Paula Scher: Chain mailing and boredom 07.01.16


People email like they used to smoke – compulsively and at every available opportunity. But at least smoking didn’t kill creativity, the Pentagram principal argues

In the past several years, I have noticed that there is an incredible interest among the general public about how creativity works. People want to know how to be creative, what conditions make creativity happen, why some people seem to be more creative than others and, mostly, is there a descriptive methodology for making creativity part of one’s everyday life.

I actually hate the question because it is really asking, “Where do ideas come from?”. We know ideas come from one’s subconscious or free association. Ideas happen when we are not really paying attention. We get ideas waking up or falling asleep, by taking a walk or taking a shower. We get them driving or sitting in traffic or in a dentist’s waiting room or standing in a ticket line and mostly by daydreaming or by simply being bored. I have never gotten a good idea trying to think one up, I usually get them by not thinking about anything to the point that there is room for them to emerge.

Recently, I noticed that I wasn’t getting as many good ideas as I used to and wondered if I had lost touch with my own creativity. So I started to pay attention to how I spent my unconscious time. With the exception of going to sleep or waking up – or the unremembered dreams in the middle – I have no unconscious time at all. It is all taken up with my email. I am not exaggerating about no down time. Some of the emails I have to read and answer right away, and some of them I have to look at and trash right away so I can make space for the new ones I will have to read and answer right away. I was late with this very essay, which I agreed to write via email, because I forgot to forward the email request and my agreement to it to my coordinator, and the email went down to the very depths of the emails-in-waiting, until I got a nice new email asking me if I needed more time to write the essay, which I did.

I find that I will stop reading emails in meetings until there is a break, at which point I pull out my iPhone and catch up on the few that came in. I never really have a friendly conversation with any people in the meeting during the break because we are all reading our emails. I read them in cabs on the way back from meetings and then, when I reach Pentagram, I rush to my computer to answer the ones that required a full paragraph response. I will work with my team for an hour and then take a needed break and catch up on those emails!

I have begun to realise that I read emails the way I used to smoke. I use them as punctuation. I read emails at the end of an event, I have an email check before the event, and every now and then I sneak out of a dinner or a cocktail party to have a little email break in the ladies’ room. And I read them in taxicabs. I can read them standing up in a subway train, I can read them crossing 42nd Street along with everyone else in the street who is reading them and I can read them in places where I was never allowed to smoke. But when I smoked I used to get ideas. I could smoke and daydream at the same time. You can’t do that with an email.

I recently swore off reading emails on Saturday. I took a drive by myself and after some withdrawal I began remembering, fantasising and suddenly solved a typographic conundrum that I had abandoned during the previous week.
Boredom is a recipe for creativity and too few of us are bored these days. It’s so hard to be bored when we all have the internet in the palm of our hands. So if you are in New York looking for creative types, the ones who have found the condition that makes creativity happen, they are the ones in the street in front of their workplaces, seemingly doing nothing, and having a smoke.

Paula Scher is a principal at Pentagram, New York, and is president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale



Paula Scher



Sergio Membrillas

quotes story

Recently, I noticed that I wasn’t getting as many good ideas as I used to and wondered if I had lost touch with my own creativity

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