Creativity happens in the shower


Creativity happens in the shower

I’ve always had my best ideas in the shower. Or when dropping off to sleep. There’s a scientific explanation for this. One which can help us design our working practices and environments to be more conducive to creativity.

In my previous post I looked at how we all have the capacity for creative thinking because we all have a left and a right brain. When we’re given a problem to solve, the left brain logically considers the various possibilities. When no solution presents itself, brain activity shifts to the right hemisphere, which allows more unexpected possibilities to be considered.

An idea occurs to us when a new configuration of neurons forms in the brain. Giving the brain some downtime aids this process. During relaxing activities, such as taking a shower, more alpha waves radiate from the right hemisphere. Studies have shown that until these waves are produced the brain will be unable to solve insight puzzles.

So, time to relax is important, but we can’t all work permanently from our showers. Another aspect to consider is fresh perspectives. These can help the brain to form connections that it may not previously have considered. In his TED Talk, Steven Johnson explains that throughout history ideas have tended to come from places where people from different backgrounds are likely to have new, interesting and unpredictable conversations.

Many of the world’s most creative businesses have applied this principle to their office designs. At Pixar, the toilets, kitchen and other communal facilities were purposefully placed at the centre of a circular office so that everyone would be forced to bump into people from different departments. They wanted to foster chance conversations. In our own office, we’ve covered the walls in magnetic sheeting and everyone sticks up work-in-progress rather than keeping it secret on their computers. This encourages spontaneous comments and observations.

Team composition is another important principle. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, explored this by studying Broadway musicals. He evaluated 472 different productions between 1945 and 1989, measuring the “social intimacy” of the teams working on the productions. A team that had worked together several times before would have high social intimacy. His work showed that musicals with low social intimacy were more likely to fail because the artists didn’t know each other and struggled to share ideas. But equally, when the social intimacy was high, success was also compromised. Uzzi concluded that creative collaborations have a sweet spot: “The best Broadway teams had a mix of relationships. These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant they could interact efficiently, but they also managed to incorporate new ideas.”

This doesn’t mean we should all work in a constant hubbub surrounded by colleagues with whom we share medium social intimacy – or at least not all the time. Periods of lone working are as important as serendipitous interactions. Steven Johnson gives the example of Darwin, whose autobiography says that his theory of natural selection arrived in a Eureka moment while sat in his study. However, a scholar named Howard Gruber went back and looked at Darwin’s notebooks. He found that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for months and months before his claimed epiphany. He had the concept, but was unable to fully think it through or articulate it. Great ideas often fade into view over long periods of time.

Susan Cain, in Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, highlights how difficult it can be to find time for ideas to gestate in the modern world: “Calls, texts, emails … even when we’re alone we’re never really alone any more. In the old days a two-hour train journey might be a time when a manager would sit and think about some issue or other they’d put on the back burner, or just let their mind roam over how the business was doing and what they could improve. Now, there’s no reflective time.”

Jason Fried’s TED Talk highlights a similar point. You cannot ask people to be creative in 15 minutes. To think deeply about a problem and be creative you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. Yet offices are inherently places where people are interrupted a lot. While open-plan offices and meetings can help foster creativity on one hand, there is also the need to allow the time and space for solitary working.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative, but by thinking about our workplace design, collaborators and working practices, we can all unleash more ideas within our organisations.

— RG


  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain
  • How Flashes Of Inspiration Work, Wired
  • Where Good Ideas Come From, TED Talk, Steven Johnson
  • Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work, TED Talk, Jason Fried
  • Work With Strangers, Wired


Create, make, sell. Sing.


Create, make, sell. Sing.

Berry Gordy Jr had been a professional boxer, US soldier and an unsuccessful record-shop owner.

But he found himself working in a Detroit car plant.

A monotonous job: not at all where the ambitious fledgling songwriter had pictured himself.

And during those tedious days in the Lincoln-Mercury plant, Gordy would watch the bare metal frames rolling down the line.

One after another, day after day.

As he worked, he wrote songs in his head.

A few of which he sold to Decca records.

Then he realised that the real money was in doing it for himself.

On 12 January 1959, fuelled by the encouragement of a young poet 10 years his junior one Smokey Robinson and an $800 loan from his family, Gordy set out on his own.

Turning the garage of his home on 2648 West Grand Boulevard into a recording studio.

The audacious 29-year-old affixed a sign proudly to the front of his house

'Hitsville USA'.

Launching a brand of music that combined the visceral roots of gospel and blues with pop sensibilities.

One that would appeal to mainstream pop lovers and discerning black-music lovers alike.

Arriving at the height of the civil rights movement in the early sixties, his African American-owned model of black capitalism, dropped black music into the heart of popular white culture.

Becoming an agent of social and cultural change.

Doing the same thing as Martin Luther King was doing on foot.

They knew they weren't just making music: they were making history.

Breaking down racial divides, uniting blacks and whites on previously divided dance floors.

Not just The Sound of Young America - the words proudly stamped on their record sleeves - but a worldwide phenomenon.

And they were prolific.

A 24-hour hit-making hothouse.

The songwriters would write: Smokey Robinson and the writing trio of HollandDozierHolland.

The talent would perform: Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, Martha and The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes.

The in-house band would play usually the Funk Brothers, encouraged to lay down as many songs as possible in a session, because they were paid by the day.

All under one roof.

You'd turn up.

You'd do your stuff.

The songwriters would pick someone to sing their song: it might even be the person working behind the desk or a player from another band.

Just the right voice for just the right track.

Each track carefully considered prior to release, in 9am Quality Control meetings.

Songwriters and producers sometimes one and the same would pitch songs and cast votes.

If you were one minute late you wouldn't get in.

The competition was fierce, but so was the love.

Free from fear of repercussions.

Free to express themselves because of the atmosphere of safety in ideas.

The best songs won.

And were evaluated.

Chief engineer, Mike McClain, built a diminutive approximation of a tinny car radio.

Because as the people of this car manufacturing town knew only too well car after car rolled off the production line, each with a tinny-sounding radio.

And that it was on these radios that people would be listening to their music.

So they optimised their sound to suit.

Talent was managed and artists developed; trained to perform in only two places: Buckingham Palace and the White House.

Because if they could perform there, they could perform anywhere.

Records were pressed, sleeves designed, artwork printed and distribution managed.

All by the company.

Gordy, the inspirational leader, entrepreneur and talent developer, created a record label thats influenced everyone from The Beatles to hip-hop.

But his brilliance lay in where he got the inspiration for this hit-making hothouse.

He knew that looking beyond the familiar is often where innovation lies: taking an idea from one place and using it in another.

During those tedious days in the Lincoln-Mercury plant, Gordy would watch the bare metal frames rolling down the line.

One after another, day after day.

Coming off the end as brand spanking new cars.

So it struck him.

Why not an assembly line for music?

A place like a factory.

A place where a kid could walk in off the street unknown, and out the other door a star.

A place where talent would be honed and polished to the extent that theyd even be taught how to stand and sit.

A place like a factory, but more collaborative.

Avoiding the pitfalls of uniform consistency, but with the momentum of unrivalled continuity.

Taking an unrelenting manufacturing process, known as Fordism by many, but fusing it with genuine creativity and expression.

Producing songwriters as distinctive as the artists they produced.

Nurturing not just the creative talent, but engineers and corporate executives too.

Adept in the art of making things happen.

Putting the motor town of Detroit on the musical map for all time.

Motown: a portmanteau of motor and town.

And Berry Gordys philosophy

Make a good product, then make something similar and make it quick.

Sounds like its straight out of Silicon Valley.

As fresh today as it was more than fifty years ago.

Just like the music.

– DB

An interesting first kiss


An interesting first kiss

First Kiss has been watched by over 90 million people to date. You may be one of them (if you haven’t seen it, then take a few minutes to watch it below.)

It was made by the fashion brand Wren to showcase their designs.

The three-and-a-half-minute film shows ten pairs of strangers kissing for the first time.


It’s particularly interesting because it’s achieved success without being humorous, rude or X-rated.

I remember the first incarnations of viral marketing (as it was called then).

I was working in an advertising agency at the time.

We started receiving an influx of briefs to create viral videos.

The received wisdom at the time was that people only forwarded things that were hilarious or outrageous - preferably both.

This raised questions about what was right for the brand. Often the projects wouldn’t happen because the requisite tone was deemed inappropriate.

Wren has achieved success with a film that taps into other emotions. It’s a genuine and charming portrayal of an awkward moment to which many people can relate. As befits a fashion brand, it’s done with a suitable amount of style and edge.

First Kiss shows that you can achieve success with content that’s right for the brand. You don’t have to sacrifice ‘appropriateness’ for ‘shares’.

The key is to produce content that’s genuinely interesting and connects with people - in whatever way.

This requires a rebalancing of where budgets are invested - away from media and towards strategy, creative and production.

It also necessitates a shift in mindset. There’s no guaranteed level of exposure with social content, unlike with traditional media.

For those that are willing to do this, the financial rewards can be substantial; imagine how much would it would have cost Wren to buy 90 million exposures for a three-and-a-half-minute film via traditional media.

– RG

That ol’ Razzle Dazzle of Different


That ol' Razzle Dazzle of Different

Norman Wilkinson was a talented, if conservative, marine painter and poster artist.

But he had a dazzling idea.

The open waters around the British Isles were a dangerous place for allied ships during the first world war.

Each vessel a sitting duck, unable to hide from the enemy submariners lurking below the surface.

Throughout 1917, merciless German U-boats decimated British and American vessels at an alarming rate.

Hundreds of ships per month lost to their deadly patrols.

At its worst, eight ships per day were consigned to watery graves.

Severing critical British trade and supply links.

Returning from submarine patrol and the dangers of the Gallipoli campaign, Norman Wilkinson began service on a British minesweeper.

It was here that he came up with his revolutionary and experimental approach to naval defence.

An audacious idea that played a vital role in the protection of British naval and trade vessels.

Wilkinson realised that the Admiralty were trying to solve the wrong problem.

It was impossible to find a way to sufficiently camouflage and hide away all ships, in all conditions, at sea.

The variations in sky colour, cloud cover and wave height were simply too many for any typical camouflage colours, such as black, grey or blue, to work.

So he did the opposite.

Wilkinson devised a fiendishly clever plan to draw attention to vessels rather than hide them away.

Favouring disturbance over disguise.

Optically distorting the appearance of each ship to confuse the enemy rather than conceal.

Suitably impressed, the Admiralty made Wilkinson the head of the new dazzle camouflage section.

Influenced by British avant garde painters like Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg, Wilkinson assembled a team of artists and model makers from the Royal Academy.

Edward Wadsworth, founder of Vorticism the British artistic movement that grew out of Cubism supervised the patterns.

Consisting almost exclusively of women, the team of students from the RA set about the patternation of the ships.

Each side of every vessel a different design.

Every ship an absolute one-off.

Quite literally a work of art.

A cacophony of intersections and angles.

The contrasting geometric shapes and colours interlocked and dissected, creating optical illusions designed to disorientate.

Even the smokestacks were decorated to appear to be leaning in a different direction.

When the German periscopes broke through the waters they had only seconds to locate their target and calculate its speed and course.

Shooting not directly at the ship, but where the vessel would be by the time the torpedo got there.

The problem now facing the German submariners was that the manually operated coincidence rangefinders needed to adjust so that two half-images of the target aligned, completing the picture.

But it was hard to align two halves when what you were looking at didn't make sense: the bold shapes at the bow and the stern broke up the form of the ships.

Making it more difficult for the enemy to calculate an accurate angle of attack.

During the first world war, more than 2,000 Cubism-inspired dazzle ships were operational, and while never scientifically proven, it's safe to say that some patterns worked better than others, and that traveling speeds played a major part.

Recent tests indicate that similar patterns tested on military vehicles, such as Land Rovers, can cause an unguided rocket-propelled grenade, fired at a target traveling around 90km/h, to miss by a metre or more.

The difference between life and death.

Its often all too easy to work within the conventions of a category or situation, gravitating to like-minded ideas.

Take risks.

Iterate as you go, because it no longer takes 100 years to prove your theory.

When you do the polar opposite of what you'd normally do, new ideas, viewpoints and solutions open up in front of you.

The final answer may not end up being the exact opposite, but you'll have more variables on the table in the process.

And possibly a bit of that ol' razzle-dazzle.

– DB

USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918