12/14/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

The Rigor of Creativity

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

We have so mystified, romanticized, and idealized creativity, so convinced ourselves that it remains primarily the purview of artists or "geniuses," that far too many people believe that they are not creative. In fact, they have not been allowed, or allowed themselves, to use the creativity that they and just about everyone else is born with. All human beings have a capacity for creativity because of how our brain works.

When we learn about some object, for instance, we store that knowledge in different parts of our brain. Its name goes one place, its shape and color in another, its weight and feel in yet another, and contextual information about it -- its purpose, where it came from, how it is made -- in yet another still. When we next encounter that object, our brain almost instantaneously recombines that information, enabling us to identify it, to use it, and to think or talk about it.

Our educational system largely tests this recombinant ability. Pupils get graded upon how well they retrieve the information that they have learned and they get marked down if they get some aspect it wrong: misspelling the word, misidentifying something, or misunderstanding some other aspect of it. Education has so focused on the correctness of our knowledge and the accuracy of our memory that it has almost completely repressed the complementary skill of creativity.

Creativity involves the intentional, systematic, and rigorous miscombination of what we know in order to generate something new. Because having too many variables makes the process hard to control, most creative people frequently change just one or two aspects of something: shifting its size or scale, changing its function or context, altering its shape or color, and so on. Drawing an analogy or making a metaphor often helps move this process along.

Janet Echelman reveals this creative process at work. She started by suspending her "correct" understanding of a fishnet and began to change her perception of it in a systematic way. She re-purposed the fishnet as an artistic rather than just a utilitarian material, she recognized that nets form volumes when unfurled in the water, and she then re-imagined nets floating and undulating in the air above us rather than in the ocean below.

Echelman held most other qualities of nets -- their material, color, and fabrication method -- constant, and then began the hard work and constant practice that constitutes much of the creative process. She learned how to hand-tie fishnets, for example, and how to adapt industrial production methods to her work, while collaborating with everyone from architects and structural and aeronautical engineers to fishermen and fishnet fabricators.

Creativity involves the intentional, systematic, and rigorous miscombination of what we know in order to generate something new. -- Thomas Fisher

Her description of what she does debunks so many of the myths that we have about creativity: that you have to be a loner or a genius to do it, that we can't teach it and that only a few people can learn it, or that it demands artistic talent and the ability to draw. She shows that what it really takes is remembering what it felt like to be a youth: open to the world, full of play, and unafraid of where our imagination might take us.

Her work also demonstrates why we need less correctness and more creativity. By taking nets out of their context, she causes us to see ourselves in new ways and to ask questions that lead to other ideas. What happens when we, the predators, see such nets from the point of view of our prey? How much does the beauty of traps contribute to their effectiveness? What other traps -- seen or unseen -- lie in wait for us? And how much do nets serve as a metaphor for life itself: its tangibility and ephemerality, its fixity and fluidity, its permeability and impermeability?

Echelman conveys such thoughts with a light touch and a sense of humor, as when she called her first piece, with its voluptuous form, "Wide Hips." Creativity, like comedy, relies upon such unexpected connections and we laugh, in part, because of what it reveals about ourselves. And that may be the funniest thing of all about creativity. It can begin anytime and happen anywhere, with anything, as soon as we start, as Echelman says, "taking imagination seriously. "

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

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