Mike Monteiro takes offense to being called “creative”. At least this is what I understand from his pinned-tweet. Is “creative” such an offensive word? How come this adjective-turned-to-noun became such a politically incorrect reference to people who take pride in being craftspersons ? Is this word, as Monteiro claims, really used as a tool by The Man to disenfranchise hard working design trade professionals?

L. Jeffry Zeldman says Monteiro’s claim is “rubbish”, but seems to actually agree with Monteiro in certain points of his post: First, Zeldman says that the title Creative does not diminish your trade, if you admit that Creative is just one of the many other professionally acceptable components of the trade, such as “research, data, conversation, testing, and all the other science-y stuff we trot out to prove that we are worthy business partners”, as Zeldman puts it. Meaning that the whole Idea of being called Creative is insufficient in itself to gain any sort of professional recognition and appreciation. You do need to stress the fact that there is this “science-y stuff” along side the creative “stuff” to garner public respect.

Zeldman goes further into undermining his own argument, by writing about “That spark, that divine spark, that indefinable creating essence of the spirit”. Thus, being a creative is much the same as being a prophet, in the most biblical sense of the word. This quote from Zeldman should be alarming for any non-designer who may consider hiring a designer. After hearing it. one must be reassured that they are not hiring a possessed person or a religious fanatic who suffers psychotic episodes.

To reconcile both Monteiro’s and Zeldman’s views, we can argue that Creative is this single-letter-code which may be used by members of the creative clan, but not by outsiders. A C word which self proclaimed creatives can utter freely, but god forbid a corporate suit will use it. Isn’t it, anyway, a problem of how designers are perceived by the non-designer majority of the general market?

Well, Paul Rand didn’t think so. In his article The Politics Of Design, he refers to “the skilled graphic designer is a professional whose world is divided between lyricism and pragmatism. He is able to distinguish between trendiness and innovation, between obscurity and originality”. Yes, the skilled graphic designer is one who needs to have achieved equilibrium between the level of artistic expression one expects from themselves AND the level of service one knows the customer needs for the market in which they exist.

Rand’s approach is not as naive as it may sound. He claims the optimal terms are where an ideal customer provides “a harmonious environment in which goodwill, understanding, spontaneity, and mutual trust — qualities so essential to the accomplishment of creative work — may flourish.” But Rand also contends that customers are insecure and worrisome, which causes them to doubt the direction given by a professional designer. A secure and skilled designer, on the other hand, should be able to provide the best solution and convince the customer of this one solution, instead of providing several halfhearted sketches. If you are a skilled and confident designer, being called “creative” by non designers should not be an issue. There is nothing diminutive about this word.

Design, according to Rand, is a problem solving occupation. Funny, because this is exactly how engineers define their occupation and you can probably find many theoretical mathematicians, physicists, physicians and plumbers, who define their occupation as a problem solving practice. I think that the only ones to argue against this observation, will be psychologists. They will resent this assertion as demeaning, simplistic and reductive, before ceding their high ground. Creativity? This is how you, as a professional, solve the problems at hand.

On the other hand, those working in traditional problem-solving occupations, like software engineers, are also very creative. But this adjective is not often used in relation to engineering. You hear a lot about “innovative” and “ground breaking”, but creative? nope. However, if you talk to software engineers, medical doctors and police detectives, they will use the C word more often than you might suspect in relation to their own occupation. Assuming that “creative” is used by detectives to denote their methodical approach and not in how they treat evidence, I think we can put this awkward debate about this word to sleep.

Posted by Samuel Miller

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