on creativity and art

A good friend of mine, Christopher Gronlund, is a writer, hominidae podcast genius, and juggler (which fits, given his penchant for “balls in the air” quick wit and thinking). A recent post on his Facebook profile led to an interesting conversation, which led to an insightful article by Christopher on his own blog.

Fairly recently, I chatted with some friends about this Seth Godin post about “creative” jobs. During the discussion, a good friend asked me if I think there’s a difference between art and creativity.

I’ll confess that when my friend Tammy asked if I saw a difference in art in creativity that my answer was initially, “Not really.” (Which is not a very creative way of looking at her question.) I can argue that my answer is skewed by writing fiction, but the writing that actually pays the bills is technical writing, and it is not without … creative problem solving.

Read Christopher Gronlund's article entitled "The Intersection of Art and Creativity"

Christopher’s article is timely, for my job search has led me to ask all sorts of questions about my own skill set, and whether I am “just” a creative or an artist. While I feel solidly expert in the former, I am often hesitant to call myself the latter, having known so many artists who work in all manner of media, from words to images to sculpture.

I consider art and creativity as two discrete, yet complementary, talents.

Art is created from self-expression. Creativity is a tool used toward expression. That thing we so often call “out of the box thinking.” I suppose you could say that since I’m more than a tad claustrophobic, I abhor boxes. Both require intuitive thinking. Both require an innate understanding of the message and the medium. Neither is limited to any specific skill set; surgeons and astronauts can be creative. Artistry can be had in factories, gardens, kitchens, and hospitals just as often as in art galleries.

For my more limited-scope article, however, I’m keeping it local. I’m a designer. A creative.

Since “creative” is a noun that is often used for skilled workers who work in the fields of design, multimedia, illustration, writing, and so on, it comes close to “artist” in that the individuals who work in these fields are often driven by, or accomplished in, art. Thus, the terms become quasi-synonymous.

…which brings me back to the instigator inspiration for Christopher’s post.

If you want to be creative, truly creative, it might pay to avoid a job with the word ‘creative’ in it.

—from Seth’s Blog, “When creativity becomes a profession…

Really? Now, I’m not going to disagree with Seth Godin, because I understand what he’s saying. Nothing will kill art and creativity faster than monetization, deadlines, and processes intended to “leverage efficiencies” (there’s creativity in obtuse capabilities descriptions as well, but I do miss brevity). Sure, applied constraints would require creativity in order to produce a product within those boundaries while still maintaining quality and usefulness, but…well, something’s going to give.

Consider my career. As long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of expression. I started with aspirations of being a journalist. I was also a photographer, and quickly understood the complementary nature of words and images. Early in my career I worked as an assistant at a foundation, and adopted the mechanics of the organization’s expression: direct-mail marketing, special events, graphic design, and all of the words and images that formed the overall message. Was I creative? Yes. Did I spend my off-hours bemoaning the constraints placed on my creative expression in my job? No.

Thankfully, I had an excellent mentor who understood the nature of the creative process, along with how it fit into the overall structure of marketing, communications, and PR. In fact, she created a work environment that addressed the need to uphold the creative process within the constraints of day-to-day work.

This name tag was created for a workshop in 1995, and has remained near my workspace through my entire career, reminding me of the importance of maintaining my creative integrity.


Unfortunately, many creatives do not have management who understand the value of the creative process. When I became a manager of creatives in 2000, I learned a lot about nurturing and leading a creative team through Design Management Institute‘s workshop, Managing the Corporate Design Department (which appears to have evolved into a new workshop called Leading Creative Teams). Creative minds, after all, are often non-linear. And sometimes rather unpredictable, which … makes them creative.

And that’s the magical point: it’s not the creative. It’s the management of the creative that kills creativity in the workplace.

No, I’m not going to insist that we are all special squirrels who need a ridiculous amount of nurturing. We chose these careers because we are naturally inclined toward filling our days with the ability to use creative expression as a large part of our skill sets. I’m sure that Seth Grodin has more insight about creatives avoiding jobs with the word “creative” in it that can be expressed in a short blog post, but many people miss the idea behind “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Yes, that’s a pretty simplified (and cloying) approach to careers. But wouldn’t anyone with a special affinity for and talent in a creative skill inherently enjoy a job that allows them to practice that skill and keep abreast of new perspectives and challenges that affect that skill’s use in the marketplace?

Psst: managers, this is where you would want to see what motivates your creatives, for they may not be the same motivations as the rest of your teams. Most creatives will enjoy, for instance, the freedom to develop skills that may not meet the specific needs of the organization (a technical writer wanting to attend workshops in horticulture, for example).

And lo, it shall be called brand.
Or UX… we’re on board with that, too.

In my personal creative journey, I have combined all the creative (and somewhat artistic) facets of my skills and passions and applied them to my career, which pretty much involves brand management, or User Experience (UX). UX, while most often categorized under IT job titles, is actually within the realm of creative. When I began to work as a consultant, I adapted to social media and new approaches to creativity in technology. Have you noticed how a mobile-first approach to website development has everything so very, very image-heavy and yet minimalist? An homage to classic print layout traditions.

Having a “big picture” awareness of design, message, and marketing takes creativity. One must understand usability from the audience’s perspective, respect the mission of the organization, and champion all the facets that comprise the overall outward image of an organization’s image.

Keep in mind that I’m writing from my perspective. While it can involve or complement art, the word creativity is defined as “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.” Something that any business or organization needs as part of its plan, and as a skill in many of its employees.

Psychology Today’s blog featured a post discussing Albert Einstein’s views on creative thinking and the intuitive art of scientific imagination : “Einstein’s musical hobbies served as an example of personal creativity providing the kind of recreation that enables professional innovation.” Well, then. 




The reason for this post:

Christopher Gronlund (The Short, Third-Person Version)
When he was younger, Christopher Gronlund wanted to be a professional juggler when he grew up. In a way, that’s exactly what he’s become–Christopher spends his time juggling freelance writing duties with his “real job” and spending time with his wife, Cynthia Griffith. Christopher lives near a lake in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. He blogs about juggling work, writing, and life at thejugglingwriter.com(read Christopher’s full bio at ChristopherGronlund.com)


  1. Of course you’d but it perfectly: “It’s the management of the creative that kills creativity in the workplace.”

    My biggest frustration at so many jobs were “Think outside the box meetings,” those meetings where managers were [almost always] in a bind, had no idea how to get out of it, and wanted someone else to figure out their problem so they looked like they knew what they were doing.

    I’d make a suggestion.

    “No, we can’t do that.

    I’d make another suggestion.



    “Yeah, that won’t fly.”

    What I’ve found is the way my mind works and what I do outside of work doesn’t work so well with most jobs I’ve had. That, or people think, “Oh, you’re creative outside of work, so bring that into what we do, here,” but it’s always met with, “No…we can’t do that.”

    It’s funny that you mention UX. I’ve spent a good amount of time at the usability lab where I work, and I applied for a position this week. It’s one group that actually seems to appreciate the ways people look at things, and it’s not as monotonous as technical writing.

    Good luck in your search!

    1. I think we’ve got a little creative love letter going back and forth here!

      Your experience with the idea-blocking manager is very much akin to an experience I’ve had, where sales managers were called on to come up with innovative ideas. Much of the work I had been doing in the year prior to this meeting would fall under that category, because they were called highly valued and innovative. But a creative cannot work in a bubble; we need champions – preferably at the executive level.

      Thankfully, the trend toward UX, and the emerging understanding of creative teams, is bringing some love back our way. 🙂 Good luck on your position, too!

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