Soothing balm for the creative mind: Why you must leave your desk to find ideas

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer and was co-founder of the agency Kitcatt Nohr, where he spent 14 years.

'The creative scamp to end all scamps'

Once, in a state of creative agitation, I found myself in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Don’t panic, this isn’t a story of religious conversion. Unlike the saint whose cathedral I was in, I was not dazzled by a blinding light. Well, not exactly.

I was there because I have always believed you rarely find inspiration at your desk. In fact, you rarely find anything there but interruptions. And so you must leave the agency if you want to find ideas.

I had left on this occasion not just to find ideas, but to calm my mind. I had just received comments from a client on some creative work. You all know what that means.

I don’t recall the exact words the client had used. But they followed a theme all who work in any creative business will recognise with weary familiarity.

It may have been something like, 'We love the idea, but we don’t like the words or pictures you have used.' Or it may have been milder, 'We like it a lot, but we want you to change one or two things,’ followed by three pages of suggestions. Or something as simple as, ‘The client wants to know why you wrote this,’ with a sentence or perhaps just a word underlined in red.

You know the sort of thing. There is no creative, no matter how brilliant, who has not suffered this experience. The comments are not mean or vicious. The intentions are benign. And after all, the client is paying for it. But still, sometimes they can cause great perturbation in the creative mind.

It may be because they are unclear. Or because they show misunderstanding. Or because they seem pointless, or treat the work – made with much love and labour – roughly and without consideration of the creatives’ sensitivities.

Anyone who has seen the film Amadeus will remember the comment made by the Emperor Joseph to Mozart at the first performance of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. He fumbled to find a way to express his dissatisfaction, and came up with ‘Too many notes’. Of course no client would ever be so crass, nor is any of us Mozart, but we all recognise the feeling that we see flit across Mozart’s face when he hears this.

So, having felt something of that nature, I fled the agency for a while. I walked for a bit, and then it started to rain. I went into St Paul’s to shelter. Churches are good for this. And at that time you didn’t have to pay to get in, as you do now. I looked round the cathedral, and found my way downstairs to the crypt.

As well as the collection of graves and monuments down there – which include Wellington and Nelson – I found the immense and amazing Great Model of the cathedral.

It was commissioned by Wren, who had been given the task of designing and building the new cathedral, to stand where old St Paul’s had stood before the Great Fire of London destroyed it. The Great Model showed his creative idea, in detail.

It stands over 13 feet high, and is more than 20 feet long, and it’s made of wood. It is the creative scamp to end all scamps. I walked round it, lost in admiration, for it is a thing of great beauty, as well as the embodiment of Wren’s creative vision.

Around the model, on the walls, were a series of framed notices. Each one drew your attention to a particular feature of the model. And each one described the comments that various interested parties – let’s call them clients – had made on the model. Each comment or objection had led to a change in the finished design. As I walked round and read all the comments, and understood the changes they were insisting on, I grew sadder and angrier. Here in front of me was a model of the most extraordinary, beautiful and daring building. And they’d changed it, in almost every detail.

I went back upstairs, despairing of the folly of those who tinker with creative genius. I stepped out beneath the dome and looked up. And I defy anyone who does that to be disappointed.

The cathedral is not the model. The cathedral is – changes and all – a work of pure creative brilliance. They did not ruin it. You look at it and you know the finished cathedral is something the model is not, and could never have been. It is the result of creativity challenged, questioned, channelled, tempered, and triumphant.

The client is not wrong to comment. They may not express their comments fluently or in a way you want to hear. Your job is to respond by making your idea better.

Wren did. Which is why, inscribed on the floor beneath the dome, it says, ‘Here lies Sir Christopher Wren – si monumentum requiris, circumspice’. If you seek his monument, look around you.

Note – The Great Model has since been moved upstairs, and you must make an appointment to see it.

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