Overcoming one’s fears to do improv in front of a group of strangers must feel so empowering, but watching it can be excruciating. Some people are deer in headlights, whereas others are composed and focused. But the activity goes well, meaning everyone manages to say a word in turn, and at times the sentences actually make sense. “How did it go?” Steve asks when they’re done. Participants share that it was hard to anticipate what would be said, so they had to be “in the moment.” You can’t control the sentence and so just have to go with the flow. Sometimes you have be a “the” person or an “and” person to help the sentence make sense, sacrificing a cool word choice to help the team. Get where this is going? Good collaboration tips. Personally, I love to see the player’s expression the second after they say their word. Eyes wide, relieved that they said something, hopeful to see what comes next. It was exciting.
Our latest interactions column Content, the Once and Future King has just been published.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour film, in which each minute of the 24 hours is depicted by images of clocks (or other depictions of the time) from other movies. Creating The Clock was an intensive, meticulous process. For at least several months, as many as six people spent their days watching DVDs and ripping potential clips; Marclay spent three years working at his computer for 10 to 12 hours a day. With at least 90 years of cinematic history to work with, and perhaps 90,000 movies available, there is a substantial corpus of moving images to draw from. Let’s call this Big Content.
Get the PDF here.
Previous articles also available:
- Persona Non Grata
- Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me
- The Journey Is The Reward
- Hold Your Horses
- Living In The Overlap
- Some Different Approaches to Making Stuff
- Poets, Priests, and Politicians
- Interacting with Advertising
- Ships in the Night (Part I): Design Without Research?
- Ships in the Night (Part II): Research Without Design?
- We Are Living in a Sci-Fi World
- On Authenticity
- The Hard Work Lies Ahead (If You Want It)
- What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting It
- Elevator Pitch
- Kilroy Was Here
- Never Eat Anything Raw
Here’s what’s going on for us this week
- We made rapid progress through our data last week to produce a final deliverable for our client. Due to some scheduling challenges, we won’t actually talk through what this means for them in terms of new opportunities until next week. So this week, the project is in a holding pattern. We lose a bit of momentum this way, but there’s nothing we can do about it.
- Up next? For the past 6 weeks we’ve been making slow but steady progress on a new project that should take us to some interesting business and industrial environments across the US. The client team is super engaged and understandably taking a lot of time to align on the details, having never done this sort of work before. Meanwhile, we’re crawling our way through the corporate processes, finding ourselves assigned vendor numbers, and other trappings of the way that sourcing works. I hope for this week to be the one that officially moves us towards the next steps, but it’s entirely out of my hands.
- We’ll be publishing some fieldwork War Stories this week. I’ve got one in hand as of this writing and another promised to me. As this archive continues to grow, we welcome your contribution!
- We’re gathering applications for our open positions. Interested in working with us? Let us know!
- Tamara is in Hot’lanta to speak at CPSI, connecting the insights from research to ideation.
- I’m speaking in Cupertino this Wednesday for the San Francisco ACM, talking about improv, creativity, and design. This event is free, open to the public, and I’m told there is going to be food. Come on out!
- I’m working with Kelly and Alison at gotomedia to finalize our Barcelona WebVisions workshop (use reg code PORTIGAL to save 40%). It promises to be an interesting synthesis of our complementary approaches and best practices.
- Early this week, I’ll turn over the next revision of my book manuscript, now with all the figures detailed. It’s been a flurry of activity tracking down original files (in some cases, original paper documents) and numbering and cataloging them.
- I’m excited about meeting some new people this week, possible colleagues and collaborators that I’ll be having lunches and introductory phone calls with.
- Check out my pictures from Lisbon and UXLX!
- Ten Years Gone: On All This ChittahChattah in June, 2002: umbrage over MCI (remember them?) sales scumbaggery, appreciation for an early archive of Internet humor.
- What we’re consuming: the LEO at Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, Chum-chum the bored bear, The Other F Word, and Big Train
5 ways to test it
7 big ways to kill it
5+ ways to win
I keep coming across articles about creativity that use the numbers 5 and 7. This got me thinking about haiku poems, often written 3 lines long with 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively. I took this as an opportunity to get creative, so I wrote the haiku above and one for each of the articles that sparked my haiku-frenzy.
Test Your Creativity: 5 Classic Creative Challenges [Behance]
Do it yourself tests
Learn how to assess
And find when you flow
The 7 Biggest Creativity Killers [Co.CREATE]
Crime scene metaphor.
Who killed creativity?
Whodunnit plus tips.
5 Ways to Win With Creativity [Inc.]
Questions, courage, bold gestures
Gotta play the part.
I am frequently asked when I’m doing a public talk in the SF Bay Area, and now I can answer: next week!
I’m giving my popular talk Yes, My Iguana Loves to Cha-Cha in Cupertino on Wednesday, June 20th, at 6:30. This talk, about improv, creativity, and design, is something I’ve revisited and revised for a number of years. As the talk has evolved, I’ve presented it at CHIFOO, Puget Sound SIGCHI, IxDA New York (slides, video), IDSA’s Southern Conference, IDSA/ICSID World Design Congress, IDSA 2009, and DUX05.
I hope to see you there. No iguanas will be harmed. No one will be forced to do improv but there should be plenty of opportunities to try it out if you’re up for it!
In Appsurd: In Silicon Valley, It’s Hard to Make a Joke, bad ideas become successes.
When Mr. Cornell crafted Jotly as a joke, he says, he tried well-known start-up tricks to make it convincing, like using the color blue and giving it a name ending in “ly.” Other important elements, he says, included assuming everybody wants to share everything they do with everyone, and having “no clear purpose.” He was surprised at the positive response to the idea. “One of our programmers said it would be fun to make, so we decided to crush it out,” he says.
While the creative (and other) excesses of Silicon Valley culture are wonderful media fodder, this article goes quite nicely with my recent Core77 piece The power of Bad Ideas. What we initially frame as bad can – especially as we understand more deeply the measures we should be using – emerge as good.
Being creative ain’t always pretty and it’s rarely easy. Creativity is a practice that brings out the best and worst of us. The articles below have me pondering the shadow side of creative pursuit, how to stay motivated through the highs and lows, and which of these creative calisthenics I should try first.
How Creativity Connects with Immorality [Scientific American] – Citing a number of studies that link creativity to unethical behavior by employees, this article suggests that there is a dark side to creativity. This comes as no surprise to me. The internal tension that pits notions of “accepted” against “unheard of” is one of the most fundamental and key ingredients in creative production. Creative thinking is frequently predicated on a willingness to question the norms and accepted rules. In fact, if you want to practice your divergent thinking a bit today, I invite you to think of a rule at work (i.e. thou shalt not take the sticky notes home) and come up with ten, make that twenty, ways around it.
The authors hypothesized that it is creativity which causes unethical behavior by allowing people the means to justify their misdeeds, but it is hard to say for certain whether this is correct given the correlational nature of the study. It could just as easily be true, after all, that unethical behavior leads people to be more creative, or that there is something else which causes both creativity and dishonesty, such as intelligence.
What Doesn’t Motivate Creativity Can Kill It [Harvard Business Review] – I have a serious creativity crush on Teresa Amabile and particularly value her research contributions in the area of creativity and business. Here she emphasizes the importance of intrinsic motivation for fostering creativity within the organization and the delicate balancing act required when leaders utilize goals, evaluation, reward, and pressure to fuel innovation.
In the end, it’s level, form, and meaning of the motivator that makes for that perfect balance. Being told to do a tough job in a particular way, with no tolerance of failure, little expectation of recognition for success, and extreme, arbitrary time pressure, can kill anyone’s creativity motivation. But being given the same job, in a positive atmosphere where false starts are examined constructively and success is recognized, can drive creativity — and innovation — forward.
The articles above reminded me of an RSA animation for a talk given by Daniel Pink about how intrinsic motivation functions. I love it for both medium (graphic animation) and message (rewards come from within when you do what you love). If you are looking to amplify your creative practice, start with what you love to do already. And then do more of that.
Coarse Art: A 30-day experiment [Scree] – Definitions of creative thinking often refer to the four key skills of originality, flexibility, fluency and elaboration. Fluency is all about quantity- generating as many ideas as possible. Go. Go. Go. The more the merrier! My friend Emily, an Innovation Catalyst at a global corporation, recently undertook a month-long experiment in pursuit of creative fluency by committing to something she calls Coarse Art. Thirty days of making something, quickly, every single morning. No judgment, no reasons, no justifications. She just made something every day, celebrated the practice of it and reflected on all the struggles that this seemingly simple and deceptively challenging practice raised. You can find her article (and her art) on page 38. And if you are looking to develop your own creative fluency, it’s pretty simple. Commit to creating something (i.e. words, poems, assemblage, song, painting, culinary delight) everyday for 30 days in a row. And be sure to celebrate every single day, no matter what.
We readily celebrate the brilliance of a child’s first artistic experiments, noting the highly abstract elements and excitement inherent within their expression, though as grownups we suffer from massive celebration delay.
‘Inspiration is 80% Mental, 40% Physical’: Your Secrets of Creativity [The Atlantic] – Last month Jared Keller asked Atlantic readers how they come up with their best ideas. This article is filled with responses. It is like a pinata of productivity exploded into a shower of suggestions for generating new ideas. Take a look, there is something for everyone here. You will likely find at least one suggestion that resonates with you and inspires you to try a new way to get your creative juices flowing.
Do not silo your brain. I find myself at my most creative when I am connecting disparate things. How should I connect this blog post about reality television with a Congressional Budget Office white paper on home foreclosures? I am envious of designers who draw inspiration from a variety of sources: photography, textile patterns, medieval architecture, 1990s Geocities sites and the like. Inspiration needs room to breathe. I create this space by combining what I am working on with what I like.
Core77 has published my latest column, The Power of Bad Ideas
Bad ideas are not boring, meh proposals. Bad is not the absence of good. These ideas should go beyond provoking “That’s stupid!” to eliciting a much stronger response. Bad ideas might be immoral, dangerous to the user or bad for the business itself. In one session I led, a team proudly showed me their sketches of homeless people packed onto trains and shipped away from the downtown core they were trying to improve. At the time, I reacted to the general lack of humaneness in the idea and saw that as visceral proof point of how they were challenging boundaries. It wasn’t until much much later that I appreciated the horrific evocation of the Holocaust. In this writing, and perhaps in the reading, in the cold pixels of this piece, this feels grotesque. That’s because in reflecting here we are outside the environment of ideation. Within the context of the brainstorm, we have a “safe place” where exploring what’s possible without judgment is crucial.
Check out the full piece on Core77.
I am always on the lookout for ideas to boost creativity. Below are a few recent insightful readings…
Alcohol Benefits the Creative Process [Psychology Today] – Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago set out to determine if being intoxicated actually helped people think more creatively. They recruited people ages 21-30 and gave half of them vodka cranberry cocktails until their blood alcohol level reached .075. Then both groups completed a Remote Associations Test wherein they were given a series of three words (i.e. tar, arm, peach) for which they had to find a single word that would create two-word phrases with all three (i.e. pit). This kind of task was chosen to assess creativity because it is believed that the most obvious response is often not correct and therefore people must search for other more remote words in order to solve the problem. The findings indicate that the intoxicated participants not only performed better than their sober counterparts, they did so in less time and were more inclined to attribute their performance to a flash of insight; an “Aha!” moment.
Why might being intoxicated lead to improved creativity? The answer has to do with alcohol’s effect on working memory: the brainpower that helps us keep what we want in mind and what we don’t want out. Research has shown that alcohol tends to reduce people’s ability to focus in on some things and ignore others, which also happens to benefit creative problem solving.
I had a great excuse to practice this approach this weekend (admittedly, this was not the first time). I found that a yuzu-infused cocktail from Morimoto in Napa actually did catalyze divergent thinking. In fact, I generated a significant number of ideas for ideation and training sessions that involve yummy bites and liquid concoctions.
Produce First, Sharpen Second: What Dylan’s Vomit Teaches Us About The Creative Process [The Creativity Post] – This article references Bob Dylan’s creative process behind Like A Rolling Stone which involved a massive vomit of verses followed by a period of crafting and sculpting that rambling mass into an exquisitely refined piece of work. Dylan’s experience and other examples from the article illustrate a topic that I believe is profoundly important to understanding what creative thinking is and how to facilitate it. Creativity involves two polarized modes of thinking that can be described as opposites: divergent/convergent, imagination/logic, improvisation/composition, writing/editing, and so on. The key is to keep these two modes, vomit/cleanup, separate. Do not mix! In fact, a recent study at a Dutch university that is cited in this article concluded that taking a break between creating ideas and assessing them actually improves one’s ability to recognize the more promising concepts. Quick tip: The next time you are looking for great ideas, set yourself (or your team) a wildly large goal (i.e. 30-100 ideas) and don’t stop until you reach that number. Then take a break (10 minutes, 24 hours, whatever). Finally, go back and dive in to your ideas to cluster, organize, eliminate and ensure that the best ones rise to the top. Then give them refinement and strengthening that they deserve!
The reason we should “never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down” is because we initially don’t know which of our ideas are worthwhile. It’s only after we get everything down that we are able to recognize what works from what doesn’t. This is the lesson from Ritter’s research: we need to give the unconscious mind time to mull it over so it can convince the conscious mind to make adjustments.
Want To Be More Creative? Get Bored [Fast Company] – If you are looking for something to do between ideaphoria and analysis, a break that Edward deBono calls the “creative pause”, give some thought to not thinking at all. The author reflects on the importance of clearing the mind and the calendar and not doing a thing. Why? Because this space of quiet be-ing (not doing) is a lacuna from the litany of productivity and entertainment. It gives the mind room to breathe. Think of it as mental yoga, a place to pause between the inhale of ideas and the exhale of action.
I know it sounds strange, but I welcome boredom. It forces me to ponder. But to make sure we’re on the same page, when I speak of boredom, I’m not referring to killing time on your smartphone, your iPad, or your laptop. I’m not even talking about paging through a book. I mean bored as in doing absolutely nothing.
It’s another busy week here at Portigal as we are aflurry with a webinar, a kickoff, and a retreat:
- Steve will be giving his virtual seminar Championing Contextual Research in Your Organization tomorrow!
- We are kicking off a new project with a compressed timeline so we are ready to hit the ground running.
- Tamara will be cultivating her creative spirit at The Journey retreat in Oregon and offering two workshops.
- What we’re consuming: Gherkin’s Sandwich Shop, Morimoto and inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.
One of my favorite tools to inspire radical new thinking is a technique I call forced connections. It is, fundamentally, a cognitive math problem: x + y = ? (assuming, of course, that x and y are seemingly unrelated things). This concept, also described as combinatorial creativity, is amazing because human brains are wired for it. The brain experiences cognitive dissonance when you try to hold two or more dissimilar things in your mind at the same time. It wants to resolve that tension so it creates resolution in the form of a new idea. Understanding how ideas work helps us design tools that facilitate idea generation. The articles and talk below explore ideational procreation through the lenses of neuroscience, quantum theory, psychology, and anthropology.
Musical Creativity and the Brain [The Dana Foundation] – This article explores some big theoretical and empirical questions about creativity, namely what it is and how we do it. My researcher heart jumped for joy with the introduction of an operational definition of creativity that comfortably applies across a range of artistic and business contexts: a fundamental activity of human information processing. The researchers discuss the brain functioning behind creative problem solving and the processes that make up creative behavior. Not surprisingly, it is a study in polarities: creativity is deliberate and spontaneous, cognitive and emotional, improvisation and composition, productive and consumptive. One of the authors, Charles Limb is a surgeon who also studies creativity and talks about your brain on improv.
During any creative act, from language production to marketing techniques selling the latest iPhone, ideas or past experiences are combined in novel and significant ways via the interaction of such cognitive capacities. The creative cognition approach is the current model dominating the neuroscientific study of creative thinking. According to this approach, creativity is far from a magical event of unexpected random inspiration. Instead, it is a mental occurrence that results from the application of ordinary cognitive processes.
How the Mind Creates Ideas [Psychology Today] – I often use forced connections when facilitating brainstorming as a deliberate idea-generating activity with specific stimuli (i.e. research insights). Quantum theory offers a more expansive approach to thinking about ideas as unmanifested sub-atomic particles that represent endless possibilities and countless possible combinations. The key to harnessing your quantum creative potential is to harvest as many ideas as you can: observe, record, interact, react.
We are taught to be exclusionary thinkers, which means we exclude anything that is not immediately related to our subject. Creative geniuses do not think this way. They know that the sky is a billion different shades of blue. When they brainstorm for ideas, their first objective is to observe and record all thoughts and ideas as possibilities. They observe without judgment. This is why all their thoughts and ideas come into existence as possibilities. Creative geniuses also think inclusively which means they include everything no matter how unrelated or absurd. This is a basic requirement of creative thinking. Creative thinking requires the generation of associations and connections between two or more dissimilar subjects.
Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex [TED] – The notion of ideas having sex is not, in fact, a new idea and the fruits of idea coupling have been applied and studied in a variety of areas. Ridley brings to life this concept with a tour of human evolution that offers material culture as evidence of our inescapable need for cross-germination in the collective brain. If you are interested in such creative romancing you can also find some practical tools to set the metaphorical mood here.
What The Karate Kid Can Teach Us About Agile and UX [UIE] – While the selections above discuss the process of ideational procreation, this article illustrates the progeny of forced connections: Daniel-san + UX=Lessons in Agile Mastery. Gothelf suggests that ritual and repetition breed expertise in both the hard skills (i.e.rapid rendering) and soft skills (i.e. trust and transparency) necessary for collaborative cohesion. Mr. Miyagi would certainly approve of this evolution of “Wax on. Wax off.”
Daniel found this level of mastery in the final tournament where he anticipated his opponent’s moves and ultimately defeated him. An Agile team achieves this when they trust each other implicitly, react as a cohesive unit to change and manage that change as well as any conflict with little impact to productivity or quality of work.
*Nota bene: The forced connection as metaphoric literary trope is not necessarily novel. In fact, some might convincingly argue that it is overplayed for its linkbaiting ability to seduce readers with catchy headlines. Personally, I am a sucker for such headlines and I have yet to grow tired of this tactic because I liken it to creative calisthenics. Reading and writing such pieces forces the brain to contemplate a familiar topic through a new lens. It requires the brain to constantly make new connections and it nurtures our divergent thinking capabilities. If you are looking for such exercise, try some of these: What Jay-Z Can Teach Us About The Future Of Education,What Downton Abbey Can Teach Us About the Future of Energy, What Nature Can Teach Us About Design, and What Visual Designers Can Learn From Biggie Smalls.
Back in June, Rush drummer Neal Peart was interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos, discussing the recording of their classic album Moving Pictures (now 30 years old!)
He relates a curious and cool aspect of their creative process, evoking the role-playing techniques (including informance) that we use in user research, facilitation, design, and more, whereby taking on characters can free oneself from a current constraint, including one’s own identity.
One of the tricks that we were already using then – that we still do – is that we make up other bands. “Today we’re not Rush, we’re The Fabulous Men.” That was our new age band, or we have an ongoing edgy kind of rockabilily band called Rockin’ F so when we want to bring out a different persona we say “Okay, make this part Rockin’ F.” That’s something we still use.
Everywhere I look today I’m finding examples of how nerds (just like me) have phenomenal divergent thinking skills. Creative superpowers, activate!
One Up: Gamers Help Scientists Solve Molecular Puzzle That Could Lead To AIDS Vaccine [techcrunch.com] - Experts in one arena (biochemistry) connect with novices, aka experts from another arena (gamers), to solve a challenge they’ve grappled with for 15 years. This is a sweet blend of two of my favorite creativity-inducing activities: expert mind meets novice mind AND forced connections between seemingly dissimilar things.
And last week, FoldIt became more than just a cool idea, or an exercise for scientifically-minded gamers. Scientists have been attempting to decipher a protein called “retroviral protease” for over 15 years, as the protease is one of the key proteins that allows HIV to multiply and replicate itself in living cells. Using FoldIt, gamers were able to identify the structure of the protein — within a matter of 10 days…With the structure of retroviral protease unlocked, scientists can now begin taking the necessary steps to build a drug that could significantly slow the speed at which HIV develops.
Spurlock Penetrates The Nerd Herd In Comic-Con Doc [fastcompany.com] - It’s not totally surprising that fantasy and fandom are fantastic catalysts for creativity. Intriguing references to curation as preservation of youth and, consequentially, playful fuel for creative adults.
In a time when zombies, dinosaurs, knights and night-walkers dominate the network lineups and superheroes are the surest way to box office success (hopes are high for Whedon’s megawatt Avengers film, scheduled for release in May 2012), understanding Comic-Con’s creative alchemy has never been more relevant.
The 10 most gadgety Halloween costumes [msnbc.com] - These don’t really hold a candle to the Comic-Con costumery, but some of us have to start somewhere. And for the record, my dream is to one day rock out a fairly authentic Queen Amidala costume.
Stumped about what to dress up as this Halloween? How about your favorite gadget? Don’t think it’s possible? Well then check out these crazy examples. But since there isn’t much time left to make something elaborate, you could always fall back on dressing up like a zombie and carrying around your old VCRs and cassette players. Obsolete gadgets, returned from the grave!
- [from wstarosta] There are no such things as “Insights” [PLH] – [Pretty Little Head contributor, Farrah Bostic, shares her opinion on what an insight is and what it isn't. In doing so, she makes the point that insights are not things that can be gathered. Rather, the best we can hope for is to be insightful through research, immersion, observation and questioning.] I was recently asked to put together some “insight generation” exercises for a training workshop. This is pretty standard fare for a planning director, the person who ‘owns the insights.’ Creative briefs now often feature sections that are titled something like, “What’s the key insight?” – into which, the planner dutifully fills in some text in order to earn her wages. For some reason, on this particular request, I just completely stalled out. I often, at conferences and in client meetings, or with other planners, remark on how “insights” is another crime against the English language that Adland has perpetrated upon corporate culture.
- [from wstarosta] Disney Helps Reboot Commodore and Amiga Brands [Brand Channel] – [The Commodore 64 is getting a re-boot from Tron, the movie. The company is updating the old school computer with a 1.8Ghz processor, Blu-ray drive, and HDMI! ] When Tron: Legacy was released in December, the product tie-in that drew all the attention was for Ducati. It's a product placement the Italian motorcycle maker told us was unpaid, but highly valuable. Now, the release of Tron: Legacy on DVD introduces a whole new marketing tie-in. This time for… Commodore 64?! That's right — Disney is helping promote the relaunch of the Commodore and Amiga brands, with the relaunched computers going on sale the same day (April 5th) as the DVD went on sale.
- [from steveportigal] How To Steal Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) [Austin Kleon] – [While the frame of reference is being an artist, you could substitute a lot of other descriptors and it'd work just as well - designer, innovator, ethnographer, what-have-you. The riffs here manage to be wide-ranging and incredibly concise.] Your job is to collect ideas. The best way to collect ideas is to read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read the newspaper. Read the weather. Read the signs on the road. Read the faces of strangers. The more you read, the more you can choose to be influenced by. [Thanks @anneincal!]
- [from steveportigal] Recreating the Legendary Commodore 64 [Commodore USA, LLC] – [Many of my favorite themes here: reviving dead brands, retro technology, enthusiast fans become producers instead of just consumers, and of course, boat-loads of irony] The new Commodore 64 is a modern functional PC as close to the original in design as humanly possible. It houses a modern mini-ITX PC motherboard featuring a Dual Core 525 Atom processor and the latest Nvidia Ion2 graphics chipset. It comes in the original taupe brown/beige color, with other colors to follow…[We were] founded by Barry Altman in April 2010, with the express purpose of reviving and re-establishing the famous Commodore computer brand. We are Commodore and AMIGA fanatics, just like many of you. We ask ourselves what could have been, and we are appalled by Apple revisionism. Commodore is back, and we’re determined to bring the much loved brand back to the mainstream and restore its prominence in the tech industry to that which it richly deserves. It ain’t over ’till we say so.