Creative pioneers: Can you learn to be creative?

Is creativity innate or is it a skill that can be acquired? We ask Sir John Hegarty, Caroline Pay, Jim Sutherland, Zia Zareem-Slade and Michael Johnson

CR is launching its first online training programme. Mastering Creativity will help unlock your creative potential, whether you are a professional creative, designer or commissioner of creative work. Additional expert insight for the course will be provided by our five Creative Pioneers – Sir John Hegarty, Caroline Pay, Jim Sutherland, Zia Zareem-Slade and Michael Johnson.

We’ve been mining their experience and expertise on an array of creative issues in a series of films which will be available to all those taking the course. Here, we share their thoughts on whether creativity is innate or whether it can be acquired

Sir John Hegarty, founder, BBH and The Garage, Soho

A friend said to me a very long, long time ago ‘Music is the greatest of all art forms,’ and I went, ‘Um, I’m not sure – I think life is the greatest of all art forms.’ And, therefore, I believe creativity is defined as an expression of self. Because we are all creative. That idea that some people are and some people aren’t is a nonsense. We are all creative. That is in essence what makes us who we are. And, therefore, when you are making … when you are doing work, it is actually an expression of you. Obviously, if we are all creative then, you know, you are being creative all the time. How I have got dressed this morning is a creative act. What kind of car you drive, the things you like, are all creative acts. Can you teach someone to be better at it? Of course. Yes, you can. Will they be great at it?  That’s another matter. We can all dance but I don’t think I am ever going to be at Covent Garden somehow. To me, it’s very important that people do understand this, that we are all creative. And, if you want to get better at it, you can.

Caroline Pay, Joint Chief Creative Officer, Grey London

Some people are very lucky to be born beautifully creative and they are pure artists and creative souls. But, I think my creativity comes from confidence and the more confident I feel, the more at ease I am to express my feelings and my thoughts and my ideas. I think you can teach confidence in creativity so you can work those muscles. You know, you can get those juices flowing and I feel if you make someone feel that you are looking forward to hearing what they are going to say, they will become more confident and therefore more creative.

Zia Zareem Slade, Customer Experience Director, Fortnum & Mason

I think that some people are naturally more creative than others but I do find that, actually, if people are given the space to be creative, even those who would probably deem themselves not very creative have the ability to be so. That doesn’t mean that they are going to become a great artist or an amazing graphic designer – I can’t draw for toffee. But, I do think creativity is so much richer than the physical output of something: your ability to problem-solve; to see the world through a different lens; to challenge the status quo are all kind of creative responses. So, I would say it is probably 80% innate and 20% learned but I do think space and time and encouragement to be inquisitive about the world and what goes on around us help contribute to people’s creativity.

Jim Sutherland, founder, Studio Sutherl&

I think you can learn to be creative. I think you have to have an interest in it and then if you work really hard at it, you can pick stuff up. With me, I started off being interested in art and design and things like that but I was completely useless at most things. So, therefore you learn it. And if you get really good teachers – which I had at Norwich – and you work in good places, I think it is a sort of osmosis. You just pick things up and get better. I also have quite a strong view about the more projects you do, the better you get. Every project you do, you end up being better at something by the end of it. So, yes, you can learn. But I think you need to want to learn. The desire is what is important.

I am not sure I believe in ‘here is a technique for thinking of ideas’. I think you just have to be in the right frame of mind. Playing a bit and experimenting is what leads to really interesting ideas. And, having a bit of time. Time seems to be the main issue at the moment for creativity because you need time to try stuff out, test it and look at it and reflect on it.

Michael Johnson, Founder, johnson banks

I think you can learn to become more creative. You can practice. Practice is very valuable. I think that the difference between learning to be more creative and actually having innate genius is quite an interesting difference though. Thomas Heatherwick is probably a really good example of someone who was probably a genius at 11 and clearly continued to be a genius. Now, I think, however,  most normal people, most mortals if you like, can definitely learn to be more creative and that is generally to do with practice, acquiring skills, trying again and again and again to crack something.

In my particular case, I didn’t feel that I was a particularly creative person at 21. I didn’t do particularly interesting and, or, creative degrees. So, I actually taught myself on the job really. Bought a shit load of books. Had eight jobs in eight years. At one point I even bought the entire collection of D&AD annuals because I was sponging up all the information I could possibly get. And, I worked a massive amount – I took Saturday mornings off and then I went back to work on Saturday lunchtime. So, I worked six and a half days a week throughout my 20s.

I was just determined to get better at this thing I had chosen to do – rightly or wrongly – I wanted to be better at it. So that meant a lot of practice.

You can find full details on CR’s Mastering Creativity training programme at





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