How to be creative professionally

Premise: Professional Creativity is a skill just like accounting or management.  It can be taught, learned, developed, and honed.

If you don’t believe that premise you should never be given a budget to work with designers.

I spend a lot of time here talking about how to think more critically about your design projects.  I firmly believe that rigorous process results in consistently higher quality,  but that critical thinking only works because the creative insight is better as well.

When I was a political data director,  the way we put this was “Garbage In = Garbage Out.” It’s no different in writing, where the best writers are also the most voracious readers, and it’s no different in design. We need lots and lots of ideas to find the 2-3 best ones for any given project.

It’s also true that the more projects one is involved in the more finely tuned this sense of what can work is. That’s like any other craft.  A grandmaster in chess should beat a novice because their brain has learned at a seemingly preternatural speed what to expect. There are designers who are that skilled.  They are few and far between.

Now that I’ve convinced you that becoming more creative is a skill, how does one actually go about it?

Here are 10 tips that will improve your creative abilities.

  1. Give me 10 – every day, write down on paper 10 ideas in a bulleted list.  Over time, your idea generating muscles will build themselves up, and 10 ideas will come to you before you’ve put on your slippers.
  2. Get out of the office – block off time to get physically out of your office.  Here are a few really good places to go:  The library (especially the St. Louis city central branch – it’s gorgeous!), the zoo, the beach, the woods, a nearby park, or even a local attraction on the other side of town.  Routine speeds up our perception of time. Creativity depends on consciously breaking routine to expose how incredibly vast and interesting being a human on earth is.
  3. Observe – If the 10 ideas a day thing is too difficult to start, begin with this. Go to any public space and write down 10 observations. “Old lady wore brand new Jordans in line at the DMV.”  Eventually, your eye for detail will improve and connections between things will leap out to you.  Making connections between seemingly unrelated things is the quintessence of creativity. Everything is a remix!
  4. Mimic –  Ray Chandler used to practice writing the passages of writers he admired just to feel the how writing something that moving felt to do.  I learned how to code sites basically by mimicking others. Humans ability to ape is second to none, and it’s an important learning tool.  By mimicking you’re letting your body actually experience what it is like to do something you don’t know how to do.
  5. Exposure – While technically this is the same as number 2, it’s different. At a lot of companies,  it’s not uncommon that each different department is siloed off from the other, and the company is siloed off from it’s customers, users, or stakeholders.  The best way to remedy that isolation is to increase your hours of exposure to the people who use what you provide. This can help you generate better ideas on how to serve them.
  6. Learn to read –  Like I said above, the best writers are constantly reading and re-reading. One of the things that you might not see is how they have trained their brains to absorb what they read. In my own practice, I tend to read 3 times if it’s something I am studying. First, I just read and get a sense for it.  The second time I’m methodically going through and making notes, either in a notebook, index cards, or in the margins of the pages.  If I need a third round,  I make sure to read up on the material with secondary sources – criticism, review,  differing opinions, and try to synthesize everything.  You don’t have to go that hard core (I tend to only with about a book a year), but the act of it increases the ability to connect ideas.
  7. Play a game – so much of the “magic” of creativity is recall.  How quickly you make connections can be improved by playing trivia and using it to work on recall.  Cards against humanity is also stellar in this regard.
  8. Play a strategy game – for millennia, chess and go have been used to teach strategy, and they definitely have lessons for you. Challenge a friend and look for patterns.  Note the constraints of pieces and try to think through moves. Helps with both forward thinking “If Then” construction and working backward from a goal.
  9. Get Bored – John Cleese of Monty Python fame argues that getting bored is the best thing you can do to be more creative.  He’s right.  Our brains crave stimuli.  Being bored is when the stimuli aren’t sufficient to hold our attention. Our imagination starts to kick in to keep our brains stimulated.  The result is your imagination gets better and better – and your creative thinking improves.
  10. Learn to Draw – You definitely do not need to become an artist, but learning to draw does two very important things. First it strengthens both hand eye coordination and your confidence taking ideas out of your head and into the world. More importantly, drawing is the oldest visual form of human communication and therefore essential to how our brains understand our world. Whenever I get an assignment I like to sketch out a small diagram. Or, I’ll sketch out football plays. Or, I’ll draw in a sketch book. The point is that drawing helps you organize your world, which is exactly what design does too.

It should surprise no one that when your creative thinking is better, it makes evaluating options critically easier as well too. And you get to solve better problems, so, get creative and get a raise!