The Critical Thought of Creativity

This is a refined version of a talk I gave on Friday afternoon to a group of high school students.

This is what I know, or rather, this is what I have learned.

From a very early age, I was imbued with the creative ethos. My dad handmade around half of the furniture in the house, designed exquisitely with references to Scandinavian ideas and De Stijl art. Surrounded by these pieces had an obvious effect on my aesthetic taste. It was obvious to me that these objects were not arbitrary shapes, but designed and crafted. I grew up in this designed environment.

I was also provided with technology from a relatively early age. We had dial-up internet, yes, but it was connected to a box running Windows 95, the most recent version. Yet these pieces still churning in my head could not prepare me for the next influence. It hit me with the power of Sugar Ray Leonard.

I sat in front of a Macintosh for the first time at twelve years of age. It was an iMac G4, the one with the impossibly-thin floating screen connected to a white domed base by a single, highly-polished arm. The design of the computer struck me, obviously. Its bright white body was in stark contrast to the foul beige boxes on either side of it. It grabbed me from a clearly aesthetic point, but its interface was what changed everything I knew.

It was painfully clear that the people who designed the OS X user interface did not do so out of pure style, but out of a pervasive sense of elegance through functional simplicity. The traffic lights-as-window controls were the first indication—it was perfectly obvious what each did. Everything I knew about design vanished in an instant, replaced by a realization that everything that is designed must be done so critically.

Design isn’t a creative endeavour, but a thought exercise with the bonus of visual reinforcement.

Enrolling in art school served to reinforce this idea in a most brutal way. Every part of a creation, whether it be an object or an essay, must be questioned and questioned again. These skills of critical thinking are not inherent, I do not think. They must be learned. Some learn them when they’re 13, and some when they’re 30—a few refuse to enlighten themselves, preferring to encase their head in dogma.

I managed to get a sense of aesthetics from a young age, and immersed myself in the ideas of Dieter Rams and Pininfarina. I learned Photoshop, HTML and CSS without taking a single class on the subjects. Auto-didacticism is a practical way to learn these skills. However, it’s almost always a necessity to attend a higher education institution to gain the mindset of a critical thinker. Moreover, the way in which to engage this level of thought is to take socially- or creativity-related classes. Make no mistake: this isn’t a dig at the sciences or a prod at math. They are worthy disciplines in their own right. However, the level of exploration and self-critique that is offered by the arts opens the mind a hair wider than you’d otherwise experience.

If you go to a post-secondary institution—I highly recommend you do—it’s worth taking a photography class, or a creative writing class. In my first year, I took a glass casting class. The skills I learned are almost certain to never be used again; I do not have a kiln in my basement. But the ideas expressed by everyone in that class, and the level of thought required for any of those projects are concepts that I can appreciate and apply on a daily basis. Your education is ongoing, and your time in a university should not be a means to a degree, to get a job, and then to retire. Life is not a countdown, but an adventure.