Breakthrough Thinking: A Guide to Creative Thinking and Idea Discovery is a book that has a uniquely holistic approach to creativity and, through essays of former students and industry leaders, looks at the impact, risk taking and resourcefulness that come from practicing and integrating creative thinking into your life and work on a daily basis.
This past week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Thomas Vogel who is the author of the book, as well as an Associate Professor at Emerson College, and mediaman founding partnering. I spoke with him about the inspiration behind the book, creativity and mediaman, and his own experiences living and teaching creative thinking. Below are some of the highlights from our hour long conversation. (Some text has been modified from the audio recording for ease of reading.)
Congratulations on the release of your book, Breakthrough Thinking: A Guide to Creative Thinking and Idea Discovery. Could you please tell me a little bit about the book and your inspiration for writing it?
The inspiration started many years ago, with my own training as a so-called creative studying visual arts, media arts, and film. The real interest [in creativity] actually came much later when I started teaching within an academic environment. I became a professor back in the early ’90s teaching a course on concept development and creative thinking and problem solving in Germany. It [was there that] it dawned on me that there’s a difference between being creative and doing creative things; as well as teaching it and learning more about the processes that go in [to it].
That topic was paired with the activities at mediaman, especially in the early years when a lot of creative activities were put into place. [We were] focusing more and more on interactive sites and realizing that some of our creative work had real impact. That was a time when I became more interested in figuring out how we actually come up with creative ideas and how we solve problems. This led to a dissertation project in the early 2000s and some empirical research, which led to more qualitative research in more recent years. My desire was to put everything into a book that is concise, that also helps students and professionals—especially at mid-professional level.
Your personal career path involves working at agencies, founding an agency, mediaman, and then transitioning into academia. What was the role that creative thinking played in your career path? Could you specifically talk about any pivotal moments where you knew that teaching and advancing research on creativity was what you wanted to pursue?
Having studied in the so-called creative sphere at an academy of fine arts, we were trained a lot in the craft, in visual arts, in design, in design thinking [but] only a little bit in the process. We were not really taught the way our brain works and we were not taught in areas of how organizations are being managed within a creative environment. So when I started working specifically with mediaman, I realized that within an interactive agency, all these different disciplines came together more than in any other traditional advertising agency. Projects were much more complicated—it was not just the combination of putting an art director and a copywriter together and expecting a creative result and good problem solving. Within interactive are various level of greater complexity. And that complexity, made me more interested in understanding how the different team players could actually collaborate—how they are thinking—and the processes that could enhance the work and ultimately the end result that we’re providing to our clients.
That’s one side, the professional side. And the teaching—especially in recent years, having developed a specific undergrad course that focuses on creative principles, creative theories; having done research; having learned a lot in the literature review that I’ve conducted during the last couple of years—I’ve become more and more interested in providing a more holistic perspective and coverage of creative thinking and problem solving. That’s when the concept of four Ps [a framework for understanding creativity] became so fascinating that I realized this would make an interesting book.
As one of the founders of mediaman and the author of a book on creative thinking, what are some of the things that you see mediaman, as a digital agency, doing well? Also, are there some areas that you still feel that we have room for growth?
I think one of the key aspects at mediaman is that creativity is a core ingredient and a key part of our corporate philosophy. It’s very much tied with the human abilities that every employee can bring to the problem, to the situation, to the projects we’re working on. What I’ve experienced is that creativity is an aspect that is highly complex and for many is still abstract. I would argue the one area of improvement that we could devote more time to is accepting the creativity of each individual person independently of the field and the disciplines they’re in related to their roles and tasks.
When we first started out, almost 18 years ago, we began our projects driven by the so-called creative departments. That was writers and navigation designers, interaction designers, UX specialists. It [did not so much include] the technology people, the producers, and even the strategists. I think that over the years we’ve been able to make an inroad—similar to the agencies that I’ve interviewed [in the book]—to realize and to accept that creativity happens in every department. And must happen in every department. It’s very important to actually include all the different disciplines and to challenge our employees from different skill sets at the very outset of the project—at the very outset of defining the problem—as well as when working towards the solution for the problem. To challenge them to come up with creative ideas and to really unleash their inner creativity that, I would argue, every one of our employee has.
One of the things that mediaman talks about is our “connected creativity,” meaning that we cross-pollinate ideas across all of our different offices around the world. What are some of the projects that you’ve been involved with, or have seen develop, where you’ve been excited about the results of the international collaboration?
When it comes to international examples, I certainly remember our pitch for Allianz in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We pulled together an international team that consisted of a creative director here in the United States, a strategist and interface expert in Germany, in addition to our contact down in Buenos Aires, who was a creative and project client services lead, [as well as other supporting team members.] We put the different disciplines together in a virtual environment—we actually only used Go To meetings—to prepare, to have ideation sessions, and to developed very specific target audience insights. We said ‘we need to be different, we need to be original.’
We had to analyze what the insurance market looked like in Argentina and were able to provide something that had not been done before. We were able to develop two key concepts that tied back to the consumer behavior and the Argentinean psyche. I was very involved myself, I was one of the creative leads, and I enjoyed [the international collaboration]. We ended up winning the pitch. I would argue it was because of the way we put the team together and the way we worked together.
In the book there are some agencies like Mother and Big Spaceship who, based on the research that you’ve done and the interviews with them, I feel are redefining the advertising industry as we know it. I feel like we very clearly know what makes them tick but I wanted to see if you had any insights or speculations on what are the characteristics of the clients who are willing to take greater creative risks and do highly successful creative work with agencies?
What I’m seeing from the various interviews, as well as from our own clients, is that there are clients who are willing to take risks. [They] recognize that in order to have a greater impact—in order to be noticed—that one also has to take the risk of doing something –some things, some campaign—that will raise the bar, that will get attention.
In some cases it might be a topic that is a little bit controversial. It might be a topic where people are saying, you know, ‘I would not have done this,’ or where you might polarize audiences. And I would refer back to David Droga [interviewed in the book], who said that the only risk you can [take] nowadays is actually not to go the most creative route because then you’re just stale. You’re not being noticed. You’re just missing the point and you’re part of the crowd, part of the noise and you won’t find attention.
For companies who are looking to better manage for creativity—who may have discovered individual creativity but are trying to understand how to implement it on a company level—what are some of the important things that you think that they’ll find valuable in the book?
I would argue that one of the most important aspects that I can provide from my perspective is the four P model. Creativity is four main dimensions [Person, Place, Process and Product/Philosophy]. The four P model is a construct that allows any manager to put more emphasis on the holistic approach and the complexity that is related to creativity, to encouraging individuals that work already as creatives. Many of those might be very well equipped, very well skilled in their creative activities, in problem solving skills, but I would argue there are still additional aspects that can be improved upon. I hope that the book provides some insights and some encouragement in that [approach].
Secondly, the important aspect—going back to the interviews [in the book]—is that many agencies have acknowledged that they have some kind of process that they’re not really aware of. And they’re not aware that there is a so-called creative problem solving process. I would argue that following a specific [creative] process and awareness of the process, allows the agencies to play with and shape creativity. At mediaman we’ve learned that applying the process, identifying the process, and actually building our own process has, over the last couple of years, helped to improve our work. It aids us in becoming better at solving our client’s problems and to also distinguish ourselves and to provide the end consumer with an experience that is really distinctive and unique.
Thirdly, is the physical place. Many agencies have recently completed physical changes of their environments. And some agencies probably will have to reinvent [their space] again. The work that we’re doing, that we’re designing, and the Google places, the Apple places and so forth, they might even change [further] as we move towards the next decade. But I think it’s interesting to be, again, aware, of that component and the influence, the corporate environment, the physical environment and place.
[Also], I think that especially the second to last chapter [of the book], that deals with philosophy, was an interesting and eye opening experience for me. I would call it a new component of the four Ps. Philosophy—a corporate philosophy, that often is related to the founders or to the owners of the company—that can really add a new component to the competitiveness within the creative environment, within creative organizations, as well.
So, again, I go back to providing the four Ps or the five Ps as a holistic model to look at the very, very complex area of creativity, and to provide at least some guidance.
For the mediaman USA team, who has team members working across the US, one thing that’s of great interest to us is the topic of about creativity and working remotely. I wanted to see if you have any insight on sharing creativity remotely/virtually and how we can cultivate a culture of creativity through technology.
First of all, it’s a very, very good question and it’s a very important aspect—a challenging aspect. I would argue it is easier to foster creativity, a creative climate, and problem solving skills in a physical environment where people sit together, where there is a lot of interaction, factual as well as social interaction, where things happen by chance, where, as I call it in the book, collisions might just happen out of chance, and where ideas bounce off [each other]. Someone leaves something on the wall and it’s being picked up again [by a different team member]. That’s much more difficult to duplicate or replicate in a virtual environment.
My recommendation would be to develop personal relationships. Because it’s still about humans working together and there are collaborative tools, from video chats to other tools where information can be shared, chatting that is going on, where things are happening, something that can be shared and people can respond to. But it’s important to know of the lack or the weakness of a virtual space, to become aware and not to become lazy and not use the tools just because it’s easier to work by oneself. So it requires an extra effort.
I would also argue that the physical aspects need to be added. To have retreats, to have regular physical meetings where the companies fly the employees to one specific location at least once a year, sometimes twice a year to, again, provide the physical interaction, the ability [to build relationships]. If a company can provide that on a regular schedule, it can be very, very strong. And I do believe that the future is actually going towards virtual because [it provides] more people internationally, or at least across different locations, to be able to work and solve problems [together].
I greatly appreciate your time. Any final takeaways for our readers?
I hope that the readers will be able to take at least one aspect away. If it is related to any of the individual creativity aspects, from becoming more aware of their personal techniques or redefining a process—maybe even coming up with their own process, or learning more about their own space—[changing] the physical environment, even designing their own environment at home [can be a point of inspiration]. Sometimes we get into a routine and we become stale at any given time.
I hope that the holistic approach in the book, being exposed to these various dimensions that can influence creativity, will add value for every reader.