Creativity is more Chemistry than Alchemy

3rd Sept 2015

On a recent trip to the marvellously refurbished Picasso Museum in Paris I came across an interesting definition of Pablo Picasso’s approach to creativity, specifically with reference to his Cubist period and his association with Georges Braques.

‘A painter’s studio must be a laboratory’ Picasso said, and this claim was brought to life through the process of ‘artistic folding’ which transformed collages of guitars and violins into 3D sculptures. In an observation displayed in the gallery Michel Butor the writer and philosopher, pronounces that Picasso’s studio was an ‘Alembic of Forms’.

An alembic is an alchemical apparatus consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for distilling chemicals. Butor’s suggestion is that Picasso’s creative process at this point in time was akin to Alchemy. A definition of Alchemy is – ‘any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance,usually of little value, into a substance of great value’.

One cannot deny the power of Picasso’s creativity, his ability to ‘magically’ change common substances (paper and paint) into substances of great value (priceless works of art), but does the ‘alchemy = creativity’ analogy hold true when considering the elements necessary for successful innovation in todays commercial world?
The reality is, that Alchemy is more about speculation and aspiration than successful production – despite high hopes it has never managed to turn base metals into gold or elicit an elixir of eternal life.

Another great creative thinker, this time from the world of conceptual creativity, is Edward De Bono whose key work is Lateral Thinking, Step by Step, which is a very measured and far from magical or mystical book. De Bono says – ‘Creative thinking – in terms of idea creativity – is not a mystical talent. It is a skill that can be practised and nurtured’. This I think is the point – the innovation process, especially in business, cannot be encumbered with mysticism or magic.

A successful business creative process is more analogous to the field of Chemistry than Alchemy, where Chemistry is defined as ‘a branch of physical science concerned with the composition, properties, and reactions of substances’. At the heart of the established process of Chemistry, is the practice of adding substances together to create entirely new ones. For example, Hydrogen and Oxygen combine to create water, and Sodium and Chlorine connect to become salt.

These processes are very similar to that of commercial creativity – the practice of adding two existing things/ideas together to create something new, is at the heart of the innovation process; for example a ball point pen + deodorant spray = roll-on deodorant.

In the creative thinking workshops I run, I use specific tools (Idea Apps) which are applied to problems in order to derive compelling solutions. In Chemistry parlance, we use these tools as catalysts in the ‘scientific’ process of creating new ideas. This creativity process has to be scientific, and systemic ( i.e. based on realistic observation and analysis), because in business there is significant pressure to produce powerful insights and ideas that work, quickly and on a regular basis. This kind of pressure is best countered by a tried and tested ‘scientific’ approach that allows for the combination of ideas or products, to produce entirely new solutions.

Alchemy has a mystical and powerful allure and it’s easy to see how this process has relevancy in the world of Art Nouveau; but Chemistry is more closely analogous to the creative process, in a contemporary commercial world.