Expression is not Creativity

Put a group of diverse experts working together to solve a problem (this sounds like design practice) and chances are that somebody will be miffed by the end of it. Excluding fine tuned and prepared teams, I’d say this is more the norm than the exception.

Such meetings, and I’m focusing on creative meetings at the beginning of a project; require people to switch between two gears. Initially the M.O. is to be light hearted, emotional, playful and non-judgemental and then, when the ideas are collected, one becomes a bit more analytic, rational and focused in order to select the best. And this is where the conflict tends to start. The “creative types” become frustrated with the apparent nitpicking from the “technical types” and the “technical types” wishing the “creatives” would come up with more realistic stuff. [1]

It is common to say that technical specialists (e.g. electronic engineers) are less creative than the “creative types” (e.g. artists). I think this is an huge generalization that equates expression with creativity. “Creativity” involves some sort of fitting between problem and solution, “Expression” requires no problem nor it attempts be a “solution”.

Like many, I also believe that everybody can be creative. However, I think that this creativity manifests itself in different ways and therefore, different types of creativity would be best employed at specific stages of the creation process.

To put it simply, “Technical Types”, often prefer to concentrate on technical execution, and while this requires them to be creative, the result of this creativity is encapsulated in often opaque applications that the majority of the population cannot see or understand. With their attention directed to issues of execution (e.g. component availability, battery capacity, etc), other (more visible and “creative”) aspects of the project become secondary (e.g. physical interaction or brand manifestation through physical shape).

In my opinion, when you bring together different types of creativity, you must acknowledge their differences and prepare accordingly. Because what typically happens is that you know you own area of expertise and many of its subsets but tend be unaware of other’s complexity. If you are a designer, you probably can imagine different types of graphic-design-related jobs (e.g. typography, editorial design, webdesign, communication design, etc) but maybe you cannot list something similar in the electronic engineering field (e.g. micro-controllers, digital or analogue, high voltage and low voltage and so on). So, when we overestimate the depth and scope of our area in detriment of others’, the result is competition between creativity types. This is a waste.

So,in future group creative activities, I suggest the following:

1 – Acknowledge that if your area of expertise is wide, so must be that of others. This gives you perspective and allows for a impartial discussion of ideas, where no one is merely trying to prove worth or establish supremacy of his/her own domain. Listen. Real good. If somebody says “imagine we don’t need batteries”, imagine batteries are not necessary, for example. For real. Suspension of disbelief is key

2 – Realize what type of creativity you use the most. Is it focused on execution details or on the big picture? Both are needed. Big picture with no execution details is just an idea. Details with no context are a missed opportunity for something grand.

3 – Understand that as long as you respect #1 and #2, it is ok to be bold on the defense of your ideas. Sometimes, while trying to integrate everybody’s input (which we must, but sensibly), we abandon more appropriate contributions from one’s expertise. This is a disservice and needs to be avoided.

Finally, I’ve written this with a designer’s background. I’ve honestly tried to make this as impartial as I can, but if something slipped in. Please do tell me, for real.

[1] Naturally this is not always the case, but still pretty illustrative of common situations.

1 thought on “Expression is not Creativity

  1. This comes a bit late, but only noticed your blog yesterday.
    Anyway, this is an issue that definitely interests me, because I can relate to it, so I apologize right away if I happen to go off-topic somewhere, or be less impartial than I should, but one always tends to interpret something in the light of his own experience.

    Generally speaking, the crux of the problem, as you pointed out, is the lack of knowledge and even respect for the other side, sometimes rooted in prejudice and/or half-baked ideas. That said, I think every party (not everyone though) is responsible for this tension you describe: “Creative types”, “Technical types”, and I also might add a third element – “Business types” (when it applies).

    Let’s start with “creative types”. Besides not having, sometimes perhaps, a minimum understanding of the tech world (which shouldn’t be big either, as this is not the solution), some of them can be blamed for adding to the problem, as they undermine the credibility of their own profession. I’m talking about designers and architects who partially and sometimes completely neglect important usability issues. Not only they are not serving the user, but also they help perpetuate this idea in the general public, but especially among “technical types”, that design is an inconsequential activity and the expression of the “creative’s” ego. In these cases, they are right, except that they’re making a generalization, confusing design with bad design.

    Then there’s another misconception which arises from what you described as not being able to distinguish the different subsets of another person’s profession. We designers know design is a very broad term, and while some authored design is definitely more art than design, to adopt a more moderate stance, some other subsets are clearly more scientific than artistic (e.g. industrial and interaction design). But naturally, most people lump all this into one big muddled concept, simply named design; and since what gets publicized is some 200$ Starck lamp or stool (pun intended), not some well conceived trivial object with an inconspicuous design (remember Dieter Rams, “good design is the least design possible”), design is inevitably perceived as futile and pure aesthetics.

    On to “technical types”, and regarding usability. These are known for valuing objectivity, precision, efficiency and logic. Sounds good so far. But the problem is sometimes they do their work with this is mind, at the expense of other things: interaction, be it with a machine or with other people, probability of real-life situations, comfort, etc. The specificities of their trade unconsciously format them in a different way than the rest of the world, and when their point of view is challenged, it’s not always well accepted. That is also a key factor to their resistance towards unorthodox suggestions. There are other reasons at stake, but that would be a whole other discussion.

    Finally, about “business types” and creativity/innovation. In spite of what was formerly said, and to be fair to these technical folk, the truth is most of them love a good challenge. So why are they so reluctant when it comes to new and possibly strange ideas? I think it has to do with management. Consider this: when they are asked to do something considerately different, it means they have to be innovative and work out a different way of doing things, plus not overlooking all the laborious details, because if any single one of them is neglected, the whole thing could simply not work, and they have to do it on a tight schedule. Of course they’re going to frown at the creatives.
    It’s not enough that tech people and creatives understand and respect each other. If the goal is to come up with something truly original or innovative, management has to understand it comes with a cost. Be it more time or money, or even dead end projects. You just can’t have it all.

    Hope you found my musings on the subject minimally interesting, since this has become a quite lengthy comment and I didn’t offer, as you did, any feasible solution, at lest for one regular person to put into practice.


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