As I promised earlier, on this website I am going to share some inspiring interviews with creatives who reveal exciting details of their journey and what it took to make things happen.
Meet Dr. Geoff Crook - an artist, author and creative consultant at Crook
& Jones, founder of MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries at the prestigious
Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design (CSM), London. This is the very same college which gave education to a number of outstanding
talents such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and more!
Geoff established the Masters programme in Applied Imagination in 1991. Creative education is normally perceived as one of the most innovative fields out there. Ironically, we underestimate the tenacity and determination needed to bring in a new twist to traditional approaches, especially when it comes to academics.
However, this is what Dr. Crook managed to do. He is one of those people who leave a bright first impression with his quirky extravagant appearance strongly contrasting to his analytical approach. I had the privilege of being in Geoff’s final year of lecturing in 2011 before he headed back out into the real world to launch a brave new stage in his career.
He also gave the opening speech at my debut solo exhibition in March 2016 (YouTube video here), which meant travelling from London to Sofia (Bulgaria) just for the weekend!
Enough talking! I now give you Dr. Geoff Crook!
Hello, Geoff! Thank you for agreeing to take part in Just How Cool Is That, the website for creatives to share and learn about the creative journey!
Questioning the status quo, going outside of the comfort zone and learning by doing are some of the main principles in the course Applied Imagination. As opposed to traditional academic programmes in Art and Design, this MA degree focuses more on the journey itself rather than on elaborate shiny objects. What made you prefer this form of education to traditional approach?
The first point of inspiration was based on my experience of meeting a lot of frustrated creative people who had failed to achieve the dream of changing the world that they had been encouraged to believe was possible when they were graduates. Conversations revealed that the principle problem lay in the lack of empathy between different disciplines like business management and the people who they hired to develop creative ideas. This resulted in the worst kind of risk-free gatekeeping. Refusing to sign off unprecedented ideas the implicit 'we want another version of what we already have' death by repetition syndrome.
Reflecting on this dilemma led to the realisation that it was not as simple as dumb management versus enlightened creatives - it was more to do with lack of common values and language. Simply put every discipline has its own priorities and values and once they are made visible they tend to clash rather than offer synergetic opportunity.
With hindsight the solution was obvious - create a Master's course where different disciplines can work together. At the time this was unprecedented and required a lot of hard work to get permission to launch the MA. Inevitably the gatekeepers from every sector/discipline were queuing up to resist and challenge any form of questioning of their own sphere of expertise. A Masters programme that proposed interdisciplinary collaboration was perceived as an anathema.
In the first couple of years the course was lucky enough to recruit applicants from different countries so it became obvious that the course should evolve to include trans-cultural as well as interdisciplinary opportunity for productive collaborative learning through questioning.
The journey began with an immersive strategy during the first trimester in which a series of short, sharp and provocatively immersive projects placed you in a position where you had to collaborate with people whose background was different from your own. Students came from another discipline, or culture and often both. Add that fertile combustion opportunity to a very conceptual brief and everyone is out of their comfort zone and cannot rely on cliche or convention. This introductory strategy was the warm-up to discovering your own question!
From the get-go I set out to practise what I was preaching and one of the absurdities that I addressed was the bizarre tradition of defining your question before you started the programme.
To me any stage of education should be defined by its ability to promote a questioning culture and it is hard to imagine a tradition that prioritises linear evolution coming close to that ambition. So under the radar I resisted and subverted lots of traditions.
When applicants attempted to conform to their programmed expectations I would ask them why they were submitting a research proposal to a course that was focused on enabling its students to discover what they really want to do.
By definition if you want to evolve you need to unpack traditional assumptions.
So, yes, it was always about questioning the status quo, going outside your comfort zone and learning by doing but it was also about a fundamental challenge to a linear tradition of education that insisted on old-school assumptions that theory trumped reality. Historically it was a launched in a moment when it was already obvious that the age of the formulas was already redundant.
I guess my intuitive insight was: the wheels of the trolley of perpetual repetition, e.g. 'If it works why fix it' were already beginning to wobble. The fact that subsequently they have fallen off and everyone is struggling to comprehend a future that is defined by unpredictability in a context of chaos suggests that my naivety gave me an edge.
Partnering up with specialists from various backgrounds has always been encouraged within the course. How does this type of teamwork affect creativity and
I partially answered this in my long winded explanation of the origins and inspiration for Applied Imagination. But simply put creativity and innovation rarely flourish in a context of divide and rule. A lot of new thinking and doing is inspired by resistance to change (look at the history of the avant-garde), but in a business or institutional sense a lack of new ideas is a direct consequence of the employment of too many people who have never had the opportunity, or permission, to collaborate and prototype ideas without researching the life out of them before they are born.
How do you view narrow specialization as opposed to a broader expertise in creativity? What are some of the pros and cons from your experience?
The German sociologist Max Weber was both an architect and critic of bureaucracy. He recognised and promoted the idea that myopic management can lead to more efficient outcomes but he also realised that efficient outcomes are not the same as meaningful outcomes. He concluded that too much efficiency can lead to too much stuff that we do not need and a negative impact on the quality of lives that 'disenchants' our experience rather than enriching it.
So the advantages are better questions and the 'cons' are the depth of conditioning that you have to confront to persuade people that they have permission to let go of the and their past.
What creative fields interest you (design, writing, painting, music, etc)? Which ones have you practised?
All and more! I tend to view life as something that you should live backwards. It's not about traditional allegiance to a notion that age equals wisdom but a reflection of the fact that as you get older you should be better able to recognise and challenge the assumption that specialising is a path to enlightenment. In reality specialisation tends to lead to the perpetuation of very narrow perceptions of what is possible. So my own creative life is defined by a fascination with finding better questions, the mediums that you harness to articulate a response to those questions should be led by the quality of the question rather than pre-existing expertise, or the perceived lack of it.
Why waste time in acquiring skills that you may never be as good at practising as someone who has a natural empathy with that medium? Lack of skill should be an invitation to collaborate in which 'the more than the sum of the parts' outcomes that evolve from bringing people who are as much unlike as they are alike is likely to lead to unprecedented opportunity for everyone.
So as an example I have just completed the first serious draft of my first serious attempt to write a novel. It has taken me a long time to realise that dyslexia is not the real source of inhibition (Geoff has a form of dyslexia). It is your own, often programmed belief that you are not equipped to write fiction!
So I got over myself, an example of the advantages of living life backwards.
Across the decades I have worked as an artist, film maker, academic, designer, artisan, philosopher, consultant, academic, critic, theorist, and obsessive fan of music but making music is on my 'do' list, it's just finding the question that I cannot answer with my default skill range that inspires me to move beyond my comfort zone.
That's the secret of perpetual evolution, the thrill of not having a clue of what you will be doing, how and who with another decade!
Tell me about some of the stereotypes you have come across in your career and how you handled them.
Name them, and I suspect I have met them! But as a rebel without a pause the ones that really depress me are gatekeeping bureaucrats, racists, polluters, exploiters and snobs who all in their different ways deny progress.
Ironically the worst examples of gatekeepers that I have encountered are the people who seek employment in managing creative education. Instead of championing the cause of creative innovation they spend their time creating hurdles for people with passion to trip over.
You have a form of dyslexia. Yet, this did not stop you from getting a PhD degree with Goldsmiths and starting an academic career at CSM. What were some of the main challenges along
the academic path?
Confidence and will power. I believe that anyone can do anything they want to but first of all they need to believe in themselves and that involves writing their own script and having the tenacity to live it.
Most of us have been presented with a very limited version of our actual potential and we can either accept that and conform to someone else's perception of who we are and spend our lives feeling inadequate or we can write our own script.
A lot of people use gatekeepers as their alibi for underachievement but the moment we decide to play the limited role that someone also has written for us we become our own gatekeeper.
Many creatives are afraid to share their ideas or work in process because they might get stolen. Yet, obtaining feedback is a crucial part of proper testing. What would you advise
Trust in your own and others creativity and if you do you will realise two essential things:
1) Ideas are what you are good at so you can always create more.
2) An idea is only the start of a process to make an idea happen in a way that will make a difference requires tenacity, collaboration and negotiation. So get used to the fact that if someone steals your idea it becomes their problem and leaves you room to create a better one. having learnt from the mistakes you made.
Getting lost is an inevitable part of the journey. How to avoid freaking out in order to get back on track?
Understanding that getting lost is an essential part of a journey of discovery and evolution. If you can't cope with getting lost then you will condemn yourself and the rest of the world to making do with what you already know, endlessly going around in a circle because you know where that route will take you.
Leaving a project unfinished is broadly associated with fear of failure, fear of success, fear of embarrassment, etc., etc. Can unfinished projects be actually regarded as artefact
prototypes helping us clarify our ideas?
Any journey that is going to lead to innovative outcomes must involve an aspiration to fail and if it doesn't, the person, team, culture, business, or institution that embarks on that journey is not seriously committed to the need to discover new and different outcomes. Mistakes are what you learn from.
Give me an example from your practise when you managed to turn failure to success. What compromises did you have to make? Did it turn out better or worse than you
initially imagined? What were the learning outcomes for you and your team?
Me, is the obvious example.
I was perceived as a failure when I was at school and like an awful lot of other people who don't fit a 'one size fits all' system I was treated as a reject.
The judgement is harsh and profoundly short-sighted but if you are lucky enough to rise above that negative perception of your potential, anything is possible. When you think about what most of us have been educated to believe, it provides us with a woefully outmoded perceptions of success.
For me turning a failure to fit conventional education gifted me with an attitude problem that still fuels me today. I refuse to respect people who condemn others to a life of mediocrity simply because they do and think differently to the average person.
Nothing that I have ever done that led to learning opportunities and relatively successful outcomes was achieved by a seamless journey = aim high -> fail hard -> discover more
Compromises included some underachieving years informed by accepting the 'wisdom' of others. So the compromise was failing by trying to avoid the risk of failure.
Altogether though it turned out to be better and even better! My life is wonderful, endlessly full of possibilities. So I guess I could not have imagined living a life that is so full of opportunity for discovery and growth.
The learning outcomes were that there is always a better question if you keep looking but once you discover put a lot of energy into answering it a 'do not give up until you have learnt what you need to evolve'.
What is your final message to anyone reading this?
You are capable of anything that you want to achieve but in order to become who you are capable of being, you need to commit to a life of hard work. The harder you push yourself, the more you will discover.
That said, all work and no play is a very limited use of the life that we have been gifted.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! It's been lovely having you here!
Thanks for inviting me, Meg, as always a pleasure! Good luck with this and thanks for continuing to be an example of someone who does stuff rather than just talking about it.
Dr. Geoff Crook is author of the book The Dream Cafe: Lessons in the Art of Radical Innovation (available on Amazon).
The Dream Cafe draws on the history of the avant-garde as a source for the kind of disruption that shaped the future. It highlights the fact that periods of paradigm shift that have resulted in new rules, values and opportunity have typically been informed by trans-cultural, interdisciplinary discourse in cafes. Whether it's the birth of modern art or the first Apple computer the genesis of radical new thinking is supported and informed by gathering together different hearts and minds in convivial locations that are not managed by a dominant interest group.
The book was written by Geoff and the other author credited (Duncan D. Bruce) was simply included because at the time Dr. Crook was in a business partnership with him, though to the best of Geoff's knowledge Duncan has never read it. Ironically that relationship is a great example of the thesis of learning by failure which is a key theme of the book.
Geoff Crook Today
My main focus is my collaborative practice with the artist Peter Jones that has been an ongoing project for the past six years. You can find examples of our work
My responsibilities are focused on being a source of Inspiration and support for the development of opportunity for applying my own and others' imagination.
We are about to extend our practice into developing examples of innovative thinking and doing in another outlet called the Crook & Jones Imaginarium. We will add a link to the existing website once we are ready to launch. Beyond that the next big venture is a consultancy concept that educates business and institutions in the art of innovation. A strategy that will transform naysayers into 'must-doers'.
People can reach me via LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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