Why Tools Hinder Creativity, Innovation & Originality

Forget Tools. Think. Think. And Think Again.

I started this post this morning as a comment on Dina's weblog regarding her Creativity Tools post. As I started to get a bit long-winded for a weblog comment, I figured why not just make it a blog post. And if I had yet my TrackBack feature installed we'd be in another one of those great conversations.

Nonetheless, we're talking creativity here. And we're discussing tools. Frankly, it's my opinion that these are diametrically opposed concepts. Let me clarify. If we look at the words semantically and literally this is where I have a problem. Creativity tools. Rather, I see a significance difference in saying tools for creativity.

Over the years I've developed a series of workshops, programs, processes and methodologies for fostering and inspiring creativity. I've drawn on who I feel are the best thinkers in this are including Tony Buzan, Edward deBono, Roger Von Oech, Tom Monahan among others. And in most cases the only “tools” these thinkers would use include pencil, paper, post-it notes, hats (different colors, or images of) and maybe a few other props. Why? Because in many cases “tools” actually will hinder creativity.

I'll explain further. If you look back at the revolution of computer aided design (and I'll focus on graphical for this example) s small company in Seattle in partnership with companies in Mountain View and Cupertino teamed up a developed an entire new market category: desktop publishing. This was big in the late 80's and early 90's. Evolutionary in much the same ways Blogs and social software are for the internet. But I'm diverting. The companies, Aldus, Adobe an Apple. I like to refer to them as the A team, put the power of print publishing to the commoner, so to speak.

You could call these tools (Pagemaker, PostScript & the LaserWriter laser printer) creativity tools. But problem was in the hands of those only with the tools and an entire design cesspool and wasteland resulted. There was never more bad design in a period of a few years than in the early days of desktop publishing. You still see evidence of it today. Too many fonts, bad typography, busy and poor layouts. The trend of tools in the hands of those who prefer to play with tools than think first is all over the web. You've seen the sites. In fact there's a guy who has a website that simply highlights “web pages that suck.”

Fast forward a few years and Adobe releases Photoshop. Then we experienced the second coming of bad design, photo composition and typography. Type that glows, drop shadows, collages till your sick. And the list goes on.

And perhaps the worst tool of all: stock photography CDs and searchable websites. Ask any creative director at any agency worth its salt about pet peeves regarding art directors. I'm sure they'll tell you “time wasted searching for stock photos.” So many art directors and many weak creative directors will browse stock photography catalogs for hours, even days, searching for an image that will trigger an idea that will make for a good ad, website or other communication piece. Problem here is the art or creative director is closing him or herself off from the ability to think on their own. In my agency I would work hard encouraging our creative team to get away from the computer, the stock books and other tools such as Communication Arts. The best ideas come from inside. They are not on the internet, on the book shelf or buried in some software. I'd say start with the idea. Then begin your search. This is where originality, innovation and creativity are nurtured. Bad habits. Bad stuff. Period.

Don't get me wrong. All of the “tools” I've mentioned, and those that I've forgot or have yet to discover, are all great. But they're not creativity tools. Simply tools that help creative people express their ideas — once the ideas were thought of, developed and ultimately executed traditionally — in the mind of the creator.

As for tools for brainstorming. I think many of these things are good. But they are merely catalysts for creative thinkers. I've used Inspiration, NoteTaker, OmniGraffle among others. And I've written extensively here and outside on the need for companies to inspire both creativity and innovation. But creativity starts with the brain, cognition and the ability to unlearn things that have been taught — much like a child — only then can you truly be free to think. And only then should you turn to tools in order to help you express and communicate.

And in my workshops. That's what I teach, inspire, mentor or simply experience. Thinking. Collaboration. And reaching deep into your mind or out into the universe. And having fun while doing it.

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