Understanding the Creative Spectrum

Understanding creativity is the first step in approaching creative problem solving more efficiently.

Subway line background design

When you are in the business of creativity, there is a huge emphasis on the creative process. Whether it is design thinking or human centered design, the main focus is to engage in certain activities, sometimes in sequential order, to achieve specific design outcomes. Many professional firms believe they can differentiate by inventing or applying new ways to go through the design process. In my experience, it's not the process, but rather the creativity of the people going through the process, that determines the outcome.

Unfortunately as designers, we often do not look close enough at how this creativity comes about. Compared to the time we spend looking at process, improving inherent creativity hardly gets any attention.

So how do we improve our creativity? To understand that, we need to know what makes something creative in the first place.

What makes something creative?

Academia has many definitions for creativity, but most agree that it must adhere to two requirements: first, it needs to be original, and second that it be functional. Originality is kind of obvious; it should not be a direct copy from something else. Functionality means that the idea "works," but it is often overlooked when evaluating something as being creative or not.

definition of creativity with icons

When you think about this in the context of a new product, it is easy to see what it means for something to "work." Take the paper clip for example; the first paperclip was a creative solution because it was both an original idea and a functional invention in that it successfully holds together a stack of paper.

In other creative disciplines such a music, the functionality is whether or not the music works for the audience. Do they feel it is pleasant, entertaining, or stimulating to listen to? If not, then that piece of music has failed to meet the definition of creativity. (I'll look at how the audience's expectations of the work can create ambiguity about what is accepted as functional in just a minute).

Taking it a step further, the functionality of art could have an even narrower definition, limiting it to meeting the expectations of the art world elite—the museum directors, gallery owners, and collectors. If it doesn't meet their bar and it is not original, then it misses the mark on creativity.

In reality, there is gray area surrounding both creative requirements. Take Vignelli's 1972 design of the New York subway map for example. The design world lauded it as a highly functional map in that it abstracts the real world—it moves stations around to make it instantly readable. However, the actual people using the map had quite different thoughts on this; some did not consider it functional at all because it was not a true geographic reflection of the world above.

vignelli subway map

With regards to originality, stylizing a subway map this way is not new. There is a similar rendition of the London subway from 1933 that Vignelli based his design on.

london subway map

Plotting Creativity

Just as there is ambiguity around what is seen as "functional" and "original," the amount of each requirement can determine the type of creative output you end up with. We can understand the varying nature of the two requirements by thinking about it as a 2x2 chart, and plotting where certain work falls. It can be interesting to keep this graph in mind when considering your own work. How does it meet the requirements of originality and functionality?

creativity 2 by 2

The upper right quadrant is where true creativity exists and we should all strive to have work that exists there. But most of what we do is likely in the low originality and high functionality area. This is where we apply tested ideas over and over again to reach the final solution. Most of design is actually in this quadrant. Designing a new software application or website, for example, is often just reapplying the same UI mechanisms in a slightly different way for a new domain.

The upper left quadrant could be considered "messing around;" you are exploring new ways of doing things but its use or functionality is questionable. This type of creativity typically doesn't have a place in a professional setting, but is often needed to stimulate your creativity and help you make connections in the future.

Understanding the elements of a creative solution and how varying degrees of these requirements can influence the final outcome and help you approach your own creativity differently. Where does your work fall on the 2x2? When you look at the work of others, how are they meeting the two requirements? In a future post, we'll look at how keeping these requirements in mind can help you approach creative problem solving more efficiently and get you closer to producing work that falls in the upper right.

About this post: As makers of software for creative thinkers, we think about creativity a lot. What is it? Are there ways to be more creative? This article is the first in a series of blog posts where I break down creativity, explore different ways good ideas emerge, and hopefully along the way offer ideas on how we can all be more creative in our jobs and lives. Read Part 2: How Creative Are You?

Cover Image: Marc Anderson

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