In this piece by David Limbert, Creative Services Head at Magnetic Storm, he asks: ‘Where did the notion of creative freedom come from?’ Is freedom an accurate description of an inventor’s circumstances and part of the mythology of invention? A lone genius and their eureka moment?
Great ideas might happen when people are free to think and creatives thrive in situations that grant permission to make mistakes, when uncertainty is minimised and convention is applied responsibly. But I do see a challenge with the word freedom.
We want to believe that freedom is a necessary ingredient for success, but perhaps it also gives us an excuse for failure. ‘My client didn’t give me the freedom to explore, so this isn’t as good as it could be.’
So, do successful inventors and designers ever feel free? If freedom refers to a mental state, is that how high performing creatives describe themselves? In my best moments as a creative, ‘liberated’ isn’t how I would describe my mindset. It isn’t like parameters or limitations suddenly lift, and I say, ‘now I can get down to business’. Quite the opposite: a full understanding of the assignment’s parameters and the bigger why or purpose behind it, is what drives my creative thinking forward and allows the magic to happen.
Many stories of invention include crucial breakthroughs outside active work, for example when going for a walk or taking a shower. Sure, our minds are wandering free, but even unconsciously we’re compelled to turn over the problem.
Creativity needs enablers
Processes, research, requirements, technical capabilities: we call them constraints, but they actually inform creativity and give the outcome merit. They inspire, giving us conceptual tools to play with. They help us narrow ideas, evaluate the efficacy and test them for feasibility.
When a client hands you a problem statement, see it as an enabler. Great ideas are nothing without a problem to solve. We must be prepared to embrace different mindsets to let an idea flourish. It’s a nurturing process: we’re testing, coaxing, and judging, but we’re also giving ideas a chance to fly on their own.
In short, we can’t tell stories of creativity with freedom alone. The metaphor is misleading, and I believe at it is least only half of the story. The assumption that total freedom is good and constraints are bad, isn’t entirely correct. The danger with the word freedom is that inexperienced creatives may interpret constraints as barriers. Constraints benefit us in the right context – they form boundaries and processes that give context and can ultimately enable innovation.
Following a process yields better ideas; I say this because a process nurtures them, prepares them for the realities of implementation and validates through research.
When we talk about creativity, we use the word freedom to describe our situation and cognitive state. When people think they need complete freedom to be truly creative, they reject enablers by seeing them as constraints.
Creativity is at its best when teams engage with their ideas in various ways, letting them simmer, studying them further, evaluating them, and sharing them with others. And ultimately solving a specific problem or need.