Creativity ≠ Design

Creativity is the “ability to modify self-imposed constraints” to “produce ideas to open-ended problems that are both novel and useful.” (Puccio, 2007)

Me: My Creativity + Science course is going really well.
Colleague: That’s great; so, you are teaching them design, right?
Me: No, the class is about creative thinking, not about design at all.
Colleague: Ah… but…are these different things?

The fact that this conversation happens too often indicates the big misunderstanding that still remains about what creativity is and why it is so important. While creativity and design have some points in common, creativity and design are two different activities. These are also two distinct fields of study with their own body of literature. Let’s dive into creativity to better understand what it means.

What is creativity?

Creativity is typically only associated with artistic activities, like design, art, dance, music, and even writing. However, creativity it is much broader than that. Creativity is defined by the Parnes, Noller and Biondi, initially, and more recently by Runco, Sternberg, and Puccio as the ability to generate ideas to open-ended problems that are both original and relevant, but these ideas don’t necessarily have to be artistic. There is a need for creative ideas in every domain and areas of the world. This is one of the first learnings from the Creativity + Science class: early career scientists can be creative even when they don’t know how to draw or do things with their hands.

Every person has the ability to be creative and to generate ideas: “we all, as human, possess the ability to think in imaginative ways” … however, “we don’t do it at the same degree.” (Puccio, 2007) As we grow older, we start consciously or unconsciously labelling our ideas even before we share them with others, self-imposing constraints, making it harder and harder to generate a large number of different, original and relevant ideas. In other words, the biggest barrier to conquer in creativity is our internal mental blocks. To generate creative ideas we need to be able to modify our self-imposed constraints and challenge reality as we know it.

There are also external barriers to work around. Social constructs and education systems do a great job stating what is “right” and “expected”, and what is “wrong” and “considered silly”. After certain age, playing or daydreaming are labeled as a waste of time or something that only children should do. The pressure to only generate practical ideas builds, making creative thinking more difficult. By the time we start college, many of us have already developed multiple mental blocks that hinder our innate ability to be creative.

Why everyone should practice creative thinking

Those of us who have followed a more creative career, like design or art, tend to be more aware of our mental blocks and have developed ways to generate creative ideas than those working in science, government or finance. But this doesn’t mean that scientists or lawyers or accountants cannot reconnect with their creative selves if they want it to.

One of the biggest rewards of my cross-disciplinary collaboration with the School of Natural & Exact Sciences, University of Mar del Plata (Argentina) is witnessing students’ growth from feeling embarrassed to sharing a crazy idea to giving themselves permission to challenge scientific discoveries, like the negative impact of plastic. Students end the course feeling happier and empowered. Many of them decide to approach their PhD research from new perspectives, change their thesis objectives and spread the “power” of creative thinking to others by organizing seminars and workshops.

In a world in constant change, it has become imperative that we are prepared to act to unexpected situations, and approach problems from novel perspectives. The need to nurture people’s creative capability to its full potential is more critical than ever as scale and complexity will only grow over time. More cross-disciplinary research to examine all dimensions of creativity is urgent to better understand its many unknowns and better equipped society. This is why, I have made my goal to spread the value of creativity to all parts of society, and the focus of my research.

Workshop delivered to members of the Air Force War College in 2007 in Montgomery, Alabama by Gerard Puccio, Ph.D., Department Chair and Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State.

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