Thoughts on Creativity

Over the last couple of years I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of creativity & technology. Not as two separate topics, but a single, combined notion. In particular, the technique and production of creative ideas and how engineering, data, production and science (I’ll lump all of these together as “technology” because I really view them as tools in a technology toolkit) inherently blend together in a seamless way.

So let’s start with the first part… my introduction to “creating”.

Comic Books and the craft of storytelling

I started out in the early days of personal computers because I driven by a desire to create things. I dug printing. Specifically, lithography and screen printing. That’s why in the late 80s and early 90s, I was drawn to Macintoshes over traditional “PCs” because they were my inroad to “printing stuff”. I’ve also had a love affair with comic books going back to my childhood. It’s always gone beyond geeking out over Batman and Superman though. There’s something about the very idea of the craftsmanship of comics. Artists and writers together telling a story in a singular experience.

I think we’re all brought up initially to believe that art and artistic endeavors are a means to an end. You’re “making art”. You’re writing a song, painting a painting, or otherwise engaged in the act of creating something. It’s when you marry illustration with writing and effectively use both to tell a story in a medium like comic books that you start to expand your idea and understanding of art and technique. You can’t separate the written idea from the illustration telling the story. Comics are unique in that they marry the two in a seamless manner. Once you realize this, you start to pick up on the idea that comics are using certain… “techniques” in a way to create their own artistic language.

Consider, for instance, the idea of conveying an idea across two, three, four… or a page or panels. You’re not only advancing the story with the written word, but drawing the reader’s eye across panels, filling in gaps and pacing the story in a way that words alone aren’t doing. It’s kinda magical how it comes together.

This is more about the “how” than about the “why” or “what”.

Connecting it all

For me, this love affair with the “how” was the beginning of the insatiable desire to understand it. How were these things produced? How was a story written? How was it communicated to the artist? Was it broken down in a way that made the role of the artist part of the larger creative process? How did a comic book go from idea, to written script, to layouts and pages (that were paced to ALWAYS land precisely at 32 pages), to inked (what was inking anyway?) to lettering (was that different than the writer?) to a printed book? What was the role of the editor?

Fantastic Four 86, May 1969. Copyright, Marvel Comics.
Credits. There was more than one person responsible for this issue of Fantastic Four, and understanding that was key to understanding that creative was more than just an artist drawing figures.

Comic books also contained a valuable clue, in that every issue contained credits. The credits clued you in by calling out the names and roles everyone had in creating the book you held in your hands. Writer, Artist, Inker, Letterer, Editor… multiple names, multiple roles. This was key in understanding early on that there was craft at work here. There were no happy accidents, and this wasn’t just a single artist creating something alone, but a concerted effort by a team of people to build something larger than their own individual talents could bring to the table. Shipping these things involved more than just your ability to draw Spider-Man, you needed teamwork.

Making it real and tangible

So when I had the opportunity in the early days of computers to begin to learn how things were produced, I jumped all over it. I never thought of myself as a “technologist” or a “creative”, I just thought of myself as someone who recognized that “making something” that people held in their hands was a larger undertaking than any single individual. I could step into the process of creating, and I could help make something.

My early days with computers were primarily spent as a production artist. Color separations, layouts, production, typesetting… Working with teams of people to make beautiful things, I quickly realized that I loved working WITH them as much as I loved working FOR them. Along the way I learned how to make things that had inherent beauty in how they were made, as well as the techniques that improved the quality of the things we produced. Where attention to detail made the difference, and where a creative eye & the application of solid fundamentals could be the difference between good work and great work.

I was creative. We were creative.

This was the beginning of my journey to become someone who valued their skill and appreciation for creativity in all shapes and sizes. Understanding what “creativity” meant and how an idea can be shaped by the people who touch it. A love of “how” things are made beautiful.

This seems like a good place to pause, and I’ll pick it up where it naturally picks up in my own personal experience. The moment I stepped foot inside a creative agency environment.

More to come…

The Arduino/Raspberry Pi Challenge

When you’re responsible for technology, sometimes it can become all too… tactical. You begin to quickly get to “the solution” place and by the time you’re reading this, we’ve already arrived at the end and are just waiting for you to get here. It’s an engineering trap. Forgetting you’re creative. Forgetting that you have a spark, or a natural curiosity; a desire to create things, build stuff. Sometimes you simply forget to come up for air and look around and smell the proverbial flowers.

So one of the first things I did when I took over Creative Technology, Database, and Analytics for JWT was work very hard to focus on the idea, “sure, you’re a developer, I get it… you’re an engineer, but you build stuff… you’re inherently creative and you work in a creative environment… embrace that shit”. I wanted my gang to enjoy using the right side of their brains. So I offered them up a little somethin’ somethin’ to get their creative juices flowing: I would buy anyone who wanted to sign up a Raspberry Pi and Arduino and let them do anything they wanted. Client related, not client related, fun, experimental, new… whatever they wanted. The only catch was, you had to come back in 90 days and give a presentation on your project. You had to tell us what your big idea was, what inspired you, and how you did it… oh, and you had to demo your project.

Five teams signed up. I was impressed right off the bat that it wasn’t individuals that signed up, but that my offer spawned several conversations among like-minded, organic groups (who, I might add, didn’t normally work together… so there’s that!) that evolved into formal ideas. There was a demonstration of Raspberry Pi running Xbox Media Center (XBMC), the open source Home Theater Software. A terrific idea involving geo-fencing/mapping, and outdoor location. One of my lead developers put together a demo/presentation of a larger idea for a “Holiday Card” that could potentially bridge the gap between two remote locations in a fun, engaging, and ultimately very impressive manner (that one I kept in my back pocket. As soon as I saw the idea I just told everyone in the room, “okay, we’re building THAT one this Christmas… you watch”). An iPhone powered paintball gun that was one of the highlights of the demonstration and created such an active discussion in the room, that it went from “An iPhone Powered Paintball Gun” to a “Twitter Powered T-Shirt Cannon” in less than five minutes. Finally, one of the engineers on my team who’s perhaps the quietest person I’ve ever met (he literally sits all the way in the back corner of the office) decided to take my offer of gratis computer power, marry it with a couple of hundred dollars worth of hardware and create a Microsoft Kinect powered, wi-fi enabled, remote controlled car. The beauty of this idea was that you didn’t even need to be in the same room as the car. The car contained all the computational power and network capability, and using node.js, was able to maintain a connection to a remote server that was coordinating the motion and movement. Theoretically, you could control a remote-controlled car on the other side of the world using just your body.

Crazy shit, right?

I relish my technology leadership role, but too often it can become mired in the tactical. The “throw it over the fence and build it” that sort of naturally occurs in these environments with their deadlines and requirements. It’s not bad. It’s the job. It’s just that sometimes it’s nice to stop and smell the roses.

Adobe Max 2010 – A peek inside my conference schedule.

As I mentioned last week, I’m attending the Adobe Max Conference this year in Los Angeles, and I’m really excited. As it gets closer and closer to Saturday, I’m gearing up to blog more and more, culminating in what’s essentially going to be a non-stop blog-tacular beginning on Saturday (the 23rd) and ending on Thursday (the 28th) of next week.

I plan on posting as much as I can in as many media formats as I can possibly squeeze into an already jam-packed schedule.

Speaking of schedule, I took the liberty of dropping my agenda below for you to check out. As you can see, it generally begins early enough, and runs continually through most days ending fairly late in the evening. It looks to be a couple of 12+ hour days with activities and sessions scheduled throughout most of my time out west. Now you can see why I get so excited about the conference and why I’m looking forward to it so much. It’s basically 24-hours-a-day immersion into all things Web/Interactive. If you do what I do for a living, and you do it where I do it, this is essentially the Super Bowl of Interactive Development.

Take a moment and give it a once over. If anything jumps out at you that you’d like to see me blog or write about specifically, by all means contact me directly and let me know what it is you’d like me to blog/video-blog about and I’ll make sure I give it the ol’ college try.

I’m really looking forward to trying my hand at video-blogging some of this stuff to try and get a more spontaneous-off-the-top-of-my-head reaction to the stuff I’ll see and do. Fingers crossed. If not, rest assured I’ll be writing until my hands fall off. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 24, 2010
9:00 am – 5:00 pm Creating Engaging Websites with Adobe Creative Suite 5 Web Premium
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm Adobe Design Achievement Awards
Monday, October 25, 2010
9:30 am – 11:30 am General Session: Welcome to the Revolution
2:00 pm – 3:00 pm Dreamweaver and HTML5 & Javascript Based Widgets
3:30 pm – 4:30 pm From Design to CSS and HTML with Fireworks and Dreamweaver
5:00 pm – 6:00 pm Creating Interactive Rich Media Advertising Campaigns with Video
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm Sponsor Welcome Reception
8:00 pm – 10:00 pm Meet the Teams
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
8:30 am – 9:30 am Using Web Fonts Now
10:00 am – 12:00 pm General Session: User Experience: The Next Generation
1:30 pm – 2:30 pm The Future of Advertising
3:30 pm – 5:00 pm Best Practices: Working with Flash Catalyst CS5 and Adobe Design Applications
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm Sneak Peeks
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
8:30 am – 10:00 am AIR for Android: Discovering the Magic
11:00 am – 12:30 pm Designing with Fireworks
1:30 pm – 5:30 pm Adobe AIR Code Camp