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Can you teach creativity?

Published: 28th Apr 2017
Author: Phillip Nutt - Wenco

The creative will inherit the earth – eventually

Can we teach creativity? Source:

We as an industry seem to be bemoaning that everything looks the same today that we have run out of imaginative ideas. 
I would submit that just by looking at the ideas I daily find on Pinterest that there are people out there with many great and imaginative ideas and even on the Internet we can find many interesting new shoe brands even if many of them are simply STYLE projects and not DESIGNS.
My observation is that we as an industry, because of the global competition and price now being such a dominant demand factor from mass volume retailers, have become too timid towards NEWNESS. 
At the recent trade show I saw lots of creativity yet so little of what we see at such shows ever appears at the consumer level and thus we are charged with having an absence of creativity.
The Courts use the term NOVEL to define and evaluate what is NEW.
NOVEL in legal terms and by dictionary definition relates to “Hitherto Unknown”, which is somewhat of an impossible challenge for a craft industry of over 2000 years.
Thus CREATIVITY is not so much about teaching NOVELTY as it is about MODIFICATION, ADAPTATION and UTILIZATION alternatives. 
The term itself is wide open to application in our industry and the general consensus is that creativity is the process of being productive in the creation of something perceived as INTERESTING, DIFFERENT, EXCITING and above all easily explainable to a broad cross section of peoples.
Creativity is a process of experimentation, of challenging established viewpoints.
Sometimes new ideas win and many times they don`t. 
The old adage that being in the right place at the right time with the right idea is still the lucky formula.
To keep it simple I have chosen to fall back on to my own experiences of a wise judge`s definition of INSPIRATION versus REPLICATION as it relates to creativity. .
This legal definition has played an influential part in my life ever since I first heard this opinion being made live and in court.
The thrust of the opinion was that we ALL are surrounded by Inspirational elements in our life that may directly or subconsciously affect our creative thought process.
Creativity is commonly associated with being aware of our surroundings and to use those influences for processes that can change what we have existing now and hopefully that act as an improvement over what exists at the present time.
For example I might see an interesting hub cap on a car that may set off my creative juices to try to include an inspired version of that shape in my own sole designs. Would I register that pattern as a NOVEL sole design and the answer is NO because I was INSPIRED in my creativity by something already existing. 
There is a tendency to think that IDEAS GENERATION is a costly exercise and is one of the reasons why so many people justify window shopping, trade show attendance and internet snooping.
I don`t support the concept of a locked room and you don`t come out until you have created an idea but neither do I promote the concept that one also has to take off to an exotic location for INSPIRATION.
When a BRAND becomes tired, it’s not just the role of the creative person to dig the company out of the rut it has gotten itself in to. REPOSITIONING has to be a team effort, a designer can come up with a great look but if the sales team is not on board it has little chance of getting to the actual store buyer let alone the final consumer it was intended for.
A board meeting screaming match does nothing to improve the creative thought process. FEAR is always a deterrent to creativity.
Sometimes that brisk cold walk in a park or a strong drink can just as much lead to a MIND REFRESHMENT as an expensive SHOPPING TRIP.

Inspiration for sole design? Source:

No two persons have the same approach even with the same basic training.
What is needed are people who are willing to search for inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
Again it doesn`t have to be an expensive trip to find inspiration but it does take an always open mind that is searching for ideas to file, first in the mind, and later to put on paper. 
e.g When I`m waiting for my car service, I spend time and ask the staff if I can look at TYRE ads from the different dealers as I find many of their tyre treads are great sources of inspiration for sole bottom patterns. 
Manhole covers are also interesting tread patterns.
Building shapes, cars, nature, cultures, etc., are great sources of inspiration. 
When it comes to technical creativity, I find nothing beats exercises in deconstructing established shoes, particularly competitors’ samples, and today we are living in a world of HYBRIDS where non-shoe trained “STYLISTS” rearrange bottoms and tops to create variations of those CLASSICS with a TWIST which are so popular today.
The old adage “If at first you don`t succeed, try, try and try again” is still valid when it comes to creativity.
I have in my consultancy position been used extensively to explain why rejection is a feature of the shoe business just as it is in any industry that involves creativity. 
It’s not easy to explain why an idea that took a few minutes was accepted whilst an idea that was worked on for weeks was not.
One good example from history is the persistence of Charles Goodyear, the inventor of the vulcanized rubber process, who spent years and all his financial resources trying to stabilize latex rubber and only finding the answer when he, by accident, dropped his sample on a hot metal fireplace lid and saw how heat and sulfur changed and stabilized his compound. This was his Eureka moment.
Nothing depresses the creative mind as much as constant negative comment that “It can`t be done”. For Ideas people, challenging the status quo comes naturally.
Established companies tend to be more reluctant to try new things than new start-up companies. It’s a perfectly understandable logic as history always contains experiences of failure whereas new companies have yet to see that scenario happen.
One good thing I have observed from some of the leading companies in the shoe industry is that they do from time to time create brainstorming events away from the office structure that are exercises in thinking outside of the box.
Two examples of many I can supply would be the corporate weekend retreat where the company also invites external ideas people that can include selected vendors whom they have recognized for their ideas generation during everyday business.
At Bata, we held an annual shoecon in Italy with representation from each and every company and we organized both official speaker trend presentations and then various product type category meetings that representatives could attend. The key, from my observations, was that such ideas generation sessions definitely work best when the committee members are of relatively equal rank. Creativity does not work well when people pull rank over the quality of the ideas suggested.
What really worked, with these multi cultural meetings, was how well most individuals of differing backgrounds quickly found friendships of common interests and trust. Such relationships stayed with so many of those individuals including myself, it increased the creative interchange of ideas, and carried on well after many left Bata.

It’s not just a case of having flashy offices, or the latest equipment.
I do remember visiting Benetton offices in Italy where their open office cubicles were built on small wheels and from time to time .these offices were shifted around so the employees got to know each other better.
The first commandment for me is to recognize how team work works for the most successful companies.
I have many examples during my consultancy years working with giant shoe companies of how different cultures and styles of working can affect morale.
One was where young designers from the USA were sent to their European counterpart offices for cross pollination of ideas. For the host Europeans, it was still old world mentality, it was traditional working standards, everyone wore a clean white coat, started and left at the correct times and was always busy. The USA designers arrive in their skateboarder attire, chose to go through the creative thought process by simply putting their feet up on the desks drinking a soft drink, sometimes reading and all done under the guise of “Thinking”.
The different work ethics of the two cultural groups were just not conducive to any form of cooperation, teamwork or creativity. If anything they propagated jealousy, rivalries and protectionism.

Different creative cultures don’t always gel. Source:\r\n

In regard to this last paragraph I will be outspoken and make mention of my belief that it’s hard to build a dynamic creative organization with MONGRELS.
By this I mean I`m not a fan of what I call the popular headhunter scenario of putting square pegs in round holes and where warm bodies recruited from competitors are then thrown in together to see where the fittest survive.
I am a heretical believer of the concept of team development. As the saying goes “There is no letter I in the word Team”, and I was always impressed during visits to Japan for business meetings that it is an absolute No-No for a Westerner to pick out and praise one specific opposite member.
In Japan you can`t credit the advertising manager for his efforts, you must congratulate the whole team.
More recently there have been numerous articles about how managing Millennials is so tough. For many shoe company managers they must have nightmares of what is to come when they see to what extent the new social network companies go to in their office design to keep their creative people happy. 
E.G.  I have a son-in-law who runs a fast-growing IT company and observed him one weekend having to make decisions with his team on what games and kitchen facilities were to be established in the basement. It seemed that to keep these ideas people from just moving to another job was not just about money but also what “play time” facilities were offered at the office.
This is really a hard question and one that is not given enough thought to.
Historically as our classic shoe training colleges closed down or became too expensive to attend there was a big rush to go to non shoe creative facilities like industrial design schools and fine art schools to recruit people..
This is what I call the mongrel scenario. Sometimes when you breed two different breeds of animals you can get very cute offspring but there also many examples of negative health problems from such a process.
I find this is somewhat similar in footwear creativity when too many differences of opinion are introduced.
It’s hard for old industry and new industry people to relate to each other. 
I like the input into our industry by the white athletic shoe giants where pure creativity is divorced from technical practicality. Where product engineering decides how a shoe is to be made. 
I can take that observation a little further (with the anticipation of hate mail for these comments), but I do not believe brand applications should be left to the designer of a project. Few have any marketing experiences and branding is very much a serious marketing decision. Branding is not just a decoration on the side of a shoe. I see far too many bastardizations of corporate trade mark registrations being made in the name of creativity.
E.G. A flippant example of my message (and delivered from memory) is the Monty Python skit where the Pope demands Leonardo da Vinci be brought in to account for why he had painted two Christs and more than 12 apostles for his Last Supper painting and Leonardo (Eric Idle) proffers an aggressive complaint that he was not allowed any artistic license!

Creativity can require artistic licence rather than a literal interpretation of facts. Source:

Our trouble in today`s world is that we are a craft industry with long, unchanging traditions.
We have been for far too long an industry of lemmings, being told by others as to what trends we must follow and being regularly beaten down by buyers to achieve the lowest price.
As examples, I remember and have observed though each decade of my shoe trade participation how we always went through the process with buyers of itemizing the cost of buckles, straps, trims, linings, soles etc then, rendering versions of the STYLE without such trims and after having done all of this excess work finding that even the buyer wanted to restore certain features because even those Draculas of our industry, when faced with the stripped down and savaged version, realised they had sucked the very life blood out of what was a great idea? 
In pre-desktop and Photoshop days, these cut and paste exercises were quite lengthy and time consuming. We used to fume at the idea that our work was being raped and pillaged to excess but now it’s not so bad to try such costing exercises and easy to do with CAD systems.
The same can be said for colouring alternatives. I used to hate to use those Pantone pens with their toxic fumes and it was so time consuming, but now with Photoshop and Pantone references to follow, it’s a dream.
Creativity in colouring is also a skill. Pre-Photoshop I use to know some female stylistas who did quite well just doing colour-ups for major brands.
I used to spend hours making tiny Pantone swatches into colour combination references, now it takes seconds.
I also have a story to tell of the time when outdoor hikers became quite colourful in “get up” as they chased every trend from the Running Shoe market.
I actually engaged my pre-teen daughter of the time and her fellow birthday party members to colour a series of b/w sketches with simple wax Crayons and it was amazing what wonderful colour combinations came from those innocent creative minds and my clients actually liked their ideas. .
Here I have revolutionary ideas from my own experiences as one of the hardest challenges is in keeping creative people from killing each other out of artistic jealousies and claims of management favouritism.
My whole career, which now is over 55 years, has been one that believes designers should be paid like commissioned sales reps.
I submit that the best way to get productivity from your designers is to reward success – and only success. 
I will argue that if sales people and designers shared commissions, you would find that the productivity and creativity would vastly improve AND both parties to the cause would benefit. 
I will build further support for this concept by using the examples of some of the celebrity name designers, who many consumers associate as the owners of their branded business but in fact are just minority shareholders in the endeavour.

Today`s competitive world makes less of loyalty qualities and relies more on rewarding talent that keeps the revenues growing.
We have seen through the evolution of the luxury brands that having a name designer can enhance a brand`s stature but even that success is subject to the way the NAME reacts to their own successes.
We have seen examples of prima donna outbursts that have necessitated a split in the venture and above all it is inevitable that a successful creative mind is always yearning for bigger and better things and sometimes those “wants” are no longer possible within the existing organization.
Creativity needs an environment where motivation is always flowing but at the same time management must always be assessing the direction of the overall branded story and where it should be headed rather than where the hired creative force wants it to go.
I keep a great deal of reference material on the great luxury brands and I`m always monitoring the tangential directions that hired celebrity designers sometimes take a brand in when it comes to image and brand detailing. 
As a result of my observations I see how easy and quickly it is for a name brand to lose its role in the commercial universe.
This scenario is not helped by the ever growing consolidation of luxury brand names by investment groups. Now the challenge is how bankers keep the brands they purchase from all looking the same. 
The story can also be said for the new trend in celebrity endorsements and the way today`s consumers can react negatively to something the celebrity does at the touch of a button.
It’s hard for a brand to stay relevant through a 40 year lifecycle.
The challenge for such brands is determining their role in the marketplace.
In the past it was defined by age groups and only a few HOT brands could “grow” with their ageing audience.
Today it’s the same with luxury brands, where globalization has “moved the money around” and the cultural tastes of the NEW MONEY are not that of the OLD MONEY.
Luxury goods today are as much about the perception of what the brand vision is, as it is about living off of a decades-old quality craft reputation.
It becomes a tough challenge to explain quality through a glossy fashion magazine and social media has only a short exposure span for your message.
The new celebrity licenses make the story even more challenging as the popularity of today`s average success story is quickly over and icons of today quickly become fodder for cable TV “Where are they now” programmes.
The good thing is that the desire to innovate should remain with us no matter the millennial. We still want to go higher, faster, further etc.
We are currently living through a period of global commercial consolidation but having experience from both sides of the spectrum I have faith that creativity is one of the cheapest activities to employ, it is the execution of that creativity that is always the challenge.
There is much talk that this next decade will be the era of the young entrepreneur where NEWNESS will flourish as youth rejects the time honoured ways of doing business 
The riddle I am trying to solve for myself is why does it seem there are lots of creative people with ideas and no money to make those dreams reality and yet at the same time there seem to be huge wealthy corporations with limited creativity 
I just can`t get my head around the fact that money still matters more than creativity? 
It is only when I look at my Microsoft founders photo and all the new high tech industries that have made Millennials the new billionaires do I have faith that the creative will inherit the earth eventually. 
As I said at the beginning: Timing is everything!!!!! – Phillip Nutt []
Phillip Nutt is the president of Wenco International Footwear Consultants, based in Canada. His intimate knowledge of South Africa comes from a stint with Bata SA in Pinetown. An outline of his services is available on his website,
©2017 S&V Publications
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