Do Drugs Enhance Creativity?

On the second day of class in my first semester teaching Graphic Design, one of my students asked this question: Do drugs enhance creativity? Many creative people experiment with drugs because their nature is to be curious. Some great works of art are known to be inspired by substance induced trips. But my answer was—and remains—to find healthy ways to stimulate creative ideas.

We are familiar with artistic geniuses who became drug addicts: Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Jackson Pollock, to name a few. Drugs can inspire a new perspective, but the risk of addiction is always present. Once addicted, normal daily functioning is inhibited without the drug. When you can’t even function, how can you be creative?

Creation happens in an altered state. Some people call it being in the flow, a visit from a muse, or being struck by lightning. I have found that I can increase the chances of creative inspiration in several ways.

First of all, eliminate distractions. Many people stumble on a great idea while in the shower or driving alone. That’s because distractions are at a minimum at those times. Personally, I like to hike. Not only am I away from the office, I am increasing the amount of oxygen circulating to my brain. Nature itself is a powerful inspiration.

Your phone is the number one source of distractions. Wherever you are, if you must have it with you, at least turn it off.

For a different perspective on your creative project, experience another art form. Go to a museum, listen to music, read great literature, examine the architecture around you, go to a dance performance or the opera. Other places for inspiration are the library or a coffee shop. Sit quietly with a sketchbook and record your ideas as they arise.

Studies have shown that the best creative work is the result of quantity of output. In your sketchbook, write down 100 ways to solve your problem. You can use words or pictures. The first dozen or so ideas will be commonplace, but if you can get past 50 you will be in new territory.

Try a mind map. Write the parameters of your project in the middle of a page, then connect outward to related ideas. Keep moving outward until you find a connection that you hadn’t seen before. That could be your truly original breakthrough.

Along those lines, try addition or subtraction. Take some of the more clichéd ways to solve a problem, then add something totally unrelated. What do you get when you synthesize them? Or, take a complex problem and subtract details. Does that lead to you a more elegant solution?

Creative people love to travel. All my life I have made travel a priority. Seeing new places feeds my hunger for novelty and extreme experiences. Travel requires time off, planning, money, and effort, whereas drugs are cheap and fast. But travel doesn’t have to be expensive, as many bloggers will tell you. Just looking forward to a trip creates an elevated state of anticipation that can ignite creativity. Seeing a place for the first time is inspiring: the colors, patterns, smells, architecture, food, people, language, all of it can change your perspective forever.

Finally, get started! A lot of people say that they are most creative under pressure. That’s because a looming deadline is what it takes for them to begin. I guaranty that any time you start a project, your muse will show up. In my experience, blocking out time for a project well ahead of the deadline yields better work. Once I start creating, inspiration flows. By starting early, I give myself time for the incubation and refinement phases of the creative process.

Innovation happens outside your comfort zone. Although drugs can be a shortcut, I choose healthy ways to fuel my creative spirit.

Studio 2D