Designers, stop calling yourself ‘a creative’. - Cogent

Designers, stop calling yourself ‘a creative’.

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

Or, Why calling yourself ‘a creative’ is damaging our profession.

I know this might be a hard pill to swallow but in the spirit of being provocative, let me begin by telling you that you are not ‘a creative’. You need to stop calling yourself and your colleagues this. It’s damaging in so many ways and it’s holding back our profession. Here’s why.

Designers don’t make magic

Let’s be honest, being ‘a creative’ sounds pretty cool. I used to think I was one too. It’s sort of arty. It implies a resistance against the status quo. You’re a rebel. You enjoy being a little different. It’s an easy way to stand out from the crowd and make yourself feel pretty special. Like you’re one of the chosen ones with this natural talent at making shit look great and breaking conventions while doing it. More importantly, calling yourself a creative makes you sound like an enigma. It’s really hard for people who aren’t ‘creatives’ to understand what you do or how you do it. This “Wizard of Oz” effect makes us feel great.

But, the reality is we’re not special. We’re not enigmas. Our beards, or flannel shirts, or dark-rimmed glasses and monochrome wardrobe might convince people who don’t know otherwise but I’m exposing us. Designers, well, good ones anyway, use logic, deduction, collaboration, and scientific methods to produce great design work. That’s it.

We need to know the origins of our species

If you identify as a designer and you’re the type of person that sometimes call yourself ‘a creative’, then you’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say. And you may disagree, that’s fine. But, if you’re also the type of person that wants more respect for your design work, and as a result of more respect, more money, then read on.

To understand why I’ve got this view I need to look back a bit at the evolution of how we got this way.  So, I’ll keep this brief and I won’t go right back.

So how did design get so “arty” … in 90* seconds

*maybe a bit longer than 90 seconds

Before computers there were these people called ‘commercial artists’. They typically had fine arts educations and so you (and anyone else) could call them artists, but even that’s a stretch. They used art materials like pastels, watercolour, charcoal, oil and acrylic paint, and they went to art school but even then, they didn’t create “art”. But, for argument’s sake, let’s consider them the closest thing to artists that we designers have ever come. Anyway, companies would pay them to create images (not art) to advertise their businesses.

Now, we fast forward through time. Technology, as it always does and always will, changed the way commercial artists did their work. It made them go a couple of ways. Some picked up a camera and became photographers as cameras became a cheap and easy way to make images. They walked around and shot images that were used in company ads. Technically, it was still image-making so it made sense. They’d send their photos off to the ‘art department’ where they would be included with a bunch of other things to make the ‘final artwork’. The other half were like, “Hey, the photography thing is pretty boring, realism is overrated, I actually like composing the thing that goes to print. I like things like fonts, and colour, and layout and shape and yeah, sure, I’ll include a photo or two as well when it gets supplied”. Sound familiar? Well, that thing became Graphic Design.

And so this discipline of Graphic Design continued to evolve and no one bothered to change the “Art Department” to anything else even though, by now, everyone is definitely not creating art. It started off using manual techniques like cutting paper into various shapes and positioning things on a page to compose the final piece (see Paul Rand). And then computers came along. It wasn’t long before a graphic designer didn’t have to draw all those letters anymore, they had things like digital typefaces (thanks Emigre) to play with and sometimes destroy (like Carson did). And then a bit after that, design software begun to evolve such that they no longer had to cut pieces of paper and arrange them manually on a sheet of paper at all, the whole thing was produced in a computer. Still, no one bothered to change what they called the final product. It was easy to keep calling it “Artwork”, “Final Art” etc. As far as designers were concerned, they were still ‘making art’.

And then, the internet came.

Remember when the internet arrived? Those glorious days when web “pages” started to be a thing? Well, it was really new and no one knew what the hell they were doing but graphic designers were probably best-positioned to start trying to ‘help make the internet a more attractive place’. And largely, they did.

Early internet years meant the skills that a graphic designer had acquired in their careers were largely transferable to this 2D digital environment. Sure, there were button clicks and ‘interactivity’ to deal with but the general theory of visual perception still held true. Visual hierarchy, contrast and the general principles of Gestalt theory of perception served us well.

But, to make this easy for graphic designers to understand in software, packages still used “art” metaphors like slicing and cropping and so on. The output of the process was still called “Artwork”. Geez, I know right? Still!? It’s been like 60 years already. Graphic designers spent years making ‘online brochures’ and slight variations thereof and here we were calling it “Art”.

Now, most recently, the internet has shifted from being a bunch of brochures to become pretty damn useful. We’re using it for way more than ‘brochure’ sites, we’re building tools and services. People need these services to function in society now. Banking is just one example. But, here’s where the real problem lies. Because of the events I’ve just described, graphic designers got their hands on the internet first. Because they were there first, they evolved “with” the internet. They learned, through trial and error, what it meant to specify clear interaction paradigms that they thought people knew how to use. I was one of those people. And you know what? We’re still here. Us ‘creatives’ right?

And there you have it, that’s my 90-second brief history of why you’re kidding yourself. Let’s be honest, we know we’re not artists now, at least we’ve come that far. We call ourselves “Interaction Designers” or “UXers” or whatever bullshit term we keep making up to tell ourselves we’re more interesting, like “a creative”. Oooh, that’s sexy. Sounds cool. It implies the part of being an artist that is mysterious and successful but without the starving part.

Now don’t get depressed, I’m actually here to help. I’m here to help you get more respect and more money from your mad skillz. See, ‘a creative’ is a perfect example of how us visually-inclined folks have lacked the proper language that allows us to explain what we do in a way that people can understand. What a designer does (graphic, interaction, industrial or otherwise) isn’t magic. It’s really scientific and quite simple to explain so I’m here to share that language with you.

It really is time to cast off this made-up moniker in favour of something more concrete and I think that if we all take this approach together, our industry can finally get the credit it deserves. Don’t worry though, you can still have a beard, flannel, monochrome wardrobe or dark-rimmed glasses.

What a designer actually does now

In short, it includes fancy words like Cognition and Psychology, Visual Perception (Gestalt theory), and ergonomics.


Research is an important part of the design process and underpins the quality of decision-making throughout the life of the business and product. The activities that a designer might engage in during this phase are:

  • Identifying questions that the team needs to answer
  • Categorising the demographics of users who will likely use your product
  • Constructing and planning activities like interviews, focus groups & product testing to answer key questions and solve key business problems
  • Analysing and synthesising the outcomes of user and business research
  • Presenting findings back to the team and various business stakeholders clearly and concisely
  • Providing recommendations and guidance on what, when and how to proceed with the business and/or product.

To do effective research, a designer needs to pick the right activities to elicit answers in the deepest and most truthful way. They need to make sure that those activities are completed without subconsciously influencing how a user responds. It’s a very specialised skill — so much so that some designers have been trained in scientific disciplines like Behavioural Psychology and Clinical Research Methods to do this step effectively.

Interaction Design

Interaction Design (IxD) is the process of inventing and describing how users will interact with your product. It’s sometimes called “Human Factors”. The decisions and recommendations made in this phase come from combining two things:

1.A deep understanding of your users’ needs, business goals and technical environment. This includes:

  • Demographics of users. E.g. Age, gender, social status
  • Environmental factors: Are they on the train, in the car at their desk? Do they have good internet connectivity?
  • Technology: Are they using a mobile phone? Tablet? Desktop? Both? Do they use Android, Mac, Windows, iOS?
  • Situational context: What time of day are they using your product? What did they do just before or after using your it?

2. A broad knowledge of all the ways in which current technology can be used to help your users and business achieve their goals. This includes knowledge of different platforms (iOS/Android, Windows/Mac), different interface elements (buttons, forms, fields, wizards, pages etc.), and different technologies as well the appropriate time and place where these things can be used to achieve a desired outcome.

Designers will typically communicate their thoughts on how they plan for users to interact with your product using a mixture of online and offline tools. Sketching screens with pen and paper can be used to communicate and iterate ideas quickly. Testing ideas with users can be done with sketches, or to simulate a more ‘finished’ product, a designer might create an online interactive prototype of your product before it gets built.

Visual Design

Visual Design (or User Interface (UI) design) is when a designer works with the elements of Graphic Design to produce a representation of the final thing. It’s about what the user sees.

It draws on traditional graphic design principles like colour, shape, typography and layout that work together to produce a screen or series of screens that help the user achieve their goals.

Visual design can help or hinder how easy your product is to use. Things that you want a user to tap or touch, click or type into, need to look a certain way so that they understand how to use it intuitively.

The visual design also plays a strong role in creating emotion in the user. How a user feels can be critical to how they interact and react to your product and the impression that is left on them by your business. For example, if something is hard to use, they might perceive your business is difficult to deal with too.

What else?

All three specialties that currently comprise the design process are equally important to the success of a product and ultimately, the success of the business. You could do wonderful research, and create slick interactions, but without a well-considered visual component, the user might be left feeling uninspired or confused. Conversely, a gorgeous interface full of beautiful images and a well-executed logo won’t necessarily help a user achieve their goals. Often without research, the interface may have the wrong content or navigation.

Every project is different and so the depth and attention that a product needs to achieve across all three areas will vary. However, the most important thing is, at minimum, to make sure all three are considered in a lightweight way rather than drop one or two of them completely.

Oh yeah, we also do all of these things.

Also, there’s a bunch of other things, they’re called ‘soft skills’ that make a designer a great one. Here are those:

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others is critical. Without this, we’re unable to understand how painful or joyful something is for someone else. Empathy allows us to design the most positive interaction with a product or a business.

Communication is a no-brainer and whilst not specific to a designer, it’s what a designer does every single day. They need to communicate with users while doing research, with the team in building software or anyone who has an interest in the product and who need ideas conveyed clearly and concisely.

Active listening is part and parcel of being a good communicator. Asking the right questions at the right time can only come from truly concentrating, understanding and responding to others. It’s much harder to do well than you might think.

Self-awareness. A designer needs to know their own strengths and weaknesses, biases and preferences. Only by knowing these well can they perform effective and truthful research and devise solutions that solve problems in the way users need them to be solved. Crucially, this is often different to the way the designer or others in the team would personally like them to be solved.

Problem-solving is an obvious skill for a designer to have but nonetheless, can be difficult to hone. Yes, there are tools and techniques to learn how to problem solve more effectively and efficiently but the motivation to solve it well is something a little harder to find. On top of this, designers are pragmatic and they use exceptional critical thinking. Nothing is perfect, but it doesn’t mean we can’t aim to be.

Imagination is the engine we use for coming up with new and innovative solutions to problems. The ability to create something from scratch that never existed before is unique and, we’ll be honest, a bit magical. Our designers are innately curious folk. They’re always reading, learning, watching and asking why. It’s this natural inquistiveness that we reckon gives our designers their great imaginations.

Lateral thinking is tightly coupled with imagination. The ability to view a problem from multiple angles, sometimes unusual ones, is what we think lays the foundation for a great creative thinker. Often, it’s the ability to borrow from different contexts and one’s own life experiences that strengthen this in a person. Whether you have experience or not, involving other humans will always produce more ‘lateral’ results.

Story-telling is innately human. It goes to the core of what we are as a species — but to tell a good one requires practice. Designers can spin a good yarn and it’s important. Not everyone in the team will get the chance to talk to users and so it’s up to designers to convey what they hear and learn from users in a way that’s compelling. Designers need to help the entire team build the same level of empathy for their product’s users so that everyone knows the problems they’re trying to solve, and why it’s important to solve them.

Humility. Let’s face it, no one knows everything. Designers are intimately familiar with the design process and the methods and tools they use to do great work, but at the end of the day, they’re human too. They make mistakes, get tired, under sleep and over-eat too. They might mis-read a user’s expression, or over-emphasise things occassionally. But, they’re also lifelong learners. They use the power of the team to reduce risk of getting things wrong. After all, great products aren’t built by just one person and a designer is always part of a team.

Finally, you’re at the end of this really really long article

So, there you have it. I told you. You’re not ‘a creative’. You’re a human being who approaches problem-solving with empathy. You actively listen to people’s needs and communicate with them and your team members openly and with humility. You’re aware of your own biases when you’re making decisions so you like to work collaboratively with others to make sure you produce work that improves the lives of those who need us. Above and beyond all of that, you know you’re not perfect but you’re always willing to learn.

You’re welcome.

PS — If you reckon you can improve on this, be my guest.

To learn more about how Cogent can help you with your vision or project, get in touch.

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