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This article is from December 29, 2014, and is no longer current.

Can You Learn to Be Creative?


A few years back, I came across a question on the Graphic Design forum of the StackExchange network. StackExchange has its roots in the programming world, and this user was a programmer by profession. He asked a great question: “How do I learn to be creative?”

He wanted to be able to design his own stuff, create his own web and UI designs, and he wondered “how do the creatives do it?” Hidden in the subtext was the common misconception that creativity exists only in the field of the arts. Not so! Programmers, engineers, scientists, woodworkers, cooks and a raft of other professionals are often intensely creative people.

What this user was really asking for was a way to channel his already-existing creativity into the field of the visual arts. That seemed to him a mysterious, impossible task, but it isn’t at all mysterious, and it’s definitely not impossible. The answer applies to anyone starting out as a designer, or wondering if they, too, might “become creative.”

Where does creativity come from?

© iStockPhoto/OJO_Images

Creativity is the direct product of imagination, and imagination is the process of combining experiences, ideas, and knowledge you already have into new combinations that you didn’t have before. Without experiences, ideas, and knowledge, imagination and creativity would starve.

We all have experience, we all have ideas, we all know stuff, and we all have an imagination (without one, you couldn’t plan a trip to the supermarket, far less a magazine layout or a great photograph). Add to that the ability to learn new things, and there’s no reason anyone can’t become creative in any field, if they’re willing to put in the time and effort.

Fuel for the imagination

If imagination runs on knowledge, experience and ideas, it follows that if you feed it the right stuff it will work better. So how does a beginning designer acquire the right ingredients? Let’s start with knowledge.

Like knitting or rocket science, visual design has fundamentals and techniques that work when applied. That’s good, because it means there are learnable rules and teachable skills that, while they may not turn you into a world-famous designer overnight, will at least get you up to “competent.” How far you go after that is up to you.

There are many great resources for learning the basics of design, but my recommendation to beginners are: subscribe to Before and After Magazine; buy and read John McWade’s excellent books Page Design and How to Design Cool Stuff; and buy, read and reread The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. For User Interface design, Joel Spolsky’s wonderful article, “Designing for People Who Have Better Things To Do” is probably the best and most succinct exposition on the Big Thing All UI Designers Must Know.

If you didn’t go to a design school (and even if you did), these contain rock-bottom fundamentals you can’t do without.

You can’t get much done if you don’t know your tools

Caption © Fotolia/Lisa F. Young

Once upon a time, any carpenter, mason, sculptor or painter made his or her own tools. “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools” is still as true as it ever was. It would be a sorry excuse of an artist who didn’t know how to prepare a canvas or clean and care for brushes, or a mechanic who didn’t know how to use a torque wrench. In the same way, if you’re going to work in the field of design you’ll have to learn how to use a large and quite complex set of tools.

Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign aren’t so much tools as they are complete workshops, each full of tools suitable for a particular kind of work. They take time to learn, and a lot of practice to master. Resources such as Adobe TV and lynda.com are packed with great resources for almost any skill level, and anyone serious about design should be spending quality time with them. Sites like InDesignSecrets, local User Groups, and online design forums are also great resources.

Ideas and Experience

There is a general rule about any creative skill: you have to be able to duplicate (recreate exactly what others have done) before you can originate (create your own stuff from scratch). It applies to design, painting, music, programming, anything. This is the short, practical version of “we build upon the work of others” and “we stand upon the shoulders of giants,” — wise words that look great on an inspirational poster, but aren’t terribly useful if you don’t know which shoulder to stand on, or how to tell a shoulder from a buttock.

You will know when to break the rules and go your own way, but not until after you master the “right” way.

Once you’ve done some study, find examples of great design and figure out how they were done. You’ll build your own “Idea File” in the process. This will become a tool you’ll use a lot, but here’s the first thing to do with it: pick out a few things that impress you, and recreate them exactly as a practice exercise. (By the way, although it’s fine to pay attention to what other people tell you is great design, it’s much more important to develop your own judgment. Your “voice” as a designer will come from what you come to accept and reject in the designs you see around you, and in your own work.)

In the process, three things will happen:

1. You will associate the design fundamentals you’ve been studying with real-world examples. When principle and application come together, the principle buries itself so deeply in your mind that you no longer have to remember it; it becomes something you think with automatically.

2. You will be building a vocabulary of craft techniques and a visual library of ideas that you’ll put into practice in your own projects. All those Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign tricks you learn (or develop on your own) become part of your personal mind-library, from which your imagination can draw.

3. You’ll start to gain confidence in your own ideas. I guarantee you’ll have at least one “aha!” moment, when you look at some successful design and realize, “Hey! I could do better than that!” Your own designs will come alive, and you’ll be on your way.

You’ll have acquired enough knowledge, experience, and ideas to fire your imagination, and your creativity will follow. Work experience, swapping ideas with other designers, non-stop
learning, and the challenges of new projects will build your skills and confidence.

From there, the only limit is your (now thoroughly equipped!) imagination.


Alan Gilbertson is an independent designer based in Los Angeles. He works across the entire Creative Suite. He can be found answering design and technique questions for designers on graphicdesign.stackexchange.com. His personal blog is at blog.gngcreative.com.


Alan Gilbertson is a designer and creative director living in Los Angeles, California, where he doesn’t miss the weather of his Scottish hometown one bit.
  • Greg Saunders says:

    Well put, simple and obtainable do-able, (you do have to do it)

  • mschriss says:

    This was a great article. Thanks Alan!!!

  • Jody Thomae says:

    Just wanted you to know your article is featured today on Create-A-Day: your daily dose of creativity from Jody Thomae, author of God’s Creative Gift–Unleashing the Artist in You. Here’s the link:

    Creative blessings, Jody

  • Christiana Antiga says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing

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