‘Creativity’ and design: Sometimes the two do not mix well

November 3, 2014

By Ed Henninger
Design Elements 

Creativity. It’s a word that makes me cringe.


Because more and more often, it seems, creativity is being used by people who don’t understand what design is all about. They want to stretch the envelope and think outside the box without any concept of the shape, size and material of the envelope or box.

They really think design is all about how something looks—and not about how it works.

They’ll use any funky font they can find—in any color—outlined—with embossing—and a drop shadow. And they call it creative. Sorry, but to me that’s not creativity—it’s just playing. True creativity is a strong focus on the rules, then working within the rules to achieve a design that’s visually appealing—and maybe even exciting.

But you can’t work within the rules if you don’t know the rules. It’s been my experience that most people who do layout aren’t familiar with some of the most basic design rules and principles.

Ask them about focus, unity, dimension, contrast, the color wheel. They won’t have a clue, and that’s why I call them “people who do layout” rather than “designers.”

Somewhere, someone came up with the idea that the mission of her newspaper is to help her satisfy her “creative” urges. So, the publisher is delighted when he sees a headline in color—outlined—with embossing—and a drop shadow.

Sorry, that’s not design—and the mission of a newspaper is not to satisfy creative urges. The mission of a newspaper is to bring meaning to the lives of readers—and to give advertisers a strong return on their ad dollar.

So, if someone on your staff whines that there’s not enough “creativity” in your design—well, maybe that’s a good thing and maybe you’re just doing a better job of news design.

Creativity has its place, for sure. Picasso was creative. Dali was creative. Warhol was creative. Calder was creative. But before they were “creative,” they understood and appreciated the finer points of visual art.

Someone who thinks it’s OK to use Tex-Mex fast food menu typography on a headline?

Well, it makes me cringe.

Want a free evaluation of your newspaper’s design? Contact me at edh@henningerconsulting.com or at 803-327-3322.

If this column has been helpful, you may be interested in my books “Henninger on Design” and “101 Henninger Helpful Hints.” With the help of my books, you’ll have a better idea how to design for your readers. Find out more at www.henningerconsulting.com. © Ed Henninger 2014


ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the Director of Henninger Consulting. On the web: henningerconsulting.com. Phone: 803-327-3322.

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