Form follows function. Necessity is the mother of invention. Think outside the box. Those truisms drown amid mistaken perceptions that creativity must mean abandoning pragmatism because the prosaic cannot exist with creativity.

For what it’s worth, I like boxes. They’re enormously useful and practical. I also think that constraints refine and temper creativity. They force thinkers to consider the ramifications and feasibility of their ideas. Anyone, after all, can be creative when the sky’s the limit.

No creative endeavor exists without limitations, whether those be limitations of media, budget, size, deadline, use, or something else. An artist is limited by the size of his canvas and the medium in which he works. A musician is limited by the range of notes that can be played and heard on an instrument. After all, who writes music only dogs can hear? An actor is limited by the script and the director’s instructions. A writer is limited by the page and language. An architect is limited by the building’s purpose, the construction site, zoning laws, and the client’s budget and preferences. A programmer is limited by the project budget, user expertise, and software.

Various methods exist for directing and honing creative processes. One such method is value analysis, which has a codified HOW-WHY progression that breaks down a process, project, or product into discrete, verb-noun combinations that reduce to abstraction whatever is being analyzed. In that manner, the analyst focuses on the solution to a certain objective without being hemmed in by preconceived notions. The process of value analysis can result in amazing, innovative breakthroughs or it can be used with ruthless focus on cost-cutting.

The emphasis on practical solutions keeps in mind that whatever results from the innovation must be used or operated by people. Innovation without regard to those who must live with the implementation foments resentment and confusion and a general dislike of change. Innovation necessarily disrupts comfort, which no one likes. If you’re going to make someone uncomfortable, it’s best to show that the advantages of such discomfort outweigh the negatives.

In their article “An Easy Way to Increase Creativity,” Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman assert that psychological distance increases creativity: “psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete.” In other words, problems that seem further away are easier to solve.

In a personal manner, that holds true. Consider advice columnists. Don’t they usually have the advantage of distance, so they can clearly see, analyze, and resolve the problems affecting those seeking their advice?

The premise of methods like value analysis and psychological distance to improve creativity lie in abstraction. By thinking in abstract terms of a problem and how it might be resolved, one releases preconceived notions to generate ideas for evaluation. Such abstraction forces one to define the problem to be solved. In his article “5 Steps to Developing an Innovative Solution to a Problem,” Ryan May states that the first step in innovation involves asking probing questions and digging for insight. That can be as simple as asking “what does that company do better than ours?” or “what’s missing from our product that would make it better?”

Once you’ve defined the problem to be solved, it must be analyzed from every angle to generate ideas on how to solve it. The next step focuses on evaluating those ideas for feasibility, expense, time, durability, and other factors usually imposed by the client. For instance, pure gold doesn’t corrode, but making fixtures in 24-carat gold for yachts and oceanfront houses isn’t practical due to gold being too soft a metal and far too expensive for such use. However, a thin coat of gold on the steel base uses the best of both metals: steel’s strength and gold’s resistance to corrosion. Electroplating gold to steel fixtures adds to the cost, but not so prohibitively that homeowners dismiss the option out of hand. It’s less expensive than having to replace all the fixtures every few years.

The crucible of requirements and limitations refines creativity to fulfill a purpose for feasible implementation. Practicality doesn’t bore, it challenges. Are you up to the challenge?

 


Save