A June 2009 Fast Company article listed the 10 most creative people in building architecture. The photos that accompanied the article offer ample evidence that something weird and wonderful is happening in the minds of the people responsible for some of the world’s most wildly imaginative structures. But what about IT architecture? Given its sharp focus on designing practical technological solutions for business problems, is there a place for such creativity? And what role, if any, does creativity play in the day-to-day work of IT architects?
Ben Stopford, architect and development lead at RBS Global Banking and Markets, rates creativity as the most important quality in his role. “Creativity is the key to innovation, which in turn is the key to great technology,” says Stopford. “Great technology attracts and retains great technologists.” Stopford describes that attraction and retention as a cyclical process—one that will roll past architects who lack creativity.
Brian Jimerson, chief architect at Avantia, describes creativity as “a huge part” of his role in designing custom technical solutions that solve business problems for clients. “Solving those problems requires a lot of creativity—if it didn’t, someone would’ve solved them before,” Jimerson says. “Helping a business with the right mix of technology, process, and pragmatism is definitely more of an art than a science.”
While the exact proportions may vary, the blending of art and science in IT architecture mirrors civil, landscape, and other architecture disciplines, according to Eric Stephens, a director of enterprise architecture at Oracle. “Regardless of the type of architecture, the discipline is an amalgamation of other disciplines and types of thinking,” Stephens says.
Practical considerations are a significant part of that amalgam, regardless of whether the end product is an office building or an enterprise IT solution. “The disciplines of project management, budgeting, and engineering are required to ensure the stability and operation of the resultant systems,” Stephens says. Creativity, however, must enter the picture in dealing with other equally significant considerations.
“Artistry and asceticism come into play because the systems we create must interact with humans,“ says Stephens. “The best minds in history knew how to fuse left- and right-brain thinking,” he adds, citing Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs as examples.So what can one do to get those left- and right-brain hemispheres in peak creative shape? Jimerson takes a straightforward approach. “IT is supposed to make a business better,“ he says. “Figuring out how to accomplish that is the fun part.” He maintains his creative edge in part by keeping abreast of the evolving technology landscape so that he can apply that knowledge to determine how best to solve his clients’ business problems.
Stopford takes a more holistic approach. He recommends a combination of rest, introspection, and human interaction. “Combine periods of deep thought with interaction with others,” Stopford suggests. “Utilize different sorts of people. People who think in similar ways to you are great for charging through a solution. People who think differently help challenge your way of thinking,” he continues, adding that drawing all of his designs by hand also helps him think creatively.
Stephens takes an oblique approach, looking to the arts and beyond to bolster his creativity. “I draw upon good literature, office and workspace design, and food and wine,” he says. Music also plays a role. “I look for intricate beats, unpredictable patterns, and mixtures of styles to stir up my creativity,” he says. “It’s about honing one’s senses and mental acuity, which aids in finding new ways to solve problems.”
It doesn’t matter what you use to stir your own creativity, as long as you stir it. A strong creative sense will help to make you a better IT architect. You may not end up the da Vinci or Jobs of the IT architecture world, but your work will be more effective, and certainly a lot more personally fulfilling. It may, however, be difficult to photograph.
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READ the Fast Company article “The 10 Most Creative People in Architecture”