Monday, September 7, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process for the better (for some creative people): early observations

There's obviously a lot of talk about how creative content is changing for just about every media that uses it, from advertising to music to film to publishing. So many people are making so many bold pronouncements on the subject, usually by declaring the death of one thing or another (the agency here, publishing here, DVD's here) that I could just about link to anything my stumble upon button stumbles upon and find a strong opinion on the subject.

Many of the commentators are celebrating these changes in the spirit of creative destruction: often noting how this is good for both brands and marketers—b/c they can source work at lower cost and accelerate innovation--and good for audiences/consumers--b/c it gives us abundant access to so much free content.

But I also noticed that not too many people seem to be asking the actual cultural producers themselves—all the poets and writers and artists and designers and producers—who are making the creative content in the first place. (Though it's true these writers and designers often make guest appearances as forward thinking futurists or anxious critics in the sidelines of debates raging around crowdsourcing, like the recent one here).

I noticed this partially because it’s my job, as a planner at an agency, to help guide and inspire the development of creative products and partially because I have lots of semi-anxious friends who happen to be poets and writers and screenwriters and art directors and designers. So I thought it might be interesting to hear how they felt about all these changes.

I started with a simple question. Has technology changed your creative process? And if so, how? And because the answers were so interesting they quickly led to a set of follow-up questions about whether technology had influenced how they get inspired and whether it impacted their relation to their audience and how they felt about the wave of hyper collaboration and even some questions about the old-fashioned idea of originality.

I’ve done about dozen interviews so far, and I thought I’d post some early observations both because I hope other people find this subject as interesting as I do and because I’m hoping I can lure other artists and writers into sharing their thoughts on the subject.

I should be clear when I say creative, I'm not limiting myself to the ad agency job title. I'm defining “creative” people in a pretty broad sense, from those who work in commercial professions (art directors and copywriters and designers and producers) to poets and writers and painters and musicians and filmmakers and conceptual artists to those creative people who work in the medium of technology itself: programmers and game designers.

So far I’ve spoken to 2 novelists, 2 poets, 2 copywriters, 2 art directors, 1 creative director, 2 screenwriters/producers, 1 dancer, 1 musician/producer ( several of the above overlap in a couple categories) So special thanks to @eproulx, @jonkranz, @edwardboches, @gretchenramsy, @adamwohl, @lauracarterbird (and a bunch of people who aren't on Twitter yet!)

My first observation has to be resounding confirmation of the generous spirit of the artistic community on the interweb in general and social media in particular. Everyone I’ve interviewed, whether I knew them before or not, has been more generous, thoughtful and helpful than I could have hoped.

So with that, I'll start with the good news or those things most artists and writers agree were more or less positive about the influence of technology on their work.

1) They might still be tortured but aren't lonely: Remember those stories of Romantic poets who needed to retreat to a rustic cabin in order to dig deep into their creative soul, uncorrupted by the distractions of civilization. Well, that ideal or fantasy doesn't seem as relevant to artists today. Almost all the artists and writers I spoke with were energized by more direct and frequent contact with other artists, their audience, as well as the culture as a whole. This was true of producers as well as poets. Maybe especially poets, who in the past felt particularly cut off from feedback on their work. We seem to be finally getting tired of the the long-held Romantic ideal. Both artists and audiences like to be connected.

2) Nor do they plan on starving: Technology seems to have jump-started the entrepreneurial spirit among artists. Whether they like the digital revolution or not, almost all the artists I spoke to agree that you have to diversify. They aren’t relying on one job or boss or patron or income source, but are developing multiple projects both within traditional frameworks and on their own. As one copywriter put it (I’m reserving attribution until I get permission), we always knew it was bad for an agency to only have one or two clients. Now we know that's true for all of us.

2a) It's a deal: Social media has also given artists more direct access to decision makers in almost all fields, inspiring them to send their work and ideas to places they didn't have access to previously. In the past the long odds at ever getting some muckety mucks attention tended to discourage these efforts. It's still too early to tell with my small sample, but technology seems particularly valuable for those in managerial positions, creative directors and producers, or anyone who spends more time making deals about cultural products than actually creating art.

3) Artists are diversifying their media/mediums: After college I went to an MFA program where people applied to be either “poets” or “fiction writers.” And most of the writers/artists of my gen-x gen generally took this narrow route. Most of us thought it was important to specialize early in order to develop the necessary skills to succeed.

But specialization seems less important to artists today. In fact, technology has made previously inaccessible (both complicated and expensive) tools much more accessible. Several writers I spoke with have turned their hand to film-making and while modest about their accomplishments, were frankly surprised at the relative success and professional quality of their efforts. This seems even more true for youngsters in their teens and twenties who I’ve encountered on research projects for clients. In fact, as I’ve posted before, many wanted to be managers/producers rather than artists per se.

4) The end of writers block? Probably not. Everyone goes through dry-spells, but several of the writers and artists I spoke with, mentioned that the constant stream of inspiration does seem to jump-start their thinking. Twenty minutes cruising a twitter stream or reading some blogs almost always generated some kind of response which gets the creative energy flowing. Whether the inspiration leads anywhere interesting is another story, but most agree it's almost as good as coffee.

5) You can be anywhere and so can your partner: There's no longer any need to restrict your creative partnership with people in the same room, town, company, country. Especially for those who work with partners in commercial production of some kind, technology has made it possible to work with just about anyone, anywhere, on any project.

6) New technology, new forms: Several writers and artists I spoke with are exploring new media that wouldn't be possible at all without new technology. Everything from printing images on bread to new forms of social storytelling being explored at MIT's medialab. It's too early to tell whether these forms will go the way of computer art of the 70's or amount to something more interesting. But there's no question that technology is opening up possibilities for self-expression

7) oh, almost forgot: The 24/7 focus group: creative people whose success depends on high speed production and hconsumer approval (e.g., marketers) also relished the fact that you could find out almost anything all the time. They barely remembered the day when they had to call an account person or a planner to look something up. And Twitter provides constant and instant feedback to any idea they want to throw out there, to see if it generates any interest, before the develop it.

Of course, it's not all good. For instance, many writers and artists I spoke to seemed ambivalent about how technology was accelerating culture and tightening deadlines, but I'll save thatanxiety for another post.

Again, would love to talk to more poets, writers, artist, musicians, game designers, etc or anyone who'd like to talk about how technology is impacting their creative process. Get in touch here or at


Jonathan Kranz said...

You know, your clean, concise post has more to say about creativity than most long-winded book-length tomes I've seen on the matter.

Too many commentators take an "either - or" approach to creativity, subscribing too completely to some romantic, modern or "scientific" ideal of production. I think you successfully captured the diversity and complexity of the process while identifying common themes: desire for connectivity, access to fresh sources of input, opportunities for crossing mediums

sk said...

Thanks, Jon. Your input was essential to helping me develop my initial thoughts. It's certainly true that our industry in particular likes to make hyberbolic claims about creativity. At the same time, as we discussed, I remain interested in exploring whether new technology just might be shifting our cultural understanding of what it means to be creative, or what counts as a "creative" profession.