Can you be creative just by creating?

June 12, 2024 in Product design

I’ve really been enjoying getting more and more questions from readers, almost to the extent that I’m thinking that may be this is what the blog is now, an asynchronous Q&A. When I give talks, the Q&A part is always what I enjoy the most. There’s much more of an exchange of information than simply me expressing my views on a topic. If we’re honest with ourselves, there are very few “facts” in our industry and what we consider facts today might be obsolete tomorrow.

I recently got a question from Nadia that instantly resonated with me. I was meaning to reply to her straight away, but I kept thinking about my response more and more, only to realize her seemingly simple question can only result in a many-layered answer.

“Thank you for your thoughtful and educational newsletters!

A realization I've recently had is that I am not a particularly innovative designer. My strength (and comfort zone) lies in gathering research, talking to users, and then making informed design decisions based on that research as well as based on strategic/organizational needs. This usually leads to well-functioning and well-received designs, but there is rarely a sense of innovation. I tend to stick to existing design systems and common interactions. This design style aligns strongly with my personality, as I'm not a big risk-taker in any aspects of life.

The question I've been grappling with is basically, whether that's okay? Or better phrased for this context: What role do you think innovation should play in a designer's career, and how much can you control this, considering one's personality partially dictates this?”

Should designers innovate? Should designers code?

If there’s one thing we like to do as designers, it’s dictate what makes a designer, a designer. There was a long standing debate around whether designers should code and yours truly argued that designers should speak business (and write!). It’s funny how we never argued around whether or not developers should design 🙃.

I can very much relate to Nadia’s question because it’s one that I’ve struggled with a lot during my career. To no one’s surprise, I don’t consider myself very ‘creative’ and certainly not ‘innovative’, but here’s the thing, ‘creativity’ is so multi-faceted that we might be thinking of it too narrowly. Instead, I think we need to think of creativity in it’s most fundamental form, ‘to create’.

Here’s what ChatGPT is telling me creativity is:

“Creativity is the ability to come up with new and original ideas. It's about thinking outside the box, seeing things from different perspectives, and combining existing concepts in innovative ways. Whether it's art, problem-solving, or everyday tasks, creativity involves using your imagination to create something unique and valuable.”
ChatGPT response to “What is creativity?” prompt

As for someone that’s spent a large portion of my career working on B2B tools for large corporations like e.On and IKEA, I’ve come to reconsider what I think creativity and being innovative entails. In fact, I’d argue that it's some of the things we hardly notice because they just work. They the true innovations of design. The thing when designing - especially B2B tools in particular - is that there are so many guardrails and constraints to consider. This is where true creativity shines! Rather than thinking of designing within constraints as a boundary, I think we should embrace it.

Nadia mentions that she feels that her designs are both well-functioning and well-received, but that she doesn’t sense innovation in them. I’d argue that well-functioning and well-received is exactly what the job requirement of a designer is. As for no sense of innovation, I want to urge anyone feeling the same way as Nadia to reflect on what they consider ‘innovative design’. I believe innovation is, in the eye of the beholder. It’s taste. It’s preference. Well-functioning and well-received designs are facts. They are justified. They are measurable. Comparing the two isn’t fair, because they operate on different scales.

Innovation to me is all about reducing friction and making things operate more effortless. Even looking at a specific feature, let’s say FaceID, innovation can mean so much to different people. For some it might be the feature itself, to be able to unlock your phone simply by looking at it. For others it might be the fact that the camera is hidden inside the notch. For some, it might be the authentication process itself. And for others, it could be how the animation transforms from a face to a checkbox, an innovation that most people will never even consider. There are SO many facets to this innovation.

So Nadia, my advice to you is to reflect on what kind of design you consider to be innovative and why. Once you’ve nailed that down, you can then either seek out to implement more of that thinking and innovation in your work or you can simply be inspired by it. There is no harm either way. What you WILL be doing is continuing to create well-functioning and well-received designs - a big plus. In the end, you are creating and that results in creative work!

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