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How Technology Changed Creativity

After more than three decades of technological evolution, creativity isn’t what it used to be. I don’t mean that the pool of creative advertising talent is shrinking; I mean the way creative people go about creating is different. It’s more than exchanging typewriters for computers or art tables for graphic design programs; it’s a complete shift in the creative process.

It started when IBM introduced the first affordable desktop personal computer. With a monochrome screen, no hard drive and an unbelievably slow microprocessor, it proved that a computer could be a practical office accessory. As desktop units became more accepted in the workplace, other computer manufacturers began churning out armies of clones, with prices always falling and quality always rising.

After years of fearing new technology (remember all those “technology gone wrong” and “evil computers take over the world” movies from the 1970s?), at last it was OK to have a computer. Trouble was, most people didn’t understand computers or feel comfortable with them because they were built by technophiles for left-brained people. Creative types just couldn’t relate to this and stuck to their trusty typewriters and X-ACTO knives.

Then in 1984, in a burst of media pretension, Apple introduced the Macintosh. It happened during the Super Bowl on Jan. 22 with a 60-second Orwellian epic, directed by Ridley Scott (the guy who directed the movie “Alien”), in which a young woman lobs a hammer at a big screen image of Big Brother, a la George Orwell’s “1984.” As one industry guru put it, “The commercial changed advertising; the product changed the ad business; the technology changed the world.” I don’t know how much this overblown commercial changed advertising, but the product did change the ad business. And the technology changed the world, or at least our perception of it.

Suddenly, it was not only OK to have a computer in the office, it was desirable. Though the original Mac was primitive, it offered a new way of thinking about computers. For the first time, here was a computer built for right-brained people. Visual thinking was the key, with friendly on-screen icons like folders and trashcans and a mouse to move the cursor around the screen. And with the introduction of PageMaker software and Apple’s laser printer, ad agencies and in-house communication departments finally could produce quality work on the desktop. Plus, you didn’t have to be an “artist” to become a graphic designer.

Since then, the wave of changing technology has washed over us again and again. But the really interesting thing isn’t how technology has changed but how technology has changed all of us in the ad business. Not only are we working more creatively, the way we work at creating is different. Look at how writing has changed. Writing once was a linear process. You sat down at a typewriter and tapped out a first draft, edited it, then retyped it. No matter how many drafts you went through, you always ended up with a fixed manuscript that looked and felt official and unchangeable.

With computers, it’s different. It’s more than just typing on a computer screen. You are free from linear thinking. Copy can grow naturally from any starting point. If you get stuck, just write the next few paragraphs and bridge the gap later. If you make a mistake, just delete and write it again. Writing and editing, once two separate stages, are now one and the same.

Graphic designers have gone through the same experience, with the fixed progression from thumbnail to full layout giving way to a constantly evolving on-screen design. The printout of a design at any given stage is just a copy of the growing “ideal” design inside the computer. A design never reaches a truly final stage; it’s always open for improvement.

Is this good? I think so. Technology often is criticized for taking us further from the natural order of things. But in my experience, technology brings us closer. Today, creating advertising can be more organic and free flowing than it ever was with typewriters or paintbrushes. With such a low barrier to entry, there’s more bad advertising than ever. But there’s also more good advertising than ever.

And the technology we have created and with which we create is also hard at work creating us. We have become like our work, ever changing and evolving. Where will it end? It won’t. Change has become the only constant.

So this month’s checklist consists of just one small bit of advice:

Embrace technological change. It is democratizing. It is liberating. And it will open doors of opportunity for you, your business and your customers.

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