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Computer, Isolate Section 9-Gamma And Enlarge

I first noticed it in Ryan Estrada’s twitterfeed, taking time out from his honeymoon to point out a photo of the Obamas with a copy of Kean Soo’s Jellaby. Subsequent consensus is that the photo is from 2008, and it looks as if the First Lady is holding the book for one of her daughters, but honestly none of that matters. What matters is that the Obama girls have excellent taste in reading material.

As long as I’m noticing things via other people, here’s a thinky essay on creativity by Linds Redding (with whom I was not previously familiar), pointed out by Colleen Doran (who really is frigteningly clever and you should pay attention when she’s got something to say; cf: all about bad publishers). Redding talks about his time in the advertising game, and an exercise in creativity that required brainstorming and then walking away from ideas overnight:

This human powered bullshit filter was a handy and powerful tool. Inexpensive, and practically foolproof. Not much slipped through the net. I’m quite sure architects, musicians, mathematicians and cake decorators all have an equivalent time-honed protocol.

But here’s the thing.

The Overnight Test only works if you can afford to wait overnight. To sleep on it. Time moved on, and during the nineties technology overran, and transformed the creative industry like it did most others. With the new digital tools at our disposal we could romp over the creative landscape at full tilt. Have an idea, execute it and deliver it in a matter of a few short hours.

Or as the bean counters upstairs quickly realized, we could just do three times as many jobs in the same amount of time, and make them three times as much money. For the same reason that Jumbo Jets don’t have the grand pianos and palm-court cocktail bars we were originally promised in the brochures, the accountants naturally won the day.

Pretty soon, The Overnight Test became the Over Lunch Test. Then before we knew it, we were eating Pot-Noodles at our desks, and taking it in turns to go home and see our kids before they went to bed.

The other consequence, with the benefit of hindsight, is that we became more conservative. Less likely to take creative risks and rely on the tried and trusted. The familiar is always going to research better than the truly novel. An research was the new god. The trick to being truly creative, I’ve always maintained, is to be completely unselfconscious. To resist the urge to self-censor. To not-give-a-shit what anybody thinks. That’s why children are so good at it.

There’s more history, some analysis, and then Redding gets to what I think is the key thesis:

This hybridisation of the arts and business is nothing new of course – it’s been going on for centuries – but they have always been uncomfortable bed-fellows. But even artists have to eat, and the fuel of commerce and industry is innovation and novelty. Hey! Let’s trade. “Will work for food!” as the street-beggars sign says.

This Faustian pact has been the undoing of many great artists, many more journeymen and more than a few of my good friends. Add to this volatile mixture the powerful accelerant of emerging digital technology and all hell breaks loose. What I have witnessed happening in the last twenty years is the aesthetic equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The wholesale industrialization and mechanistation of the creative process. Our ad agencies, design groups, film and music studios have gone from being cottage industries and guilds of craftsmen and women, essentially unchanged from the middle-ages, to dark sattanic mills of mass production. Ideas themselves have become just another disposable commodity to be supplied to order by the lowest bidder. As soon as they figure out a way of outsourcing thinking to China they won’t think twice. Believe me.

Redding is more mourning what’s been lost than looking for where to go next, but I think there’s a decent prescription to be derived from what he’s had to say, in several parts:

  1. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Give them away. Repurpose that tweet into a comic. Don’t be afraid to burn more gags than you could use in a week. Hell, use ’em all in one strip, your brain will bake more cookies.
  2. That old, pre-industrial model? It’s nice work if you can get it, but you’ll have to work far harder than you ever would working for The Man, more than likely. Seriously, the word “easy” should be banished from your vocabulary, because your chances of achieving real satisfaction and comfortable circumstances are just as slim on your own as they are hitting the jackpot working for somebody else. It’s going to be tough either way, but if you’re going to have to work that hard, it may as well be for you.
  3. Remember that the easiest way for somebody to take advantage of you is with your active cooperation; failing to educate yourself (or letting others convince you it’s not important) counts as active cooperation, by the way. Figure out what you don’t know and find a way to learn it, or hire somebody to work for you to do those things.
  4. Don’t trust anybody that says they have a recipe for your success, even me¹; take all advice with many grains of salt, decide carefully what works for you, and never stop re-evaluating your plan.

Okay, that’s enough for you to think of over the weekend. See everybody on Monday.

¹ Especially me.

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