Mastering Creativity on the Conveyor Belt

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Most people in the creative sector of advertising are credited and valued for innovative thinking. The ability to think differently is what supposedly sets creatives apart. However, there are times when creative people feel drained of ideas and fail to deliver while racing against the clock. Failure to deliver on time renders creative people ineffective, and failure to deliver profits renders them useless.

The advertising industry, like any other, is time and profit bound. Being creative within fixed parameters is a challenge faced on the job, and accomplishment comes from rising to that challenge and mastering it.

It's not really so difficult as is popularly assumed. Anybody can learn to meet the demands of routine creativity if he or she makes an effort to understand and internalize the logical process of creation. The first step is realizing that the on-the-job creative process is not random but a methodical process following an organized sequence.

Any person who understands lateral thinking can be creative, and people who possess natural talent in this area can learn to turn lateral thinking into a system. The difference between a naturally talented creative and a person who has turned the process of creativity into a system via lateral thinking is the difference between a naturally gifted painter who's never gone to school and a painter who has taken the time to learn the techniques of oil painting. The first will provide random production; the second, even without natural talent, will provide regular production. The first will be appreciated by society; the second will be appreciated by the industry. But universal admiration only follows when a naturally talented creative learns to create systematically.

In his groundbreaking book Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas, Edward De Bono thoroughly analyzes and dissects the process of creative thinking.

According to De Bono, creative thinking follows three simple steps:
  1. Selecting a focus.

  2. Making a lateral displacement to generate a stimulus.

  3. Establishing a connection.
Anything upon which we decide to concentrate can serve as a focus. A focus might be an idea, a goal, a problem, or an object. Let's take "cotton shirts" as a focus. A logical sequence progressing from this focus would be "cotton shirts need to be pressed."

Lateral displacement occurs when a logical thought sequence is broken by the introduction of an idea apparently inconsistent with the end reasonably expected. A possible lateral displacement of the logical sequence above would be "cotton shirts never need to be pressed." A gap has been generated in the logical sequence between the focus, "cotton shirts," and "never need to be pressed." This gap supplies the stimulus for creativity.

Our minds continually attempt to make logical connections between things and ideas. That is why if two apparently unconnected ideas are presented to us, our minds reflexively keep on making movements until they find logical connections to bridge the gap.

According to Philip Kotler and Fernando Trias De Bes, "Innovations are a result of connecting two ideas which in principle had no apparent or immediate connection" (101).

If "cotton shirts" is the focus, "never need to be pressed" is a displacement of a characteristic of the focus. The gap between "cotton shirts" and "never need to be pressed" provides the creative stimulus. The creative stimulus urges the marketer to make the "movement" to change the material of the shirt and bridge the gap between the focus and the lateral displacement by connecting with a new concept: "wrinkle-free." Wrinkle-free "shirts never need to be pressed."

De Bono has shown that the logical pattern of the process of creativity follows the logical pattern by which humor is produced. A joke consists of a description of a "starting situation" (a focus) and a "displacement" (a change of perspective) that creates a gap. To connect the beginning of the joke with its end, the listener makes a movement and is provoked to laughter when he or she succeeds in making the logical connection between the beginning of the joke and its end.

Let's take the following joke as an example:

A brilliant creative who prepared advertisements for parties and events died suddenly at the young age of 35. When his soul ascended, he met St. Peter.

"Your account, son, shows the same amount of good deeds as sins," said St. Peter. "You are allowed to choose whether you want to go to heaven or hell."

"Show me hell," said the creative. St. Peter took him to a hall where the fireplaces were blazing and all the models and beauties of the past were having a grand party. There was the best wine and food, there was loud music, and the entertainment was superb. "Logical," thought the creative. "I always knew those ladies would end up in hell."

"Show me heaven," he told St. Peter. "A man must know his choices well before he decides." St. Peter took him to a place where everything was serene and blissful. The blue sky was filled with flocks of birds. There were people in white robes everywhere conversing politely and studying under trees and waterfalls. Everybody was serious and sober.

"I've made my choice," he told St. Peter. "It's hell for me. It's more exciting there, and the company is better by far."

So he was sent to hell, and as soon as he entered, devils fell upon him with hot rods and steel whips.

"Hold it! Hold it!" he cried. "You must have brought me to the wrong place! Where's the party?"

"What you saw, my son," said St. Peter, "was only the advertisement. The real party has just begun."

The first part of the joke describes the creative's situation as he is faced with a choice, so the focus is on "making the choice" between heaven and hell. The lateral displacement happens when St. Peter misleads the creative to make the decision that hell is the better place. (The logical sequence implies that St. Peter would lead a soul to heaven.) There is no humor in that unless the reader makes the movement and realizes that the same trick creatives are known to play on people every day has been played on the creative.

If someone wants to turn the process of creativity into a productive system, he or she will have to think laterally and concentrate on the three steps proposed by De Bono. When you are selecting a focus, you must be conscious that your next task is to generate a lateral displacement. When you are attempting to formulate a displacement from the focus, you must be conscious that you are trying to create a gap that will serve as a creative stimulus. If you are trying to bridge the gap, you have to be aware that you need to find a logical connection.

"The logic of creativity consists of taking an element, displacing laterally one aspect of it, and connecting the gap that has been provoked" (Kotler and Trias De Bes 104).

Work Cited

Kotler, Philip, and Fernando Trias De Bes. Lateral Marketing: New Techniques for Finding Breakthrough Ideas. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.
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