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Issue #2 from my Design + Culture email series, which looks critically at our most commonly-held beliefs. View the Archive

I have had the opportunity to work with a number of talented creative people and there seems to come a point where they ask the question: How do I think more strategically? As I have come to understand it, this question means they have realized that much of the creativity and innovation in a project happens in the strategic / concept phase. To have a seat at the table in such a discussion, you have to think strategically. 

Up to a certain point in most creative people's careers, especially in the digital space, they have been judged on their craft skills: how quickly and with how much quality can they make things to support an idea. But what happens when you want to be the one coming up with the ideas, how do you develop those skills? 

To answer this I created a simple framework that allows anyone to grow their own life-long creative personal culture. For the most part I don’t like using exceptional people as examples because it can set other people up for failure. But here I'm using Picasso’s life and work to illustrate the framework, and am interested in looking at not what he did but how he did it. There are two key strategies:

Be prolific

Picasso in his lifetime created more than 50,000 pieces of work. That is an amazing amount. But the act of making, failing and making again is one of the things that drives creativity and knowledge. One of the biggest hurdles most creative people face is their inner editorial voice that stops them making things because they think it's not good enough or there isn't enough time to do a great job or…. The only way to get better is to practice, and by making mistakes you learn and get better.
So make things, many things.

Be experimental  

Picasso experimented in a wide range of media and conceptual areas, which allowed him many ways to explore his ideas--even becoming a poet for two years before coming back to being a visual artist. Forcing yourself to feel like a beginner can broaden your thinking, which can sometimes be too narrowed by what your expertise in one medium tells you is possible. 

But how can you be prolific and bring more experimentation to your work? I’ve found three simple tactics that support both key strategies. 

Make your own tools

"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." - John Culkin

Everything from having your own way of creating a meeting agenda to the way you generate ideas are personal tools that help create your creative culture over the years. By documenting your own tools you create a distinct method which becomes valuable in a world of uniformity.

A fascinating example is Picasso’s unique way of setting up color palettes. Years later people are making exhibitions around the tool that was his way of creating a distinct culture for his work. 
Why Picasso's palettes were a work of art in themselves

"It is in the palettes that Picasso’s experimentation has its origins, and in that sense, they have a magical dimension.”

How do I apply this idea in my own work? In "Playing by your own rules" I explain a tool I developed: a logical framework to solve problems. 

Build your knowledge

Writing about what you do and sharing that with your friends or the world is a way to build knowledge. Only then can you test your ideas and help others understand them. Building a knowledge base of books is good but building a knowledge base of your own writing helps you create your own personal culture around how you think. In Picasso’s prolific correspondence with his friends, he experimented with form and content, so much that these are now a key part of his legacy. See this Illustrated Letter to Jean Cocteau

An example of a knowledge resource from my own practice is collectedreading.com Over the course of a year I created a series of blog posts, each with a single focused idea and five articles or books to support the idea. 

Grow your network

“But the greatest benefit is to be derived from conversation, because it creeps by degrees into the soul.” - Seneca

This quote sums up what I mean by "network"; it’s not how many people you know but the kinds of conversations you have with them, the ideas passed back and forth over the years and the concepts which creep into your own personal culture. 

I am often asked by co-workers or friends how to learn a new skill that will take their career to the next level. I offer these suggestions: 
1. Make a list of the people you know who have the skill or experience you desire. This usually results in a fairly long list. 
2. I then ask, “When was the last time you talked to any of those people in a meaningful way about that subject?” The answer is usually never!

The point of this example is to show that most of us have a network of people that have the knowledge, it is just a matter of asking. Most people are more than happy to share knowledge when there are no strings attached. Looking at Picasso’s list of friends you can see that he carefully cultivated conversations with some of the world's most famous thinkers, writers and artists. (Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre...) He created this network so he could build his own personal culture. 

The idea of the framework I'm talking about here is, for companies or individuals, to create an atmosphere in which creativity can flourish and be sustained for many years. No one but Picasso could be Picasso, but you can create your own unique personal culture in your own field. The ability to create and adapt I hope will serve you well.

 

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