Can Creativity Be Learned?

This is a question I asked one day in my senior design class at UMass Dartmouth. All through college I struggled with this question. Each day I would look around the classroom at the other students’ work and wonder why their projects seemed so much better than mine. “It must be that they have more creativity in them than I do”, I thought. When I presented the question I remember the conversation became much more engaging than whatever it was we were talking about before. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who felt like this.

At the time I believed that anyone doing good work, or at least those who seemed creative (remember though: the grass is always greener…), had a natural-born ability. I figured that this “creativity gene” skipped me. My parents seemed to have it, my brothers and my girlfriend (now wife, hi Jean!) seemed to have it. I even witnessed creativeness in my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins! What the hell?! Why couldn’t I have it?

As my classmates and I burned through the rest of class hashing out the question of creativity I began to realize that this thought is much bigger than myself. Ideas from both sides of the fence were presented and both seemed valid. So if I wasn’t born with it and I haven’t learned it by now (I was in college for god’s sake!) then what was I to do?

Leaving the classroom I now had more questions than answers, but I also had the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in this. There were others out there struggling with this same thought, who knew?! I figured I was the only one. So at least I did have that answer for what it was worth. For now I put the question away but it would creep back every once in a while when I least expected it. Like that time in my first design job after college when a co-worker added a cool curled Post-It note graphic behind her email signature. At the time I thought that was frickin’ brilliant! How’d she think of that?! Or what about the time the senior designer’s logo got picked over mine…aww shit, will I ever figure it out?!

As it turns out the answer is yes. One of the things I cringe at is when people excuse themselves in conversation for not being creative enough, saying things like, “Oh, I’m not a designer” or “I’m not creative like you”. What I came to realize over a long time of pondering (it’s been 10 years since I’ve graduated…I just winced typing that) is that the answer is both. You ARE born with creativity AND it can be learned. Everyone is born with that “creativity gene” but as we get older sometimes it gets buried by life so we have to learn to use it again.

I bet as a kid you drew with pencils or crayons, played with dolls, smashed and rolled Playdough, or played pretend with your friends in the neighborhood. Even as adults some of us like to decorate a room in the house, dress up for Halloween or doodle while on the phone. That’s your “creativity gene” at play! Emphasis on the play. It doesn’t matter that you’re not a “designer like me” or that you can’t draw like Rembrandt, what matters is that you remember your creative side has been with you all along and to use it as often as you can. Using your imagination to change your way of working is all it is. This can be applied to anyone, not just us artistic types. Trust your gut. Go with your instinct. More often than not it will guide you on your way to creativity.

In the last few years this topic has really been on my mind a lot (so much so that I’m writing this post). When I was starting out as a designer I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why I felt I wasn’t good at designing anything or that I wasn’t a creative person. I made it to college for art so I must have done something right but it still didn’t feel right to me. As it turns out, that is what school and my first few jobs were supposed to do. I was there to question and to figure out what was missing so that I can learn to be myself again. As Adrian Shaughnessy points out in the book How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, “the reason you go to school is to learn how to learn.”

It’s true. Because of all the learning and thinking I’ve put myself through and continue with, I’ve started to notice that I feel much more confident in my creativity than I ever did when I was in school. I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing. But all I had to do was study the greats, the not-so-greats and then tap into what was already inside of me. Basically I just had to be myself. Everyday my job as a graphic designer is to use my sense of aesthetics, color, space, style and humor along with my life experiences. Everything from the music I’ve listened to, books I’ve read, to shows I’ve watched and places I’ve traveled, all of it goes into my work in order to achieve this thing called creativity. You can do this too. You’ve got this, I know it…now go out and play.

Above image of my nieces’ drawings hanging on the refrigerator gallery. Thank you Hailey and Caroline.