The incandescent lightbulb is being phased out across the world to make way for newer, more efficient forms of lighting. It’s about time the creativity industry phased it out too.

By the time Thomas Edison had perfected the incandescent lightbulb the general concept, even the final solution, had been arrived at by dozens of independent inventors all around the world. The lightbulb, an object that has come to symbolise the flash of inspiration and sudden arrival at a creative solution was, in reality, the result of a grinding process of trial and error.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”

– Thomas Edison

Edison was speaking for himself and his associates at Menlo Park but he may as well have been speaking for the dozens of others who held patents for lightbulbs all over Europe and the USA.

The lightbulb was not the result of a “lightbulb moment”

The lightbulb was not the result of a “lightbulb moment”. And he tried to tell us. Edison, a man more comfortable with half truths and showmanship than almost any I can bring to mind, was surprisingly forthcoming about the truth of the creative process. While he enjoyed spinning wild stories about the magical inventions he had no intention of investing any actual time in, he also told the world that his process was not some magical trick but a journey described by hard work and cold logic:

“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Despite this we in the creativity industry have too often chosen, lazily and, with an ironic lack of creativity, to use the symbol of a lightbulb as shorthand for creativity itself. (Ed – Not here! We banned it before we launched!)

Do a Google Image Search for the word “creativity” and scan down the page. Splashes of colour, the nonsense left-brain-right-brain imagery, post-it notes and, yes, lots and lots of lightbulbs in various forms. Lazy, yes. But worst of all this is deeply misleading.

These moments do not represent the truth of creative work

It’s understandable how this has come to be. There is a phenomenological attractiveness to this idea. After all, there is often a moment during the creative journey that feels like a sudden, spontaneous and unbidden burst of insight. The moment when an idea pops as if from nowhere into your conscious mind. But these moments do not represent the truth of creative work and it is dangerous for us, the people who claim to communicate creativity, to allow the myth to go unchallenged and worse to peddle it. We know that these sudden conscious insights are not sudden. We know that they rely on purposeful and deliberate action, training the mind, mastering the emotions and ruthlessly pushing aside comforting distortions to get at some new truth.

It may seem harsh but I enjoy a good heuristic, so here is one that you might wish to try out for yourself: if you’re offered creativity advice by any business that has a lightbulb in their logo or, in fact, uses one in any way at all, walk away.

[clickToTweet tweet=”If you’re offered creativity advice by any business that has a lightbulb in their logo, walk away.” quote=”If you’re offered creativity advice by any business that has a lightbulb in their logo, walk away.” theme=”style6″]

Harsh but I think, like the global ban on the outdated incandescent bulb, we may need to go cold turkey on this outdated symbol. And, while we are at it, maybe we can move away from some of the other unimaginative images that do more to narrow our understanding of creativity than broaden it?

  • Post-it Notes
  • Scribble walls
  • People “brainstorming”
  • Crayons
  • Lego bricks
  • The trendy workshopping room with bare brick walls and bowls of cookies
  • Explosions of primary colours
  • Thought bubbles

These are what I call artifacts of creativity. They form a set of images that while not false, are far from the complete truth. Yes, Post-it Notes and crayons, scribble walls, and colourful images can form a part of a creative journey, but they are to creativity what tossing a piece of potassium into a bowl of water is to science. They’re memorable, eye-catching, and shallow.

They are to creativity what tossing a piece of potassium into a bowl of water is to science

Semiotics, the study of signs, is a relatively new academic discipline, and despite our modern intellectual understanding of the concept, I can’t help but feel the ancients were far more proficient in the practical use of symbols. Consider churches, cathedrals, temples and shrines, festooned with meaningful images, powerfully evocative of deeply held beliefs. And the powerful clans and families of centuries past with their coats of arms, flags and icons. In Ancient Rome, as Pompey the Great paraded in his finery, skin painted the colour of Apollo, every image was meaningful. Yet, here we are today, surrounded by images that are worse than meaningless. We should and, in fact, do know better.

This is a problem that transcends my chosen niche. While I may have to work at getting my colleagues to wean themselves off of the lightbulb and the Post-it Note, you too have semiotic skeletons in your closet.

Humans are meaning machines

Consider the symbolism of your workplace. Firstly, if you imagine that there is none that would be to deny reality. Humans are meaning machines. We find it in everything and we imbue it in all that we do whether we realise it or not. If your workplace seems lacking in symbols and signs then the truth is that you have simply allowed the symbols and signs to arise without your intention to guide them. Just as the removal of iconography from churches around England in the mid 1600s by Oliver Cromwell was, in itself, symbolic, the lack of symbolism in your workplace, the lack of care placed in communicating meaning to your staff, is communicating something very powerfully; a lack of interest in what your staff think and feel.

But perhaps you have taken some time to place meaningful images around your offices. Are you entirely sure they are communicating the meaning you intended? Or have you fallen for the shallow cliches of inspirational quotations set against awe-inspiring backdrops? Do you display images of past glories such as awards and prizes or examples of the great works your company once took part in? Do you imagine this makes your workers proud? What if, in fact, this self-congratulation and nostalgia actually shows the current state of affairs in a poor light?

I recall a client who once told me of how his employers had commissioned an expensive piece of video showing all of the ways in which they had been first to market with various new products over the many years they had been in business. But, as he told it to me, the effect of this video was anything but inspiring. For each item, for each new industry that they had supposedly been leaders in, a question would be asked: and how much of that business do we own today? And the answer would sadly be little or none.

So we can see that there are three major ways in which it is possible to completely mess up our signalling and symbolism:

  1. Lazily cling to cliches like lightbulbs and Post-it Notes
  2. Ignore it and allow the symbols to choose themselves (the most common sin; a sin of omission)
  3. Clumsily send the wrong signal entirely by failing to properly think through your imagery

My point, or at least my main point, is this: you can’t opt out of this. There is no neutral position. So if you’re not thinking about the symbols you use or the meanings you communicate through the images you have around you, then you need to begin.

[clickToTweet tweet=”The meaning of life is ‘meaning'” quote=”The meaning of life is ‘meaning'” theme=”style6″]

You might still be asking why this really matters in the hard-nosed world of business where the carrot and the stick reign over all. If so, remember this: the meaning of life is meaning. Meaning is what we all seek, the prime directive of the human mind. Perhaps most strikingly this is demonstrated by what happens when you deprive a human mind of meaning; in sensory deprivation tanks leading to hallucinations or the psychological torture of sensory overload with random images and meaningless noise.

What’s more, businesses have known about and invested in this truth for decades. Go speak to the expensive advertising company you employ. Do you think they spend so much time and energy, and so much of your money, on understanding and manipulating the meaning that your customers see in your brand just for the fun of it? Why does Red Bull sponsor extreme sports? Why does Nike pay untold fortunes to Cristiano Ronaldo? Why does Coca Cola want you to drink an ice cold fizzy pop at Christmas, surrounded by snow and ice? Because meaning drives behaviour.

Meaning drives behaviour

If we know that meaning drives behaviour, and we clearly do, what does it say about us that we are so slapdash in how we communicate meaning to our employees? In my younger days, I held plenty of jobs in the service industries and I remember how, no matter how fancy the shop floor, the back-of-house was always ugly. It’s as if we feel that once a human is in our employ they no longer need to be surrounded by beauty – they become a cog in a machine without emotions or higher needs. The same thing can be seen when we compare the care and attention that goes into the UI design of consumer goods compared to tools used by professionals in big corporations. Businesses, it seems, don’t care to pay for something to be made beautiful.

We fail to make use of meaning as a way to drive behaviour

We spend fortunes on training, and fortunes more on management oversight, governance, processes and command-and-control systems to optimise the behaviours of our workforces but we fail to make use of meaning as a way to drive behaviour. Why? After all, if something is meaningful, if an employee sees the “why” of his or her occupation, the “how” will emerge naturally. Nobody has ever had to be forced or coerced into doing something they see as meaningful. Just as children play for the sake of play, all humans of all ages are compelled by meaning because without meaning life is intolerable.

Knowing this as we do, failing to make use of this primal motivator to drive the behaviour of your most expensive resource might be a sign itself; a sign of madness. So, as I chip away at the dull symbolism of my world, don’t sit idly by. Ask yourself what symbols, what signs you are showing to those around you. The primary role of leadership is to communicate meaning. And you’re doing it right now whether you mean to or not. ReesPersonal Creativitybehaviour,clichés,getting cosy with creativity,lightbulbs,meaning,semiotics,symbols
The incandescent lightbulb is being phased out across the world to make way for newer, more efficient forms of lighting. It’s about time the creativity industry phased it out too. By the time Thomas Edison had perfected the incandescent lightbulb the general concept, even the final solution, had been arrived...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.