A Strange Noise

Creativity Can Be Shaped by Surprising Sources

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The other evening I walked in the front door and heard a strange clacking noise from upstairs. On the landing at the top of the second floor, I found my son Jack sitting at a small table typing on an Olivetti Studio 45 manual typewriter that I bought about 25 years ago. What a weird sight. Here was this sleek object that served one function only, to put words on paper. It contained no memory. It couldn't add. It couldn't even play a game of FreeCell. There were no cords, no batteries, no glowing lights. It just sat there, a simple object of beauty. For reasons beyond me, Jack had rescued this relic from the basement, ignored his new iMac and was happily writing a paper for school, unable to hit delete, cut and paste or correct his typos. I hope his teachers don't freak out.

For a moment I forgot about the economy and the pressures of an upcoming presentation, and enjoyed the nostalgic mechanical noise of an old typewriter. In fact, I started my career with that typewriter, pecking out ads, video scripts, brochures and speeches. I filled up pages with headlines, and then retyped a handful that I liked best. I tore up my share of first drafts, but more often I picked a direction, started writing and stuck with it. I just couldn't type fast enough to begin over.

It made me think about how the tools we choose define the creative process and how creative work morphs and evolves with new technologies. Sometimes, when the new tools emerge, the people who know how to use them don't always create the best work. Sometimes, great creative minds just can't master the new tools. But boy, when those two come together, you get work that redefines the creative experience. That alchemy is what so many of us aspire to in this business. How it happens will always be a mystery, but I still try to identify those qualities in people and agency culture that increase the odds for creative electricity.

Every creative director in the world must have his own theories, but here are a handful of qualities that always get me excited when I'm talking to creative talent.

Creative trespassers. I love people who continually wander out of their own discipline: writers who sketch, art directors who want to design buildings, account people who like to write scripts. The ability to explore ideas in multiple disciplines dramatically expands a person's creative range.

Mastery of the tools. It doesn't matter if we're talking about a complicated Flash animation, or a Facebook page, great ideas come from a deep understanding of the tools that create the work. Today, creative people need to think and produce within the vocabulary of digital technologies. It's not enough to have an idea and then translate it into Flash or html. You have to create using the technologies that drive all the new digital channels.

Powerful hard drives. Ideas come from making surprising connections between things. The more source material the better. I recently had dinner with a creative director who talked intelligently about Greek mythology, watches, contemporary fiction and the economy. That was before the second bottle of wine.

Wired into the culture. In our business, we need to connect with people on a subconscious level. That can only happen when you're tapped into your audience's tastes, their hopes, and their passions. Increasingly, we're talking about being wired into the lives of specific subcultures, whether they are communities of scientists or Sneakerheads.

Childishness. Not to be confused with acting like a baby, but rather the ability to play and explore like a child. There's got to be a reason that a room full of creative people often feels like a preschool class. For the record, that's a good thing, and one of the reasons I love this business.

I'm glad I still own that Olivetti typewriter, and I'm glad my son experienced a computer-free way to express himself. But mostly I'm glad I'm not using it to write this blog.
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