On 3rd September 2012, as I walked from the south to the north side of the Thames via Hungerford Bridge, I realised that I was stuck as to how I should begin the research for the book on creativity I’ve always wanted to write. I began berating myself for even considering the project – there were many others who were far more experienced than me and knew much more about models and theories of creativity than I did – no wonder I didn’t know how to start.
Then, about halfway across the bridge a chain of thought suddenly unravelled…
…and the basic premise of The Giraffe Project was born.
I decided that I wanted the whole thing to be an adventure in creativity and that I wouldn’t let anyone know in advance what The Giraffe Project was all about. They’d have to say YES without knowing what they were saying YES to! I therefore re-named the project “Experiment 001” for anyone who hadn’t yet taken part. I also decided that I wanted to eschew any online technology that would make it all too easy for people to take part – it would be totally analogue using pens, paper and card to make it that much more tactile. As people don’t really seem to send and receive interesting letters any more I thought that getting an interesting envelope through the door might be quite nice for participants.
I designed an Experiment pack with the intention of creating mystery throughout the experience of taking part making it like some weird creative secret agent mission. All that would arrive through the letter box would be a brown envelope marked EXPERIMENT 001. On opening the main envelope two smaller white envelopes labelled 1 and 2 would become visible. Participants were told to open envelope 1 and follow the instructions that simply said Have fun drawing a giraffe. On finishing the drawing they were allowed to open envelope 2 that asked them to respond to three questions: 1) How does your giraffe make you feel? 2) What happened between opening the envelope and finishing your drawing and 3) Did you have fun? The questions were vaguely aimed at finding out more about people’s attitude both to the experiment and to their drawing. I was also interested to see if people would remember the ‘have fun’ part of the initial instruction – this was more important than the drawing itself.
On the 20th September I headed off to the post office armed with a big bag of experiment packs, dropped them in the post box and waited to see what happened and on the 28th September a hand written enveloped arrived through my door containing the first giraffe!
As the number of giraffes grew, participants began to ask me “So what are you trying to prove?” or “What are you hoping to get out of this experiment?” to which my genuine answer was “I’ve no idea! I’m just interested in knowing what happens if I ask people to have fun drawing a giraffe!” As it turned out, having no real attachment to a particular outcome meant that the purpose of the experiment emerged over time as more and more giraffes returned home. One of the biggest surprises for me was the joy and excitement I felt on returning home to finding a brown A5 envelope waiting for me, ripping it open like a kid on Christmas day and grinning immensely at the beautiful, unique creation that I discovered inside. As each arrived, I allocated it a number, scanned it in and placed it on the internet in what I called an ‘online creative sanctuary’. I took a big pack into a local primary school and the year 1 children took time out to create a wonderful array of young giraffes. A few months later I spent lovely afternoon at an elderly residential home where a small group of over 75s gladly took part as a group activity.
With over 100 giraffes now safely home part I of the project has come to a close and it is time to begin trying to make sense of it all and I hope to involve as many others as possible in this by hosting a giraffe party! Whilst I’m holding back on attempting to make any further sense of this all until the giraffe party, some of the initial things that have struck me have been:
- Adults don’t have colour to hand much in their lives and most adults don’t have pencil cases! At least adults in the corporate world. All the giraffes created by children, those who completed them at home or those who work in creative jobs had a lot of colour in them compared to those who completed the drawings in their office environment. A number of people rued the fact that their images lacked colour.
- The majority of the giraffes drawn by adults look to the left wheras the majority of giraffes drawn by children look to the right. This isn’t always the case and isn’t universal enough to be called a statistically significant trend but it is very curious. Is it to do with the developmental stage that the children are at? Is it because these children are still learning to read from left to right? Is it to do with the way we organise our thoughts onto a page or our sense of perspective?
- Only the adults apologised for the quality of their drawings, even if the drawings were very good. A number of adults said they were ashamed of their pictures and wished they could have added more colour or detail even though nothing was really stopping them from doing so.
- A number of participants spoke of an initial resistance they had to get over before pen hit the paper. Some drew immediately, others waited until a particular time. Some spoke of their fear of opening the envelope on the train in case the instructions were to sing or dance and they were relieved to find out it was only drawing! A few people said they were dismayed to find out it was a drawing task.
- The very act of drawing a giraffe brought back a lot of fond memories for people of holidays, books they had read or zoos/safaris they had visited at some point in their lives.
- Of the 100, 95 said “Yes” in answer to the question “Did you have fun?”. Many said they had fun when they ‘let go’ of the need to draw a good giraffe and simply gave it a go. A number said they didn’t notice the ‘have fun’ part of the instruction until the question was asked – they were too focussed on the task of drawing.
- 24 giraffes never made it home. Some were put in the bin unopened because participants thought the letter was Spam. Some remained on the ‘to-do’ list of busy corporate folk who were unable to find the 3-5 minutes required for them to give birth to something wonderful from their imagination. At least 1 giraffe was lost in the post. The fate of the others is unknown.
- Participants spoke of the excitement at receiving something physical in the post and the mystery and adventure of opening one envelope at a time. This was mirrored by my own excitement when they returned.