Technology and Creativity

Throughout history, creativity has led to technological advances and technology has inspired and facilitated creativity. What comes first and how does one affect the other? The following examples seek to explore this relationship and maybe even can help us answer the toughest question of all; what’s next?


One day a bunch of cavemen were sitting around in a cave in France. One picked up a burnt stick and started drawing. Another chewed up a bunch of berries, held his (or her) hand against the wall and spit. Meet the inventor of the pencil and the airbrush and the beginning of the relationship between technology and creativity. The technology of paint determined the limits and effectiveness of this pictographic language and it remained that way until the invention of writing.


As pictures evolved into concepts, the stylization of these visuals gave us the standardized Egyptian Canon – a language of pictures, but an interesting thing happens in the transition from paint to carved stone. The tool itself changed and so did the art. As language evolved and the alphabet came to replace pictographs, the chisel determined the typography of cultures like the Greeks and Romans. Look at a font like Trajan and it’s obvious from the serifs and thick to thin transitions that the technology of the tool shaped the font. Asian and Arabic languages were created with a brush and to this day reflect the influence of that tool. The Camera Obscura re-shaped the creativity of the Renaissance and facilitated the shift from the one-dimensional art of the dark ages to the use of perspective and realism (yeah, they traced!).


The printed page not only led to the Reformation (Through the mass printing of the Bible in German and the distribution of the theses of Martin Luther) – but also a revolution in the look of art. From Albrecht Durer to Gustave Dore, the technology of the woodcut determined what was creatively possible. Lithography affected creativity by allowing the artist the ability to create halftones from the grain of a litho stone instead of relying on the space between cuts in wood.


Photography not only revolutionized art, but has actually re-wired the human brain. There was a time when a drawing of a horse was perceived as a horse, after photography took over, only a photo could be considered reality. You may have encountered this with clients who cannot understand a layout or storyboard unless it is executed with photographs. “Do ya’ see it as a cartoon?” (This is an actual client comment after seeing a drawn storyboard!) But the advances in photography have also freed the artist to no longer be in the business of merely documenting “reality.”


When Edison first created moving pictures, no one understood anything but a lock off shot where the action unfolds like a play. But soon this technology led to a whole new way of perceiving. Things we take for granted like the close-up, the cut-away and the passage of time were impossible theatrically and only came to be after the invention of motion pictures. When Georges Melies screened “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” in 1902 it literally blew peoples minds with his use of cuts, match dissolves, painted backgrounds and special effects. (It’s still a better movie than the last Star Wars if you ask me).


Now we live in a digital world. Has this enhanced creativity or hurt it? The answer is both. The speed and affordability of digital acquisition has made it possible for filmmakers and musicians to create works that previously would have been impossible. The idea that you could write a song, shoot a video and author a DVD in a single day and troll the bars with it tonight is truly revolutionary.

On the other hand, the mystique of creativity has been forever tarnished by the over-accessibility of our tools. Any chimp with Photoshop is now a designer and stock effects are as cheesy as synthesizer presets from the eighties. Anyone with a sample library and Soundtrack is a musician. (Who ever liked practicing anyway?) The dreaded royalty-free CD has made layouts easier to sell, but it’s an endless recycling of the same crap. What art director hasn’t cursed this brave new world after spending hours flashing through thumbnails on the net when a drawing would have been more fun and original? Digital posting of dailies and stills from shoots in progress can now be viewed by a limitless number of unqualified eyes. How lame is it to screen a spot or a film in a tiny Quicktime Movie window? And the limitations of Flash have actually influenced the look of broadcast spots.

Conversely, the advent of high definition has caused set designers and make-up artists to radically re-think their craft. What used to look acceptable on film and video looks crude on HD (Just watch “Trading Spaces” in High Def and you’ll say, “Boy, did they butcher that room or what?”) But, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle and the limits of what is possible creatively have expanded beyond our wildest imagination.


The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to mass production. The 8 millimeter craze in the early 90’s was a reaction to film that was getting too slick. Grunge was a reaction to over produced LA hair bands. The much overused blue/green anti-transfer look was a reaction to really good telecines and colorists. And soon you will see an anti-digital movement. People are beginning to understand the difference between a live performance versus an Mp3, an original illustration versus a stock photo or even the value of a hand drawn idea. And we’ve seen so many special effects, that nothing really amazes us any more.

Creativity will evolve simultaneously with technology and new tools will inspire and shape new ideas, just like they always have.