Judging creativity : when is an idea a good idea?
“Television needs to innovate, not regurgitate.”
So said Liz Warner, a top TV exec, recently in a speech. As Broadcast, the industry rag reported: “Warner used her Bafta Television Lecture to call on the industry to snap out of its creative lethargy and recognise the “creative chasm” that has appeared in its failure to respond to the digital age”.
The vital issues that Warner raises of connecting with young audiences and keeping the broadcast television alive and well aside, I think this speaks to a deeper question of how to judge creative quality.
Let’s face it, most people in the creative industries – and certainly the most powerful ones - are not paid to have good ideas, but to recognise and champion them. To my mind, the creativity chasm that Warner talks about - and the creative weakness (laziness, even) that she implies - actually lies here.
In short: when is an idea a good idea, and when is it not an idea at all?
For me, a good idea has the following five characteristics:
A good idea closes down a problem or opens up an opportunity. A good idea takes you forward with it and even propels you ahead of it. It gets you excited about the future. As human beings we are, by nature, both problem-solvers and opportunity-spotters. Those abilities are what has got us this far, in an evolutionary sense. A good idea speaks instinctively to that. By contrast, you can be pretty sure it’s a bad idea if instead it opens up problems and closes down opportunities.
A good idea intuitively makes sense; it has purpose and logic behind it (even if not immediately obviously – see 3. below), as well as evoking an emotional and/or visceral reaction. A good idea appeals to both head and heart.
A good idea retains some air of mystery about it. It is, say, 80% there when explained, but it has to be experienced to be fully understood. If it’s too obvious on paper, an idea is not exciting enough. Sometimes best ideas can’t be explained at all until they are executed, and then the explanation make sense retrospectively. Those on the receiving end of the idea actually quite enjoy working it out for themselves and being surprised when they see an idea in action. It’s what Andrew Stanton, writer of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, calls two plus two storytelling: “Make the audience put things together. Don't give them four, give them two plus two.”
A good idea doesn’t let you question it. It’s so good, you don’t stop to ask why it exists; it gets you immediately beyond that and straight into what it is proposing or promising. It is the equivalent of spontaneously bursting into laughter at the punchline of a joke rather than responding with a puzzled “I don’t get it”.
A idea good is, by definition, new. An idea is the result of connecting two things that haven’t been connected before, to generate something not thought of or seen before. Don’t get me wrong, good ideas borrow from what’s gone before (after all, everything is a remix), but they don’t repeat it. Instead, they re-imagine it, they turn the dial on it, they play out in a different context, they add an alternative perspective. Good ideas move us on, they don’t keep us standing still.
Of course, there’s a very real justification in favouring repetition over innovation; we, the human beings on the receiving end of ideas and creativity, are fundamentally creatures of habit. Bu we’re also intrinsically curious. It it’s how we balance that need for familiarity with the pleasure that surprise can bring. I think it’s about aiming for the excitement-inducing unexpected rather than the fear-prompting unpredictable.
If we can do that, then we can be proud of our creativity, we can see our ideas prompting reactions and making a difference, and we can be confident that we are innovating and not regurgitating.