CREATIVITY (9-21-15)

Milnor Wolf


This past week PBS aired a new two-part American Experience episode on the life and work of Walt Disney. Disney was one of the top creative geniuses of the modern era. What stood out to me, however, was the intensity of his determination to turn his inspirations into reality. His earliest animation projects required massive investments in time and effort, as they were based on sketches of thousands of thousands of cartoon characters. When he began his longer projects, especially Snow White, he faced a much more daunting task of producing tens of thousands of drawings, all of them requiring a level of quality and sophistication that seem staggering when we consider that they had to be done by hand. Considering this, I concur with Edison’s famous statement that genius is “one percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration.” Of course, Disney employed a small army of artists to do the perspiring. But without his enormously intensive creative drive, none of his great film works would have seen the light of the movie projector.

I can imagine a variety of sources of inspiration for creative thoughts, depending on the individuals doing the thinking and their life situations. My own creative thoughts tend to center around a depth analysis of phenomena, such as contemplating what geological and biological structures might lie beneath a landscape scene, or what muscles and bones work together to produce the elongations in the neck of a pelican that I am photographing on a still pond near sunset. I want to know what is underneath what I am seeing.

The most meaningful—or at least practical—aspect of creativity must be, I think, the determination to make the inspiration into a real product. Currently I am working in an archive, where I am preparing and cataloging and scanning historical images from my town. This takes a lot of work. The project stems from a creative impulse, and at times it seems as if the work has little real connection with creativity. But it is work that has to be done. It is like a bridge that has to be built in order for the parade to cross over and be seen by the public. The measurement of the creative impulse, in the final analysis, will be whether it has sufficient power to propel the building of that bridge—and perhaps many other bridges—so that the tangible created product is finally delivered.


Tina Seelig’s TedX presentation on creativity is excellent. I watched it once, then while driving early Monday morning, I listened to another (slightly longer) version that was posted at Vimeo. Seelig’s main idea is that the product or solution that we get is bound up closely to the type of questions that we ask and procedures that we use to obtain that product or solution. “The question you ask,” she says, “is the frame into which the answers will fall. And if you don’t ask a question in a thoughtful way, you are not going to get really interesting answers.”

Creativity is inhibited when we assume that we must follow a certain formula or recipe, perhaps imitating someone else whom we believe to be successful. Seelig identifies six facets of creativity, all of which are bound together: attitude, knowledge and imagination form the inner part of creativity, and culture, resources and habitat form the outside environment.

Seelig’s talk is a good reminder that creativity is not one specific ingredient that we either possess or lack in a certain fixed amount. Rather it is something that exists within an ecosystem with inner and outer influences. Knowledge, she says, is “the toolbox for the imagination” and not an end in itself. This is a helpful reminder that merely stacking up piles of information is not a terribly productive way of becoming skilled or educated.

Furthermore, Seelig emphasizes that the creative process is not like a jigsaw puzzle that requires one to have all the right pieces. Rather, it is like making a quilt, where varied and irregular pieces can be fitted together to create something unique and original. This is a very helpful metaphor for our documentary making process.

With the quilt metaphor in mind, I will propose some answers to some specific questions related to this semester’s documentary project. The bulleted questions were posed:

  • Who is the intended audience?

The film will be directed to a general audience, primarily those who either live in the Red River Valley or have some knowledge of it.   It will, however, not require special knowledge to understand.

  • Purpose of the film?

The film will share basic facts about the Red River Valley and its environmental history in a way that will increase people’s awareness of the natural systems and processes that have shaped and continue to shape the place they live.

  • Has any media been produced on this subject?

There are books on the subject. I imagine there are also video documentaries on the subject (or closely related) that ought to be looked up.

  • What kind of visual style will be used?

I anticipate that landscape scenes will provide the predominant visual style.

  • What kind of music will be used?

Definitely we should employ some rendition of the great song “Red River Valley.”

  • Historical context and background of the story?

I have a book—one that is dated but reviewed positively by Tom Isern, entitled Red River Runs North! that I plan to read. I’ll be looking for some direction from our class expert in terms of what to read and research.

  • Who, what, where, when, how, why?

All good questions. For now, I will be reminded to be thinking of them.


REVIEW OF TWO WEBSITES (Digital History Assignment for Sept. 14, 2015)


By Ken Smith

The two website I chose were both related to North Dakota history. The first was prepared by the History Channel, and is at, and the second is part of a project called “The US 50” which is at picked these for several reasons. First, they come up on the first page of a Google search for “north Dakota History” Second, they are both fairly small sites. Third, they both appear to have been created under commercial auspices and seemed likely to have been assembled by people who do not work on North Dakota history as professionals. Amateurs, in other words.

The main page for the US 50 site on North Dakota informs us that

North Dakota is one of the great states that make up the United States of America. We have gathered large amounts of information about North Dakota into one place from various sources such as the state Governor’s office, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the US Census, the US Postal Service and many other authorities. So whether you are looking for North Dakota history, the state bird of North Dakota, or the best places to visit in North Dakota, the answers are just a click away.

The generic first line is a giveaway that this is not a professional history site. The second line suggests that they have done some online searching to amass their information, but that what will be found at this site is probably not coming from anyone who has done much formal study of the state. So, I expected to find some basic information that should be generally reliable, though probably not anything profound. That’s OK, because sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed.

Here is a screenshot of the site:

Screenshot 2015-09-13 18.46.10

I like the simple organization. The square boxes off to the side remind me of things I saw on websites I was visiting nearly 20 years ago. Personally, I like the simple style. In any case, the design seems functional to me. The categories make sense. Below the introduction is another series of links that are also straightforward.

Since I was mainly looking for what the sites had to say about North Dakota History, I read through the eleven paragraph, 1,324-word section on “North Dakota History” which took just a few minutes. It’s not a bad overview, considering the limitations of the website’s purpose. It basically runs from the glacial age to the second Dakota boom, but says nothing about the state since the first decade or two of the twentieth century. Perhaps the writer thought that “history” meant things that happened at least 100 years ago, or perhaps the writer thinks that North Dakota has just stood still since then. The latter probably isn’t the case because the other links (Historic figures, Outdoors, Tourism, Governors, Cities, and Colleges) all feature information that mostly falls in the last 100 years.

I noted that the “Historic Figures” section only features five people. Lawrence Welk is at the top, Actress Dorothy Stickney fron Dickinson, artist Ivan Dmitri from Harvey, baseball player Roger Maris, and journalist Eric Sevareid. The “state quiz” is equally sparse: only five questions are offered. The section on geography has only two items: a US outline map of states with ND highlighted in orange, and a link to Google Maps centered on the state. I would like to have seen a map with at least some detail of the four or five geographical/geological zones of the state, and perhaps distinguishing the variance in landforms, so that people do not make the mistake of thinking that the entire state is just one bland postage stamp.

The History Channel’s North Dakota site is, oddly enough, focused more on current history. It features a wallpaper photo of a buffalo against a green prairie landscape: one might expect a historical website on the state to have a historic photo, perhaps a 120-year old picture of a prairie town or a steam threshing team or even a buffalo. Below the buffalo is a window for a four-minute video called “Silicon Prairie” which highlights the tech development in North Dakota, touts the low unemployment rate and low cost of living. It refers to “sunny Fargo” and claims the town has more days of sunlight than most anyplace in the country (which I doubt, given the last few winters). The video says nothing about oil and gas development, which is odd since the summary line in the video refers to the factors that “shape today’s North Dakota.”

Here is a screenshot of the site:

Screenshot 2015-09-13 18.48.14

Between the buffalo and the video is a one-paragraph summary of the state’s history, running from 1803 (the Lewis and Clark Expedition) to statehood in 1889, then mentioning the “scenic badlands” of the Roosevelt National Park. Below the video window is a list of basic facts about the state: capital; population; size; state nicknames; state motto; state tree; state flower; and state bird. Below this is a section of “Interesting Facts” consisting of exactly six items, all of them very short.

A four-box section near the top of the page takes the viewer to “Article” (the main page), “Videos” (one video is provided, mentioned above), “photo galleries” and “shop.” The photo section consists of exactly nine photos, which are nice but topically narrow. The “shop” section is disappointing, as it simply links the viewer to the currently featured history videos for sale by the history channel, which have nothing to do with North Dakota.

The North Dakota us50 website and the History Channel website are both small and simple, with very cursory information provided.  I like the interface of the us50 site better, though understandably some will see it as clunky and old-fashioned. If I were putting together a website for a historical subject (say, for the State Normal and Industrial School at Ellendale), I would probably like to use a similar navigation format, but I would use stylistic devices to make the site look like a historical project and not a commercial one. Instead of square boxes, I’d probably want to use period-looking boxes, perhaps with calligraphy-like print.

The History Channel site is not as clunky looking, but in reality it’s no more sophisticated than the us50 site. It’s very present-oriented. Though both sites are utilitarian in nature (appealing to practical interests rather than a more liberal, knowledge-based pursuit), they both have some value. People who know nothing of North Dakota would get some ideas, not necessarily balanced, but not necessarily deceiving either. Even the best thought out and designed sites are going to be used in very selective ways. There does not seem to be any way to force people to study these sites thoroughly. The web by nature invites lots of clicks, jumping from place to place.

When I think of historical websites I often think of massive projects like the Victorian Web or But these are so far-reaching they are hard to evaluate. I think there is value in smaller sites, with limited links and pages, but my big concern is the wise and careful selection of materials. Also, one must consider what audience one is trying to reach. Potentially anyone, from an elementary school kid to a serious history professional, may end up looking at the site, and so the designer just has to be aware of this. Designs that somehow hold the viewer’s attention for longer periods, rather than inviting them to click around quickly, would be my preference (if such designs exist).

It would be nice to incorporate somehow some of the interactive elements that come with social media. The idea of just putting up a set of pages has its simple attraction, and I am hesitant to weigh down site pages with lots of links to social media sharing engines and so forth. I put a high value on simplicity, but it’s probably not wise to be simple just for simplicity’s sake.

Ideally, I think, a history website will have a simple to use front end that is uncluttered and visually attractive. Behind the front end, though, it will have a lot of content areas that can be valuable to people who want to go into greater depth. It should be respectable from a scholarly point of view without being inaccessible to beginners or outsiders.

For this review I sketched quickly in pencil a map of both sites.  I have seen “site maps” on some websites (PBS sites often have them) but these were both so simple that there would not be much point.  I do like the fact that with the 50states site, no matter where you go you always have the boxes to the side to click back into, so you always know where you are.  The History channel site kept its boxes at the top at all times  Other than that, there seemed to be nothing notable about how these sites were organized.

Comparative Website Mapping in Pencil_Page_1 Comparative Website Mapping in Pencil_Page_2