What is good taste, good design and how to be creative

First a side jaunt. I’ve tried writing this entry for several years with the usual result of having to wipe the spittle of an extended rant off the screen of the monitor -and end up with no post for my bother. The thing is, when people tell me “you’re so creative”, I cringe. If people describe me as an artist, I visibly wince*. This is rarely the compliment they’ve intended it to be.

If someone is creative, it is because they are skilled. Becoming skilled was a lot of hard work, study and dedication and it is annoying when people confuse skill with creativity. Any second grader can come up an idea; ideas are a dime a pallet. The capacity for creativity is innate, but skills are acquired through long years of practice, trial and error and they cost. Frankly, when the average person describes another as creative, the first party is rarely qualified to understand the depth of skill involved so they cannot see where skills end and creativity begins. As such, it could be said that being called creative is an insult or minimally, deprecatory of skills when the speaker is usually trying to convey exactly the opposite. Really, how many times have you seen a highly skilled person who wasn’t creative*? Creativity does not beget mastery but mastery begets creativity.

Let’s start with Paul Graham’s radical idea that good design isn’t a matter of taste:

If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that “taste is subjective.” They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it’s beautiful, or because their mother had one, or because they saw a movie star with one in a magazine, or because they know it’s expensive. Their thoughts are a tangle of unexamined impulses. Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

Good design is hard…Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.

If good design boils down to personal taste preferences or matters of opinion, it means there’s no way to get better at what you do. So why try? How depressing. Put in this context, you realize this cannot be true so how do you get better? Again, Paul Graham says you must copy; specifically, other than to copy what you like, you must:

Be careful to copy what makes them good, rather than their flaws. It’s easy to be drawn into imitating flaws, because they’re easier to see, and of course easier to copy too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.

The reality is, people who are unskilled are not very creative. Their work is compromised on two levels, poor execution and limited imagination. One does not have the ability to “create” a more complex design because one cannot imagine how to make it. How many designers limit their designs to only those elements they have mastered? Perhaps paradoxically, copying also does not mean one cannot be creative. Previously I’d written (in the context of designer’s copyrights):

Young designers … are more likely to copy their predecessors than to have their own designs usurped. It is rarely the big bad pirate manufacturer copying a start up but the opposite. Throughout history, the concept of “copy till you catch up” has served as a nurturing, exploratory stage of a designer’s career. You’re too young to have matured as an artist. How can you find your own vibe unless you’ve experimented with examples developed by the masters?

So what do you do to be more creative? Again paradoxically, you copy, the seeming antithesis of creativity. You copy until you catch up. Arguably, copying -in theory and practice- is the best way to acquire skills. The fact is, skilled people are more creative. Skilled = creative. So how do you become skilled? You copy what is good. Unfortunately, many people copy flaws, the obvious or copy a flawed process. You cannot match or surpass the masters unless you attempt to match their results.

[At this point I find the other reason I never published this entry is that I’ve never been able to bear leaving out more quotes from Paul Graham. You will never regret reading his explanations of what good design is, appropriate for everyone from computer programmers to fashion designers.]

Luckily for you, you’re not born with a fixed set of crayola crayon creativity. It’s not like IQ or height or eye color. It is not fixed but developed through integrity of effort. I suppose that can be unlucky too in that being creative alone doesn’t get you off the hook. Were it possible, coming into ideas would be a lot less work. You’d just sit and ponder, sketching dreamily in the air. But when has something truly wonderful and magnificent -creative- not been a lot of work? I think your answer is there.

Related previous entry:
How to be creative

*Note: I’ve written a companion piece to this called Creativity is over rated but it’s gated (in the forum) because many will likely find it offensive. There are very few artists, truly. That’s not to say there are not people who describe themselves as artists and may even sell a few pieces but few transcend the category. Artist, like so many other terms these days, is over used. If you really are an artist, meaning you are wise, emotionally intact and introspective, you will relate to it, it won’t threaten you. If you’re someone who is infatuated with the aura of “being an artist” in the ways that many are in love with the aura of being a designer, you’ll likely never speak to me again.

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  1. Barb Mas says:

    I find this very interesting because I would describe myself not as creative but as skilled. I know that technically I am very strong – accurate, and careful and painstaking to make sure things I make are technically as good as can be. I don’t think of myself as creative at all, because I find it hard to come up with designs of my own, and to use colour well. I hate it when you read about someone inspirational in fashion and find out that their mother was an artist and their father a designer etc. because it seems like there’s no hope for ‘non artistic’ types like me – my ancestors were all scientific types. I want to read about a great designer who couldn’t draw to save their life and whose relatives were all terribly practical, then I’ll be inspired and hope that one day I can be what I think of as creative!

  2. Juliette Curtis says:

    Hello Kathleen:

    I heartily agree! I’m an enthusiastic home sewer and never know what to say when people tell me I’m creative. I usually burble something about being crafty, not creative, because I use sewing patterns and don’t make my own original designs.

    Skills are required for creativity, but skills do not guarantee that creativity will follow.

    I’d like to read your second post and promise not to foam at the mouth. May I have the password, please?

  3. CatX says:

    Barb – If you look at great artists like Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo — they were exceptional technicians first, and later artists. In general, we never see the hundreds of torn up sketches or piles of clay furiously pummeled back into a slurry that have led to the renowned pieces. In fashion, consider Balenciaga, Dior, Vionett, Chanel … all designers with strong technical backgrounds, and certainly not uniquely from artistic families (or even scientific families).

    It’s very, very easy for us to compare ourselves to the most outstanding members of our respective professions, and come up lacking — it’s much harder to look at ourselves, and see how far we’ve traveled, and that there are those who look up to us as their unreachable goal.

  4. Barb taylorr says:

    Thank you so much for this article!!!! My friends have never understood why I get so upset to hear “you are so creative” when they see what I do for my career. I think it is like saying to Michael Phelps “you’re so tall” after he wins a medal. While his height is certainly an asset, it totally disrespects all the years of training and effort he invested to accomplish what he does.
    I believe creativity is just a way of seeing details and using the right side of the brain. Maybe a way of thinking too. Some people are more naturally inclined toward this, others need to learn to develope it. It has nothing to do with skill however. Even if you are naturally inclined toward using the right brain, it will not take you very far if you do not have the training and experience to know what to look for. You need years of training and experience to know what you are seeing, to know why the fabric drapes beautifully and the colors “feel right” and the collar sits just so, etc. Natural creativity may give you a leg up on those without it, but more likely it is just the reason you were drawn to that career in the first place. I want respect for what I have worked years to accomplish, not have it attributed to something I was born with.

  5. 3KillerBs says:

    I’ve long felt that our current culture lacks respect and appreciation for good craftsmanship.

    And I grit my teeth and want to scream every time I see praise for “transgressive” artists (though they soil the word by their existence), whose “works” resemble nothing so much as the results of a toddler throwing a tantrum in a trash pile.

    I suppose that the fashion equivalent are the designers who, instead of clothing a woman beautifully and fittingly for a given activity rely on the supposed shock value of exposing her flesh and emphasizing, in the most degrading way, her sexuality (which, due to the sheer awfulness of the “design” often ends up making her either seem either neutered or actively repulsive rather than desirable).

    Hurray for taste! Hurray for beauty! Hurray for fitness of purpose, for elegance of design, and for daring to embrace the search for truth as we do the work of the day.

  6. Juliette Curtis says:

    I’ve been thinking about this some more.

    I agree with 3KillerBs about that the sort of modern art. It leaves me completely unmoved, probably because I can’t see the exercise of skill in it. Artistic vision comes to nothing without the technical skills and discipline to express that vision. I value both the artistic vision and technical skills that are used to express it.

    At a wedding, I once met a jeweller who was wearing several million dollars worth of jewelery that he had made. He sparkled and clanked and glittered gorgeously with his stunning original designs – I was quite overwhelmed by it. I said to him “I know nothing about art but I understand craftsmanship and your work is beautiful.” He was delighted. It was the truest and highest compliment that I could give him. And he complimented me on the outfit I was wearing, which I had sewn. He mentionned both the design and the techniques I had used to make it – he knew very well that skills and creativity go together.

    Creativity is also expressed in the creation of practical ie non-artistic objects. I’ve seen elegant creative design in railroad maintenance equipment, aircraft propellors, scissor handles, roof trusses, vacuum cleaners. The sheer ingenuity of people delights me – and you can see it everywhere if your eye is tuned for it.

    I am a technical writer and I find the writing of software documentation to be very creative, even though the documentation serves a practical purpose rather than an artistic one. This kind of writing has restrictions that are imposed by the purpose of the document, the needs of the reader, the conventions of technical writing, the delivery medium, and many others. It takes great creativity to remain within those restrictions and write documentation that is clear, simple, unambiguous and (I hope) elegant.

    People who work in non-technical fields might be unaware that technical work is often creative as well as practical.

  7. Sonia Levesque says:

    I’ve resented being called “an artist” for so long. In my own opinion, being artistic was synonym with being volatile, always spontaneous, fearless and overly sensitive. Things I never felt were “me”.

    Well, a good friend of mine pointed out 2 years ago that there are MANY types of artistry. That one can be a cartesian artist, and that I shouldn’t be ashamed of that arty part of me.

    Lots of us tend to put people – and ourselves – in rigid compartments, cataloguing persons from their job descriptions, looks or bank accounts… Craftsmanship, fit and purpose are sadly seldom recognized by the masses, but so very important in the end. I’m not as eloquent in English as others were here before me, but I share Juliette’s and 3KillerBs’ views wholeheartedly.

  8. Connie says:

    How serendipitous.
    Waiting for me on the kitchen table this morning was a 60 yr old book on embroidery that my daughter retrieved from someone else’s trash pile. The author had this to say on “How to Become a Better Designer”:
    “Only by actually using a specific thread for an individual stitch can one be sure of its final effect. Only by playing with making designs can one find out why certain shapes look well together and how to combine them for the most pleasing result. Skill is in direct proportion to the amount of exercise it gets.”

  9. Barb taylorr says:

    Sonia, You would have enjoyed an article I read last year. Sadly I cannot remember what publication it was in, but it was about respect for craftsmen. Tha author was a historian and he predicted that another generation or two from now the craftsmen of the world would become one of the most respected professions. His theory was based on the idea that as we come to rely more and more on computers there will be fewer people who understand how actually make things with their hands. Those who continue to pursure those skills will be much more highly paid and needed than they ever have before. Wouldn’t be great if we could live to see that day?

  10. How fortunate for me that you chose to wipe this off your screen for years, because it couldn’t have come at a better time. Thank you.
    PS. get ready to come to LA, the show’s in previews :))

  11. aranya says:

    people who work with their minds and their hands are artisans, not artists.
    DaVinci was more than an artist too.
    It’s hard for the average person to notice the distinctions between the two, unless you know how long it takes to build any given skill. I agree, no skill is a ‘gift’ unless you’re looking from the outside in.

  12. ESPOB says:

    I just stumbled on your blog today, but I will be back. Thank you so much for this post! I make my own designs for lots of things that I sell, and in my regular life I am a musician. People always tell me, “Oh, you’re so creative” or “You’re so talented” and of course they mean it as a compliment. But regardless of what musical or creative talent I have, I spent years practicing my instrument and going to lessons and rehearsals growing up, then spent years in conservatory programs, and still need to spend a substantial amount of time just to maintain my skills at their current level, let alone to improve.

    With sewing, I spent my childhood trying to make things and not doing a very convincing job of it, gradually figuring out what went wrong, learning how to use patterns, observing how things are constructed, and lots of trial and error before I was able to create my own designs and make them work.

    Whether or not I have above average creative or musical talent means nothing to me; the time and effort I spent learning how to do what I can do is something I can take credit for. That I grew up in an environment where I was able to explore creative pursuits is something my parents can take credit for. Innate talent gets you nowhere by itself.

    Incidentally, one comparison I have often heard between American approaches to music education and Asian approaches is that Americans see musical talent as something that you are either born with or not; whereas Asian cultures see musical ability as learned skills that you acquire through hard work. Needless to say, you set your educational priorities differently when you believe that you teaching a learnable skill than you do when you believe that you are just trying to bring out talent where it already exists and wasting time where it doesn’t. But that’s why we have so many little Chinese kids busting out violin concertos, and not little American kids.

  13. bente says:

    Great article. A sucessful CEO of a clothing line in Scandinavia once said to me:
    “A good copy is much better than a bad original”. Just like that! As a young newbee I didn’t really know how true this was. It’s like I didn’t like what he said, but after thinking of it over and over again I understand now it was all about skills! His company has been existing for decades and their lines never goes out of fashion.

  14. Maggie says:

    This leaves the assumption that anybody can develop “creativity” if only they first develop skill.. I’m not so sure that this is true. While I can see the insult of implying that creativity doesn’t take skill, it feels like a bit of an insult to go all-out in the opposite direction as well. When you put lots and lots of hard work into learning a skill, into even being able to teach that skill and watch someone you’ve taught excel using what you’ve taught them, what then? You may need hard work to hone talent and creativity, but hard work and skill aren’t enough for everybody.

  15. Kathleen says:

    This leaves the assumption that anybody can develop “creativity” if only they first develop skill.

    It’s interesting that you say this. I don’t think anyone else did and I thought it was something worth discussing. Namely, why is creative -as people commonly take it to mean- all it’s cracked up to be? To the extent that I wrote an entry about it and posted it to my forum. I linked to it above, sorry that it’s gated.

    But it was a rant. A rant that there seems to be an increasing perseveration with “creativity” and “uniqueness”. Some people believe this to be a sign of increasing narcissism, everyone wants to be a rockstar now. My rant also mentioned that the very definition of “creative” remains open for debate and that the pervasive way it is implied, is nothing less than a deprecation of the most creative and hard thinking brains there are or have ever been. Truly, what means creative?

    This is a worthwhile discussion, it’s something I think about a lot and I’m glad you commented.

  16. SW says:

    As a ballroom dance teacher, I can only influence the growth of skill in my students; I cannot teach them creativity in their execution of choreography. If they are inhibited by a lack of imagination, by a passion to tell a story via dance, they can be as skilled as the next dancer but they cannot move an audience with their dancing. It may be precise, but lacking in soul.

    As an editor, I can hone skill by calling attention to grammar, spelling, the use of metaphor or simile, brevity, suspension of disbelief, characterization. But the writing could still be boring because it lacks creativity.

    Skill is the shell. Creativity is the core. Without the core, you have a hollow shell. You can develop skill, but you cannot fake creativity.

  17. Skill is the shell. Creativity is the core. Without the core, you have a hollow shell.

    I’ve been called many things in my life but “hollow shell” isn’t one of them. Hollow shell or not, I manage to execute far in excess of many “enlightened creatives”, few of whom have skills commensurate to my own or even sufficient to permit execution on par with their own creativity. I find belief in a hierarchy in which “creatives” are deemed superior to others to be offensive and self serving.

    Speaking of, recent research suggests creative thinkers are more unethical. The investigators find that creativity helps people find new and interesting ways to break rules and to come up with unique ways to justify their unethical actions after the fact. I wouldn’t say this is true across the board but have found it to be common in my practice. It’s how design evolves, creatives copy each other (which begs the question, what is creative?). It would also follow that creatives have misplaced priorities if they fear their non-creative but highly skilled counterparts (contractors, pattern makers etc) are the weak link of confidentiality in the gestation of their collections.

  18. SW says:

    No one is calling you a non-creative skilled person. It doesn’t have to be either/or. The point of my comment was that they go hand in hand, skill and creativity. But you seem to like to take offense at the slightest thing, given that you took offense when you were being complimented on being creative. I was going to be a follower of your blog but have changed my mind.

    On your second paragraph: evil genius. Not a new idea.

  19. Eric H says:

    You can develop skill, but you cannot fake creativity.

    Sure you can fake creativity: Yoko Ono, John Cage, Jackson Pollack, …. You simply declare whatever it is that you want to bring into the world as “creative”, “unique”, “inspired”, appeal to taste, individuality, “vision” — even if, or even especially if, someone else has already done it — and then denigrate everyone who questions your creation as being narrow-minded, cold, lacking vision. Creativity is the easiest thing to fake because you can define it as you go while demonizing your detractors.

    But not everyone develops skill. Sure, they say “I could if I wanted to”, but frequently they aren’t willing to put in the time. Or they believe that they already have the skill but haven’t the basis on which to judge their own efforts. Plus they can excuse away any problems in execution with an appeal to their creativity (“it wasn’t accepted because it was ahead of its time” or “my vision was compromised by the technicians who were supposed to give it life”).

    The type of one-off revolutionary creativity like Punk Music that forces an establishment to strip itself to the essentials is likely to die on the vine, as Punk did, unless it can be sustained by some kind of skill, which Punk was not. Ultimately, evolutionary creativity wins the day because creativity and skill are joined — which was Kathleen’s original point, I think.

  20. Eric, I’d seriously challenge your assertion that the artists you named were not creative and I believe you are attacking a creative straw man. If it were that easy to get a show at the MoMA we’d all be in there.

    I think there are different definitions of creativity flying around here. We have the definition of “any work that Eric understands and respects.” This definition has the upside of being easy (just call Eric and ask him!) but the downside of possibly excluding truly good and creative work that Eric just happens not to understand or respect because of his personal quirks or because he’s never encountered it before. This definition of creativity can only be faked by fooling Eric, and since Eric is not fooled by posers then posers can’t fake creativity. So even by this definition creativity is not easy to fake.

    And then there’s one that I proposed in the forum, “problem-solving.” By this definition, Kathleen is creative. No, it can’t be faked. No, it’s not an easy definition because not everyone will understand the problem being solved. (That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, or that nobody understands the problem just because not everybody does.)

    The US military defines “creativity” as “not following instructions.” Through experimentation they have determined that people become more creative as they become more sleep-deprived. (Outside the military we would use the word “error-prone.”) I guess you could fake that one by making mistakes on purpose, but the military doesn’t reward creativity (by their definition) so you probably wouldn’t want to.

    Creativity is also related to a sense of ownership.

    People might believe they are creative when they are not, but that doesn’t make them successful fakes.

  21. Mackenzie says:

    I can’t even parse the first paragraph. Creativity is a skill, but it’s insulting to call someone creative, because unskilled people are creative. Make up your mind. Is it a skill or not? You claim both to be true, which is utter nonsense. Also related to that bit about creativity being an insult because it doesn’t take skill…the paragraph ends claiming that “mastery begets creativity,” which is, again, contradictory.

  22. Kathleen says:

    I had to look you up to make sure you weren’t a troll.

    If you want to put a fine point to it, the first paragraph is beside the point. It’s the second paragraph you take exception to. My points further down should make things a bit clearer; specifically:

    The reality is, people who are unskilled are not very creative. Their work is compromised on two levels, poor execution and limited imagination. One does not have the ability to “create” a more complex design because one cannot imagine how to make it. How many designers limit their designs to only those elements they have mastered?

    In no way was the second paragraph intended to be taken for an abstract or summary. Neither is the excerpt I provided above. As such, I could save you some time by disclosing that most everything I’ve written on this site is likely to continue to disappoint you.

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