|Around 1800, Charles Barbier was an artillery officer in Napoleon’s army. One of the problems he noticed was the soldiers kept getting shot at night. This was largely because, in order to read messages, they’d use a lamp. Naturally, enemy snipers would use this as a target. |
So Barbier decided they needed a safer way to communicate without light. What if they could feel the message instead of seeing it? And so he began to develop ecriture nocturne – night writing. He used a pattern of 12 dots in a rectangular shape, for each letter. It worked but it was slow and complicated for soldiers to remember. The army rejected it.
Then a 12-year-old student heard about it. He’d been blinded playing with an awl in his father’s workshop when he was a child. In 1821 he met Barbier and studied his system of night writing. The student agreed with the army, it was too complicated. But it didn’t need to be, the basic idea was good, so he simplified it. He changed the 12 dots for each letter to just six, and instead of replicating the letters of the alphabet, it took the form of shorthand.
It took him three years, but by the time he was 15 years old he had a working method of reading without sight. They boy’s name was Louis Braille, and the system he invented has been in worldwide use ever since. It allows blind people to read as fast as sighted people. In the US today, about 85,000 people are totally blind.
Of those who’ve learned Braille, 90% are employed. Of those who haven’t, only 33% are employed. Braille took something that was invented for one purpose and turned it into a completely different purpose.
That’s two different kinds of creativity.
Mike Greenlees once told me he studied pure maths at university. I said I couldn’t do that because I’m no good with numbers. Mike said pure maths wasn’t to do with numbers, pure maths was more about discovery and abstract thinking – maths for its own sake. Applied maths was when someone used these discoveries for a practical purpose. One type of person discovers something, a different type of person applies it.
And I thought, that could apply to creativity. Pure creativity would be what you find in art galleries: creativity for its own sake. Applied creativity would be what we do: creativity with a specific purpose. We might take a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of opera and use it to stand out and convey a message. For us it isn’t beauty for its own sake, it has to have a reason. If it doesn’t have a reason, it’s just decoration. Then it’s failed at being applied creativity by pretending to be pure creativity.
Applied creativity has to do a job. Knowing the difference is what makes us effective. Because nothing that runs in our world should be pure creativity.
Steve Jobs was one of the most creative people in recent years. But Steve Jobs didn’t invent a single thing. He built the most valuable brand in the world by understanding the difference between pure creativity and applied creativity.