Dark-sky thinking

If only the World Creative Forum's ideas matched the ambition of its title.

‘What is the future of creativity?’, asked the prestigiously titled World Creative Forum in London recently (1). The inaugural gathering in the hi-tech offices of Bloomberg brought together an international list of designers, artists, businessmen and scientists to debate the impact of creativity on society and business.

This was a pertinent question, when in the same week one of Britain’s biggest high-street banks promised to ‘turn banking on its head’. Abbey National made the creative decision to change its well-established high-street name to plain old Abbey. The bank reportedly spent in excess of £11million on this rebrand. For Abbey’s customers, there is first-name informality. For its staff, there is a dose of therapy: at the launch, the Financial Times reported that senior Abbey executives will no longer wear ties, so as to make their staff feel better (2).

This is the latest in a long line of rebranding initiatives on the high street. It shows how creativity is used by business today: to transform the image, rather than to change the way in which business is done. Abbey has said that it will make dealing with money ‘less baffling, less scary and maybe even fun’ (3). A case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ - or perhaps, new logo?

Creativity and design is being lauded from all quarters as a growing area. According to John Sorrell, former chair of the Design Council and founder of Newell and Sorrell, some 75,000 people work in London’s creative industries, helping to produce between £16billion and £20billion for the capital. This could be buoyant news considering the depressed state of advertising and marketing budgets, which is not helped by a stagnant IT industry.

The World Creative Forum drew together a varied panel and audience to tackle these issues, asking: ‘what is our creative future and what is the future of creativity?’. As a sign of the times, the ensuing debate was less about grand visions of the future or human achievement - and more about morality, emotion and irrationality.

This was the paradox for the World Creative Forum. Although it had a broad international appeal, the debate focused on much narrower issues. Although the panel debate started well, it soon got stuck in the mud of diversity, inclusivity and ethics. This did little to counter the popular belief that we are incapable of rationality, challenging conventions and innovating.

LSE professor of sociology Richard Sennett talked as a scientist, not as a designer or ‘creative’ - illustrating the point that creativity is not the preserve of designers or artists. For scientists, as Sennett said, creativity is often about finding a problem rather than just about solving it. This is a valuable lesson for anyone.

Sennett went on to reveal that funding for scientific research is often held back until the results of experiments are clear. Thatcher’s Conservative government attacked science by cuts in funding. As Sennett says, New Labour went one better by demanding that everything must have a ‘measurable realisable outcome’ - the resulting pressure on research goals means that ‘money is harder to get’. The parallel for business is clear: unless an idea can improve the bottom-line with immediate benefits for the customer, innovation and creativity are off the agenda. But of course, chasing customers’ tails won’t lead to long-term strategic innovation - it will only delay it.

As Sennett offered valuable lessons in innovation, Ekow Eshun, journalist, past editor of Arena magazine and all-round media pundit, took a different view. He said that creativity is ‘under threat - as it is being used by everyone’. But while Eshun is correct to say that real creativity is being belittled, he wrongly argued that the solution is improving diversity.

Eshun saw creativity as the clash of ideas, but as a process of ‘irrationality and random acts of magic’. The magic for Eshun is diversity. The city of London, he argued, fosters creativity because of its ethnic diversity, with the implicit clash of ideas between different communities and the merging of cultures. However, Eshun’s diversity is not about real creative struggle - it instead reflects an reluctance to strive for large-scale achievements. Remember what happened to the Millennium Dome?

While Eshun acknowledges that the end-user is more than a mere consumer, the next speaker seemed to offer a disparaging view of his own profession. Dillon Williams, director of planning for the large brand and design agency Grey Worldwide,  pointed to examples of how the ‘street’ creates and subverts advertising products. Williams used the examples of spray-painting slogans on walls and subverting advertising with new messages, asking: ‘are the amateurs better than the professionals?’ This is a telling question for an industry that has become focused on brand, identity and aping the customer. Deconstructing advertising has been a favorite pastime of the anti-corporate protestor, but it is a worrying sign when branding agencies are taking their lead from their critics!

In contrast, trend and futures consultant Martin Raymond insisted that people are ‘not creative’. Raymond cited a recent poll of 500 company directors about the meaning of creativity; apparently, they all said that creativity meant ‘solutions’. For Raymond, creativity is a process of ‘discovery’ - and it is the job of the creative to interpret and represent the raw data as a narrative. Raymond illustrated this point by showing a film about the growing problem of obesity, which he said he hoped would bring raw statistics to life.

The film made no mention of the ever-changing definition of obesity. Instead, what proceeded was a horror show of food abuse, GM scaremongering, lack of exercise, and the delivery of food and nourishment by pills, injections and patches. As a glimpse into the future, Raymond’s vision was hardly positive. Imagine the client receiving Raymond’s wisdom: instead of a bout of innovation, there would be retreat and curtailment in experimentation.

Then there was the pompously titled ‘international creative impresario’ Rajeev Sethi (although he said that he didn’t like this title). Wearing traditional dress, Sethi introduced us to the concept of a multifaceted magical ‘talisman’. The talisman was a kind of spiritual graphical emblem containing separate icons that related to Sethi’s five notions of creativity. As far as I could see, the talisman could be worn around the neck or even imprinted on buildings as a badge of responsibility.

Sethi warned us that in his native India, creativity has real consequences. Instead of opening up potential, Sethi set about describing a set of rules placing responsibility upon the designer. ‘Would your idea make the world rootless, jobless and de-skill society, divided, voiceless and finally futureless?’ Sethi’s vision seemed to replace genuine constructive innovation with spiritual coexistence. His belief that the consequences of creative thinking are destructive merely provides more excuses for not getting on with the job of building the future.

Other speakers included Michael Frye CBE, chair of the London Mayor’s newly formed Creative Industries Commission. A leading industrialist who has been previous chairs of CBI London and the RSA, Frye is proposing to respond to the needs of creative industries by setting up a series of ‘creative hubs’ around the capital. He hopes that these will encourage a new cadre of leadership among the creative community, fostering new talent by giving them a head start.

While Frye quotes George Bernard Shaw (‘all progress depends on the unreasonable man’), his idea of unreasonable creativity means not being ‘dominated by being overly rational’. Instead, to create value and meaning in the world, says Frye, we should first and foremost imbue our work with ‘ethics, imagination and spirit’.

The majority of the speakers supported placing an ever-growing set of rules and responsibilities on the creative process. But adopting a moral, ethical and emotional agenda can only diminish the ability creatively to define and solve problems. Creativity stems from approaching problems rationally, while leaving aside the moral and ethical baggage that often gets in the way.

When an idea is discussed and debated in public, its value to society will become clearer. Too often the creative process is seen as an isolated individual activity. But it only has meaning and value when ideas become useful to society.

Sometimes insurmountable pressure is put on the creative process before an idea has even been formed. Instead of applying endeavor and talent to solving problems, the reverse is true today. Forget about trying to achieve the impossible - the designer is supposed to think about the consequences of his actions before he can even begin to disassemble the brief.

As the great innovator Thomas Edison said, ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Today perspiration seems to be more due to anxiety than struggling to create something great.

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. See his website

Read on:

Taking creativity to task , by Josie Appleton

(1) See the World Creative Forum, 23-25 September 2003

(2) Observer: Head class, Financial Times, 25 September 2003

(3) See the Abbey website

(4) ‘Accentuate the positive’, John Sorrell, FT Creative Business, September 2003

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