only upside – why creativity in art knows no bounds

Solve a problem, a real customer problem.. heard it?

I design software for a living, I’ve done it for my entire working life.. in fact I left university to start a software company over 11 years ago and have been finding & solving customer problems ever since.

I have long held in the belief that software design is a hugely creative pursuit, the day coders stop talking about elegant code is the day I’ll change my perspective on that. I vividly remember sitting on a plane in 2007 next to a lady who, in a conversation every technology person has had countless times, trying to explain to her what I did, what problem I was solving and how my technology solved that problem.

15 minutes later she was none the wiser.

So we moved on.. we moved on to the Myspace vs Facebook discussion. This was back when myspace owned the space and fb was the new contender. Anyone in technology could see the writing on the wallfor myspace, I stated this and tried to explain why.

It was a conversation peppered with lavish descriptions of facebook’s implicit design as evidenced by their developer/apps offer and their explicit design sensibility in realising that allowing users to change their own page degraded the experience for all the rest of their users. Some of these ideas are covered in aseparate post I did a few years later.


I found myself explaining to a non-tech person, that what facebook was doing was so engaging so as to be considered art, it was on par with a symphony containing all the  beauty, wonder and magic.. but most of all creativity.

But even facebook, by their own admission, seek to solve a problem, they seek to help people understand the world around them (taken from this interview in 2006). What is interesting is that you can observe any company that is solving a problem in a new space. The space seems completely unbounded, the innovation is huge and high paced but at some point the rate of change slows, the solution matures and a ceiling of creativity in solving this problem is reached.

There are numerous examples of this

– the car; in solving the problem of affordable personal mobility has seen only incremental change since the first Model T’s rolled off the production line. In essence (and suitably ironic) the over used ‘my customers would have asked for a faster horse’ maxim now applies to the very product that relegated horse drawn transport to history’s annals. By the way, the new problem to be solved is working out how to retain our levels of personal mobility without destroying our planet in the process, more on that here

– iphone, when Apple’s stock price might go up because they release a new colour (color for my US readers) you know they are hitting a ceiling. (nb: Im not diminshing the value of incremental improvements of which Apple has released numerous)

– The wheel, yeah it’s a joke but you see the point. Solving problems is bounded by the problem, you move closer and closer to completely solving it and one might argue at a rate of diminishing returns.


So how does this relate to art?

Well, I’m not 100% sure but I got a little closer to working it out the other day. My appreciation for art came from trying to visualise, in an abstract way creativity in both problem solving and purely artistic pursuits, so I offer the following.


Put simply you end up over time having less and less of the original problem to solve, for creativity bounded by the logic of a problem. Einstein captured this pretty nicely when he said “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”


What’s interesting is that art for purely creative purposes sits both above and below the line. There is art that makes you happy and there is art designed to make you unhappy, well not in such a direct sense but within the context of some shocking statement to provoke your thinking, to drive you to consider the world around you in a new perspective and perhaps end up understanding the world around you a little bit better.


Sound familiar?


It’s funny becuase people generally get art that’s trying to say something, art that is below the line, art that ‘solves a problem’. And artists get why people devote their entire lives to working in non-artistic pursuits below the line, they are solving problems.


But for those of us who ask ‘why’ when some creates art, just because, perhaps consider that it lives above the line and if it doesnt ‘solve a problem’ then regardless of its intended purpose .. it’s probably going to make you happy if you stop expecting it to be a solution.


Today, for the first time in 15 years I picked up a pencil and drew something, a sketch of a cup. It doesnt do anything, it has no specific purpose


but it made me happy, and now I know.


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