Bottom-Up Creativity vs. Top-Down

In my years of creative / business work, I’ve noticed there are two broad “techniques” to use while building a project. Bottom-Up and Top-Down.

This concept is nothing new, and the last thing I want to do here is spread more “I like making things and stuff” pseudo-philosophical fun-corporate nerdy blogger bullshit.

So here’s how I’ve seen it work…

Bottom-Up: Collecting a number of concrete objects / colors / shapes / sounds / words (usually at random) and sticking them together — maybe (but rarely) hoping they end up meaning something (or at least being somehow enjoyable as a whole). Example… Mike Patton’s Adult Themes for Voice. As Wikipedia describes it: Shouting, screaming, clapping, squeaking, and moaning.

Top-Down: Starting with a GOAL, such as “compose, record, and deliver the film score for The Empire Strikes Back

Consider how much more discipline it requires to begin with the large concept / container, and then design each individual piece to serve the greater purpose. Every part in the machine must work, everything must be appropriate! While there is a time for experimentation along the way (would it have more impact during this scene to bring in the strings, or should we use only the piano, or should we leave stark silence?), there is no room for “messing around” a.k.a. musical masturbation.

Conversely, I have seen creators who get trapped in Top-Down Mode. I’ve had video production clients who will provide me with a specific script, and then not allow “creative wiggle room” for organic serendipity during the production process. The plan in their head is more important than the “magic” that can be generated by an injection of some Bottom-Up from the actors and editors. And their project suffers.

I would be stumbling into Rationalism (in the Objectivist terminology) if I were to claim that these are two processes that can actually be 100% separated. I’m also not going to claim one process is superior to the other, but that they should ideally intertwine. Each serves its own purpose in creation.

Of course, I thought incoherent noises released as “albums” were great — at 20 years old, when I was looking for ways to use up my excess young-person energy. But as I get older I crave something else. Something more impressive and deserving of respect — like the live musical theater production of Wicked. It’s complex: the composition, performance, actors, sound, lights, set designs, props, story all work together. In other words, they are Integrated. (Thanks, Schlegel.)

But I will end this by saying… that to exclusively glorify Bottom-Up is a cop-out, because it requires no conceptual work — and conceptual work is the most difficult.


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