Managing Creativity

The nature of creativity

What is creativity? The term is most often used in an artistic context, but creativity can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Someone can solve a math problem creatively, for instance. What ties together, at least to an extent, these varying usages of the word seems to be expressing of subjectivity. That is, to be creative is to express your subjectivity.

It is possible to be creative in just about anything. Even if your job is to assemble pieces of jewelry in a factory, there are many ways in which you can approach the task. Should I assemble and polish one at a time, or should I assemble them all first and polish them all later? As trivial as this task may be, ten people given the same exact task, would all approach it differently. This is an expression of subjectivity. If you were utterly devoid of creativity, you would have to be told what to do for every minute step of the task, in which case, you would express nothing of your own subjectivity, and you would become alienated.

Expression of subjectivity can manifest in both consumption and production. Consumption of music is an obvious example of how consumption can express the subjectivity of consumer. But, not only that, to produce anything, you have to consume also. To make a painting, you need to buy paint and brushes. At a certain point, this division of production and consumption becomes irrelevant with respect to creativity.

To hinder creativity, i.e., to hinder the expression of subjectivity, means to consume and to produce less. Therefore, how to manage creativity becomes the key to the health and wealth of a family, a business, a community, a nation, and the world. Because we are all different, to manage creativity means to manage differences. To eliminate differences would mean to eliminate creativity. The key to successful management of creativity, therefore, must lie in building of a system, a process, or a structure by which these differences can flourish.

The more creative your product is, the more attached you become, because it reflects who you are. Furthermore, the more proud you are of it, the more attached your ego becomes to the product. Since ego is an imaginary unity that we create to keep us stable in our daily lives, anything to disturb this unity is unpleasant. Because of this, we tend to overreact to any criticism towards our creative work. The actual scope or implication of the criticism often does not merit such a strong reaction. A graphic designer who is told to change something in his design he is proud of, typically becomes distraught, even though the actual change may take 10 minutes to execute. He overreacts and becomes defensive because the request for change casts doubt on his subjectivity. If his ego identifies with the design, his imaginary unity is also threatened.

It is not the change per se that is annoying and frustrating for the creator. In the process of making art, artists frequently make changes. It is common for them to redo a large part of what they have already created. It is rather rare for any artist to be able to execute a piece of artwork from start to finish exactly according to the original plan. More often than not, no such plan exists at the outset. So, changes are crucial part of the creative process. The difference is that when this necessity to change comes from outside, the artists are annoyed, and they give logical reasons why it is stupid, as if such logic actually exists in their process of creativity. In retrospect, their complaints seem to make sense, but if the same logic were to be applied to the changes they themselves make in the process, they would appear just as stupid. So, they unfairly allow themselves opportunities for change, but they do not extend the same opportunities to others.

Politics of creativity

We all need each other to accomplish anything of substance. We all rely on creativities of others because the way in which our creativities manifest is different for everyone. In our modern world where the cause-and-effect gets lost in the complexity of social organizations, we tend to forget this simple reality. You begin to assume that everyone should know what you know, and whoever doesn’t is stupid or ignorant.

For instance, why do people hire a graphic designer? It is because they can’t do it themselves, because they do not know how to effectively communicate visually. If they could, they would not need to hire a graphic designer. This does not mean that they are stupid or in some way deficient; it simply means that graphic design is not their expertise. Just because they do not know how to communicate visually, does not mean that they have no vision. They have something they need to communicate and they are only lacking the means to express it. The job of a graphic designer is to visualize the vision of the client.

From the perspective of the client who hires a graphic designer, it is a scary venture. Those who are proficient in visual language may be able to experience the same fear if they were to hire a musician to compose a piece of music for them. Suddenly you feel like you are in a foreign country where you don’t understand a word of what people are saying. Imagine trying to communicate something very subjective in that foreign environment. Even if you are not stupid, what you say may appear to be stupid to them. What is even more scary is that there is money involved; sometimes a lot of it. You can potentially spend a lot of money to get something entirely worthless. You may be able to see that what you got is not what you wanted, but you have no way of explaining it to them. If you say one wrong thing, you may end up offending them.

Therefore, one of the most important aspects of managing creativity is to be an effective interpreter/translator. A manager should not automatically side with one side or the other. His job is to make one side see the perspective of the other. Without this, the final result can be an empty shell that serves no purpose, or a damaged piece of audiotape that cannot be played back. As the famous graphic designer Milton Glaser once said, “Extraordinary work is done for extraordinary clients,” it is not only the design firm that needs to be creative, it is the effective fusion of the two that produces extraordinary work.

Understanding the creative parameters

In any given task, there are parameters we need to respect before applying our creativity. The more self-contained a task is, the freer these parameters are. At one end of the spectrum, you have a fine artist, and at the other end, you have an assembly-line worker. To be fair to others, before you engage in any tasks, you need to understand what the parameters are for expressing your subjectivity. Misunderstanding, unawareness, or ignorance of these parameters is a major source of inter-personal conflicts in a working environment. Large part of managing creativity involves defining and communicating these parameters clearly.

For instance, young graphic designers are often unaware of these parameters, and they insist on expressing their subjectivity in the areas where their subjectivity is not called for. The purpose of graphic design is to help others communicate. Ultimately the message is not yours but theirs. It would not be fair to your clients to hijack their need for communication to use as a platform for your own self-expression. This often happens because they have nothing to say of their own, but they are full of urge to express something in order to mark their own existence. Having the means to express something, but not having any need to communicate is a frustrating state, so given the need to say something, they tend to exploit the opportunity. Often they pay little attention to what needs to be communicated; they are simply happy to have the platform to assert their own existence, as empty as this existence may actually be. Typically, they create something unnecessarily flashy and elaborate, which has no relevance to the actual message of the client. Those who have something substantial to say rarely require anything fancy or elaborate. This is an example of not respecting the parameters of creativity. One needs to understand where your subjectivity starts and ends.

Here is an analogy to make this point clear: Being a graphic designer is similar to being a cab driver. Your passenger has a specific place he needs to go to. If the passenger is not specific about how to get there, you can take your creative license to determine which route would be the best. If you ignore the destination and start driving towards a cafe you want to go to, you are “hijacking”. If the passenger wants you to take a specific route, and if you ignore it, that’s hijacking as well. The important issue here is to know where the boundaries are, and within those boundaries, you should try to be as creative as possible.

Creativity can be applied towards taste or quality. In the former, the results tend to be more artistic, and appear more original and unique. In fashion, designers for haute couture would be in this category, as opposed to designers for men’s suits. Creativity towards quality produces more functional results. In some ways, creativity towards taste is more superficial than the one towards quality since taste only lives in the moment of now. Quality is more timeless.

Those who apply their creativity towards their taste tend to be inflexible since taste is very specific, but they produce more distinctive work. Those who strive more towards quality tend to be more diverse but their work may not immediately stand out from the rest. These differences in character must be managed from a higher level. They must be matched appropriately with clients. If the matching is successful, young designers’ urge to express themselves, for instance, can be taken advantage of. In this sense, any subjective differences and different manifestations of them can be effectively fused to produce exceptional results. The key lies in successful management of them. In this sense, creative managers like a film director, who do not seem to do anything tangible, are master creators who make creative use of creativity.

Theory of Graphic Design Theory

If you know something about writing music, you know how useful musical theories can be. If you are an intuitive type who never studied theories, you are likely to keep on writing the same kind of music forever. And, eventually you will feel like a one-trick pony.

What is useful about any type of theory is that it allows you to draw deductive conclusions. Say for instance, you are writing a song, and you have a nice chord progression going, but somehow you can’t figure out how to resolve it or transition it to the next section. If you know your theory, you can analyze the progression you have so far, and figure out what chords would theoretically allow you to resolve or transition it nicely. It is like Newtonian physics, how it can predict the location of a moving object in time.

Graphic design and music alike, if you rely solely on the emotional side of yourself, and never listen to your rational side, or vice versa, sooner or later your creative life will stagnate. You need both sides challenging one another in order for you to grow as a human being.
The reason why use of theories is not common in graphic design is because not many people quantify the results of graphic design. In industrial design, for instance, people understand that the design alone could make or break the product.

1 thought on “Managing Creativity

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