Data inspiring creativity? Not likely!
I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled [poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.
– Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC), In “Apology,” sct. 21, by Plato.
Beautiful, poetic, intangible, unexpected, transcendent, divine. All of these words, and hundreds of thousands more, have been used over the centuries to describe the phenomena of inspiration. Data, as a concept, is not often invited to this party.
Indeed, some people argue that cold, hard data is anathema to inspiration. I can certainly attest to occasionally feeling completely devoid of any inspiration myself when confronted with reams of numbers, charts and statistics.
But maybe we’re incorrectly focusing on the data itself and missing the opportunity it can provide. After all, perhaps the roadblock is often the visual representation of the data that overwhelms, bores and even scares people into numbness, rather than the data itself.
Understanding the role of data within the creative process
Data is not an end unto itself. It is a raw source of information.
Data can be thought of as simply a record of events. It takes a storyteller to turn a sequence of events into a compelling, engaging, classic hero story. And furthermore, to create a character that we can focus on within these events with whom we can identify, so we may understand this landscape they traverse.
To anyone who practises creative problem solving, we are used to the trope of storytelling as one of the chief vehicles of persuasive, human communication. This is no accident or cliché. It is a fact that we, as humans, assimilate the world in which we live best through stories and metaphors that reframe new and difficult ideas into concepts that allow us to access them more completely.
The most important idea to grasp when bridging the gap between data and creative problem solving is to make sure you are digesting, identifying and then crafting a compelling story that can be understood and emotionally engaged with.
This story becomes the brief – the problem that becomes self evident, that needs to be solved. Many of us know this, but by using data as the starting point, you are crafting story based upon real-life events, not a work of fiction.
Using data to test nuances and variations that seem equally valid
There is more than one way to skin a cat.
Further down the line in a creative response to any problem you can encounter a situation where there are a few good answers at hand. Data can also help here.
We have all heard of multivariate testing, A/B testing and the like. The emphasis here, at least in my experience, is to be careful not to ‘let the tail wag the dog’. The ideal situation is where there are multiple, equally valid, solutions to a problem and it feels right to let the audience split the difference.
In this situation, data is your friend and can teach you a lot about the people you are trying to connect with. It will help you answer the questions you simply can’t answer yourself.
Use data to craft, segment and target your creativity to various audiences
Sometimes the audience you want to connect with is so varied, that we need to segment and target our creative communication with them by separating them into smaller groups. It is here that data is a powerful tool – it can both identify the smaller audiences in the first place and then gather the insight that will help refine our messages to them.
The range of different needs and motivations within these smaller groups may provide inspiration for creative variations which you may never have tapped into, or even considered, had you not used data to identify them in the first place. The possibilities!