Innovation insights from the masters of creativity: A look at Salvador Dali

This week, we dive inside the mind of Salvador Dali - the master of surrealism. In this blog post, we'll be exploring what innovation teams can learn from one of history’s most creative characters.

Jamie Carmichael
by Jamie Carmichael

Creativity has nothing to do with inventing new things. It’s about blending existing ideas together to create something that feels new. In order to do this, we need to collect the pieces together to give us something to work with. If you’re going to make a spaceship out of Lego, first you need the parts from all the other sets you’ve bought.

This idea is important, because it gives us significant insights into Dali’s creative process, as well as helping us understand what we can get out of studying him. If we want radical change in our businesses, we need radical ideas. And for that, you need to enable your team to think radically. We’ve got to get out into the fringes of thought and pull our ideas from beyond the footpaths of the rational mind.

Let’s step into Dali’s imaginarium and see if we can learn a thing or two about how to dream up big ideas.

Give your innovation team the keys to creativity

Much of Dali’s creative process was based around stripping away logical parts of his thought patterns to allow for new, surrealist relationships to form. This is one reason why his paintings are recognisably surreal; we’ve all visited these bizarre landscapes before on the cusp of sleeping and waking. Famously, Dali would sleep with a key in his hand whilst dreaming of new monstrosities to paint.

The symbolic relevance of the key should not be underestimated. In order to start the creative process moving, our brains need a point of focus with which to blend new ideas. That’s why every idea cloud you’ve ever seen starts with one big idea in the middle. If you’ve ever asked a crowded room for ideas with a blank board in front of you, you’ll understand how hard it is to get things moving without that initial theme.

For Dali, the key was his locus – it opened the door to his dreamscapes. For us, it’s a reminder to never go into a brainstorm cold.

Key takeaway: If you’re managing a creative brainstorm with other stakeholders, it’s much easier to elicit ideas if you give your team a place to start first. At Idea Drop, we often start an idea cloud with three or four ideas already on the software. That way, users have a mental launch point to start their own creative process. Give it a go and see how your results improve.

Understand how your environment affects creative output

Dali was famous for using an age-old problem solving technique previously employed by inventors like Thomas Edison. Sleeping upright in a chair, he would suspend his dream key over a tin plate on the floor. As he lost consciousness, the key would fall from his hand, striking the plate and waking him. The images that he saw in his mind at that point were perfect for his paintings.

We’re not suggesting you all have a nap in the boardroom. However, this process underscores the relationship between relaxation and creative openness. In one of our previous articles, we talked about how creating pressure-free spaces to brainstorm can help to move your mind beyond the more obvious connections. Even the slightest touch of pressure or anxiety can leave you questioning your ideas and judging them before they have room to evolve. Build a space to relax and let new combinations of ideas emerge.

Key takeaway: Think carefully about the environment in which you’re asking your innovation team for creative ideas. Are they feeling pressured or relaxed? Do they feel they’ll be judged for their ideas? A relaxed, judgement-free zone focussed on the quantity of ideas is best for an initial brainstorm. You can asses ideas for their quality at a later stage.

Create an innovation platform to blend ideas

Dali’s obsession with dreams led him, perhaps inevitably, to the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that dreams and imagination were essential, rather than marginal, component of the human consciousness – an idea that was radical at the time and one that fascinated Dali. Dali consumed most of Freud’s writings and even travelled to Vienna several times to meet him, though he never managed to do so.

This relationship between Dali and Freud is revealing. It blurs the lines between the bizarre, creative aspects of his work and grounds them in popular (though, now, largely debunked) scientific theory – two fields that many would believe to be distinctly separate. The lesson that the worlds of science, business and creativity shouldn’t be separated, and that, actually, they work together rather well, is one that we can all learn from. As Andy Warhol once said:

“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Key takeaway: Think of ways that you can take technology, science and business ideas into the creative space with you. Print out articles you’ve read or bring products and papers into your brainstorm. These items provide your team with a platform to combine ideas and make connections you may not have thought of before. The more things you bring with you, the better, as everyone will draw inspiration from different items. You can even draw each of these inspirational objects together with a specific theme or aesthetic if you’d like to set the trajectory of your session in a certain direction.

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