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    Of Brains and Bulbs: The Visual Tropes of Creativity

    When graphic designers represent creativity they tend to gravitate toward four main tropes: multicolor paint splatter, hand-drawn and/or irreverent font, brains, and light bulbs. There are visual cliches for almost every idea (think about love) but the visual culture of creativity lays plain some really interesting aspects of the concept.

    The first page of a Google Image search for “creativity,” December 2019

    1. Brains

    Drawings of brains tell us that we see creativity as a mental thing, and more specifically as a biological phenomenon, one that neuroscience might shed some light on. This braininess clearly distinguishes creativity from simply innovation or art, which happen outside our heads. Creativity, the brain says, is in the realm of cognitive processes or mental abilities.

    There is actually considerable debate within the field of creativity studies about this very point. Some researchers are all-in with the cognitive angle: they literally do fMRIs of jazz musicians playing the piano to see where the creativity parts of the brain are [LINK TO ARTICLE]. Others see this as an outmoded approach (it was, in a lower-tech way, how the earliest research on creativity began, in the 1950s) and now insist that creativity cannot really be thought of as an individual process but rather that it always occurs socially, or inter-subjectively. Since the 1970s many researchers have recognized the limits of looking for the individual basis of creativity and have focused on the cultural, environmental, motivational, and institutional factors that allow ideas to arise and become accepted.

    Yet even among those researchers there is usually an ultimate interest in the individual process of having an idea. Otherwise they would be, as many other researchers are, interested solely in “innovation,” which needs absolutely no model of human cognition, only social behavior. To be interested in something called “creativity” these days is, on the whole, to be interested in the individual mind.

    This focus on the brain is a reflection of our age. Ours is the era of the “cognitive revolution,” and of AI. Oliver Sachs, Steven Pinker, and Jonah Lehrer (of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and Imagine: How Creativity Works) are our go-to pop psychologists. Where people in the 1950s (and 1920s) looked to Freudian mechanisms to explain society’s ills, we now speak of cognitive biases and heuristics (see Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow). We all know if we are “left brained” or “right brained.” This last, um, heuristic, is particularly relevant, as much of the graphic design of creativity uses it to express the idea that creativity is a right-brain affair, as in the TIME special issue cover above, which features a boring, black-and-white left brain and a spectacular, overflowing, multicolored left. Which brings us to our next visual trope…

    2. Multicolor/Spectral Color

    Illustration from the British Psychological Association’s podcast Research Digest Episode 18: “How to Boost Your Creativity.” Original Getty Image description reads “Boy draws with a brush an abstract big light bulb. Concept of innovation and creativity”

    Color, as a concept, has a rich symbolism. “Colorful” is how we describe people with personality, countries and cultures that take pleasure in self-expression and the richness of experience and eschew (or haven’t been infected by) the cold rationalism of modernity, with its grey marble edifices and humorless black attire.

    Racial tropes overlap and reinforce the link between color, primitivism, and cultural vibrancy: nonwhite people–that is, in the parlance of our time, people “of color”–and the places they come from have long been regarded as keepers of a childlike, potentially dangerous but ultimately redemptive antidote to the bland “vanilla” culture of Northern and Western Europe. (Side note: I find it funny that vanilla, a historically rare plant native to Mesoamerica and still grown only in the global south and which has, to me, an extremely sexy taste, has, probably because of its ubiquity as an ice cream flavor and, presumably, its colorlessness, become a synonym for blandness, esp. sexually).

    We also know kids love color–a little too much, judging from contemporary toy design. The haphazard application of color speaks to some common belief that creativity is impulsive, lawless, ecstatic, irrational. Even when writers set out to “debunk” these myths, arguing, say, that creativity is actually the proper combination of the irrational and the rational, the child–who knows no norms, who tries every color–is almost always held up as a natural paragon of creativity.

    And, of course, color is the dominion of art. Writers and scientists, and businessmen, and, well, most of us who sit at screens generating spreadsheets and reports and rational things, deal in black ink. Artists need the whole palette. As a graphic designer working within a print medium, the use of multicolor invokes the textual’s zany other–art. In fact art, as an idea, and the artist, as a figure, are central to our conception of creativity, for reasons that I’ll pick apart in much more depth elsewhere.

    But it’s important to note that the kind of color used in creativity graphic design is not just any color. It’s every color. To use a splash of every color reminds us of a literal artist’s palette, or a box of crayons, or a child’s drawing. It’s significant, I think, that when you use multicolor–and by that I mean a little bit of every color–you end up with something that doesn’t look anything like a finished piece of art. The mark of a mature artist is of course the ability to select complimentary shades, to establish dominant and secondary tonal themes, not just to splatter everything out on the page. In evoking the box of crayons or the child’s drawing, then, the use of multicolor suggests not so much fine art as the process of art, the moment of potential, of possibility, before training or judgement or decision making has set in. It reminds us of the visceral freedom of being a kid and using every color, heedless to the strictures of “color theory,” realism, or good taste. From the graphic designer’s point of view multicolor is the absence of decision-making. Multicolor is the color of pure freedom, pure possibility.

    3. Irreverent Font

    You’ll rarely find the word “creativity” spelled out in, say, Helvetica, or any other black, Roman type. Everything around it may be normal, but creativity has to stand out. The goofier, scrappier, more baroque, more childlike the font, the better. Often it’s printed as if the printed word itself was the result of a creative act–a collage of cut-out letters, say, or painted by hand.

    Along with multicolor, which, again, invokes a primary school art-class more than an art academy, the use of collaged, painted, or crayoned letters seems meant to signal an inviting, low-stakes way of being an artist. The book cover below, which I found in a Providence boutique, invites the reader to “be an artist in life.” But the scraggly crayoned title and cute off-kilter blue star makes is crystal clear that this isn’t about being an artist in the sense of, like, actually learning how to draw, but rather in the sense of being carefree, sensuous, and experimental, as one was in third grade art class. This might, indeed, involve doodling, sketching, and generally getting in touch with one’s aesthetic side, but never for its own sake. Rather, these are figured as exercises to access one’s creative side. “Being an artist,” in this case, is about living as we imagine an artist would, not about actually making art, let alone doing it professionally.

    4. Light Bulbs

    What’s with all the light bulbs? Clearly the incandescent bulb has become the international symbol of “having an idea,” which seems due to a couple of things. First there’s the metaphor, the way sometimes a moment of inspiration strikes with the sudden, startling, and illuminating clarity of a light bulb being turned on. “It was like a light bulb turned on in my head,” said everyone, at some point, recalling the sudden onset of an, um, brilliant idea.

    But there’s also the myth of Edison. Few other inventions can so aptly capture our transition to modernity as the light bulb, a simple object that within a generation made its way into every dark corner of our everyday lives, changing everything from popular entertainment to interior fashions to the industrial workday. And few other inventions are so closely identified with their inventors as the light bulb is to Edison.

    Of course, the light bulb was not Edison’s idea. The basic concept was long widely understood to be theoretically possible, many rudimentary versions had been tried already, and a number of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were working on solving the light bulb problem when Edison took out his fateful patent for the “Electric-Lamp” on January 27, 1880. That patent, and the many Edison took out thereafter, stood out no so much for the idea itself but for the details–finding the right filament materials and manufacturing methods to produce a long-burning, appropriately bright, not-too-hot, affordably mass-producible model. Moreover, Edison’s successful bulb was not the product of a sudden burst of inspiration on the inventor’s part, but rather a multi-year, highly capitalized process of laboratory of engineers experimenting with every conceivable configuration of materials until they solved the problem. (It has been argued, in fact, that Edison’s most important invention was not the light bulb, or the phonograph, or the movie camera, but rather the modern Research and Development laboratory: the process of invention itself).

    Nevertheless, we need our myths of the heroic individual, and Edison “inventing” the light bulb is one we learn early and often. As a result, the icon of the light bulb over a person’s head is not only a metaphor of the experience of having an idea, but a sort of pictographic retelling of the object’s own invention. An idea pops into our head just as the light bulb, we imagine, appeared in Edison’s head one candlelit night late in his laboratory, or, as Newton’s idea of gravity did, after having been bonked on the head with a falling apple.

    Ironically, most creativity experts–the kind of people that write books and PowerPoints with light bulbs on the covers–will vehemently deny that creative ideas are the result of random, sudden bursts of inspiration. [A QUOTE OR TWO]. Of course, if ideas were random, sudden bursts of inspiration these people whose job it is to tell us how to have good ideas would be out of business. The whole proposition underlying nearly all writing about creativity is that actually, ideas can be generated more or less deliberately and dependably, as long as we understand the internal mechanisms of everything leading up to what only seems like a sudden, random happening.

    Even within the creativity literature, however, whose job it is to tell you you don’t need to be a genius or wait around for the muse to strike to have a good idea, you can’t wade two paragraphs into an introduction without running into Edison himself. Occasionally we meet the Edison of creativity demystified: he of preparedness, deliberation, and rationality. He of 99% perspiration. But just as often we meet the familiar Edison of childhood picture books, the icon of genius and inspiration. Most times we don’t really get a chance to chat, but just see him pass in a group with Einstein, Picasso, Leonardo, and Steve Jobs, all of whom we are expected to take for granted were exceptionally creative fellows, without being told anything about them. This roster of creative all-stars, startling predictable from one book to the next, is exemplary in the shallowest sense of the word. We’re not to learn from or emulate them directly (unless their personal habits happen to fit with the thesis of the book) but to simply be inspired by their self-evident greatness. They are there, like silent guests at a State of the Union address, to be pointed to, reminding us what great things can come from creativity. And so can you.

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