Are Efficiency and Creativity at Odds With One Another?

Howard Tempero
Howard Tempero



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The push-and-pull between creativity and efficiency is a delicate tango. On the surface, it would appear that they are far-flung second cousins (twice removed). A deeper look reveals that some of the core principles and habits of creativity and efficiency are actually quite similar.

I am a creative-minded individual, focused in a creatively strategic career. To say I am passionate about the iterative creative process is an understatement. However, the fulcrum that I use to balance and leverage creative activities and defend the worth of my “creative” title has moved its placement over the years, changing my perspective.

Early in my career, I used the term “creativity” as a scapegoat to avoid efficiency. I wore creativity on my sleeve and used it when I missed deadlines, to justify incomplete design work, or to get out of sharing pending design concepts with internal team critics.

I’ve come to realize that the “creative” title is no longer an excuse for how I work and how I operate. It only defines why I work the way I do and how I problem-solve and think.

Creativity is not at odds with efficiency, deadlines, or the design process; instead, it augments efficiency by providing a unique way to solve problems. It is not a hindrance to a linear project approach – or agile methodology – but instead, it provides an opportunity to embrace and understand a different vantage point, to think about the project more interactively, and create a more dynamic result. To achieve efficiency in creativity is possible.

Here are some of the factors to help understand your creative team, and conversely to help a creative team understand the business perspective of efficiency.

Understand What “Creative” Means

First, realize that everyone is creative in their own way.

It is not fair to our craft to own the creative label for only our skill set, refusing to acknowledge creativity in others. Think of project managers, developers, and others that help our digital business world go 'round. They can’t rest on their title as an “excuse” for their working habits. I have worked with some amazingly creative developers who spend hours reviewing and rewriting code. I used to look at that behavior as boring and obsessive. Now I look at it as creative: They are working through the same creative thought process I would when designing a new site, except they are using “1” and “0” to construct their vision instead of pixels and color palettes.

In the results-driven world we live in, we are all working towards the same goal: to most efficiently and effectively execute a concept from idea to actual.

When a project manager spends countless nights organizing project milestones, deliverable deadlines, and client checkpoints (the thought used to make my head hurt), they are being creative with numbers, days, and moving people with varying skill sets around. They just use the Gantt chart as their empty canvas.

Creativity is not a commodity. Unfortunately it seems that the creative process has been given the bad wrap of “easy,” the icing on the cake, or the “wow” part of the solution.

Many times we are asked in proposals or project presentations to “just present a design concept.” In digital, it has become more obvious than ever creative ideas and concepts are born out of strategic business goals and in many cases, directly tied to return on investment. What does that mean?

For creative to be impactful, business problems and marketing solutions need to be in place first. Once the logic, purpose, and content is complete, the design becomes an invisible cloak for messages to be shared. It’s invisible because good design tends to be the component that is not noticed; it’s a vehicle for the information to make an impact. If there is a solid creative and strategic vision to start with, design should complement, not distract, the viewer. Successful messaging engages while design creates a dialogue.

How to Be Both Efficient and Creative

Efficiency is working creatively. Some of the most impressive designers I have worked with are the ones that brainstorm a lot of ideas, then narrow and execute. Anyone can write ideas down all day on a whiteboard. It’s the ability to narrow concepts and execute the best one that becomes critical.

However, that does not mean creatives shouldn’t execute with the same predictability as everyone else. The last thing a creative person wants to do is alienate themselves from the rest of the project team. When you lose creative advocates, then “justifying” or “selling” the ideas and concepts becomes the bigger effort.  If the creative puts a project behind schedule, then it will be even more challenging to get approval. It also means you spend more time “defending” yourself due to missed deadlines or time extensions. Instead, just show your work.

You can do this by drawing on past experiences. Be conscious of the “rabbit holes” that have delayed creative projects in the past. Be realistic with your decisions. Is that complicated mind-map really worth the time, or would a simple chart do the trick?

And set a self-imposed deadline. One of the hardest things for me to do is start a project. I am always waiting for inspiration to hit (which, most times, it does -- just not during the scheduled time I have allotted). Mentally give yourself a deadline that’s well before the creative piece is actually due.

Having less time to execute creative is not always a bad thing, but giving up quickly and doing what is asked when you feel you have a better idea is. Creativity is driven by a different way of thinking. Don’t just say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” -- that is failing our craft and preventing you from reaching your full potential. Likewise, when we end up making excuse after excuse for missed deadlines, apologize for a project taking so long, or have to reschedule an internal creative review, we are doing our craft a disservice.

Work with your team to layout phases of your “thinking timeline,” so they can see how important to the growth and evolution of an idea that time is. But then you need to stick to it. Meet your deadlines. Eliminate the prejudice that design is just “making things look pretty” and that it can be done in a vacuum. It is an important part of the process, and it can’t be short-changed, side-stepped, or removed. But it can be done efficiently if the right expectations are established and the value of the effort is understood.

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Topics: Creativity

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