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Creative Process: Dave Seah

Creativity & Innovation

daveseahDave Seah is a designer who writes prolifically about his search for “creative independence”. He creates a variety of printable productivity tools for people, like himself, who need to track their time and progress toward their goals.

Do you follow a creative process?

I don’t think I have a set of steps; process is something I associate with “production” more than “ideas”. I like to listen and observe, process the experience internally, then find patterns that match up with prior experiences. I have a pretty fast-acting associative memory which is keyed off of remembered feelings and situations. Invariably some idea pops up.

Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?

Associated memories and pattern recognition are my automatic responses. I find that writing down my thoughts as they’re occur is the main way I come up with ideas. The writing helps linearize my thoughts into something coherent, which I then manipulate with a word processor to refine them. After a few passes, I end up with a few juicy nuggets of insight from which ideas spring.

What’s the best idea you’ve had recently? Tell us where you were, what you were doing, where you found inspiration.

I was at an amusement park with my cousin, who likes to ride scary rides. As a child I used to hate roller coasters, but as an adult I find them less frightening because I can use my brain to control my fear response. And so, I rode some rides I never had dared ride before, and endured them without getting sick. Facing the last ride of the day, the most fearsome coaster yet, watching screaming people zoom by this incredible straight-up and straight-down drop, I realized that up to this point I’d been merely SUFFERING THROUGH the rides, not quite enjoying them. So I decided to try the opposite…what if I PUSHED MYSELF INTO the ride? Would it be any different an experience? So I pretended I was a Viper pilot from the show BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and roared through the turns, and the experience indeed was different. Then, on the drive back home, I marveled at the difference and started to consider that there might be a larger pattern at work in my life that could benefit from a little more screaming into the unknown as I charged headlong into new situations. A little less avoidance and suffering-through new situations might result in a more free daily routine. And so, that’s what I’ve been trying this week. I wouldn’t know how to judge what is “best” in the first place without some additional context, but I thought it was a fine insight.

How did you develop your idea?

Initially I write quite a lot, free-associating and writing as quickly as I can think, gathering my thoughts in one place where I can sort through them later. I look for patterns and trends, and then look for their opposites. I also look for dogma that can be questioned and tested. I use my feelings as a compass, monitoring my emotional reactions and measuring their magnitude. For example, if I find that I have a negative reaction to an idea but am not sure why, my rational side will start to pose hypothesis as to why this is the case, and look for possible explanations. This can yield unexpected twists in idea development.

After generating the idea, I like to move it into the realm of the tangible as a proof of concept. I will identify the “true needs” that prospective beneficiaries of the idea have, then try to identify a chain of reasoning that connects those needs with the tangible expression of the idea. To get deeper into the chain of reasoning, I ask “why this?” over and over again. I find that most ideas have a functional need, an emotional need, and a social need tied-up with them. People tend to not distinguish between these types of needs, which can create communication problems. By sorting this all out as soon as possible, I find that idea development tends to go smoother.

Did you get any feedback or test your idea on anyone? Who did you ask?

I like feedback, and sometimes do informal usability testing. However, I tend to learn more from my own observation. I think of ideas as starting points, not worth very much until it’s put into a tangible form. While developing an idea, I may ask stakeholders (as in “interested people”) what they like or dislike and write down what they say, but what I’m also doing is observing HOW they feel it relates to their own life; this can point to external factors that should be investigated to get a better picture. I also keep in mind that people find it easier to respond to something right in front of them than synthesise opinions about something they haven’t seen before.

What was the hardest part of developing your idea?

From a technical standpoint, it’s acquiring and collecting the right resources, knowledge, and skill to make the idea work at all. For example, if I had a great idea that required a talented artist, and I didn’t have one, then I’m dead in the water. I have a tendency to then look at developing the skill myself, which means I have to learn something new with no guarantee of being able to do it well. If doing it myself isn’t an option, then I have to spend money or trade some skills. I’m always low on money, and I don’t know many talented people who can step in to help me with my work, so the grand ideas grind to a stop. This can be very frustrating.

From a social standpoint, the hard part is getting people to buy-in to the idea and actually put it to use. Making buy-in possible requires a lot of time and talent through packaging the idea. This is essentially doing the marketing work around the idea and its tangible form, and then selling it to the people. To be good at this, you need leadership ability and teaching ability. The ideas that are successfully developed are the ones that people can clearly imagine ADDING to their own empowerment in a direct and tangible way. For more abstract ideas, they must be made tangible through other means.

Tell us about an idea of yours that didn’t work. What happened?

It’s hard to think of just one because in a way, NONE of my ideas worked the way I thought. This is even true of my own products; many of them were designed for a specific use by myself, but were adopted for different purposes. I tend to not have expectations of my ideas. Instead, I release them and observe what happens, and then develop the idea further if it is warranted. If I drop the idea, I don’t regard this as a failure. It is just data. For example, after making the first “printable ceo” form back in 2005, I wanted to get another taste of high web traffic. The first form was the “Concrete Goals Tracker”, and I thought my second form, the “Task Progress Tracker”, would be even bigger. But it wasn’t. The next few forms didn’t attract as much attention either. It was a form that I thought of as a mish-mash of previous ideas, the “Emergent Task Planner”, that really seems to have caught the attention of a certain audience.

It’s kind of interesting that I can’t think of an idea that didn’t work. I can think of projects that I had hoped would have been higher quality, perhaps with better graphics or artificial intelligence. None of my projects I regard as a master work that will stand the test of time, and in that sense I am not happy. But it is what I am seeking, and I believe that I will eventually make that master work. So it’s not so much that the idea, or the execution of the idea, didn’t work. It’s just doesn’t work YET. That’s me being optimistic.

Where / when do you feel most creative?

The shower is where I have a lot of ideas. I take at least two showers a day, three if I work out at the gym. The morning shower tends to give me ideas about new approaches, while the evening shower is more of a summary of the day which leads to new insights.

However, if you mean creative more in the “making new stuff” sense, I really don’t have a place that I feel comfortable. It’s a chore and a challenge to gather up the tools and put my brain into creative lockdown; it’s a very lonely process for me since I work by myself. That said, the most creative ENVIRONMENT for me is when I’m talking to another creatively-oriented person. The creative conversational space is where I feel I am at my best.

Does technology help or hinder creativity?

Technology that allows one to see connections, to try new ideas easily, and helps structure one’s movement is, I think, very helpful. A lot of the act of creation is taken up by the mundane work of gathering and managing all the resources you need, making them easily accessible and manipulable so your intuition has something to work with. Any technology that helps with this is great; I think I read a paper by Vannevar Bush pointed this out waaaaaay back in the 1940s, and the idea has stuck with me.

I suppose technology that also aids in expanding one’s experiences is a good thing too. My version of creativity tends to work based on fitting the lessons from past experiences onto the needs of the future. So the ability to expand one’s experience by providing new means to EXPLORE other ideas is great.

I think one has to be clear about what stage of creation you are in, and then choose to use whatever technology that is available in a supportive way. There’s a big difference, I think, between using the Internet to find a new-to-you idea, versus using the Internet to help one synthesize something never thought-of before. On the other hand, a great idea “borrowed” from someone else is just as functional, and possibly time-saving; if you’re running a business, then who cares where the idea came from? No patent, then fair yse! It’s just that the way that I want to experience creativity is by making original works from my own experiences and the insights they produce, targeting some amusing aspect of the human condition. That’s what I’d like to do to make a living.

Do you use group brainstorms? If so, how do you run them?

I tend not to on my own projects, but I will facilitate groups if no one else is leading them by just keeping the conversation flowing. It’s less of a brainstorm than it is on-the-fly capture and structure of what people are thinking.

What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?

Leadership. The most effective creative people I know are the ones who can gather others under their vision and give them the freedom to try things. For the solo creative (like me), it’s having the discipline to follow through with my ideas without feedback and other support. Although, that might just be me.

The stereotypical answer would probably be “getting stuff done”, which requires a different mental skillset than creativity.

Can creativity be taught?

When confining behaviours and beliefs are untaught, creativity may have a chance to take root and flourish. But the subject would have to WANT it. And it may be that the subject never achieves the level of proficiency they desire…but I think this observation would apply to any skill worth acquiring. In my view, any step taken toward self-improvement and self-empowerment is worthwhile.

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