Why some Designers aren't creative

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Spring is here in Melbourne and the optimism of warmer weather is well and truly upping the vibe just that little bit more than it did when we were in the depths of winter.

Earlier this year, I had an influx of students from various parts of Europe join my Strategy Masterclass course and a few have started a few private messages in our Slack group, sharing insights about the differences in our industries — the nuances of creativity and the runnings of our businesses. To say that I'm mind blown is an understatement.

One of the recent threads of conversation revolved around the design community and the fact that most of it, may not be as creative as it actually thinks it is.

Many moons ago, I was part of a team that had out together quite a large presentation for a new client.

The presentation was to deliver the strategy and creative for the launch of a new product. Not only were we to roadmap the product into its new markets but we also had to bring it to life through strong visual design.

I was working as a digital art director at the time and my team and I were to visualise the products user interface, it’s brand identity and also show how users would interact with it - all based on preliminary user research we had conducted leading up to this presentation.

It was a lot of work and we knew it.

The presentation went well, we were proud of the work and were able to talk about it confidently.

A few days later we received feedback that our client thought the world wasn’t “as creative” as they were used to.

We were gobsmacked.

After the initial “go fuck yourself, you don’t know what you’re talking about” feeling faded, we regrouped with our client contact and were shown a presentation of work they thought was “creative”.

That our work was good, in fact it was beautiful and looked and felt much better than the other work they had seen — but it lacked something critical. Something that could elevate it from where it was, to a place that was ultimately more useful for this client.

From good thinking to platform thinking. From good design to creative thinking.

We were gobsmacked once again.

The work was amazing. It had integrity, it was beautiful, it worked, it sold, it sang, it made us feel something and it communicated.

The “I wish I had done that” kind of work.

Not only were we gobsmacked, but we were also quite embarrassed. With our tails between our legs we travelled back to our office in silence. We hadn’t lost the account, in fact the client had given us another opportunity — though, we had lost a sense of who we were. Our identity as creatives had shifted in the eyes of a client we respected; but also, and this is the point of my article, our perception of our selves, had shifted in our own eyes and it hurt.

Our greatest weakness had been called out.

We weren’t as creative as we thought we were and you could see the look of cold realisation on our faces and I've seen that look on the faces of many a Designer since.

Fast forward to today, a 2018 world of interconnectedness, a multi-layered communications internet, an internet of things, ideas and more — the job of the Designer is fragmented, dispersed and diverse. It is both in demand and in some contexts, commoditised.

Yet, it seems that 'Designer' no longer covers the breadth of discipline that falls within the scope of the term itself — some Designers improve services and products, whilst others reimagine and evolve experiences. Others considers spaces, places, forms and packages, whilst others focus on brand marks, interfaces and visual identities.

You could have two Designers in a room together and find that they don't have anything in common other than their job titles.

I've worked with all of these disciplines and have seen the difference between those that are truly creative and others that simply aren't.

One leads with an idea so simple that they create a platform for future ideas — whilst the other executes a task and moves onto the next.

One solves, whilst the other simply clicks and creates; going through the motions. Ticking boxes.

One powerfully wields their intellect with pen and paper, whist the other is at the mercy of a mouse.

One sees the whole puzzle, whilst the other sees only the piece in front of them.

One continually, proactively learns, whilst the other waits to be taught.

One feeds and nourishes the environment they work in, the other waits to be fed.

One believes in themselves, persists and has ambition, whilst the other thinks that soon, someone will love their work as much as they do — that they will be discovered and acknowledged one day soon.

I’ve taught students since 1996. In over 22 years I’ve seen self-confidence, persistence, and desire play a much larger role in success than talent. Passive? Waiting for orders? You won’t get off the ground. Energised? The sky's the limit. 

— Brian Collins, Collins Design

I've seen so many Designers who, like my own experience above, think — no, they believe — they are creative simply because they have the job title and the industry around them to support this belief. I've also seen Designers who take creativity to another level — clear thinkers, able to boil complexity down to something simple and profound. Methodical, solutions-focussed individuals who embrace ambiguity and feel ever so confident in navigating through it towards possibility.

And it's this Designer, the one that understands and harnesses creativity that will remain relevant.

The rest will fade off into the distance.