2011-03-14

Creativity needs Imagination and Execution

The importance of creativity in design cannot be under estimated. Without creativity design becomes shallow copying that produces solutions that do not fit the problem. Creativity is both originality and appropriateness. But how does creativity relate to execution?

Another word commonly used for creativity is imagination. Imagination is both the ability to come up with original thought and the ability to think if a particular solution will be an appropriate solution to a design problem. The thing that links imagination to reality – the actual production of a piece of design – is execution.

Execution is the ability to take an idea and produce it for real. Good execution utilizes skills that are developed and honed over many years. The uninitiated will call somebody creative if they have an ability to execute ideas (great at drawing, good at Photoshop, good at painting). Often a person gets the “creative” label even if their imagination is low.

It is possible to be highly imaginative but have poor skills to execute. An idea is useless without execution but the imaginative-high/execution-low person can still be successful if they can find others to complement their weakness. For example, junior designers can provide high-execution ability to an imagination-high art director. The relationship is synergistic because both art director and junior designer create better design solutions than if they each worked alone.

The most successful design is that which is both a highly creative concept and is executed well. Audiences these days are so used to good design that poor execution (even with good concepts) are generally dismissed so both concept and execution must be good. A designer who is weak at execution mix for a particular project (e.g. not a web-coder) should consider employing somebody who is good, or accept that they must take longer to learn the skills necessary to execute well.

So far, this article has implied that imagination comes first then execution follows. However it works in a more synergistic fashion. Often creativity occurs when execution is underway – that is once an idea has been realised then the designer’s imagination sees further possibilities (the creative horizon extends). The systematic design process has parts that use intuitive rather than rational thinking. This suits designers with ability to execute because they can devote more time to the idea and less to the muscle mechanics of executing the idea, so therefore the idea can be bigger. An example of this is that someone skilled at executing web design will often do their concepting work directly in HTML/CSS code.

Always start with highly creative concepts and worry about the ability to execute later. Fitting a design to execution will result in small ideas that do not challenge (and thus extend) the designer’s technical ability to execute. Think of execution ability as a pragmatic boundary that should be pushed.