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Clay Shirky — the writer, teacher, and consultant on all things online — recently told an audience of innovators, tech enthusiasts and creative minds what they’d least been expecting to hear. There are no rules for creativity.
The event, organised by innovation news site PSFK is designed to inspire and impart knowledge from those who’ve taken risks and succeeded, with experience and insight to share.
Shirky’s talk underlined a point that had been illustrated by those who took part in the event. The true potential success of an idea, a brand or startup is the ability to produce valuable novelty. That, he believes, is where the future lies.
Shirky used examples from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Programme (ITP) — where he teaches — to show how general creative principles that could be gleaned from out-of-the-box ideas.
The projects ranged from computer-sensitive squeezable mud to an interactive harp-like instrument that people had to climb into to play.
1. Use interestingness as a design probe
Shirky believes “you can’t fake interestingness.” Lead with it, he says, and the rest will follow. If something is interesting, it doesn’t need an explanation, in the same way that you can’t make someone have fun. People will be drawn to it naturally.
2. Take a technology in search of a product, use the tools you have and apply something new to it
Sometimes the best way to make a pizza, believes Shirky, is not to start with dough and tomatoes, but with a $20 note and a phone.
3. The space in between silly and serious is incredibly important
Take existing elements and combine them in new ways to make a combinations of systems.
Very often, Shirky maintains, combining things is making or creating too. He says an awareness of combining systems for reinvention rather than simply replacing them is key in today’s society.
Instead of reinventing an entire system, sometimes all you need is to fix the one part that houses a slew of problems. “The funny thing about institutions,” says Shirky, “is that they prefer to start doing things than stop doing things that no longer work.”
He advises getting into the habit of stopping what’s not working as being critical to moving forward. “Quite often times, it’s not filling the balloon with helium, but cutting off the sandbags, that gets you aloft”
4. Design your creative space to reward serendipity (in public)
Allow for a “freeing up of space”, says Shirky. The community at ITP expands people’s ideas of what constitutes raw materials. The physical space of the programme is a raw material — be it the walls or the floors. Students are allowed to be creative. He believes organizing work-space so that people can come up with ideas together.
5. Contradict everything put forward about creativity
Ultimately, Shirky believes the problem with the conversation around creativity is that it’s presented as a single formula that will work for anyone.