5 Rules for Mindful Creativity

Necessity may have been “the mother of invention” back when Plato dropped the famous phrase, but necessity alone is no longer a sufficient reason for creation. Inventions that seem to embody a forward-thinking approach at their inception often appear backwards in their thinking given a few years (or decades) of reflection. Take, for instance, the advent of individually packaged goods, which made food conveniently transportable at the expense of using more materials and creating more waste for landfills.
The desire to make the world and the objects that surround us stronger, faster, more convenient and more beautiful serves as constant inspiration for today’s creative problem solvers. But sometimes, as with single-use packaging or the more complicated case of CFL lightbulbs, the innovative solutions we arrive at create other problems, or even predicaments, that become evident only in hindsight.
While the side effects of our creations can’t always be anticipated, we can strive to minimize any negative impact by embedding the right practices into our creative process. Namely, by filtering our potential projects through a series of qualifiers to distinguish genuine need from short-lived demand, and long-term solutions from quick fixes.
While the side effects of our creations can’t always be anticipated, we can strive to minimize any negative impact.

While each industry begs a customized set of considerations, the basics hold true across most professions. We turned to industry thought leaders in design, architecture, and social entrepreneurialism to pull together a set of universally applicable best practices. Read them, apply them, love them – they’ll love us back.

1. Analyze your market, mindfully.

When determining whether a new project meets their standards for social responsibility, renowned design shop Cypher13 first consider one simple question: “Is it needed?” According to this two-man team, if a product or offering already exists in some form, your (or your client’s) addition to the market is socially responsible only if it will truly be better than what already exists.

When this question is considered holistically – with regard to quality, production, and sustainability – it’s easy to determine whether the product is deserving of the resources needed to produce it. This approach has helped Cypher13 know when to turn down certain projects; for instance, a natural foods product whose resourcing strategy turned out to be far from eco-conscious.

2. Think in decades, not years.

Tres Birds Workshop design principal Mike Moore, best known for his work on Burton snowboard’s flagship stores, takes a critical look at his process from initial development right through to the end product – then he extends that vision into the future.  Aside from basics like minimizing use of materials and avoiding toxic processes, the firm’s touchstone for sustainability is thinking in 20-year increments.

Often, Tres Birds will intentionally design a project beyond the immediate scope, program, and budget to predict what would be a smart future use or expansion.  Their most recent architectural project made use of a reclaimed frame, bricks from demolished buildings, and energy-generating materials. These creative applications of new and old technology influence the initial design, and open the way to future possibilities for reprogramming the space.

3. Consider yourself a resource.

When considering sustainability, most of us stop at the materials and processes that our projects require. However, we tend to underestimate the role of personal sustainability – the consistent flow of energy and tenacity required to see an idea through to completion.

Serial social entrepreneur and restaurateur Kimbal Musk, whose current undertakings include SpaceX, Tesla, and an ambitious in-school urban gardening initiative, uses a “five-year test” to determine an idea’s potential for personal sustainability. If he’s not certain that he’ll wake up with the same enthusiasm for a project five years from its start date, he won’t get behind it.

We tend to underestimate the role of personal sustainability – the tenacity required to see an idea through to completion.

4. Measure happiness.

Some projects – like events, art installations, or even books – are trickier to quantify in terms of social responsibility. In these instances, Cypher13 justifies (or rejects) the use of resources by estimating the total good that the project could potentially produce. If this projected “happiness quotient” is greater than the size of the project’s ecological footprint, they move ahead. If it’s questionable, they kill the idea.

For instance, when Cyhper13 was asked to create an installation for a recent international cultural event, the designers’ concept involved materials that couldn’t be sourced locally. However, they ultimately decided that the ecological footprint of transporting the materials cross-country was outweighed by the positive benefits that would come from the project’s mission to facilitate connections among a large global audience.

5. Don’t ignore the dollar.

While many of us struggle with putting a dollar amount on our creative vision, there is a direct correlation between most projects’ potential profitability and their sustainability. In fact, in order to make a true case for replacing an existing business model with a sustainable, mindful one, it’s imperative that the financial differences are minimal.

“If you think you’re going to be less profitable because of a commitment to social responsibility, rethink your plan,” says Kimbal Musk. In other words, while using sustainable materials, sourcing them locally, and steering away from cheaper production options may require a heavier initial investment, the enduring success of your addition to the market fully depends on its ability to be competitive.

What’s Your Take?

Is sustainability something that you factor in when launching a new idea?

Do you have any other rules for “mindful creativity”?

More insights on: Innovation, Well-being

Carmel Hagen

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Carmel Hagen heads up brand partnerships at OneRiot, a realtime social advertising network.  A TEDx speaker, SXSW Web Awards finalist and former Pillsbury Bake-Off dominator, Carmel is a sought after strategist and thinker.  She is an ongoing contributor to many art, design, and trendspotting publications.
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