How much inspiration can a medical device designer glean from a presentation on creativity from a painter? You might be surprised. At the recent MD&M West conference, a medical products show in Anaheim, California, former Disney artist Dave Zaboski conversed with the audience while sketching and painting the face of a lady that most guys would like to meet. In the process, Zaboski suggested considering the bounds of a design which might be called thinking inside the box, the feelings a design should provoke, a collaborative design function he called plusing, and the trajectory of an idea. And he did all that in the context of an art class.
Zaboski began by asking the crowd: “Can you build creative capital if you zig and zag in your work, inching toward a finished design?” You cannot, he answers. “You end up short of where you had intended, out of time and money, friends, and enthusiasm. When we don’t examine our creative process, it tends to randomize (instead of becoming more focused). That becomes problematic, especially for creators who finish away from where they thought the final design was going to be.”
There is another way of looking at the creative process. “At Disney, we got this lecture called the Spiral Lecture. In it, we talked about a different way of looking at things. Look at your creative process the same way that the universe works. Could we think about our process with the same energies that push the smallest particles through the Large Hadron Collider? Or calls the sun towards the center of the universe? Could we create and think about creativity in that way?” All this while, Zaboski is drawing a spiral around his paper, getting closer to a “goal” in the center.
This is a context conversation, he says. “It’s about how we look at what we’re doing. Think about your creative process as a series of passes.”
One SOP (series of passes) process is called phase gating. “If I thought about the process as an iterative, would I trust it? Suppose I have these gates and passes. I might have one, two, three passes, ten passes, writing and rewriting. I think about the process in terms of: What are my iterations?
He suggests talking about designs in terms of four attributes. The first thing is belief. “How do I believe? I know that I’m pulled to the center, the solution, by what I believe. I also want my process to feel. What do I want the end product to feel like in the user’s hands? In the process of making it, what’s the feeling I want to create? That feeling or that belief is the story we tell. It lets us create a consensus.”
“Speaking of iterations, I’m going to iterate my way towards the center of this drawing. (All the while Zaboski is talking, he is drawing.) Collaboration is the third attribute. And then there is risk. I might get to a place where I realize some detail must be 10% bigger and over to the right two inches. Then what? If my commitment is to get to the center, I just wipe it down (a painting or a design) and start over, then I’ll get to where I was faster than I did the first time because I’ve built creative capital.”
By thinking about a design it like this, little is lost.
He also speaks of completion. “How do we complete? When we complete short of time and money, enthusiasm, and friends. There can be all kinds of self-taught recrimination, and blame. ‘It’s your fault’ or ‘I should have …’” But if we look at the process as a spiral, then I choose where to finish. I choose where I’m going to complete this. When I choose, that’s powerful,” he says.
The old way was that you had five passes to finish something. “Here are my passes, I’m going to do this on the third, this on the fourth, and so on. Then on the fifth pass we complete. I communicate with my superiors, with my clients, about when we’re completing something and I can choose to complete.”
Completion circles back around into the idea of belief. How do we belief what it is that we believe?
We create more powerfully from feeling than anything else, he says. “We tend to want to know what something’s going to look like. Then when it starts to not look like that, then we zig and we zag. If we can get consensus on how we want it to feel then we can create a deeper, broader consensus about things. If and we use words that describe how it is that we want something to feel. You know that if that’s part of your story then that’s how you filter your world.”
Regarding the four creative keys, let’s start with iteration. “For example, you see that I’m on the next iteration of this image. It may look like is I’m on my second iteration, but I made this painting in my head many times last night. I sanded down the surface before we started. Then I did it with my thumb and with my collaborator. I was doing a painting with my thumb to figure out where I needed to go with things. Then I penciled furiously, so then now we’re at say fifty-three iterations of this. The first fifty were in my head, then I painted.”
Part of the process of iteration is this balance“I’m going to stand back and have a look at it and then closer, and find balance. Then we’ve got to collaborate and we’ve got to risk something so it’s time for me to take this painting to the next level. To get to the next level, I’m going to ask for a collaborator.”
John, a volunteer from the audience and non-painter, steps forward. “Not a painter? Great, so you’re going to go to art school here. We’re going to talk about collaboration. Art creates the illusion of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. We have three conventions in art. One is ‘line,’ two is ‘value,’ and three is ‘color.’ A line is either organic or inorganic. That is, it’s either squiggly or it’s straight. If you look here, I’ve got maybe a straight line over here, but mostly squiggly lines.
Then there’s value. Value is the quality of light and dark on something. If number one is light and ten is dark. Then, every image has some range between one and ten. “The great painters have a range between one and fifty or more. They have this incredible subtlety of range of value.”
Then there’s color. Color has the qualities of warm and cool.
Zaboski now recalls collaboration at Disney which involved this idea called “plusing” – plus something. It is a term that was the epitome of how we worked together. A definition of ‘to plus something’ is to be in service to the trajectory of the idea, not the ego of the person who brought it. If you could plus something, or create a culture of plusing, were in service to the trajectory of an idea. That means you had to have a trajectory conversation. Not a, ‘Who are you,’ or ‘Why are you here,’ or ‘What are you going to get out of it,’ but ‘What’s the trajectory of this idea because we are looking to create its full expression in the world.’ We listen carefully, because every idea has its own flaws. You can wrestle with them. But the idea has its own life. We listen for that life by having this trajectory conversation.”
He explains the idea of plusing further with: “What’s its past, what’s its future, and where are we now? Where is the idea coming from? We don’t want to chime in repeating stuff that you’ve already tried. That’s a waste of time. What’s your plan? What iteration are you on? How many passes? ‘I’m on the third pass, here’s my list, I’m going to have eight passes to finish it.’
The last question, which is really critical, is: Are you open? “Are you open is a conversation about permissions. When we don’t have permissions in a collaborative environment we get crispy and step on toes and ego gets in the way.”
He tells the story of his daughter, when she was ten. “She came to me with a drawing. She said, ‘Daddy, look at my drawing.’ I said, ‘This is beautiful, I love it. But you know, if you could do this or that.’ She said, ‘Dad. Stop. Can’t you just love it?’ I thought, yeah, you know what? She’s right. I didn’t have permission. Getting permission is really critical and that is the idea of plusing.
The truth is, when we finished projects at Disney, we had always thought, “Oh my God, we always had more things that we wanted to put in. Creativity invites itself into the world at whatever level. For example, even after we finished Lion King we felt that maybe we didn’t achieve what we wanted to. When we create the best we can today and we know that the future will take care of itself.”
Here’s the thing about creation and collaboration, he says. “Sometimes when we’re done with something, it might not look exactly like what we wanted it to look like. We think that our collaboration wasn’t so good, or did we really help? That’s why this whole painting is a metaphor. This is not me up here painting with both hands like a mad man. This is about the metaphor of creation and how does that work in real life. Sometimes in real life, we’ve made a contribution and it wasn’t really what we expected to contribute. Things didn’t really work the way we thought they would. Truth is, everything you contribute is part of the whole.”
“You’re going to see some amazing creations this week, at the show. My invitation is to not just think about the doing-ness of it but the being-ness of them because we create from a place of being. What’s the ‘why’, meaning, why are we making the things that we’re making? Especially in the technical field. We get so tuned in to things that we’re doing that we forget the being part of it. Can we reconnect possibly to the being-ness of it? Who are we to the people around us? What’s the story we’re telling? How does that story affect the things that we’re creating in the world?
Prompted by a question from the audience he responds: “Doing and being go together. What is talent? Talent without practice can be really empty. I had an aptitude for the things that I love because I love them, but I also have practice because practice is important to getting those things you love into the world. The things that we’re talking about today, how creators work. How they cultivate these creative keys, that’s a practice for being able to turn your thoughts into things in a way that allows for them to manifest perfectly in the world.”
At the time, Zaboski draws a connection to manufacturing. “Why is an artist up here talking about creativity this way? Because we artists have for centuries been connected to the creative process in a way a lot like a manufacturing system. We have a master artist and a big idea, and that big idea is designed to come into the world in a way that’s perfectly executed for what was in mind. Think about where else have you ever seen something perfectly executed. In places like the Getty Museum. Those guys had something in mind and they executed it perfectly.”
Ancient artists used a system a Talleya system, which is not that dissimilar to a manufacturing system. They had a master artist and apprentices and distribution channel.
A question from the audience: Does having such rigor around creativity allow for moments of inspiration?
“There is a lot of stuff about out of the box thinking and getting out of the box. Creators need a box. We need to have parameters with which to create. It’s not about getting out of the box it’s about how do you describe the box? What’s the box that you’re working in?”
“Let’s recap. Why do we create? We create because the world needs our creations. We create powerfully from feeling. These are the little icons. We create from feeling because we believe. As creators, you believe. You iterate, you collaborate, you risk, and you complete. We complete it by saying, “I made this in the world. I stand by it.” Completion has a couple aspects to it. It has acknowledgment, analysis, and celebration.
Throughout the history of the world, from the beginning of time before there were even people, every great crisis this earth has ever faced has been solved by profound acts of creativity. “The world needs the creativity that you have in you. That you believe, that you iterate, that you collaborate, that you risk, and that you complete powerfully everything that is that you are ought to, because the world needs profound acts of creativity right now.”
“The world needs you to be fierce about what it is you’re creating. If I were to ask now, who in this room are my creators? Let me see a show of hands. (Most everyone raises their hand) All right! Awesome! How does that feel? That is a creative feeling. Thank you everybody. Let’s go plus this place.”