Creative Exhaust

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak TEDx Pittsburgh this April. I talked about how the Web has transformed the creative process and unlocked new opportunities for collaboration and openness. The video was just released, so check it out:

The Evolution of Creativity

Generating and distributing creative work used to be an elite endeavor, where only those with access to expensive resources and distribution channels had the power to disseminate their thoughts and ideas into the world. And because of the cost involved, typically only the highly-polished, final pieces of work were circulated, leaving a veil of mystery around the process leading up to the finished product. That perpetuated the mistaken notion that only certain “special” people were worthy enough to create.

The Web changed all that. Its ubiquitous, royalty-free, decentralized nature has radically transformed who can create, what we create, and how we create.

Tools like WordPress, Tumblr, Medium, and many others make publishing our thoughts and ideas easier than ever. We collectively pool our knowledge together on sites like Wikipedia. We have tools like Stack Overflow, forums and Twitter to make conversation and problem-solving easier. Tools like Google Docs allow multiple authors to collaborate on the same document at the same time. Version control tools like Git allow multiple developers to work on code at the same time without worrying about stepping on each others’ toes. And platforms like Github make it dirt simple to publicly share code for people to use, modify, fix, extend, and share.

The Web and the tools we use are causing a shift to a place where openness and sharing is the rule, not the exception.

Open By Default

I think the Web community understands this so well because they’re helping create the very medium that allows us all to be so open in the first place. We rely upon this intense collaboration and openness in order for us to do our work. Every day we directly benefit from thousands of people who stay up late after putting their kids go to bed to publish their thoughts, ideas, code, and materials, all without expectation of financial gain or fame. Chris Coyier’s license for CSS-Tricks sums up this mentality perfectly (do yourself a favor and read it).

Why do this? Why give away all your knowledge, tips, tricks, resources, of your creative process? At face value, it appears those who openly share are giving away their competitive edge, but it turns out the benefits of sharing are many. Collaboration trumps pure competition.

Creative Exhaust

Especially as of late, more of us are becoming familiar with the term “data exhaust”. Data exhaust is the byproduct of our online activities. As we merrily go about our online lives clicking links and completing tasks, we leave behind a wake of data, which itself can be tremendously valuable. That’s why companies and governments spend a great deal of time and energy collecting and analyzing this data exhaust.

In the same way our online activity leaves behind valuable artifacts, our creative processes can also leave extremely valuable byproducts. Your final product doesn’t have to be the only thing you produce.

All of the byproducts of your creative process is your creative exhaust. Your thought processes, blog posts, napkin sketches, Dribbble shots, Youtube tutorials, first drafts, Github repositories, bug fixes, snapshots of works in progress all have tremendous value for yourself and for others. In fact, our creative exhaust can end up becoming much more impactful than our own individual work. It’s not about the work you do, but rather what that work enables others to do.

What’s more gratifying? Discovering a technique that improves the performance of your website, or sharing that technique that can help improve the performance of every website? Knitting a single hat, or sharing a video that enables thousands knit their own?

By broadening the scope of our creative work and encouraging creative exhaust–whether its sharing a resource, writing a blog post, designing in the open, making a tutorial, answering a question on Stack Overflow, editing a Wikipedia entry, whatever–it’s never been easier to contribute to something greater than yourself.