Creative Review Says: Your Mother is a Whore

Cover of Creative Review This just in from the Creative Review: Your Mother is a Whore. But that’s only if you’re a subscriber to that UK magazine. The subscribers received this February 2007 issue in a brown envelope with those words crudely written on it.

What’s up with that? Why so mean? Adrian Shaughnessy from the Design Observer tells us that this issue featured guest editors from the UK advertising agency Mother. And they are here to make a statement:

Does the presence of money diminish our creativity? The Sistine Chapel was a commissioned work. Was Michelangelo less of an artist for taking the Vatican’s money? Some would argue painting the Pope into a fresco is more noble then putting a Ford in your Bond movie. Some wouldn’t. We’re not here to decide. After all, ‘We sold our soul and it feels great.’

Once upon a time, I contemplated a career in graphic design and illustration. I was one of those kids who’d doodle in class all day long. Fate took me on a different path, but I still like to keep in touch with the design community.

The question of whether or not money stifles creativity is as old as, well, it’s pretty old. So I’d like to posit a theory:

Money can increase creativity.

How? Money puts boundaries on art. Creating art within boundaries can lead to innovation & creativity. Therefore, money can increase creativity.

An article from The Madison Avenue Journal, entitled “A New Lens To View Limits Through: Constraints & Creativity by Christina Kerley, quotes Marissa Ann Mayer of Google (GOOG) on this topic.

Marissa believes that constraints empower creativity, and remarks, “creativity thrives best when constrained”. Rather than constraints and creativity living at odds, she posits a complementary, almost symbiotic, relationship between the two polarities, writing, “innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision”.

“Constraints can actually speed development. For instance, we [at Google] often can get a sense of just how good a new concept is if we only prototype for a single day or week.”

Kerley (or simply CK, as she’s more commonly known) adds an example from her own experience.

Here’s a creative constraint that I constantly grapple with: length. I have to keep my columns to a certain word count to be sensitive to readers’ busy schedules. Get too wordy, go off on too many tangents, and I lose my audience.

37signals, the web design & development agency known for innovation, also uses constraints to foster creativity. “Constraints are a unique advantage that small teams have over the big guys,” they write. There’s only six people in 37signals, and they’ve been able to build five products, write one book, and create an open-source framework. They even claim that the lack of constraints is what killed the quality of the most recent Star Wars films. From a comment on Slashdot:

No the problem is money. Lucas has way too much of it. Especially for the first film [New Hope] there was a severe budget crunch. They were limited in both money and time. I think this forces a film team to make decisions that in the long run are good for the film. If you have no boundaries, you are more likely to throw in little bits that really have no business being in the movie. If you are limited, you are forced to trim the fat and leave the good bits. With the prequels, Lucas had no limits. He effectively had infinite money and time in which to make these films. As a result he wasn’t forced to REALLY think about which parts worked to help the film and which didn’t.

Constraints seems very counter-intuitive to creativity. Shouldn’t giving yourself total blue-sky freedom make you more creative? How else would you come up with that next great big idea, if you’re forced to hold yourself back?

To that, I ask: have you ever been in a productive brainstorming session? If so, think back to their use of constraints. They could be as innocent as, “brainstorm solutions to solve this specific problem” or “using the resources we currently have, what can we do next?”

One popular brainstorming method, known as lateral thinking, has participants refocusing their minds to different frames of reference. For instance, if I ask you: “It took two hours for two men to dig a hole five feet deep. How deep would it have been if ten men had dug the hole for two hours?”

You might answer logically and say, “twenty-five feet deep.” But in lateral thinking, you could also answer:

  • There are more men but are there more shovels?
  • Would we rather have 5 holes each 5 feet deep?
  • The two men may be an engineering crew with digging machinery.
  • What if one man in each group is a manager who will not actually dig?
  • Etc.

Lateral thinking isn’t the removal of constraints. It merely shifts the constraints over. Psychologist Edward de Bono created the Six Hats method as an application of lateral thinking. In it, participants approach the problem by putting on six different “hats” (effectively, constraints).

  • Red hat – think emotionally
  • White hat – think logically & realistically
  • Green hat – think about creative solutions
  • Yellow hat – categorize and combine solutions
  • Black hat – think skeptically of those solutions

All of these organizations and individuals – Google, 37signals, and Edward de Bono – have all realized the need for constraints in being creative and innovative. Money for art is just another constraint, isn’t it? So it shouldn’t stifle creativity; if anything, it should strengthen it.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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