“Creative” is not a dirty word

THERE’S a meme promulgated by my dear friend Monteiro that they call you creative to take your power away. Rubbish.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with most of what Mike Monteiro has to say about design, which is why I published his two brilliant books.

Except for this one point, on which we will forever disagree.

“Creative” is not a dirty word, and it doesn’t diminish our profession to admit that creativity is part of what goes into great design—along with research, data, conversation, testing, and all the other science-y stuff we trot out to prove that we are worthy business partners, and not flighty pixies shouting “I feel purple today!”

Yes, even today, when business so values design that it is hiring great designers in-house instead of farming out design to consultants every ten years—even today, business folk still look askance at designers, still too often see us as gushing decorators, to be brought in after the real work is done and make things pretty so consumers will swallow.

And it’s the fear of that prejudiced, unfair, uninformed, entirely shallow view of the design profession that may make folks like Mike talk about design the way Hemingway talked about writing. As a thing a man does when he isn’t shooting tigers or brawling. Only not sexist.

But creative is creative. It’s a spark everyone is born with. Every child draws. Every child sings. Every child is creative, and every creative adult keeps an anarchic, joyful child alive inside herself, no matter the cost. And, boy, is there a cost.

Staying creative into adulthood is not all roses. It means you don’t pretend not to like dolls or crayons or singing when other kids your age start making fun of those things. The gift usually comes at the expense of other gifts. Take me. Other kids loved camp. I hated it. Other kids could shoot an arrow straight, without burning their fingers. I got rope burns sending an arrow onto the ground five inches in front of me.

At school, when it was time to choose teams for softball, all the other kids, even the physically handicapped kids, got chosen before I did. My hand to God, a kid with leg braces and coke bottle glasses was picked ahead of me. When I came up to bat, everyone snickered and moved in from the outfield. In eighth grade I got beat up so often they worked it into the curriculum. I was the bane of my ex-Marine chain-smoking gym teacher, and later of cops. I couldn’t even mow the lawn without having an allergy attack. I would not be fourteen again for life everlasting plus Beyoncé money plus Beyoncé.

Am I creative? I couldn’t hit a softball, but I wrote an operetta at age 12, and created a (short, lousy) animated film at fifteen. Okay, my childhood was a nonstop parade of shaming, fear, and social anxiety. But once I turned thirty or so, shit started getting good.

Am I creative? I write and design and work at businesses I invented. I can sit at a piano and improvise music for hours, and while it ain’t Mozart, it also doesn’t suck. Half the web designers I know are also musicians. Half the musicians I know also paint. You don’t have to suck at gym and be a creep, a weirdo to grow up designing or writing or acting or dancing. But it helps.

I don’t call myself creative. That’s pretentious. Maybe that’s what bothers people who hate that word. I’ve worked in creative departments. The label didn’t bother anyone because it was accurate. Not every effort we made was award-worthy, but they all came from a place beyond the purely rational.

Research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs go into everything we do. But research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs never created a memorable campaign, never crafted a logo, never reinvented how designers approach their craft. That spark, that divine spark, that indefinable creating essence of the spirit is what takes all that research and everything else and turns it into the things people love, use, read, watch, and remember.

If there is a God, she is the ultimate creative.

Yes, it takes creativity to get up in the morning and support three kids on two frustrating jobs.

Yes, everyone is creative, as everyone is connected, and everyone is divine. I am he as you are he as you are me etcetera.

Yes, the garbageman finding fresh ways every day to make his job bearable is far more creative than I will ever be.

Yes, yes, yes. You bet.

But that only proves what I’ve been saying. “Creative” is not a dirty word. “Create” is what we do. We turn nothing into something. We bring into existence. We make.

To create is divine.

This post was originally published in The Pastry Box Project.

By L. Jeffrey Zeldman

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek. Author, Designer, Founder. Employer Brand at Automattic. Publisher, & Ava’s dad. Pete’s brother (RIP). He/him.