The first thing I noticed in Los Angeles was the horizon.
The landscape was wide.
A wide expanse of mountains.
A wide sprawl of city.
A wide stretch of ocean.
All of this “wide” filled me with a sense of possibility.
This was back in the 90’s when there was nothing but open marsh land in Playa del Rey. And nothing to obstruct the view save for a faded blue airplane hangar where Howard Hughes built his literal big idea — the Spruce Goose.
To the North, rose the Santa Monica Mountains.
West, the Pacific Ocean.
To the East, the San Gabriel’s, East LA and somewhere very far off in the distance New York.
That’s where I came from. I left New York because it was too vertical. I couldn’t see the horizon.
I was low man on the totem pole in my career. There was always a guy on top of a guy on top of a guy. (And in those days, yeah, it was always a guy.)
There was no way up. So I opted for a way out. To LA. It was transforming, to say the least.
Los Angeles and its broad vistas taught me the power of “Horizontal Thinking.” The power to look at things in landscape form.
Horizontal Thinking is about thinking big and wide. Seeing far into the distance. There’s a sense of optimism and possibility. And an ability to make unexpected connections.
I’ve been back in New York for some time now and “vertical thinking” is creeping in again.
But it’s not from the city. It’s from all these screens.
Ever since Covid, we are not working horizontally. We are working vertically and I believe it’s making us less creative.
Working horizontally inspires you to make better ideas and connect them to more places.
Allow me to explain.
Recently, I was on yet another Zoom/Teams presentation. About 8 slides in I was lost on the idea. Too many slides. Walls of words. Nearly impossible to feel the energy.
What made matters worse is that as the presentation continued there was something interesting on slide 11. And I thought it could work even better with the notion on slide 17. Or wait, was it slide 18? I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see them together horizontally — in front of me.
Side-by-side is way more effective than slide-by-slide.
By the way, is the human brain more wired to be creative — horizontally? After all, going back to our Homo Sapien-ancestors who roamed the Earth, there were no skyscrapers. There was clear line-of-sight. Mesas and plains. Wide swaths of land that could be harvested. And, critically, needed to be scoured to identify bigger, faster and more ferocious creatures. Survival may be the best inspiration for creativity.
As a creative, I didn’t think vertically. And my ideas and career accelerated when I learned how to think horizontally.
It started with ideas on paper, then pinned up on walls or gator foam boards with silver push pins.
You’d put up your visuals, scripts, and out of home boards. And when you had multiple ideas in front of you that’s when the magic happened.
You could see connections. You could connect dots. You could take a tagline from one campaign on your left and marry it to a visual on the right.
You could gang several ideas from several parts of the wall and put them together to form one campaign.
You could take a single idea and spread it out across an entire ecosystem from a print ad to television to digital to retail.
You could also get a sense of scale. If an idea wasn’t jumping out from the wall, what chance did it have of standing out in the real world?
Working horizontally inspired you to make better ideas and connect them to more places.
This was the Chiat Way.
This was “Horizontal Thinking.”
There’s some science to this. In fact, the legendary physician and psychologist Edward de Bono created an entire school of thought based on the notion of “Lateral Thinking.”
In short strokes, Lateral Thinking is about ideas that emerge when you think outside of the vertical logic and established patterns our brains love to create. It’s literally thinking outside the box. Or in this instance, thinking outside the rectangle; and more precisely, thinking outside the screen.
“Horizontal Thinking” is akin to this. It’s throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what other ingredients can be mixed and mashed together to create an even better meal.
And to run further with this culinary analogy, you actually have to cook the spaghetti, take it out of the pot and throw it at the wall. (You can’t simply watch someone else do it on TikTok).
This kind of Horizontal Thinking has all but disappeared and as a result, the world’s creative output seems to be suffering.
When’s the last time you saw a truly great and unexpected ad campaign? In Hollywood, it’s sequels and prequels reigning over new origin stories. Where is the next VW Beetle? Or Beatles in music?
Right now, Converse is still more creative than the Metaverse.
Lately, I’ve taken to note cards.
I scribble ideas down and lay them out across my desk.
I’ll often share these on screen. And try to get other folks to start scribbling, too.
It sometimes works.
But I keep coming back to the horizon.
As Tom Petty sang,
“Into the great wide open.
Under them skies of blue.
Out in the great wide open.
A rebel without a clue.”
Only this rebel knows that ideas flourish when you can see them.
Left to right.
East to West.
Across the horizon.
Rob Schwartz is the Chair of the TBWA New York Group and an executive coach who channels his creativity, experience and wisdom into helping others get where they want to be. This was originally posted on his Substack, RobSchwartzHelps, where he covers work, life, and creativity.
Banner photo by author (via Midjourney).