Creativity, dodgy pianos and oblique strategies

Creativity, dodgy pianos and oblique strategies

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I love weird coincidences and, trust me, my life has been full of them! Give me a ring some time and I’ll tell you about them.

So, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was looking through my favourite source of inspiration one night last week,, and I found this talk:

It tells the story of jazz musician Keith Jarrett’s Cologne concert in 1975. Before the concert there was a problem. The piano that he was presented with on the night was in a shocking state and almost unplayable – to the point where he refused to perform and threatened to cancel the concert. The organiser pleaded with him and Keith finally agreed to go on stage. The recording produced that evening has become the best-selling solo album in jazz history and the all-time best-selling piano album, shifting more than 3.5 million copies!

The point is that Jarrett was taken out of his comfort zone. He was forced to do something different, even down to avoiding certain keys on the piano which simply didn’t work. He had to abandon his normal technique and come up with something new, something different. He had to explore a part of his musical talent which he might never have discovered otherwise.

It turns out that there is loads of evidence to show that being out of your comfort zone increases your chances of producing truly great creative work. I suppose we all kind of know this already. It makes sense that while you’re in your comfort zone, you see things as you always do. However, the unknown, the roadblocks and the faulty tools that make the job more difficult make you search for a different way of solving the problem, because the normal ways simply don’t work. And, at the end of the day, that’s what creativity is all about, isn’t it? It’s discovering the different, not regurgitating the normal.

We all know it…but how many of us seek out this discomfort?

The speaker in the TED Talk finishes by using the example of Brian Eno, the famous rock producer/musician who has been one of the most influential figures in music over the past four decades. Brian pushes the creativity of the musicians he works with by using a series of techniques he now calls the Oblique Strategies. They are simple phrases designed to shake things up in the creative process. They include things like ‘turn it upside down’, ‘give way to your worst impulse’, ‘use an unacceptable colour’, and ‘abandon normal instruments’. They disrupt your normal thought process and make you uncomfortable. Eno has turned these into a set of cards so that you can choose one at random, rather than scanning a list for one that you feel you can work with. And they certainly work – Eno has produced some of rock’s most iconic work with artists such as David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay.

So, charged up with inspiration from this talk, I bound into work and send the link to the whole office.

That same morning a package arrived for Ben, our creative director – it’s our very own box-set of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies!

I just love the serendipity.

So, next time you’re in the office don’t be surprised if you see the creative and digital team designing websites using dry pasta shapes instead of a mouse! It’s just an oblique strategy and it will be an amazing website!