Creativity and Open Source

A lightly adapted transcript from Sara Cannon’s WordCamp US speech “Creativity and Open Source.”

What is creativity?

Some people might describe creativity as that spark or idea, the solving of a problem in a unique manner, an original methodology, or something that has yet to be created. Others might describe creativity as something you have or you don’t have. For example, either you’re “a creative” or you are not. To be clear, when I say creative, I am not referring to being “artistic.” Instead, I am speaking towards the ability to open our minds to possibility and open up ourselves to new ways of thinking.

I believe that everyone is born with the ability to be creative.

As children, we were all inherently creative but we learned to inhibit ourselves. We learned to stifle and constrain our actions and thoughts in order to conform to society. Those of us that have learned how to break down these self-taught creative barriers are considered to be creative but in reality, we all are creative. Yes, creativity comes easier for some and not others. But I really believe that we all take our own creative input for granted. A big way that you can see this inherent creativity at work is in improv comedy.

Creativity and Improvisation

If you have ever done improv or have been to an improv show, you know it’s quite an experience. All the barriers to creative thought are taken down, and there’s a certain amount of vulnerability that leads to honesty and humor. In improv, the most important rule is the idea of the Agreement.

The agreement is that you take whatever is said, whatever happens to you, whatever is thrown in your direction, and you accept it at face value as truth. The creativity comes in after accepting your fate. You mentally say “yes, … and” and continue the dialogue from there.

“Yes, … and” is the key to being creative in improv. This is actually an exercise that comedians do. They say “yes, … and” to each other rather than “no… actually.” Saying “yes, … and” paves the way to creative thought and therefore good comedy.

Here is an example of the “yes, … and” being used in dialogue.


Now, I’m not an improv comedian, but I can see in this example how the “yes, … and” opens up creative channels that lead to new thoughts. Improvisation, the “yes, … and,” is all about positivity. If we were always saying “no, …actually” and were not sticking to the rule of the agreement, creativity is stifled. Here is an example:


After not being in agreement, the dialogue ends. It’s not funny and it does not lead to creativity or progression. A channel of creative thought is not opened. This is what happens when we interact with negativity instead of positivity.


Positivity is the key to creativity. If we are all negative and say “that won’t work, that won’t work, that is a bad idea”, we stifle ideas. Instead, saying “YES, I get the concept. AND what if we look at it in a way we haven’t thought of yet” leads us to open up our ideas. We become open to new thought and creative channels. Positivity leads us to this new creative way of thinking.

Creativity and Science

We can see this type of positivity at play in science. Science can seem like such a sterile and technical field. Hypothesis, method, results, data, labs, papers. Scientists are constantly analyzing and collecting data.

Where does positivity and creativity fit in the world of science? I asked this question to my friend Luke McKay who is a scientist. He has a grant from NASA to study microorganisms in extreme heat conditions. This data will be helpful in the future to find out if there could be life on hot planets. Luke says that he wants to be known as a “creative” scientist. Much like improve comedy, when presented with a problem, Luke wants to be the scientist to say “yes, … and” and continue the exploration.

Scientists are trained nay-sayers. They are constantly proving things false instead of true. But, a creative scientist does not see a dead end. A creative scientist sees a jumping point for exploration of the unknown. This POSITIVITY makes a scientist creative. It sparks creative thinking and makes a scientist better at their trade. It is quite beautiful.

Open Data

Another thing that is important to scientists like my friend Luke is open data. The more data that scientists publish, the more information scientists have to base their experiments on. The more open data, the more creativity, innovation, and advancement can happen. This is the exact same thing for everyone.

As creators, the more people post up their work, their code, their methods, their thinking, and their words: the more others can use it as a springboard for innovation, advancement, and collaboration.

It really is a beautiful thing.

Creativity and Vulnerability

Putting your ideas out there makes you vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is something that is scary. We might say to ourselves,

  • “What if my code is embarrassing?”
  • “What if my idea is a flop?”
  • “What if my design idea is a bad user experience?”
  • “What if I share what I’ve been working on and it makes me seem less intelligent?” or
  • “What if people view my work as sub-par?”

There is a lot of vulnerability in sharing.

At WordCamp Birmingham, the last conference I spoke at, I opened up and shared our creative process as an agency. I laid out all of our methodologies for our discovery and design phases. It’s a vulnerable feeling. You have doubts like “What is my process is archaic?” or “What if there are better processes out there and mine looks un-intelligent?” Opening up yourself is very vulnerable.

But I’m going to tell you, vulnerability leads to greatness. You have to be willing to show potential weakness in the present in order to gain long-term success.

This is what is called a growth mindset.

Now, don’t get me wrong, vulnerability can lead to failure. Failure is tough, but it is part of the journey. None of us want to fail. We are all scared of it.

However, being vulnerable and failing is all part of the path to success. We need to be resilient in the face of failure, embrace it, and learn from it.

Practicing the Craft

Creativity also comes from practicing your craft.

I have a friend who is a great artist and has made so many paintings. He is continuously practicing and continuously making. Some of his paintings are experimental failures. But out of the thousands that he makes, there are so many that are absolutely beautiful and spectacular. He would not have made these incredible works of art had he not experimented, practiced, and made the pieces he failed at.

Failure is part of practicing your craft. Success comes from putting yourself out there, being vulnerable, failing, and then learning from it.

Success comes from picking yourself back up and doing greater things. This leads to creative confidence.

Creative confidence is not something that you are born with. You are born with creativity, but not with the confidence to unleash it naturally. It comes out of being vulnerable and it comes out of practice. If you shape your mindset around positivity and being a “yes, … and” type of person, you are continuously opening up channels of creative thought. If you look at problems creatively instead of always saying “no, …actually,” you build up the confidence that you can look at things differently. You train yourself to know that there is always another point of view.

Creativity and Collaboration

Collaboration plays a huge role in creativity and in open source. You know how they say no man is an island? Think about it. We are all building on the shoulders of others.

I want to mention two types of collaboration here: passive and active.

Passive Collaboration

Passive collaboration is something that is always happening whether you like it or not. We are always taking inspiration from others in our work. We build on other people’s ideas, take inspiration from others, and work towards betterment. Someone had to design the first ghost button, someone had to code the first theme based on the REST API. Someone had to be the first one to use a certain technique before it became a standard. We are all collaborating passively with each other and are building upon each other’s ideas. It’s how progress is made.

Active Collaboration

What about active collaboration?

Well, what if we weren’t all just looking around and building upon what we see. What if we actively worked together and put our creative heads together to achieve greatness? There are many places where you can see this in action.

One place I can see active collaboration is in the role of the Creative Director. Creative directors are the creative leads who work with designers, artists, copywriters, developers, sales teams, and marketers to create a vision. They oversee the creative process and give guidance, sort of like the conductor of a symphony.

I once had the great opportunity to work with Kelly Housholder on the rebranding and renaming of a website for Jones Valley Teaching Farm. Kelly was an incredible creative director. She brought together over five people to collaborate on this project: two designers to bounce ideas off each other, an incredible photographer to take the photos for the website, a copywriter to help write the copy for not only the site but the ads, and a developer to build the site. We launched the non-profit with a new name, look, site, and collateral with over five creative minds working together. Kelly could have done most of the work herself, but this type of active collaboration made the outcome better than it could have ever been.

Creativity and Open Source

Active collaboration plays a huge role in open source. As no man is an island, no open source project is either.

The whole idea is the many coming together to collaborate to make a project better. When you put your code up on GitHub, you don’t expect it to be perfect. You don’t say to yourself “Ha! I stumped them! This can not be improved on!”

Instead, open source is one big symphony, a long game, the ultimate meeting of the minds in collaboration.

It’s quite a beautiful thing and creativity plays a huge role here.

But it’s not just about projects and code. Many organizations and agencies are starting to write more about their work and share their thought processes. For example, Reading from organizations like this pushes us to do better work. They’ve opened up code and assets for free to the public. I’m really excited about this trend of transparency. Many large tech corporations are starting to be more open in their dialogue about their projects and are open sourcing their code.

Some of you might say “I’m a designer. How can I contribute?”

Open Source Your Assets

Have you ever made an icon? Put it up for free download. Automattic did this with Genericons. They released them under the GPL license and those little icons were used widely! You know you’ve downloaded other people’s work. Remember when Teehan & Lax put up for free download their high resolution apple device comps? Designers around the world used them – they were the gold standard of device comps.

You can do this too!

Open Source Your Methodology

Do you have a certain design process you go through? Share it! Because I shared my creative process, I was able to have conversations about progress and find ways for improvement.

Open Source Your Thought Process

Blog. Write. Share the logic behind your decisions. Tell people why something works and how you got there. Be vulnerable and allow others to learn from you, from both your triumphs and mistakes. Not only will people use your assets and methodology and understand it, but they will help you improve what you’ve done.

More importantly, collaborate on open source projects.Putting yourself in the mix will make you a better designer.

Learn from others, say “yes, … and” to ideas, and get involved. Step into the world of creativity and the WordPress project.

Creativity and the WordPress Project

If you pay any attention to WordPress Core, you will see many great minds actively collaborating, being vulnerable, and working together to make WordPress better. If you are already a contributor to the project, thank you. It’s not always easy to actively collaborate. There are a lot of disagreements and bumps along the way. I know it’s hard, but keep up the great work. You are literally making the world a better place.

For those of you who have yet to contribute, there’s no better day to start than now! Dive in and get your feet wet in the beauty of creative collaboration and improvisation.

Improv and Open Source

Let’s all say “yes, … and”!

Always saying “no, ..actually that won’t work, no.. actually that’s a bad idea” roadblocks in-depth creative collaboration. I’m not saying that we have to say yes to every idea. I am saying that as a community, we need to say yes to the fact that ideas have merit – and then the and is where we either build on that idea or steer it in another direction. This type of collaborative thinking can open many creative channels within our community.

In conclusion: be positive, open your mind to thinking about problems differently, put yourself out there and be vulnerable, don’t be afraid to fail, actively collaborate, and contribute to open source projects such as WordPress.

I can not wait to see all that you create. You all are going to make the world a better place and I truly believe that.

This article was written with inspiration from two great books. 1) “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All” by Tom and David Kelly of IDEO and 2) “Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert. They are great reads on creativity and opening up your mind to new ways of thinking.

The full set of Sara’s slides for this talk are up on Slideshare.

Watch the video here.

Authored By

Managing Partner / Creative Director

Sara loves design, typography, user experience, and art. She gives talks around the globe on web design, user experience, typography, and more. A seasoned designer, Sara has done work for clients such as Disney Publishing and Flickr. She loves open source, her pets, traveling, and WordPress.

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