What is creativity? The National Theatre's Ollie Winser talks design, inspiration and the digital revolution

Continuing our series exploring pure creativity, we catch up with Ollie Winser, creative director of the National Theatre’s graphic design studio, who is responsible for the design output across the organisation with a global audience of over 4.2 million people.

Ollie Winser

How do you define creativity?

I think it’s about bringing something into being that didn’t exist before. Whether that’s an idea, a song or a piece of graphic design, it’s about making something new. It also has a lot to do with being human; we all create, it’s just that some creativity is more visible than others, some creativity is more valued than others. I think creativity is most valuable when it says something about the human experience.

Where does your inspiration come from?

My inspiration comes from a mixture of observation and conversation. I love looking at creative work, but I also love discussing it. This has a lot to do with my interest in language, process and collaboration.

I think that good creative conversations can be inspiring because they can give you such unexpected outcomes – they can be transformative experiences that alter your perception or forge new ideas. I’m lucky enough to work at a place like the National Theatre where there are lots of opportunities to have conversations like these.

Can creativity be taught or is it entirely instinctive?

Every creative person has a creative instinct – it’s what makes you create in the first place and it’s the thing that keeps you motivated. However it’s also true that people with a creative instinct also want to improve their output, and that’s often through learning – learning from their own experiences but also the experiences of others.

How closely do the two sides of creativity – thinking and producing – need to be aligned?

You can have a good idea badly produced and you can have a brilliant production of bad idea, but I think they need to be aligned if you want to make great creative work. When I experience great creative work I’m not aware of ‘thinking’ and ‘producing’ as sides; they become more like parts of a loop that feed into each other.

What impact has the digital revolution had on creativity in its widest sense?

It’s had a massive impact on both creative process and creativity generally. You can build a reference base instantly with search engines or visual scrapbook platforms like Pinterest. This means a creative idea can be formed quickly and with confidence, as there is evidence of something being done before. The problem is that there’s a lot of imitation out there – as people ‘see’ more, they ‘imagine’ less.

Social media has opened up creative communications and has enabled us to engage better with audiences. At the National Theatre, what’s good about using social media is seeing how people interact with and share our campaigns. A good example of this is our recent campaign for Everyman, where we created a giant ‘hand of God’ that we placed outside the theatre. People photographed themselves under it and shared their portraits via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

How can creativity best be nurtured?

By allowing and embracing failure as a necessary part of any creative process. I recently discovered a photograph of Denys Lasdun’s rejected National Theatre architectural models, all thrown into a corner of his studio. They were all failures but they were also part of what eventually became the successful model and building. I also think that creativity can be best nurtured by building good creative spaces. A good creative leader won’t have all the ideas but they’ll build an environment in which they flourish.

This feature was first published in the 10 June issue of The Drum.

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