Ellen Rose

Ellen Rose 2019

The 'Aha' Movement

Designing for Creativity at Work

A Master's thesis blog: Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts


Defining Creativity | Cultural, Social and Political Contexts

To return to the foundational researcher and writer on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi, explains that "creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation” (Csikszentmihalyi 6). Essentially, creativity does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is the product of a complex system; a culture. American culture nurtures, cherishes, even exalts creative individuals who challenge the status quo and create new ideas. It especially celebrates individuals whose new ideas lead to economic growth. This is not news: there is a cult of entrepreneurialism and exceptionalism in the United States.

While the phenomenon of creativity is intense at this moment in the United States, there are other notable moments of creative exploration and production throughout the history of humanity. These eras of creative exploration and output tend to overlap with eras of surplus: surplus of wealth and attention. To quote Csikszentmihalyi again, he argues that "centers of creativity as Greece in the fifth century BC, Florence in the fifteenth century and Paris in the nineteenth century tended to be places where wealth allowed individuals to learn and experiment above and beyond what was necessary for survival" (Csikszentmihalyi 8). Here Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between resourcefulness (creativity for the sake of survival) and transcendental creativity (breakthrough creativity), but I think that idea is subverted in today’s global innovation race.

Creativity has become our tool for survival, perhaps now more than ever, since we’ve innovated ourselves into a corner. Recent revolutionary innovations like plastics, offshore oil drilling and disease prevention have led to even greater and more complex problems that will require even greater and more creative solutions.

Our capacity for creative breakthrough is arguably greater too, given that we live in generally stable and comfortable environments that have a surplus of wealth and attention to direct into creative projects. This is unfortunately not a universal truth, of course, but there are many areas in the world (which tend to be in large cities in countries with strong economies) where individuals are afforded the freedom and the environment to explore and create.

How creativity is defined and implemented across the world varies. There is an interesting tension between the world’s two dominating economic powers in regards to creativity. The United States and China, broadly speaking, operate under different definitions of creative and Intellectual Property laws, which have led to tectonic changes in policy and trade. Mainly, the tariffs against Chinese imported goods that President Trump put into effect in mid-2018 were created in retaliation for the supposed 50 billion dollars of opportunity cost of imported Chinese goods that usurped American copyrights, trademarks and patents. There is clearly a rift on how creativity is interpreted around the world, and that has a significant impact on global economics and diplomatic relationships.

There is much conversation and controversy surrounding American innovation versus Chinese innovation. Businesses and and their leaders are “fascinated with—some might even say fixated on—creativity” (Marinova), and many are looking to the American systems that produced innovations like the internet and innovators like Steve Jobs for inspiration. For instance, a Fortune article describes efforts in China to educate their students to be more creative, going so far as to “pay U.S. universities—better known for encouraging free-wheeling thought—to teach Chinese lecturers how to make their students more creative” (Marinova). The idea is that Chinese students, who are traditionally trained to memorize information, perform well on standardized tests and appease the teacher, are now being trained to be rebellious and think outside the box that has been constructed around them.

But is it fair to transfer the American idealized and individualized definition of creativity and innovation to other cultures and economies? Lenora Chu, author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve argues that, “it's a fallacy to say the Chinese aren't creative… Just because someone's not skilled at communicating new ideas—doesn't mean those ideas don't exist in the first place” (Chu). She goes on to suggest that there are three trends in China that contribute to their brand of creativity and make them competitive innovators: “the tendency to shun planning (which might also give rise to experimentation); tak[ing] risks and be[ing] creative as a matter of survival (since China’s pace of change is blinding); [and] doggedness (the willingness to try- fail- try- fail)” (Chu).

Americans didn’t invent innovation, but we’ve certainly capitalized on it. Perhaps the real American innovations are the intellectual and creative copyright laws that we’ve created in order to protect our other innovations. By exalting the individual creator and by putting protections on our creations, Americans have forced the hands of other countries to adopt our definition and practices of creativity.