Fearless polymaths: irrelevance and creativity

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In an interview with the Guardian, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, talked about a few things – Hillary Clinton in particular. But she also said something that piqued my interest:

“The young people we hire today at Condé Nast are fearless polymaths”

That’s about the fifth time I’ve heard that word in the past week. Admittedly the other four were because I used it. But I’ve had a few conversations recently, with both students and colleagues about the need, as one of my graduates advised current students before Christmas, to ‘be interesting’.

A colleague told me recently that more than one professional illustrator had advised students not to specialise, and to remain flexible, taking an interest in as much as possible and to express themselves creatively in as many ways as possible.

Wintour said the same thing in her Guardian interview:

Wintour used the opportunity to appeal to the younger generation to “not become too specialised” and instead “be intellectually free”

And

“I urge you instead to seek to be relevant, to be agile and educated.”

I would question the use of the word ‘relevant’ there – although the way she’s using it chimes with what I believe. She means ‘relevant to the world around you’, i.e. agile and educated. Sadly I’ve too often encountered students, academics and employers who say the opposite – that relevance means focus and the more focused you are the better. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being relevant, the way I think Wintour means it, requires embracing the irrelevant.

When I taught contextual studies I often had to deal with students who insisted that it was a waste of their time, it wasn’t ‘relevant’,  that they came to university to learn to be graphic/jewellery/textile designers or whatever and anything else was a distraction. But I always knew that the ones who would go on to be successful, however you might define it, were the ones who refused to put the blinkers on, or managed to take them off, and explored the wonderful world of interdisciplinarity. Irrelevance is essential to thinking and creativity.

You can’t hope to be a designer unless you know what’s going on in the world. Tim Molloy, head of strategic design at London’s Science Museum, told me a few years ago that in putting together an exhibition on Dan Dare and the Cold War, he was shocked at how little any of the young designers he was working with knew about the subject. ‘Dan Dare?’ I asked, prepared to accept that this was hardly part of popular culture today. ‘No. They don’t know what the Cold War was’ he said. He found it difficult to commission designers who didn’t know anything about the subject they were designing for.

Designers need to be polymaths. Polymaths aren’t ‘experts’ in lots of things, they just know enough about lots of things to make connections. Malcolm Gladwell calls them Mavens in The Tipping Point, one of the three types of people who are key to spreading ideas. Mavens soak up information like sponges and pass it on when they think it’s relevant, or use it when it’s useful.

An illustrator who isn’t following the news isn’t going to be very successful at producing images to accompany editorials about it. An advertiser who doesn’t know what the state of the high street is won’t be able to develop a strategy for a client. And neither will be employable in roles unrelated to their degree if all they can do, or think about, is doing design, rather than being designers.

The worst thing that ever happened to universities was when someone had the bright idea of creating disciplines, instead of allowing students to explore a range of subjects. Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, makes a compelling argument that every important innovation of the past few centuries is the result of two or more disciplines and areas of expertise coming together – the printing press and the pacemaker are good examples of this.

Sadly the introduction of fees has compounded this problem as the marketisation of education has focused students, and their parents, on ‘the return’. Education is supposed to broaden the mind. Now it narrows it. Great job, government.

It’s part of the job of every generation of academics to lament the fact that today’s students just aren’t reading enough. It goes along with questioning their taste in music (which, I’ve noticed, is particularly poor at the moment). This is no more true, I think, of students studying creative disciplines. One of the biggest myths of creative subjects like design is that they are perfect for students who don’t like reading, or aren’t ‘intellectual’ (you know, not very good at ‘proper subjects’ as one careers advisor said to me 15 years ago). It’s not true. Design is an intellectual activity – you can’t do it without thinking, and the better at thinking the better at design you’ll be. More importantly, the more stuff you know about, even at a superficial level, the more likely it is you’ll be able to think and act creatively. And the only way you can do that? Read lots, watch lots, listen lots.

Go to talks about things you’re not studying – you never know what you might hear. Read novels and biographies and popular science and psychology. Listen to music you don’t think you like because you might just find out you love it. Listen to Radio 3 and Radio 4. They make you think. Watch documentaries and dramas and movies and plays. And write, write, write. And talk, talk, talk. No one wants to employ a graphic designer who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of fonts but doesn’t know what’s happening in Syria.

Be interesting. Or, as Anna Wintour says, be a fearless polymath. You’ll be a better person for it.

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