Recently, I gave a lecture on personal branding to a group of seniors at a local university. During the Q&A session, a woman in a mustard scarf raised her hand. “So, what have you learned since graduation?” she asked. “Two things,” I replied. “One: When you work at a studio, you’re accountable to a team. You won’t own your ideas anymore. This may shock you at first, but you’ll realize that the very idea of private ownership holds you back from creating your best work because perpendicular viewpoints transform linear ideas into crisp and authentic communication. Two: In an interview, your candidacy will be based on your ability to soak in information—everything from design philosophy and visual hierarchy to basic color theory—and apply it. Let’s say you get the job. Now that you’ve spent years tightly gathering this knowledge, your next design challenge is to slowly let it go by determining when it’s relevant to a given project and when it’s not.”
Walking home along Market Street later that night, I remembered seeing my diploma on the wall and thinking I had this “designer” thing hashed out. I’d read Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style and Mullër-Brockmann’s Grid Systems. My garage was filled with posters, hand-drawn logotypes, brand guidelines, packaging systems, and tattered sketchbooks. I’d studied hard to become a specialist.
In The Will to Improve, Tania Murray Li describes the “specialist’s” tendency to demote complex problems to technical problems: “After they draw their boxes, they’re only able to look at what’s inside of them.” In today’s hypercompetitive world, the bar for imagination and novelty has never been higher. As a designer at Landor, I constantly strive to think outside of Li’s so-called boxes—to push the boundaries of what’s expected and create new ideas and ways of viewing the world. It’s about erasing boundaries and confines to step outside perceptual norms.
Going beyond the office walls
Earlier this year Landor’s San Francisco design team made a promise: To find new ways of inspiring one another to think and act creatively. So we installed “Wanda,” a dynamic initiative that took over the public alley next door to our office. Made of nothing but technicolored masking tape, we created a full-scale installation to celebrate color and place, demonstrating that creativity can be found anywhere, and made of anything.
Perhaps the hardest part of imagining what Wanda would become was the enormous world of possibility it presented. As a result, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to focus creativity when there aren’t any boundaries. Here are three approaches to help designers push their creative growth in the absence of a blueprint.
Collaboration without participation is impossible. Achieving high levels of individual participation depends on switching motivations from extrinsic (e.g., competition, evaluation) to intrinsic (e.g., curiosity, self-expression). When each team member feels compelled to solve a creative challenge, invert thinking techniques, build on life experiences, and adapt new modes of problem solving, ideas can symphonize into novel concepts.
Auditing a meeting with the Wanda team is like stepping into a beehive. A designer vaults an idea into the air; it’s snagged by a strategist, twisted and spun back to the center of the table. Buzzing discussion and “what if” scenarios follow. Wanda is a tool that inspires original thinking in the way we work. In contrast to conventional gatherings where participants take turns presenting their work and receiving feedback, Wandites hang their ideas on the wall without explanation. Each participant slaps a Post-it sketch of their concept on boards of foam core. The remainder of the meeting is spent pushing each concept as far as it will go. Adopting this model has built a cross-departmental esprit de corps at Landor.
We learn through play. The former CEO of the Lego Foundation, Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, believes that “play allows us to test our capabilities.” Think back to the first time you strapped on Rollerblades and barreled down the sidewalk or notched in the last piece of a difficult jigsaw puzzle. These achievements enhance our ability to think critically, engage curiosity, and trust creativity. From birth to age six, our brains grow 90 percent because we’re forced to make sense of a tremendous amount of information. Our nerve cells form networks and channels that knit together the very fibers of who we are. As adults, the freedom and mental space that play allows is perhaps even more important than for kids. With innumerable expectations, responsibilities, and stressors comes a need for free thinking and experimentation.
As part of our new Wanda installation for San Francisco Design Week, we have begun experimenting with mylar, a shiny polyester film often used to make balloons. Our first idea was to cover the entire alleyway in a fluid blanket of mylar, but after covering about 100 feet, the wind kicked up, ripping the material from the ground. One of our strategists saw the unusual forms the wobbly strips made when whipping in the wind and suggested we build on this. Ten minutes later, we had an extension cord dangling from a window two stories up. We plugged it into an industrial fan and used it to inflate a 12-foot mylar balloon—think car wash air dancer meets C-3PO.
Is creativity born of Dionysian intervention or Edisonian perspiration? It’s tempting to observe Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna” or Michelangelo’s David and define creativity as “genius” or an “instance” rather than a deliberate process. In the film Amadeus, composer Antonio Salieri deifies Mozart’s prowess: “Astounding! He had simply written down music already finished in his head!” What Salieri failed to consider, however, was that his rival was an earnest disciple, assiduously studying the music of previous masters before making his own.
At a certain point, it’s important to just start making. When you’ve established the core concept, it’s still hypothetical. You need to test it in order to make it real. With Wanda, we empirically assessed our hunches through rapid prototyping. Cue scissors snipping, roles of technicolor tape unraveling, and power tools humming to life. By creating a quick, to-scale model of our hypothesis, we gave ourselves the liberty to fail. And when one idea didn’t work, we reconsidered, reimagined, and prototyped yet again. From wrapping trees in mylar to designing experiences with popsicle sticks, our quick proofs stirred meaningful conversations and propelled us toward compelling solutions.
Entering the great unknown
Mysterious as it may seem, creative growth is actually not a mystery at all. It requires endurance and persistence, shifts in mindset and openness to new ideas. If we apply the same paradigm-busting deliberation to our working process—not just to the end result—we open the reservoirs of our consciousness and allow new ideas to form. So embrace ambiguity, explore relentlessly, and whisk theories into practice. Abandon fear, push aside judgment, and drive yourself forward one step at a time.
Now get going.
Our second installation of Wanda launches in the alley next door to our San Francisco office as a part of SF Design Week. Stop by on Thursday, 15 June 2017, between 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm to check it out.
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