Creativity can never be adequately explained as problem solving. Designers know that ideas are seldom formed in sequences of converging chess-like moves. Instead, they tend to emerge passively from circumstances — natural or artificial — as if from a clearing mist. In fact, experienced designers would deliberately liven (read: mess up) their surroundings with contrasting, contradicting and disjointed objects to induce new and surprising possibilities. This may explain why many designers (in addition to being chronically messy) are avid collectors of all sorts of things. They would typically arrange their collection in ways that defy rationale and conventions.
Manipulating one’s conceptual environment at will is one thing, but having it change by external circumstances is something else. For decades, we religiously pursued the North-South facing orientation as the unquestioned solution to minimise the solar impact of the hot tropical sun on our building facades (because the daily path of the sun is East-West). However, with the increasing pressure today to switch to renewable energy sources, the preferred orientation to catch the sun for solar energy is the opposite, ie East-West. All of a sudden, North-South is now ‘wrong’.
Value propositions are being switched around. It was not so long ago that one gets its free digital download for purchasing a music CD. Today one gets a free CD or DVD for purchasing music online. Even the idea of paying for music may soon be obsolete. The born-digital generation do not expect to pay for using Google, MSM, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Wikipedia, etc. Everything digital may eventually be free to end-users [See Chris Anderson, Free: the Future of a Radical Price. New York: Hyperion, 2009].
What is perhaps of greater concern to changing circumstances, are “categorical errors” committed by those who are deemed less intelligent for failing to correctly label or name things. Ambitious parents and teachers drill children with flash cards to improve their chances of getting them right in a snap. But creativity, by definition, pushes and breaks established boundaries. All creative move, therefore, involves categorical errors. (Of course, the converse of all categorical errors being creative is simply not guaranteed; the same goes for rebellious acts being creative.)
So why do we still go on as if the world around us is fixed and permanent? Why do we consider it abnormal or unacceptable when change occurs? How do we inculcate a creative culture that manages change and accepts errors? It is by first understanding that the irremovable conceptual filters of our mind are culturally motivated — we see things not as they are, but as they seem to make sense to us. When we can “see as”, the rest is history.
* published in William S.W. Lim (ed) 2009. Collection of Essays on Asian Design Culture. Singapore: AA Asia.