Spheres of Creativity, Divergence of Definitions

Some reduce creativity to competitive advantage, notes Michèle Champagne. But the tides of skills come and go, erasing business certainties and reviving old mental tools rife with new possibilities.

No doubt Richard Florida is tired of receiving letters of condolence. After all, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class has just penned a follow-up about its consequences: The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It. ‘Creativity’ is getting sympathy too, for narrowly missing its chance to become one of the essential building blocks of the economy.

At last year’s A-B-Z-TXT typographic school in Toronto, Dimitri Nieuwenhuizen, co-founder of design studios LUST and LUSTlab in The Hague, proposed an idiosyncratic list of mental tools for creativity
At last year’s A-B-Z-TXT typographic school in Toronto, Dimitri Nieuwenhuizen, co-founder of design studios LUST and LUSTlab in The Hague, proposed an idiosyncratic list of mental tools for creativity

‘Florida, I told you so’ is a well-trodden sentiment by now, but it wasn’t always that way. When the University of Toronto recruited him as Director of Cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute in 2007, there was a deafening cheer.

This list is not a set of rules, but a sphere of potential avenues for thinking and making creatively

“‘Stars aligned’ for urban guru’s move” read a Globe and Mail headline. “Celebrity recruited to Toronto” read the Toronto Star. Cherubs hailed Florida as the newborn “King of Creativity”.

For Florida and other design-thinkers in suits, ‘creativity’ is knowledge and the ‘creative class’ translates that knowledge into blistering tech booms and artscapes for post-industrial American cities.

At last year’s A-B-Z-TXT

The ‘knowledge economy’, a shift from goods to services, emerges in the 1960s and fumbles in the 1990s with the ‘new economy’ and the dot-com bust. The industrial life – the manufacturing job, suburban headquarters, and middle-class aspiration – that fuelled so much of 20th century wealth was not coming back and the creative class seemed like the ideal workaround.

The suits multiply and travel from America to Canada, The Netherlands, Turkey, and Thailand. Creativity is in the air.

A decade and a subprime crisis later, the middle-class is missing, as well as the prospects of millions of low-wage service workers and ‘entreprecariats’. The technology industry grows into every other industry, moves back into cities, and severe housing unaffordability emerges in San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, and London. What is going on?

At last year’s A-B-Z-TXT

The wealth doesn’t trickle down. It’s like Downton Abbey in reverse: instead of watching the aristocracy decline, we see an explosion of wealth for the capital-intensive and property-owning classes. Florida concedes The Rise of the Creative Class was “overly optimistic”.

Creativity may refashion itself as delusional and unequal, but it has a history as an economic engine. In the 20th century, media theorists like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan identified a new information age where ideas are as economically viable as the mining industry and its financial servicing. IBM leader Thomas Watson Jr. promoted the sphere of ‘good design as good business’ with the help of Modern designers like Charles and Ray Eames.

In the 21st century, Apple founder Steve Jobs promoted a similar sphere, as did design pundits like Rob Walker. Writing for T Magazine in 2014, Walker posited that “creativity, technology and big money” fuel today’s ‘Golden Age of Design’. He wrote: “Design, Steve Jobs told me in 2003, is ‘not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ And the business world took note of what design could do for profits.”

But while the spheres of ‘creativity-for-profit’ and the ‘creative class’ often dominate our concept of ‘creativity’, there are other spheres.

In my observation, creativity is not necessarily a matter of big business schemes or high fashion concerns, but more likely a set of open-minded values and mental tools, the kind you can’t yet licence from a cloud. At the inaugural A-B-Z-TXT typography school that I arranged in Toronto last summer, a masterclass provoked an entry into this other sphere with visual philosopher Dimitri Nieuwenhuizen, co-founder of design studios LUST and LUSTlab in The Hague*.

Up on a wall, Nieuwenhuizen projects a list of what he calls creative mental tools:











This list is not a set of rules, but a sphere of potential avenues for thinking and making creatively. The list doesn’t come out of thin air either. Rather, it is a composite of different people’s creative accounts and the aggregate is a result of Nieuwenhuizen’s collaboration with designer Marijke Cobbenhagen.

During the masterclass, Nieuwenhuizen defined Per-Serendipity as “the art of finding valuable things not sought”. But he spoke more of embracing chance, and less of business leaders’ ability to discover profit in a rock, however surprising the discovery may be.

“Finding new markets” often translates as ‘creativity and innovation’ in the for-profit sense. But that’s not what Nieuwenhuizen means. After all, finding new markets is not serendipitous if you’re always looking for new markets.

It’s the same with the endless search for new ideas or future trends. Serendipity has little to do with looking down the Pinterest hole for visual inspiration, nor does it have much to do with scanning the Venice Architecture Biennale for future colour palettes. Editors are always on the lookout for the next big thing, shuffling between exhibitions and wine bars, taking notes and mining press releases for extra padding on the flight back.

The random and accidental provide an antidote to traditional notions of artistic and scientific practices

Serendipity is finding things without being on a quest to find anything at all. The discovery is unconscious. Without direction. Without a project or a deadline. It is pure chance.

The random and accidental provide a valuable antidote to more traditional notions of artistic and scientific practices: sketching and testing, repeating and progressing, mastery and control. With Per-Serendipity, “the art of finding valuable things not sought” means letting go. It means letting things find you. You do not know where things come from. They show up like hiccups.

If Per-Serendipity couples discovery and chance, then Pro-Doubt contributes the related dimension of ambiguity. Nieuwenhuizen presented Pro-Doubt as “embracing the feeling of uncertainty”.

Pro-Doubt means more than being generally sceptical, however. It means accepting the feeling of confusion. Too often, being doubtful is used as a tool to escape uncertainty in search of an answer to a question or to extract clarity from confusion. Pro-Doubt is not an escape pod. It is a nest. To be creative, you have to get comfortable with the feeling of uncertainty. You have to hold it and cradle it.

Fucking-Poetry is “the absence of validation”. Nothing makes people more uncertain than the inability to measure things. Fucking-Poetry may seem quaint in an era of ubiquitous digital surveillance, but being creative means your decisions cannot always be proven. If you are also Pro-Doubt, you are okay with the uncertainty in a lack of proof. No problem there.

Creativity also means being Anti-Disciplinary. It means “going against the accepted wisdom of a discipline” and suggests new interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ways of working.

If governments want to promote ‘culture and creativity’ they could promote crossovers. The Dutch Stimuleringfonds (or, Creative Industries Fund) has a variety of programmes open to artists, filmmakers, designers, architects, coders, and engineers, whereas in Canada, with the Ontario Ministry for Tourism, Culture and Sport, designers and architects do not generally qualify as ‘arts professionals’. They are more likely to be excluded, limiting the potential for crossover encounters.

Dis-Medium is a related tool. It is “the fluid movement of information from one medium to the next, translating one dimension (time) into another (space)”. McLuhan may have coined ‘The Medium is the Message’ during the age of satellites and television, but Mediumlessness is happening now. The same messages flow through every medium –words, images, and sounds move through print, cable, digital, and back again – changing as every download and edit transforms their meaning and authority.

At last year’s A-B-Z-TXT

Today, ‘The Message and the Medium are the Reader Response’. Roland Barthes was onto something in 1967 when he announced The Death of the Author and it’s taken two steps forward with what journalist Jay Rosen calls “two-way-ness”, or “talking back” as a fundamental part of digital publishing.

This is the reason why A-B-Z-TXT as a typography school is hard to define. Generally speaking, it blends graphic design and media arts with a hint of linguistics. Does it know what it’s doing? Yes and no. In the end, the school is a simple experiment: an attempt to cultivate design’s creativity quotient within the arts and sciences.

The school seeks to play on a terrain that is Mediumless, without an analog or digital prejudice. It embraces the uncertainty of what design is, what a design school can do, and whether or not a university education will remain feasible for much longer. A troubling prospect when you consider the middle class is disappearing and a PhD is the new high school degree.

A-B-Z-TXT wasn’t the easiest thing to describe when it launched in 2016, and this year is no different. But no matter. It thrives on creativity and relishes the chance to remain relatively fuzzy.

For its second edition this year, A-B-Z-TXT offers a lecture and a two-day masterclass by artist Zach Lieberman from New York City. He will mix typography with computation like he has so many times before—from designing fonts with race cars to making Margaret Atwood dance via computer vision.

Joining the school for a lecture and workshop are designers Ali. S. Qadeer from Toronto and Mindy Seu who works out of Cambridge and NYC. Ali studies the history of typographic exercising and will exhume the materiality of text. Mindy will explore the poetry of interface aesthetics and early computer history.

In a co-presentation with Art Metropole, Toronto and Buffalo-based designer Chris Lee will relate typographic form to state power. Complimenting Lee, I will lecture on the radical typographic vocabulary surrounding the era of Rob Ford, Toronto’s late (and infamous) mayor. In a co-presentation with InterAccess, Toronto artist Lois Andison will comment on language as artistic medium. And, Toronto algorithm designer and artist Xavier Snelgrove will speak to the post-text elephant in the room: emoji.

Everybody feels they have their own definition of what creativity is. Among a postmodern and highly-commercialised generation used to subjective interpretations, and a commodified everything – even a branded self – the suggestion there may be a non-commercial sphere by which to understand creativity provokes eye-rolling.

Maybe this is a new millennium hesitation. Certainly, in the insecure expectations of the new century we must keep alive the ‘spheres of creativity’ that do not involve flailing business theories or limited government policy. We have to remain absorbed by ‘creativity’ as a set of open-minded values and mental tools for the ‘hypermodernity’ ahead: because that is where we will live for the rest of our lives.

Michèle Champagne is founder of Bureau Michèle Champagne, which works with foundations, publishers, and broadcasters on projects for cultural research and publication design across media. It is a co-organiser of typography school A-B-Z-TXT

*Post-script: It is with sadness that we note the passing of Dimitri Nieuwenhuizen, co-founder of LUST and LUSTlab in The Hague. He is missed but not forgotten