Creativity Comes Alive

Nov 01, 2006 10:30 PM  By

The words of the author/theologian/educator/civil-rights leader Howard Thurman stopped me in my tracks: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I started to think about not only what makes me come alive as a creative merchant and marketer but also what makes brands come alive. Behind all the great brands we admire from afar or support with our wallets are people like you and me — creative thinkers and doers — looking for ways to create remarkable experiences for their customers, day after day, product after product, promotion after promotion, experience after experience. No easy job.

So how does one keep that charged sense of “aliveness” day after day? What feeds our creative wells? And how does one refuel when necessary? In typical creative fashion, what refuels one person may not refuel you. Here are a few thoughts from those both in and out of the multichannel commerce industry on what you need to inspire yourself.


For Ron Elliott, president of Excelligence Corp., a Monterey, CA-based merchant of educational products, thinking both outside and parallel to his industry helps him reframe a situation he may be pondering: “I often look to another industry, place my competitors and myself as players in the other industry, and then draw parallels between the industry I’m in and the industry they’re in.”

For example, Elliott will look at the airline industry: Lakeshore Learning Materials, an Excelligence competitor, will be represented by United;, another competitor, will be replaced by Southwest; and Discount School Supply, a division of Excelligence, will be JetBlue. “How is JetBlue taking away market share from United and Southwest? What things enable it to take market share away? How can United and Southwest fight back? What can JetBlue do to fend off their trying to fight back? How does JetBlue hit them where they can’t hit back? How can Discount School Supply do the same things in the early-childhood industry?” Elliott explains. “Parallel thinking has really helped me over the years bring new and innovative things to the early-childhood industry. Of course, they’re not new and innovative to the industry that I’ve studied, but they are to our industry.” What outside-your-field parallels can you draw in working through your next creative solution?

Steve Leveen, president/cofounder of Delray Beach, FL-based Levenger, a self-described merchant of “tools for serious readers,” takes a different tack. “I like to do an exercise I call ‘opposites and impossibles,’ especially as it relates to product development and design. When we need to create a product, we look at those that already exist and start asking about different and/or opposite uses. If it hasn’t been done or is ‘impossible,’ I like the idea even more!’ Leveen says. “Forcing us to address impossibles and opposites gets us thinking way past traditional answers and pushes us toward real innovation.”

What is your “impossible”? Can your current creative dilemma be helped by parallel, opposite, or impossible thinking? Try one of these approaches and see what happens!


Ann Ruethling is cofounder of Spring Valley, CA-based Chinaberry and Isabella, titles that specialize in books and other products that help children and adults “come alive.” Chinaberry nurtures children’s love of reading, while Isabella promotes products that “reawaken the spirit.” Ruethling is surrounded by creativity and inspiration every day through the products she offers. Yet it’s the belly laughs in the middle of the day that refresh her. “Laughing makes us feel alive,” she says. “It is a huge part of our day here. It’s almost like a creative release…so good for the soul!”

In addition to belly laughs, books themselves prove to be a creative “muse” as well for many people — certainly for folks who spend their days surrounded by them, like Ruethling and Leveen, as well as others who enjoy reading on all sorts of topics both related and unrelated to their businesses. “I find that I can be reading something totally unrelated, but it can become suddenly relevant and inspire a new direction,” Leveen says. What was the last book or magazine you read for the sheer pleasure of reading? Was it able to transport your thinking in a new direction?


Try this: Mark out an hour in your schedule (or a whole afternoon if you are really gutsy!) for “moodling.” Writer Brenda Ueland came up with the term, and for her it is not a luxury. “Imagination needs moodling — long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering,” she says.

Like Ueland, I hold moodling in high regard. When our days are crammed and jammed with must-dos and have-tos, the idea of lingering over anything (including lunch or a coffee break) never enters our minds. It’s hard to realize the value of pulling away to moodle in the midst of the daily chaos. Moodling time becomes almost a physical and mental extraction out of the cubicle/meetings/business-travel grind. And that indeed is its primary function. Extracting can be painful, but it’s often necessary to gain proper perspective.

Lisa Helming, senior merchandiser at St. Meinrad, IN-based Abbey Press, which sells inspirational gifts and collectibles, uses her off-hours moodling time to inform her in-office decisions. “I like to take a couple of my eclectic friends shopping for unusual finds in the categories of jewelry, housewares, and books,” she explains. “Their interests are so varied; they always end up educating me in areas I may not be up on! We’ll talk about all sorts of everyday things…what they’re reading, what they just bought for their kids, etc. They are not in the business, so it’s refreshing to hear their perspectives on all sorts of products. From these outings, I come back with new ideas for our own products here at Abbey.”

So get out of your normal office environment and moodle a bit! In doing so, you might just find another way to refuel your creative well: You might meet your muse!

Muses are not just for artists and writers and students of Greek mythology. I believe creative thinkers, merchants, and marketers who have come alive all have muses — sources of inspiration who provide guidance. Who might your muse be? Often I find that your very own customers can provide the kind of inspiration you may need to solve a product issue or clarify a marketing problem or even provide a design solution. That’s one reason Joel Shattuck, manager of merchandising and creative services at housewares and gifts mailer Walter Drake, likes to meet his customers face to face.

“I appreciate getting to know my customers on a personal level,” Shattuck says. “When we have focus groups with them, I pay attention to what they are wearing, how they talk, what their life interests are above and beyond our product categories. These conversations are always inspirational. We are looking to continually better our communications with our customers.”

So, feeling a bit uninspired? Pick up the phone, call a few customers, chat with them about their lives. No doubt you’ll be left with a bit of information to inform your future creative decision making!


In order to feel truly alive Ruethling also recommends getting out in nature: “Being in nature totally fills me up. With no phones ringing, just the sheer silence of the outdoors, I am invigorated. Being alone with no outside stimuli allows things to trickle up for me that otherwise might have been silenced.” The change of scenery, the quiet, the solitude…all potential stimuli for refilling your creative well when it runs dry.

Levenger’s Leveen likes to change his scenery too, drawing inspiration from other creative learning environments…a “new indoors.” Recently he toured Nike’s design facility and met with the sneaker brand’s global creative director. “I was struck with how uncanny our seemingly totally unrelated design needs were,” Leveen says. What “new indoors” environment can you learn from?


Phil Minix, president of Ozark, MO-based multititle mailer Astral Direct, wishes there was a waterproof notepad for his shower. “I am always amazed at how many thoughts come to me when I am not in the office but in the shower,” he says. “Solutions to a problem, something we should be testing on the Web, you name it! I wish I could record all those thoughts somehow.”

My creative ideas seem to flow freely at high altitude. I already live at almost 8,500 feet above sea level in the Colorado mountains, but when I am on a plane flying 35,000-plus feet through the clouds, ideas flow….on many topics. I quickly jot all of these meandering thoughts on a nontechie yellow pad and at the end of the flight feel like I’ve had so much unplanned but productive moodling time!


For some creative thinkers, solitude is inspirational. Others enjoy the company of like minds. Minix, for one, considers himself an “external processor” and enjoys tapping into others. “I’m much more creative around other people, especially those who like playing off one another,” he says. “One good, interesting, or even silly thought moves everyone to another and another, and eventually you have something no one would have thought of on their own.” Do you have your own “creative board of directors” for when you’d like to brainstorm?

Or maybe it’s a “board of different souls” — not just a few individuals from different industries or professions who help you see things through a new lens but independent thinkers who are risk-takers themselves…different souls from all ages and stages and walks of life. Whether you meet with this “board” formally or get together on an ad hoc basis or simply for one-on-one lunches, you’ll gain creative refreshment by surrounding yourself with people outside of your daily silo.

So be good to yourself and up your inspiration quotient. Come alive! Stay alive! The world — and your brand — needs you.

Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a Black Forest, CO-based strategic consulting firm specializing in creative branding and merchandising.