“Peggy, just think about it deeply. Then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.” – Don Draper
There is no formula for creativity. In fact, those times when the job requires a particularly inspired idea are fairly terrifying, because who knows if it will come? You just hope that it does come, before your deadline, preferably, and that you have a pen or a MacBook Pro handy when it does.
Of course, we know there are things one can do to spirit the muse along. Jonah Lehrer seems to have narrowed the process down to a few steps. He doesn’t offer a magic elixir. It will still require some legwork on your part. But what he describes in his recently released book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2012), is as close a proximation of an “idea formula” as I’ve come across.
But first let’s talk about sandpaper. Sandpaper figures prominently into the story Lehrer tells. It begins in 1925 with Dick Drew, a sandpaper salesman working for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. On sales calls, Drew regularly saw auto body workers struggling with two-tone paint jobs. They would paint the car one color, then glue pieces of paper over that coat to form a stencil that allowed them to paint a shape – like a racing stripe – with a second color. But the glue was so strong that it would damage the first coat. Drew thought he had a solution. The sandpaper he sold was sheets of sturdy paper coated on one side with an adhesive and then an abrasive substance. If he just removed the abrasive, he’d be able to offer the auto workers ready-made adhesive sheets that would solve their painting problem and make their work easier.
But for a good while he failed. He couldn’t figure out a way to store and distribute the sheets of sticky paper. They’d stick together and become unmanageable. He obsessed about it, staying late at work testing out different formulas. He just did not have the solution. Then a second later, he did. Drew’s insight came out of nowhere: the adhesive could be applied to a thin strip of paper that would then be rolled up, allowing the auto body workers to tear off pieces as needed. He called it masking tape. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company did very well with it.
Fast-forward about 50 years. Another engineer at the company – now called 3M – was attending a Tech Forum, an annual event designed to foster sharing of knowledge among employees. Arthur Fry, who worked in the company’s paper-products division, was attending a presentation by Spencer Silver, an adhesives engineer who had developed a glue that was so weak it could barely hold two pieces of paper together. Silver was hoping one of the engineers in attendance could imagine a use for it. None of them could, Fry included. Most dismissed it – a glue that isn’t very sticky – as a useless product.
Later that week, Fry was preparing for his weekly church choir duties, putting little strips of paper in his hymnal to mark the songs he’d be singing. As routinely happened, at some point between when he marked the pages and when he arrived at church for Sunday service, the little strips of paper fell out of the hymnal, causing him to have to search frantically for the right pages during the service. Fry daydreamed during that day’s sermon, as it was a particularly boring one. His mind floated to bookmarks, and it hit him. Would an application of Silver’s glue make for the perfect bookmark? One that would never fall out but could be easily removed without damaging pages?
After several months of trial and error, Fry had a prototype. He produced a small number of his perfect bookmarks and handed them out. People liked them enough, but they never asked him for another. They would simply transfer the first one from their current book to the next. It didn’t seem commercially viable to produce an inexpensive thing that people would never replace.
But soon enough Fry would have another idea. He was reading a report at work and had a question about a specific paragraph. Instead of writing directly on the page of the report, he wrote on a small square of his bookmark material and stuck it beside the appropriate paragraph. Fry sent the report to his boss, who caught on, cutting a square from his own bookmark and responding to Fry’s question in kind. A discovery had been made. Fry distributed squares of the material around the 3M offices and encouraged his colleagues to write on them. Before long, the walls at 3M were papered with what would later be named Post-It notes.
Three steps to creative success!
At the heart of the 3M story is a formula for creative success that can be applied neatly to our industry. I should note that Lehrer’s book covers a variety of subjects – the 3M story is one chapter – and is worth reading in its entirety.
(I should further note that Lehrer doesn’t present his information as a formula or espouse a step-by-step process. I’ve constructed this gaudy “3 Steps to Creative Success!” thing because I’m a shameless huckster.)
Step 1: Immerse Yourself
This one is a no-brainer. You can’t have meaningful insight without being thoroughly educated on your subject matter. Drew likely would not have had his masking tape breakthrough had he not immersed himself so deeply in researching and thinking about the problem and the solution.
The lesson for advertising is the same. Know everything there is to know about the product or service you’re marketing. Dive into the research. Get to know your target consumer, what they want and the way they think.
Step 2: Collaborate
I agree in spirit with F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.” But F. Scott didn’t work in advertising. Anyone who has participated in a group concepting session knows the value of collaboration with colleagues. New concepts are born as people bounce ideas off one another, and each participant imbues the process with his or her own experience, knowledge and sensibility. And we know that if Silver’s weak glue hadn’t found its way to Fry’s paper, I wouldn’t be staring at a wall full of sticky notes right now.
Step 3: Take a Walk
After the research and study and conferring and focused concentration, the insight you hope for may still elude you if you don’t step away and, for crying out loud, relax. There’s a reason, Lehrer says, why Fry had his insight during a particularly boring church sermon, and it wasn’t divine intervention. Lehrer cites research conducted by Joydeep Bhattacharya, a Goldsmiths, University of London psychologist, who demonstrated a correlation between moments of insight and heightened alpha wave activity in the brain’s right hemisphere. And that kind of alpha wave activity only occurs when the mind is in a relaxed state.
Lehrer writes: “Are you stuck on a challenge that seems impossible? Lie down on a couch by a sunny window. Daydream. Play a game of pinball.”
Daydream. But not with abandon. Lehrer says the people who benefit from the creative advantages of daydreaming are those who daydream with a bit of focus. You have to maintain enough awareness to identify, and make a note (mental or otherwise) of the noteworthy ideas that drift in on the cerebral breezes.