Sunday, 19 August 2012

Designing gardens, getting influenced and developing a strategy for creativity.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the creation of new ideas.  I will explain why I have been thinking about this in a moment.  How often is it that we actually see a purely inspirational and unique product that has had no influence from other sources.  That is so unique that it resembles nothing we have ever seen before.  It is a product unlike anything ever before.  Unfortunately, I was struggling to think of one.  Not recently anyway.  A lot of products nowadays seem to be a version or adaptation of a previous idea.  They seem to have ‘borrowed’ elements or components from other products but personalised them to their brands style.  Whenever I see a new product being launched I always think ‘Oh it’s got an x which is similar to y’.  Apart from years ago when new inventions where actually new, I struggled to list many.

So why was I thinking this?  Aside from being a teacher, in my spare time I run my very own successful Garden Design business (don't believe me, click here).  I normally do this during the summer holidays, end of terms or half terms.  I do this because of a previous job as a ‘Garden Design Technician’ whilst I was training to be a teacher.  My job is to meet a client and create an idea for their garden.  They are employing me to make their garden meet their needs, style, lifestyle and interests.  They pay me to create something unique and inspirational.  But, if you are an experienced garden designer, you would probably be able to look at my designs and see elements of John Brookes, Diarmuid Gavin, Cleeve West, Andy Sturgeon and others rubbing off on me.  You would be right.  I would be the first to admit that what I put forward isn’t always unique and ‘never seen before’.  They all have been influenced.

So how do I become creative?  What is my method?  Well, when I get a client asking me to design for them, I normally follow the following procedure or structure:
1.      Go to the client’s garden.  I ask the client as many questions as I can to clarify what it is they want.  I produce a list of criteria called a ‘brief’ which lists all the things my design should do when it’s finished to be successful.
2.      I then go away and visit my books, websites, photos and Google images to get ideas.  I paste all of these inspirational ideas and options together to create my own ‘mood board’.  I always double check they link to the clients brief.
3.      I then create pages and pages of rough sketches and designs.  I create images of the shape, the planting, features, materials….
4.      I then evaluate the sketches and ideas and chuck out the rubbish.  This leaves me with a few rough ideas I am happy with and which meet the brief.
5.      I then start combining these ideas to create a final idea.
6.      I then draw up this idea in numerous forms and check it matches the brief.
7.      I then meet with the client again, show the design, talk it through and invite feedback.  If it needs it, I will go back to any of the above steps and make necessary amendments.

Now, you might be thinking that this is a teaching blog and what has this got to do with schools?  Well as part of my additional responsibility as an innovator in charge of L2L, my job is to find the best methods/strategies/systems that we can teach are students to make them more effective learners.  In our Year 9 L2L course, the final module which lasts over a number of weeks is a creativity project.  In the past we let them loose and asked them to ‘harness their creativity’ and waffled on about ‘tips to be creative’.  It has to be said that some of the ideas that students came up with were pretty poor, already in existence or not original at all.  A lot of students really struggled.  It seems children are very imaginative and curious, but find it difficult to think of an original concept.  Some on the other hand were good, but again relied heavily on existing influences.  So, for the last two years we have taught students, if you have to create something, a good starting method would be Geoff Petty’s ICEDIP method of creativity.
The ICEDIP process is very simple in its nature and links very clearly with my garden design.  It is a six staged strategy which helps students put a creative piece of work together.  It is non-linear in fashion and learners can go back and forth, swapping between the stages as they need.  The process is also extremely reflective and requires an individual to constantly evaluate or analyse their work at every stage.  For a detailed explanation of the ICEDIP process there is a link at the bottom of the post.  In summary, the six stages are as follows:

Clarification: This is the stage where the individual makes sense of what their task is.  It is here that they create their brief, success criteria or objectives.  It is where they work out what exactly they have to do to complete the task successfully.  As Geoff Petty says, ‘It is where you focus your goals’.  This is vitally important to do at the onset.  As you get engrossed in being creative, it is possible you can lose direction and go off in a tangent if you are not careful.  Use this brief or success criteria constantly to ensure you are working your way towards your goal and what you are creating meets the requirements of the task.
This is the time where I meet the client and clarify what they want their garden to look like or do.  I find out what it should be if it was to be successful.

Inspiration:  This is where you get inspired.  A lot of new ‘things’ in the world take their influences from existing or old ‘things’.  Some books use similar stories, themes or styles of writing.  Some artwork, paintings or sculptures may have influences from other artists or replicate styles.  Some music may have similar sounds, harmonies, melodies or lyrics.  It is this stage where you do something similar and get inspiration for yourself.  This is a research phase so spend time to go looking for existing ideas which might help form your creative piece.
The second part of this stage is the the ideas phase.  This is the best and most important part.  Here is where you let yourself go and create numerous versions of your piece.  You might wish to focus on the whole piece or specific components like plot lines in English, various lyric combinations in Music or different types of hinges in Technology.  The two most important factors though here are:
1) Don’t be critical at all.  Let your ideas flow.  Even if you change your mind halfway through an idea, it doesn’t matter.  An idea is an idea and will be helpful.
2) 99% of all your ideas will be rubbish.  But doing this 99% may help you find the 1% of brilliance.
This is where I create various sketches of the garden, its shape, style, theme, features….

Evaluation: This is the time when you sit down and evaluate what you have just created.  It is the time to think objectively and without bias.  It is also the time when you reference against your brief or success criteria from the clarification phase.  Look through your ideas and drafts and seek out their strengths and weaknesses.  What bits work and what needs changing.  This is an excellent time for critique or peer/self assessment.  If it doesn’t work, is a weak idea or won’t meet the target of your project, throw it away.
This is where I throw out the weak ideas and leave myself with a few strong ones that all meet the brief.

Distillation:  This is where you determine which of your ideas to work on in order to meet your objective.  It is also a time where you may merge your best ideas before working on your final piece.  Picking out the best bits and combining them will help ensure your final outcome will be a successful one.
This is where I combine the best bits from my best ideas.  I look at everything from the shape, plants, features, materials etc.  All of this to ensure I create the best final product I possibly can.

Perspiration:  This is the stage where you put the most effort in to get your final piece finished.  This should be the hardest section and involve the most effort as you strive for excellence.  You may need to go back and forth between other stages such as the clarification stage to check you are on course.
This is where I create my final piece using all of the work from the previous stage.  Here I strive to produce the best design I can.

Incubation:  I leave this explanation until the end.  There are times when a writer gets writers block, a musician can’t think of how to finish a song, a student gets stuck or a garden designer has a meltdown!  This is the stage where you take a few minutes out.  A time when you walk away.  Don’t worry, your brain will still be thinking about your work and you may have a eureka moment.  When you are ready and refreshed, return to your task.
This is where I usually bang my head on the table and go and watch some TV.  I may even return to the inspiration phase in a less stressful way.

When I have delivered it over the last two years, I always use my garden design background as my personal method of explaining the ICEDIP method of developing creativity.  I also stress the importance of thinking outside of the box and looking at ideas from different angles.  I have a set style but my gardens aren’t all the same.  A Samsung Galaxy or HTC isn’t exactly the same as an iPhone.  Things are similar, but different at the same time.  In fact it seems that the culture of 'borrowing ideas' is very apparent in the world today.  And what about using this process with students?  Well in my experience it really works.  The work over the past two years was much better than the previous.  It was more structured, more reflective and more coherent.  Students weren't sitting looking at a blank page, producing identical designs of existing products or only creating one idea.  They were understanding the process and the importance of working in this way (if only as a basis).  And to stop this becoming a copying or plagiarising exercise, focus heavily on reflecting between each stage and harness humans natural curiosity with the use of some excellent questioning.  Use Kipling's Who, Where, What, Why, When and How.
So how could it filter in other classrooms?  Well in many ways.  We plan so many activities in our lessons where we ask students to go away and be creative.  And this process doesn't have to be solely used in naturally creative subjects like Art or Technology.  This process could be used in any.  In a creative writing task in English for example, students create the brief, research what other writing in a specific genre looks like, create numerous ideas on plots, characters and settings, evaluate the quality of the ideas, wean out the bad, merge the best parts of the story together, work hard to get the final piece together and be reflective throughout the whole process.  In that single task students could be guided through using the ICEDIP method.  The same can be done for a GCSE Photography portfolio, an Art project, a scheme of work for Music, coursework in Graphics…..  The list goes on.  My main advice though is it’s the actual process of making the stages explicit to learners that is important.  Sometimes we do this in our lessons naturally.  But actually scaffolding our youngsters through the process, talking about the six stages and getting them to constantly review and reflect on it is how working in this way becomes habit.  Getting them to understand the stages ensures that this method of working is replicated again and again.  This is basic Learning to Learn.

As always, this is only a way, not the way.  But in my experiences over the past few years, it has been a beneficial strategy to use, share and teach students.

Click to link to Geoff Petty's website and ICEDIP information available to download.

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