The opportunity to surprise

By | July 14, 2008

I’m on my way back from a meeting in London at ITV HQ, so perhaps this is why I have felt the need to re-visit an old theme.




An example of a creative brief given to me on a BBC training course was to imagine that the Pope was briefing Michelangelo on the work he wanted doing on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  We were given some possibilities:


1/ Michael, I want you to paint the Sistine Chapel (not clear enough)

2/ I want you to paint ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (better, but why?)

3/ I want you to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel using red and gold depicting God and angels (upsets Michael who tells the Pope to do it himself)

4/ I want you to you to create a masterpiece which will truly glorify God for all people and all time (Michael is inspired by the challenge)


So, how you set a creative challenge – either for yourself or someone else – is very important. A good creative challenge answere the question, why are we doing this and for whom? Setting the creative challenge without being dictatorial is to respect the artist.


The generation of ideas starts with a problem to solve. Without a purpose an idea isn’t going very far.  An idea’s purpose can be a practical one or an emotional one. Some ideas just make us feel good while others can transform the way we live. Great ideas are transformational. Ideas that change the way we think, feel, believe or behave are the ones we value most.


As a starting point we need to be stretched. We need to be scratching our heads and looking for a solution to a problem – or the creative challenge as we are going to say. We need to know how to judge when we have found what we are looking for.


So the first thing we might think about is how we frame the creative challenge. Sometimes it exists in our head as a problem we’ve been carrying around with us for a long time; in other cases it might be a new problem given to us by someone, perhaps our boss.


Setting the boundaries of the problem presents us with an important element of idea generation – a constraint. Constraints are our sparring partners in the creative process. Constraints keep up sharp and focussed on solutions that will have value and have that transformational quality. They scratch the itch.


I want to make a distinction between boundaries and instructions. A boundary can provide a useful indication of the space in which we are required to work. It tells us what the work is meant to achieve and what will be the criteria for success. This approach is about telling the artist what you want to achieve, not how you want it to be done. A common mistake by commissioners is to tell the artist how you want the work to be executed at the expense of  any creative freedom. By telling the artist the details of the execution you putting the relationship at risk.  “


At the same time it is reasonable for you as commissioner to retain some control over the direction of the work and to reject it if it doesn’t meet the need. Of course there will be some elements of the work which are mandatory and require you to issue some instructions, but the brief must facilitate the the possibility that the artist may come up with something we hadn’t thought of.

So a good creative challenge leaves room for the unexpected, the different and the exceptional. It requires bravery to say less and expect more. It is about giving yourself and others the opportunity to surprise.



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