Are we allowed to be creative?

04.18.2011 / Author: Dipika Kohli

Picture it.

The seed of an idea parks in your head. And won’t dislodge.

The more you talk about it, the more it spools from vague to shapely. But it’s still elusive.

As you attempt to articulate, you know your speech is warbled. That doesn’t stop you.

People look at you like you have three heads. No matter. You continue your soliloquy.

Every. Chance. You. Get.

And then, one minute, you float from scattered to perfect clarity.

You’ve bubbled over.

Every molecule in your body shakes with new knowledge: it’s time.

Pick up the pencil. Flesh a first, clean line.

Welcome to the creative process.

The creative process

—”Hey, I’m thinking about having this roundtable,” I’d casually mention to people around town.


—”Yeah! On the topic: the creative process.”


We posted “Make” as a Facebook event page. Blogged it at our unknown-in-Durham Web site. Sprinkled it on Twitter. With no elaboration beyond: “The creative process. What is it? Who uses it? What changes as a result?”

That was enough to convince four dozen strangers to collect on the second floor of a small, noisy wine bar in Durham’s downtown.

Some drove 40 miles.

Durham might lack a perfect venue for this kind of open discussion. But certainly not the audience.

The hypothesis

This town is budding with newly relocating creative class people. It’s getting trendy, sort of, too. Durham caught the eye recently of New York Times reporters listing “The 41 Places to Go in 2011,” beating out Budapest and Okinawa.

You kind of had that feeling, when you got here.

Something cool could happen.

It helps that we have local ties: Akira Morita and I started Design Kompany in the Triangle when we were college kids in 1995.

The experiment

I invited eight people to speak as panelists.

Not in a line or anything, but just dotted about the “roundtable” chiming in when they liked.

Some memorable quotes from each of them at “Make:”

Information designer Beck Tench: The more you make yourself vulnerable, the more you can be rewarded.

Sociologist Javonne Clark: Is someone else going to think that what I created is good? Will someone else like it? That’s the first thing we think. That’s the first step of creativity.

WordPress developer Mark Branly: At some point, we have to rein in the curiosity. We have to give control to the left brain to make things happen, to solve the problem.

Photographer Alex Manness: People seem to be in a bubble—that’s the nemesis of a creative process. As I get older I see I’m letting go of what I think I already know. [I’m] getting out of ‘who you know’ and meeting different kinds of people every day.

Museum studies expert Tiff Broili: What do you want to do? Don’t shut yourself down. Research it. Find it out. Talk to people. Just call someone and ask if you can talk. Open the possibilities for yourself.

Architect Scott Harmon: Get rid of the BS in your brain saying, “You can’t do that. You don’t want to look like that.” I’ve been doing hot yoga and finding I’m doing things I didn’t think I could actually do. [Stepping out] breaks down fear.

Presentation designer Jeff Brenman: Whittling down for a purpose, creating with intention… This is inside me, I want to share it with the world, but also asking, “What if?”

Scientist-turned-Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic: Just say yes! No matter what your lizard brain is screaming.

The results

Like with any discussion about creativity, the usual existential questions emerged:

  • Is it art, or problem-solving?
  • Is it art, or is it craft?
  • Is art design?
  • Are we our own biggest resistance?
  • Does it count as creative if there’s no product at the end?
  • Will it sell?
  • Is it self-expression or something for a client?

And the biggest:

  • Am I an artist?

The single biggest finding to surface from “Make?”

People crave letting down their linearity.

We want to be allowed to be creative.

We want permission.

Showing up to “Make” was an announcement. I am creative.

It was an affirmation. I make.

“Once I listened to myself,” said landscape designer Sheldon Galloway, “I actually got better. This is the motion, this is the color… there’s a lot more to [design] than just how it looks.”

A woman whispered in my ear as she was leaving: “This was fabulous. I’ve just returned to creativity from the corporate world.”

There was only one thing to say in response.

“Welcome back.”

How to get there

“Ask a room of five-year-olds, ‘How many of you are artists,’” said guest Jimmy Chalmers. ”’How many of you can sing?’” He raised his hand. “Ask them again when they’re 12. You’ve lost it.”

How do we get to be creative?

Tear down the blocks.

Words like “shouldn’t” dampen the child spirit.

We have to trust.


And the process.

“There’s an eight-year-old in you that wants to be creative,” Jimmy said, eyes gleaming. “Let’s get it.”

About Design Kompany

Design Kompany is a brand marketing studio based in Durham, NC. You can reach us at or 919.886.6332.

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5 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 04.18.2011

    Thanks Dipika for a terrific post. Great to see how the creative process is similar for anyone from a designer or architect to a scientist. I felt the quote “The more you make yourself vulnerable, the more you can be rewarded.” summed up the article.

    A few related articles that you and other readers may like:

    Bring Back the Lost Art of Tinkering

    “Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.”

    3 Reasons You Should Treat Creativity Like A Game

    “The key to creativity is replacing linear thinking with a more organic framework — the circle of the playground.”

  2. 04.18.2011

    This all made so much sense to me while reading through it. I know my creativity is there, I have seen it numerous times and it can be amazing. Sometimes though, I feel like I hit a wall and can’t create anything. Then you start second guessing yourself, thinking you can’t do something. Then I usually get out of my own way, and without knowing it happen, I have done it! I think we do get in our own ways. Sometimes I feel like there’s a big fight going on in my skull about what and how to do something. My creativity going, “Lets do this, it will be great” and my logic stating, “You can’t do that, no one will understand it.” This has to be one of my favorite blog reads and I read a lot. Thank you for this.

  3. 04.19.2011


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! “Getting out of our own way” is big. I think we do some of our best thinking when we’re not consciously thinking. That means taking the time to “walk away from it,” as they say, or in other words, let ourselves be a bit free of the notion that every minute being creative means you have to be “productive.” Too often I think we’re forcing ourselves to come up with some kind of amazing product. I used to sleep on hard problems when I was in engineering school. Sometimes you just wake up with “it,” and the so-called solution isn’t even obvious until you’re 98% there. Know what I mean?