On Creativity

by Andy Rutledge

51 Reader Comments

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  1. Parsing through the article I notice Andy described creativity as an “ability to see things differently and notice”, tell me if I’m wrong but isn’t this the way intelligence is (often) defined—as an ability to quickly notice patterns and relationships that other people cannot? Therefore, could one say that designers (probably) have a higher IQ or that the job requires it?

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  2. 15 years experience of working with a number of people described (in differing degrees) as “creatives”, “designers”, “artworkers”,  “techies” and weird hybrids thereof can confirm that creativity certainly does NOT equal intelligence.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean the two things are mutually exclusive. I have worked with highly intelligent creatives and those that need instructions to put their trousers on in the morning.

    I guess alot of it comes down to the definition of intelligence.

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  3. Hi –

    I’m wondering why the author has been completely silent. Part of the beauty of this publication is the ability for the author to interact.

    Could we hear something from you, Andy? Great, thanks…

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  4. One belief is that creative people excel in divergent thinking and that intelligent people excel in convergent thinking.

    If you are interested, other studies by Roe(1952),
    Mackinnon(1976), and Getzels/Jackson (1962)provide interesting insights about the relationship between creativity and intelligence.

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  5. I would love to hear even more about taking constraints of the design process, specifically web design, and leveraging them as strengths.

    Print has its own unique processes, and trying to become a master (or at least a solid practitioner) of both print and interactive/web design is a difficult task that I find myself in.

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  6. My concern is that Andy is so eager to separate wild crazy no-holdsp-barred creativity from design problem solving that he is discounting the absolute real value of the way “soft” fuzzy creative thinking works.

    The space suit example is a case in point: Someone above posted a link to an engineer/designer who is developing a form-fitting “spandex” space suit which directly compresses the skin instead of enveloping the body in a sack of compressed air. This design process began with exactly the kind of thinking Andy seeks to suppress: thinking of something that is absolutely WRONG in order to redefine the problem. In this case, the problem had always been defined as “how to create air pressure around a body”, instead of “how to pressurize the skin” or even “how to make a slimmer, nimbler, and sexier space suit”. By redefining the problem in terms that may run afoul of the current thinking, designers and engineers are able to then try to solve the new problem. Maybe there is no solution and they go back to the drawing board, but maybe, instead, a better solution will emerge.

    Similarly, a designer may get a kooky crazy idea to arbitrarily design his or her next web site upside down, or all in shades of yellow, or out of toothpicks, or whatever seems interesting and wacky to them. This inspiration may, further down the line, open up new possibilities in the design itself. Later, when the design’s practical requirements are revisited, as they should be, the toothpicks may be removed, but some of the ideas the toothpicks generated may remain.

    I am concerned with the seemingly perpetual desire on the part of many design writers, Andy especially, to try to suppress fuzzy thinking among designers. There are two problems: the lack of structured thinking among fuzzy-thinking designers (designers being too artsy) AND the lack of fuzzy-thinking among structured designers (designers being little more than engineers). And I think the latter problem is by far a greater problem than the former: our products generally work okay, they’re just boring and ugly and depressing to use.

    In short, we can introduce better structured thinking to designers without suppressing the fuzzy part. Great designers can do both. No need to knock one to build up the other.

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  7. That is exactly why I decided to start my own site.  It is risky, but to be able to have creative freedom is not something many people get to do. 
    http://slackerchic.blogspot.com/

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  8. Trying to show a client how creative you are only makes me think of Carrot Top in a boardroom trying to make balloon out of bowling ball.

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  9. I’m not sure Andy’s argument is totally correct here. I believe Creativity is just that, the act of creation, whatever scale it may be on. I believe what Andy outlines here in his article is really insight. I think the distinction is a small yet important one. Insight gives us a perception of something that penetrates the surface and this is a rare talent. I also believe that Andy is wrong in saying that these things are innate and can not be learned as I personally believe this to be a skill that can be worked at. This is not to say that many people do seem to have a natural aptitude for this.

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  10. There is no one saying that you have to limit your creativity. This article merely points out that design is a process and a very complicated one at that. There are many things to consider and we should embrace that idea and try to get others to do the same. It is a shame if when people see websites or applications and think that we are only artists. There is so much more. Art and self expression are just pieces of the whole design experience and unfortunately the majority of people out there do not understand that. When the only thing someone can say to me after months of planning and work is, “yah it looks nice”, it is not very rewarding. Think about it.

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  11. I have been involved in web dev (front end for DOM and DHTML mostly) for the last 2 years with a decade of experience in desktop publishing and ad design. This article outlines quite a bit of self realization over the years. Concise and well written. Good work.

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  12. This article is superb and presents some of us in the field with a different perspective to contemplate. I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate that this article could be so widely spread via this website. Cheers!

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  13. Over here in Germany I made the experience that money (cost) matters first… Creativity comes later.

    Of course – it always has to be “creativ”… but it should cost nothing.

    But: i am aware that there are also “agencies”, where creativity matters most. They get paid whatever wanted…

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  14. For the last 2 years one of my key staff members has been after me to pretty much start my own school of design.  I tell her no because after a decade or so of doing that we would produce the same limited view on designs as we are finding in our applicants now.

    This was an amazing article and creativity is so much of what you said but also so much more.  To be truly creative you have to have an understanding of your audience, not just be a pixel pusher or design visionary.  Creativity extends far beyond vision and reaches into the hearts and minds of your viewers.  It is each and every “designers” job to take to heart who they are designing for and not just what they are designing.

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  15. And I’d like to add another perspective of my own.

    I suppose creativity to be lacking, stifled in most if the task was to create another compelling “loop in the minds” comparing Coca-Cola over Pepsi, thinking the goal is to boast sales of one product over the other for the quarter. Gearing up and rallying you and your personnel for a project such as this is like everyone thinking of going out somewhere and getting drunk.

    A smidgen of creativity and design aptitude works best with a project that the mind can sink its teeth into, and take a bite out of, such as the GUI of the Macintosh computer, which gave the world Apple’s 1984 Superbowl thirty second presentation commercial.

    The lack of quality projects for a creative mind to engage in, eg. another Cola war, Drake’s Cakes and Pastries, new and improved soap products, etc., probably should’ve been considered if only to leave the reader of this tome with the impression that sometimes the goal and result of and for one’s creative expression is simply just a colossal bore.

    Andy articulates his thoughts well. I’m glad I read this.

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  16. I never call myself “creative” and I kind of bristle at it. In the web world “designer” often == “interior decorator.” Ask a structural engineer who the “designer” on a project is and they’ll point to the firm’s principal i.e. the most-experienced, best-paid, smartest person in the room. NOT the fresh-out-of-college kid with an “awesome book.”

    I don’t even like to say “creative” in the sense that Rutledge is using i.e. “creative problem solving” or “creative constraint definition” even though these are probably my strengths.

    “Creative” is like “special” or “elegant” or “strategy.” A word everyone uses and no one knows the meaning of. If you’re using “creative” in a sentence prepare to be misunderstood.

    I especially hate “Creative” as a noun, e.g. “Paul will be your Creative on this project” or “did you bring the Creative [meaning comps] for the client meeting?” Ugh. I feel like there’s this brightly-colored room where the Creatives go to do remedial math while the smarter kids at the agency write strategy briefs or requirements docs.

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  17. Thanks for this post.  The ideas you share and the responses of other readers (which led me to view Ken Robinson’s talk “Do schools kill creativity?”) were very thought provoking.  Instead of taking up a ton of space with further feedback here, I have posted my response to this article at the link below:
    http://dacko.ca/blog/2008/03/19/on-creativity/

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  18. Great Article! It’s very interesting to read here how “creativity” is perceived in market. I too have heard the word used in many contexts by non creatives to mean, “make it look pretty” or “different” or “stand out.” (I think we all have been there)

    What I enjoyed here are the perceptions of creativity and design, that are seemingly non parallel. Especially as mentioned in web design, we often execute for purpose of the user, not self satisfaction. Funny, I actually consider myself not so much a creative professional, but rather a problem solver -using my “thinking” and applying technical capabilities like illustrating or photography to communicate ideas.

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  19. This article was insightful, but most ideas were quite redundant and/or drawn out too long.  This could have been condensed to a much more reasonable size.

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  20. To be honest I gave up on the looks and just focused on the search engine optimization part of web design because that is all anyone ever talks about when asking me to create websites for them now adays.

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  21. To be honest I gave up on the looks and just focused on the search engine optimization part of web design because that is all anyone ever talks about when asking me to create websites for them now adays.

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  22. Design is not a single phase as many might think if they look at traditional System Development Life Cycles (SDLC).  Design actually has seven phases:

    1. REVISE – Concept Design
    2. RELATE – Context Design
    3. REPORT – Logic Design
    4. RECORD – Physics Design
    5. READY – Definition Design
    6. RENDER – Manipulation Design
    7. RESORT – Media Design

    Each step adds additional constraints to the design process.

    As well a system does not involve the design of a single facet but six:

    1. CAUSE – Why – goals and rules of the system
    2. OBSERVER – Who – people and roles of the system
    3. ENERGY – How – software and functions of the system
    4. MASS – What – inventory and data of the system
    5. SPACE – Where – hardware and locations of the system
    6. TIME – When – events and sequences of the system

    Each of the facets (columns) are designed according to each phase (row).  Benefits are calculated down the columns and costs are calculated across the rows.  This allows a cost benefit estimate and actual to be determined phase by phase.

    This methodology to be effective should be computer assisted from start to finish.  This has not been realized.  No language exists where seamless integration of all the phases and facets is achieved, modeling or otherwise.

    However, the room for creativity is enormous.  Suddenly, all the participants regarded as designers have incentive to innovate and invent.  Innovation being the storm of ideas and invention being the chosen idea for each facet of the phase.

    Yes, it is structured.  Basically it is a periodic table of your system where you discover each element.  However, considering the way we think and act non-linearly and organically we can cascade through this methodology both across the rows and down the columns many times, refining each time.  The concept, context, logic, physics, definition, manipulation and media becoming clearer and sharper with each iteration.

    Every person is a designer.  Its just a designer in what phase and what facet.

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  23. Creativity is a fact of life.  If you are creative you are noticed in a good way.  You need to be creative in order to distinguish yourself from the others.

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  24. Back in the early 90s, when I was teaching video production classes at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, one of my greatest challenges was convincing students of the value of using tripods for their cameras and 3-point lighting. This was the time when Steven Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” was bursting on the scene—the no-tripod, no stabilizer camerawork shot under natural lighting was the first primetime TV show to invoke anxiety for 60-full minutes. This was also the time that AT&T’s TV spots featured frenetically shot black-and-white footage of customers talking about their long-distance carrier experiences.

    Despite my efforts to convince students of the values of learning the rules of good video production, and then breaking those rules for maximum effect, they persisted in emulating their MTV influences. I tried, in vain, to help them understand that the real masters of art and creativity embrace the rules before rejecting them.

    The masters of the Impressionist Movement were masters because they studied the ‘rules’ of art for years before turning the art world on its head. The same is said for the French New Wave film movement of the 20th century.

    Rutledge’s article is a great reminder for all who claim to be creative designers—careful to not be an oxymoron.

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  25. Creativity is in deed very important if you want to deliver good work to your customer. But it is only one piece in the whole puzzle. Laborious tasks are neccessary as well. And if you forget to do these things all your superb creative work won’t get the credit it deserves.

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  26. I think quite a lot of the time complaint about the client is legitimate.  If we all operated within the client’s expectations and left our self-expression and desire to experiment at the door every site on the web would have the same “semi-gloss colorful bubbles, drop shadows, gradients and reflections”:href=http://www.photoshopforfun.com/cor_template.htm most uncreative clients are absolutely convinced they have to have. 

    I’m dealing with a client like that right now, who wants something “simple, classy and elegant”:http://alistapart.com that will appeal to her high-class customers, but thinks that equates to “shiny shiny shiny with an extra helping of kitsch”:http://www.yelp.com/ .

    Constraints on creativity are great, when they are in context of the needs of the customer, or a corporate identity.  When they get in the way of delivering what the client wants because they’re focused on what he expects, they are a nightmare.  That’s what I personally think designers complain about the most.

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  27. I agree that what is being called “creativity” can zoom right into an “it must be different” without consideration of the medium, standards or, unfortunately, the client’s industry and needs. There’s a world of difference between designing a professional website for a client and something you might do for yourself. I think we owe it to clients to ensure that what we do for them is aimed squarely at achieving their goals.

    If you have to stop to explain issues to them, and you probably will because they’re not web designers, then so be it.

    Your own stuff? Geez, that can go fast and brilliant according to your own needs. :)

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  28. In music and art as well as web design, I see too often that people who claim to be creative are avoiding being competent.  I host an open mic and it is impossible to talk to many of the singer/songwriters about music because they don’t know enough about their craft to hold a discussion.  They seem to feel if they are ‘creative’, that magic will happen and they will be appreciated.  The ‘Creative’ word also too often means ‘look at me’ rather than at the good work they’ve done.

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  29. I think the very best thing that’s ever happened for my “creativity” is working within the constraints of strict XHTML.

    I disagree with a lot of this article but a solid framework is essential to almost any work of art. I mean unless you’re intentionally making an artistic statement about chaos and entropy, or the transitory nature of things in general.

    There’s something aesthetically pleasing about a semantically sensible framework in and of itself, even if few will ever see it.

    Then the real magic happens when you take a client’s existing media and paint it on that framework, creating something new and different without actually creating anything new and different.

    Say, wouldn’t it be cool if you could make a screen reader “sing” a stylesheet?

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  30. I once participated in a workshop led by Roger de Bruyn. He presented a model in which creativity is the coming together of craftsmanship, commitment to (solving) the problem, and imagination-flexibility<sup>1</sup>; as opposed to the more general use of the word creativity that focuses on only one of the three, imagination-flexibility. If you follow these lines, it is clear where most of the constraints originate: in the problem that you want to solve. And for the rest it depends on how good you really are: your own craftsmanship may be a serious constraint too. As De Bruijn says as a subtitle to “The proof of the pudding “¦”?: you always end up with design; and on creativity itself: “Be sparing with creativity, work on improving quality.”? When listening to De Bruijn and reading his texts, he confirms Ruthledge where it comes to creativity and constraints. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say that both agree with Goethe’s “In der beschränking zeigt sich erst der Meister,”? which can be given two distinct but connected meanings, one that being able to excel in spite of constraints, the other, off course, that less is more.

    <sup>1</sup> I guess there is a better translation of “vakmanschap, probleembetrokkenheid en verbeeldingsflexibiliteit,”? but my knowledge of English is insufficient to come up with that.

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  31. Andy-
    I truly feel sorry for you and your strange need to classify and further throw limitations upon yourself or other likeminded “individuals” (I almost said single minded but they are immune from such quackery thankfully)who have the misfortune of coming across your ideas about creativity. There I was snug within the confines of a gentle afternoon when I read your disturbing litany of excesses, sending a shiver through the very air I was breathing, with its vague attempts at shackling everything good and true to the imaginative spirit.Yes Andy, I said spirit, but I’m sure you have a quantitive approach to this subject as well.
    I am just an artist and have not the disposition (thank Zagreus!)necessary to disect the speculative notions and exact dimensions of creativity but partnering it as you have so neatly done within the institution of “Design” fits it to a T! I agree, that as a designer you do have to adhere to certain restrictions but that doesn’t mean you have to sever the arm because the eye is merely watering. Trust your instincts instead!If you poses any.
    Creativity IS like love, something that cannot be measured and more importantly why should it? Classifying every last belief, action, idea etc. only further diminishes the wonder and mystery that make those aspects of our world unique. Your distinction between “Applied creativity” and “idealistic definition” makes as much sense as the separation between sucking and fucking.
    Don’t spoil it for the rest of us, or future impressionable generations, who come across your solipsism and take it for truth. You employ your creativity and I’ll employ mine and in that way we’ll be able to effectively seperate creativity from the designer giving it back to free thinking where it belongs.

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