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Creativity in the Digital Era: How Technology is Accelerating Creativity.
Ask anyone in the creative industry about their experience with technology and over a few stiff drinks you’ll likely get anecdotes of unbridled positive change or alternatively, a firm belief that the two are disconnected and merely an obsession of the era that’ll come to pass. Both views and everything in between is valid but I think there is a more interconnected and adversarial story to tell and we sit in the middle. It all comes down to the choices we make and how we play our hand.
If you’ve ever read “What Technology Wants” by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, you’ll be familiar with the concept that technology is an extension of life, a selfish system with its own needs and desires. It accelerates evolution and is arguably greater than the organic. We invented tools to hunt efficiently that forced us to understand the physics of trajectory and speed. We invented the tool of language to connect to others and increase survival, farming and trade.
When nature causes us a problem, technology is the answer. When technology causes us a problem, technology is the answer.
Whether or not you share Kelly’s vision, there is one central concept that deserves appreciation – that technology does marginally more good than it does bad. We are talking tenths of percentages here but nonetheless if we add up all the types of impact, then overall it’s the bias toward the good that prevails. It’s not all rosy though and along the way, we take many regressive and reductive steps. The yin and yang nature of ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ technology is all down to the choices we make as humans. Nowhere is this battle more contentious than in the creative arena. It is not always easy to gauge if the last quarter-century of technological advances has enhanced and driven creativity forward? Maybe analogue is simply sexier than zeros and ones? Although both are technology.
Weighing up the pros and cons is no easy task. Even if you choose a single discipline, channel vertical or toolset you’ll quickly find it’s a mixed bag. Similar to Top Trumps, we often dwell on one or two killer stats of creative technology and ignore the weaknesses. Remember, you only need to deploy the right choices at the right moment to gain a positive advantage. Regardless of which slice of the industry you work in, you find that generating ideas, researching to bring depth, and executing well in the right format are still the mainstays of your process. Identifying technology shortcomings or negative choices in these areas alone, and perhaps avoiding them, could transform our outputs as individuals, teams, businesses and brands.
Let’s take the most basic technology as a start point. The humble pen or pencil. Has there ever been a purer transmission tool for downloading and documenting what’s in your mind? The short answer is NO and thankfully the world’s largest tech companies are in total agreement. You don’t need to spend much time drawing on an iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface Hub 2 to take comfort from the power of mark-making and its role for generations to come. Yet if you scan your eyes around the work environment, sit in a few meetings or team sessions and really sense check how thoughts are being transferred, you’ll notice more laptops than pens. We have so many creative tools at our disposal so why tuck a ‘swiss army’ portable PC under your arm? Whether or not it’s for expedience or FOMO on crucial minutes in the hour, people are often selecting the wrong technologies without even realising.
Spider diagrams and mind maps beat spreadsheets hands down for capturing connected ideas. A sharpie ‘scamp’ beats photoshop for visualising a concept at speed. Post-it notes beat Jira Gantt charts for capturing agile process development. Resist the obvious.
I believe we know in our hearts that we are cutting creative corners but even the intoxicating whiff of magic markers and the eternally useful Boston matrix on the whiteboard in the boardroom is not powerful enough imagery to tempt us away from our beloved machines. Every time we jump on the Mac too soon some creative magic evaporates. An idea is lost, a voice isn’t heard, a challenge is ignored.
So, what about other areas of the creative process? When it comes to researching aspects of the brief to flesh out and colour in your new idea or approach, technology obviously has it nailed.
Back when I was studying, the discipline of hours in the library and visiting galleries to discover your influences was not something I relished. I needed immediacy, so walking the streets and consuming popular culture was more powerful for me. The internet was invented for lazy brains like mine. As online search grows more powerful by the minute and a plethora of niche interest sites and curated social platforms gain traction, you can cover ground fast when building mood boards and brand stories or bodies of creative inspiration. As ever its less about where you got it but more about how you collate it. The power of this kind of activity is in capturing, storing and indexing to future proof your hard-gathered resource. Get it wrong though, by using a spreadsheet to capture a list of links without tagging, or drag image files into a cloud drive without strategic naming conventions and you haven’t maximised the technological advantage at all. How are you going to mine that rich data you’ve hunted and gathered? Ignoring search functionality is to ignore voice and any form of future automation. You’ve flipped good technology to bad in the blink of an eye. You’ll have to start your research again every time.
Creative execution is an equally hazardous terrain too. Which tools should you use in a world where constant updates mean the industry leader can change weekly? Your ability to create the most exciting and impactful work can easily be hampered by making the wrong technology choice and when that happens you go backwards. Your competitors may have chosen correctly and like a board game, they move further ahead toward their award-winning aspirations.
The format, channel, platform or system that you’re executing on is just as important in displaying your creativity to the max but you may have less flexibility here if it’s dictated in the brief. If so then pray it has been decided by strong customer insight and not informed by a committee studying a Gartner magic quadrant you’ve never heard of.
So, I guess my point is that even if you share Kevin Kelly’s perspective - that technology has given us up to 51% positive progress in our chosen field, you also have to accept the 49% where we are definitely going backwards. This creates a high-risk scenario where close to half of our technology options might have a negative impact on the task at hand.
Technology is never to blame. It's us. Show a lack of creativity in choosing the right technology and the technology will reward you with a lack of creativity. Choose wisely.