These days, creativity is considered an absolute good, praised by CEOs, politicians, and engineers. This exhibit will look at the crucial years of the 1950s and 1960s, when people first invented what is today a booming creativity research, publishing, and consulting industry, and during which many of our ideas about who is creative, how creativity works, and why it matters were first formed.
Postwar America contained the perfect conditions for the concept of creativity to arise–a potent mix of optimism about material progress and fears of conformity and technology run amok.
As the United States competed with the Soviet Union in a race of military technology, its economy depended on a constant stream of consumer goods. Many saw totalitarianism abroad and consumerism at home as twin threats to individualism. With the recent experience of the Holocaust and the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon in mind, some critics worried about the effect of mass society and “conformity” on humane values. Corporate America, for its part, feared its own bureaucratic culture might slow the innovation on which profits depended.
CREATIVITY was a salve for all these problems: it conjured individuality, self-expression, and freedom, but also promised all the inventiveness and dynamism necessary to keep the whole system running.
Managing the Muse
Postwar managers of corporations like General Electric, Alcoa, and General Motors dreamed of making innovation as predictable as cars off an assembly line. But they also worried that too much bureaucracy might stifle good ideas. How to summon the genius of the nineteenth-century inventor within the modern corporation? Increasingly they looked to experts offering new-fangled techniques for "creative thinking" and "creative problem-solving".
These early creativity consultants claimed white collar workers were too rational and needed help accessing their irrational and poetic sides. In highly-structured, replicable sessions, buttoned-up types were encouraged to get wild and break rules – temporarily, at least – to generate profitable new ideas. These experts claimed their methods could be used to solve any problem from domestic arguments to ending the nuclear standoff, but they were most widely taken up in the world from which they emerged: corporate R&D and product development.
In the wake of the brainstorming controversy, new methods such as Synectics popped up. Synectics was based on the theory that new ideas came from metaphorical thinking.
As in brainstorming, its facilitators led participants through a series of steps aimed at unleashing seemingly irrelevant ideas – like fish anatomy to improve a hammer – then corralling them back toward a relevant solution. Observers said Synectics sessions resembled “LSD parties,” but the intention was always to end with a concrete goal, product, or service. Even as Synectics founders railed against the corporate culture of efficiency and rationality, they also espoused traditional management techniques to optimize their creative process.
The Science of Creativity
The 1950s and 1960s saw a boom of creativity research. Much of this research was initially funded by the U.S. military, looking for ways to identify, train, and retain talented scientists and engineers. But it was also attractive to those who hoped for social and cultural progress as well. By the late 1960s research had been carried out on cadets, famous writers, primary school children, and a host of others, in the hopes of unlocking the secrets of human ingenuity.
But before they could approach the topic researchers had to first define it: how would they know creativity when they saw it? Some researchers would only consider eminent figures with a proven record, while others insisted they could study creativity in children. Though researchers never reached a consensus on the ultimate criteria of creativity, they were united in the belief that creativity research was a dire social need. The figure of the “creative person” that emerged from their research was an ideal liberal citizen capable of resisting conformity, adapting to change, and being innovative all at the same time.
Some of the most highly publicized creativity studies were carried out at the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR) at the University of California, Berkeley. There, famous writers, mathematicians, and architects like Truman Capote, Louis Kahn, and Eero Saarinnen underwent intensive scrutiny including Rorschach ink blots, drawing completion tests, and psychoanalysis.
A Corporate Counterculture
Oakland-based Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Company, a paragon of the military-consumer-industrial complex, manufactured everything from fighter jet fuselages to TV dinner trays.
The 1968 edition of Kaiser News featured tests and exercises to help improve employee creativity alongside lyrical essays and psychedelic art inspired by the blossoming counterculture in nearby Berkeley and San Francisco. Kaiser apparently saw in creativity a value it shared with the counterculture, and hoped it could channel the spirit of liberation, self-expression, and innovation for its own gain.
The British author Oscar Wilde once wrote, “all art is quite useless.” So why would people who write about creativity – which they say is the ability to come up with something new and useful – constantly urge people to unleash their inner artist?
In 1964 the designers Robert Propst and George Nelson attempted to revolutionize the white collar workplace with their new Action Office line of furniture for the Herman Miller company.
Believing the traditional office was “restrictive and inflexible,” they studied people “noted for creativity” (sometimes using the psychologist J. P. Guilford’s battery of creativity tests) and determined the workspace of the future should be flexible, active, and individualized. Unfortunately the desires of management intervened and the subsequent versions devolved into the endless rectangular cubicle farms we know today.
The idea that creativity could be heightened through open and flexible workplaces persisted, reflected in our own era of corporate design that looks anything but corporate, from the refurbished factories and artist studio-inspired lofts of urban tech startups to the playground-like campuses of Silicon Valley giants. All of these changes have been accompanied by parallel changes in the way we dress, the way we are managed, and the way we are encouraged to think about our work – not as work, but as passion and play, where the boundaries between work and leisure break down and, we are told, the future runs not on toil but on pure ideas.
What does it mean to be creative?
From the image of the fashionably shabby urban dweller, always at work yet always at play, to the ubiquitous “brainstorm” session, postwar ideas about what creativity is, who has it, and how to foster it still resonate today.
Though much of the postwar context has changed, many of the key components–such as a hyper-consumer economy and fundamental anxieties about technology and the survival of our species–remain. Perhaps that’s why we continue to spend so much time and money attempting to uncover the secrets of the “creative mind” and the “creative process,” and why “creativity,” despite its vagueness, continues to be the thing we all want more of.