Arts, crafts, and the “real” meaning of creativity

If you're not makin' it, you're fakin' it.

In the 1950s, a group of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley wanted to unlock the source of creativity. At the school’s Institute of Personality and Social Research (IPAR), they studied the behavior, history, and neuroses of highly successful creative people, from writers to explorers to, most revealingly, architects.

The postwar era remains a golden age of American architecture, when seminal figures like Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen contributed iconic, groundbreaking designs featuring new building materials and techniques. The mid-century style synthesizes beauty, simplicity, originality, accessibility, and purpose. The men (they were all men) assembled at IPAR were uniquely capable of yielding insight into what makes creative people tick.

The researchers found the architects had three key traits in common. First, innovation born of a  desire to solve real problems, like how to design beautiful, affordable housing for the postwar suburban boom. Second, a deeply entrenched, self-determinist independence—sticking to your guns when everyone else says, “no, Joseph, you can’t design beautiful, affordable housing for the postwar suburban boom!” Finally, and most critically: your solutions actually have to work.

At our office, it’s that last one that resonates, a corollary to the famous Steve Jobs aphorism, “real artists ship.” An objectively beautiful design that never goes into production, well-reasoned strategy that doesn’t meet its goals: these may be inventive, but they aren’t truly creative. The creation only goes in one direction, stopping with the object or idea, no second life creating satisfaction or results for someone else.

Of course, art can be meaningful in and of itself. The creative process is rewarding for the creator. If “real artists” always had to “ship,” nobody would ever pick up a guitar or a paintbrush or a camera for the fun of it. But at Lineage, we don’t practice art, at least not all the time. We practice craft.

The difference isn’t always immediately obvious, and reducing it to a binary can have negative implications. Nobody wants to come to work and make widgets all day, even if they’re the best widgets on Earth. Think of it this way: if you find yourself hungry in Santa Monica, you can sit down for a 17-course tasting menu at Mélisse, or head nine blocks west and get the cheeseburger at Hillstone. Both promise a blend of art and craft, but it’s clear which way each is leaning. (It’s also worth noting that your average superstar chef is gonna pick that artful cheeseburger. Or the ribs.)

A few miles inland in Beverly Hills, earlier this year our leadership were discussing the role of written content to our company vision. Based on our client roster, staff, and revenue, we found that writing and its associated output had become as significant an “art form” as design or production.

For the writers in the building, it felt wonderful to have our work acknowledged in a time when we’ve all supposedly pivoted to video and nobody reads anything! But it didn’t ring fully true. Most of the time we’re not writing screenplays or even blog posts, and certainly not fiction or poetry. We write instruction manuals, things designed to lead someone in a direction, to help them do something, or (most likely) to buy something.

Even as we pursue original series and documentaries and animation, that holds for all of our creative output. It’s marketing, remember? We’re trying to bridge the gap between the intrusion of the 10,000 marketing messages people receive every day and the reward of making an informed, satisfying purchase. That takes creativity! Most importantly, we’re committed to making the thing—to shipping, or, as many marketers would horribly put it, “delivering innovative, value-added, performance marketing solutions.”

This distinction is part of why we relish our work in home improvement and tools. None of us have built a beautiful table or a dogsled or an airplane in our garage. But we can apply the same diligence to our process and result that these builders do to theirs. We can artfully celebrate their craft. If we’ve done it right, we’ll inspire someone to pick up a (new) power drill, and then we get to do it again.

Particularly when we’re working on strategy, architecture feels like an apt comparison. But there’s one way in which it falls short. To reach name status like Neutra or Saarinen, you must doggedly pursue your own interests, escaping all external constraints to deliver on your singular vision.

As many of those architects learned, that’s pretty hard to do if you’re interested in retaining clients. To square the circle requires you re-shape your vision to suit someone else’s, nudging it this way and that until you’re all confident the solution will actually work.

Maybe that’s the fourth pillar of creativity: persuasion. Marketing, of course, is all about persuasion. Persuading the audience this thing will meet their needs. Persuading the client that your approach will persuade the audience. Persuading yourself that this client’s story is worth telling, and that you’re the one to do it, even when you’re fresh out of creative capital that day. Marketing thus fosters creativity, which leads to more and better marketing. To use another horrible buzzword: that’s synergy, baby!