Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: Interview One

I am fascinated by the creative process and what creative people think about their own approach to ideas generation and development. In last week’s post, I gave an overview of my work with ImaginationLancaster, and how we devised interview formats to explore this topic. This week and next, I’d like to go through each interview in some detail, explaining how I used it and sharing some of my findings from my trip to the US. Both interviews and related tools are appendices in my report, The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning, available on the WCMT website.

The first interview focused on the individual rather than the group. Everyone has their own way of coming up with new ideas – consciously or otherwise – and I wanted to get a better understanding of how people think about their own creativity and how it shapes their work in art museums. So the emphasis of this interview was on self-awareness and personal definitions of creativity and the creative process. Because I was meeting people for the first time, I wanted to start by giving them space to talk generally about their roles. The actual question is: ‘In what ways do you bring value to your organisation – what qualities, skills, experience, and abilities do you have/use?’ This was daunting for some, so I often expanded on it and asked interviewees to speak about the many facets of their work and what they bring to it. We would spend about 20-30 minutes talking about their role, and then I would whip out my first interview tool.

my value image

The tool is in two parts – the first step is for the interviewee to select six key values that they bring to their organisation, and the second step is for them to place each value on a scale, from less to more creative, and then explain their rationale. I didn’t want people getting ahead of themselves and preempting step two, so I folded the page back so only step one was visible. The preceding conversation was a necessary warm-up to enable interviewees to list their top six values, and it was also useful for me to have a more rounded and in-depth understanding of their work before we arrived at these brief headlines. The six values were originally listed in no particular order by the interviewee.

I enjoyed that everyone interpreted this task in a different way and there was an interesting range of identified values. Some of the responses were task-oriented, such as ‘grant-writing’, ‘evaluation’, and ‘management’, and other responses reflected personal attributes, such as ‘process-oriented’, ‘vulnerability and willingness to admit failure’, and ‘pushing boundaries’. A sensitivity to others came up several times (‘listening’, ‘connector’, ‘collaboration’, ‘working with others’). Two of the seven people interviewed expressly stated ‘creativity’ as one of their six key values to the organisation, and a further two made reference to highly creative processes (‘rapid ideas generation’ and ‘vision’).

The next step was to then place each value on a scale. When I was testing the interview format on colleagues in the UK, I asked interviewees to rank each value from 1-10, with 1 = not creative and 10 = highly creative. However, when working on the final template with the ImaginationLancaster team, we wanted to give a bit more flexibility so we created a small grid, with ‘less’ at one end and ‘more’ at the other. As hoped, this resulted in many different responses, such as: a vertical line at the appropriate point on the grid; shaded bar graphs; little pictograms to illustrate each point; and even an arc, using the grid as a measure of time passing and mapping how the creative aspects peak and dip depending on where they were in the cycle of programming.

While the grid didn’t have an explicit scale of 1-10, there were 10 columns so, where possible, I could turn each response into a number and then see how they compared with each other. Two interviewees went full Spinal Tap and ranked their top value 11 out of 10 (for ‘persistent questioning’ and ‘storytelling’). Only one value was ranked 1/10 – ‘high expectations of myself and others’, everything else was 3/10 and above. ‘Listening’ was an interesting value, as it was ranked by different interviewees across the scale (9, 4, and 3). For the interviewee who ranked it highest, listening was felt to be a fundamental and generative part of the creative process, whereas those who ranked it lower felt listening to be more of a character trait, something they did instinctively, and while creative work was linked to listening, it wasn’t creative in and of itself. I found the conversations around their rationales were some of the richest parts of the interview. Having to think about and articulate what makes key aspects of one’s role creative (or not) really puts the squeeze on personal definitions of creativity and gave us plenty of food for thought.

The next part of the interview asks, ‘Describe a way of finding out about the creative process of a museum educator, from before the idea is created and up to the point where the programme is confirmed and advertised’. In my best-laid plans, the interviewee would dream up an approach – and I was open to a broad interpretation of the question. We would then carry out their idea, whether it was a tool or a question or a process, and reflect on what it told us about their creativity. This question would allow me to see their own creativity in action, and it would also give me another perspective on their understanding of the creative process. All fine and good, I thought… However, some of the interviews had to be cut short to fit the available time slots, and this question often faced the chop.  When it was included, some interesting solutions came up; some interviewees suggested a combination of observing programmes in action, and then conducting interviews/discussions to unpack how they had been created, which was a good idea but not something we could try out immediately. Over a longer period of time, I would have liked to follow this question through and play out their ideas.

I was able to explore this question more thoroughly during the testing phase in the UK. I had more time with interviewees and their solutions were things we could try out quite easily. One interviewee came up with a lovely structure, summarised as ‘What, How Why’:

  • Step 1: Ask the interviewee to list their target audiences and five things that they consider USPs (unique selling points) for meeting those audience needs. Further unpack each USP to identify underpinning principles. So, for example, a USP might be that audiences ‘feel heard’ and the associated principle is ‘dialogical enquiry; everyone brings their own knowledge and experience’
  • Step 2: With these USPs and principles in mind, ask the interviewee to map the process of delivering a project. Create a diagram or journey of this process, and think closely about how the starting and ending points are defined. Notate with small icons or keywords, for example, a little twisted knot for those difficult or anxious moments
  • Step 3: Using the diagram/map, continue the discussion to generate clear statements around why the process is carried out in that way. This is the trickiest bit to drill down to, but when we tried it a lot of rich ideas surfaced, such as ‘constant questioning: keep re-visiting and challenging ideas during the project, and always know why a decision has been taken’.

I also really liked the approach of another UK interviewee, who, as a dancer, brought a different perspective to the task. Her solution was to take a sheet of paper and ask, ‘if this was your creative process, how would you play with it?’ When I pulled the ol’ switcheroo and asked her to do her own task, she immediately started tearing the page, working carefully and allowing different shapes to emerge. She then twisted and curved each piece, and fairly rapidly created a small sculpture. It was important to the interviewee that we then didn’t try to explain it and add words to the word-free experience of making, but – and this was my favourite bit – she observed ‘I could dance that’, referring to her paper sculpture, and then demonstrated how the form could be translated into movement. It was so spontaneous and immediate and true to her practice.

6 images of cone

I think the best way to conduct this Leapfrog interview is to use the format and questions as a loose framework and allow the interviewee plenty of space to roam with their thinking and responses. The more informal and casual the setting, the more comfortable the interviewee. I wanted the process to feel like a really stimulating chat, but with one person (ie. not me, for a change) doing most of the talking.

Creative Ways of Exploring the Creative Process: working with ImaginationLancaster

Now that my Churchill Fellowship report is completed, I’d like to revisit some aspects of the process that I only touched on lightly when writing up my findings. The interview format, developed with the help of ImaginationLancaster, had a huge influence on how I conducted my research. As an appendix to my report, I included the interview questions and the three interview tools I used to better understand the creative process of museum educators. I would love these questions and tools to be of use to others, and in order to make that happen, I think a bit more context is required. So this week I’d like to tell the story of how the ImaginationLancaster team turned my initial podgy thinking into a lean, mean researching machine (the classic ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo scenario), and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at the interview format and tools in more detail, discussing how I used them and sharing some key findings. If this sort of thing is up your street, you’re in for a treat; if not, please come back in a month’s time when it’s all over.

I met staff from ImaginationLancaster at a co-design conference a few years ago and really liked their approach to working with communities; they have such a genuine interest in the audience ‘voice’ and ensuring that the end-user has a hand in shaping whatever service or facilities are being designed for them. In 2015, I invited ImaginationLancaster to devise and deliver a workshop for my then team, Schools, Families and Young People, at the V&A. We used tools to explore: how to generate new ideas for programmes; how to think about our own creative process; and what steps we could take to make our office environment and team-working more conducive to ideas development and programme planning. These themes and concerns – the creative process, ideas generation and development – continued to knock around my head and became the focus of my Churchill Fellowship the following year.

In developing my approach to the Fellowship, I was very aware that the creative process is a tricky thing to pin down. It lives in the shadows and doesn’t ever really let you look it in the eye. I wanted to find a way to sneak up on it, and I knew I’d need help to devise the necessary interview tactics. So I sidled up to Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange at ImaginationLancaster, with this challenge. As luck would have, his team had recently embarked on a new cluster of AHRC-funded co-design projects called Leapfrog, and Leon thought my query would be a good fit for one of the smaller strands. Happy days! So I ended up visiting Lancaster for three full-day workshops in total; once in May 2016 to clarify my research questions and brainstorm interview tools; again in July to refine and confirm the final interview format; and then finally in November, after my month in the US, to go through the information I had gathered, reflect on how the tools had been used, and come up with some data-crunching strategies.

I gained so much more from this process than just the interview format and tools. I was particularly fascinated by how Leon and his colleagues improve ideas and clarify thinking. It brought into sharp relief the difference between the ‘show and tell’ approach that dominates discussions of museum education practice and the analytical poking and prodding of academia. I arrived for my first workshop, with Leon and researchers Laura Wareing and Hayley Alter, thinking I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. However, at that point none of my ideas had been tested or critiqued. To prepare for the first workshop, Leon asked me to bring my research questions – what exactly did I want to find out? Even this seemingly basic task took quite a bit of thought, not least because I knew these questions would be my touchstone for the whole process, and an important outcome of the Fellowship would be my ability to provide some answers. I ended up with the following: how can museum educators better understand their creative process, and how can that greater understanding inform and improve programming?

Taking my questions as the starting point, we then discussed each one in some detail and ended up with eight further questions, teasing out various lines of inquiry. These questions became design challenges, and we did a series of ‘sprints’, coming up with possible ways of answering each one. This was followed by further reflection, questioning and refining. By the end of the day I was buzzing, knackered, and happily heading home with a much better understanding of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it (for more detail on this workshop, please see my post on the Leapfrog blog). What I enjoyed most about the workshop was being challenged. Leon, Laura and Hayley asked lots of great questions, the sorts of questions that you can’t wriggle out of or sidestep. They offered different perspectives and would also challenge each other to further explain or clarify their own thinking. Their workshop spaces have wonderful large whiteboards and pinboards that can be wheeled around, and we covered about half a dozen of them with our thoughts – it was very useful to see everything mapped out.

Workshopping ideas at Lancaster May16
Laura and Hayley, surrounded by our ideas

Leon also did a fantastic job of keeping us on track. My brain likes wandering down the side-streets and back-alleys of related anecdotes and amusing asides, as well as indulging in ‘but what does it all mean?’ navel-gazing. Leon was having none of this. Several times, he kindly but firmly steered us back by asking, ‘is this addressing the research questions?’ The invariable reply of ‘no’ brought us back into the fold and refocused attention. Consequently, we achieved a lot over a relatively short period of time. Again, I couldn’t help but compare the loose and freewheeling approach of so many museum education meetings/discussions I’d attended with the focus and discipline that ImaginationLancaster employs to get things done. Both approaches are creative and inspiring, but I particularly enjoyed the additional sleek efficiency of a design-minded way of working.

Between the first and second workshops, I tested out the draft interview format on a few colleagues and friends who work in the sector. The benefits of this were twofold: it enabled me to pinpoint which parts of the interview were working well and which parts needed further work; and it also gave me and the interviewees a genuine insight into their creative processes. The interview is in two parts – the first focuses on the individual (solitary, internal) and the second focuses on the group (social, collaborative). In total, it took 2-3 hours to complete both parts with one interviewee. That’s a long time to spend talking about yourself, what you do and how you do it.

More than one interviewee made the observation that they’d never previously had the chance to talk in-depth about their creative process, and they were surprised by what the interview revealed about themselves. I don’t think I would have achieved the same results with a self-assessment form; a lot of the value of the interview format comes from having someone listen, and listen closely. Just as Leon, Laura and Hayley listened to me to understand my ideas, I tried to do the same with the interviewees, giving them my full attention and asking for more details or elaboration if I felt something significant needed further fleshing out. I was given the good advice to always keep the focus on the interviewee – an interview isn’t a conversation, and the more talking I do, the less I learn about the other person.

The second workshop in July was a chance to reflect on how the interview format was working. I felt that some of the questions needed refining as they weren’t quite hitting the mark, and the draft, hand-sketched tools I was using needed to be turned into the final templates. Again, it was incredibly useful to think about what I wanted to achieve and then make sure that any improvements moved us closer to that goal. Laura and Hayley are InDesign wizards and created the lovely templates that I took with me to the US. As a group, we also devised an additional tool to be sent to interviewees in advance of my visit – the tool asked interviewees to select or create a postcard-sized image that serves as ‘a metaphor for my creative process’ and then explain why. Rather than arrive cold, I wanted to give them a quick activity that would encourage some reflection on the creative process before the actual interview. I sent the tool to everyone I was going to meet; the take-up was fairly low, but I didn’t insist it was used and was happy to give interviewees the choice to opt in or out of completing it.

And then September happened, and I had the time of my life travelling across the US, meeting so many inspiring practitioners and learning about their work. I interviewed a total of 23 museum and gallery professionals, of which seven were in-depth Leapfrog interviews; the others were briefer and more general interviews about innovations in programming, the role of museum educators, and organisational context.  I was acutely aware that I would soon be leaving my contented Fellowship bubble and I wanted to capture as much of my learning as possible before being spat back out into real life. Before leaving the US, I started a list of the similarities and recurring themes that I had noticed come up in interviews, for example: get inspiration from outside the sector; make connections across disparate subject matter; create a culture of experimentation; don’t shy away from disputes and differences of opinion, etc. On my return to the UK, I transferred my findings from the Leapfrog tools into a series of Excel spreadsheets so that I could compare and contrast the range of answers to each question. I took all of the completed tools and my spreadsheets back up to Lancaster for our third workshop.

After so much preparation and planning, it was very satisfying to be able to share the data I had collected with the team. Even though we all knew the templates well, I hadn’t anticipated that the completed tools would be pretty impenetrable for the others to ‘read’. I had the memory and experience of the interviews to decode the tools, but it turned out that it wasn’t material you could browse without those memories and experiences. However, for the purposes of the workshop we were evaluating the interview process rather than the content, so this wasn’t a hindrance.

One of my biggest concerns in November was next steps – how on earth was I going to turn all of this raw information into an organised and coherent report? My answers were buried in there somewhere – how could I find them? Leon, Laura and Hayley helped me with this problem too. As well as keeping a list of similarities across the interviews, I also wanted to distinguish between the mindset or character traits of the museum educators, and their behaviour and actions. I felt the former was difficult to replicate – is empathy something you can learn? – whereas the latter could be fostered. With these factors in mind, the team suggested I create a table, with my list of observations down one side and then three columns across the top, divided into mindset, behaviours, and impact (ie. how the mindsets and behaviours were manifest in the programme/activity). This framework set me up nicely for the following couple of months – I transcribed the interviews and then copied relevant comments into the table, adding more rows as needed. In this way, I was able to follow what the data was telling me – some observations needed to be subdivided to capture further details, other observations fell by the wayside or were collapsed into larger categories. Slowly, natural groupings began to appear and a structure emerged. Populating the table was time-consuming and laborious, but it was also thrilling to discover not only what I was hoping to find, but all sorts of other stuff that I hadn’t anticipated. I had never used Excel to write an essay before, and found it an incredibly helpful tool for ordering my thinking and pushing ideas around. It also felt reassuring to know that my conclusions were reached through a systematic approach; I could write with confidence because I felt the foundations were secure.

So, as you can see, ImaginationLancaster played a substantial role in my Churchill Fellowship, and I can’t imagine how I would have done it without them. As well as being guided through a specific design process, I also benefited hugely from their critique and creative input. And the best bit? It was good fun. Working with people who are really good at what they do always makes me raise my game.

Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions

Other people eh? What are they like! Everything would be so much easier if everybody else shared my worldview – aka ‘common sense’ – and just stopped being daft. I’m afraid I’m guilty of having this thought, usually when watching the evening news, and it’s pretty typical human behaviour. We surround ourselves with people who think the same way and share similar attitudes and values. Rather than ‘live and let live’, the further someone’s worldview is from our own, the harder we find it to bridge the distance. The gulf of understanding that can exist between people is probably most keenly felt on the subjects of politics and religion, which explains why it’s considered good manners to avoid both in polite conversation. Unfortunately, such a rift can turn into a ‘who can shout the loudest?’ competition, and you don’t have to look far at the moment to see a global epidemic of divisive ‘with us or against us’ thinking. It’s all a bit bloody annoying really.

Is it really so awful to encounter viewpoints that differ from our own? Apparently it is. A recent article in Pacific Standard Magazine, ‘Why We Shut Ourselves Off From Opposing Viewpoints’, shares findings from the University of Winnipeg that liberals and conservatives are ‘similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions’. The research team led an ingenious experiment that gave participants the option to either:

  1. a) read statements that supported their position on same-sex marriage and then answer simple questions to confirm an understanding of the arguments. On completion, participants would then enter a draw to win $7.00, or;
  2. b) read statements that opposed their position on same sex marriage, and then answer simple questions to confirm their understanding and be entered into a draw to win $10.00.

The result? 64% of same-sex marriage supporters went for option a), and 61% of those who oppose it also went for a) – both would rather miss out on cold hard cash than read opposing viewpoints. It’s not just the big issues either; research has also demonstrated the same effect when discussing beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), airplane seats (aisle or window), and even seasons (spring vs. autumn). Personally, I’ve never had much time for pepsi-drinking, window-sitting, autumn-loving weirdos, and now I know why. It shocks me that we are so petty as a species, and that the need to have our opinions validated is so deeply rooted.

The motivations behind this behaviour are twofold: participants who chose option a) wanted to maintain ‘a shared reality with the speaker’; and avoid cognitive dissonance, ‘the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs’. I have written previously about comfort being the enemy of innovative thinking (Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?) and how group dynamics, including the pressure to conform, can shut down creativity (Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration). When I think about the homogenity of museum professionals, and museum educators as a subset within that group, we have a particularly high mountain to climb if we are to genuinely meet audience needs and interests.

If I imagine a quasi ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario, where all thirty-something brunette women with MAs in art history/museum studies just disappeared off the face of the Earth, our museum learning departments would be decimated. But as a small sample of the museum-going public, audience demographics wouldn’t be much changed. In other words, it’s very easy for us to avoid conflicting worldviews because we are surrounded by people who are very similar, and yet we are not a representative sample of the public we serve. It is exactly this reassuring familiarity that needs to be disrupted if we want to be innovative in our programming and engage a broad and diverse audience.

The good news is that although the majority chose to stick with their fellow same-thinkers, a healthy 36% and 39% of participants chose option b). These individuals were more receptive to alternative worldviews (or maybe they just wanted that extra $3.00). I will always prefer The Guardian to The Telegraph or The Sun – not much of a surprise there – but this does nothing to challenge or extend my understanding of other people and their motivations. It doesn’t take much to step off the beaten path and increase one’s exposure to different worldviews, it’s just a case of doing it.

PS – The Pacific Standard Magazine article that I have drawn on for my post includes a link to a 2009 article by the same author, Tom Jacobs, titled Morals Authority. It is an absolutely fascinating summary of research into why liberals and conservatives have seemingly insurmountable differences, originating from very different moral and ethical starting points. Well worth a look.

It’s Finally Here!

I have been looking forward to this moment for months and I can’t believe it’s arrived – I’m finally able to share my Churchill Fellowship Report with the world! On my return from the US last October, I started the lengthy process of transcribing interviews, wading through data, and creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet to organise my experiences into some sort of structure. I have crunched what I’ve learnt down into a report format that I hope is both interesting and entertaining to read. It was a labour of love, and I’m really happy with the results.

The two key aims of my research were to better understand the creative process of museum educators and share examples of innovative practice; my findings form the bulk of the report. I focussed on five cultural organisations: Dallas Museum of Art, MCA Denver, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, and Museum Hack. I made use of verbatim quotes as much as possible, because I believe that the stories of Learning’s successes are best told by those who made it happen. The report concludes with recommendations for putting some of the ideas discussed into practice. I also shared the interview tools I used, developed in collaboration with ImaginationLancaster. The full report is available to download from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website. To give you a wee taster, I’ve included the executive summary below – I hope you like it.


The Creative Process of Museum Educators and New Approaches to Museum Learning

Executive Summary

It’s one thing to sit down and to make something and be creative, but it’s another thing to reflect on your experience, because it’s through that self-reflection that you really grow and come to new understandings.

Through my Churchill Fellowship, I aimed to better understand the creative process of museum educators and highlight examples of innovative programming. By its nature, museum education is collaborative, collective and collegiate. Audiences are central to the work, and extensive research is conducted to better understand and meet their needs, and ideally exceed their expectations. Ironically, museum educators are so adept at supporting the creativity of others that their own creative contribution often goes overlooked.

The majority of programming formats – talks, tours, workshops, projects and courses – are well-established and used by museum educators all over the world. Over time, however, programmes can harden into fixed orthodoxy, and path dependency can blinker museum educators to alternatives. This risk is particularly pertinent to the UK cultural sector, which is currently being buffeted by economic austerity, restricted arts provision in formal education, and shifting audience demands. In amongst this flux, museum educators need to be flexible in their thinking and experimental in their programming to keep pace with the rate of change.

To address my aims, I visited five US cultural institutions to interview staff and observe programmes. At each, I focussed on three priorities: the programmes (what makes them innovative); the Learning staff (how they generate and develop ideas); and the organisational context (the conditions that enable museum educators to do their best work). My findings are presented in two sections: the first deconstructs the creative process and identifies key characteristics of the individual, the organisation, ideas generation, and ideas development; the second presents examples of innovative practice and illustrates what is possible when the creative components converge.

I conclude that the creative process is intrinsic and vital to museum education; it underpins the practice and fuels innovation in programming. A heightened awareness of one’s own creative process, developed through self-reflection and peer-led critique, equips practitioners to further improve and develop their work. As museums become more deliberately social and audience-centric in their approach, the expertise and creativity of Learning staff increases in value. If museum educators broaden their horizons from the departmental to the institutional, and step up to the challenge of leading organisational change, they are well-placed to define the future of museum practice.

(*) Jessica Fuentes, DMA