The Creative Atom is the core little nugget around which the bigger thing forms.

The Creative Atom is the smallest divisible piece, the tiniest thing that stands alone… just like a real atom.

The Creative Atom is a kernel you can build on, and grow, and evolve… just as many atoms become a molecule, and many molecules become a bacterium or a chair.

It’s not the same as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) because it doesn’t have to be commercially viable, it just has to be the core discrete, standalone chunk of a thing that could eventually be much bigger, fancier, more complete.

It does have to work at its intended purpose.

But that purpose doesn’t have to be saleable.

Also, the Creative Atom doesn’t exist to justify its existence or further development to you (Lean defines the MVP as the smallest thing that can be tested or validated).

The Creative Atom doesn’t have to take the same form as your desired end goal:

  • A tweetstorm can turn into a blog post
  • A newspaper article can turn into a book
  • A lightning talk could turn into a 3-hour workshop
  • A shell script or Excel spreadsheet can turn into a SaaS
  • Or a manual, high-touch consulting process can turn into a book… a process guide… a tool… workshop… or an app

Only a couple of these examples would be considered products.

If you wanted to get the Creative Atom for a number-crunching SaaS app off the ground, you might Flintstone it with spreadsheets, API glue, cron jobs, or even hands-on manual munging. You could exercise the same procedure, and deliver an extremely similar result, in a format that doesn’t require months of development. You might or might not charge for this. You could easily start with a high-touch hands-on service… and then slowly automate it behind the scenes, and eventually launch your “skunkworks” as a SaaS.

And if you were, like me, working on a totally new kind of content management system… you might add just a couple of your ideas on top of an existing static site generator and ship that, and start using it.

You can express the core, the Creative Atom, in a million different ways and scales and still be consistent at the heart of it.


Real world example:

I am working on a very long, very researched, very angry essay about why blogs as a format need to die. (Don’t get me started!) It’s 3,000 words so far.

Why not just f*cking ship what I already have? Because it wouldn’t do the job I set out to do with it. E.g. if my goal is to have a heavily researched, footnoted thing, doing a shitty version won’t help. I want this particular essay to be Serious Design Writing. A Creative Atom needs to be discrete, and half-an-essay wouldn’t be.

But that doesn’t mean I’m staying silent on the issue. While I pick away at my magnum opus, my post about our new site briefly raises some of the same points. And I work many of the same core arguments or ideas into tweets, podcast episodes, wireframes, and more.

Each of those expressions are complete in and of themselves — they vary in intensity, scope, and scale — rather than being a shitty version of something that’s supposed to be quite different.

Plus, this isn’t just an academic exercise… I’m putting those same ideas and arguments into work as we design and implement our new site.

The Creative Atom is my arguments for, “Blogs suck, here’s why.”

I can deploy, express, and implement that Creative Atom in a million ways.

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