Does Having Techniques Inhibit Your Creativity?

Do I have any favourite techniques [for designing]? Techniques are habits, and habits are a refusal of the moment and a reliving of the past. A habitual person is not interested in the present, but a person with habits can have style. The person who lives in the moment cannot have style.
Miles Newlyn

I came across the quote above via David Airey. It’s interesting and on the surface seems to make sense, but something about it didn’t sit right with me. I’ve been thinking about the quote for awhile and want to share why I disagree with it.

I think it’s important to live in the present. I also think it worthwhile to develop your visual style. The quote above suggests they can’t co-exist. I think they can. I think it important, because I think there’s an implication that living in the moment is vital to creativity. Perhaps I’m reading more into the quote than what’s there, but the suggestion seems to be that having techniques inhibits creativity.

Here are 4 points Newlyn.

  • techniques are habits
  • a person of habits doesn’t live in the moment
  • habits/techniques are necessary to have style
  • someone who lives in the moment, can’t have habits, and thus can’t have style

I’d like to address each.

The word 'Habit' in neon

Techniques and Habits

They seem to be the same on the surface, but I think there’s a subtle difference between techniques and habits. Consider the following definitions of each.

  • habit — A settled or regular tendency or practice that is hard to give up
  • technique — A way of carrying out a particular task

The implication is a habit is always the response to a given situation. Choice has been removed. On the other hand a technique is but one way of responding to the situation. One can choose among different techniques, which are often replaced as new techniques are developed.

The Moment of Truth.jpg

Habit and Living in the Moment

I agree that following a habit isn’t living in the moment, but the implication in the quote is that someone with habits lives their life entirely by habit.

We all know how Steve Jobs famously wore jeans and a black turtleneck all the time. I think it’s safe to say his clothing choice was habitual. His reasoning was his choice of clothing wasn’t important enough to waste time thinking about. This one habit freed his mind to think about other things.

Nowhere in the habitual choice of clothing is there an implication he didn’t live in the moment in other aspects of his life. While living in the present means your awareness and your decisions are focused on the context on the moment, I don’t think it means the past or future never enter into that context.

Most of the people I’ve known who lived in the moment had their own very unique style

Some hold an image of the person in the present as the one who does the unexpected at every turn. That carefree individual who embraces adventure and never has a dull moment. That’s not what it means to live in the present. It might be in some moments, but it’s not living in the present by definition. In fact if you always follow the path of adventure isn’t that really habit.

Having habits doesn’t mean you always deny the present. At most it means you don’t live 100% of your life in the moment. Living in the moment doesn’t mean never doing the same thing twice or even doing certain things the same way again and again. Someone who lives in the moment probably doesn’t have a lot of habits, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have any.

Book cover for The Elements of Style

Habit and Techniques as a Prerequisite for Style

If you can identify a style to someone’s work it’s usually because you recognize certain things in it that are consistently present in other works of that same person.

I’m not sure those consistencies have to come from habit or technique. For example jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt was left with partially paralyzed 3rd and 4th fingers on his left hand as the result of a fire. In order to continue playing guitar he needed to teach himself a new way to play.

A similar thing happened to Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iomi, who lost the tips of 2 fingers on his last day of work at a sheet metal factory. He too has his own style when it comes to playing guitar.

You could argue that their styles both evolved out of having to form certain habits and developing certain techniques. I think there’s something more nuanced going on, but I’d be willing to concede the point.

However…

Jack Kerouac Memorial
Jack Kerouac Memorial, Lowell, MA

Can a Person of the Moment have Style

While I’ll concede Reinhardt’sand Iomi’s styles did come from habit or technique, there’s nothing in their stories to suggest they didn’t or couldn’t live in the moment. Their habits and techniques formed out of necessity. In the cases of damaged fingers the world took away options requiring them to adopt playing a certain way.

If anything their techniques, practiced to the point of being automatic responses, are what allows them to play in the moment. Those same techniques, necessary for style are also necessary for playing in the moment.

A person living in the moment can still have habits and make use of techniques and thus according to Newlyn have style. In fact most of the people I’ve known who lived in the moment, had their own very unique style.

Here are 3 familiar names for an artist, a writer, and a musician. All 3 are known for the spontaneity in their work and the lives they lived in the present. Each has an unmistakable style.

If Pollack, Kerouac, and Coltrane weren’t persons of the present, I’m not sure who is.

Living in the present doesn’t mean living entirely without context. Every moment of existence is framed by some context. There’s the context of everything that’s come before and there’s a context within the snapshot of immediate conditions. Living in the moment, is about being in tune with the immediate snapshot context as opposed to some other context.

Your decisions can still rely on a lifetime of experiences. If you’re out for a walk and find your next step will take you over the edge of a cliff, it’s certainly ok to fall back on your knowledge that it’s best not to take that step. Sometimes in the context of the moment, the best choice is a choice you’ve made before.

Being in the moment means being open to every possibility. It doesn’t mean you only select those possibilities you’ve never selected before. Having habits and relying on techniques still leaves room for ignoring both and doing things in a new way based on the context of the moment.

Stopwatch

Summary

Newlyn’s quote is interesting and I do get it’s central idea. What I mainly take issue with is the absoluteness of the quote and the implications it suggests.

I’d agreed that the more likely you are to rely on habits and techniques, the less likely you are to live in the present and perhaps the more likely you are to live in the present, the less likely you appear to have style.

However, there’s no reason why having habits means you can’t live in the moment. There’s no reason why relying on techniques means you have no interest in the present. There’s no reason why living in the present means you can’t have style.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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