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Designing as a Creative Act

What is the difference between designing and other creative acts?

To create means to “bring into existence.”

  • Thesaurus entries include: “produce, generate, bring into being, make, fabricate, fashion, build, construct; design, devise, originate, frame, develop, shape, form, forge.”

Creativity is defined as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work.”

  • The dictionary
    • describes this term as applying to persons with “active, exploratory minds.”
    • includes a distinction between
      • the inventive mind that “comes up with solutions to problems it has posed for itself” and
      • the resourceful mind that “deals successfully with externally imposed problems or limitations.”
      • An ingenious mind is one that is both inventive and resourceful.
  • Thesaurus entries for creativity include: “inventiveness, imagination, innovation, innovativeness, originality, individuality.”

One does not design things that one knows already exists.

  • Although there are designs that are only marginally new, there is at least something new in every design.
    • Exceptions to this include cases where the design is not the important artifact - for example, in teaching design.
  • Generally: designing involves generating ideas cognitively that one would not have generated otherwise.
    • One may say, then, that designers create “from nothing,” as it were.

This creativity is usually marked as essential characteristic of design.

  • Dym [Dym94] recognizes three classes of designing: creative, variant, and routine.
  • These map very well to the inventiveness/resourcefulness spectrum noted in the definitions above.
  • Design activities thus cover the whole spectrum of creative requirements.

Moreover, design creativity is distinct from artistic creativity by having to address the needs of others.

  • Purely artistic creation is a self expression – an expression of the artist's self – even if the act is motivated by external forces or experiences.
    • The artist interprets things, depicting what he himself “sees,” and then renders that for others to “see.”
    • For example, the author William Gibson once advised Salustri to “write only if it hurts not to.”
  • A designer must find an expression common to many people, driven in large part by what the others “see.”
    • A designer must render something that captures the visions of others
      • while imbuing their designs with their own sensibilities.

This outward-looking sense of designerly activity seems similar Donald Norman's notion of design affordance [Nor88].

  • i.e. an object suggests its own uses to a human, mitigated by the human's experience.
  • The designer needs to understand the affordances of a target user community, and create with respect to those affordances.

In this case, the boundary layer between designing and creativity involves the degree to which the creator expresses the vision – the affordances – of others.

  • In designing, others matter more than the designer does; in art, they matter less.

See Also


[Dym94]. C.L. Dym (eds). 1994. Engineering design: a synthesis of views. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[Nor88]. D.A. Norman. 1988. The design of everyday things. Basic Books, New York.
research/designing_as_a_creative_act.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)