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Leave the Creativity up to Freud, While You Do Something Else

Freek Janssen
Published on March 24, 2016
By Freek Janssen

Maybe this sounds familiar. You’re in a meeting room with a bunch of people. Someone starts with a briefing of the creative concept that the group has to come up with today. Then, the participants all start voicing their thoughts, commenting on each others ideas. In the end, they reach a consensus. Traditional group brainstorms almost always follow that process.

The problem is: creativity is not about reaching a consensus. It is about generating a new idea. An idea that no one in the room opposes to is not necessarily the best concept, is it?

An idea that no one in the brainstorm opposes to is not necessarily the best concept, is it?

The bigger problem: generating good ideas is at the very heart of what a creative agency does.

Consensus and negotiation work perfectly well in politics, but not in a creative industry. There is a lot that we can learn from artists, whose raison d’être is creativity. Did Salvador Dali ever organize a group brainstorm? Would Michelangelo settle for the idea that all of his apprentices could support?

Of course not.

In order to think, work and create like an artist, it is important to learn from artists. That is one of the reasons why LEWIS launched the
Kupambana Foundation; to connect the creative arts with communications. As a part of this initiative, Chelsea College of Art & Design PhD student Josh Y’Barbo works with LEWIS teams from all over the world in art projects. Like recently, in the Dutch office, where he demonstrated that there are much more effective ways to come up with a creative idea than on the spot, in a brainstorm session.

Think, work and create like an artist

It’s called ‘unconscious synthesis’. In other words: first identify what you want to accomplish, then gather research information, combine that input in different ways and finally let your unconsciousness do the rest. While you do something else. It builds on the concept of Sigmund Freud, who first developed the idea that our unconscious mind acts separately from our consciousness: the latter can be controlled and used to think and make decisions, while the underlying unconscious layer has a life on its own and processes all the impulses that we gather throughout the day.

Sigmund FreudSigmund Freud 

Josh Y’Barbo: “This idea stems from 1965, from the book A Technique For Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. It says that an idea is always a new combination of old ideas. Take David Bowie, for example: many celebrate the innovativeness of his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, while this was basically a combination of fifties rock with sixties psychedelic music.”

James Webb Young
James Webb Young

Webb Young was an advertising executive and identified a three stages method of generating an idea.

  1. Identify the problem you want to address, collect information and inspiration that might help to solve this problem. Draw from your general interest to collect materials.
  2. Catalogue the information, combine the pieces that you have gathered during the research and try different combinations.
  3. Once you have done so much homework that you feel you can’t to anything anymore, that’s when it’s time to leave it alone for a while. Go and do something else to take your mind off the assignment: like running, going to a concert or work in the garden. This is the stage called synthetic consciousness: it is the part where your head starts processing all the information. By doing something else, ideas start bubbling up from your unconsciousness.

Compare that to the on-the-spot approach of collective brainstorming; by asking participants to generate ideas right after they have been presented with the briefing, there is no time to collect thoughts, let alone process the information.

By asking participants in a brainstorm to generate ideas on the spot, there is no time to collect thoughts, let alone process the information

Josh Y’Barbo: “It is an individual way of working. That doesn’t mean that you can’t work in groups, but everyone has different styles and different ideas; you should be allowed to work on them individually and then present them to the group in a later stage.”

Is that how artists work? “Well, different tactics apply to different people. I think most artists are not even aware of their creative process. It always seems to come from the intuitive part of our brain. Some might identify steps while others feel that it’s just inspiration coming from above. I like the idea of a process, because even if you don’t feel very inspired, this technique still allows you to work on a concept and generate ideas at a later point.”

There is at least one famous creative character who relied on subconscious synthesis, though: “In the middle of a case, Sherlock Holmes would always go to a concert or read poetry. That is when he had his epiphanies, because he could let his head do all the hard work.”

  Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes
So, what’s the lesson? Are group brainstorms evil? Not at all, but you do have to give the people in it the chance to gather information and the time to process it. If you do force people to be creative on the spot, it’s like telling a painter to go create a work – you might end up with a white canvas. 

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