Do digital tools help or hinder our creativity?

Create‘ is 1 of 6 modes of user engagement we will explore at MEX in London on 19th – 20th March 2014. This essay starts a discussion of the theme, one which will be continued at the event by our speakers and through a series of participatory design challenges.

If the ambition of attempting to define ‘create’ was not immediately apparent, it quickly became so. The desire and ability to be creative is innate. It fills our lives and takes many forms, so many in fact that it is futile to highlight any one process – be it painting or music making or pottery – as representative of what it is to create. Instead, creativity is more reliably defined by identifying its results rather than its actions.

You know when you have created something. It is a state of mind and for most people a deeply satisfying one, regardless of whether you have used one media or several, a single process or many.

One common characteristic is that creativity almost always requires a tool to translate our ideas into whatever medium we choose. A sculptor uses chisel and hammer to give their ideas shape in stone. Even something as esoteric as a Yoik – a tradition of composing ad-hoc songs about your surroundings among the Sami people in Northern Scandinavia – employs the vocal chords to vibrate the air into sound.

The lines become blurred when you consider where ‘create‘ might overlap with ‘communicate‘ or ‘explore‘ as user modes. It becomes a question of separating purpose and result from process. A conversation, for instance, may support a creative endeavour, but is not usually a creative act in itself. The way most users think when communicating – exchanging meaning with others – is quite different to how they think when originating new ideas.

Although it may be informed or even inspired by distractions, ‘creativity’ itself is a state of my mind which favours focus. It is enhanced by immersion and freedom from distraction, giving rise to descriptions of ‘flow states’ and the notion of writers’ retreats. This concept is more important than ever when digital tools are employed, as distractions are just a swipe or a click away on the screen.

The nature of mobile devices and their history of facilitating quick snacks of digital consumption or communication has come at the expense of supporting longer, thoughtful periods of creative endeavour. There is always another information snippet or rapid fire conversation just a notification away, ready to interrupt your flow. However, the creative potential of personal digital devices grows with every new sensor added and every increase in screen real estate or input method. If only we could keep away from the tempting distractions which prevent us from realising the creative potential of our digital tools.

Each of us now carries a device capable of image, video and sound capture. In many cases equipped with dedicated processors to work with these data in intense computational ways which only a few years ago would have held supercomputer status.

The development of multi-touch interfaces capable of simultaneously tracking multiple fingertips has enabled DJs to mix music digitally in ways which go beyond what was possible with vinyl. High frame rate smartphone cameras allow us to turn back the clock and choose the exact moment someone smiled when they were posing a photograph. Optical image stabilisation allows us to capture low light photos which show even more detail than the naked eye perceives.

Impressive as the advances may be from a technology perspective, there have been few which enable entirely new forms of creativity. Indeed, there is an argument that the seductive ease of consuming information through digital devices actually outweighs their contribution to creativity to such a degree that many smartphone users end up less inspired to create and more inclined to consume.

An exploration of how digital products might be better designed as creative tools is long overdue. We should be trying to understand how advances in processing, sensing and input mechanisms can be presented in such a way as to enhance existing creative processes and facilitate entirely new creative results.

The development of this path must, by necessity, consider how digital fundamentals – such as communication and rapid access to the web – might underpin creative acts and inspire new ones.

Could those characteristics give digital creativity a unique flavour, where communication embeds a natively collaborative approach in the creative process? Could the wealth of information which flows through digital pipes surface new sources of inspiration without furthering our tendency to rely on downstream consumption?

If experience design is to play a role in engaging more people in digital creativity, perhaps design practitioners must themselves invest in understanding the creative state of mind. Giving users the opportunity of satisfying production, the closing of a loop and the sharing of something novel from their own imagination is the intangible emotion we should be striving to achieve when building tools for digital creativity.

I’d love to hear your feedback, and your own experiences of employing digital tools in creative endeavours. Join us for the event on 19th – 20th March, or post a comment to the blog below.

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