Ken Robinson & John Maeda: Creativity for Breakfast

Sir Ken Robinson does most of the talking, over breakfast here, on the sketchy matter of “creativity” and the teaching of it. John Maeda, in the gossamer blazer and scarf, is the work in progress.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with John Maeda and Sir Ken Robinson. (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Both men are titans of the TED conference style of presenting “ideas worth spreading” to the Web. John Maeda emerged at TED two winters ago talking about The Laws of Simplicity, while inside he was reeling toward his own future, head still spinning from Ken Robinson’s TED talk a year earlier on education as a standardized way of crushing invention. Maeda, a star at MIT’s Media Lab, still in his thirties, heard a call from the heavens to “change my life.” And so he did, moving from MIT and the engineering of technology to the presidency of the Rhode Island School of Design and the teaching of art and innovation. After a RISD year that he’s been blogging at every turn, Maeda’s invitation to Robinson to give the commencement address felt like a personal thank-you and maybe an appeal for confirmation. Early on RISD’s graduation day, we had a three-way gab at the Hope Club in Providence about expressiveness and originality, in art and life, across the board.

Well, I think it’s helpful to start with a definition. And John’s right, there are all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process, people think it’s just sitting around waiting for inspiration to hit you, it’s about special gifts, it’s about luck, some people have it, some people don’t. It’s unfairly distributed. And I think all this is nonsense.

Firstly: everybody has tremendous natural creative capacities, everybody. It’s an endowment of being a human being that you’re born with. The truth is that some people discover their real creative possibilities and others don’t, and that’s partly because of how we educate people.

The second big misconception is that it’s about special things, that there are only certain activities which are inherently creative. And that is equally mythical. You can be creative with anything, absolutely anything that involves your intelligence. I put together a large scale strategy for the British government about ten years ago and I know that the government thought, when they asked me to do this, that I was going to get a commission together exclusively of artists. Well, you know the arts can be tremendously creative, but so can science and so can mathematics, and so can business and so can broadcasting and so can anything. So one of my campaigning issues for a long time was being able to get creativity out of the ghetto and to get the arts integrated with a bigger argument.

And the third misconception is there’s not much you can do about it, creatively enough, and that’s the end of it and good luck with it. And what RISD testifies to, and all great institutions like this, is that you can create conditions onto which capabilities will grow and flourish. That you can teach some of the essential processes of creative achievement that it takes application and work and control of the mathematics and discipline. So my definition – I remember some politicians in Britain saying the problem is “you can’t define creativity” and, I said “No, I think the problem is you can’t define it. So let me define it for you.”

So my definition is: it’s the process of having original ideas that have value and, all three bits of that to me are important. Firstly, it’s a process, it’s not an event, I mean it occasionally happens that some idea hits you fully-formed and that’s the end of it. But much more often an idea may stare itself in your mind and it’s the beginning of something, not the end of it, you then have to work on it, and evolve it. And often doing that is a very material business – you’re working with physical materials, it could be steel or clay or it could be words or numbers. It could be a conceptual process. It always is to some degree a conceptual process, but it’s a process.

It’s very rarely the case, I think, that what comes out of the far end is what you began with. I remember someone saying that art is a surprise, not a prediction. And, it’s part because of the way this process evolves. But it’s as true of science as it would be of the visual arts or music or theater.

The second thing is it’s about originality, it’s thinking new thoughts and trying to make something fresh and original. And that’s a real job of work for all the reasons we’re saying: because our minds quickly become kind-of enthralled in assumptions that we don’t question anymore.

And the third thing is it’s about critical judgment, it’s about value. And I think this is a really important part of the conversation, because not any original idea is any good. Some original ideas are actually not even worth pursuing, they’re original but they’re kind of worthless. But then often mature works are produced and the culture as a whole thinks this is a waste of time. And that’s because there’s a difference of value being applied to it. And my point is just to say that every creative process isn’t just about thinking fresh things, it’s acting critically on the ideas, it’s a kind-of reciprocal process of hypothesizing and critique.

Sir Ken Robinson in conversation with John Maeda and Chris Lydon, in Providence, R.I., May 29, 2009.

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