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25 Years of Creative Whacks – An Interview with Roger von Oech

Roger Von OechRegular readers of Wishful Thinking will know that I hold the work of Roger von Oech in high esteem. Roger was one of the original sparks behind the creative revolution in business; his books and card decks, and more recently his blog and Ball of Whacks, have brought inspiration to thousands of people worldwide.

Roger’s classic A Whack on the Side of the Head is always the first book on creative thinking I recommend to clients. So when he e-mailed me a few weeks ago to let me know he had prepared a revised 25th Anniversary Edition of A Whack on the Side of the Head, I couldn’t resist asking him for an interview. Roger kindly agreed – you can read his answers to my questions below.

Regarding the book itself – if you haven’t yet read Whack, this is definitely one you should have on your creative bookshelf. It’s a thoroughly good read – funny, challenging, useful, unsettling and inspiring. If you already own a copy, then you’ll be pleased to know the new edition is still recognisably the same book, with all the old favourites still in place – but with new ideas, techniques and ‘Whacks’ added for good measure. My experience of reading the new edition was an enjoyable combination of familiarity and surprise. I was also delighted to see that I make a cameo appearance in the book – in a footnote on p.115 (I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what it’s about).

1. A Whack on the Side of the Head is a classic. Why is that?
A Whack on the Side of the Head
Roger von Oech: Whack is about the ten “Mental Locks” that prevent most people from being more creative. These locks include such beliefs as: “There’s one right answer,” “To err is wrong,” “Don’t be foolish,” Avoid Ambiguity,” and “That’s not my area.” These ideas make sense for a lot of what we do, but when we’re trying to be creative they can get in the way. Most people have an intuitive understanding of these ideas, and so it’s easy for them to think about them.

Whack has a lot of unusual and off-beat stories and anecdotes. It’s got weird drawings that capture our imagination. Also, Whack is an accessible and interactive book. People seem to like that. There are a number of exercises in it. I think that we improve our ability to be creative by using our creativity, not by being lectured at. Whack is also fun. I guess people respond to all of these things.

2. Why change a classic book?

I’ve always considered Whack to be a living book, that is, one I could update and revise over time. This 25th Anniversary Edition is actually the fourth edition I’ve done since it first came out in 1983. The last previous edition, however, was in 1998, and there were a number of insights, exercises, and stories I wanted to add and I’ve gone ahead and done so. I hope that it reaches a new generation of creative people!

In addition, my last book was Expect the Unexpected, which came out in 2001. This was a true labor of love and dealt with the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus whom I consider to be the “world’s first creativity teacher.” This book was well-reviewed but unfortunately it was published a few days before September 11, 2001 and thus, got lost in the strangeness of the post 9/11 period. (What a cosmic irony considering this book’s title!) As a consequence, I’ve taken some of my favorite Heraclitus insights and incorporated them in the new Whack. I’m very happy with the results.

3. How are you different from twenty-five years ago?

Look To The Past
At age 60 (me today), I’d like to believe that I have a little more perspective than I did when I was 35. In the intervening years, I’ve (helped) raise a family, had a successful business, and have had a few more life experiences. I think all of that enters into my tone. But, I’ve tried to keep it fun. For example, I’ve added a “Breaktime” chapter between chapters five and six. This allows the reader to “Pause for A Bit,” which is always a good thing.

4. Whack was one of the catalysts of a creative revolution in business. These days the Creative Economy and Creative Industries are all the rage, and the most admired companies are often those that excel at creativity and innovation. Was this what you had in mind?

I think that the “most admired companies” of just about any age have excelled at creativity and innovation. What’s changed though is that today there’s an expectation that a higher percentage of a company’s employees should be creative than was the case twenty-five or thirty years ago. It’s gone from maybe 3% up to 25%. This is a very good thing.

When I started doing “creativity consulting” in 1977, there were probably only four or five other people I was aware of who were doing it. It was a difficult sell to companies. Now, there are thousands (if not more) creative consultants, and business certainly seems receptive to the idea of innovation. I’d like to think that my seminars, workshops, books, and other products have played a small role in this changing creative landscape.

5. A while ago you wrote a funny post in the voice of your books, who complained that you were neglecting them in favour of blogging. How’s your relationship with your books these days? Did your experience of blogging change the way you approached re-writing Whack?

Combine IdeasI have a “love-hate” relationship with blogging and some of the other social media (such as Twitter). I felt that blogging was a big help during the 8 months I was re-doing the new “Whack.” I could test out my ideas by writing posts about them. This helped me think them through. It also allowed me to meet new people from around the world (you, for example!).

On the other hand, social media take time. For example, I have a good blogger friend who is well respected in the design and marketing communities because of his social media involvement. But the downside is that he has read only one novel in the past year.

Perhaps I’m old school, but I believe that “reading paper” – as opposed to “reading screen” – is still a worthwhile activity.

6. In an interview for the launch of the new edition of Whack you say that you’ve ‘come to appreciate more the value and importance of constraints and limits in stimulating the creative process’. What prompted this appreciation?

Probably working with companies with limited budgets – as opposed to those who could just throw lots of money and resources at a problem. I think it’s better to have a policy to “out-think” the competition than to “outspend” them.

I’ve also had this experience with my own entrepreneurial activities. This has been true whether I’ve been producing conferences or creating new products that are manufactured in China. When I have a tight constraint, it forces to think more deeply about the problem and look for alternatives.

7. Can you give me a specific example in one of your products?
Beware the UnexpectedThe “Creative Whack Pack” card deck is a good one (the same applies to the “Innovative Whack Pack” as well). Each card in the deck contains a creativity strategy, an illustration, a story that exemplifies that strategy, and finally a question for the reader to apply the strategy to a problem.

When I’m writing a book, I can take multiple paragraphs to develop and expound on a particular point. But when I was writing copy for a card’s story, and there was only room for eight or nine lines (that’s the constraint), I had to boil my thoughts down to just the basic points. The constraint forced me cut through the story’s clutter to get to the essentials. As a result, I came to understand the basic idea in a fresh way. Of course, if you cut too much, you lose the point of the story, so you have to be aware of that extreme as well. But I’ve found that adding a constraint makes me think.

8. Whack has been rightly praised as an inspiring book. I also find it quite disturbing – there’s something deeply unsettling about the way it undermines all our assumptions and replaces them with ambiguity and paradox. A bit like meeting the Sphinx. George Willet’s illustrations capture that spirit perfectly – charming, playful and slightly macabre. Do you recognise this disturbing quality in Whack, or is it just me?

I agree with you. The creative process can be incredibly messy. It’s a place where there’s no “one right answer,” and paradox and ambiguity prevail. I think one has to appreciate this when he or she enters into their own creative place. Once you’ve done it, it’s a lot easier to get your bearings.

9. Do you think the challenges facing creative people have changed significantly over the past 25 years, or are they fundamentally the same?

Think Like A KidI guess the glib answer would be, “Oh, these are the most challenging of times.” But I think it’s always challenging. Creative people of every era have had to deal with their own personal demons, and also deal with negative people, and constraints of all types (time, money, resources). And no matter who you are, you still have to be able to sell your ideas to other people. So, a lot of stuff hasn’t changed. The main limits are usually in our own heads. And that’s why a “good whack” can be beneficial to your thinking!

10. If you had to reduce the advice in the book to a single ‘Whack’ which one would you pick – and why?

I guess if I had a motto or a mantra, it would be: “Look for the Second Right Answer.” This has been my guiding principle for over thirty years.

I find that looking for the second right answer is an incredibly easy way to open my mind. For example, When I’m looking for information, this mantra tells me to go beyond the right answers that have worked in the past and look for others. When I’m trying to be creative, it playfully advises me to put my ideas in unusual contexts to give them new meanings.

When I’m evaluating concepts, it implores me not to get stuck in the negative, and not to fall in love with one particular approach. And, when I’m implementing ideas, it reminds me that if one idea doesn’t work, a different one just might, and to act accordingly.

Thanks for your interest, and best wishes to your readers.

Thank you Roger!

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If you enjoyed the interview, there’s plenty more inspiration on Roger’s blog and of course in the 25th Anniversary A Whack on the Side of the Head.

UK readers – get your copy here.

Comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the great exposure in your blog. You do a good interview! Best wishes to you and all your readers!

  2. Mark,

    As usual, an excellent post. It’s always interesting to see what questions get asked (an art in itself).

    I remember when the “Creative Whack Pack” came out because it stormed around the design community in quick time. Although I didn’t purchase any of his products, I’ve always had a mind to at some point. So yes, it’s nice to get a nudge from someone I know.

  3. Roger – my pleasure, thanks for being so generous with your time.

    Cat – I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates the art of asking questions! Not sure I’ve done it any great justice in this instance, but it’s relatively easy to think of questions around such a though-provoking subject.

  4. I’ve stuck with basic questions for interviews (mostly due to time constraints) and the zing wasn’t present like I wished.

    So after that experience (imo) the way you’ve done it is the only way to go – fall in love with your subject or interview someone you already hold an admiration for.

    It takes more time. Sure. But after reading your interview, certainly worth it.

  5. Mark – A great interview – thanks for sharing! I’m a big fan of “Whack.” – Jeff

  6. Thanks for a great interview, Mark. Roger is a pioneer in this field in every sense of the word and his influence is quite pervasive. Great stuff!

  7. Jeff, Todd – thanks glad you found it as inspiring as I did.

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  1. […] las op het weblog Wishful Thinking een heel interessant interview met old school creatief denken-guru Roger von Oech, die 25 jaar geleden het boek A Whack On The […]