The 5 bedrocks of creative fluency

by Erin Rohl


Creativity is a highly valued skill in the world of healthcare innovation, one that can sometimes feel like it is only found through some kind of magical endowment - perhaps at birth. In truth, creativity is a process; something practiced and refined over time.

I'm often tapped as the "creative one" on our team but the fact is the only reason I might seem more creative than others is because I've been prioritizing the space to develop creativity longer than most. Imagine creativity as a language rather than a talent and you'll understand what I mean.

I was introduced to a creative mindset from an early age, and throughout my life I have practiced, explored, and developed my creative fluency with intention. I dabble in a wide range of mediums – from visual to verbal to structural to musical to organic to design – with varying degrees of proficiency. There are, however, two constants no matter what medium or method I’m employing, two truths of creativity:

  1. Creativity = mindset + action

  2. The more you’re creative, the more you’re creative.

​Now, the first truth is rather obvious – how creative would we have considered daVinci had he only thought about the Mona Lisa rather than painting it? Mozart would be rotting in an unmarked grave, unknown, had he not jotted down his musical musings. There is literally no creative endeavor that can exist in a vacuum of action.

Creativity devoid of action is merely philosophy.

To be creative you must have confidence that you can produce something (mindset) and then you must demonstrate your idea (action) to test it. And the more you do that, the more creative you’ll get.

Think, do, repeat.

The more goats you have, the more goats you get. The same is true with creativity.

If you’ve decided you want to boost your creative fluency, it can be hard to know where to start. The medium really doesn’t matter, so if you have the time to take a painting class, dive into pottery or risk it all with an improv troupe – go for it. Less formally, head to your local bookstore and pick up one of the many daily creativity books or join an online community for a new hobby.

Whatever route you take, you will soon discover the 5 bedrocks of creative fluency. Because I like you, I’ll jot them down here and save you a little time.

SAFE PLAY

If you don’t have the space to play, you won’t play – and play is just another word for safe, open-ended discovery and experimentation. As a child, that might be as simple as an hour of unstructured interaction with peers during recess.

As an adult, time to play all too often gets pushed aside for other priorities. It’s important to block time where you can focus whole-heartedly on experimenting with ideas, exploring different mediums and developing your artistic lexicon.

You need time to find inspiration, time to build skills, and time to let your wildest thoughts play out. If you don’t create the space for safe play, you’ll never have fertile enough ground for creativity to grow.

INSPIRATION

There’s a recent idiom that states "everything is a remix". I can’t tell you how true this is. No matter what new ideas emerge, they are almost always a revised version - a rehashed or mish-mashed evolution of what has come before. To get all Plato on y’all, no matter how many versions of a chair you create, no matter how unusual the design or innovative the material or future-forward the function – it’s still a chair.

If you embrace this concept, it quickly becomes apparent that inspiration is the catalyst for creativity but that inspiration can take any form. Whether it’s an apple falling from a tree that inspires new thoughts of gravitational pull, or people-watching at a café that drives your literary character development – inspiration is how you start to remix ideas.

A chair is a chair is a chair, dammit.

Learning about others that play in your space can be inspiring, as can using analogies. In fact, I almost always start off creative sessions with analogies because they work so well at getting your head out of its regular space. Thinking about how one thing is like another – when they seemingly have nothing in common – is a powerful inspiration tool.

PERSPECTIVE

Perspective is simply a way of finding out what matters to other people. So many people think that creativity is “thinking outside of the box”. It can be, but more often than not creativity sees the box from a totally new perspective – or from multiple perspectives. Creativity is sometimes taking the box and reworking it until it is no longer a box at all.

To get there, a change of perspective is crucial. Seeing multiple points of view leads to new questions, and new ideas. Sometimes that’s as easy as looking from another angle – other times, it’s a matter of seeking a multitude of opinions.

Perspective is also putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. At The Design Lab, any problem worth a creative solution starts with empathy and perspective so that we can better understand the problem.

Perspective is simply a way of finding out what matters to other people.

BOUNDARIES

There is such a focus on “outside the box” thinking that boundaries are often eschewed for worry that it will restrain creative thought. However, it is often boundaries that provide the greatest fodder for inspiration. “Do anything!” is a much more difficult invitation than one that requests creativity within parameters.

There are many different ways to impose boundaries. It might be done by restricting materials, space, funds or time available. Time is an especially effective boundary, as any restriction on time shifts output from quality to quantity and removes the tendency in us all to filter or censor our ideas to the “good ones”.

Creative fluency doesn’t start with greatness; it starts with an idea – good or bad – and then uses a medium to demonstrate that idea to find out IF it’s good or bad.

When warming up for a creative burst, using a boundary exercise is a fantastic way to stretch your muscles. Whether it’s a time-box exercise or one that requires rapid generation of multiple ideas – good or bad – the practice of ideating WITHIN the box will keep your creative muscles nimble.

CRITICISM

William Faulkner famously said that "a writer must kill all his darlings". What does that mean? Simply that it is the most precious ideas – the most darling of concepts – that need to be scrapped.

A darling is a concept that you absolutely love but adds no value to the idea.

It’s a hard concept to get behind, especially when you’re particularly delighted with a certain turn of phrase or the design of a product. However, being able to kill your darlings is dependent on your ability to separate the art from the artist, and your ability to take criticism.

Essentially – the idea is not the person, so don't take it personally if others think you’ve got a bad one.

Your darling might actually be a fantastic idea, but maybe it just doesn’t resonate. Maybe you’re way off track. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit in the way it did at the beginning. Nonetheless, you need to be able to kill your darling without a flinch – this is the ONLY way that you can make room for something better.

This is exponentially easier if you have someone upon whom you can depend for candid criticism. At The Design Lab, it can be startling when someone overhears us criticize each other’s work or ideas in very plain language but we rely on each other to point out our darlings.

This is a very different concept than “constructive criticism”, which in my opinion is fluffy language for finding the silver lining in a bad idea. If a concept is bad – or no longer relevant – or just kind of “meh” – I want to know in the plainest of terms. Building constructive criticism loops is a fabulous process to elevate mediocrity.

Is your idea a rhinestone or a diamond? Only candid criticism can tell you for sure.

It really doesn’t take much to start on the path to creative fluency, but it does require practice, opportunity and the right mindset. Start with a short time – even just ten minutes – to which you can devote daily attention. Try things that are outside of your comfort zone and give you a different perspective. And know who you can rely on for candid criticism!

You’ll be fluent in no time at all.


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