Creativity = Shipping


There’s a lot of mysticism and voodoo around creativity and innovation. The art of bringing something truly novel into the world is often considered out of reach. Many believe that creative and innovative ideas come only to a lucky few, very suddenly. But that’s not true.


The truth about Creativity

There are stories of Jack Kerouac just writing “On the Road”, Kandinsky waking up one morning to paint his colour study masterpieces, the iPhone arriving overnight and Einstein shouting “Eureka” as the penny dropped for him.

We like to tell ourselves these stories because they take the burden off our shoulders, and allow us to discount ourselves from matching these geniuses, because we consider it out of reach. There are those of us who do try nonetheless but don’t see it through the rough days and so the world is littered with half finished scripts, designs and drawings. Some succeed and we marvel at their genius.

It’s time for a reality check:

Creativity is not about having ideas.

Creativity is in the execution.

Creativity comes from staying with a problem long enough.


Creativity comes with doing

Wassily Kandinsky was completely immersed in his art. He taught design at the Bauhaus, was surrounded by inspiring minds, and most of all he was a maker. Art historians found that unlike other artists, he didn’t layer over his work. X-rays show a single layer, no mistakes.

This could suggest he was genius who just painted what he felt, but through his sketches we know that he prepared for months to do this. Before he was ready to paint a piece, he would spend months producing iteration after iteration on sketches and croquis that would prepare him to create the final piece.


Having a great idea is an interesting starting point, but the creativity itself is in the execution. As you paint or write or design…you explore the problem from different angles, it evolves and matures. This is how as a designer you are able to finally take away all the excess leaving only the salient. This is how intuitive, beautiful and seemingly simple experiences are made: through iteration.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”.- Albert Einstein

Great insights are key to great design. Insights are the culmination of many hours spent working at something. Creating something new takes courage and resilience. We tend to think of our work as a finished piece, seeing the book cover, seeing it framed, imagining smiling users and masses of MAU. There’s nothing wrong with having a vision, but being open to new ideas through iteration is where creativity lives. You can only visit those places by traveling to them through explorations. Game changing innovations are borne out of hours and hours of tinkering.

“It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date.” — Roger von Oech

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

A huge part of innovation is staying with the problem long enough, and working through the many rough patches. This is crucial for designers in particular. You, the designer must find the discipline and courage to push on through, or you will contribute to the collection of sad designs we each encounter every day. Unlike artists and scientists, our work can be shipped when it’s good enough (MVP anyone?) but great design doesn’t exist in a world of compromise, it requires thorough iteration and you need to hold yourself and your team to the highest standards.


The reality is that everything that is truly original looks ugly at first. It doesn’t fit in it’s current context, it feels out of place, and people resist it as they tend to prefer the familiar. As much as we all say that creativity is important, we rarely put our money where our mouth is, and will tend to take the well trodden path over a strange and different one. The road to innovation is paved with hard work, littered with failure, and you will need to work hard to get others to share your vision. Any designer who has tried to bring change forwards will know the pain that comes with selling in your ideas and getting everyone else to see it the way you do.

There is always temptation as a designer to jump to a solution, yet having the discipline to put this one to one side and come up with 10 more is where great design gets delivered. Jony Ive is an amazing designer and created way more prototypes in college than anyone else. He explored and failed and tried again until he was satisfied with the end result. He worked on mobile phones for years before he and his team made the first iPhone. Beware of finding satisfaction too early. Be suspicious if the answer comes too easily.

The quality of design requires experience, bravura, tenacity, hard work and creativity”. — Dieter Rams

I was moved to write this post as I came to end of reading Kevin Ashton’s awesome book “How to fly a horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery”. I highly recommend it ☺

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