When thinking about creativity, particularly in a university setting, we often face the question of thinking versus doing. What are the roles of theory and disciplinary structures in projects centered on experimenting, making, and iterating? How do we maintain a holistic approach to creativity that integrates theory and rigor with experimentation and making?

It can sometimes be difficult to conceptualize the connections between recognized approaches in so-called “creative fields,” like the Rhode Island School of Design’s critical making approach, and work in other disciplines. But as I’ve been exploring the literature on creativity and talking to people at Brown about their creative processes, I’ve been struck by the alignment between critical making and long traditions of thinking and doing.

In particular, the flux between play and constraint forms a central theme in a range of traditions. In his 1794 Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, for example, Friedrich Schiller discusses the importance of the “free play” of concepts to the generation of new ideas, and this focus on play has continued to drive approaches to creativity. But at the same time, it’s clear that the development of certain skills is needed for some kinds of creation, and the imposition of constraints sometimes (paradoxically) spurs creativity—it can be easier to think outside the box if you have a box in the first place. This is where the tradition of the dialectic might come in. With the elements of play and constraint always in flux and in conversation, what kind of environment for creativity can we foster?

In thinking of this dynamic environment for creativity, I’m drawn to the Kantian notion of the aesthetic moment, in which something takes us by surprise and we judge it purely, free from outside standards or structures. These aesthetic moments happen constantly at Brown: a prototype suddenly works, an idea reaches you in the classroom, you take in a beautiful artwork at the Granoff Center. It seems that our goal should be both to foster a playful environment in which these moments can occur and to provide the necessary constraints and infrastructures to connect the novel with the useful, the critical with the creative, and so on. Navigating this balance—between play and constraint, the aesthetic moment and the corresponding infrastructure—in a mindful, holistic way is an activity for which a university seems uniquely positioned. I’m eager to delve into how it plays out at Brown.