An Interview With School of Visual Arts' Creativity Master Richard Wilde on His New Book, The Process: A New Foundation in Art and Design

Christopher Lee Nutter

Writer, media consultant, and founder, Nutter Media Insider Solutions


Disruptive ideas. Innovation. Creativity. These buzz words drive the conversations in branding, business, visual design and the arts. And all three boil down to the same pressing question -- how do you create something new?

The way we live and work today -- deferring to apps that tell us where we are, what to do, and what to think; relying on graphic design programs that can only create from pre-existing templates; deferring to precedent and familiarity; crowd-sourcing, focus-grouping and basing work on "likes" -- suggest that creating something new is achieved through what's been done before, what's familiar, what's already been other words, what's known. And that disruption, innovation and creativity happen free of struggle, risk or deferring to one's own instincts.

No artist who has created anything genuinely new would likely concur with this approach. The idea that creation and innovation and disruption come from what is familiar and safe is utterly inconsistent with my own 21 year career in publishing. None of my great creative concepts had anything to do with whether they would be "liked" or not; all happened without any technological assistance; and each was purely instinctual, at times very risky, had a great deal of struggle associated with them, and seemed to emerge into my consciousness from a place that had, up until the very 'ah ha' moment when the idea occurred, been entirely unknown to me. (And certainly no app could have produced any of them.)

And yet as anyone who studies the media discourse today on creativity or goes to school for any area in the applied arts will likely attest, creativity arising from what is in fact unknown is not, generally speaking, the headline to the story or anywhere on the syllabus.

Enter Richard Wilde.

To practically anyone in advertising or the visual arts, Richard Wilde is considered a living legend. Since becoming Chair of the Advertising and Design departments at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1971, Wilde has trained thousands of aspiring artists in his Visual Literacy course how to move into the unknown and thus be empowered with the ongoing gift of knowing where all new ideas come from, and how to tap into this place.

The result of Wilde's work speaks for itself. He is the creative genius behind many of the most famous creative geniuses of our time (see slideshow below), including former Visual Literacy students such as Broadway ad titan (Chicago, De La Guarda, Rent) Drew Hodges; music video director (Iggy Pop, Steve Winwood) Paula Greif; collage artist (The New Yorker, Time) Hanoch Piven; acclaimed book-cover designer (A Million Little Pieces, Fight Club) Rodrigo Corral; feature film director (Million Dollar Arm, Lars and the Real Girl) Craig Gillespie; Graphic designer (Chanel, Nike) Natasha Jen; and HGTV series host (Dear Genevieve) Genevieve Gorder.

And now, in his new book co-authored with his wife Judith Wilde (Professor Emeritus, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY and faculty member at the School of Visual Arts) -- The Process: A New Foundation in Art and Design (Laurence King Publishing, Summer 2015) - the Wildes share with the public their wisdom, techniques and skill sets for how to get into the unknown and create something genuinely new.

Reading Wilde's guidance for getting into the unknown can be a bit like listening to Obi-Wan Kenobi admonishing young Luke to take off his targeting computer; to let go of his conscious self and act on instinct; to, in essence, stop thinking and trust the Force.

Which would seem to be Wilde's central message to all artists, and which he sat down with me to discuss.

Richard Wilde's new book on how to get into the unknown where all creativity comes from, The Process: A New Foundation in Art and Design (Laurence King Publishing, Summer 2015).

CLN: In The Process you say Visual Literacy puts your students into the unknown. What is the unknown?

RW: At the onset, when we are very young we live in a state of wonder and questioning. This is the unknown. Before one can speak about the unknown, one must first understand what the known is.

As one becomes more socialized and educated -- through parents, relatives, friends, formal education -- one loses this extraordinary gift of openness that we all possessed as children. This loss is characterized by automatized, habitual reactions to anything that one may be confronted with. In short, one no longer responds with a sense of inquisitiveness, but reacts automatically from a learned set of predictable reactions. And it is just here where the dilemma arises which stunts creativity, where one's acquired habitual reactions now rule, and where one's trusts and beliefs adhere to socially accepted dogma. This is the baggage that stands in one's way that must be confronted. It represents the antithesis of creativity.

Yet, it is in the realm of the unknown -- which is everyone's birthright -- where the seed of creativity lies. And it is just in this state of unknowing where magic happens. The unknown can be characterized by being in a higher state of consciousness where wonder arises and becomes the gateway to one's essential being where one becomes more self-conscious. And it is this essential aspect of one's being that needs to be rediscovered. This simple fact is missed by most of humanity because it seems nonsensical to reside in one's so called bewilderment. One's reaction to this proposition is to immediately return to the known, which is comfortable and familiar but yields no original results. The impulse to begin in one's comfort zone must be overcome. This will always be a struggle, but the friction that is engendered from struggling against one's habitual nature creates the inner dynamic that opens one to becoming a creative problem solver.

CLN: How did you come about creating the method for Visual Literacy and The Process?

RW: After decades of teaching creativity (which I must say is a daunting task), and by using my studio class at SVA of 150 art students as a forum for discovery and innovation, it became clear that it (creativity) could never be taught directly. What was needed were special conditions that would set the stage where new ideas could arise. That was the birth of Visual Literacy, which is an indirect form of teaching creativity.

CLN: What happens when the artist is put into the unknown?

RW: Being put into the unknown puts one in a condition where questioning arises. Questioning should be understood as the definitive tool of problem solving that leads to new vision in the form of personal expression. One must question the given problem -- it can help jump-start the process, as well as maintain an ongoing connection to the problem.

To maintain an active mind pondering comes into play which helps sustain the creative process. Pondering can be understood by looking at a given problem from different points of view, which in turn expands questioning. Questions can function as a probe. It goes without saying that all questions live in the unknown.

Then comes playing and doodling. Doodling and playing around in the spirit of a child keeps one's learned robotic thinking at bay. It is here where original ideas begin to emerge. This is the playground where experimentation thrives.

A good example of the conditions for creativity provided in Visual Literacy is an experimental assignment -- depicted in The Process -- that pertains to visualizing 64 specific sounds.

For example, students are faced with the problem of creating a visual equivalent of the Sound Of A School Bus Filled With Children with the intent that the image would infer, suggest, or imply this very sound. How would one investigate this problem? One can certainly visualize what a school bus filled with children looks like -- which would come under the heading of the known -- but this is not what the problem calls for. What is needed is to visualize the sound of a school bus filled with children, where by necessity one is thrust into the unknown because there are no given solutions to reference.

The unknown is a place artists find themselves in when given a creative project for which no known answers exist to call upon, such as being asked to visually depict the sound of a school bus filled with children.

Here is where questioning begins. For instance, one might ask what forms, shapes, lines and colors could denote this very sound? What is its movement, its tempo? Is drama an issue to be considered? Is it a question of spontaneous imagery or carefully crafted imagery? Does it encompass dimensional space or volume? Does the sound emanate from a central focal point? Is the sound rhythmic or chaotic? Is it long, short, or fluid?

Any single one of these questions can give one entry into the problem, and when these questions are coupled with doodling and experimenting with form and color, it sets the groundwork for one to create something new. For this project, as in all of the others that appear in the book, one has to invent the solution, for it has never been done before. So the process puts the artist into the conditions where solutions unexpectedly appear.

CLN: Why did you decide to publish the work and depict Visual Literacy in The Process?

RW: Publishing the work from Visual Literacy in The Process was the way to show evidence of what the unknown can inspire one to accomplish. The hundreds of solutions for each of the 13 projects shown in The Process verify what this seemingly uncomfortable state of unknowing can produce.

Students in Visual Literacy are asked to gaze at the same cloud formation until a recognizable image appears, and then to depict this image using the cloud formation as a point of departure. The Cloud Project is a great example of how not knowing the answer to a problem beforehand helps the artist tap into great creative power.

CLN: Whom is The Process for?

RW: Although The Process is a book dealing specifically with problem solving in the realm of art and design, it's really a book for anyone who is interested in the creative process. And perhaps, in other creative disciplines (writing, business, music, advertising, etc.), this study might just very well be the condition needed to open one's creative quest.

CLN: Do you think technology is to blame? And what do you think technology's net effect on creativity has been?

RW: The question about technology's effect on creativity can be equated to the saying, "Eat Or Be Eaten". Technology can serve in the creative process providing it is put in its proper place. It must be the servant, not the master.

CLN: So what you're saying is that Visual Literacy (as depicted in The Process) gets your students as well as artists and designers, etc., to unlearn what they've learned -- to de-educate them so to speak.

RW: Yes, as Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up." We must become children again who reside in a world of spontaneity, openness and risk taking.

In The Sound Project students are directed to visually represent dozens of different sounds, including that of a jackhammer, an assignment that definitely requires an openness to new ideas and a willingness to take risks in order to solve.

CLN: Can you create something new and also think about whether it's going to get "likes" or not? Is it possible to trust your own instincts and also wonder whether what you create will be liked or not?

RW: Whether something will be "liked" or not has no place in the creative process. One needs to take an impression at every stage of the process as a guiding force. The act of taking an impression is to look objectively at what has been created, and use its directives to further the problem solving process. "Likes" is a social phenomenon that comes after the act of creation.

In The Process readers are privy to how Wilde's students at SVA solved problems like being prompted to produce visual renderings of New York City hostility using taxi cab imagery....whether the solutions would be "liked" or not was not a part of the assignment.

CLN: The Process is a demonstration of your method in a course using visual design. How can people in areas other than the applied arts -- writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc., -- get themselves into the unknown?

RW: The process for creating anything new is to go against one's habitual nature and to ask meaningful questions regardless of the field. For instance, just changing your posture while you work can change the way you think because it gets you out of the known. Working with a group if you normally work alone can achieve the same effect. Just doing the opposite of what you would normally do can put you into the unknown as well.

CLN: What are your students like when they enter Visual Literacy and what are they like when they leave?

RW: When students enter my visual literacy class, although they come with a wish to learn, they also bring their tensions, fear of failure, fear of the blank short the usual baggage that we all carry.

The School of Visual Arts creates an environment for experimental teaching to thrive. In my Visual Literacy course students learn how to question everything. Questioning is the path to becoming a real student, coupled with the rigorous experience of solving the projects shown in The Process. They leave having learned how to embrace real struggle, which is one of the keys for empowerment in the arts as well as a lifetime career.

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