Unleashing Creativity With Digital Technology

Digital technologies are reducing the cost of iteration and experimentation in creative work — and that opens up new possibilities for both people and businesses.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:

“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”

If you watch movies or television, you’ve likely seen Stefan Sonnenfeld’s work. It’s on display in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” three “Mission Impossible” movies, four “Transformer” movies, the “Cold Case” TV series, and dozens more. In a 2007 article, Entertainment Weekly listed him alongside creative luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep as one of the “50 Smartest People in Hollywood.” Unlike some others on the list, however, Sonnenfeld’s creativity is digitally enabled.

Sonnenfeld is a “digital intermediate colorist.” He uses computers to alter the colors in movies and TV shows until they look spectacular. Without the technology, his artistry would not be possible. Nor would the profits that Sonnenfeld and the company he cofounded, Company 3, have generated for its parent companies, Ascent Media (from 2000 to 2010) and Los Angeles-based Deluxe Entertainment Services Group Inc. (to whom it was sold in 2010).

Digital color artistry like Sonnenfeld’s is an example of a general principle: Technology can be deployed to augment the creative abilities of people and organizations and make new and valuable forms of innovation possible. Today’s digital technologies have reached a level of maturation that enables, across many domains, a practical capability that I have, in my research, called cheap and rapid iteration.

To iterate is to try something different from what you tried last time. Sonnenfeld iterates when he tries out many different color effects on a movie. Sometimes he tries this, then that, then another thing, until he hits on something brilliant. He can do this cheaply and rapidly only because he works at a high-powered computer console with fiber connections, huge amounts of storage, and specialized software for making subtle adjustments to specific areas of a picture and across time in a film. Yes, all that equipment is an investment, but once he’s made it, the cost of trying something new — of the next iteration — is nominal.

Iteration is the process that enables most forms of artistry.