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Thomas Heatherwick

    Creativity Corner The Creative Process

    The Creative Process – Meet John V Willshire

    April 15, 2013

    This is the third installment in this new category here on colourliving, which I hope will provide some inspiration and insight for many of you.

    For new readers:
    Much has been written about The Creative Process, which in its purest form is simply a way of solving a problem. That sounds simple, doesn’t it? Creativity and its process, contrary to popular belief, is not just reserved for artists and designers. I believe that everyone can benefit from learning and understanding the numerous ways of the creative process. I will invite people to share their own personal creative processes with us and hope this will help you with identifying your own.

    Ha. Today, i’m delighted to introduce you to John V Willshire, who actually is going to introduce himself to you. I only met John recently and can tell you that he is a jolly, creative, intelligent and very nice chap. I left our first meeting buzzing with ideas and excitement and can’t wait to meet up again. Over to John!

    The Creative Process – John V Willshire


    Hi there.  My name’s John.  Like all of you reading this, I do various things. For the purposes of writing about ‘My Creative Process‘, I think the most relevant of those things are these following two.  Each of them is important to help explain what I think my creative process is (or, more honestly, might be…)


    First up, I’m the founder of Smithery, which a nice German magazine called page called a “One-Man Studio” which is a neat description and one I’ve appropriated.

    It’s loosely about product and marketing innovation.  The work I do for people is around Technology, Advertising, Brands, Media, Strategy, Comms, Economics, Material Culture… and so on.

    I help companies and agencies wrestle through and simplify what any combination of that stuff might mean for them.  I’m also Scottish, so struggle to talk about myself that much.  So I’ll deflect…

    It’s called Smithery because it the word means “the work of, and the goods produced, by a smith“, alluding to the blacksmith of old.  It’s both process and product.

    I find blacksmiths really interesting because they didn’t have off-the-shelf solutions, they just knew how to manipulate the raw materials of the age (iron, steel, stone, wood) to fix problems.

    That’s how I like to work.  Which means, perhaps, that it’s slightly anti-process.

    The other relevant thing I do is make these things, Artefact Cards:


    Artefact Cards are blank playing cards for ideas.

    You write and draw out everything in your head, then shuffle and structure them until you understand the shape of your idea, and what to do about it.  You can do this on your own, working with other people, or use them to walk people through your ideas.

    I started making them because I was deeply unhappy with using post-it notes for fragmented idea-based work, but that was the only tool people bothered to make.  I believe that ideas deserve more than to be scrawled on disposable, lo-rent sticky bits of paper, and couldn’t find anything I felt was better, and designed something more fit for my own purpose.

    In hindsight, I’d no idea what they actually were, beyond something I felt needed pushing out into the world.  A cultural provocation, or as Grant put it, a Culturematic.

    When other people started buying them and using them, I found as I talked to them that everyone used them differently.

    You can read interviews about how Tina, Annabel and other use them here.  It’s how I know Tina; her friend Annabel wrote a blog post about using the Artefact Cards, and Tina leapt upon them.

    Whereas at first I saw the cards through the lens of my own work, now I find I’m looking at a lot of different ways of working with ideas through the lens of the cards.

    It’s only when things are exposed to the oxygen of people that we begin see what they are.  They can be snuffed out by the wind, or burn brighter with the purified air.


    Squiggle-blue-7 grey


    So with those two examples in mind… what’s my creative process?

    Originally, when I set up Smithery, I wasn’t going to have a process.  At all.  It was just going to be about turning up, and helping solve problems.

    Something in my head tells me that’s still the process I should tell people about, and see what happens…

    Various friends whose opinions I trust greatly advised me that I had to have something for clients to latch on to… a thing they were buying, a program they could step through, a feeling that this process would mean the world wasn’t all as scary as they feared.

    Of course, the world really is as scary as they fear.  But shhhhh.

    So I made one up, and made it as simple as I could…

    Assess, Build, Cultivate.


    What does that entail?

    First up, Assess…


    Look around, at everything, under things, behind things.  Look in unexpected corners.  Keep looking, soaking things in.  Don’t just do something, stand there.

    It’s drawn from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in which he refers to the people who’d be asked to help improve factories and machinery; “men of speculation”.


    Observe is also the first step in the scientific method; Observe, Measure, Experiment.

    There’s also a smattering of this from John Maeda within the Assess stage:


    …because I find you rather quickly begin to get a sense of what this sort of problem might be.  “What Kind of Thing Is This?” as my friend Mark puts it.

    When you’ve got a grip on that, it’s time to make something…


    We’ve all set in endless meeting debating the finer points of a strategy, but really there’s no better way to think about a problem than to start building the first version of what you think the solution is.

    Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman has been a big influence on the way I’ve worked over the last couple of years; through a whole series of different examples, he illustrates the importance of the link between hand and head, and how we continually discover new things about the problems we’re solving as we make things to solve them.


    I also believe that in this day and age, because of the way media works, we can turn the process of making things into the marketing of the thing a lot earlier.

    I was fascinated by the Heatherwick exhibition at the V&A last year, where there was a recorded interview with Thomas Heatherwick in which he said this:


    A lot of companies are built around the idea of making something in secret, and launching it upon the world in a great ‘ta-da’ moment.  Except why wouldn’t you build in tension and drama through every step of the journey as you make the product.  Kickstarter is excellent proof that people want to feel involved in bringing things into the world.

    Finally, once things are out there, it’s vitally important to cultivate them.


    One of my favourite simple ideas of the last few years is this from Mike Krieger, Instagram founder:


    It’s so true because so much of what we’re doing in squalid grey meeting rooms is just that; guessing.  Now more than ever, nobody really knows what’s going to happen when things are released into the real world.  So you might as well not waste all that time and energy, and get it out there to see what happens.

    What you can’t afford to do is send it out the door with a pass/fail tick box attached, though.

    To go back to Grant McCracken again, you’ve got to allow the flex for the idea to take on new form when people get hold of it:



    Squiggle-blue-7 grey


    So there we have it; Assess, Build, Cultivate.

    Arguably, it isn’t really a process as such.  As I alluded to before, it’s a kind of anti-process, because that’s really what the spirit of Smithery is about.

    In an age where so much is changing so quickly, perhaps the last thing we need to tie ourselves down with another set of constraints.

    It’s not what the blacksmith would do…


    John, you are a star! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. Everyone, have a good week. See you Thursday!