The nature of ideas
There is a ceaseless rhetoric in marketing circles about ‘ideas’; big ideas, small ideas, advertising ideas, campaign ideas, strategic ideas, tactical ideas, sticky ideas, contagious ideas, creative ideas, product ideas, brand ideas, idea factories, media agnostic ideas, consumer generated ideas, participative ideas, design ideas, inciting ideas, famous ideas, disruptive ideas, return on ideas, and so on. And on.
But ask an adperson what, precisely, an idea is, and they will look at you with the expression of a dog that’s just been shown a card trick.
Practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of technology, invention, economics and creativity have however, long pointed to combination as being at the heart of every new idea, whether tangible or intangible in nature.
For the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, economic change and advancement came from new combinations of productive means. To produce anything he argued, involved combining materials and forces differently.
Similarly, the economic historian Abbott Payson Usher argued that invention arose from “the constructive assimilation of pre-existing elements into new syntheses.”
The social scientist Gilfillan defined invention as a “new combination of prior art.”
The writer Arthur Koestler gets a good amount of credit for his examination of the nature of creativity and ideas. It was Koestler who in his book The Act of Creation first introduced the notion of ‘bisociation’. Examining (ironically in rather serious, dry prose) what made humour humorous, he presented the notion that creativity arises as a result of the intersection of two different frames of reference.
Although much less well known than Koestler, James Webb Young too was very much interested in the origin of ideas and the nature of the creative process. Young was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in the USA, and was a major intellectual influence on it. In 1940 he published a refreshingly slim book (weighing in at a mere 50 pages) entitled A Technique For Producing Ideas.
Given the extent of its rhetoric around anything to do with ideas, it remains bizarrely neglected by the advertising industry yet in its pages we find some of the wisest, and crucially the most useful, writing on the subject of ideas:
“An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.”
This notion of the combining of different worlds or spheres of knowledge has been echoed more recently in the work of the psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In his analysis of the creative process and individual, Csikszentmihalyi saw creativity as drawing from what he termed ‘domains’ . These were self-contained man-made patterns and categories of order and knowledge. Each one of these multitude of domains – whether it is for example, flower arranging, risk management, aerodynamics, bricklaying, software programming, or photography – represents a coherent body or reservoir of powers and possibilities. And we can in turn think of creativity as being the act of drawing from and combining these different domains and their constellations of methods, devices, understandings and practices.
Professor Brian Arthur – one of Silicon Valley’s most influential thinkers – builds on (though oddly doesn’t acknowledge) Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of domains and demonstrates how technological innovation arises out of what he calls ‘redomaining.’
In this process, he argues that industries adapt themselves to a new body of technology, drawing and selecting from the new body of knowledge and combining some of their parts with some of those of the new domains.
Modern finance provides a good example of this process of redomaining. It represents (for better or for worse) the synthesis of two domains – that of the traditional skills and practices of finance and risk management, with the newer domain of computer technology.
Far from being static, domains then, are in flux, constantly combining with others to breed new ones, which in turn lead to further new categories. In this way, by combining and drawing from the domain of computing, the traditional domain of finance was transformed into something new.
For Csikszentmihalyi this reconfiguration of domains is at the heart of the creative process:
“Creativity is any act… that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.”
While those who advise and pronounce on innovation, creativity and ideas largely ignore this body of knowledge and experience, our history of intellectual and tangible innovation has taught us a fundamental and enduring lesson – that ideas are new combinations.
From this perspective, it is evident that the oft-invoked cliché “thinking outside the box” is a trite , unhelpful – and indeed inaccurate – representation of what any kind of creative process entails.
It is not escaping the box that matters, but bringing new inspirations and materials into it.
Why it is like cooking
The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer is credited with stimulating what is known as New Growth Theory. It’s a theory of economic growth that emphasises increasing returns associated with new knowledge. This is in contrast to traditional economic models which centre on the notion of diminishing returns.
Precisely because physical capital is ultimately subject to diminishing returns, Romer argues that the classical suggestion that we can grow rich by accumulating more and more pieces of physical capital was wrong.
Instead, he argues economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. He has likened production and growth in an economy to cooking. To create valuable final products, we blend inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.
However, growth for him is not simply the result of doing more of the same activity, or of simply scaling the same recipe up. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, Romer argues that we would in time run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance that are the inevitable by-products of cooking in the economy. Instead, he argues that the lesson of human history is that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking:
“Ultimately, all increases in standards of living can be traced to discoveries of more valuable arrangements for the things in the earth’s crust and atmosphere… No amount of savings and investment, no policy of macroeconomic fine-tuning, no set of tax and spending incentives can generate sustained economic growth unless it is accompanied by the countless large and small discoveries that are required to create more value from a fixed set of natural resources.”
It is this combination, this injection of something new that is for Romer the engine of an idea’s value:
“When a useful mixture is discovered… The discovery makes possible the creation of economic value. It lets us combine raw materials of low intrinsic value into mixtures that are far more valuable… In this fundamental sense, ideas make growth and development possible.”
Romer believes we possess a nearly infinite capacity to reconfigure physical objects by creating new combinations of them – by devising in other words, new recipes. His view echoes Einstein’s insight that as soon as we look outside our immediate frame of reference and exercise our imagination, our potential resources become limitless. Physical resources are subjects to scarcity. But when it comes to ideas, there is practically no scarcity.
To appreciate the potential for discovery, we need only consider the possibility that an extremely small fraction of the vast number of possible mixtures available to us may be valuable.
To get a sense of the possibilities open to us, consider that a mere 10 building blocks or ingredients gives us 1013 combinations. Twenty building blocks gives us 1,048,555 combinations. Forty gives us 1,099,511,627,735. And of course each of these new combinations in turn expands the number of building blocks to choose from. It really is exponential. In the words of Professor Romer, this is “combinatorial explosion.”
Of course, not all of these combinations will prove to be successful or desirable. Nonetheless as Brian Arthur reminds us, even if the chances are only one in a million that something useful will result, the possibilities for newness, improvement, progress, surprise – are still truly vast.
Cooking and the creation of new recipes provide us then with an altogether more helpful, accurate and more economically relevant metaphor for ideas and the creative process than any escaping of boxes. Our supply of physical ingredients may be subject to scarcity but our ability to recombine them in new and interesting ways, and devise new recipes is nearly infinite.
And when we look closely, we can find this perspective on the creation of ideas in spheres as disparate as technology and perfumery. For the technology expert James Newcomb for example, providing energy efficiency services requires understanding an enormous number of individual technologies and the ability to successfully combine these technologies. “It’s the skill of a master chef” as he puts it, “Not a grocer’s buyer.”
The art and science of creating perfumes is another form of cooking, involving the development of new recipes and the successful combining of physical ingredients. Writer, journalist, and perfume expert Tania Sanchez also promotes the Algorithm of Ideas: “Perfumes have ideas: there are surprising textures, moods, tensions, harmonies, juxtapositions.”
Ideas are surprising new combinations and the art of the creator and innovator is to manage those harmonies and juxtapositions deftly, and to maximum effect.
Originality and tradition
Understanding that ideas are in essence new combinations, and that creativity is not an act of escape but one of imaginative recombining, helps us put both originality and tradition into proper context.
There can then be no originality without tradition, since the knowledge, practices and skills of a chosen domain must be mastered before they can be challenged, built upon, gone beyond – and combined with that of another domain.
We need tradition and technique because they are the foundation of expression. They give us a concrete and informed starting point. They give us something to work with, to combine with other things. They give us something to test, challenge and push against. As the art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote: “Even the artist who is in revolt against tradition depends on it for that stimulus which gives direction to his efforts.”
No idea, no act of creation therefore is wholly original. All ideas are constructed out of other ideas. W. Brian Arthur reminds us that the very nature of our world means we can only create out of what has gone before, out of what we inherit: “Creations out of nothing are possible only for God.”
We have seen how just as in cooking, ideas are born of combining ingredients or domains. We have also seen how our reservoir of possibilities is expanding all the time as the process of combining different and unrelated domains in turn generates new domains, and raw materials for us to work with. This understanding that the fundamental structure of any idea is a new combination finally sheds light on those words that are frequently attributed to Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”
But new ideas, new art, progress and freshness are not formed simply through mindlessly (or shamelessly) replicating, copying, and duplicating. We’ve all been subjected to the lazy, kitsch, Legoland-like postmodernism of supermarket ‘architecture’.
Creativity works more organically and holistically than simply cutting and pasting. It works through a more subtle interplay of tradition and discontinuity. As new combinations, ideas – just like art – must build upon, re-express, exploit, interpret, and reinvent what has gone before it.
Picasso was warning us that copying strives for merely shortcuts, and is nothing but lazy and dull. The good artist however, executes the perfect crime. The theft, this compounding of originality and inheritance is not noticed because it is successfully integrated and transformed into something fresh and new.
Successful theft then is hard work. It takes intelligence and imagination. It takes an understanding of respect and for the traditions which have preceded it.
Damien Hirst for example, rather than being merely some strange and gimmicky, theatrical ‘Britart bad boy’ is someone who is explicitly working with the inspiration of Francis Bacon, systematically going through Bacon’s images and obsession with flesh, decay and mortality as he acknowledged in an interview “and giving them a concrete existence.”
For example, his triptych of vitrines The Tranquility of Solitude (For George Dyer) (2006) is directly and explicitly inspired by Bacon’s Triptych May-June 1973. This triptych was one of many paintings made by Bacon as a tribute to George Dyer, his lover for seven years, who committed suicide in 1971, in their hotel room. Hirst’s triptych of vitrines meanwhile reflects those of Bacon. In one, a flayed sheep’s carcass pokes out of a lavatory bowl, a syringe in one leg; in the centre, a crucified carcass hangs over a basin, scalpels standing in a pot beneath; and in the third, the carcass bends over a basin as if to vomit, vodka and pills strewn beneath it.
The contemporary photographer Gregory Crewdson is known for his elaborately-staged tableaux of suburban alienation. Crewdson acknowledges the influence that the paintings of Edward Hopper play in his work. Hopper like Crewdson, was much preoccupied with the themes of loneliness and separation from the world in his art. It is not just the subject matter of Hopper that influences Crewdson, but his approach to composition. Both Hopper’s paintings and Crewdson’s photographs are highly theatrical, there is in both a sense that they’ve been deliberately staged, and that we’ve simply frozen a moment in some theatrical narrative. It is not surprising to learn that Hopper used to liken his paintings to the single frames of films. Part of the surprise and freshness of Hopper’s work is that he applied a filmic approach to his painted compositions, and part of the surprise and freshness of Crewdson’s is that his photographic compositions are informed by Hopper’s approach to creating frozen narrative moments.
The insight that ideas are new combinations puts the mandate for originality into some more sensible and meaningful context. As Sir John Hegarty has commented: “By definition, no idea can be original. It has to relate back, in some way or other.”
Theft versus robbery and cliché
This compounding of tradition with originality is of course, not an easy undertaking.
For those who avoid the effort and seek quick effects, lies the trap of cliché. Cliché is more than just the consequence of simple repetition and familiarity. Were it no more than this, we would have tired long ago with the fundamental forms and structures and indeed content of so many of our art forms. We’d be sick of perspective, rhyme, arpeggios, love, heroism, and all the timeless archetypes that continue to run through all the manifestations of our culture. As Scruton reminds us in his philosophical investigation into the aesthetics of music:
“Standard devices in the classical style are not in themselves clichés: rather, they form part of the grammar of musical utterance. Cliché comes only with the pretence at an effect.”
In other words cliché is about taking the easy road. It is born of insincerity, laziness and cynicism. It comes out of the quest for shortcuts, for cheap and easy effects, without any sincere or authentic motivation and purpose. Cliché is, as Picasso might have said, is the product of merely copying, not properly stealing.
Yet whether one looks to the field of artistic or commercial endeavour, what populates the majority of our stores, screens, malls, galleries, theatres, is precisely this uniform, lazy, stupid copying of accepted forms. Despite all the creative awards and slick case studies, despite the stuff we link to, tweet and blog about, they are merely outliers. The horrible, uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of us produce stuff that’s at best, utterly unremarkable. And at worst is mental and environmental pollution.
Whether they are scientific or artistic, intellectual or visible, tangible or intangible, successful ideas – true acts of creativity – are perfect crimes in action. Theft, done well – intelligently, imaginatively – is nothing to be ashamed of. Cliché however, is a very different matter. It is mere laziness and thuggery.
So here’s to committing more perfect crimes.
W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology. What It Is And How It Evolves
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
Gordon Burn, Damien Hirst
Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
S. Colum Gilfillan, The Sociology of Invention
Kevin Kelly, ‘The Economics of Ideas’, Wired online, Issue 4.06, June 1996
Paul Romer, ‘Implementing a National Technology Strategy with Self-Organizing Industry Investment Boards’, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity: Microeconomics 2: 345
Paul Romer, ‘Two Strategies for Economic Development: Using Ideas and Producing Ideas’, Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics, 1992, IBRD/The World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Tania Sanchez, ‘How to connect your nose to your brain’ in Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide
Joseph Schumpeter, Theory of Economic Development
Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music
Abbott Payson Usher, A History of Mechanical Invention
James Webb Young, A Technique For Producing Ideas