The problem with creativity

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The following is a guest post by Philip Brunner, a freelance graphic designer who, for the past seven years, has specialised in brand creation and restructuring.

Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems.

Have you ever watched children use their imagination? Children have the most amazing creative powers. They can utilize the most unusual things and make a kingdom out of it. So, what happened to us? Why did we stop being so creative? Some of the principal differences between us and children are that they haven’t yet been inhibited by family, institutions or society.

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.“

I am going to deal with the most common problem in creativity. Our thinking!

We tend to see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Our standard way of thinking has gotten us nowhere creatively.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Psychologists call this “functional fixedness.” Finding a solution to this problem is the beginning of creativity. We need to shift our thinking from standard to radical. We need a paradigm shift.

A paradigm is an organized belief structure that dictates your thoughts and actions. Each paradigm holds particular beliefs about what is true, what is effective, valuable, etc. It significantly affects your perception of reality. We need to challenge the beliefs that affect our involvement in the level of creativity we have. We need to confront the beliefs that cause the resistance. There is only one authority over what we believe, and that’s us. To start finding out what has been stopping us, here are a couple of open-ended statements. Complete them as honestly as you can.

i. I don’t believe I can be creative because…

ii. I don’t believe I can change because…

Now find as many reasons as you can to counter those beliefs.

Try to find at least 10-15 reasons for each statement.

You will begin to see that you have no logical justification for not being creative. Our irrational beliefs have been the culprit all along. We don’t need to overturn every stone in our attempt to find that one perfectly written article about creativity that will cause it to instantly manifest in us. We just need to make some changes in our thought process and use the creative tools already at our disposal. (See link below)

The change towards creativity can and should be continually nurtured and enhanced through deliberate habituation for chance of success. We need to be in the habit of being creative or cognitive atrophy will set in. We should enforce our creative progression by spending at least 15 minutes a day, or more, generating or recognizing ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that can be useful in solving problems.


Mind-mapping is a great tool for stimulating all the senses. It’s a method of storing, organizing, prioritizing, learning, reviewing, and memorizing information. It effectively presents an overview and summary of a body of knowledge that fuses words and pictures; helping simulate logic and creativity for proficient and effective thinking practices involving the five senses. Mind-mapping and brainstorming with colleagues during the design process has been successful for many designers.

There’s a chapter in the book Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities that deals specifically with mind-mapping. It’s available to you as a free download.

After a while of aggressively applying creative techniques to our everyday problems it will become more natural and intuitive. Our subconscious will begin to do most of the heavy lifting. When we are faced with a more complex problem in the future, we will be able to spend most of our time in deliberation, confidently expecting the subconscious part of our mind to finally collaborate with our consciousness.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Some of the benefits and exciting motivational factors of being creative include having the intuitive sense that knowledge is not subject to the lineation of time, that all solutions have pre-existed, and the next generation of solutions is readily available for those who don’t stop looking.

I found that when making behavioral and/or cognitive modifications, I tell my family and colleagues along with keeping a journal for better observation and accountability.

Here’s an exhaustive list of creative tools from creatingminds.

For further discussion about creativity or cognitive issues you can contact me on Facebook.

Following my call for guest authors, Philip’s the first in a series of new faces here. I do hope you’ll make him (and the others) feel at home. Huge thanks for the post idea submissions so far, and if you read guest posts you particularly like, or don’t, I’d love to know what you think. The content’s for you.

Philip Brunner’s website.
Philip Brunner on Twitter.

Images courtesy of Thinkstock.

15 responses

  1. Thanks for this, Philip. I’ve come across too many people who think they’re not creative enough to be designers, or that creativity is simply something you’re born with. Couldn’t be further from the truth.

  2. Impressive.

    I believe the problem with these creativity problems is that most people do not see them as problems.

    I read somewhere that there’s a strong link between psychosis and creativity and it notices. People tend to reject creative thinking because creative people are usually eccentric in some way or another.

    I look forward to reading the other guest posts.

  3. Great article. As for what Enrique was saying with creativities link to psychosis, I think it has to do with less inhibited minds. Rather than most people rejecting creativity because they think it’s eccentric, I believe a lot of people have trouble or are afraid to do something that is a new or unexpected approach because they might fail.

    It’s much easier to say one isn’t creative, rather than trying and potentially failing to be so. My wife is a teacher and it drives me nuts how we essentially teach our current generation to think inside the box, rather than to learn how to problem solve on their own. Everything has to follow a text book, starting before elementary school even, and it really is a bad thing. Combined with over-saturation of television and video games, kids really are losing their abilities to be creative at younger and younger ages.

    Sorry for the long post, but I could keep going :), I love these topics of conversation. Again, great post.

  4. The problem with the adult connection to his childhood imagination is that we’re all too eager to grow up in the name of ‘maturity’. And, because of this, we become pre-occupied very quickly with things that suck away our maturity. Such as image, reputation. Not only that but we worry our minds with things such as paying the bills, mortgage, overheads, things of that nature generally.
    The child? A child has no real concept of image, reputation or maturity in general. They’re not concerned with how silly something is or how silly they might look and – i believe – it is because of this that Children in general are far more creative than we are. The trouble is that, as a child, we are programmed by society far too quickly. Parents will give their daughters dolls and cooking sets to play with whilst they will give their sons cars and guns to play with. All programming that reduces creativity and – as a child – I was given boats and spaceships to play with. School further programs us in many ways (not just with academic education, but socially too). We’re taught from a young age that we should act like Adults and be Serious. This is all very well and good if your intent is to become a bank clerk. But as designer’s it’s not conducive to our future creativity.

    My two pennies.

  5. I loved playing with LEGO when I was a lot younger, and fortunately still have a large box of it to this day. Occasionally it comes out and the kids and I will build houses, spaceships, cars, trains and just about anything we can think of. I can sit and build for hours, something that happens less and less as the work pressures take over, but I do feel it helps to re-ignite that inner youth part of the mind that from time to time or gets subdued by life in general.

  6. Great point made near the end of the article – I often find that talking to someone about the issue I’m wrestling with can spark a solution often without the other person saying anything (talking to myself might also work but that’s a bit odd).

  7. People think talking to yourself is a bit odd, but really it isn’t, Dave. Most of these conceptions about talking to yourself being a sign of madness is propagated by Hollywood hacks. I talk to myself all the time, often whether people are around or not. They think it’s odd but really it’s a way of thinking. And thinking is what’s important.

    I think as odd as people find it you’d be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t talk to themselves out loud when they think nobody is around. And what are they doing when they are talking to themselves? Merely vocalising their thoughts. It’s all perfectly natural but, again, societal programming has placed this firmly in the odd-box and so people struggle to think some times where if they just talked to themselves, they’d have a much easier time of it.

  8. Good point James. I’d have to count myself in the bracket of people who have private conversations with themselves all the time, I have been known to talk to myself while cycling but I tend to avoid it while in company.

  9. Yes, I agree with James R. We are inherently creative, that gets “schooled” out of us so we’ll be dutiful consumers who willingly stand in line for hours to get the latest “x” and indenture ourselves to buy stuff we don’t need. It’s mind control and programming.

    The good news is that you can unlearn most of it and reconnect with your wild and wonderful self.

    Sometimes the most creative folks dropped out of school or college or work or whatever. Yet we look down on them as losers who couldn’t handle it. Handle what? The conformity?

    Maybe they are on to something. Our collective creativity continues to plummet.

    Excellent post Philip! Giulietta

  10. I really do feel saddened by this.

    “Some of the principal differences between us and children are that they haven’t yet been inhibited by family, institutions or society.”

    Come on? In other areas like, sports, maths, singing… a natural talent is referred to as a gift. Thats what being a designer or being creative is, its a gift. Something that we are just naturally good at or we’re not.

    This argument goes all the way back to Plato’s Meno.

    To try to say our lives ‘inhibit’ natural creativity is a massive statement that goes way over the line.

  11. I spend a lot of time looking at other designers work and I keep thinking “man, this is great stuff why don’t I think of things like this?” I realize that this is the begining of a self-deprecating cycle but sometimes I just can’t help feeling like I suck. There are always so many better examples all around. I’ve only been working as designer for the last 18 months so I realize it’s not fair for me to expect as much from myself as those who have been working for 20+ years, but it’s hard not to.

    Also, I have a lot of friends who are designers and they always seem to have so many ideas which come so quickly to them. I have to spend a lot of time thinking about everything involved in a project before I start throwing out design/problem solving ideas. Sometimes I wish the ideas would come to me as quickly as they do to others and this makes feel like I’m less creative. Heaven forbid I take more time to develop ideas or think differently than other designers.

    It’s a rough life sometimes, isn’t it? Great article, I will work on solving my own “problems” of creativity now.

  12. I agree with Nate, and at the same time I feel sad for CJ. Most people aren’t born with some natural talent they easily recognize; rather, it’s recognized for them in some instances.

    Natural creative talent is a god-send, because ideas and solutions can come quickly and easily. It’s frustrating for the rest of us looking inside the bubble because we struggle to make a cohesive notion while basically the talented gene pool looks over calmly, coughs out an idea, and goes forward.

    I think, however, if you continue to rely so completely on creativity, the process of how it has to get done may get lost. Creative ideas can solve problems, no question, but how it’s interpreted or put together is as important as the end result.

    Good discussion here. Thanks for the post, Philip.

  13. Lisa to say ‘the talented gene pool looks over calmly, coughs out an idea, and goes forward’ is a strange statement. No good designer ever coughed out and idea without questioning it and manipulating it to the edge of reason.

    To an outsider seeing a senior design can be frustrating because it seems to come from nowhere but it comes from experience and repetition on the same types of thinking. That thinking is not universal, it is unique to the designer. Thats what makes work varied and original.

    I studied Schon, action research etc etc at post grad level and can see how understanding process can help any designer but process aids talent and will never drive it.

    The post says:

    “We tend to see only the obvious way of looking at a problem—the same comfortable way we always think about it. Our standard way of thinking has gotten us nowhere creatively.”

    Yes process and mapping etc can lead anyone to a eureka moment but to do it daily, for commercial purposes depends on creative talent, and yes, that alone is all I believe you can rely on. Of course that talent needs to be trained and focussed but it is your core strength as a designer.

    Today, in an environment that is media saturated, no amount of technical skill or process will ever compete against true creativity. Being a communicator has actually become harder by the rise of software based designers. Ideas must now be even better and more unique because beautiful but pointless work is everywhere.

  14. Children do fine until they go to school. By the time they come out of college they have been indoctrinated with the disease of mediocrity and sameness. We are born creative. God CREATED and look at what He did. Creativity is in our genetic structure. The higher the education the more difficult it becomes to be different.

    Formal education is not designed to assist us to draw from what is inside us that is creative, it is what you do to prepare for a job, career or profession in the mainstream of a system that must have a constant flow of workers. It is not im–possible to sustain creativity in the workplace. You just have to understand it was not structured for such things.

    Don’t give children a machine first. Give them crayons, pens, pencils and paper. Watch what kind of things they gravitate to instead of letting the system dictate their destiny. If they choose mainstream fine, if not allow them that freedom to explore. Guide them, discipline them. Discipline is not a foe, it is an asset that will help them persevere.

    Good topic!

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