by Stefan Mumaw
In the London office of ad giant Wieden + Kennedy, folks are greeted by an unusual doorman: a mannequin in a pin-stripped business suit carrying a briefcase. Two key oddities are immediately recognized within the manly figure. First, his head has been replaced by a blender. Second, his black leather briefcase is emblazoned with bright pink letters, formed into an easy-to-say-but-hard-to-do encouragement to those who call these creativity-laced hallways their home: Walk in stupid every morning.
The directive’s genesis can be found in Dan Wieden’s own philosophy about innovation and culture, “Sometimes it seems that if you’re never lost you’re never going to wind up any place new.” The phenomenon that Wieden is referencing here is what I like to call Creative Cluelessness, that endearing quality that emerges when folks undertake a creative challenge that they simply have no process to define. It’s a wonderful experience, one full of innocence and joy. But it’s also full of education, which makes it so hard to repeat.
Ad man David Gray refers to this Creative Cluelessness as “ignorance” but in the most positive way. He says, “Knowledge can stand in the way of innovation. Solved problems tend to stay solved – sometimes disastrously so.” We know creativity at its core is problem solving, so as creatives, how do we force ourselves to selectively use the education we’ve gained from past experiences in an effort to ‘walk in stupid’ on our next project?
When you’re starting a new project, take the time to write down everything you think you know about the project, the audience and the client. Do it from memory, without the help of a creative brief or client communications. Doing it from memory will force you to do what you instinctively do when you create, fill in the holes of what you know with what you feel. These information fillers often guide our creative decisions but aren’t always founded in relevance or even truth.
When you’ve documented your “Know Bucket,” go through the list and begin to question if what you thought you knew was born from fact or prejudice. By documenting what you think you know, you identify areas that may lead you to solve a problem expectedly.
There is something new about every project you undertake. You may think that it’s the same problem as you have solved previously, but a detailed inspection will always turn up something new within the problem. Document what part of this project is different than anything else you’ve encountered. If you honestly can’t find anything novel about it, create something novel. Add in something that requires you to treat it differently, as small as that may be.
Once you’ve identified a part of the project that presents something new, use that as your innovation guide. Actively seeking something novel within every project will open your eyes to what other opportunities may arise.
There’s a difference between education and understanding. To often, education prematurely leads to process, and those processes tend to be mindless actions, inserting rogue memorization for critical analysis. Instead of dropping a project into a pre-defined process, re-evaluate the process itself each time you start something new.
Say, for instance, the beginning of your process starts with research. Your process involves delving into online data, user interaction metrics and audience demographics. Is this process leading to insight or limiting you to only what the data holds? What if you altered your research phase to include one-on-one interviews with audience members, immersive trips to the client’s environment or good, old-fashioned people-watching? Its not ditching the research phase of your process, its simply re-tooling it for this project’s specific needs.
In The Pixar Story, Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton was being asked about the transition from Pixar’s first movie Toy Story, and its incredible success, to their next film, Bug’s Life. Stanton said, “You realize very quickly that you have to actually work now at making yourself as naive as you were the first time without any effort.” Creativity requires us to work to find that naivety as well. If we truly want to be creatively clueless, we have to take the time and make the effort to walk in stupid every morning.
The black briefcase with the above message being held by a mannequin in the London offices of Wieden + Kennedy forces people to leave their assumptions at the door and challenges them to take a novel approach to idea development.
1. Don’t assume what you think you know is relevant and true. Question everything.
2. Every project has something unique to it. Find that uniqueness and make it the centerpiece of how you solve the problem.
3. Question your own creative process. Is it designed to evolve with each problem or designed to make solving problems simply easier?
1. Read The Independent’s 2007 interview with Wieden + Kennedy Creative Director Dan Wieden
2. Read David Gray’s 2003 Harvard Business Review article “Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer”
3. Looking for an in-depth evaluation tool of your creative process? Check out Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative
4. Design TV: Stefan Mumaw weighs in on the creative process.