5 keys to creativity from John Cleese of Monty Python fame

Ben Garfinkel – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published on November 1, 2013 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.

Last month I shared the angst I was experiencing when faced with what to talk about in this very space—a creativity block which ultimately led to my writing about where ideas come from and how to foster their arrival.

I mentioned an inspiring speech I had heard from John Cleese of Monty Python fame, and I promised to share the five components to creativity Cleese revealed in his talk.

So, here they are: space, time, time, confidence, and humour.

SPACE: this is the choice to create an oasis of quiet or chaos—depending on the mood and context. Creativity demands its own space with boundaries aside from a stoic work environment. I would argue that we as creatives don’t always do this particularly well.

My life is so busy, and I’m so frequently surrounded by people, tasks, media, etc, that I schedule alone time to just think.

I know many designers hide in cafés with their laptop working on brand identity or other collateral , but that’s not what I’m talking about. I listen to a podcast, read a book, draw in my sketch book, or just sit there quietly and let my mind wander or go quiet.

Perhaps this sounds counter-productive, but it’s probably the most creative time I have and feeds my entire day.

TIME: to benefit from creativity, one must break from the regularly scheduled program and apply structure. Give yourself a start and a finish.

Cleese says that for him, he needs a minimum of 1.5 hours to properly engage his creativity. Resist the urge to be distracted by all the “stuff” we’re inundated with, but more importantly, learn to ignore the chatter of your own brain that can pull you out of the moment.

We frequently host brand essence workshops for our clients and require all participants—often senior executives—to drop their mobile phones into a box for hours and challenge them to write down the top five things they’d be doing if they were at their desk right now. We then fold those pieces of paper, put them into the box, and give them back at the end of the day.

We need to learn let go and give ourselves permission to think in a focussed manner.

TIME: yes, MORE time, but in the sense that we need to practice patiently pondering a problem longer and tolerate the anxiety of not having a solution longer.
Again, it seems counter-intuitive in an age where everything moves so fast, and in an industry where you are often tracking your hours, but you MUST give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

I often find that the only way to crack the nut is to walk away and let the problem “percolate” in my mind until the solution comes at an unexpected time or location.

I can’t tell you how many ideas I get ideas in the shower! I keep meaning to add a waterproof white board in there.

CONFIDENCE: young creatives often feel that the way to succeed is to make quick and decisive choices and act in a bold fashion, emulating more senior and successful people in their industry. This is bullshit and frankly strangles creativity.
You must learn to be OK with going in the “wrong” direction and failing. There’s power in vulnerability.

It takes confidence to say “I don’t know.” If creativity is play, then give yourself the room to play without consequence.

While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong and any drivel may lead to the break-through. And don’t be afraid to start over—that takes confidence!

Have you ever heard of Sony’s “Zero Ten Hi” approach? They literally made the team struggling to create the first Sony Walkman start from scratch half way through the project and they successfully finished on time and under budget!

You learn from your journey and past mistakes and get more capable and confident as you go.

HUMOUR: it should be no surprise to any of you that the fastest way to get “open” and playful is with laughter. Don’t let “serious” subjects distract you from having fun with the design process.
Solemnity is different, but even that is stifling and serves pomposity. Humour is an essential part of spontaneity and play, thus creativity—share it and encourage it in others.

Giggle all you want. One of my business partners, our Design Director, is the master of the ridiculous idea that often leaves us giggling and wondering what’s wrong with him, but frequently those tangents lead us directly to the idea hidden in his madness.

I knew when I heard Cleese outline these five elements that he was on to something. When you arrange these five elements, space, time, time, confidence and humour, you will have a more creative life.
The most success I’ve had as a designer has been when I was able to harness creativity by mastering this open mindset, giving myself the space and time to ponder challenges without the distractions of life, and tackle problem solving with verve and a good laugh now and again.

One of the ways we apply this approach in my design study is something we call “20 in 20”. When we’re working on a visual solution (like a logo) and the team has hit a block or feels lacking in creativity, we get everyone together and we do rapid ideation sketches as a group.
After a quick briefing, everyone has to sketch furiously, and move on to the next idea every minute for 20 minutes. Hence the name “20 in 20”.

In the end we’re left with a big mess of often sloppy or even ridiculous doodles, but very often after we discuss the many ideas before us, connections are made and new directions and concepts are formed. The creative block is over and the team goes back to work rejuvenated and inspired.

So, why is any of this important?

Life is so distracting and cluttered, so as creative people, we must learn to ignore the perception of urgency and let our minds quieten down. I find if I do this when starting to consider a problem, allowing myself to freely start making random connections, my intuition recognizes ideas with potential value and I follow that lead. If I’ve followed these steps and put in the time, I’m always rewarded by my subconscious—often at an unexpected time and place.

How do you tackle creative problem solving when you’re drawing a blank? Add your tips and suggestions in the comments below.