Creativity connotes something aesthetically pleasing and subjective, but not always functional or corporate. Creative people assume personas of caricatures, eccentrics, costumed with extravagant personalities. Think of Dali’s mustache, Warhol’s soup cans, or Van Gogh’s really bad shaving skills. Innovation, on the other hand, is creativity’s business-savvy and restrained sibling. It transforms a phone into a personal assistant. It connects drivers and riders through a mobile app. Some people view the two groups differently but in truth, they are the same. One wears a costume while the other dons business attire. Mystery surrounds creativity and innovation but both follow replicable processes. Even conventional thinkers can learn to produce something unique and appealing if they are open and willing.

Many years ago I stepped onto a liberal arts campus expecting to become a physicist and like all students, was required to navigate a series of other mandatory classes. One of them was Art 101. As a typical science nerd, I thought art was irrelevant and I dreaded the semester-long horror movie to come. I had no creativity and thought the trait was a birthright, not a skill that could be developed. These assumptions were false.

An early assignment was to make a statue of the human body. I heard the word “statue” and selected the most obvious choice possible by selecting modeling clay. The result resembled a blob with a bowling ball sitting atop it. My classmates developed amazing figurines from wadded paper, pipe cleaners, leaves, bent forks, and even popcorn. Theirs were abstract and interesting, colorful, and imaginative. Mine was a block of mud.

Don’t break the rules; avoid them altogether.

My next project was of a body in motion and I took the advice of a friend in the class. He told me to avoid all of the tools I would normally use. I made a list of the obvious building materials and avoided them: no paper, no pencils, no ink. Always the high achiever, I remembered my goal of collecting 100 different beer bottles. The cache could be broken, polished, and glued into something interesting – all without visiting the hospital. The result was so good it received an “A.” I called home. “Mom and Dad, I know college is expensive but I just got an ‘A’ for making art with broken beer bottles. Aren’t you proud?” Ungood!

Removing the obvious options from consideration forces creative responses. 

For subsequent tasks, I tried anything that stained instead of ink: grass, blueberries, and coffee. Instead of canvas and paper, I experimented with packing boxes, computer printouts (this was the 80s), cafeteria trays and fallen leaves. None of the assignments would ever be displayed in a museum but the class taught that the combination of necessity and limited choices fosters creativity. It can be learned.  

Think back to Redbox, the DVD and game rental vending machines which started as a McDonald’s project. On the surface, the thought of a combination quick-serve restaurant and DVD rental seem disconnected. Instead, consider that McDonald’s has thousands of locations, millions of daily customers, and the floor space to offer new services. However, it didn’t have the menu space to offer one more McAnything, didn’t want to retrain staff, and wouldn’t want a new product to slow the restaurant service. McDonald’s would also need a product that could be jettisoned if it failed or sold if the right opportunity appeared. The result was a vending machine that distributed DVDs and games. It provided another reason to walk into a McDonald’s and extra revenue from customers already in the restaurant. It didn’t slow service or negatively impact the staff. Coinstar later bought all of McDonald’s interest in Redbox, which grew to 35,000 kiosks in North America. Then streaming took off and you know the rest. But the point is still valid. Connecting two seemingly disparate concepts produced something creative.

Creative products result from what cannot be used. Remove common materials, exclude existing practices, avoid usual choices. Necessity will do the rest.