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complex networks

Individual Creativity vs Distributed Creativity

Are you a creative individual? An ‘original’? Then you have lots of ideas and not afraid to toss them. But do you work well with other creative individuals?

Originals are nonconformists, people who not only have new ideas but take action to champion them. They are people who stand out and speak up. Originals drive creativity and change in the world.

– Adam Grant

When observing creative individuals ‘in the wild’ you’ll notice a few more things they have in common from working odd hours (on their ideas, not necessarily their jobs), having tons of ideas (many of which are bad and thus discarded). Creative individuals have no problem dumping ideas, in fact, they don’t nearly have enough time to bring any of them to fruition anyway. So when you see someone guarding their idea, they are probably not a creative genius (guarding their singular idea). Grant emphasises, that ‘originals are not the people with the deepest expertise’ but rather those with the broadest experience and the most willing to question the status quo. For example, evidence that Safari and Internet Explorer users are less creative and successful than those who use Firefox or Chrome. Why? Because they didn’t just stick with the pre-installed default browser of their operating system, but instead opted to find another solution. They questioned the Status Quo.

Creative individuals also tend to be messy and think in ‘layers’ rather than linear. Which means they are confusing to listen to and often don’t follow a thread of thought but rather pick up thoughts from throughout a rich tapestry of ideas – to the outsider, that is hard to follow. This habit makes it hard for creative original to be recognised and successful. They don’t ‘market’ themselves or their ideas well. And thus, alone, a creative original is likely to fail. But combined with an organised and outgoing ‘people’ person, they can be the engine that drives and delivers success.

But what about creative teams?

As an ‘organism’ or a ‘system’ a creative team, like e.g. a UI / UX Team in a software development company, or a Design Team in a marketing agency, ticks very differently. If you simply throw creative individuals together, you’ll soon find, that the team doesn’t perform as expected. Simple math doesn’t apply here.

Family of Trees
Scattered trees build a family group. They appear disorganized, but instead they use the available space and resources optimally.

If you put ten brilliant creative individuals in one room does NOT mean you get 10 times the creative work done or that it’s ten times better. On the contrary. They tend to be slower and sometimes come to a grinding hold. They are more likely suffocate in chaos and may not produce a single finished design/text/product/etc… And in an agency or service scenario, a ton of half-baked and unfinished ideas aren’t going to make clients happy or advance the project.

Yet, many companies still simply pour more creatives into their creative teams, only to be left wondering why they aren’t faster or better at their ‘work’.

The truth is of course, that you need to carefully consider and plan the right mix of people and talent to develop a high functioning creative team. From the most creative, out-of-the-box, non-conformists to the organisers and to the facilitators and encouragers. All of whom may be designers, but with different personalities. And once you put them together as a team, magic happens – or not, if the mix is off.

What is ‘Distributed Creativity’?

In this article, ‘distributed creativity’ refers to a group of people that together form a creative body, rather than a group of people that collaborate on an artwork (as described by Wikipedia). If done right, this body (or group, team, etc…) then moves and functions as one and is capable of creating on a whole new level. Not unlike ‘swarm intelligence’ which descries the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, distributed creativity becomes it’s own organism, although here, the organism consists of a distinctly fitting set of individuals and each ‘agent’ IS aware of the greater goal. Distributed creativity is capable of creating something that each individual could not. It’s not about speed or volume or even quality, but rather that this group can produce something altogether different.

Peer Review – the Crit

One aspect of distributed creativity is the feeding off each other’s creativity. If you’re a creative individual working as an artist, writer, designer, etc… you are already familiar with the indispensable value of the ‘Crit’. Artists make a habit of inviting other artists to review and critique their work. Most creatives are so immersed in their work, and their work is so solitary, that sometimes they cannot see what’s in front of them. They need someone who is on the outside, but still connected enough to know their language, their vision, understand and possess the creative tools required, and provide honest and constructive input. In distributed creativity each artist creates and reviews, resulting in an ‘opus’ that in many ways includes all their thoughts and work.

Distributed not remote

Distributed creativity does not refer to what is commonly known as a distributed team, where each team member may work remotely and they meet, communicate and collaborate via online tools. In distributed creativity unique creative skills or language and personality are distributed, and together form another language with the help of this large skillset and variant personalities. Distributed creativity can come from a distributed team, but doen’t have to. In fact, it’s more common to see it happen when these artists share the same space.


There are countless articles and books written about creativity and why it’s so hard to pinpoint what it is and how to get it. One more thing that can be observed with most creative individuals is that they furbish a certain environment for themselves. You’ll be hard pushed finding a lot of creative energy in an office cubicle or even a modern open space office. Creatives need their own ‘space’ (bubble), where they can feel safe to switch off into their creative world, focused, un-interrupted and calm. Part of the creative process happens in isolation, and if it’s not provided, you will find low levels or infrequent creativity. But if a creative individual has a space where they can build their own personal surroundings, they will thrive and so will their ideas and innovations. This is why, it’s a grave mistake to force creative teams into office spaces, that are open and ‘corporate’.

Frequent setups for truly creative spaces include: daylight/windows, minimal or sparse furniture, plants or natural materials, walls stuffed with clips of inspirations, mess, color-swatches or color spots, tables littered with pens and papers used and new), large screens with lots of notes stuck to them, etc…. Less important are ergonomic tables or chairs, because creatives don’t sit down for very long and tend to move around – even if their primary creative work is a computer generated design system. Less important are ergonomic tables or chairs, because creatives don’t sit down for very long and tend to move around – even if their primary creative work is a computer generated design system.