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Creativity on speed


It's been said that art, creativity, and innovation are about the recognition and mastery of constraints.

"Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest."
— Frank Lloyd Wright

"In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed."
— Henri Matisse

One of the best ways to be truly creative--breakthrough creative--is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast. From the brain's perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we're forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called "right brain") and EQ down conscious thought ("left brain").

(One of the best ways to quickly test the dramatic power of shifting from left to right is with Betty Edwards Drawing on the right side of the brain work.)

Ad-lib Jams

I'm not talking about the kind of time pressure we get from trying to get real work done under unreasonable deadlines. I'm talking about a specific technique for using speed as a creativity driver. I talked about this earlier in Build something cool in 24 hours, based on a talk by Ritual Entertainment game guru Squirrel Eiserloh. Squirrel is one of the founders of the Ad Lib Game Development Society, and an active participant (and advocate) of the Jam model for creating both games and music.

Squirrel said one of their main mottos is from the Glengarry Glen Ross movie, where Alex Baldwin tells/threatens the sales people to "always be closing." You aren't there just to do things...you're there to make things. To get something finished, no matter how crappy and ultimately unusable, in the given--insane--time constraint.

Creativity Deathmatches

Another jam format that's been gaining ground is the deathmatch or "battle". But unlike the live Battle of the Bands format (or Poetry Slams), which are simply live competitions, the creativity deathmatch/battle is about creating in real-time. In other words, you aren't just playing your pre-written music or reading your pre-written poems in front of a live audience, you're also creating something from scratch.

Of course, this idea is nothing new to improv artists from comedy to jazz musicians, but it's not something one normally associates with things like graphic design or writing code. (Although there have been code-offs (like bake-offs for geeks), typically held at developer conferences.)

Squirrel sent me this link to the Laptop Deathmatch held recently in Dallas, covered in this Dallas Observer article. From the article:

"The monthly competition...pits 16 people in a tournament to find the most talented laptop musicians in town. Players get three minutes to whip up whatever noise they want, as long as it comes from only a laptop and a MIDI controller device. The most exciting thing about the event, really, is that nobody actually has a clue what "most talented laptop musician" means."

But Skyler has been raving about the Art Battle held at the Installation Art Gallery/Skateboard Shoe store here in Boulder.


Sponsored by (who else) Pabst Blue Ribbon, artists Scot Lefavor and Ray Young Chu battled it out before a live audience. Every 30 minutes the host would announce a word or phrase and the two artists had to race to depict it.



[photos by ronnie innes, via Scot Lefavor's site]

I found plenty of other examples of creativity battles including this one from Portland's Music and Video Art Invitational described as:
"10 video artists and 20 musicians create original works in a limited time frame using provided source materials.... contributors will be supplied with 10 visual or audio samples, which they will in turn use as source material for an original piece of music, sound, or video."

[no pre-arranged material was allowed]

But perhaps my favorite is the Comic Art Battle, also in Portland. (Why does so much cool stuff happen up there?)

When you're crafting something -- a final product like a software app, painting, piece of music, etc. -- slowing down can make all the difference between crap and not crap. But when you're trying to make creative breakthroughs, slowing down gives the rational part of your brain all the time it needs to stop an idea before you're barely aware of it. When it comes to building/creating/playing something you didn't even know you were capable of, speed is your friend.

(I read that Vincent Van Gogh completed every one of his paintings in less than 24 hours. Then again, there is that whole ear thing...)

But this brings me back to the picture at the top, and Squirrel's motto "Always Be Closing. As most of you already know, Tim O'Reilly's geek campout, Foo Camp, has spawned a number of other 24 to 48 hour "camps" and "jams" including Bar Camp, and the recent Seattle Mind Camp. While these are awesome experiences, and I wish there were more--these events should not be confused with creativity jams.

While Foo Camp is where I first learned of the Game Jam format, from Squirrel's talk, Foo Camp was itself not a make-something-cool-while-you're-here-to-demo-at-the-end kind of thing. The camps are more about talking about things people have built rather than actually building them in real-time. The camps offer a different form of creativity--more about synthesis and getting new ideas than tapping into the power of your subconscious creativity.

It would be fun to see a combination camp where the first half of the weekend was about actually making something, solo or collaboratively, and the other half was about exchanging ideas with the other participants (including the things you made during the first half, and lessons learned).

I'll leave you with an article on creativity, by Randy Thom, aimed at those who do sound for motion pictures. While not at all speed-related, it's an interesting perspective on creativity:

"The Tyranny Of Competence
In the movie industry a high value is justifiably placed on technical competence. It is assumed that every craftsperson should know how to use the tools of the trade and be able to perform on cue, under pressure. The trouble with paying so much attention to skill and technical prowess is this: The frame of mind in which interesting things germinate is often more confused and desperate than organized and confident. "

Posted by Kathy on December 7, 2005 | Permalink


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» Creativity on speed (as in fast) from i-node one
Ive known for a long time that the best way to learn non-technical things and create artistic thingies was to get my logical brain the hell out of the way. This puts that idea into a very digestible, and vastly more useful, form. Excerpt: Cre... [Read More]

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» Creative Jam from Kelake
When coming up with ideas for the smenms project the team used methods somewhat like this. We had specific constraints in the project which we either defined or were defined for us. Within these constraints we set-out to come up... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 7, 2005 7:31:33 PM

» Creative Jam from Kelake
When coming up with ideas for the smenms project the team used methods somewhat like this. We had specific constraints in the project which we either defined or were defined for us. Within these constraints we set-out to come up... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 7, 2005 7:39:15 PM

» Creative Pressure from TrayGames Blog
The best and most creative solutions do not come from having every possible ingredient and tool at... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 17, 2006 8:19:30 AM


Great post. A couple of years ago, I participated in a similar creativity jam. It's a month long quest to produce a 50,000 word novel. National Novel Writing Month...it runs every November. I wrote a lot of crap to hit that target, but I also got some good stuff down on paper in the process, which I may actually do something with someday. :) Check it out at www.nanowrimo.org.

Posted by: Jessica Emmons | Dec 7, 2005 1:37:36 PM

Jessica, Nano is a great way to up the creativity of your writing. I did it a few years ago as well. Unfortunately I am working my way through the rewrite at a snail's pace but as I read through it there is some lovely stuff I don't think I would have gotten without the deadline driving me to just write.

Now I have a dilema - the book or the guitar. When I first started playing guitar there certainly weren't ads with women actually playing one [never mind marketing it to them!]

Posted by: Julie | Dec 7, 2005 2:33:32 PM

I completed Nanowrimo this year! I tried a couple years ago and died around 5,000 words. I'm very proud of myself. I'm close to the end of the novel itself too, so I'm really looking forward to finishing and then putting it away for a long time before I suffer looking at it again (and then fingers crossed that I can edit into something good... I love the story, I just wish it was written well!).

On the adlib game development note, Ludum Dare ( http://www.ludumdare.com - some form of website may or may not be in existence as you read this) is having their 8th(?) semi-biannual 48-hour game development contest this very weekend! I absolutely love these things. It always inspires truly new things in gaming (as the post discusses, in large part due to limitations - there's a theme provided, and trying to come up with something to fit it makes you do cool stuff). My entries from previous contests are on my website (Freebies > Gamelets). It's quite ad-hoc this time around, so sorry if the page isn't there when you see this!

Posted by: Hamumu | Dec 7, 2005 3:08:31 PM

A few quick and sort of related thoughts:

I’m sure there’s much creativity in what people call extemporaneous activities. However, we shouldn’t think of extemporaneous as entirely spontaneous, especially if that includes some notion of unprepared. The best extemporaneous artists are almost always exceptionally well prepared people. They “innovate” or “create” employing one or more of possibly many well rehearsed patterns that they apply to the unique circumstance they find themselves in. When you learn extemporaneous skills, you’re actually learning the patterns that work best for you and developing experience in their application in various circumstances. If the extemporaneous artists don’t share this, you really can’t hold it against them – magicians often keep their tricks a secret as well.

I think it’s clear that necessity is the mother of invention. Pressures of all sorts can drive creative responses. And time pressure may be a handy tool given that it’s one sort of pressure you can impose upon yourself without any/many adverse side-effects. Creating pressure through exposure to the elements, for instance, may also incite a little creativity, but has a drawback or two of its own.

Finally, do you think “practicing” with time pressures would have a beneficial effect on your creative output generally? For me, things I label creative almost never happen under time pressure. They tend to surface when I’m immersed in something else entirely. At that point it’s usually a frantic rush to get it all recorded somehow.

Posted by: Bob | Dec 7, 2005 6:45:09 PM

This is a great read. In art school, I noticed I made the biggest breakthroughs when I had severe limitations. Between that and the 5k contest, I started to think there may be something behind it, and this article makes that point.

I actually have done series on this concept. One was "speedie comix" where I wrote a single page comic without thinking about it. I did that 10 times:

Posted by: Jon Bell | Dec 8, 2005 10:08:53 AM

Interesting observations. As a painter, I know from a first hand experience (make it a repeated first hand experience) that I myself, as an author, am not the best judge when it comes to deciding when is my canvas done. Simply put, I tend to overdo things.

I am aware of this because my best work is invariably the one I was forced to abandon before I got a chance to finish it. You know how it goes -- I'm in the middle of doing it, something comes up, yanks me away from my easel, and then one thing leads to another, and eventually I never get a chance to return to the canvas. Meanwhile I get involved with other projects, I've started work on other canvases, so for me the first unfinished canvas is a writeoff.

But then something strange happens: after a while, I return to the original canvas with the intention to finally complete it, and much to my shock, I realize that it's just perfect!

I'm incapable of explaining how does that actually work, but really and truly, what I thought was rough and unfinished piece of work, almost a sketch, turns out to be perfect. I wouldn't add nor remove even a single brushstroke.

I was talking to a friend artist about this, and he had a brilliant idea. He suggested we conduct an experiment -- I start working on a canvas, and he sort of decides to call me on my phone at a completely random time. The deal is, once I receive his phone call, I am obliged to stop working.

We haven't had a chance to try the experiment yet, but I'm really curious to see the results. Talk about the boiling pressure!

Posted by: Alex Bunardzic | Dec 8, 2005 10:13:31 AM

Rather than the Glengarry Glen Ross movie, this post makes me think of the Dead Poets Society. You know, where Robin Williams grabs one of the boys and spins him around until poetry spouts out of his mouth.

Personally, I find adopting a fake accent releases the inhibitions to creativity. Earned me the nickname 'Frenchy'!

Posted by: Dave J. | Dec 8, 2005 12:57:19 PM

This article makes me think of two things. First, it reminds me of the weekend charette way back in design school. Given 36 hours, a four person multi-disciplinary team, and a design problem people would produce amazing ideas. A book is the second thought I had. This argument, in some ways, similar to the one Malcolm Gladwell makes in Blink. Gladwell basically argues that given enough training and experience, people's first thought and reactions are more reliable than ones given more time to develop. I run into this with design problems all the time. Sometimes rehashing something just drains the fun and life from a good idea.

Posted by: alicia | Dec 8, 2005 4:37:23 PM

My all-time favorite instance of "creativity on speed" was in the movie Apollo 13 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112384/) -- "Houston, we have a problem" -- when the team at Mission Control had to figure out a solution to problems created by an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks of the spacecraft (the wikipedia entry has more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_13).

In particular, I'm reminded of the scene where the mission director came into a room full of engineers with a box full of all the equipment the spacecraft crew had available to them on board, dumped it onto the table, and told the crew on the ground this is what their colleagues in space have to work with, and it was up to them to find a solution before the oxygen supplies ran out on the spacecraft.

The PBS special on Apollo 13 (http://www.shoppbs.org/sm-pbs-apollo-13-to-the-edge-and-back-dvd--pi-1912722.html) was factually more informative, but the movie starring Tom Hanks was more inspiring, largely due to the compelling illustration of creativity on speed.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 8, 2005 8:35:13 PM

This past summer I had my first filmmaking experience as part of a team involved in the 48 Hour Film Project ( http://www.48hourfilm.com/ ). There were 36 teams in St. Louis alone. At the start time each team was given a character, prop, line of dialogue and genre. Then we had 48 hours to write, plan, shoot and edit a 5 to 7-minute film.

It was fun, frustrating, draining and exhilarating all at the same time. And some of the resulting short films (ours included) were truly well-done, creative and entertaining.

Yes, speed does indeed inspire creative thinking and action!

-Bob Baker

Posted by: Bob Baker | Dec 9, 2005 8:46:36 AM

I was wondering if someone was going to mention the 48 Hour Film Project! It's a ton of fun. I encourage anyone who lives near one of the participating cities to get involved! 'just find a team. They're always looking for extra help! http://www.48hourfilm.com/

I had the good fortune to write for and direct projects in the Cincinnati contest for the past two years. I got to work with amazingly talented, creative, and funny people! Our movies didn't win, but they're great and worth the watch!

If you have high-speed, they can be downloaded at:

[2005] http://cincinnati.kicks-ass.net/pixelfarmers-2005/pix-far-2005-FILM.htm

[2004] http://cincinnati.kicks-ass.net/pixel-farmers-2004/Story.htm

No charges. No personal information requested. Just normal downloads.



Posted by: Junior | Dec 13, 2005 12:51:43 AM

i just browsed this:


like the 48 hour film project mr. baker mentioned above. but faster, shorter, etc.

Posted by: amelia chesley | Feb 24, 2006 10:09:16 AM

Talk about creativity on speed...

"Zooomr Adds Photo Trackbacks... In Less Than An Hour"

Posted by: mot | Apr 18, 2006 9:45:24 AM

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. I recently completed my MFA in Creative Writing, and many of my classmates have confided that they were writing much more prolifically and creatively with those class due dates hanging over their heads constantly. Interesting!

Posted by: thebizofknowledge | Aug 17, 2006 5:32:15 PM

I just finished CampusMovie Fest - a 7 day, 5 minute film festival held at our schoold, but done nation wide. Our gymnastics documentary placed in the top 16, and got viewed to a packed audience at Memorial Auditorium. Now I'm going to National Novel Writing Month. (nanowrimo.org) It's all so exciting!

Posted by: Jason | Oct 26, 2006 1:36:12 AM

Hmm... interesting post. I always like to do things slowly taking my time. Maybe I should try out the speed technique. Lets see how it works

Posted by: Syd | Jan 17, 2007 7:41:53 PM

I think such artists deadmatch would be very interesting.People love to create new things and this form of contest will help them show their best.

Posted by: Cara Fletcher | Jul 26, 2007 5:13:38 AM

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