An exercise mentioned early in Tina Seelig’s book, Creativity Rules, is to stare at a painting for much longer than might feel comfortable.
The object is to go beyond glancing and looking, to a deeper level of seeing.
I chose a work called Bar And Grill, 1941 by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. I stopped after 10 minutes, which is not that long, but long enough to understand more about the painting.
Bar And Grill, 1941 was inspired by the artist’s first visit to the socially and racially segregated Deep South in the United States. Unsurprisingly, it depicts a barroom. Two groups of drinkers are divided by a partition wall. On one side the drinkers are white. On the other, black. Both are restricted to a clearly delimited space, both in the bar and in the composition of the painting.
But it took me the full 10 minutes to spot what should have been immediately obvious: On the white side of the bar is a large ceiling fan, stirring the muggy sub-tropical air. The black customers are afforded no such luxury.
This single detail gave meaning to the painting that might have escaped me entirely if I hadn’t looked long enough.
It’s uncomfortable to think because I’m white I might be culturally primed not to notice the ceiling fan, but my experience with this painting forces me to at least consider the possibility. For that alone it was a worthwhile exercise.
I initially assumed (again revealing my inherent biases) that this book was about creativity in an artistic sense.
While Seelig doesn’t entirely ignore art, hers is above all a book about using creativity in business. An alternate subtitle might be “Get Ideas Out Of Your Head And Into Your Bank Account”. Or someone else’s bank account.
Of course, there is no reason why artists, of any ilk, shouldn’t make money, and plenty of good reasons why they should, but this book might be of more interest to marketing specialists, or those involved in the fields of research and development, or industrial design.
Creativity Rules is divided into four sections, dealing with “Imagination”, “Creativity”, “Innovation”, and “Entrepre-neurship” respectively.
Each of these four sections is further divided in two, with headings like “Engage”, “Envision”, “Motivate”, “Reframe”, and “Inspire”, to name but a few.
At times the writing is a little text-bookish, the drawings and diagrams and exercises at the end of each section reinforcing this impression.
But it also veers in the opposite direction, using the vague phrasing familiar to readers of self-help books, with choice phrases like: “Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations.”
Or near meaningless platitudes such as: “If your objective is to achieve something of merit, you need to begin with a clear vision of your goal.”
Or the equally insightful: “Internal motivation comes from your personal drive to accomplish a goal….”
With such flocculent prose it shouldn’t surprise the reader that Seelig is based in California. Stanford University to be precise.
The one section that cheered me is where she takes a pot-shot at the Danish company Lego.
She takes them to task for selling out and taking a product that was “designed for open-ended imagination” and changing tack to start “selling more kits designed to build specific structures”.
She also rightly points out that “the company clearly differentiated those that were geared towards boys versus girls”.
Another of the more interesting sections describes an exercise given to two sets of children.
Both are given a page with a triangle drawn on it. One group are instructed to complete the drawing the “right” way. The other group is simply asked to “complete the painting”.
The first group all drew squares under the triangles and filled in windows and doors to create near uniform pictures of houses.
The members of the second group let their imaginations run free, producing radically different paintings, and not a house in sight.
The point Seelig makes is that how we frame the way we ask (or are asked) for things to be done can have a huge impact on the eventual outcome.
At times there is an uncomfortably American-centric rhetoric: “… her immigrant parents instilled in their children the responsibilities of citizenship and love of country at an early age.”
Or the cringe-worthy section describing 20-year-old American students travelling outside the United States to create ventures “designed to meet the needs of the local community”.
When reading this part it was hard not to hear the flap and flutter of the Stars and Stripes, while picturing these young evangelicals enthusiastically saving non-Americans from themselves.
Any reader interested in creativity could live a perfectly happy and meaningful life without ever approaching this book, but the writer is an international bestselling author and her creativity course at Stanford is touted as “wildly popular”. Personally, I got more out of staring at Bar And Grill, 1941 for 10 minutes. For that alone it was worth the read.
Creativity Rules: Get Ideas Out Of Your Head And Into The World
Author: Tina Seelig
Publisher: HarperOne, business self-help