A psychologist, the tube and the trouble with narrow definitions

Jordan Peterson is a well known clinical psychologist and self-help author. One of his favourite topics involves the nature of creativity as a personality type. His ideas are well thought out, while framed within his own North American cultural biases. As a result he sees creative people as liberal and non-creativity as a conservative trait. Moreover, he proposes that pursuing your creativity is a very high-risk strategy in life, which he sees as the hallmark of a more liberal mindset.

Creativity is far more prevalent in our lives than most of us think

The problem with his analysis is not that his conclusions are wrong, but that they seem to be based on a very narrow view of creativity. From the way he describes it, Peterson obviously thinks that creativity is uniquely found in artistic expression.

For him, an architect would be creative whereas an engineer would not. A fine artist would be creative but not a draughtsman. He regards it as axiomatic that going to work every day is impossible for anyone of a creative bent. This is not my experience after thirty years of working in the creative industries.

In the early 90s I had the luck to work in the same office as the extraordinary graphic designer, Alan Fletcher. Fletcher understood creativity to be the ability recognise connections that others simply do not see. However, he also recognised that making those links was a lot more commonplace than people realise. In his own words "everyone is a designer" and he was right.

This includes you. Your home, your workspace, your clothes and your entire lifestyle require some degree of creative input. Irrespective of whether or not you are flouting conventions, adhering to norms or subverting expectations, you are still making choices about self-expression or simply solving pragmatic issues in creative ways.

Peterson's idea of artistic creativity can also be misleading. An example would be an amateur painter, who is skilled with a brush, and spends his days faithfully reproducing landscapes. Despite appearances, there would be nothing remotely creative about such a person. Artistic yes, in a reductionist sense, but not creative.

So how does this link to the London Underground?

The Tube map, or map of the London Underground, is a creative solution that lies entirely outside of self-expression. Despite the fact that it displays a phenomenal grasp of visual acuity and technical skill, it is representational only as means of wayfinding. If you placed the tube map alongside a picture of hay wains rendered in oil on canvas, we know which one Jordan Peterson would pick as an example of creativity.

In fact, the Tube map perfectly represents the broader idea of creativity because it involves connections that are not immediately apparent. The map grew out of a need to render a complex system in simple, navigable terms. This is never an easy task and it would have proved to be impossible if not for a pure creative leap.

To understand this we have to examine the London Underground itself. The Tube originated in the Victorian era as a series of railways run by separate companies. As a result, a composite map was not even considered until the early years of the 20th century.

The map above was commissioned in 1907 by the five companies who were operating the various lines at that point. It should be noted that even though this early version of the Underground was only a fraction of the complex system that it would become, it was still an incredibly difficult task to represent it realistically against a physical map of London. It's a beautiful piece of work, both in design and execution, but it highlights the problems of rendering a complex system visually.

In the late 1920s Harry Beck, a draughtsman working for the London Underground, made the conceptual leap away from a geographical maps to a topographical one.

Whereas geography concerns itself with physical spaces as a whole, topography is more concerned with the individual features of such a space. Beck realised that passengers were not interested in the actual physical distance between stations, only how many stops they would travel and where they should change trains.

His second leap was to adapt a completely different discipline to his needs. He began to lay out the underground system as though it were an electrical diagram, representing each station as a part of a system and not in its actual geographic position. He incorporated the existing colour coding of lines in order to allow passengers to plan their journeys more effectively. Finally he was able to use his draughtsman skills to realise his ideas.

The Tube map seems obvious to us now. However, when Beck took the idea to his managers they rejected it on the basis that is was too radical. Despite this early setback, once tube travellers got their hands on some test prints there was no going back. Public approval of the map was almost universal.

By 1933, the Tube map was being mass produced for the London public and has been ever since. The map's design has easily accommodated all of the extensions and additions to the Tube in the nine decades since it was first introduced. Another testament to it's effectiveness is the fact that it has been adopted as the template for virtually every municipal railway project across the globe.

Why is this important

Creativity is a huge factor in human development. It manifests in writers expressing their innermost landscapes, in teachers communicating with students, with engineers developing systems to bring architects' visions to life, and with medical professionals searching for solutions within a pandemic.

These are just a few scattered examples of how creativity is intrinsic to progress.

We cannot, as a species, afford to narrow creativity down to artistic self-expression. It won't do us any favours as and when we face the challenges to come.

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