What is creativity? Designer Tom Dixon OBE on ideas, product design and why computers are 'like a disease'

Continuing our series exploring pure creativity, we catch up with Tom Dixon OBE, the self-taught British designer whose work has been acquired by The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art New York, and whose recent projects include Shoreditch House and the Mondrian hotel at Sea Containers House.

Tom Dixon

You have the Dock Kitchen restaurant and the Tom Dixon Design Research Studio shop operating from the same Ladbroke Grove premises. How integrated are your operations?

One is a service business, the other a product business, but what’s interesting about it is that we are also the client, so we’re able to really understand what a space needs to complete it and conversely, we become better product designers as a result.

Being intimately involved with an operation like a restaurant makes us better product designers because if it’s a cocktail shaker, we can just go up and test it with the cocktail guy in the restaurant and work out whether it’s a functional object or not.

So the richer your ecosystem, the more complex your network, the better designer you’ll become because you have those unexpected overlaps and different expertise inputs.

How do you define creativity?

Creativity is one of the more over-used words, as is design for that matter, which becomes harder and harder to define. For me, it’s just the process of outputting ideas.

Ideas are cheap, everybody has ideas. The difficulty for anybody who is creative is how you crystallise ideas and output them in a way that can either make you a living, which is the dream, or produce something which is significantly new.

Design is used to cover such a broad variety of skills and trades that it has become almost meaningless. It’s a cover-all word, particularly in marketing, so it becomes very banal as a term.

Where do you get your creative ideas from?

The ideas come from putting myself in slightly uncomfortable situations as much as possible. I do shifts in the kitchen and this means I’m at the bottom of the pile again. Instead of being the boss I’m the worst chef in the kitchen, I have to work in a team instead of being the leader and I have to work with unfamiliar materials in uncomfortable situations.

But I can draw a parallel between the preparation of the food – the proportions and the colours that I’m putting together on the plate – and my everyday job, and I will often make an unexpected connection between them.

I like to get away from the design magazines, shows and museums and get myself into places where people are thinking about something else – sculpture, engineering, technology, food, anything.

Can creativity be taught or is it innate?

I did a couple of years teaching, one day a week at the Royal College, and I was struck by the fact that often creativity was taught as a kind of abstract. It was like every product had to be conceptual and have an idea behind it. My method was to try and get people confronted with other issues. By the time they got to the Royal College, they were already presumably pretty good designers, so what they needed was to be confronted with real life, real problems, real materials, and real factories. So I tried to get them applying design to more real problems and then the creativity started to really kick in.

How can creativity best be nurtured?

I think it’s an increasingly tough task to drag people away from their computers. It’s like a disease, an addiction. We need to get people to make things in three dimensions that inhabit the real world, not the virtual world.

I’m very interested in getting people away from the internet. Pinterest, for instance, is just collecting other people’s ideas and putting them on mood boards, which seems the way that people approach creativity today; just reshuffling the pack the whole time. Obviously computers are amazing tools but they need to be reduced in importance in design right now.

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

Thinking and producing are indivisible for us here because I’m in an unusual position for a product designer. Almost all my contemporaries do not take on the nightmare of product development as well as liaising with factories and handling the distribution and communication of their own products.

Everyday here we’re thinking of how we’re going to make something, communicate it, package it, get it at the right price, negotiate it, get it from London to New York or from India to Hong Kong.

The difficulty is probably still managing to dream of what things could be, against this huge backdrop of the practicalities of getting something made and telling people about it and then selling it. My battle is about keeping that flame alive, of making something original or new and unseen, while still trying to deal with the realities of everyday product development and distribution.

This feature was first published in the 8 July issue of The Drum.

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