Low Definition Creativity


When I first read about Beck’s do-it-yourself CD art for his latest effort, The Information, in an article on Wired (Link), there was something about it that seemed off to me; something a little too… slick. Now, after simply seeing the image at the top of an entry on Design Observer (Link – I’ve not even read the post below it yet) showing the guts of the DIY insert, I realize what bothers me – and it’s no small thing.

Just so you’re aware, I like Beck’s music. I was one of those in the early 90’s playing the stuff that other designers in the office thought was “weird”. Stuff like Radio Head’s first CD. Cuts from sampler CD’s I’d get through magazine’s like Industrial Nation. And Beck struck a lot of the right chords with me. But I don’t know if I feel that way anymore; not after seeing what feels to me more like a gimmick than anything else.

The problem I’m having is that the whole idea of anyone even needing to use clip art or peel-and-stick images reinforces in my mind the generally-perceived notion that regular people don’t have the wherewithall to truly do-it-themselves. It seems to reinforce the idea that art and design are for those who were supposedly born talented; that it’s a gift. I don’t like that perception because a) it belittles those who work hard to become competent at their craft and b) it suggests that the so-called average person will never be able to acquire certain basic skills because they weren’t “born talented” – when the truth is that pretty much anyone can develop those skills with practice.

As a personal example, a long time ago I started making my own cassette inserts; usually based on the album cover art (I’d buy albums just for the art sometimes). The only one I have left is this one, a custom cassette insert for Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West (still a great album):


Not exactly the best cassette insert art, but it wasn’t intended to be slick and polished – it was done because it was fun. Besides, at least it was mine, even if it was inspired by the album art. At least it wasn’t some slick peel-and-stick-by-numbers creation that had as much to do with cosmetic surgery as it did with creativity. You see, that’s the other problem I have. We’re confusing unbridled creativity with copy and paste. Our remix culture has removed not just a portion of the skill but placed boundaries on creativity by giving us the pieces with which to work. Low-definition components.

I won’t say there isn’t some level of creativity involved in selecting the particular sticky image and placing it in such a way that everything looks aesthetically pleasing or communicates some profound insight. No. But I am suggesting that this replaces the unlimited imagination that resides in each and every one of us. That by giving people the pieces we inherently set some the boundaries. In contrast, no matter how unslick or untrained some original final work may be, at least it’s the product of an unfettered mind – limited only by what the individual could wrap their opposable thumbs around.

Sometimes it seems like we’re turning into an index finger culture: point at it and push the button to insert it… or just point. We’re becoming WYSIWYG. So Beck’s effort, which now feels to me like a marketing gimmick, seems also to be a sad commentary on where we’re heading. Personally, I prefer a piece of plain paper and a pencil… not just for me, but for even the people who don’t believe they can draw.

{Update: There’s a related post, “The borders of user created content” (Link), on Raph Koster’s blog which touches on similar issues. Well worth the read.}

{Top image sources: Beck DIY components from the Design Observer and sample art from Amazon}

7 thoughts on “Low Definition Creativity

  1. You weren’t at a certain plastics company for not one, but two rounds of research into scrap-booking, an industry that has spawned hundreds of successful businesses based on limited creativity. I personally had to go to a scrap-booking convention for this research (shiver).

    Beck’s cut and paste cover art is a simplistic extension of that industry (simplistic because you don’t use your own pictures).

    I don’t think anyone is really confusing unbridled creativity with cut and paste. Instead, things like scrap-booking, WYSIWYG editors, and Beck’s album cover are tools to help people into the process of gaining real skills. Not everyone has the Courage to Suck, so giving people the option of creating something pleasing (at least to them) fairly quickly is a good thing for those individuals and for society. We’ve all heard about the benefits of art education and as designers we understand the need for a creative outlet.

    I can understand how the results of this process can be offensive. Sometimes it’s painful to look at someones cut and paste “creation” and even force a smile, but quite a bit of value can be found in this democratization of creativity.

  2. I did consider that actually. After all, Matisse was a cut-and-paste guy at the end of his life (colorforms?). But out of necessity since he couldn’t get out of bed and had to use the ceiling and a pole to stick his shapes in place (iirc).

    So it’s not the results of this activity – it’s the mentality surrounding all of this. It’s having a society that finds time for this, but doesn’t find time for basics, when it’s the basics that matter so much. Society should encourage everyone to suck instead of catering to them all the time; making it too easy.

    In order to get better, I have to suck.” – That deserves its own t-shirt (minus the sexual overtones).

    I could just as easily swap this activity out with every school that decides it needs the latest and greatest hardware to teach kids about computers. Everyone wants better tools. Higher level (translate: simpler) controls. If God is in the details, you can’t see him/her from there. Kids can’t do the math, but can punch the keys on their calculator; can’t program, but can use the WYSIWG layout tool. Meanwhile, in Russia, college students don’t get the equipment some junior high children have available, yet they consistently crank out some of the best programmers. Why? They learned the basics. They stick it out. They deal with sucking at something right from the start because they can’t afford the tools to make it all easier.

    I’ve said before how, when I was studying aero, I was envious of a friend studying aero at a state school. He got canned aero programs; I had to code my own. He had it easy.

    Am I ever glad I had to go through a period of being so completely lousy at what I was doing and, consequently, being forced to both having my ego ripped to shreds and putting in some real effort. And this whole thing stinks of making something easy when it should require a little effort. Pencils are democratic too. Everyone can learn how to use one.

  3. Your mention of cassette inlays took me back to my teens in the early 90s, when we would not only make inlays using pictures and text from magazine clippings, but we’d paint or collage the actual cassettes as well … I’d totally forgotten about that, about how fun it was, and what as sense of personal pride I got from it.

    This has a real resonance for me, as it happens – I’m currently struggling to actually finish my first short story (as opposed to bail out half-way through as I’ve done many times before), and it’s *such* a f*cking struggle. It’s one thing having the story in your head, but learning how to put it down in words on a page in a way that people will enjoy reading … that’s another thing entirely. But I have to face the fear of failure, something modern life doesn’t really train us to do, as you remark in the comment above – this post has, in some odd way, actually strengthened my resolve to carry on.

  4. There’s something you get when it’s all your own; not directed or suggested. It’s the difference I feel between my student design projects and the professional stuff. Sure, it’s fun to see stuff sold on shelves… the first couple of times. But that fades. The pride I have for some of my student ID work doesn’t.

    I think there’s maybe supposed to be a competition for Beck’s next CD based on this clip-sticky art. Not sure if I recall that correctly. But I’d like nothing better than to see people throw out the materials provided, make their own from scratch and submit those instead; to draw outside the lines just as Beck has so often done with his music.

  5. Pingback: Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive » The myth of creativity

  6. “Society should encourage everyone to suck instead of catering to them all the time; making it too easy.

    …Kids can’t do the math, but can punch the keys on their calculator; can’t program, but can use the WYSIWG layout tool. Meanwhile, in Russia, college students don’t get the equipment some junior high children have available, yet they consistently crank out some of the best programmers. Why? They learned the basics. They stick it out. They deal with sucking at something right from the start because they can’t afford the tools to make it all easier.”

    I totally agree with this point. There are major drawbacks to glazing over fundamentals and getting right to the meat of “creating”.

    However, as you are well aware, we are becoming cyborgs – extending our capabilities with technology and that technology is improving at an exponential rate. The idea of “basic education” is changing to encompass these technological tools, and I think that’s a good thing, for a few reasons.

    First, we have to learn faster in order to keep up with the pace of technology. Learning to draft on paper is a long painful process, but learning Auto CAD was enjoyable and much faster, due to the ability to change things quickly. The results, in my opinion are far better in AutoCAD and nothing is lost, skill-wise. We simply must skip certain steps – like hand-coding everything at first, so that people can spend more time working vs. learning archaic methods in school.

    Second, because fundamentals are important, we can’t skip certain things, like learning proofs in calculus, or even hand sketching. If the money is available, I see no problem with replacing pen and ink sketching with a Cintiq style input device from the start. As technology gets cheaper and more widely available, things will inevitably move in that direction anyway, so why start in a medium where, if you screw up, hours of work is trashed?

    This roamed a bit from Beck’s album cover which, while it can barely be called creativity, is kind of a paper extension of doing what a DJ does with sound. While some lament the rise of the DJ, it is now accepted by the public as an art form. Considering this parallel, Beck’s cover isn’t much different from a scenario where an experienced DJ might educate a novice by giving her a variety of source material the veteran already knows will work together.

    Anyway, the basics of creativity are important, but in our rapidly changing world, we need to re-examine what those basics should be. Sometimes we get it wrong and skip too much important stuff, but this can be corrected. The change is happening and should be embraced.

  7. It’s not the tool as much as it is deciding which tool. By providing everything in a DIY kit, Beck is – like it or not – setting some boundaries. To me it’s the difference between getting into a sandbox or playing on a sandy beach. Only in this case, the sandbox doesn’t have sand, it has blocks of sandstone.

    Someone could program an algorithm that could mix/place/match/omit every variation of what users could make if they stay within the boundaries suggested by the tools and materials provided. When I think about that, the world of Asimov’s story, “The Profession”, sounds close at hand under those same circumstances.

    All I’m saying is that society should take a closer look at what we gain and what we give up when we do these things; that we become more aware of how accepting something that’s merely adequate instead of encouraging activity that potentially leads to the amazing impacts us on some fundamental level. To see what it is we’re becoming when this isn’t just acceptable but is highly encouraged. Because I don’t really see this as democratization. I see this as conformity.

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