Is Creativity Really Like Pornography?

05.11.2010 / Author: Steve Zelle

The recent New York Times article Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory, explores how scientists are trying to track creativity in the human brain. In the article, Rex Jung says “Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” I liked that statement but wonder if it really is that simple in the real world. I believe the definition of what constitutes creativity, like pornography, is determined by the individual exposed to it. It seems as graphic designers, the way we promote and define creativity to our clients has changed.

A recent post by Isabelle Swiderski on the Seven25 blog Design Influence spoke about designers courting the mystery of creativity:

“We’ve been hell-bent on convincing everyone that we’re not ‘creative’ in the pejorative sense of the word. We are creatives who get business. We are business people with a creative streak and a solid process. This may be true to a certain extent but it has resulted in design thinking being understood as a formula, a series of tried-and-tested steps that can only yield the right results and in the end perhaps don’t require the contributions of a ‘creative’ person at all.”

Scientists are debating just what is creativity, with some feeling that the common definition — the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context, is no longer applicable. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University believes “creativity is a complex concept; it’s not a single thing”.

How our clients perceive creativity and its role in graphic design is also a complex concept. Any example of graphic design will elicit mixed judgments over just how creative the work is. It is also difficult for me as a designer to separate the different aspects of a design process — to segregate the portions that are creative. In my mind, the entire process is a creative one. But I have, like many designers, turned my back on discussing and selling the magic inherent in this process.

Has talking about creativity in graphic design become like discussing pornography? Have we become conditioned to only talk about creativity in rare instances and not every time we meet with our clients?

Steve Zelle is a logo designer and consultant with over twenty years’ experience working with clients. Based in Ottawa, Canada, he operates as idApostle and is the founder of Processed Identity. You can reach him through his website or on Twitter.

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5 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 05.12.2010

    Good post Steve. I certainly don’t talk about creativity as such with every client but I think it still comes up. On Monday in the first iteration presentation of a new identity I discussed with my client how one the ideas came about and how, for me, changing settings, allowed for a renewal of perspective and ideas. Whilst the conversation didn’t go on I still felt it was an important exchange to have as it contributed to furthering the client’s understanding of the process and their ability to talk about it to others. I don’t feel it needs to be a goal to have that conversation; simply opportunities to seize when the moment is right.

    How do you approach it?

  2. 05.12.2010

    Thanks Isabelle. I hope everyone goes back and reads your original post on the subject. My experience is that client’s are interested in hearing about creativity during the process but not as a selling feature before the contract is signed. Having taken a moment to think about it after reading your post, I realize I deliberately avoid most conversations on the subject for fear of rolling eyes. I definitely need to work on this, and am hoping other designers can share their experiences and offer advice on the subject.

  3. mavenisms

    I (as a client) would welcome the creative discussion as part of the overall conversation. Not that I want to drive it in any way, but feel that it is important for me as the champion within my organization looking to gain support and buy-in for senior level executives.

    I think there has been a shift away from it as it reached a point where talking about the creativity further confirmed the airy fairy perception of designers as merely artists. The evolution has been necessary to get to the point where the creative is viewed as an important aspect of a companies strategy, its strategic execution is fundamental to success.

    That being said, I would still prefer that the creative discussion not take place at the pitching stage, but as a project is being worked through. As a client I want to know bottom line how a designer or agency can help with my business objectives and goals first, and how you get there creatively second.

  4. 05.14.2010

    Great post Steve, really interesting. Nowadays people try to measure everything in some way and in reality it is just not like that. I think creativity is spoke about so much for sales reasons. In actual fact I believe more in the process than just creativity, I am not sure the word says enough. A good response to brief is made through logic and a need to answer the key points. How you do this could be considered creativity, but there is also rationality and logic in it as well. Thats how I would describe it to clients as well. Thanks for a good read.