FITC 2009: Creativity in A Can
In its 8th year in Toronto, FITC ("Flash In The Can") wrapped up eariler this week and it proved to offer even more insight than I was expecting. Aside from all the amazing art and hip nerd parties, FITC is a highly technical developer and graphic design forum; however, FITC also brings in experts in the 'creative process' to the table.
While creativity is essentially everywhere at this conference - even the exhibitor booths were doodled on and decorated - the creative process itself can sometimes get lost amidst technical discussions on software and design integration. But this year FITC felt different to me - as though there was a deeper appreciation for the creative philosophy behind the project's execution. In particular, I was fascinated by Jason Theodor and Mikey Richardson's discussions of how to avoid falling in to stagnant thinking patterns, and how to tap into the true power of brainstorming and the creative process.
I don't think it was just me. FITC shifted focused this year and looked to take a VERY liberal creative approach with even the most technical topics. One of the feature sponsors, Chuck Freedman of Ribbit, seemed to agree. "My talk this time around was an effort to be a bit more 'inspiring thought leadership' and less 'technology salesman'. I think the audience was very receptive! This was my 3rd Toronto FITC and my 4th overall; it really keeps getting better."
Personally, I was eager to hear from one of the creative minds at Critical Mass, Jason Theodor, who was already on my radar (he's created branding for companies like Yahoo! and Dove). His presentation There is no Box - How to Think Beyond the Edge took a frank look at how the creative process can break down, especially when confined to binary lines of thinking. People often think they are being creative, or 'outside the box', when really they are just presenting a polarized view of the issue. I had a chance to speak with Jason about some of his forays into corporate creativity, and how binary thinking can kill creativity.
"Often the brain is convinced that there are only two options for an idea: accept or reject. How often have you heard, 'Think outside the box' ? That is a perfect example of Binary Thinking. It presupposes that an idea is either inside the box (stale) or outside the box (fresh). What about checking that idea out from the side, from the top, from the bottom, from the edges, from that low, aggressive three-quarter angle? What about taking it all apart and putting it back together again - inside-out? Without exploration there is no innovation. Just telling someone to think outside of the box isn't enough. They need new tools. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there is no box."
Jason's approach is so direct that it is easy to forget how complex the 'creative process' can be, especially when dealing with large brands. "Pepsi spent thirty-five million dollars redesigning their Tropicana packaging only to revert back to the original look in two months. What happened? A loud group of consumers said they didn't like it.
It's shocking to think that such a strong brand could be so wildly insecure and react in such a knee-jerk fashion. If a musician only listened to her fans, she would play the same damn three songs for the rest of her life, never finding the time to experiment and grow as an artist. Brands are no different. By judging their packaging to be good (launch) and then bad (recall) they left out any chance for discovery."
Though I only stole a moment of his time at FITC, I'm looking forward to sitting down picking Jason's brain over his upcoming workshop at the Rich Media Institute, The Creative Method: How to Generate Great Ideas on May 9th.
In the meantime, I was also interested to hear Mikey Richardson talk about The Things (he) Learned About Being Creative. Though his presentation was basically an expose of the creative philosophy used at his design firm amoebacorp, I gotta say... HIS COMPANY IS SO AWESOME. They have a very broad approach that is narrowed down through a lot of research, time, trial and error - without fear of being reprimanded for taking the time to explore a new idea or wild concept.
I also like how Mikey underscored the value of 'Peers and Beers' & 'Long Walks and Bathroom Breaks' as vital components in the creative process. However, the real message here was simply how a semi-streamlined process can actually yield some fantastically creative results, as long as the goals are kept front of mind: generate a multitude of ideas, narrow down the good ones using project criteria, deliver on-message creative concepts. Some of the outcomes at amoebacorp were really very impressive; they seem to generate a ridiculous wealth of creative output.
Most of those in attendance at FITC are, of course, on the technical side of things. Speaking with some of the savvy developers and designers in attendance, it's clear that people were happy with this year's offerings. "This isn't like most web conferences, where a lot of business CEOs come to shake hands," explained Derek, a young design student at Seneca. This was his first year at FITC but he'd been to several other 'tech' conferences that failed to impress.
Another designer, Michelle was impressed with the accessibility of the more 'hardcore' workshops."I ended everything off with the most technical session I could find... the dude that's behind NoteFlight. And surprisingly I could follow it and understand!" Judging by those in attendance, FITC is striking just the right chord with this stylish artsy tech crowd - an impressive feat.
The biggest take-away from FITC for me (being relatively non-technical) was that old ideas are not bad ideas, and should be re-explored and re-cycled when possible; that new ideas can come from strange places and you have to let your mind explore those places to find them. Amazing how a tech conference can deliver such a sappy sense of inspiration!