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.