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  • Jean Railla

How to Be Creative. 10 Highly-Idiosyncratic Tips.

"The creative aspect of life which finds its clearest expression in art baffles all attempts at rational formulation. Any reaction to stimulus may be causally explained; but the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will forever educe human understanding." — C.S Jung



For the last five years, I have taught courses on advertising and Advertising for Social Good at NYU and I am struck by how my students treat creativity as it were a skill to master.  They approach solving creative problems as if they were taking the SAT's.  Find the formula, develop a strategy, memorize the answers.* And when that doesn't work, they grow easily frustrated and sometimes despondent.


"I tell my creative people to use their talent and judgment to solve the problem, because if the advertising isn’t uncommon and imaginative, no one will like it. Only your mother. And even she will get bored in time.The reason people often say they think of things in the shower is that it’s the only time we allow our brains to relax and open up. We’re so intense. We’re so driven. We also drink a lot of water. Because when you drink a lot of water, you go to the bathroom, and when you come back, you say to your partner, “Hey, I just got an idea.”  — Nina DiSesa, Chairman, McCann Erickson New York

"Failure reframed as iteration." Every year I begin the semester by writing this phrase on the whiteboard.


I tell the students, "In this class you will fail, and fail often, and you will be OK."


We start each session with an ungraded creative exercise and I encourage them to do stop worrying about getting it 'right.' I build an environment where they can play but also work hard.


For most people I know, any creative endeavor involves a period of not knowing. With time, you learn to trust that the story or solution, sooner or later, reveals itself. But my students are young and so I remind them of this when they get stuck. I tell them to have faith and maybe the solution will reveal itself. If not, they'll just have to keep on trying.


When they ask me how I come up with creative ideas, I say:


"I believe that you often have to go mucking about in the swamp of your brain and then look around for inspiration. Sometimes it's a Agnes Varda film that suddenly inspires you, or it’s an observation made at the dog run, or perhaps a character from a novel or the way Oscar Wilde describes the scent of Lord Henry's room in the opening of The Picture of Dorian Gray."


Some people stare at a blank page, others comb Pinterest for textures, old ads, Soviet propaganda, while others might take a walk.  The point is to create a schedule to allow your brain to play by setting up a context that will allow space for the creative solution to emerge.


In an effort to demonstrate to my students that the struggle is real and perfectly human, I put together my own top ten list of creative strategies. How do you come up with ideas?  I’d love to hear.


My Ten Idiosyncratic Tips

  1. Quantity over quality.  Make several lists of everything pertaining to the creative problem.

  2. Look around your space. Pick up anything that looks interesting.

  3. Go to the Met Museum and visit a random gallery.

  4. Research random things. Get lost in JSTOR and waste two hours.

  5. Procrastinate and then wake up at 2 am with a good idea.

  6. Talk through the problem with a friend.  Bore them with details and then say it's too complicated to understand.

  7. Brainstorm:  Write the main problem on a post-it and place it in on a blank wall.  Free-associate any ideas related to the problem.  Try to group ideas.  Then stare at the wall until the solution appears or does not appear.

  8. Make a snack

  9. Despair

  10. Walk the dog

* It's easy to understand why creativity is such a challenge for this cohort, especially at a school like NYU, where the student body is incredibly diverse, overwhelmingly affluent and frequently comes from backgrounds that value achievement and test-taking over play and creativity.  They have grown up in a sea of extracurriculars where every moment is scheduled and every activity is about building towards the college admission process. It's all so high stakes with little time dreaming and imagining. But I digress....


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