The Daily Heller: Creativity is a Process

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Leopoldo Leal is a graphic designer and professor in Brazil. Recently he published Processo de Criação em Design Gráfico: Pandemonium (Creative Process in Graphic Design: Pandemonium), the result of his Ph.D. dissertation. He based this vibrant and inspiring study on the eight phases of the creative process described by the American psychologist Robert Keith Sawyer. As Leal says, "these phases constitute the structure of the project, and provide clarity and understanding of the entire creative process, which does not occur in a linear standard."

Creativity is one of the slippery "art" words. Scientific studies that attempt to quantify methods and formulae for achieving it must be approached with care. But when I saw Leal's book, I had a gut sensation he was onto something. Trust the gut, if only as a reason to question the questions. I've asked a few questions of Leal, triggered by his fascinating work.

What inspired you to start Pandemonium in the first place?

After working for many years in some design agencies, I realized that the creative process became a production line where the results were generally predictable, without much room for experimentation and chance. Then, my initial studies were about chance and experimentation in graphic design. I found out that the creation process is chaotic, confused and nonlinear. A pandemonium.

Initially, the project was not yet called Pandemonium. In one of the readings, I came across the article “Pandemonium: a Paradigm for Learning” by Oliver G. Selfridge, who imagined the mind as a set of little demons, in which each would recognize a part of an element, and together, all of these demons could recognize an element in its entirety. A bottom-up operation, with the lesser demons communicating with the higher demons until they reach a definition. Selfridge wrote this article after reading the book Paradise Lost by John Milton, who coined this word to designate the council of demons (pan=all) (demonium=demon).

Our minds operate in a chaotic and complex way, with information and experiences in constant connection. It is not possible to believe that the creation process is linear or the result of an epiphany. It follows a chaotic model of which we do not have complete clarity or control over how processes will develop; a journey that starts with small signals that are detected by our senses. Such signals are like the little demons described by Selfridge, working in our minds, taking and bringing information and bumping into new data. These signals get stronger as the project is tracked and worked, outlining an increasingly clear image.

There are two levels working in this book at once. One is the visual sensation, the other is the intellectual component. How do these (and more) fuse together into the single entity?

I believe both approaches are connected. I started my research by doing several readings, talking to [notable] designers, and then I decided to produce some experiments that made me start new readings and reflections again. In my point of view, doing it is also a way of thinking and reflecting on the work.

I decided to make these graphic experiments to live the creative process, and so the writing becomes a consequence of the process itself. The research ended up becoming a notebook of experiments, experiences and stories that are connected with everything I've lived, experienced, read, drawn and written.

This began as the outcome of your Ph.D. What was the reason for you to seek the degree, and what doors will it open for you?

The Ph.D. was a personal challenge about producing something big, relevant, intriguing—research based on readings, interviews and experiments. I’ve learned a lot about teaching and designing, and today I feel more complete with a huge background and reflection ability.

After all these years of study (I started the research in 2014), I truly believed that many doors in the area of teaching and research would open for me, but the current situation in Brazil resulted in an investment decrease in higher education.

In another hand, my dissertation being awarded first place in the renowned i Brazilian award (Museu da Casa Brasileira) caught the attention of the publishers, and in a short time it became a book—by the way, with an affordable price to design students, allowing more people to have access to it. Also, with the pandemic and the fast digitalization of education, I could do a digital roadshow into all the main universities in Brazil, from North to South, presenting my research.

Do you believe there are formulas for making the creative process work?

There are no magic formulas to be more creative. The more repertoire and experience we have in many different fields, the more refined our look will be, that thirst for knowledge. Just with repertoire, we are able to identify good design opportunities, even in materials that would be discarded. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” But how to acquire graphic design experience? Designing, manipulating materials and generating a large number of visual ideas.

Of course, there are methods and tools for generating ideas that help to guide us, which are widely used and presented in design courses. They are important and extremely recommendable for designers, but it is important to understand that methods or tools are not the answer for a project, they are
approaches that help in generating ideas. The answer is in the journey.

In Pandemonium, I see and feel a lot of this raw "creativity," but is it the result of a process or simply your internal wiring, what I’d call intuition?

My research considers intuition as a part of the journey. I understand that intuition manifests itself from our experience, where we often don’t know how to explain precisely why we choose certain paths or references. The creation takes place from the people we talk to, the trips we do, the exhibitions we see, the films we watch and the teachers we learned with. Design is closely related to life. We are one person, both at work and in our personal life.

An example of this is the experiment with punch cards in the Problem chapter. My first job was in a textile factory where I used to clock in with these punch cards. Recently in a stationery shop close to my house, I found a package of these punch cards to sell; it was an amazing encounter, the cards I used in my first job. I bought it and left it for some time in my studio, not knowing what to do with it. One day I decided to develop a typographic system from an unusual grid. That's when I decided to use it. Certainly, if I had never worked in this factory at 17 years old, I wouldn't have experimented with punch cards.

You speak of Milton's metaphor of hell in Paradise Lost as akin to the creative, what I call "labor." Would you say that creativity is a kind of imprisonment, or attempt at escape from hell?

I would call the creative process in graphic design as a journey, which the designer often feels is hell, as anguish and anxiety will always be part of this process; even for experienced designers, this feeling always manifests itself. But when it comes to an interesting idea to be investigated, is how to feel in paradise; it's delicious, but sometimes … when we looked at what we thought was magnificent, we identified that idea was not so good and headed back to hell.

The most interesting part of the creation process is this journey from hell to paradise. Always being in paradise is not good, because it is very comfortable; the good thing is to be in motion, going from hell to paradise, and then identify that you have not left hell, and so the trajectory restarts again. This is the learning circle.

If you are interested in a copy of the book, contact Leal at