Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Creativity is Not Design
(Design Test 2)

November 2, 2009

Some years ago I published a little test to stimulate discussion in the community and so that readers could self-evaluate their understanding of design fundamentals. It was and remains quite popular among my readers. Here I’ve crafted another design test, but this time with a specific target audience and a more specific purpose.

Too often I notice designers and non-designers alike equating creativity with design. I find this assumption disturbing because it is one of the many fallacies that allow unskilled but creative pretenders to consider themselves capable design professionals when they’re nothing of the sort.

Creativity is not design. Creativity has nothing to do with design. Creativity is bound by no laws, rules, or strictures …which is perhaps why it’s so intoxicating (sometimes to the point of delusion). Design, on the other hand, is based entirely on math, psychology, human perception, and a host of rigid rules and laws that can be broken by only a highly skilled few. Those unfamiliar with these laws and rules, and the associated sciences are by no definition designers.

To help illustrate the difference between creativity and design, I’ve put together a little quiz that references some of the fundamentals of design—and not creativity. Those steeped in creativity, but not design, will be lost. Those competent in design fundamentals will find this stuff to be elementary.

I know from reviewing my referrer log over the years that several of my articles are regularly included in the syllabi of design programs at colleges, universities, and trade schools all over the world. In the same vein it is my hope that teachers and professors might employ this test or something like it in their curriculum to help draw distinction between creativity and design for their students. Too many of them are graduating with a compromised or nonexistent understanding of this distinction.

The Test

1. In the example below, which pattern appears to be manmade and which appears to be organic? Why?

manmade and organic

2. Is the energy of this composition horizontal or vertical? Why?

horizontal or vertical

3. Which of the two compositions evokes visual discomfort? Why?


4. Given your answer to the previous question, how else might you imply or evoke discomfort in a composition or layout?

5. Reflecting on what you’ve discovered in the previous 2 questions, what might you assume about crafting a visually comfortable experience? Why?

6. Why is asymmetry generally more advisable than symmetry in page layout?

7. Given what you understand about the previous question, what other mechanisms might help to compensate for the problems created by symmetry in an informational page layout?

8. Describe specific communicative reasons you would employ sharp corners instead of rounded corners in your design.

9. Describe the communicative differences between these two structures.

formal and graduated grid

10. Following the logic you employed in the previous question, why might you employ a gradient as a visual texture or a gradation as a layout mechanism in a design?

11. What is the purpose of the grid in a layout?

12. Since the relationship between the individual objects remains constant in both figures, what has changed in figure B?

grid orientation change

13. Describe the difference(s) in the primary visual message between figure A and Figure B. What fundamental principle(s) account for the difference(s) in the communicated message?

strict and perspective

14. Describe at least 3 different ways to lead the viewer’s eye into and through a layout/composition along a specific path. What mechanisms could be employed to accomplish this?

15. In the image below, which object is influencing another object?


16. Does the influence you perceive in the example above imply motion or a static state?

17. In light of your answer for the previous question, to what effect(s) might you employ the influence of graphic objects or structural elements upon one another in a composition/layout?

18. Which of these two line examples communicates speed?


19. Draw a masculine geometric form …and a feminine one. What distinguishes the gender message between these two forms?

20. Compare figure A with figure B. What function(s) is/are served by the structural elements in figure A? Are they necessary? Why or why not? Are there other ways of accomplishing a similar effect? If so, how might this be accomplished?

structure and no structure

21. Compare the layouts below. Which one possesses a clear hierarchy of information? How is this accomplished? In what other ways could the same effect be accomplished?


22. In which of these examples is the logo larger? And yes, this is a trick question. Discuss.

la times la times

So there you go. This is the easy stuff; the basics. Even so, it should be clear that no amount of creativity can help you with this design test. You’ll note that many of the questions have more than one answer and most require essay-form answers. This format is important, as it is the best way for students to demonstrate understanding and for a class to segue toward more expansive discussion.

You’ll note that I do not supply the answers here; this is for two specific reasons. First, design teachers who know this stuff don’t need me to supply the answers (and it would preclude the use of this test in their classes if I did). Second, I want those who have considered themselves to be designers but find this test impenetrable to clearly understand their lack of design competence. In that case, if I supplied the answers here it would likely limit the urge to address clear educational voids. It is my sincere hope that upon recognizing clear evidence of design incompetence, these individuals might stop stealing money from clients and embark upon a design education to acquire the requisite understanding necessary for the profession they now only pretend to pursue.

I know from my discussions with designers over the years that colleges, universities, and trade schools often provide inadequate design programs, resulting in inadequately educated and poorly prepared design graduates. I therefore have no doubt that many “highly educated” designers will fail my little test here. And while that is certainly an indictment of design programs, it is also an indictment of design students. Your education is not your teachers’ responsibility, it is yours alone.

Finally, if you are one who has always agreed with the statement that design is a “creative profession,” you might want to reevaluate your understanding of the role of creativity in design and the purpose and appropriateness of that label on your profession.

If you found this test to be quite easy, congratulations. If not, and you want to be a designer, I suggest you get your learn on before you take any more design jobs.