Fieldnotes

Creative Projects as Systems

18 September 2023

A Creative System Photo by Midjourney
A Creative System

To be a successful creator, you don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike. You don’t need to wait for the muse or to wait for an original idea. You don’t need “hacks” or to follow the teachings of the latest productivity guru. To be the kind of writer, photographer, musician, artist, or creator who builds a body of work, you only need one thing: a creative project.

A creative project is an idea, a proposal to engage in some hypothetical and unrealized creative undertaking. It usually has the goal of creating some large thing or some product.

Creative projects are bigger than small creative units or singular works, but they don’t need to be lofty. Creative projects are not songs, but albums. They’re not paintings, but a series of them. They’re not a short story, but a collection. They’re not a photograph, but a photobook. A magical thing happens when you have a creative project like this: you build a body of work.

Creative projects are creative systems.

Creativity and systems

A system can be understood in several ways. A system might be an assemblage of things, like an engine, united and working towards some common goal. A system might also be a framework for getting things done. At the core of our understanding of systems (good ones, for there are bad systems too) is their creative potential. Systems help us get things done, and in doing that, they create the potential for us to do more things.

Good systems are inherently creative. Good systems create time by saving time. And they create the potential for us to do more work by saving us from having to do work.1

But if good systems are inherently creative, creativity is not inherently systematic.

An artist’s ability to doodle something beautiful while chatting on the telephone is creative, but it is not by its nature systematic. While creative play (exploration, experimenting) and creative exercise (scales, sketching, studies, daily creative habits) are essential parts of the creative process, and can lead to serious creative output and aid in the development of creative skill, they are not necessarily done with a project in mind and therefore aren’t considered systems per se.

Creative projects as systems

Here’s how a creative project works as a creative system.

When we endeavor to work on some creative project — when we commit to working on one — it becomes a framework. The project, as a framework, guides us and helps us approach our work. It imposes its own set of limitations, and asks us to stay within bounds. It lays a foundation and asks us to build upon that foundation. The idea here is that constraints can breed creativity.

“The enemy of art,” Orson Welles is purported to have said, “is the absence of limitation.” Or, as Bernard Mandeville wrote in his 1729 The Fable of the Bees, constraints can be fruitful:

Do we not owe the Growth of Wine
To the dry shabby crooked Vine?
Which, while its Shoots neglected stood,
Chok’d other Plants, and ran to Wood;
But blest us with its noble Fruit,
As soon as it was ty’d and cut:
So Vice is beneficial found,
When it’s by Justice lopt and bound.

Projects aren’t meant to smother creativity with rigid regulations and firm restrictions. Good projects help give creativity a sense of focus in the same way a well-fashioned writing prompt is often better than the blank page.

Creative projects help with productivity and output.

They help us complete individual creative works. If your aim is to write a song, you might write one song. But if your aim is to write an album, you might write many more. Having a creative project forces us to think big and create more.

If projects create frameworks, they might also create a sense of purpose, motivation, and drive.

Creative projects are natural, organic creative systems. They need no “optimization.” They cannot be “leveraged,” as they are their own fulcrums. They cannot be “hacked,” as there isn’t just one operating system but an infinitude of them.

Project-based creativity is an approach rooted in research.

Researchers have remarked on the benefits of project-based learning. They’ve found that we learn better and faster when we actively work on a project. Sitting passively, waiting to be inspired by the sage on the stage, taking notes, and memorizing facts is not an effective way to learn. Instead, actively working towards the completion of some project is a better way. Learning happens best through active and creative projects.

The magic is in the project.

The takeaway: creative projects are productivity systems. Instead of completing singular creative works, you can complete bodies of work with the help of creative projects.

Footnotes


  1. “Systems create freedom” I heard someone once say. I’m not sure that’s true. In giving us more time and work potential, a system can create freedom, but it is not a foregone conclusion. For what we do with our newfound time and energy can liberate or enslave us. ↩︎