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5 Rules for Mindful Creativity

Are future generations paying for our creative fulfillment? Tips from Kimbal Musk, Cypher13, and Mike Moore on creating with sustainability in mind.

Necessity may have been “the mother of invention” back when Plato dropped the famous phrase, but necessity alone is no longer a sufficient reason for creation. Inventions that seem to embody a forward-thinking approach at their inception often appear backwards in their thinking given a few years (or decades) of reflection. Take, for instance, the advent of individually packaged goods, which made food conveniently transportable at the expense of using more materials and creating more waste for landfills.
The desire to make the world and the objects that surround us stronger, faster, more convenient and more beautiful serves as constant inspiration for today’s creative problem solvers. But sometimes, as with single-use packaging or the more complicated case of CFL lightbulbs, the innovative solutions we arrive at create other problems, or even predicaments, that become evident only in hindsight.
While the side effects of our creations can’t always be anticipated, we can strive to minimize any negative impact by embedding the right practices into our creative process. Namely, by filtering our potential projects through a series of qualifiers to distinguish genuine need from short-lived demand, and long-term solutions from quick fixes.
While the side effects of our creations can’t always be anticipated, we can strive to minimize any negative impact.

While each industry begs a customized set of considerations, the basics hold true across most professions. We turned to industry thought leaders in design, architecture, and social entrepreneurialism to pull together a set of universally applicable best practices. Read them, apply them, love them – they’ll love us back.

1. Analyze your market, mindfully.

When determining whether a new project meets their standards for social responsibility, renowned design shop Cypher13 first consider one simple question: “Is it needed?” According to this two-man team, if a product or offering already exists in some form, your (or your client’s) addition to the market is socially responsible only if it will truly be better than what already exists.

When this question is considered holistically – with regard to quality, production, and sustainability – it’s easy to determine whether the product is deserving of the resources needed to produce it. This approach has helped Cypher13 know when to turn down certain projects; for instance, a natural foods product whose resourcing strategy turned out to be far from eco-conscious.

2. Think in decades, not years.

Tres Birds Workshop design principal Mike Moore, best known for his work on Burton snowboard’s flagship stores, takes a critical look at his process from initial development right through to the end product – then he extends that vision into the future.  Aside from basics like minimizing use of materials and avoiding toxic processes, the firm’s touchstone for sustainability is thinking in 20-year increments.

Often, Tres Birds will intentionally design a project beyond the immediate scope, program, and budget to predict what would be a smart future use or expansion.  Their most recent architectural project made use of a reclaimed frame, bricks from demolished buildings, and energy-generating materials. These creative applications of new and old technology influence the initial design, and open the way to future possibilities for reprogramming the space.

3. Consider yourself a resource.

When considering sustainability, most of us stop at the materials and processes that our projects require. However, we tend to underestimate the role of personal sustainability – the consistent flow of energy and tenacity required to see an idea through to completion.

Serial social entrepreneur and restaurateur Kimbal Musk, whose current undertakings include SpaceX, Tesla, and an ambitious in-school urban gardening initiative, uses a “five-year test” to determine an idea’s potential for personal sustainability. If he’s not certain that he’ll wake up with the same enthusiasm for a project five years from its start date, he won’t get behind it.

We tend to underestimate the role of personal sustainability – the tenacity required to see an idea through to completion.

4. Measure happiness.

Some projects – like events, art installations, or even books – are trickier to quantify in terms of social responsibility. In these instances, Cypher13 justifies (or rejects) the use of resources by estimating the total good that the project could potentially produce. If this projected “happiness quotient” is greater than the size of the project’s ecological footprint, they move ahead. If it’s questionable, they kill the idea.

For instance, when Cyhper13 was asked to create an installation for a recent international cultural event, the designers’ concept involved materials that couldn’t be sourced locally. However, they ultimately decided that the ecological footprint of transporting the materials cross-country was outweighed by the positive benefits that would come from the project’s mission to facilitate connections among a large global audience.

5. Don’t ignore the dollar.

While many of us struggle with putting a dollar amount on our creative vision, there is a direct correlation between most projects’ potential profitability and their sustainability. In fact, in order to make a true case for replacing an existing business model with a sustainable, mindful one, it’s imperative that the financial differences are minimal.

“If you think you’re going to be less profitable because of a commitment to social responsibility, rethink your plan,” says Kimbal Musk. In other words, while using sustainable materials, sourcing them locally, and steering away from cheaper production options may require a heavier initial investment, the enduring success of your addition to the market fully depends on its ability to be competitive.

What’s Your Take?

Is sustainability something that you factor in when launching a new idea?

Do you have any other rules for “mindful creativity”?

More Posts by Carmel Hagen

Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit

Comments (15)
  • Brett

    My tips:

    1) Know when you’re plateauing. That way, you don’t quit on a project as soon as you feel burn-out – instead, you’ll reinvigorate your efforts and see it through to completion.

    2) Give yourself time to do nothing. Daydreaming is awesome and can provide us with many ideas necessary to make our existing projects better or to kickstart new ones.

    3) Reading articles on creativity is useless if you’re never creating.

  • MCatherine Lunsford

    I’ve found that there’s a real ebb and flow with creativity and the flow for me occurs when I’m often working on or doing something unrelated. As a performing artist I always practiced while cleaning house and discovered the most amazing phrasing possibilities and ‘possibiility’ is a harbinger for me.

  • Matthew

    Great job with the article. In answer to the question posed at the end – Yes, I think sustainability is absolutely a critical element to any project and must be factored in at inception. You make a great point about ‘personal sustainability’ which is indeed quite often ignored or dramatically underestimated. I very often miss the mark in calculating how much I will be able to give to a project and am definitely seeking solves for this. For me, I think it will come down to actually implementing a ‘less is more’ ideology to really see things through.

  • Lucas


    Graphic Designers have a huge responsibility in shaping behaviours and opinions in society, it is extremely important that us from this niche be aware of this responsability jumping out of the resources/materials environmentalism obviosity of today.
    In my recently opened freelance agency we share our complete design process in order to share ideas and knowledge with people around the globe, it counts as feedback for our projects and information sharing for society.

    Great article. 🙂

  • mindfulmimi

    Yes, I do think that sustainability is an absolute ‘must count in’ for anything we do or launch. I firmly believe that companies ignoring the importance of sustainability now (and there are still many) will either vanish or have to seriously rethink the way they do business in the future (and at that late stage this will come at a cost).
    I think that personal sustainability is more and more important. A company that has employees that are in it with their heart will produce more because they identify with the company, not because they have to (the ‘have to’ not being very sustainable in the long run, even with a big paycheck).
    I think personal sustainability is all about passion. If we all did what we are so mindlessly passionate about, the world would be a better place. There might be noone left to pick up our garbage, but creative as we will be then, I’m sure we’ll have something figured out by then…
    Thanks for the article.

  • tasjimi


    Great summation and reminder to extend the frames of consideration when creating, be it design, a project or a business.

    I would add, perhaps not as a separate point but layered into at least the first point – Assume blankness – talk with customers, people in the market, experts in the field, using them as a blank canvas to draw an image of the future upon. If the picture works for them (and will be enhanced by them!), then you have more robust sense of the sustainability of the idea.

    Great article.

  • EeLeen Lee

    ‘Is it needed?’ is an important question to ask, however you could also ask, “If not needed can I create a need or niche for it?”

  • bigwags

    Your comment reminds me of something I heard Neil Postman say in a lecture on Technology and Society, “always ask, whose problem is this technology solving?”

    I’d add to your “Is it needed?” something like “Whose need is it meeting?”

  • Carmel Hagen

    The question, “can I create a niche for it?” is in some ways a bad hole to go down, depending on the resources it could eat up.

    For instance, consider the pharmaceutical industry, who have been occasionally known to invent “health issues” that may not have even existed before a “cure” was discovered for it in a lab experiment (referencing Restless Leg Syndrome specifically, here – pure snake oil :).

    Luckily, our expending world turns over an endless amount of pre-existing needs and niches, some short-lived and others long. Concocting a need, however – then selling people on the importance of the resulting product or service – could be debated as wasteful.

  • Carmel Hagen

    Assuming blankness is a great addition – love how that adds an ever-important layer of communication, openness and feedback to the initial analyzation process. (Really, it never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn just by asking questions and listening. Thanks for the great pointer.)

  • Catalina B.

    Sustainability is an important lesson to learn from the past several decades, especially when it comes to strong business models that shape the markets and slowly, but surely – the world we live in.
    Related to that – the concept of “resources” has been tweaked in many ways to fit the current status quo of the markets. Now, everything is a resources, from time to knowledge and skills that people acquire and develop. A creative use of these resources does not bring them to waste, on the contrary for every unit of a measurable resource, one should produce 10 units of measurable results. Ohno Taiichi – the father of Toyota Production Systems, used to think that “any human activity that absorbs resources but creates waste” is “muda”. The elimination of muda from any human activity should lead to a natural flow of resources, where people create more than they would usually consume.

  • Alisnabrown

    Thanks for all the tips, I’m just starting out in the business world. Thanks for all the positivness and all the help. I really do appreciate all of it.

  • mostlymindful

    just a postscript to mimi
    even picking up garbage can have a passionate mindful following – cleaning up after ourselves, or making things better… etc. Point is to watch our own assumptions. Someone may very well care passionately about the problem we think is unsolvable.

    great article

  • PaulH82

    some great advice on mindfulness here and well written. thanks!

  • Sylvain Lefebvre

    This article was very helpful , thanks a lot.

    For more info :http://www.howtoimprovelife.or

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