Copy + Transform + Combine. This is what all good artists and scientists do.
Humans use creativity so much that we miss what a miracle it is to be creative in our digital age. But creativity didn’t begin because of technology. Human creativity helped bring about the digital age. How? Through the art of remixing. In fact, everything is a remix.
If you’re facing a creative block at the moment due to the pandemic, I have something you may want to do to remove that creative block. Watch a video, read a book or listen to music from your childhood, the long ago past or from an era that creates a nostalgic effect.
Yes, most who work in fields requiring creativity and innovation are quick to make it out that all one needs to do to succeed is come up with new, original ideas. To be some futurist with cutting-edge ideas that makes it look like the concepts are so original and fresh that they came from a future civilization. And this is where we as humans get the concept of creativity all wrong.
You see, as humans, we aren’t very good at original ideas. We never have been. We’re good at ideas that are remixed from previous ideas that are remixed from previous ideas and so on.
In fact, this concept has been talked about and written about a ton in the past few years. From Kirby Ferguson exploring this concept in his YouTube series, Everything is a Remix to a great 2018 book from authors David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt titled The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.
In that book, the authors conclude that creativity falls into a massive blur of art and science, mixed together to foster innovation and how we have seen this in everything from the paintings of Cezanne to the iPhone of Jobs. Ferguson uses a triple formula to explain how creativity works:
Copy + Transform + Combine. This is what all good artists and scientists do. We copy something that inspires us, transform it into another area or vertical, and combine it with new elements to get new creative concepts. Eagleman and Brandt also use a formula involving the power of three but dub it: Bending/Breaking/Blending. With this formula, it is like Ferguson’s in that most working on innovation usually bend an existing idea, break the features to imitate a design that has come before and then blend to make something appear new. Nothing is really new at all.
So why do we need to discuss this more in modern business? Because the dark secret in most of modern business is that we think innovation is all new and that the next billion-dollar idea is waiting for us if we dedicate billions to research and development and that this will lead to something brand new and groundbreaking.
In reality, most of the emerging billion-dollar ideas are already 10 years old or more, have been copied/transformed/combined or bent/broken/blended by those who can see patterns and are making it into something unique and which appears novel to the marketplace. The great learning in all of this is to come up with new ideas, it’s probably best to have a wide diversity of people working on ideas who all bring different patterns of remixing to the table.
So why do some of the greatest creators appear as if what they came up with is original? Why aren’t we pointing out that the iPhone used the bend/break/blend technique or that many of our digital solutions are simply copy/transform/combined remixes of things from our analog past?
Because to sell new ideas, the myth must be that it is new, novel, young and fresh. Perception is reality. Innovation is seen as cool, and to note that it’s based on old ideas? Well, that is seen as theft. Furthermore, humans buy narratives that only the youth of the world come up with cool ideas, that we lose our creative edge as we age and that even according to Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, “Young people are just smarter.”
Too bad Mark conveniently forgot it was baby boomers like Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, and Steven Jobs who led the information revolution and made his empire possible.
Knowing what we know about our world of copying, reinventing, and remixing, and that nothing is “new,” what should you do to embrace this creative blueprint? How can you take this knowledge and put it to use to build a creative idea? Stand on the shoulder of giants and take this wise quote as a kick starter:
“The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.” — Arthur Schopenhauer.
We don’t need more information. We’re drowning in that. In fact, the information era is not only over but overrated. You want to be creative? Get started by synthesizing. And instead of emphasizing becoming an expert on one subject, become a generalist. Value how a variety of things when mixed and remixed work together. We need to value the enormous amount of effort and time and thought that goes into connecting and remixing and bending and blending ideas that shape creativity once again.
Geoffrey Colon is head of Brand Studio, Microsoft Advertising.