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On Creativity and Design

posted by Matt Ward on Jul 18, 2010.

There is a long standing relationship between the concepts of design and creativity, but just how related are these two concepts? In this article, we will consider the meaning of creativity and work towards a possible understanding of its role in the design process.

As designers, creativity is generally understood to be a big part of our industry. Often, people in this field are actually referred to as “creatives” and I’ve heard and been a part of discussions that label the design process as “doing the creative”. Obviously, there’s an important relationship, but the question that I want to consider in this article is: just how much of a role does creativity actually have in design?

On Creativity and Design

On Creativity and Design

The question itself depends a great deal on your definition of creativity. In my view, there are basically two ways of looking at the concept, one of which is very broad, while the other is really somewhat restrictive. In this article, we will consider the meaning of creativity and work towards a possible understanding of its role in the design process.

Broad Creativity

The way of understanding the concept of creativity is simply that being “creative” is a matter of having the ability to create. By this definition, the human being is, at its core, a creative creature. We make all kinds of things. We craft tools, construct buildings, build communities and so forth.

From this perspective, I truly believe that all people are ultimately creative in some capacity. We all make different kinds of things, and most of us take some form of pride in the product.

Getting back to the question of design, however, if we take this very broad understanding of creativity, then I think that it’s safe to say that most (if not all) of the design is creative. After all, the entire process is centred around creating something. Each step contributes to the same ultimate goal (or at least it should), namely to create the finished design, whether it be a poster, a logo, a website or something else entirely.

Now, I can already anticipate a counter argument suggesting that some parts of the process aren’t creative. For instance, I’m currently in the process of developing a skeleton WordPress theme that I can use as a tool for more rapid development of custom (and perhaps in the future, premium) themes. The argument could, perhaps, be made that because I am reusing the same product, that this part of the process is not creative at all.

But why not? Simply because there is nothing new about it?

If we look at our first understanding of creativity, however, it includes absolutely nothing about the need to be new. It is simply a matter of creating something. If an artist paints a painting with brushes that they have used before, is the creativity of the piece in any way compromised because the brushes are not new? Not at all!

If the creative part of design is based solely in the creation itself, then my simple skeleton theme is as much a part of the creative process as anything else.

Restrictive Creativity

However, by emphasizing the importance of newness, this particular argument does bring us at least part way to second definition of creativity, and the one that I think resonates more strongly through our culture. In a nutshell, that definition has to do with originality and innovation.

By embracing this definition of creativity, we are ultimately saying that the creative person is he or she who is blessed with the ability to conceive new and original ideas, moving things forward in interesting and previously un-conceived (or at least un-attempted) ways. Creativity, then becomes the realm of a certain form of genius – that which we so often call the “creative genius”.

When it comes to design, this ultimately changes everything surrounding our driving question. If creativity does, in fact, exist in the realm of the new, the original and the as-yet-unseen, then I would have to say that very little about design actually has to do with creativity.

To start with, how many websites are there out there that look exactly like all the other websites out there? I’m not asking this question with any form of judgement, since many of these similar looking sites are actually very attractive, have good usability and ultimately accomplish their missions admirably. There’s just nothing all that creative about them.

Moreover, even in websites that do have some level of creativity involved – perhaps a unique overall appearance or a new and innovative way of framing content – there will also be other elements that simply are not as creative. Using a basic grid? That’s a great way to add some much needed structure to your design, but it’s not creative. Adjusting typographical properties in order to improve overall readability? Perfect! But unless you’re doing something really radical, it’s not really all that creative either.

The same can also be said to apply in other areas of design too, where we follow certain rules and conventions – not because we lazy or uncreative, but simply because they have are proven choices and methodologies for achieving an effective design. Thousands of years ago, somebody had the very creative idea that led to the wheel. In all of the years that have followed, has anybody been able to develop a better solution?

Not really.

It’s just another example of the old adage: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Originality vs. Functionality

Interestingly, the further I ventured down the road of this particular line of thought, the more I found myself wondering if creativity (measured by the terms of our second definition) and design might actually be mutually exclusive from each other. By this, I simply mean that each can exist independently of the other.

Creativity certainly doesn’t need to manifest itself only through design. Interestingly, though, neither does design necessarily need to be coupled with some form of creativity. In fact a good piece of design can be utterly and completely unoriginal. This is not to say that it can be a blatant rip-off, merely that that there is no individual element within the design that is entirely unique or new.

Take the website of designer Owain Lewis, which I stumbled across over at Minimal Exhibit.

Owain Lewis' beautiful website

Owain Lewis' beautiful website

Altogether, it’s a beautiful and well designed site. At the same time, however, there really isn’t anything about the design that I haven’t seen before. From this perspective, the site seems more like execution of sound design principles rather than an expression of creativity – at least the kind of creativity that demands originality and newness.

Ultimately, the conclusion that this brings me to is that, while this restrictive form of creativity itself is focused on originality and newness, design itself is more about functionality. And I don’t necessarily use the term in the context of interface or web design. I simply mean that a good design is meant to fulfill a particular purpose. As such, it needs to function in particular way – even if that way is primarily the visual incitement of a particular response (psychological, emotional etc).

Creativity, then is not mandated in design, though neither it is necessarily excluded.


So where does that leave us? If we think of creativity as simply being the act or function of creating something, then the definition is so incredibly broad that every part of the design process can be considered to be creative. On the other hand, if we think of creativity in the more restrictive context of having to do with originality and newness, then, to some degree, the relationship between creativity and design becomes almost mutually exclusive!

From this context, it may seem impossible to make any conclusion about the relationship between creativity and design. This is not entirely true, however. I think that there is at least one conclusion that we can reach, and that is this:

By and large, our focus should be on the design, not on trying to be creative.

From the perspective of broad creativity, where every act of making something is a creative act, then trying to focus on being creative is entirely redundant. If the active of design is creative in and of itself, then trying be creative isn’t going to get you anywhere – except perhaps running in circles.

On the other hand, if creativity is entirely about being original, then it seems to me that focusing a great deal of effort on trying to be creative might (in many cases) be equally pointless. In the vast majority of cases, there is really no need to create something entirely new. Yes, it should be your own work, and yes, you should put your own spin on it, but there’s no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel with every single design you do.

As we draw to a close here, I can already anticipate a lot of people reacting very strongly to this article. So, I want to stress that the point is not to say that design can never be creative, or that designers should not be creative people (which they generally are). I am simply suggesting that creativity and design can operate independently of each other.

When you think about it, this can really be a liberating concept.

This autonomy means that, even if you’re not feeling all that creative, or are seemingly unable to come up with a new or original concept, you can still effectively fulfill your role as the designer. Just design smart. Use the principles that you’ve learned through your education and/or experience and implement them in the execution. They will serve you well.

As always, it’s your turn to talk. I have a feeling this might be a bit of a controversial post, so what do you guys think? Is there another way to look at creativity that I’m not considering? Do you have a different understanding of the relationship between creativity and design?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jul 18, 2010

Kim says:

Great post! I learned a lot and I agree with a lot of what you mentioned, especially about using learned principles that are “tried-and-true” to design well, even if you may not being feeling “creative”.

For myself, I find that (as I am just starting out) I learn from what other designers, photographers, artists, etc. do and then take what they have done successfully and see how it works for myself and put my own style on it. I also find that seeing what others are doing, and how they got their designs or photographs, etc. can often function as a starting off point and lead me into other “creative” ideas.

Thanks for the post!

Jul 19, 2010

Gert-Jan says:

Wonderfull article and I can realy find myself into this cause I myself am a starting student in webdesign and development.

I’m not realy creative myself so I will have to learn from the design principles they teach me at school and from excercising alot I think.

Nice to hear that you don’t HAVE to be enterily creative to be a designer! =)

Jul 22, 2010

sebi kovacs says:

Hi man,
Love the article. Good work.

Off topic: could you please set a white bg and black text alternative on the articles. I find it very difficult to go through a long article

Take care

Jul 22, 2010

Cari says:

Thanks a lot for this article! It is really inspiring!

Jul 22, 2010

Rik Hopkinson says:

Great Post!

It reminded me of a book I read called ‘Simplicity and Complexity’ by John Maeda (Great read by the way!)

Basically you can’t have one without the other. It’s finding the fine balance and being smart and intuitive about how you approach it.

There is always a relation between them so in essence they feed off each other which, in my view, is just like design and creativity. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it but who’s to say you can’t play with it a little :))

Thanks again for the Post!

Jul 22, 2010

Neo says:

Good one Rik.

As for me, I’m always striving for simplicity in the complex. In other words trying to find simple solutions to complex problems. It’s not always possible but here’s another avenue where ‘creativity’ can be expressed.

I don’t entirely agree with you though Matt. I agree that re-inventing the wheel is counter-productive but then there will always an evolution of the wheel that requires both creativity and design. You’ve got to conceive an idea, then design it, then develop it to make it real…no? I’m not convinced that the 2 can live without each other.

Jul 22, 2010

Peter Goes says:

Hi there,
By reading “there’s no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel with every single design you do.” I thought about this:
Look at all the “Apple style” apps. More and more it seems that if a app or design fit’s this style, it’s considered a well designed.

Most of the time it’s a clear user interface, which is a very good thing, but I don’t call them creative (visual) designs.

I guess you have to find a balance in being creative.

But I want to say that you are making some great points here!

Jul 25, 2010

Lucas Cobb Design says:

Hi Matt,

I’ll make reference to your skeleton WordPress theme as being the frame of a plane. They are both skeletons and the structure of both cannot be changed due to the use of a skeleton. The only thing that can be changed on the plane is what you panel it with and what instruments you can fit in its cockpit. The same can be said with the WordPress theme. If its a 3 column skeleton with the sidebar on the right side, it will always be that way and all you can change is the color scheme, css and widgets / plugins used. It will always be the same.

Without creativity (innovation) everything will come to a standstill and we look to the next best thing for inspiration. There will never be a day when creativity does not exist. It’s just not possible and it’s the only way any of us get better at what we do.

Jul 26, 2010

Erick Abelio says:

Hey, very good article.

Thanks for shared with us.

Aug 2, 2010

Wannes says:

While reading your article I started thinking about other creative professions, namely musicians.

Take a classical pianist for example. He plays a score that has been composed by someone else. And the same piece has been played by thousands of other pianists. Does this make the musician a non-creative person? I don’t think so, because the creativity here lies in the interpretation of the score.

The same applies to design, I think. Creativity lies in the interpretation and application of design principles.

Apr 24, 2011

Boggs says:

I must say very nice tips! Thank you!

Aug 29, 2011

Relationship Consultant says:

Great job Matt! You have a very informative article. thanks for sharing it with us.

Feb 4, 2012

Kamal A. Chokshi says:

Hey Matt…its a useful tools for me to improve our designing work. And love to read and learn about this unstoppable topic….

Apr 8, 2012

Anna says:

Good article. I can’t stand when I hear “you gotta be creative”, it puts me in the “box”, and the result — no desire and ideas to do anything, because you think it’s not creative and therefore not good enough.

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