Chaotic, unpredictable, contradictory, synthetical – thoughts and ideas can appear from anywhere and be the inspiration for a way forward. This is the nature of the creative process and the nature of design. But we seldom write about design or do design research in ways that truly reflect this process and way of thinking. Consequently, we undermine the true spirit of the discipline by treating it as if it were a linear, systematic procedure that is advanced through a series of logical decisions.
For those who dedicate their lives to creative activities, a wide variety of elements can be called upon – insights, random thoughts, things read, seen and doodled. All these contribute to a process of exploring, experimenting, being involved in and truly living in the world. The creative process progresses without reference to time, analysis, abstraction or justification – one is simply immersed in the here and now of this vital, evanescent moment – this is life, the very core, the kernel of living in the present. And this is creativity.
So many of our schools and universities prioritize the systematic approaches found in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). In contrast, education in the creative arts tends to be devalued and young people are culturally and institutionally discouraged from taking such subjects.
This was certainly the case in my own upbringing and education, where I was expected and subtly pressured to follow a certain path – the pragmatic path offered by science and maths, even though my natural inclination was in a very different direction. As a result, I felt like a fish out of water, uninterested and inadequate. None of which was helped by a childhood that included regular church-going, which laboured a message of sin and sacrifice, constantly petitioned for forgiveness, and implicitly induced feelings of guilt.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties, with a PhD in engineering, a number of years in heavy industry, and a young family, that I finally broke from this path and took a different direction, without knowing where it might lead. I resigned from my job and went to Art School. There I finally felt at home, meeting people with beliefs, priorities and perspectives that contrasted starkly with those I had encountered in the world of engineering. They were motivated by quite different concerns and outlooks on life, and were driven by an inner search rather than outer pragmatism. After a year of exploring and experimenting, I found I was naturally inclined towards design and continued on with two more years of focussed design studies.
So much of our culture is about conforming, fitting in, toeing the line. This is deep-seated but it tends to suppress the vitality and joy of our creative potential; and it can lead to a dull, lacklustre existence.
A vital aspect of how we approach life and creativity is that of the spirit – the spark of hope, the joie de vivre – without it, or at least without instances of it, life becomes mundane. Traditionally, this inner conviction of hope and potential is expressed through spiritual teachings. I consider myself a spiritual even a religious person, but I find the guilt-inducing emphasis within Western spirituality counterproductive, not to say destructive. And going by the precipitous fall in congregations and the number of empty churches in Europe, the West’s particular interpretation of Christianity has been resoundingly rejected by the majority of its populace.
On the one hand, this development could be regarded as positive – we have finally cast aside a tradition and institutional practices that have proved to be out of time, out of touch and, in many respects, a detrimental influence. On the other hand, it has left the West bereft of a meaningful, living spirituality and we are worse off for its absence. No civilization in history has been sustained by mundane concerns alone – people yearn for a higher sense of purpose and some kind of collective response to questions of being and the ultimate mystery of life.
These are the questions that the world’s great spiritual traditions attempt to address, and their teachings ought to give our lives a sense of depth, meaning and fulfilment. In turn, this should affect the nature of our activities and the qualitative and aesthetic expressions of our creative ideas. Spirituality is fundamental to creativity and especially to forms of creativity that are caring and considerate of people and the natural world.
The Western interpretation of Christianity, which has frequently become tied up in knots of rational explanation and logic, differs markedly from that of the Eastern Church, which takes a more poetic, imaginative view.
In the Eastern tradition, the doctrine of original sin is not regarded as a form of inherited guilt, where we have to approach on our knees and beg forgiveness. Instead, it teaches that the spirit sheds light on the good in us; it is likened to a precious pearl that illuminates us from within. And it emphasizes the Way – the inner journey of growing and developing towards the good.
Spiritual teachings and traditions have influenced societies for centuries, and they continue to do so even in this time of demise, affecting our values, outlooks and priorities.
Today, this is exemplified in the education curriculum in the UK, which still reflects a Protestant work ethic of industry based largely in scientific and mathematical ‘facts’. Through this skewed, extremely partial lens, we have attempted to reshape the world according to our wishes, and we have been doing so since the Industrial Revolution. But the tragic environmental consequences are now all too apparent.
By comparison, the way of inner illumination and development is more positive and life-affirming. And it is this vital spark that those dedicated to creative endeavours intermittently experience. The writer Herman Hesse conveys something of this in his novel Steppenwolf. He writes that creative people,
… live at times in their rare moments of happiness with such strength and indescribable beauty, the spray of their moment's happiness is flung so high and dazzlingly over the wide sea of suffering, that the light of it, spreading its radiance, touches others too with its enchantment.
But he also recognizes that the life of those dedicated to this path is not an easy one. It is, he says,
… a perpetual tide, unhappy and torn with pain, terrible and meaningless, unless one is ready to see its meaning in just those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos of such a life.
Overwhelmingly, design writing and research focus their efforts on pragmatic, worldly benefits. But, there is a critical core that needs to be more confidently recognized and asserted in our design activities, a core that engenders those rare experiences, acts, thoughts and works that shine out above the chaos. These lie at the heart of design.
We are in desperate need of imaginative, creative ways forward that reach beyond – and reach higher – than mere technofixes and other such excuses for extending existing levels of production and disruption. In this time of environmental collapse and fear about the future, creativity and design endeavours have much to offer, including hope.
Read more of Stuarts's articles in Sublime Magazine
About the author:
Stuart Walker is Professor of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University. His latest book entitled, Design and Spirituality: a philosophy of material cultures, is published by Routledge, 2021. You can also visit: stuartwalker.org.uk