SXSWedu Day 2: In the Trenches of the Creative Process

By Ari Pinkus posted 03-05-2014 09:47 AM


How do you jumpstart innovation? What is the significance of the pivotal moment in creativity? How do creative breakthroughs happen to generate ideas and art?

These are three of the questions I explored yesterday in three sessions. Here’s what I gleaned:

The interactive session 10 Hands-On Tools to Boost Student Innovation by Charles Wood, a marketing professor at the University of Tulsa, provided us with field tested, low-tech exercises all ages can use to generate creative ideas that can jumpstart innovation. See below for sample exercises to carry out in the classroom – or even around the campfire.

First, Wood showed us a graphic titled “Who is creative?” He noted that we all start out as very creative. We reach a low point in creativity around 44, when we’re near zero, and rebound in our 60s. Stemming that low tide is part of the goal of educators, he says.

Several innovation keys, according to Wood:

  • The best innovations come from areas you know well (Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, 10,000 hours)
  • Innovations come from things you care about (persistent attention, incubation, be ready to capture ideas)
  • Innovation needs regular does of inspiration (who or what inspires you?)
  • Innovations come in different ways for different people (how smart are you v. how you are smart?)
  • Progress on ideas comes when you flow (where do you lose yourself and lose track of time?)
  • Innovation often means changing people’s behavior – and they must be motivated
  • Innovations fix problems
  • Ideas come forward when you immerse yourself in a need
  • Innovation process is not chaotic; it can be structured
  • Creative ideas can come from scanning other creative ideas (scan for good examples and capture them. The TED talks are good examples. Another is Pinterest.)
  • Innovation is creativity that solves a problem, relieves pain, or adds value, and helps others

Here are some exercises he described and we tried:

  1. Two Buckets exercise

    How it works: It’s conducted in a team of 3-4 people. Each team randomly chooses a card from each of two buckets. One has major brand name; one has project categories.

    The goal is to combine them to make a new product. Describe your new product’s features and benefits, potential buyers, ad ideas, and give the name of the product.

    The lesson: Combinations can be a great source of ideas

    Some examples: Netflix (book of the month club and DVD rentals); (venture capital and third world relief); Hunger Games (reality show and Iraq war)

  2. Not Bad exercise

    How it works: Find examples of unusual or dubious innovations and ask, what’s good about this? Does it solve a real problem? For many people?

    Example: He showed a slide of a square watermelon; people noted it was easier to slice, doesn’t roll,  and that caterers would enjoy the presentation.

  3. iWish exercise

    How it works: First, think of a problem or hassle people face often (awkward social situations, parking tickets, bad breath, being late) Form teams, share ideas and choose a problem that can be addressed by a new app. “I wish a cellphone could…”

    (At this point he handed out markers and whiteboards in the form of iPhone screens to draw our app.)

    Our group came up with a thermometer app since people can’t find it around the house when they most need it. The phone would have a sensor that you can put to the back of your child's or student's head. Siri would speak the temperature as well.  A teacher can use it to determine whether a student should go to the nurse.

    Another group came up with a lying app. One aspect would focus on whether you’re being lied to by people at home, school, work, or salespeople through retina scans and pulse rates. The other would help you create different kinds of lies: believable lies, sensitive lies, psychotic lies.

    Lessons: power of collaboration, power of the pen, value of our ideas, creative confidence is increasing, a supportive culture is building 

  4. R&D/ prototyping

    How it works: The standard innovation process is backward. Instead of starting with problems and developing many possible innovations, start with innovations and consider their application to many problems.

    Get your hands on prototyping: Fablabs in major cities; R&;

    Lessons: look around for ideas and innovations; alternative uses for existing ideas; reusing existing materials too; finding new ways of solving old problems.

  5. 100 uses exercise

    How it works: In teams, ask students to write down 100 uses for old newspapers in 10 minutes

    Lesson: Programmed to lower inhibitions for sharing ideas; “programmed failure” – deadline so tight they have to exert more freedom and are more receptive to any idea.

  6. Redesign the wallet exercise (design thinking)

    How it works: A 1-hour design project from IDEO, a design firm, takes you through the steps to redesign the wallet with a pdf that you can print and use to build the prototype. The prompt is: “Sketch the ideal way to carry cash and credit cards.”

    Interview 1: notes/sketches on the question: What do you need from a wallet? (For example: Does it need an alarm function so you can find it? Are you around water a lot?)

    Do a second interview after showing them a prototype of what you’ve drawn.

    Define a problem statement:

    ____________ needs ________________(users need) because _________________________ (insight)

    Sketch 3-7 radical solutions.

    In iteration #2, (re)define the problem statement. Find the solution that will best solve the problem statement.

    A teacher in audience noted that her school does a design thinking exercise with students using “5Gs”: gather information, glean, generate prototype, gauge prototype, go.

  7. Card-io exercise

How it works: Put challenge questions at the top of large note cards. “How might we…?” Each person writes an idea beneath the question and passes it to the right. With each pass, build on the ideas of others. The last round should be wild ideas.  Then consider the worst idea ever. Write down a really bad product or service idea on large note cards, pass it to the right. Make the idea worse, pass it on. Repeat this. Now come together with your team and find a nugget of a good idea in what you see, and make it into a good idea.

The lesson: When we build together, we can get better outcomes.

   8.  Swing for the fences exercise

How it works: Find a worthy cause in your community. He notes students who helped fight hunger in Oklahoma, increased bone marrow donations, and improved Tulsa Zoo outreach and created a preschool level video series for the zoo.


What happens when ideas get killed and you have to figure out ways to work around the no? That’s the pivot moment and the deep dive that Glenn Griffin from The University of Alabama and Deborah Morrison from the University of Oregon took us on with their session, Pivot: Creativity’s Transformational Moment.

As Morrison and Griffin describe it, the pivot indicates a momentous change in direction; it’s the moment when idea makers see alternatives and opportunities, take risks, wield courage, evolve tradition, use intuition, use dynamic info, fail, go all in, change the story, adapt the process. Flexibility is paramount.  What can we learn from the pivot? What can we teach about the pivot?

Examples of the pivot in action in people’s lives:

Consider that Eric Proulx, a young filmmaker, was a successful copywriter in Boston.  In 2008, HR walked in and told him the company would no longer need his services. He was just promised a raise and promotion a few weeks before. He was in shock, not knowing how he would provide for his family and continue sending his children to private schools in the Boston area. His wife was a stay-at-home mom.

He asked himself what do I really do? His answer: I tell stores. He began by making a documentary film about people reinventing themselves. He changed the story of his own life. Indeed, it’s often that something personal and tragic transforms life.

Morrison and Griffin spoke of Kim Swift and Andrew Stevens, their former students at the University of Texas, who started a design firm in NYC focusing on creating an immersive experience for brands. They worked for some big ones, like Nike. But they still had time to look around and ask, what else is there? That’s when they saw that Detroit was in dire straits, so they decided to relocate their whole business to the city. They connected artists with entrepreneurs and renovated blighted storefronts.

Swift described the mission: “Connecting emerging with the established to create spaces and art that engages, inspires and builds commercial interest we aim to foster a climate of possibility and strengthen the fabric of the community.”

Finally, there was Tracy Wong, owner of the small advertising firm WONGDOODY, whose firm won an account for the state of Washington’s antismoking campaign. He came up with a design featuring a “quit muscle.” He was told by officials that he wasn’t sensitive to the people who were struggling. They thought he was doing it for himself. He realized they were right, and said so. It brought him to a humble place. He went back to the drawing board and started really listening in focus groups. He asked them to write letters to themselves.

 What happened next was one of those pivot moments.  One by one, as they read their letters, they began to weep – a viscerally profound experience. Thus began the Dear Me, campaign. It’s now been adopted by 20 different states. He gave back the $50,000 he received to a low-income area in the state of Washington.

The campaign did more than just raise awareness; cigarette sales dropped, and smoking habits changed. And Wong wielded courage, failed, and used dynamic information to lead him to a better outcome.

Why do we need to pivot?

The creative economy demands it. New employees are doing the jobs that two or three people used to do and have divergent responsibilities. In a study on talent development, talent must tackle hybrid skills and encourage, nurture, and demand a nimbleness that wasn’t needed before.

The pivot moment helps teach curiosity, optimism, and mapping one’s process of working. It:

  • Promotes interdisciplinary / collaborative thinking
  • Extends both the application and viability of creativity; instead of being thrown when monkey wrench enters the picture, you’ll do something else that’s cool
  • Teaches that the most important tool is the mind; tech tools can only be so valuable
  • Is harder for teachers to deal with because it requires a lot more time on contingencies, “the what ifs.”

It's crucial to listen with an empty mind, rather than an open mind. Open minds are still full of stuff and have baggage.

Ideas over ego: it’s not about me; it’s about the idea

Feedback approach: Begin with positive, move to negative, end with positive relationship with the work. Remember: Criticism is a compliment; when you’re critiqued on something, it means that someone sees something more in you. It’s a pivot moment on a small scale.

Aim for teams not groups. When there’s a problem, a group scatters, but a team coalesces.

Collaboration is key; develop team mentality via intrinsic motivation. It helps in handling those pivotal moments. (For instance, Wong had a team with him when he received criticism on the antismoking campaign.)

The confidence/humility balance: If you don’t have a spirit of humility, someone will provide it for you. It’s not a great gift to unwrap, and it’s a lot easier to do it in the classroom.

With curiosity, courage, confidence, people are equipped to embrace pivot moments.


In the workshop The Creative Breakthroughs Technique, Sarah Bush of Jackson Street Studios took us through the creative process as she lives it and then led us on a journey of our own in making collages.

Her arc: The honeymoon phase, the rubber hits the road (the hard part but you need to linger here, she says), the messy middle, the fine art of finishing.

Bush remembers being under deadline pressure. She had an idea but not a hook. Meanwhile, her codesigners were producing – submitting to a need to show evidence. But if you wait, she says, you can get so much more done quickly. And if you linger in the stage, it’s easier to allow someone else to do so as well.

When you know that you can ruin something and bring it back to success, you are empowered.

Finishing is hard for many reasons. In fact, it can take longer than the whole rest of the project because every change is subtle. Finishing requires that you step away. Then you might show up and still not know. It requires revisiting a lot and not knowing. The more you engage in the creative process, the more you know when you’re done. It can be scary to finish because people can judge you now; you’re exposed. It’s a real assertion and commitment on your part to finish. But it comes with huge payoffs.

When you understand that your creative process is connected to the larger universal creative experience, you can make big changes as an educator. For example, you can talk about design thinking in an authentic way; you won’t be communicating an undercurrent of so much anxiety about not knowing. It’s OK not to know. By saying so, you’ll instill bravery and courage in your students.

She notes that when evaluating the chances for survival of soldiers and spies in World War 2, creative problem solving was the best predictor.

As we worked on collages and passed them to neighbors to work on, she noted some common practices in creativity and art, specifically:

  • The need to connect pieces together
  • The need for visual interest, being striking as opposed to being pretty
  • The need to sit and consider what to do next
  • The need to erase or remove something
  • The need to NOT start from zero because it makes it that much more difficult to get started. (For example: Ernest Hemingway would end his writing time in the middle of a sentence so he could come back to something.) Most nonartists expect too much of themselves, she says. 

 One of the hardest aspects about creativity is the way people think it works. The common perception: you get inspired and then create. No, Bush says, you create, and then you get inspired. The only way to generate ideas is to start creating!