02 December 2006

Practical Creativity

"I don't remember being forced to accept compromises, but I've willingly accepted constraints." - Charles Eames

I've been fascinated by the work of Charles and Ray Eames for a very long time.
Partially, of course, this is the result of the quality of the work. But (for me) there is also a sense of astonishment when it comes to the success rate (seemingly 100%) the clients they worked with and the incredible range of world class work.
When you think about it - successfully executing on work ranging from furniture to film to product to photography and on and on... for clients from IBM to the US Military to Herman Miller and on and on... and seeing such incredible success across all... it's a service firm's dream.
And none of us really believe it can be done.

So, long preamble out of the way, as I said I've been fascinated by the work - and by the people - and perhaps most of all by the philosophy/approach/methodology.

In looking at what I've learned it seems to me that there are a bunch of elements that contribute to the success. Talent (and concentration of talent), of course, is a large part of the equation. But there are some other things we can learn from.

First of all, there is not only the acceptance of limitations but the celebration of it.

"Design depends largely on constraints. The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem - the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible - his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints - the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list." - Charles Eames

Many of us in services seem to believe that constraints are a problem - that the quality of our work would improve if constraints were removed. The end result of this pervasive attitude is unsuccessful work. Success, after all, is always defined within the structure of the limitations and requirements of the project. Design without constraints is not design - it is art.

When I say that - people's reactions can be a pretty good litmus test for their suitability for this business. If the response is, "exactly - we need fewer constraints" then they are an artist, not a designer, and they are not suitable for this field of work. If they say, "exactly - the key is understanding the constraints" then they could be a great contributor. If they say, "actually, even art has constraints and is constrained by reality - it's really about understanding goals and limitations" then they might have Talent.

At a process level, what does this mean?

Well... usually a services firm starts by brainstorming. We often do so in a total (blue sky) vacuum. We seem to think that applying constraints at this point will limit our creativity. We then "test" our resulting ideas against the reality of the project. The trouble is that we often end up shoe-horning not so good ideas into reality. In some cases, we end up with no good solutions and have to choose the least bad one. And there are few situations where we really end up with an optimal solution. Finally, this process reinforces the idea that constraints are destructive to creativity - which is far from the truth (constraints, in fact, should enable creativity for true Talent).

Instead, we should start by clearly defining all the goals, needs, constraints, limitations and requirements that the solution needs to address. We define the structure that the solution must exist within. Then we brainstorm solutions within that structure.

That is the right way.

Once we have the optimal solution - we need to define how we are going to make it work within this structure.

"Innovate as a last resort." - Charles Eames

Far too often we see innovation as a goal - as a positive. The more "innovative" the work the better it is. Looking at what the Eames studio was able to do and the way they worked, it is clear that their focus on taking the easier way - applying proven and learned methods to a new problem - contributed significantly to their success rate.

In some ways this is an extension of celebrating constraints. But it's another step further for us - in this industry. While there are firms that focus on working within constraints - there are few that don't try (ceaselessly) to innovate.

Innovation is not a work product. We are not paid to innovate. We are paid to produce successful solutions for our clients. This is something we need to keep in mind at all times. Innovation is inherently risky - and for our clients, risk is equal to decreased odds of success.

Now... if there is no proven solution, then we are forced to innovate. But we need to be honest about our solutions, view this as a constraint, and attempt to create solutions that do not require innovation. Follow the model of the Eames and apply models and methods from other medium or other projects.

Finally -- one thing that truly amazes me about Charles Eames is his obsession with understanding the way products are manufactured (at a deep level) and keeping the needs and requirements of manufacturing in mind throughout the entire creative process.

This, in particular, is an area where firms in the interactive space fall down. We often approach our work as a "production line" in essence. Solutions are taken through concept and handed off. They're executed in prototype and handed off. They're produced and deployed and handed off. There is little if any understanding extending beyond the one area of focus (or perhaps a tiny overlap with the bordering areas of focus. There is little if any curiosity in fact. We simply have to change this.

If we can do this.
If we can learn from the success of folks like Charles Eames and pursue practical creativity - we can deliver successful products to our clients.
And who among us would not want to become a legend like Eames?


At 11:12 AM, Blogger graham said...

A wonderful post - I only wish I'd read it when it first came out.

I am in total agreement that constraints need to welcomed as a stimulus when it comes to design.

I would go further though. Even in the very greatest Art, constraints abound. Michelangelo was constrained by the architecture of the Sistine Chapel. Denied a 'clean canvas' on the ceiling, he instead made the archtectural details a key feature of his masterpiece - and, in fact, extended them through his painting.

A great solution, whether you call it art, design, or whatever, is the product of objectives, constraints and talent. Subtract any of these and it's little surprise if you end yup with the same old production-line fare.


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