Would you believe them if they said Freedom is Constraint?
"Route to Creativity: Following Bliss or Dots?"
1999-09-07 by NATALIE ANGIER from "New York Times" [http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/07/science/route-to-creativity-following-bliss-or-dots.html]:
To the roster of favorite oxymo rons that includes ''jumbo shrimp,'' ''military intelligence'' and ''healthy tan,'' a new report proposes a tart addition: ''artistic freedom.''
By the reckoning of three Israeli researchers, nothing imprisons the mind more thoroughly, nothing stifles inventiveness and artistry more brutally, than too much freedom, too much wiggle room for the imagination. Instead, they argue, the real source of productive creativity may lie in art's supposed bugaboos: rules, structure, even the occasional editor or two.
In an essay in the current issue of the journal Science, Dr. Jacob Goldenberg, Dr. David Mazursky and Dr. Sorin Solomon of Hebrew University in Jerusalem describe an algorithm, or formula, for creating new advertisements that is surprisingly simple, yet unnervingly effective. When they fed the algorithm into a computer, it generated advertising concepts judged more original and appealing than equivalent advertisements spawned by a group of humans who were told, in essence, to ''follow their bliss.''
The computer program demonstrates graphically what many creative people know intuitively: the land of the imagination is a country like any other, with laws, rituals and a tireless police corps that must be obeyed if one hopes to retain citizenship there.
Creativity, by this measure, is not some mystical, inchoate process, beyond analysis and delineation, but rather is composed of a series of distinct subroutines, which can be rallied repeatedly to churn out ideas that seem the opposite of routine.
The notion of creative thinking as amenable to parsing and replication is both cheering and disheartening: cheering because it means that just about anybody can learn to do it at least passably well, and disheartening for showing, once again, that even genius is so much meat in motion.
For their part, the researchers were interested less in philosophical matters than in practicality, in coming up with better techniques for stimulating creative thinking. They focused on advertising as a business that demands chronic novelty.
In their report, they describe experiments in which they deconstructed renowned advertisements and found that they often followed specific formulas, which they term templates. One of the commonest templates they found is the so-called replacement template.
For example, they considered a Nike ad, in which a group of firemen are standing around in a rescue pose, looking up as though someone was about to jump from a burning building into their net. In lieu of a net is a giant Nike sneaker, with copy boasting of how the new Nike walking shoes are ''very safe places to land.''
In this advertisement, the sneaker replaces an object whose most salient characteristic is ''cushioning.'' Indeed, the life net cushions a person from death itself.
Similarly, a series for Bally shoes shows various objects that symbolize freedom -- a beach, clouds in the sky -- in the shape of a foot, the implication being that the wearing of Bally shoes frees the wearer from cares, the rat race, bunions.
The researchers then translated principles of the replacement template into a simple program, and had a computer create a concepts designed to pitch different products. The computer did not generate real ads with all the visual flourishes, but simply came up with descriptions.
The researchers also asked people outside advertising and untrained in the replacement algorithm or other creativity techniques, to generate hypothetical ads for the same products. When shown to judges, both advertising professionals and outsiders, the advertisements from the computer were invariably ranked higher in creativity and originality than those from the laypeople. In fact, the computer's ads were rated with genuine ones from major magazines, and virtually on par with ones that had won major awards.
In one case, the computer, asked to design a campaign promoting the coming of the World Cup tennis tournament to Jerusalem, conceived of the notion of picturing a domed mosque with the texture of a tennis ball. The untrained humans could come up with nothing more thrilling than an image of the ancient walls of Jerusalem and ad copy announcing the tournament.
When asked to hawk the on-time performance of an airline, the computer program suggested an image of a cuckoo clock, with the emerging cuckoo in the shape of a plane. A human proposal: a picture of a family running through the airport while one of the parents screams: ''Let's run, this airline is right on time.'' (And no O. J. Simpson in sight!)
Dr. Goldenberg and Dr. Mazursky, who are in the school of business, and Dr. Solomon, of the physics department, designed the program to counter a hoary principle in creativity theory that the most original ideas are born of utter freedom, a shifting of paradigms, a circling of the square, a streaming of consciousness, a squelching of the internal editor. Instead, they argue, their work on templates indicates that constraining options and focusing thought in a specific, rigorous and discerning direction may yield comparatively fresher results.
''To suspend criticism and think any idea is possible or good may ultimately be destructive to creativity,'' said Dr. Goldenberg. The researchers emphasized that their work has scant relevance to the science of artificial intelligence, and that they have no interest in proving computers to be potentially more creative than humans, HAL with a beret and ponytail. Instead, they are seeking to mimic the way people solve problems or create ideas, and then describe the process thematically. When taught the algorithms, they said, lay humans will match and often outperform the machine.
''Humans can criticize themselves, and computers can't,'' said Dr. Mazursky. ''As Oscar Wilde said, imagination is imitative -- the real innovation lies in criticism.''
The researchers also said that the algorithms they designed for advertising would not necessarily work outside the domain of advertising.
''We are not studying just creativity, but creativity in specific contexts,'' said Dr. Mazursky.
Some people in the creativity business found the new paper enlightening and amusing, and said it jibed with the premises of their approach to changing the mind's light bulb.
''Limits can be powerful motivator,'' said Roger von Oech, a creativity consultant for businesses and author of the best seller ''A Whack on the Side of the Head,'' published in its third edition last year by Warner Books. ''If you're given a really tight deadline and a small budget, you'll probably be more resourceful than if you have a ton of time and a limitless budget. Skyscrapers weren't invented by people with a lot of land, but by those who had to figure out how to build more offices on tight and incredibly expensive real estate.''
Mr. von Oech paraphrased Stephen Sondheim, who said that if someone asked him to write a song about the sea, he would be at sea himself; but ask him to write a ballad about a woman in a red dress in a lounge at three in the morning and falling off the bar stool in drunken sorrow, and he is inspired.
Mr. von Oech says that in his corporate seminars and training sessions, he gives his clients very specific tasks. Most of them are centered on humor, his belief being that, as he puts, ''there's a close relationship between the ha-ha of humor and the ah-ha of discovery.'' For example, he asks people to come up with offbeat mottoes for themselves or their companies, and he has stimulated some beauties. From the Bank of America group: ''Bank of America: Where you're never alone until you need a loan.'' From Microsoft: ''We're arrogant, and we should be.''
But other creativity researchers called the new Science paper something of an artful dodge. ''It wasn't very profound, and it didn't thrill me,'' said Dr. Mark A. Runco, editor of Creativity Research Journal and a professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University in Fullerton. ''For one thing, I'm not sure it was a fair test. Who are these judges of creativity? People aren't very good at judging creative ideas. Not even creative people are good at it.''
The poet Goethe, Dr. Runco pointed out, thought his study of optics to be his most important contribution to humanity, but today people read his poetry, not his science papers. Beethoven judged as his greatest composition a piece of music that practically nobody listens to anymore.
Nor was it fair to have given the human subjects complete freedom without any structure or template, he said. ''I can't think of anyone who would think that a completely open task or environment would be most conducive to creativity,'' Dr. Runco said. Instead, he explained, most researchers in creativity studies are seeking to understand the balance and interdynamics between structure and openness.
Joyce Wycoff, the founder of Innovation Network, a professional association of creativity consultants, and author of ''Mind Mapping'' (Putnam, 1991), believes the key to creativity is ''structure, but structure with permeability.'' Another essential factor, she said, is energy. ''People are never out of ideas,'' she said, ''but they may run out of energy.'' And in this arena, alas, the computer will always have us beat.