’t You Know About Being Creative?

What is creativity? It’s definitely more than solving problems in a non-standard way. Learn how to define it and use it to your advantage.

Do you think you’re creative? How do you define being creative? Many people would say that being creative means solving problems in a non-standard way. But I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that.

The American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who is famous for his theory of Flow, carried out some research on creative people and… creativity. Where did he find the people for his research? Of course, at an Art College. Students were given this task: look at a group of objects on a table and paint a still-life picture. So this was the same as they did every day at College.

Listen to the famous Flow TED Talk

Csíkszentmihályi observed that the students approached this task in two different ways: some quickly had an idea, set up the objects and started drawing. The others looked at the objects from all sides for a long time before actually starting work. Still the result was that every student fulfilled the brief and drew a still-life picture. But, was it possible to compare the value of the pictures?

The psychologists pulled in some experts and invited a group of artists to assess the quality of the pictures, naturally without knowing who drew which picture. And what happened? The first group, whose intention was just to complete the task, got significantly lower marks for their work than the second group. Csíkszentmihályi called this second group “problem finders”.

When we think about what makes creative people visionary and special, we don’t usually think about their ability to solve problems, but rather about their ability to see problems which no-one else saw previously. Coco Chanel with her “little black dress”, Steve Jobs with his iPhone and Mark Shuttleworth with his vision of a Linux eco-system: these are not people who solved problems which already existed nor are they solving problems which currently exist. They find problems which are waiting to be solved, and usually the solving itself is done by others.

Why am I writing about this? Because that’s the future for our line of business. Advertising agencies who only solve problems are doomed. Michael O’Leary, MD at Ryanair, claimed in an interview in the august edition of Marketing Magazine that “agencies are useless, expensive and serve up rubbish”. And I agree. I don’t agree that this applies to all agencies, but I agree that it applies to those agencies whose role is, as I see it, to “design logos and brochures”. A client comes to such an agency and says: “Design a logo and leaflet for me”. So what does the agency do? Of course, it designs a logo and brochure.

Click on the image to read more about Michael’s approach to marketing

But a client who sees clearly his or her problem is just one step away from solving that problem. In the era of the Internet and omni-present information, finding a solution to any problem often means … just searching in Google. But Google cannot solve a given problem if someone does not know that a given problem exists. Finding problems to solve is the future for all types of creative agencies, whether they are interactive agencies, advertising agencies, brand agencies or social media agencies.

When Rockefeller paid a car mechanic for some work, do you know what the mechanic famously said to Rockefeller? According to the story, Rockefeller paid him ten dollars. At that time, that was really a lot of money. The mechanic justified his bill: “For hitting something somewhere with a hammer: 1 dollar. For knowing which thing to hit and where: 9 dollars.” If you don’t know the story, check it out on Google. Actually that’s an easy fix!

Written by
Paul Skah