Titles Are Hard: An Exploration of Creativity with Artist/Designer/Educator Ian Gonsher

Ian Gonsher, artist, designer, and professor at Brown University

Creativity is in demand. Entrepreneurs and business people want it to set themselves apart, artists have always wanted it for inspiration, and I certainly want it so I could think of better titles for these things. As I was reading some of the work of Joachim I. Krueger, a psychology professor at Brown University, I came across an article of his that addressed the influence of chance on creativity. This article happened to feature a guest essay written by Ian Gonsher, an artist and designer who also teaches at Brown’s School of Engineering and has taught courses that specifically deal with creativity. What are the odds?

In this essay (attached here), Gonsher talked about techniques that enhance the creative process, two of which were called rituals and anti-rituals. The former is something you might always do to produce your best ideas, such as going to the same coffee shop whenever you want to write something, while the latter is changing that thing in some way to heighten your awareness, such as going to a different coffee shop or, dare I say it, getting a different beverage altogether. Of course I just had to interview him, and the responses he gave shed even more light on the nature of creativity and how to get in touch with it (he also included many supplementary links and videos on specific concepts he mentions, which I highly recommend taking a look at!).

First, I love the fact that Krueger chose someone from Brown University’s engineering department to write an essay for a psychology website. Intermingling between STEM and non STEM fields is always great to see. Besides understanding creativity, are there other psychological concepts that are frequently applied in engineering?

There are many… Many of the classes I teach take a human centered approach to design, which means that we begin and end the creative process with how people will experience the things we create. This is why an interdisciplinary approach to engineering is critical.  The rise of a culture of STEAM on campus (the “A” is for art) has helped nurture an environment where students feel extremely comfortable translating ideas between domains.

But design and engineering are about far more than just the function of an object or a system. We’re also designing behaviors, which are situated within a cultural and social context, and these behaviors can be, and often are, meaningful as well (which is related to the definition of ritual I give in the article). The definition of creativity that comes up a lot in the academic literature is that creativity is the creation of something that is both novel and useful. However, we might augment the term “useful” with the term “meaningful” as well. One especially important psychological concept I use quite a bit in class, and have attempted to expand upon (see article below), is the notion of an “affordance”, which as Don Norman has pointed out in his seminal book “The Design of Everyday Things”  (originally titled the “Psychology of Everyday Things) as having both a physical and psychological dimension.

I give a more in depth overview here, and attempt to expand the idea of an affordance beyond its original contexts in biology and design, to apply it to entrepreneurship:

Here is a good intro to Norman’s idea of an affordance:

And here is some more info about Brown/RISD STEAM:

There are also other concepts from psychology that help students understand their creative process. Some of these terms I explore in the article on the Psychology Today site, which include: Divergent Thinking/Convergent Thinking, Incubation, Flow, and Lateral Thinking, among others.

Here is a brief introduction to Creative Thinking that I use at the beginning  of some of my classes:

Also here is a piece I wrote a while back about Lateral Thinking:

In this article you discuss creativity and compare creative practices to rituals, saying they can enhance the creative process but dull over time. Is there a general “expiration date” for a creative practice? What are some signs that one’s creative practice is losing its effect?

This is a good question. One way of answering this is to describe my approach to teaching. I think that any teacher who teaches design or art or creativity or any discipline which requires students to think creativity, which nowadays is most, if not all of them, has at least two important responsibilities. The first is to help students understand and develop their own creative process. The rise of Design Thinking in recent years has done a lot to give students a structure by which to translate their ideas into something real. However, too often, I see students getting stuck in Design Thinking, applying it more as a method than a process, in the sense that it becomes a kind of cookie cutter approach to innovation. To counter this, I encourage students to nurture and cultivate many different strategies for their creative process. No two problems, or users, or contexts are the same, and therefore each new project demands its own perspective.

I give a brief overview of this critique here:

The second aspect of pedagogy which complements the first is to help students navigate around or through a creative block when they encounter it. Getting stuck is also a part of the creative process – often a fruitful one –  because it can open up other unconsidered possibilities.  Some of what I described in relation to rituals and anti-rituals is meant to do just that.

What are some of your own creative rituals? Have you ever had to use an anti-ritual when you found a ritual was failing you?

I walk a lot, as described in the piece. There is some good research that shows that walking has all kinds of cognitive benefits. But these kinds of anti-rituals don’t have to be some grand recalibration of your world view. It can be as modest as ordering something new off the menu or taking a risk that you might not have otherwise taken. Sometimes I find just by using a different kind of pen when writing, I think in a different way. It forces me to make marks in a different way. It basically comes down to giving yourself (and those around you) permission to try something new, like trying on clothes at the store to see if they fit.

You describe the creative technique of dérive as a meandering walk often through an urban environment where one lets themselves be drawn to the attractions of their surroundings and notice things they may have glanced over before. Have you ever used this technique? If so, could you describe your experience?

I do some form of this everyday. I also take my students on derives (New England has exquisite pyschogeography). Walking is not only my main source of exercise, it is also a kind of self care or meditation. When I do this with my students, we take our bus pass (student ID) and cell phones, and go to the central bus terminal downtown and board a random bus, often taking us to a part of town we have never visited before. It gets us out of our bubble and daily habits. Just by putting ourselves in a new situation, we become more attuned to the things around us. Apparently it can be lucrative too ; )…Just kidding, not really that lucrative, but I do find a lot of change on the street on a very regular basis (and other things), which confirms for me that we do gain a heightened awareness.

I explain my very unscientific experiment here:

On your website (gonsherdesign.com) there is information for a course that took place in 2014 called Intro to Creative Process. What sorts of things were taught and how did you go about designing the course?

For many years I co-taught with my friend and mentor, Richard Fishman, two related courses in the Visual Art Department at Brown: “Hybrid Art” and the “Creative Mind Studio” (among others). We recruited students from all different disciplines and made art that responded to various questions we were interested in exploring together. We later formalize the class through the Creative Mind Initiative and the Creative Scholars Project.

You can find more info about both here:

Creativity often exists at the intersection of different things. This is a process I call “Creative Dialectics”, which I describe a bit here:

Like muscles, some psychological skills, such as short term memory, can be improved with practice. The creative process seems to be enhanced by rituals or anti-rituals for a period of time, but can creativity itself be permanently improved?

This is a great metaphor… There are many ways to exercise these “muscles”. As just one example from my classes, this is one such exercise. The goal of this exercise is to demonstrate that quick iterative prototyping can help develop your divergent thinking, functional fixedness, and lateral thinking “muscles”:

This is the original piece in which I explore ritual in a bit more depth… I’m still very interested in what designers can learn from religious ritual and what religious ritual can offer designers. The work at Stanford, mentioned in the article is of particular interest.

This also relates to the aforementioned interest in affordances:

What is a common misconception about creativity, be it about the concept in general, how it is used/attained, or some other way?

Creativity is not about being a genius. As I mention in the article, it is about establishing the conditions for the encounter to occur, and this is why creative practices are so important. It is also about attuning yourself to what is hiding in plain sight. There is this great quote from Einstein that is something like, “ You can live your life like everything is a miracle or as if nothing is”. I think seeing the world creatively comes from the cultivating the curiosity that emerges from the former.

But it should also be remembered that there is no formula for creativity (at least none I know of). Each one of us has our own perceptions and orientation to the world, and each project is a bit different, so being able to cultivate these conditions (and doing so collaboratively where possible) can produce creative outcomes.

What I enjoyed so much about this interview was what Ian touched on at the end, that creativity not reserved for certain people, but it is something everyone has. Whether someone specializes in hard sciences or the arts, they use creativity in their work. This interview helped me reevaluate my concept of creativity as not something that some people just have more of, but something that perhaps some people are just more in tune with. Creativity is something we can all access, and this interview offers some great ways to get started.

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  1. It’s quite refreshing knowing that creativity isn’t something that only certain people has. Everyone has potential in creativity, it’s just a matter of how do we attune unfamiliar things. That’s why my lecturer said that exploration is one of the most important things in the creative process. It’s about discovering something new, by trying to change the common ones.
    In my country, there are lots of people who think that not everyone is a creative person. It’s very easy labeling theirself like “you’re creative, i’m not”, as if creativity is something that is very absolute. But in fact, everyone has a potential. So, by figuring out the real meaning of creativity, i hope i can apply this in my daily life. Thanks!

  2. This was so cool and eye opening! It’s a great perspective on creativity. Everyone has the ability to be creative, it’s just a matter of tuning in with it and knowing how to use it for the situation. I love thinking about it as something that can be exercised, like he said about how you can improve short term memory. I also like that this doesn’t limit artists to creativity, people can use creativity in every area. I think that the blending of arts and STEM is also very important. It helps with learning over all to get a more wholesome view and be able to see the links between different things in new ways.
    This article was so informative and the format is great. The interview questions were also really well written and provided some great, detailed answers. I’m really curious about the specific benefits of teaching creativity to people in STEM areas.

  3. I’m studying engineering and had one semester of Creativity. Everybody at first thought the class would be boring and nothing to do with our career but in the end, everybody loved that class and the way we learn to think.

    For the whole article, I really liked the way you put the information, the complementary links and videos, all the extra material make the whole interview super complete. It shows all the research and work you did for this.

  4. This article was very eye opening in the way that it described the creative process as something that isn’t standard and needs to be customized not only to the situation at hand, but also to the creator. Everyone has unique experiences that allow their curiosities to see things differently and so perhaps be enlightened by the same thing differently.
    Another particular point that really interested me was how the physical designs of things can affect our psychology, how we think about it. We can use design to create useful and meaningful behaviors indirectly. It’s exciting just thinking about all the various possible applications.
    I also loved the inclusion of the additional resources like the links to relevant articles and the videos. It allows literal portals to be opened to a whole new world by a single piece.
    One particular critique is that there are a few small grammatical errors here and there, but it didn’t really interrupt the flow of the read much and could be easily remedied with a bit more proofreading.

  5. First of all I love your writing style, the introduction has just the right balance of humor and professionalism! I also appreciate all the extra links and videos that were sent, in case any of the readers wanted a more in depth explanation! It’s true that everyone has a gift for creativity, even though everybody usually associates it with the arts, and I love how that’s actually being discussed now – as it should be. I’ve actually had people tell me creativity and imagination are “pretending”, so it’s nice seeing this being addressed. And I’ll definitely have to remember a lot of this, as an artist I’m prone to getting into creative slumps or getting stuck in boxes, so I’ll really be taking note of a lot of this.

  6. Would a combination of a ritual and an anti-ritual together help the creative process to never falter? Like, if every time you went to a certain restaurant, you ordered something different, or every week you changed your route home slightly?

  7. It’s fantastic how pervasive interdisciplinary studies are becoming. In my opinion, one of the worst things that we can do as learners is to pidgeonhole ourselves.

    It’s so amusing to me that Gonsher uses walking for grounding and inspiration. I do so as well. I also recall reading that Tchaikovsky routinely took long walks in the evening.

    Gonsher’s suggestion to expose ourselves to new environments as an anti-ritual brought to mind a study I read which stated that by exposing ourselves to new environments, our bodies take on new stimuli which effects us on a molecular level, rapid evolution. Our genetic expesssion changes! It’s no surprise that a change in environment would effect us on a neurological level, perhaps creating new pathways through which a new expression of creative ability is expressed.

  8. As someone who studies music and creative writing, this article is extremely relevant to my life. I love that terms are broken down, links are given, and videos are shown. So many aspects of creativity is touched in this article. Rituals and anti-rituals and even a small tip on how to get over a creative block are things that I’ve been searching for to help boost my own creativity. I never really knew that even ordering something new off a menu would help stimulate the brain. It opens a world of possibilities to get over a creative block. I deeply appreciate this article and am very pleased with the answers Gonsher gave.

  9. Article worth reading and rereading! Investigating the links to the theories and applications is definitely with exploring! I agree with another commenter’s view of authors writing, very friendly and professional style!
    The article focusing on Creativity, opens the reader to creative crosshath of sorts, expanding creative application into many areas!

  10. A fascinating article that went into depth about the various aspects of creativity and creative thinking. Gonsher thoroughly explains the notions of the creative process, and what one can do in order to improve their own creativity.
    It’s great that Goshner stated that creativity is not exclusive to visual or fine art students, but rather for every body. He explains that creativity is not just about whether or not your an draw or paint or write, but rather the process in which people take inspiration from the world around them, think out of the box, and create a new approach or a new idea. People may not see the creativity in coming up with a new method for a mathematical formula but it’s there! The process of creative thinking encourages ideas and innovations from every one.
    I think that Goshner’s idea of anti-rituals can often be underestimated. Simply shaking things up with a new pen, a new drink order, a new bus route can do wonderful things of clearing one’s mind and making them open to new possibilities.
    This was an excellent article with a lot of various resources to watch and learn from. The questions were thoughtful and in-depth, and Goshner was more than generous with his explanations and advice when it came to creative thinking. This article both inspires and informs, and would benefit a lot of people.

  11. Well done on a very professional-looking article. You took a concept to write about and actually tried to get multiple angles to look at, whilst also keeping to the point of the matter. It also looks like a lot of material and effort was put into it, which is something I appreciate. The use of humor in the beginning to connect it with the topic was also a nice touch; not too blatant, not too subtle.

  12. Amazingly done, author!
    I love the topic you decided to go for, itself was interesting and innovative, as was the talk you had with Mr Ian Gonsher. I find that most of the information he shared and you later, expanded on, providing readers with links and etc. will prove to be very useful! The subject of authenticity and originality is often a burning question in our western society, as we’re fixated on the idea of an astounding invention, that’s simple, yet useful, as though it ‘gets’ why we needed it, and how we needed it. In regards to that, I do have to admit that changing your surroundings and other such tips about ‘boosting’ one’s creativity are indeed psychologically well-grounded, and for that I must applaud the article in that aspect as well.
    Hope to read more from you, fantastic work!

  13. This was a good interview and far more insightful than I expected. I appreciate how Goshner explained that creativity isn’t something that only happens to certain people, but it rather more based on circumstance. The right environment plays such a huge role in how productive and effective we are, so it makes sense that changing your environment would change your creativity levels. My question for Goshner would be, since he talked about moving around and changing your environment: how would you handle a situation like, for example, where you are trying to write an essay and for whatever reason, you have to stay in the spot where you are now? If you can’t get up and walk around, what is the next best thing to do?

  14. This was really well done and I liked how it linked into such varied fields.
    I definetly will be trying some new things out since I never considered myself a risk taker, but I will definetly try it it may boost my creativity!
    Normally i talk to my friends about concepts, such as a liquid which can do something magical- what would you do with it, is it useful? And eventually try to make a picture out of it, but I understand it might be difficult to come up with concepts in the first place. So- I definetly suggest to look around you- what is “normal” to you, and how can you make it better? – Much Like how professor Norman talked about how he would describe his perfect door.

  15. I found this article to be mind expanding. It illustrates the science and psychology and engineering of improving creative ability and illustrates that creativity without respect to usability will be less successful,


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