December 28, 2009
If you’re a web designer, do you consider yourself to be “a creative”? When you describe your profession to others, or when you promote yourself or your agency, are references to creativity prominent in your words? If so, how do you characterize creativity’s role or significance in your work? How closely do your references to creativity conform to the popular understanding of creativity…and how much to its actual nature?
I originally wrote this article for A List Apart and it was first published there on March 4, 2008. I'm republishing it here in a mildly edited form. The original article was edited by Erin Kissane and the title was proposed by Jeffrey Zeldman (as I submitted the article to ALA without a title). However, any mistakes, typos, or lack of clarity here are my fault entirely.
This last distinction is important because the popular conception of creativity and its relationship to design is often distorted. As designers, we are, rightly or not, widely perceived as custodians and professional exponents of creativity. Therefore, the ways in which we define, employ, and represent creativity matter.
In light of this professional responsibility, it’s best that designers recognize the difference between idealistic definitions of creativity and the practical, effective nature of the applied creativity professionals must exercise—and then behave accordingly. Individual designers may have differing ideas about these issues. I believe that our ideas about creativity and how we employ it factor significantly in the quality of our design efforts and in our professional prospects, so I want to challenge your concept of creativity’s place in our work and professional communication.
So what is creativity?
…never having to say you’re sorry. Yes, just like love. In fact, like love, we must never judge or ridicule creativity. Creativity is precious; it is our birthright and a glowing light that resides within each one of us, making us special and unique and…
Well, not really. These sorts of sentiments are fine for young children needing reassurance and encouragement, but as designers, our creative efforts are judged—and rightly so. While many commonly popular definitions of creativity amount to little more than references to self-expression or flamboyancy, we designers should not be so lax or obtuse in our concept of it. Much hinges on our use of creativity, including our clients’ fortunes.
Creativity has nothing at all to do with self-expression or flamboyancy. Aside from the simple ability to create things, the most important feature of creativity is a highly developed perception filter that is somewhat less common than we’re led to believe. Despite what we were taught in school, we don’t all possess significant creativity, and fewer of us still have any skill at employing it. True, anyone can make something, and anyone can make something up. In this mundane sense, everyone is creative. But this basic truth belies the design-relevant definition of creativity, and ignores the fact that each one of us has different creative abilities.
Creativity is technical and analytical, not expressive (as in self-expression). It is a filter through which perception and output pass, not a receptor or an infusion (as in the case of inspiration). Creativity may require or be enhanced by inspiration, but the two are distinct forces. (These facts are vital in discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate descriptions and applications of creativity.)
Creativity is an inborn capacity for thinking differently than most, seeing differently, and making connections and perceiving relationships others miss. But most importantly, it is the ability to then extrapolate contextually useful ways of employing that data: to create something that meets a specific challenge. By this definition, creativity is merely a tool; it does not convey skill. For a dedicated few, though, this inborn capacity is then further augmented by certain disciplines, including:
- ongoing curiosity,
- the desire and habit of looking more deeply into things than others care to,
- the habit of comparing stimulus with result, and
- a habit for qualitative discrimination.
It is primarily these disciplines that set top creative professionals apart from those who are merely gifted. It is also these disciplines that help shape a designer’s intuitive senses, which are vital to design craft, processes, and overall success. Being merely creatively gifted is no qualification for design expertise, and the idea that creativity is a magic bullet that anyone or any designer may employ to positive effect is a vacuous notion.
There is another factor that’s vital to the effective use of creativity in the design process: timing, or when in the design process creativity should be employed. The most effective use of creativity begins with a litany of very un-creative things called “facts”—the facts we get to know during the discovery process.
Careful where you point that thing
The siren song of creativity is likely responsible for more bad design than any other factor. Some might think this statement to be overly dramatic, but I believe we should regard creativity as a rather dangerous tool. Like a firearm, it should be treated with caution and respect, and used professionally only by trained individuals.
If you are a designer worth your salt, you know that no design project begins with creativity. Instead, it begins with client- and/or context-specific discovery, and lots of research to help you understand the fundamental nature of the challenges at hand. All designers must guard against the urge to invest in specific creative ideas before becoming intimately familiar with the contextual landscape of a design project.
Sadly, creativity is often used as a crutch, or as a surrogate for design competence. Some individuals reveal themselves as clinging to this practice when they complain that some client work prevents them from “being creative.” What they mean here is that they dislike not being allowed to express themselves. But design competence has little to do with self-expression, and creativity is no substitute for knowledge or comprehensive understanding. Instead, design is most significantly founded on the comprehensive understanding and greatly developed empathetic/sympathetic sense that highly skilled and disciplined individuals bring to bear.
Design creativity often involves coming at a communication or interaction challenge sideways, or from another uncommon angle. In this way, you may find clever or otherwise compelling concepts upon which to base your solution. The thing is, you can never know what constitutes a sideways approach until you have fully explored and are intimately familiar with the entire landscape.
For instance, if your client is NASA and you’re asked to design a spacesuit that allows for a greater degree of physical movement and manual dexterity, you can’t leap straight into creative brainstorming and suggest a form-fitting spandex suit. That would be a creative response to the issue presented to you, but it would also reveal your ignorance of the overall context, e.g. the fact that space is a frigid vacuum.
Before we continue, I want to touch on a common misrepresentation of creativity. In discussions with other designers, occasionally one might hear arguments for how web design creativity is or can be stifled by various external forces, like web standards or client-mandated constraints. But these sentiments indicate a flawed concept of creativity, its place in design, and its purpose in our process.
Any reference to constraints that limit creativity is just another way of equating creativity with self-expression; an erroneous and irresponsible idea. Except for personal projects, self-expression has no place in design, but constraint is vital to design. No component fuels creativity more than constraint. Indeed, without constraint, creativity (and design) is irrelevant. The discovery process is mostly about finding, examining, and fully defining constraints, which is why we must do such a thorough job of it.
Constraints are a designer’s best friend. They’re signposts, not shackles. In a sense, constraints amount to the solution half-built. It is merely up to us to then realize the other half according to what these signposts indicate is appropriate. Nowhere in this concept does self-expression find any valid foothold.
Our intuitive, subjective design senses are relevant to our work. Part of a designer’s job is to show people what they want before they know they want it, and our success in doing so is based largely on our intuitive abilities. But there is a difference between what we prefer and what we know will work best. Competence demands that we understand this difference and filter purely subjective data from sympathetic, fundamentals-based creative work.
Steering the conversation
While my goal here has been to offer designers something to consider about their work and perhaps some challenging ideas to chew on, I have another purpose in all of this. At the start of this article, I asked how you conceive of and associate yourself with ideas of creativity, from a professional perspective. I noted that designers are generally considered to be the custodians of creativity in the professional world, but this distinction may soon come with a cost. So I want to describe a scenario I deem important to our profession and to present you with another challenging idea.
If you read any of the prominent business magazines, like Forbes, Fast Company, Business Week, or Inc., you can find in every issue references to how creativity is vital to success. With the tangible benefits of great design being touted and trumpeted from every corner of the business world, companies aim to seize on what they believe to be the key factor in great design and innovation: creativity. What’s so appealing and what is apparently widely believed is that creativity is absolutely free and available to, and from, everyone on staff. Score!
Businesses are also beginning to look beyond their own sandboxes for the benefits of creativity. Many businesses are looking to customers to craft their marketing, believing that the vast pool of ordinary citizens is a valuable untapped creative resource. But when you recognize, as we do, that creativity is not a magic bullet, and that few individuals understand how to employ it effectively, you can sense trouble looming on the horizon.
The ideas circulating in business communities are misguided; the results of this sort of activity are usually wholly unproductive and inevitably lead to disillusionment. But that’s not all they’ll lead to. Another result of this failed effort is likely to be a vengeful backlash against the assumed characterization and function of creativity. This all-too-predictable pendulum swing will reflect poorly on design professions, which will be both unfortunate and unfair, given that creativity is not the shibboleth to effective design.
Because of this impending trend in much of the business world’s perceptions and opinions of creativity, the design profession will increasingly be judged by how it represents creativity. Web design is one of the so-called creative professions, but that classification has potential to be an albatross around our collective neck, and I think it is a good idea for all of us to soberly consider how we represent value to our clients.
Think about it:
- Are you most comfortable asking your clients to invest in your creativity or in your design competence? Or do you believe these two things to be synonymous?
- If you are the client and you’re spending $450,000 or $45,000 or even $4,500 on design/marketing services, do you trust to design skill or creativity first?
- When a client admonishes you with, “…now I don’t want you to get too creative on this one…” does it indicate that they’ve got a clear grasp of creativity’s place in design work?
- Which quality is easiest to demonstrate to clients and potential clients: your creativity or your skill-based design competence?
- Which quality do you think your clients can more easily grasp and perceive benefit from: your foundational design skills or your creativity?
All of these questions relate strongly to perception rather than substance, but we are in the business of crafting perception, and our substance depends on our clients’ and potential clients’ perceptions. It is our business to craft those perceptions about how creativity fits into our work—and if we don’t, others will do it for us, and the result may not be to our liking.