What makes one piece of creative work stand out above the rest? What makes something catch our eye, quicken our hearts, fix in our memories? It’s easy to make a judgment call on whether an idea is just OK or whether it feels like something really special, but it‘s much harder to say why that is.
I’ve spent a good deal of time, probably more than I should, contemplating this thorny question. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are five properties of really exceptional work; five universal qualities which, once you understand them, you can use to evaluate whether the idea you’ve been nurturing has any chance of becoming something heart-stoppingly great.
The best ideas are the simplest. It seems almost fatuous to say, and yet it’s remarkable how often this irrefutable truth is overlooked. Your idea may be complex in execution, but should be simple in concept. Ulysses by James Joyce is notorious for its literary innovation and capacity to bamboozle, yet, if you strip away the verbal complexity, it is the story of two men over the course of a single day in Dublin.
You should be able to define your idea in a single sentence. Once you can it’ll be easier both to pitch it and bring it to life. There is a story about the movie Alien, perhaps apocryphal, that the pitch was just three words: jaws in space.
Having your idea encapsulated in a few words will help guide you through the maze of decisions that lie ahead when you come to execution. The artist Marina Abramović describes the creative process with exquisite clarity: ‘More and more of less and less’.
Perhaps the most elusive and daunting of our five qualities. And for good reason. If you sit at your desk hoping for an idea which has never been done before then you will probably be sitting at your desk for a very long time indeed.
One trick — as Pablo Picasso, David Bowie, or even Steve Jobs would have told you — is to steal. To take an idea from outside your genre and reinvent it in a new context. A great deal of average creative work is simply copying; imitating the most successful exemplars from within the category. Real innovation comes when you draw — or steal — your inspiration from much further afield.
Last year there was a music video which was breath-taking in its originality. That we had seen nothing quite as powerful or provocative before is evident in the nearly 500 million views of ‘This Is America’ by Childish Gambino on YouTube. And the extraordinary power of that 4 minutes and 4 seconds of music and video derives from the breadth of its reach; the way it blends South African tribal dance, racist iconography, biblical allusion, pop culture references, news events, the influence of social media and more in a single, devastatingly original form.
In the world of professional creativity, in graphic design, branding and advertising, we often forget what it is to be human. The demographics, the data and the analysis all blind us from seeing that the best work, without exception, reminds us in some small way what it is to be a flawed human being on a fragile planet adrift in the infinite vastness of space.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that every TV commercial should be an existential meditation on being and nothingness. The truth that you dramatize can be quite mundane. But there must be a truth to your work.
Because a great TV ad is nothing more than a simple truth told in a surprising way.
Like this Tide ad.
Fail to distinguish between idea and execution and great work will remain forever beyond you. A common mistake is to conflate the two. Remember, one idea can have a thousand different possible executions.
And this is where craft comes in. By craft I really mean the detail, skill and technique employed in execution. Some creators are lucky enough to be talented at both having ideas and executing them. The artist Grayson Perry explains how he has a punk and a hobbit within him. From the punk comes the devil-may-care attitude which leads to moments of conceptual brilliance; the hobbit provides the painstaking craft and attention to detail which translates that blast of creative energy over time into a physical object.
Sadly, there are very few Graysons among us. The best way to bring craft to your creative is to work with someone who is better at making things than you are. Be open, collaborate and build a team which will become greater than the sum of its parts.
The best creative work rewards you for spending time with it. It makes you laugh, cry, think, feel, or maybe just see the world in a new way.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned to do as a creative director. I call it the ‘watch again test’. When I’m sitting with a script in front of me for, say, a commercial that’s still rough and yet to be pitched, I project into the future and imagine myself on my sofa seeing it for the second or third time on TV. And I ask myself how it would feel to see it again. If the answer is anything less than unequivocally positive then I know we have to go back to the drawing board and begin once more.
The best work has this intrinsic value. Even if it’s just a lowly TV commercial it makes the lives of the people watching it momentarily better. It might produce nothing more than a short lived smile. But that short lived smile means that the hours spent in the making of it had value.
So there we are. My best go at what makes great work great. Hit two or three of these qualities and you can go to bed knowing today was a day well spent. If you hit all five, well, you better start extending your awards shelf.
I’ll finish with this French ad that is simple, original, true, rewarding and beautifully executed …
I hope this has been useful. Thanks for reading.