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Creativity, Cognitive Flexibility, and the End of Genius

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

“It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem. It’s just a waste of energy.”

Jan Kaplicky (1937-2009)

There has been plenty of talk in recent months and even years about the fall of the concept of the singular genius – I spoke about it a bit in my earlier post about Objectivism. There are also some ideas about it in this New York Times article , which suggests that genius is not singular but usually emerging in pairs, or as part of a network. And this Slate piece explores (in a very questioning manner) the notion that there is no creative genius because all ‘creativity’ is simply a copy of something else – recreativity. This all makes sense given the current value system that is simultaneously about the self, and the myriad ways it is possible to connect with others (albeit often in superficial ways) as well how easy it now is to collect information. It is now easier than ever to collaborate and / or copy. It should be noted here that this notion dates back to the Greek concept of art, or ‘techne’, which involved not freedom of action but subjection to rules. The ‘genius’ was just deft at copying. All of this is to say that ideas of art and creativity are tied to culture and time and now is no different.

In addition to these considerations about the genius artist, I have been asking myself about the supposed singular work of genius (that of course emerges from the singular genius). This is often mythologized as the design, work of art, or even equation that sprang from the mind and leapt into paper in a instantaneous ‘a-ha’ moment. Not only does it occur to me that this never actually happens, because process is required in design, but that the potentially rigid personality type that is suggested by a design model with no process is in fact the opposite of that which is required for creative solutions. The ‘first idea’ inevitably requires additional study, additional variations and of course refinement. This is all a part of the non-linear process of design. Creativity emerges out of the ability to explore possibilities. Psychologists refer to the ability to work multiple potential outcomes as ‘divergent thinking’, or ‘cognitive flexibility’.

More specifically, cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to consider multiple concepts simultaneously, and “a switch in thinking, whether that is specifically based on a switch in rules or broadly based on a need to switch one’s previous beliefs or thoughts to new situations. Moreover, it refers to simultaneously considering multiple aspects of thought at once, whether they be two aspects of a specific object, or many aspects of a complex situation.” This ability is particularly critical in architecture, where there are many, often conflicting, interests and requirements to be negotiated.

The reason this is of particular interest to me is of course that ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’ are part of the founding ideology for our studio. I believe the work we do is never the result of a rigid, singular design solution, but evolves out of an understanding of all constraints and interests, determining what should be respected and / or rethought, and synthesizing these components into a design solution. Ultimately, the clients that we choose, and the clients that choose us, are interested in our ability to listen to their concerns and desires, to understand the problem, and to develop options that will lead to the best possible solution.

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