I keep coming back to the idea of tools that unlock creativity in people who don’t ordinarily think of themselves as creative. Yesterday, some of my scattered thoughts on the subject spontaneously crystallized into something resembling a coherent argument: successful tools of this kind tend to differ from successful “real” or “professional” creative tools in a number of fairly consistent ways.

How, exactly, are successful creative tools for non-creators designed? Here’s one approach that seems to work fairly reliably. Take an existing “professional” creative tool; aggressively simplify its user interface; remove features left and right; rip out pieces of other, completely unrelated tools and weld them on. Then put the resulting monstrosity in front of an audience of total beginners: people who’ve never even heard of the original tools you’re ripping off.

If you can, avoid marketing what you’ve made as a creative tool; that’s likely to attract the wrong sort of people, the ones who have heard of the real tools. These people will thoroughly review every nook and cranny of your creation, draw up a detailed side-by-side comparison between it and the “real thing”, and then conclude, as loudly as possible, that no one should waste their time on the kiddie toy you’ve slapped together. Instead, they’ll say, all aspiring creators should invest in learning the One True Tool – the one that everyone uses out here in the Real World.

These people don’t know what they’re talking about. They can’t see the ways in which the One True Tool, and the community of vocal proponents that surrounds it, are at best indifferent and at worst outright hostile to new users. They don’t realize that you’re aiming to recruit people who don’t think of themselves as creators, who don’t even see themselves as creative yet, because everything around them is constantly screaming that Making Stuff Is For Other People Who Are Fundamentally Unlike You.

So it’s better to disguise your aims, to hide in plain sight. Don’t call what you’ve built a tool for 3D Modeling or Game Development or Musical Composition; these are things that your latent users do not yet believe themselves to be capable of doing. Wrap your tool in a game, make it fun to play with, and do whatever you can to shield players from the kind of people who enjoy holding others to strict standards of Excellence. Present your creation as an Excellence-Free Zone, a safe space for glorious trainwrecks. Encourage people to make messes, and then surprise them with the realization that their messes consistently turn out ever so slightly better than they expect.

Impose constraints. Perhaps require the user’s creations to play some functional role within a complex simulated world; perhaps place a hard upper bound on creative complexity. Do so not only because constraints breed creativity, but also because externally imposed limitations give people a scapegoat to blame when their creations don’t live up to their own high expectations and a clear stopping point that protects against the characteristic failure mode of perfectionism: eternal diminishing-returns polishing of a single, perpetually unfinished piece. Perfectionists don’t know how to say “good enough”, but they understand what it means when the voice of authority says “done”. Pencils down!

Suppress any remaining qualms you may have about the quality of the things that people will use your tool to make. If all goes well, your users will unleash a torrent of crap upon the world. This torrent of crap is a sign that you have succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Think of it, perhaps, as a trail of exhaust, tracing the path taken by the rocket of creative empowerment in the wake of its launch.

Strive, above all, to recapture the spirit of the early internet. Of Mario Paint. Of GREAT ARTIST. Of Minecraft. Of Spore.

Addendum: No less than a couple hours after putting the finishing touches on this post, I stumbled upon a recent article by Anna Anthropy that touches on a lot of these same themes. If you found any part of this post even remotely interesting, you should go read that article as well.


Affording Play is an irregularly updated blog by Max Kreminski about humans, computers, creativity, and play.