What it means to be a designer who's creative

Illustrations by Kelsey Wroten for this article.

Look at the front page of sites like Dribbble or Behance and you'll find an assortment of vibrantly colored, strikingly unique, beautifully laid out work. Despite the fact these sites tend to tout themselves as the place to find designers, much of what gets featured is art, not design.

“Can't designers and artists be one-in-the-same?” Yes, of course, designers are often also artists and vice-versa. But the role assigned to—and the processes used by—each are strikingly different, for good reason.

Something well designed is created with a clear intention, usually for the purpose of improving some aspect of a user or consumer's life. When done well, designed objects or experiences are difficult to spot because they've been created in a way you only notice how delightful the experience of using them is, not how aesthetically pleasing they are or how unique they appear (though the visuals of a design are regularly a delightful bonus and distinguishing element).

Art doesn't need to serve any purpose or solve anything at all, it can merely exist as an expression of human skill—as it's defined in the English dictionary.

Design and art serve two different needs in two distinct ways, yet many inexperienced designers end up creating art where there should be design. Design sites like Dribbble routinely highlight artwork over design work. And as a culture we celebrate the most aesthetically pleasing designs over the more functional ones.

It's easy to see how there's constant confusion around what it is designers actually do.

Why do so many designers conflate art with design?

I believe part of the reason so many designers pursue art rather than design is a desire to instill creativity into the work and process. Creativity—with its perceived unlimited potential and aesthetic charm—is something many designers long for in their world of fixed constraints, established design systems, and set “best practices.”

But incorporating creativity into the design process doesn't have to mean making it into art. In-fact: when designers attempt to be creative for the sake of creativity, they end up sacrificing what makes design so meaningful.

Designing creatively is purposefully challenging

Design is in itself a creative act, you don't need to pursue art or expression in the work for it to be creative, as we'll explore in a moment.

In reality, design is only ever truly creative when approached with the objective of using it as defined: a way of intentionally solving a clearly defined, well-understood, problem.

The creative aspect of design does not come from attempting to push boundaries for the sake of pushing things, or from changing the style of something for the purpose of standing apart.

One of the worst problems a designer could have is the goal of innovation for the sake of innovation, or the requirement to add some creative flare to the issue they're trying to solve merely for the objective of adding some flare. These endeavors rarely pan out, simply because the trade-off of trying to come up with something that stands out tends to come at the cost of value.

This helps explain why so many smartphones look and function the same, or why so many of the most popular apps appear the same too:

“App fatigue is a real thing. Most people have grown tired of bouncing between too many apps and learning how to use a new interface after every new download.”

What many may view as a “lack of creativity” in these well-designed products, others would point to and explain how such similarities enable the designed object to accomplish the goal as it was intended to.

Research repeatedly shows how changing things for the sake of changing them damages the designed object. People struggle to adopt the product or use the app because the creative components have complicated the usability. For example, the Nielsen Norman Group has listed “inconsistency” as the #2 most common software design mistake:

Remember the double-D rule: differences are difficult. When users have expectations for how something will behave or where they can access it, deviations from those expectations cause confusion, frustration, and increased cognitive load as people attempt to puzzle out the problem.

It's like designing a chair without the part you sit on. Different, yes, but ultimately not very usable. And that's where creativity begins to break down.

To be creative requires two things above all-else: novelty and usefulness.

If the thing you're designing is unique but not useful, we call it imaginative (art is typically more unique than valuable, for example). Or if what you're working on is useful but not unique, it's merely “status quo.” Design can comfortably fall into a state of status quo, as the purpose is to solve a problem and the problem itself is typically where the creativity lies in the work, not the execution.

It's only when the things you come up with are both unique and valuable that they can label them as being creative.

1. What makes the work unique

You can very easily identify unique ideas or works by comparing them to the established norm, or status quo.

If you look around and everything looks and feels the same, anything different is unique by definition. This means that to be creative requires an established norm. Creativity is not something that thrives in the absence of boundaries or rules, it actually needs these constraints in order to exist. There can be no creativity from absolute freedom, as to be creative requires some sense of what's normal or familiar, in order to stand apart from it.

If you want to design creatively you must have clearly defined constraints to work within and around.

Designers building digital products today have constraints which are well-established and easy to identify. Hardware constraints—screen size, processing power, web or operating system capabilities—as well as system design constraints, such as Apple's Human Interface Guidelines or Android's Material Design.

Working in a company with any sizable design organization may mean you also design system or shared component library.

Being a designer who is creative means not ignoring or bucking these established guidelines and systems—to do so would simply mean you're merely being imaginative—but rather leveraging each to inform the decisions you make. These constraints don't limit creativity, they propel it by helping us as designers make the best possible decisions without having to worry over things like best practices, established interactions, or what users of the design might expect. Those are all solved things, so the designer is free to use them and then find other ways to incorporate creativity into the work.

These guidelines and constraints are meant to guide us and keep us focused, because not everything unique is also valuable…

2. What makes the work valuable

Again: to design something creative requires us to not only design for originality, but value as well.

You know something is valuable by the way it meets an established objective or goal. To design without an objective or clear metrics is, again, not design but more akin to art. Design asks you to be intentional about the work, you can't be intentional if you don't know why you're doing what you're doing.

Before any design can get underway you must have a clear goal outlined. Even the most microscopic attributes of a design influence its relationship with the user or participant, which means every aspects of a design should lend itself to a clear goal too.

You don't look at a randomly generated piece of work and call it “good design,” let alone design at all. Rather, the things which consist of individual components which readily add to the overarching purpose of the thing are examples of good design. Your computer or smartphone, a Porsche, a Timex watch, an Eames lounge chair, each are carefully designed to not only look aesthetically pleasing, but each part of them serves a clear function toward the overarching goal of the thing itself. These are examples of valuable design.

Combining uniqueness and value for design

When you understand creativity for what it is—ideas that are both unique and valuable—it becomes far easier to see how you can incorporate it into your designs.

You'll want to create something that offers clear value in a way that doesn't trade-off that value for originality. But you'll also want your designs to not merely provide value without offering any type of unique elements or attributes to the experience. You have to find a balance for providing both.

To incorporate creativity into design, you merely need to look at the problems you've solving and the toolset available to you in order to see what can be done.

Tinder most famously demonstrated this when they took the concept of a dating app and added the established gesture of swiping right or left. Swiping-to-indicate-interest was a subtle enough innovation—people were already familiar with swiping on their devices—but it radically changed how people think about yes/no interactions in mobile apps.

Similarly, the app “Clear” used swiping gestures to make managing a to do list far easier than having to tap a button in order to do things like set a reminder, mark a task as complete or erase it entirely. The app won many awards and the attention of designers and developers everywhere, yet again: the swiping interaction wasn't new, it was the way the app leveraged the existing gesture to do things most apps weren't doing.

Most creative patterns we see in the world of design come from this combination of constraints and existing patterns (e.g. swiping) with clear problems (e.g. identifying potential dates quickly).

If you want to be more creative in your design work, the answer isn't to incorporate art into it. Rather, the best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the available constraints, then look closely at the problem you're attempting to solve or improve through your designs. Once you've done that, the aesthetics and flare are added bonuses, not core to the experience.

As Frank Chimero once wrote:

Design doesn't need to be delightful for it to work, but that's like saying food doesn't need to be tasty to keep us alive.