What Does It Mean To Be Creative?


Wednesday, 8.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way. – Twyla Tharp

Do you remember what it was like seeing something for the first time as a child? Perhaps it’s easier to remember seeing a child see something. There’s a sense of wonder, something fresh and exciting and living. We were like that too. At one time, we see what is there – and then as we grow up and know more we start to see what we expect to see. And that changes everything.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have time – we do everything so quickly these days and want to get everything so fast that we miss out on the value of being slow, about immersing ourselves in the experiences, the detail, the richness of reality.

Let’s take a step back. What are the mental processes that go into being creative? What can we learn from, for example, the way in which children create.

In the book, Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson [1, p154], the writers quote Johnson-Laird as suggesting that there are three things that go into being creative. You work with a set of building blocks, you work within a set of constraints or a genre and you surprise yourself, finding something novel. The last point is especially important. Creativity is NOT like pulling a rabbit out of a hat – the rabbit was in the hat all along and you knew that. It’s discovering something new that you didn’t know before and that’s where the value lies.

This idea makes a lot of sense and helps explain the way in which different disciplines work the way they do. It also explains why they find it hard to talk to each other.

In her book, Analyzing Children’s Art, Rhoda Kellogg says that she finds “a person responds to my findings according the implications they hold for his profession”. An artist is interested in her view that basic artistic talent is innate, a psychologist looks at her idea of a whole or Gestalt while a Jungian psychologist is attracted to the concept of pre-existing patterns or archetypes. We look at things for what they mean to us.

Children do that too. They make meaning through their art, engaging with the medium and material and making something happen. Splodges and shapes and lines may mean nothing to you but they tell an intricate and interwoven story to the creator.

This is what makes it hard when you look at a child’s work and ask them questions. Suddenly they stop doing what they do and have to think about your asking them about what they do. And it appears that they often answer in the way they think you want to be answered – the act of observing and questioning them doing something changes the doing and telling of what is done.

In other words the act of observing something has an effect on the observed thing – unless you are very careful. In Lynda Barry’s classes, as set out in her book Syllabus, one of the rules is that “we don’t give advice or opinions on the work of our classmates.”

What does that mean for creativity, then? Margaret Donaldson knew that “human beings, no matter what their ages, respond to the world according to how they define the situation in which they find themselves” [1. ix]. You’re in a place, a space, with conventions and rules and preferences. You have tools – the building blocks you need. And then you have to make, spend time making things and looking at them and wondering what you’ve done and making some more. Maybe breaking some of the rules, the conventions. If you have the opportunity you can go into other spaces and see how they do things there and bring that back into your own practice.

If you want to be creative you must be ready to not-know and to just do – where you are and with what you have. Just get on with it.


Karthik Suresh


  1. Grieve, R and Hughes, M. (Editors), 1990, “Understanding children: Essays in honour of Margaret Donaldson”, Blackwell.
  2. Kellog, R., 1969, “Analyzing Children’s Art”, National Press Books

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