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cltux-creativity

Myjive has been inviting the Charlotte UX Meetup into our space at the NC Music Factory for over three years now and they’ve covered everything from responsive emails to UX for people with disabilities to the periodic book club. This month’s presentation was by Melinda Jackson, a UX/IA pro for Wells Fargo, and her topic was “Creativity in The Material World.” I thought it was great to see a presentation about a topic so important to all of us, yet infrequently discussed. Here’s a recap and some riffing.

Melinda began with something we’ve all heard but I’ve never quite believed, “Everyone is creative…” But she added something to it that piqued my curiosity, and that was “…more than they think.” She said that animals are resourceful and inventive under certain conditions. Ah, now that makes sense. To use myself as an example: In the condition called “morning” I am clearly not as lucid as in the one called “evening”; sometimes escaping the office helps to solve a problem; this app helps me focus when I need to write; listening to Cold War Kids gives me creative energy; and I literally think better on my feet, so I like to do presentations standing.

I could list more conditions that are favorable to my brain, but you get the idea. Knowing yourself and what works is key. Melinda urged us to introduce new and various things into our creative routine, from keeping a journal to meditating to listening to binaural beats (in addition to the more obvious such as nutrition, sleep and exercise).

What is “creativity” anyway? Melinda cited neuropsychologist Rex Jung, who has spoken at TEDx. Jung said that creativity is something both “novel and useful” with a splash of surprise. As a scientist, of course, the man is voluminous on the subject but to oversimplify, one of his main assertions is that we need to put the brakes on our super-organized frontal lobes and let our mind “meander” to make creative connections. Brains are really mapped with different types of neural activity, meaning an original thought might be the result of a sort of cocktail of influences from many regions of gray matter. (The idea of the left brain/right brain dichotomy is losing favor, apparently.)

Conscious, intentional thinking versus sub-conscious, spontaneous and emotional brain activity represent a sort of push/pull dynamic that serve creativity well. Think about how part of our creative thinking is done when processing known information (editing copy or bringing a sketch to life through computer animation or drafting a strategy) and part of it just sort of happens at random, typically when we are not in deep problem-solving mode (that famous eureka moment in the shower).

So can we condition our brains to be more creative? Yes.

Melinda suggested thinking about the creative thought process in phases: Immersion, Association, Reflection, Exposure and Challenge. You can see that her phases really do allow for that push/pull between the cortical and subcortical elements in our brains so that both can contribute: the immersion is learning; reflection is processing and perhaps evaluation; exposure and challenging are when we open ourselves up to re-interpreting our ideas through the lens of others — or through the lens of ourselves on a different day. I have always thought that a great tool for creative thinking is to set aside yesterday’s work and start with a completely blank slate. Stare at it, let your brain percolate yesterday’s learning and thoughts and creative expressions and see how your mind responds to a completely blank page. I bet a new idea emerges.

I think another push/pull relationship is between the need for momentum working through ideas and taking a break from the work (or moving on to a new task). I tossed the idea of momentum out there and got an interesting response from attendee Sean Davies, an information designer and writer. He said that he makes it a practice to not get to a stopping point, to not take himself to the end of an idea because it’s motivating to begin the next day by picking up that momentum with new energy. A nice thought worth trying. On the other hand, don’t ignore working out your ideas too long. Melinda said that a festering idea can be a source for stress and distraction. Get your thoughts on paper, share them with others, come to some resolve. Even if you make a decision to revisit at a future date, putting it on the calendar with take it off your mind.

Also, let’s not forget the value of humor and fun. Those are great ways to allow the brain to meander. At Myjive, we get pretty obsessed about solving stuff but luckily every couple hours there’s an open call for foosball. We truly can lose ourselves in the fun and competition of this game and it’s a great way to re-energize. Of course, Americans in particular wear the 60-hour work week as a sort of badge of honor and claim it’s all for productivity. But it’s well proven that working steady 40-hour weeks with regular days off for mental downtime are more productive overall. When will we catch up with the rest of the world on this? Workaholism might be seriously reducing our creative output as a country.

What are some other key reasons we don’t realize our full creative potential? One big — and ironic — one is that we are too distracted by things that are supposed to help us be productive. Another is laziness. We have so many great resources at our fingertips these days, frankly, it might be possible that the illusion of creativity is attainable faster and cheaper than is our potentially best creative thinking. Think about Pinterest. It’s a great resource for visual inspiration, but the danger is that we might find and latch onto a good-but-existing idea and forsake the possibility of an original, personal idea that may be the next great thing. The answer is moderation and balance: a bit of Pinterest, a bit of contemplation in a coffee shop, a bit of conversation with an old friend. Remember, existing material is a resource, whereas your brain is a source.

This Charlotte UX Meetup convinced me that it’s worth taking a moment and trying to figure out what makes our brains go – and what hinders it. Think about how you get information and what you do with it. Think about the systems and people around you. Think about the things that are influencing your thinking ability in a positive or negative way. One fantastic idea Melinda offered was to start a journal to make notes as you implement new techniques. Also, get feedback from others. Outside perspective is always good.

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