From the October 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

We all start at the same spot: a blank space--and with a common goal: to fill that space. But the path we choose from there is completely individual, as individual, in fact, as the mind itself. What occupies that distance between nothing and something is the mysterious science we call creativity.

Funny how the mind works. The visions that come in like a flood, the blocks that temporarily immobilize, the defeats that send us back to the proverbial drawing board, the triumphs of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, the satisfaction that comes with knowing something is right. The mind lurches, stalls, sprints, strolls, stifles, flows. We so often ask "What do you think?" while neglecting to ask the more interesting question, "How do you think?"

In business environments, creativity has traditionally been considered an anomaly. At worst, it's a sign of unprofessionalism; at best, it's a burst of energy confined to specific blocks of time. Even Webster's is remarkably stale in its definition of creativity: "artistic or intellectual inventiveness," it tersely summarizes. These perceptions fail to satisfy. The beauty of creativity is that it overflows the boundaries we set for it. To anyone who has been called upon to create, the means are infinitely more interesting than the definition and at times even more interesting than the end.

For modern-day creative genuises Joe Moya and Joe Raia, owners and founders of Joe Designer Inc., a product development and graphic communications firm in New York City, creativity is the very foundation of their business and the makeup of their souls. With their team of illustrators and industrial and graphic designers, they've developed products ranging from handmixers and toys to street-hockey blades and video game controllers for corporations such as Betty Crocker, Toy Biz, Kodak, Viacom Retail/Paramount, 4Kidz and IVY Hill/Warner Media Services. "Being creative," says Moya, "is kind of the ultimate thing here."

Being creative. It's an overwhelming call, for sure. But for entrepreneurs, what could be more fitting to their constitution and more, well, good, old-fashioned fun? We've pinned the Joes down and done exploratory surgery on their creative processes, uncovering some fascinating and practical insights into their theory of creativity--so you can learn to unleash yours.

In The Beginning...

. . . there were cartoons. Moya and Raia, both 32, believe their creativity did not start with entrepreneurship but with their childhood influences, which ranged from Bugs Bunny to MTV. Early on, they learned how to reconcile the absurdity of the media with the normalcy of suburbia. "We sort of mixed these things together, the mundane with the fantastic," says Raia. "The way we grew up, being on the cusp of Generation X, we acquired a skewed sensibility, which is a big catalyst of our creative ways."

That knack for coalescing the contradictory serves them to this day. "A lot of times, we're combining different thoughts, different patterns, different theories, classic elements from the past with futurist-type thinking," says Moya.

They're pretty good at combining childhood with adulthood as well: They're still cartoon watchers and comic book readers, and proud of it. Raia and Moya aren't quick to throw out any sources of inspiration, whether past or present, silly or sublime.

It's far from a frivolous move. Isn't childhood the prime time of all creativity, that span of time in which make-believe is a part of daily life and in which each person believes he or she is inherently creative--a dancer, a painter, a singer, an illustrator, a writer? What's so different about creating the ultimate sand castle and creating an innovative product prototype?

The Play Must Go On

The setting: a Soho office. The players: Moya, Raia and five of their employees.

The office is, by Moya's definition, very casual, very hip. Since both Moya and Raia came from corporate backgrounds, they have very intentionally rebelled against any semblance of corporate order. Walls are taboo. "If someone wants to say something," reasons Moya, "they can just yell it across the room."

"There's a little more respect when principals are involved in daily operations instead of hidden behind the glass doors, behind the oak desk, overseeing everyone like Big Brother," says Raia. "We get more respect from our staff because we'll roll up our sleeves instead of pointing the finger and asking someone else to do something."

"We let our staff know we're here not as their bosses, but as people," adds Moya. "That makes it a little easier for them to think freely."

Moya and Raia set the mood with atypical office accessories that encourage the all-work, all-play attitude. Moya admits the atmosphere is more nursery school than boardroom, complete with video games and a 68-foot track of Tyco race cars. Employees gather not around the water cooler but around the ever-popular Nerf hoop. No framed pastel landscapes in this office. Blackboards, bulletin boards and erasable drawing boards are scattered along the walls, just in case someone is struck by an idea mid-stroll. "I don't want to see blackboards empty," says Raia. "Even if it's a hangman, those are still ideas; you're still using your mind. At least you're not sitting there with a Walkman, typing on your computer."

Casual is more than a fashion statement here. "We've been in the structured corporate environment. We've worn the ties and sat in the cubicles," says Moya. "And that's really stagnant. This casual environment is about letting ourselves and our employees breathe."

This casualness frees employees up to reveal their own personalities. "The way they dress, the music they listen to, the way they speak--everyone's a little different," Moya says. "And in not only permitting that but allowing it to flourish, it helps people be themselves and bring unique ideas to the company."

In fact, traditional formalities such as job titles are banned. "People are treated equally," says Moya. "There are no labels, no lines drawn, so there's less pressure on people to impress us and other staff members."

The time employees of other companies spend schmoozing, Joe Designer's employees spend bonding. "I encourage our graphic designer to walk into the model shop and find out what's going on at the milling machine," says Raia. "I don't want someone to not understand the different principles and procedures. I like the idea of everyone knowing everything."

Remember The Sponge

Unfortunately, many businesses tend to drop the creativity ball early in the game--when scoping for clients. "Instead of [just] sending out letters and cold-calling, you have to use all types of techniques," says Moya.

"We started a business in a tenacious town, and we have to be tenacious to get more work," says Raia. "So the question is `How are we going to distinguish ourselves from the person next door?' "

Moya and Raia e-mail and fax like madmen. "We do illustrations of each other," says Moya. "So if we've met a prospective client, we'll send an illustration of ourselves saying `Hey, where are you? Why don't you call?' "

"Just by faxing illustrations, Joe Designer is constantly going across the desks of big CEOs," says Raia. "And when we sent out our two-year promotion, it was an expandable sponge. It's just a little twist to make people remember us. They'll get the printed calendars [from other companies], and that's very nice, but people are going to remember the sponge."

Let There Be Light

Funneling broad creativity into a specific mission--beginning an actual project--is the stage that usually overwhelms most people. Moya and Raia take the first step forward in this practical realm with research. "It's about knowing the market you're designing for," says Moya.

"We familiarize ourselves with market trends, the past history of the product, the past history of the trends of that product," says Raia. "We research by flipping through magazines. We pin articles, photos, everything up on the walls and familiarize the whole team with what the history is and what we want to achieve. We really try to fixate ourselves on the future--on, say, what a handmixer would look like 10 years from today."

Moya and Raia's idea of research is far from the dreary reality of homework. It's more of a mindset, in which creative juices flow through daily life. You observe the blending of colors in a sunset, the way a bird uses its wings, the perfect rippling of a wave. When you hit this plane of hyperconsciousness, knowledge happens.

"It's really not so much a sit-down-at-the-library type of thing; it's just about keeping an open mind to different elements, things you can use in your design," says Raia. "You can apply architecture to a product or a product to architecture. There are beautiful things in nature that you can apply to products, especially with form. When we were developing [products with soft, rounded contours, such as the Betty Crocker Handmixer], we borrowed contours off everything from nature to classic cars. And the steelwork, the bridgework in our city, the way it's mechanically fastened, just by scaling it down, it adds great detail to products."

When they feel led to do so, Moya and Raia postpone the hard-core research phase. "Sometimes it's better to come in with fresh ideas and not be affected by what's out there," says Moya. "So we may start off a project with some brainstorming sessions and rough concepts based just on our initial thoughts, and do the research after. Then we're not jaded by what we've already seen."

In Session

The brainstorming session--that awe-inspiring forum of free-flowing thoughts--is the birthplace of some of the most revolutionary changes mankind has seen. It's where anything is possible, unfettered by earthly boundaries. Or, as Moya puts it, "it's where Joe and I bang ideas off each other."

At Joe Designer, banging ideas off others is a big deal. Care is taken in the details. The key element is music--sometimes blues, often jazz. "The dysfunctional notes in jazz have a lot to do with how we think," says Moya. "It's not four-four time."

And it helps to have plenty of people. "Everybody is involved [in brainstorming sessions]. We bring in everybody, from the bookkeeper to the office manager, because they see things completely differently than we do," says Raia. "We may be a little too far out in left field and need that middle-of-the-road thinking."

The actual brainstorming sessions start slowly and, like a train, build momentum. Moya and Raia brief the staff on the project and its goals. Then they divide the project into different categories or characteristics; for example, a telephone will be divided into its physical elements: the mouthpiece, the earpiece, the base and the cord.

People will randomly go up to the blackboard and sketch or doodle something under the different sections, or maybe write down key words that might influence the design or spark an idea. "We try to break down the boundaries of stagnancy," says Raia. "It inhibits people's thinking if they're afraid to throw something out that's in left field because the boss might not like it. I want to see every little cocktail napkin they draw on. I want to see everything because the smallest ideas are usually the best."

When lulls hit, rather than plowing through, "sometimes everyone will branch off and come up with some ideas, play with Tyco cars or video games, and then we bring it back together and work as a team," says Moya. "There's a lot of breathing room."

Even having minds like the Joes, however, doesn't ward off all cases of scarcity in such sessions. "That constant need to invent new ideas is hard at times," says Raia, who points out that it's important not to limit brainstorming to the session itself but to partake daily, as naturally as you breathe. In other words, the brainstorming's not over until the fat client sings.

Moya is always prepared for an idea to surface: "I'll wake up, have a pad of paper by the bed, turn on the light and start sketching. That happens often. And it happens many times when I'm sitting on the subway going to work. I'll see something and say `Where's my sketch pad?' "

The Rut (And Other Enemies)

The actual production may seem anticlimactic after a rowdy, Tyco-break-filled, banging-ideas-off-each-other brainstorming session. "The most exciting part [of product development] is that brainstorming session," says Raia. "Because after you come up with your concepts of what this thing should do, then you have to actually become practical, put it down on paper and make it work."

What inevitably follows, says Raia, is "a long, long process--the development of the piece and then figuring out the engineering end of it. We work on how this thing will actually go together, and then how to make it better for less money. It's the struggle that's involved with thinking of the practical."

"And sometimes you hit a dead end," admits Moya.

So many of us are confounded when we have nowhere else to go mentally, which is odd considering when we hit a dead end literally, we know exactly what to do. We just turn around and take another route. It works the same way with creativity. "You may be looking at something the wrong way," says Raia. "You need to take a step back, go around it and hit it from a different angle."

"There's not one way to solve a problem," says Moya. "There are many different approaches you can take. So just going back and reexamining does help when you're in a rut. Maybe there's a call for going back to brainstorming. Brainstorming is not just a onetime thing--it occurs constantly throughout the process. It's a constant reexamination of ideas."

Sometimes the solution lies down another avenue. "When you think you've proved the point or solved the problem, you may then look and see merit in other designs. So you pick and choose from other concepts you've done, and it pushes you in another direction," says Raia. "You may think you're in a rut, but you may already have [figured] the way out. It could just be hidden."

Other times, the right way is to work with what you already have in a fresh way. Consider this the "stand on your head" method to creativity. "Maybe you just need to take your drawing and turn it upside down," says Raia. "Just looking at something in a different light helps. One little thing is [sometimes] all it takes to spark [your creativity again]. It could be as simple as a coffee stain on your drawing."

"And that may be the next graphic vision," adds Moya. "You never know."

The major enemies of creativity? "Just doing the obvious," says Raia.

"Being closed-minded," agrees Moya. "If you're stuck in a rut, sometimes it's because you're just doing the same thing over and over."

So what do the Joes do in those extreme moments, when they're completely drained, dried up, not another thought in their heads?

"Nerf hoop," says Raia.

"Yeah, Nerf hoop," agrees Moya. "Seriously, it does help."

Thinking Ahead

One thing you should know about Moya and Raia: They are obsessed with the future. "We have this fixation," says Raia. " `How are we going to evolve? What is going to happen tomorrow? How are we going to link the present with the future?' We think about the future with new technologies, new ways of molding and manufacturing, new methods of client relations. We're constantly trying to determine what's going to happen tomorrow and the day after and down the road, and what we're going to need to do there."

Their fascination with the future makes perfect sense. Creative types realize the future holds infinite possibilities unrestrained by today's conventions. Creativity, like the future, is greater than Moya or Raia or you or me. The hugeness of it naturally inspires awe, and the awe naturally inspires creativity.

Moya and Raia are, in the final judgment, idea men. If the future builds it, they will come. And they'll take a lot of people with them. "We like leaving people with something new on their minds," says Raia. "Anybody can put a couch up against the wall, but to turn it on a 30 degree angle, put this little thing behind it . . . just adding a little twist to something, that's all creativity means."

Tips From The Joes

  • Be like a child: Childhood is the breeding ground of creative thinking.
  • Break down the barriers between you and your employees. Corporate stuffiness is so '80s.
  • Keep your eyes open. Great ideas are all around you, waiting to be discovered.
  • Ask everyone you know for ideas. You never know--your mild-mannered bookkeeper might just turn out to be a creative dynamo.
  • When ideas aren't flowing, don't force them. A five-minute break for some breathing space is better than an hour of stagnancy.
  • Get a fresh perspective: Take the concept and turn it upside down.
  • Play hard--recreation helps stimulate thinking.

Bulls-eye!

According to Juanita Weaver, a Takoma Park, Maryland, creativity consultant, Joe Designer is right on target when it comes to the following strategies:

  • Fostering a safe and open environment for employees. "A major block to creativity is the internalized voice of judgment that says this can't be done; if you do it, something awful will happen; that's ridiculous; it's stupid; it would never work; it doesn't matter anyway," says Weaver. "When that happens, we can't even get a little idea out. The critical thing in creativity is to suspend this voice of judgment during the initial phase when you're trying to come up with something new. Keep it positive. Just let go and proceed."

As a business owner, Weaver says it's important to understand, as do Joe Moya and Joe Raia, that while you can come in on the next stage and select, sort, evaluate and then implement these new ideas, it's in that beginning phase that you just have to move from impulse to impulse and trust your first thoughts.

  • Not trying to force creativity to happen. Especially in brainstorming meetings, says Weaver, there needs to be some time in which each group member goes away alone and processes, and then comes back to the group. This alone time is an important component of creativity.
  • Having fun. "[Moya and Raia] have the courage to play," says Weaver. "We're trained to think [business] is so serious, and that shuts us down in terms of playing around and combining things in new ways. A sense of humor and fun opens us up again."

Meeting Of The Minds

Being creative means starting small, says Juanita Weaver, a Takoma Park, Maryland, creativity consultant. "Go about it gradually, even if you only change one thing, such as the way you hold a meeting."

Weaver suggests four ideas you can implement to get the creative juices flowing in your meetings:

1. Give your employees five minutes to come up with five careers they'd pursue if they weren't limited by external factors. "This exercise elicits a lot of energy," says Weaver, "and you can take this energy back to your meeting."

2. Have employees take a minute to contemplate an issue, then pick up magazines and tear out any images that appeal to them. Have them relate these images to the issue at hand. "It's about using images to tap into your subconscious," says Weaver.

3. Have everyone pick an object in the room and ask them to write three poems about it: a haiku, a poem as if they knew nothing about the object, and one relating the object to something from their childhood. "This shows that you can look at one thing many ways and find different levels of meaning in it," says Weaver.

4. Pass out name tags, and allow your employees to make up their own names. "Their names could be, for example, Queen of the Nile, Down in the Dumps or Juanita the Great," says Weaver. "It changes the energy and opens the mind up a bit."

Contact Sources

Joe Designer Inc., 131 Varick St., #1004, New York, NY 10013, http://www.joedesigner.com

Juanita Weaver, 7220 Central Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912, (301) 270-1897.