What is a creative technologist?
There are a lot new roles and job titles emerging from our changing times, especially in this technological landscape. The one I have seen around most of all these last few months in particular is "creative technologist". There's a good few advertising agencies, digital shops, start ups and other organisations all requesting this new breed of technologist. Everyone seems to have their idea of what it is which is fine, but I'm also seeing marked inconsistencies. We're getting to the point slowly, where companies are saying "I want one of those!" but will they really know what to do with a creative technologist when they get one? Would you?
First of all we should cover off what we mean by "creative technology" to begin with. It sits at the intersection of science, technology, humanities and arts. The entire goal of this discipline is the pursuit of innovation. It may well feature a collection of difference technologies that work to achieve something useful, artistic or fun for example. Innovation comes from addressing a need, or from getting a wide range of different ideas from a highly multidisciplinary team. This isn't a new idea, creative technology has been around as a concept for many years. Some of the areas we commonly work in are social innovation, Eculture, digital arts, computing, robotics, psychology, basically anything that can contribute to a new invention (be it social or technological). "Creative technology" doesn't exist as an academic discipline in its own right. It's not really in our interest to make it one, because we need experts from different fields to come together to work on different projects, some completely out of their usual remit. Collaboration is probably the most important keyword in creative technology. In fact, we talk of "extreme collaboration".
Claudia Eckert uses the department of trade and industry's definitions of "creativity as a thought process, design as an articulation of creativity and innovation as an output of the process" to explore the wisdom of separating technical design domains from artistic ones. She says in this article:
"Artistic design domains, such as graphic design, furniture or fashion design, have a very strong artistic component in the training designers receive and sell their products largely on their aesthetic appeal, rather than a functional distinction to other products. Technical domains, such as engineering or software development, have scientific and mathematical foundations. Products are usually distinguished by their functions or features. Many design domains and projects combine both aspects. For example architecture and construction span everything from the purely artistic to the functional and good buildings need to excel in both".
I define creativity as " having ideas and solutions that are completely novel", so in this I include discovery of new knowledge (in science, medicine, law and so on), technical innovation, insightful analysis (in any field), composition of art and music in new ways. My experience is that few people tend to think about lawyers or scientists when they think about creativity. To properly understand "creative technology", these associations are fundamental.
Sternberg's Theory of Creativity shows us that the most creative people have a particular type of intelligence and abilities:
- Synthetic intelligence (the ability to combine existing information in novel ways)
- Analytic intelligence (the ability to evaluate ideas and recognise truly novel ones and the ones that need a whole lot more work, and also the ones that aren't worth pursuing)
- Practical intelligence (the ability to communicate the ideas, make things, test things and so forth)
They also have knowledge, in that they have enough context and history around something to be able to avoid reinventing the wheel. They also know when to stop taking in knowledge, to avoid blocking their creativity. They also question everything. This style of thinking can put them into situations of conflict, which is something they need to be resilient to. They're not afraid to take risks, be it looking silly or trying something very hard. Creativity is a full-time job, it's not something you turn on and off depending on what you're working on. We've just looked at some important skills and attributes that make a person creative, regardless of what field they work in.
In this paper, Sternberg says that if you're really creative you "Buy low, sell high" in the realm of ideas. He means that you pursue ideas that are unknown or out of favour, but that have high potential. This is another area where he mentions that the truly innovative encounter resistance. A quote that I always remember when I think I've hit the jackpot on an idea and nobody else thinks so:
"Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats." (Howard Aiken - computer scientist)
The creative technologist has a strong technological background (read computing, engineering, or whatever is appropriate for the organisation). They have a very logical, rational, analytical, scientific and objective outlook and are highly left-brain active. They are however also very right-brain active and are intuitive, subjective, holistic, and synthesizing. This sort of combination is partly learned but I believe you are also naturally pre-disposed to it. Interestingly Prof. Ronald Standler says that highly intelligent and creative people often get average grades. I think that a certain amount of distraction is natural, because you are able to look at something in such a large number of ways.
In many agency environments, the creative technologist bridges the gap between "creative" and "technology". Personally, I don't think this is the best use of these excellent skills, and this unique viewpoint. I think that bringing together people who are capable of having lots of ideas at many different levels, and who can also be very practical about them necessitates a certain kind of freedom from a set recipe. IDEO and Jump Associates are the prime example of innovative companies that bring together multidisciplinary teams in an ideal way. I would argue that everyone from the psychologist to the engineer is a creative technologist there (to some degree). The briefs are around pure innovation and everyone's ideas are taken into consideration. Often the outcome of a project is a good mix of everyone's ideas from what I can tell.
Creative technologist Mark Avnet has a nice definition of creative technologist:
"CTs understand the business of advertising, marketing, and branding, take a creative, strategic and people-centric view of how to connect people and brands, and understand the kinds of mediating technologies that can best be used to make those engaging experiences where the connection happens. They sketch with technology, just like a visual creative can sketch with a pencil. They’re steeped in strategy, so the things they come up with make sense – it’s not about technology just for the sake of technology. The experiences they design address real needs of people and brands".
On the iAB blog, Randall Rothenburg interviews RG/A chairman Bob Greenberg:
"There are critical creative needs that didn't exist in the old advertising," says Mr. Greenberg, who counts 130 technologists in his New York office. "Advertising is no longer just about the display ad or the TV commercial or the banner; it's about creating meaningful tools and architecting user experiences. Our technology group, they can keep up to speed technically with the top people at HP or IBM. But they also understand how to work with others to create an application that will lead to community."
It's good that agencies across the board are recognizing the advantage of hiring creative technologists, and their importance in a fast changing ecosystem. We're in a place where innovation is key to the equation and where technology is the main driver. Start ups and idea incubators are popping up all over the place, putting pressure on the older, more established creative agencies worldwide. The focus however needs to remain on innovation and extreme collaboration rather than an industrial race.
None of these things are new for the field of computer science in particular, and also physics for example. The best scientists are all right-brain + left-brain dwellers. Einstein played violin, Richard Feynman the bongos, and Leonardo da Vinci was probably an early example of a master creative technologist. Science is only about discovery and innovation.
Looking after your creative technologist
Here are 5 things you should do to ensure you get the best out of your CT.
Once you get a CT in your team, ideally you'll be looking to find him/her a fellow creative technologist to hang out with and bounce ideas off. The danger of having a sole person responsible for creative technology in your team, is that they are likely to get overloaded with projects that need to be done, and:
- Do not get them involved in production and operations (you'll burn them out on tasks not requiring idea generation, which is what you want)
- Let them read, research, and ponder to their hearts content (Good ideas come from having knowledge, remember?)
- Don't try and measure their output (4 bad ideas can combine to produce one awesome idea)
- Don't rush them (well, not all the time. A little pressure can be beneficial, but requesting things by yesterday is just going to shut down their creativity)
- Do send them to conferences (the more exposure they get to different people, ideas and technologies, the better)
And lastly, if you can create a positive, interesting, fun environment to work in, you'll keep them.
Here is the team at IDEO re-inventing the shopping cart