Why We Create

Marks and shapes can be created accidentally or spontaneously as the result of process. An event or action results in shapes being formed. For example, you spill your coffee and the puddle assumes a particular shape. Or one thing bumps against something else and leaves a mark — a distinct shape. The visual appearance of those shapes is beyond our control, but the process factors into what they look like. Whole professions — forensics, for example — use shape and spatter analysis to determine the events that caused shapes and marks. 
 
While many marks are accidentally created, the marks and shapes created by artists and designers can’t be accidental. We can’t make meaningful work without asserting some sort of control and intent over our marks. 
 
Our intent — the purpose of what we’re making — determines how we control things.
 
It’s important to develop technical skills (wrist skills) to be able to creates lines and shapes that achieve our purpose. As with any discipline, skill is developed through practical action. If we want to become good at combining lines and shapes to create something that communicates accurately, we have to put in the time and effort. This is where courses, drawing challenges, keeping a sketchbook, critiques, etc. come into play.
 
There’s more to it, though, than being able to put the shapes and proportions together. We have to be able to put the right lines and shapes together in the right way.
 
Creating on purpose
 
Many of you define creativity as self-expression. You define it as the ability to put your feelings and thoughts out in tangible form for public view and response. Or, you simply engage in creative actions and activities that bring you joy and have a visible result, and you never intend to share those results with the world. Both scenarios are legitimate and have purpose. 
 
If your work is going to be valued by others, it has to connect with them. Making connection goes beyond creative expression.
 
Let’s define the verb, create:  it’s the ability to bring something into being — to give it form — that doesn’t yet exist. That’s the most basic and objective definition.
 
So creativity then is the use of the imagination and original ideas to produce a work
 
A work as a noun refers to a painting, a drawing, a piece of origami, a chair, a jacket, a bicycle, a website, a business card… anything we can see, use, and or touch that’s the result of some production process
 
Work, by the way, is the process of production. Creativity requires  production. If creativity means applying original thought to produce something, then it’s work. That’s why we talk about our work as artists and designers and use terms such as artwork and body of work
 
I often point out the difference between fine art and design. Like many of you I’m a designer, not an artist. Although I create in the same manner as an artist, my purposes aren’t for self-expression. I create with a different intent. That means I create with a different sort of spirit. (Those who understand will “get” that previous statement.)
 
The biggest hurdle my students have to get over — and a good percentage don’t — is that design and art are different. They’re different in purpose, although the means of creation — the tools, the elements and principles — are the same.
 
It’s your individual choice as to why you create. As a designer, we look for “problems” to “solve”: what’s the reason for creating a design? Does this portrait or pattern communicate what it needs to? Does this product both look good and perform well? Do people know what to do when they land on a home page, and how do you communicate that purpose visually? 
 
For example, since I enjoy human relationships I enjoy drawing and painting people realistically. I also appreciate the play of light and shadow, the contrasts, the textures, the movement, the structure, the proportion to portray someone in a way that they’re not only recognizable but they’re infused with humanity and personality. How do I communicate that to the viewer? That’s the problem I set out to solve — the purpose of my work.
 
Professional creatives — those who make their living by creating art and design — have more at stake than the hobbyist creative. To make a living their work has to be meaningful and relevant to customers and clients. Clients and customers have to value the work. In that case, nothing can “just happen.” We must be intentional. We create within certain boundaries and constraints.
Creativity is both visual and intellectual
 

We can create serendipitously and see where the mark making takes us. Or we can create with purpose. If we create with purpose other than to glorify ourselves, then the intellect has to get involved. How does it get involved? Keep reading.

  • We identify a problem or recognize a need.  We can’t solve any problem unless we first define it accurately.
  • We define the goals and the limits, the must-includes and the dimensions.
  • We research, analyze, and consider available options.
  • We consider the medium and materials.
  • We explore how forms will work together and discard what’s superfluous, non-essential, not working.
  • We test and choose the elements that work together in the best way possible to solve the problem.
 
This process requires an intellectual approach. It requires systematic thinking and objectivity combined with aesthetic intelligence, form language, and harmony. Both visual and intellectual decisions are made.
 
We need to understand how human beings see and interpret what’s in their visual fields. When we take hold of what’s going on with that, we can create to that end. We have to understand the principle of pattern so that we can recognize patterns and also create them. We have to understand principles of contrast and comparison to be able to recognize what’s similar and what’s different. To truly express someone’s appearance in a two-dimensional portrait we have to play up those contrasts — not to the point of caricature unless that’s our purpose — but to the point that the likeness is served.
 
So mark making can’t be whimsical. And it can’t be generic.
visual pun blending a loaf of bread and a pug.
Parodies and visual puns deliberately combine familiar, similar forms in unusual ways. Image source: unkown.
Creativity is both visual and intellectual
 

Mose people recognize similarities first, before differences. We see the whole human being and recognize its form as human before we assess details such as hair color, skin color, etc. This relates to gestalt design theory.

Therefore we tend to draw based on similarities. We draws ideas of things based on experience and common knowledge — stereotypes — rather than draw the differences that make things interesting. An apple is red, but it’s really millions of different colors dominating on the red hue family. Pine cones are brown, when they’re really a multitude of different browns, tans, grays, greens.

Although it’s necessary to be able to depict these constancies in order for our subject matter to be recognized (it’s a horse as opposed to a dog, or a pine as opposed to an oak), drawing ideas of things runs against individuality and diversity.
 
To communicate our intentions, whether for our own purposes (hobbyists) or those of others (professionals) we need to be intentional in our mark-making. Although in drawing we begin with similarities, we have to consider the uniqueness of differences that will capture attention and captivate our viewers.
In summary 
 
We cannot be unintentional in the work we create if it’s going to be meaningful and valuable to others. Happy accidents must be assessed and accepted or dismissed based why we’re creating the work.
 
Creativity is a process involving imagination, ideas, aesthetics, analysis, production, and technical skill. 
 
We don’t see as we think we do. We have to analyze what we see. To avoid stereotypes we recognize similarities first in identifying something and then focus on differences. 
Your turn
 

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Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.