Ranting At The C-Word!


I was at a Creative Industries event organised by the Technology Strategy Board yesterday. An event designed to bring together the creative and technology disciplines. And one of the many issues touched upon was the need to break out of the ‘creative industries’ straightjacket and to explore creative roles and jobs in other industries. Which led me to thinking about one of my favourite subjects: 

The rampant misuse of the C-word. 

In fact, it’s a very close call as to which word is more bastardised – ‘creative’? or ‘innovation’? But today I’m talking about the former. What does the word mean to you? Is it a skill? Is it a profession? Is it a role? Is it perhaps just a trait? 

I have experienced at close quarters for many years, the cliched and lazy labelling within the technology industry of the concept of creative work. This usually assumes that (a) all ‘creatives’ are the same, and makes no distinction between architectural or conceptual skills versus execution and tool-level skills, for example; (b) phrases like ‘UX’, ‘UI’, ‘creative’, ‘design’ and anything else which smells of visual design related activity are all synonyms and can be used interchangeably. 

This isn’t one sided. This kind of apathetic adjectivisation is common even among creative communities, when it comes to others. You’re a techie, or a suit. Or you’re a quant… you need classifying, not for your good but more for people to be able to pigeonhole you in their mental cubicles. 

I like to think of creativity as a trait. A problem solving capability which looks at the same problem differently. By this definition Newton, Gauss and Einstein would be among the most creative people the world has known. Serial inventors, entrepreneurs and technologists are creative. The best enterprise or solution architects in technology companies demonstrate this kind of creativity on an everyday basis. 

What we commonly call ‘creative’ is actually either referencing design or art. And again, these are two very distinct worlds. Design is a science, a discipline with a clear deliverable against a defined need. You design a house, or a doorknob, or a website or a logo with a view to delivering some fairly clearly defined objectives. Consequently good design is often dependent on the effective articulation of the objectives. 

Art is also a discipline and involves technique and often, structure, but by definition the objective of art is defined by the creator and as such it becomes a form of expression. The creator might want to make a point, raise an issue, support a cause, but equally, she might pander to a whim, be overcome by a subliminal urge, be provocatively abstract or seek no meaning at all. 

You can, therefore, have creative people who have nothing to do with design or art. You can have designers who are good but not particularly creative. Unusual but true. You can have great artists who would make bad designers and vice versa. Usually on the basis of their willingness or ability to work within the structure of a brief and the tyranny of an objective.

If you wrote a book with the purpose of making money, creating a bestseller, or selling a movie script, you would be designing. If you wrote a book that wasn’t governed by the outcome, you would be an artist. You might be a great wordsmith but poor at plots. Those are examples of the techniques you need for any discipline.

Advertising therefore is more design than art. Except for those wonderful ads which are great except that you can’t remember the product or brand. That’s good art, not good design. Or those ads which are made for awards. Or perhaps, that too, should be called design. 

In the context of film-making, who is the creative brain? Definitely the director, and to an lesser but important extent, the editor, the cinematographer and choreographer, to name a few. But usually not the actors. They are usually following the directors brief. They are in effect, designing a performance.

Of course, I’m stretching a point. In every one of these examples, there is a need for creativity and artistic expression, which may well make the difference between good and mediocre, and between making history and being history. I’m simply driving these giant imaginary wedges between art, design, and creativity, to make the point bluntly.

And to state the blindingly obvious, design is greatly enhanced by creativity. You only have to look at some of the best design to see the magic touch of a creative insight or treatment. This chair, this ambulance redesign, this wheelchair, this plug, and this folding wheel, all have a creative spine which makes them stand taller than their peers. It’s just important to distinguish between the terms for better results, especially when you’re in the results (read: design) business. 

And so, every time at work I see people lumping terms together, I bite my tongue and control my fingers from typing that shouty email. But the irony is of course, that when you’re designing a mobile app, which is a highly constrained experience in so many ways, the creativity often needs to come from the technologist, and the discipline, from the designer. 

As to art, you can always find it in the gallery.