Return on Creative

This essay originally appeared here, in July 2003.

Creativity. The word itself evokes images of disheveled painters feverishly working in chaotic studios, jazz musicians improvising in a barroom’s smoky haze, or lonely writers hacking away at ancient typewriters in dimly lit garrets. In other words, we associate creativity with the arts and the creative personality with the artist.

And yet, the root of creativity is the word,’create,’ which does not limit itself necessarily to the domain of tortured artistry. In its broadest and deepest sense, to ‘create’ means to bring something forth out of nothing. Thought of in this way, we realise that there are a number of others who must be considered creators: engineers, programmers, political organisers, manufacturers, cooks, construction workers, and, of course, entrepreneurs.

That’s right, anyone who undertakes to start and run a business is a creator and exhibits the creativity the popular imagination usually associates with the artist. The successful entrepreneur, like the successful artist, brings something into existence that is novel, thought-provoking, and, at its best, life-transforming.

And yet, art and business seem to occupy opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. Art is considered an end in itself and, moreover, the hallowed realm of self expression. Business, on the other hand, is all about the end result ‘the bottom line’ and, in its worst manifestations, a realm easily given over to conformism and the suppression of all individuality (for example, you don’t go to McDonald’s because you admire the chef).

Due to this chasm separating art from business, it appears paradoxical, and almost heretical, to speak of a ‘return on creative.’ This phrase resonates with the conventional business expression, ‘return on investment,’ as it should. But the idea of demanding a return, in other words, a profit, from creative work, from creativity itself, runs counter to all social concepts of creativity and the arts. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the contemporary business environment demands.

The contemporary designer (graphic, web, industrial, etc.) confronts this paradox on a daily basis. That designers are ‘creative’ goes without saying. People with titles like Creative Director or Chief Creative Officer stand at the pinnacle of the design profession. That the word ‘creative’ in this context should be interpreted in the traditional way stems from the fact that, for the most part, designers have been trained as artists and artisans. And yet, because designers attempt to make a living from the application of their art, they must of necessity be creative in the other, entrepreneurial sense as well.

When we speak of a ‘return on creative,’ we become aware that designers have more to add to the business process than elegant brochures and eye-catching web sites. Designers can bring a return on creative because they are trained to bring something out of nothing. They are results-oriented. They are entrepreneurial in spirit and therefore realise that making things happen in the real world means being able to recognise and work within real world constraints. Finally, designers ensure a ‘return on creative’ because they are resourceful, imaginative, and, above all, creative problem-solvers.

‘Return on creative’ emphasises that creativity can, should, and will drive business success. Designers find themselves at the centre of this epochal transformation of business practices thanks to the dual meaning of the word ‘design.’ On the one hand, design has about it the aura of artistry. This is to be expected, since many designers conceive and create objects that have an intensely aesthetic component; they use colours, images, words, textures, materials, etc. to produce powerful and meaningful sense impressions, just as artists do.

But there is another sense of the word ‘design’ that highlights the affinity between the designer and the entrepreneur. In this sense, what I’ll call ‘Capital D Design,’ the word means ‘to plan,’ and not just in the small, tactical sense, but more importantly in the big, strategic sense. When you do something ‘by design,’ it means that you are doing it with intention and conscious forethought, not that you are doing it in an ‘arty’ way. The Designer, as strategic planner with a far-reaching vision and concrete goals, can create more than mere objects, he can transform entire industries.

The rise of design as a social and commercial force drives us to the considerations I have engaged in here. It is becoming more and more clear that an enterprise without creative direction cannot succeed, and that creativity without a social goal flirts with frivolity. As the demand for a ‘return on creative’ increases, we will see, first of all, that there can be no return without the judicious application of creative resources. But we will also see something else: the breakdown of the division between business leaders and design leaders as more and more people realise that an enterprise can only succeed ‘by design.’

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