Creativity vs. Structure – A Phony Dilemma

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Right brain versus left brain, analysis versus exploration, creativity versus structure and order. Many people think these ways of being are in opposition to each other. My experience has told me otherwise: rather than working against one another, these modes actually support each other.

A Tale of Two Bosses

This first became evident to me at the beginning of my career, when I worked for two book designers at the same time. The two designers shared a space, and each guy was growing his own book design agency. They decided to pool their efforts and hire a graphic design student from the local art school as an intern (yours truly.)

I started the job and loved it, the studio was fun, we were working for great clients and both men were talented, fun guys with impressive experience in the magazine and publishing industry.

Beyond the surface, however, the two were a study in contrasts.

One guy was a little more ‘fly by the seat of his pants’ and didn’t seem to have a clear process for planning and executing his work (he may have, but if he did, it was in his head.) And he while he created a lot of really beautiful designs, it seemed he always had a handful of the same clients and no real strategy for growing his business. I never knew what he expected of me, and wasn’t quite comfortable working for him. He also had a very messy desk.

The other designer, whose work area was always immaculate (can you see where this is going?), had a very systematic way of approaching his business. He had lists of what needed to be accomplished. He had a process for organizing, storing and backing up our files. Although it was informal, he seemed to have a very deliberate strategy for helping me grow and routinely increased my responsibilities, which freed him up to pursue lucrative side projects, like magazine consulting.

The second guy’s business literally grew before my eyes.

I started working for him exclusively. He promoted me to designer and together we were incredibly productive and creative. We routinely acquired new clients. Our books won design awards. We pitched to and won projects from publishers like Chronicle Books and Harper Collins.

I started earning a bonus based on our monthly revenue. As a result, I paid attention to how much the business was billing and noticed the amount steadily increased each month.

Flourishing Within Structure

Both designers produced amazing work. However one seemed to grow his business and his body of work through systematic planning and working in a structured, orderly way – with no discernible impact to creativity. I have seen this played out over and over in different scenarios throughout my career, despite the perception by some that in order to be creative you have to be chaotic, disorganized, or unhampered by structure or constraints.

How about you? How do you reconcile creativity, structure, and productivity?

15 thoughts on “Creativity vs. Structure – A Phony Dilemma

  1. Ohh, this is a great post!

    I’m definitely finding that the more structure I put into my business, the more in control I feel.. and therefore the more free and creative I feel!

    When everything is all over the place and haphazard, I feel stressed out and my creativity suffers.

    I’ve reached a point where I have so much going on that if I DON’T have clear structures, I simply will not be able to function – so I totally agree that good systems and habits are crucial!

  2. I can only thrive creatively when there is structure – it’s rigidity that kills me, every time. I need space to flow but not so much I’m unfocused.

  3. yes yes and yes. I think many people come up with this idea as a result of being in a structured job that hampered creativity, not because of the structure itself, but because of the company or people involved. But it leaves you thinking, ‘when I go out on my own I won’t have this structure cramping me’. Learning to let go of negative associations like that is for me, a really important part of growing creatively.

  4. Excellent post! I am by nature the guy with the messy desk, however after years of seeing how that does not work (I worked for some people with messier desks than mine) I am learning I can be the other guy with effort. Building a business is WORK and does require structure. I absolutely believe that I can do both creative work and structured planning. I am!

  5. Hi Eleanor!

    I’m Lia (a fellow contributor). What a great point you get across with this post. I’m totally the 2nd guy (or gal, I should say).

    My friend used to have this fridge magnet that really bugged me. It said “boring women have imaculate kitchens”. And I always thought… No. Efficient women have imaculate kitchens. I’m anything but boring, just good at time management.

    Anyway, just like many I assume, my creativity is helped by my organized life, not hindered by it!

    I look forward to your future posts!

  6. I love this post! I tend to be a bit messy and that is ok for a few days. I find that when I am messy, my creativity flows but when I need to focus and get some major work done, I have to clean up and get organized.

    A mix of both really works for me.

  7. For me, the key is balance. If I have a to-do list, and a schedule, and a plan I get stressed – I watch the clock, I wonder why there is not enough time to finish one task before I must start another, I can’t really get immersed in my work, and did I remember to eat today? On the other hand, no structure means a lot of internet surfing for “research,” maybe a nap, a long lunch, and too much time to spend obsessing over stitches that seem a little crooked and beads that don’t hang right. I need flexible structure and a schedule with wiggle room. Is that what they call organized chaos?

  8. Wow, these are such great comments. I agree the key is balance. I have to watch that I don’t overdo it (usually because I’ve got an overly ambitious agenda) As Jess mentioned it feels good to be in control, but it’s also good not to tyrannize ourselves with our schedules (more on that later)

    @Lia, Hi! I know what you mean about the magnet. I had a drama teacher in high school who had a plaque on his desk that said ‘A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind’ Hooey!

  9. Most excellent reminder with this latest post Tara! I am a list maker and at times I will laugh at myself since with some of those ‘to do lists’, all I have to do in order to update it, is change the date on top.

    But becoming more organized allowing for more freedom in one’s creativity takes some time to understand how you work best. Having a clean and organized desk and art area with most used items at hand make for saving time.

    I love how any desk looks and feels in terms of its energy once organized, it’s the getting it to that ‘organized stage’ that can be tough for all of us.
    And in fact I was just about to do some illustrations – before I go off to attack my next creative task, I will take a break and straighten up the desk.

    Keep these inspiring posts coming!

  10. I think too many people confuse having a structure (or my favorite word, having a strategy!) with being rigid. I’m a RIDICULOUSLY organized person, but I’m not rigid – you can be organized, have a method, and know what’s going up & what’s going down, while still being flexible. I think the best way to go about it is to have a system, and make that system adaptable.

    My work space isn’t necessarily immaculate – there’s some clutter – but I know where everything is at and my daily planner is always directly to the left of me, so it works for me.

  11. I love this! I used to believe in the chaotic creative thing. It took a whole lot of kicked up dirt and burned out tires to realize that I wasn’t going very far. I see systematic thinking and organization as very different though. I used to think I was bad at both, but through experience, I’ve learned that I’m actually good with systems, can chart things out and plan pretty well, but I’m awful at organizing a desk! I’d rather be planning next steps and seeing a project through than organizing stuff…I’m working on that *sigh*

  12. I loved this post! Popular opinion seems to suggest that creative people are all easy-going, spontaneous, thriving in a tornado of chaos types. As such, I’ve always found it hard to reconcile the creative drive that I have with the obsessive list writing/control freak side of my personality. My creativity functions much better in clean, clear order than turmoil and mess. I think it’s a bit like the principles of Feng Shui – I need a clear pathway for creative energy to flow.

  13. Really great article! I agree it’s sometimes easy to think that running a thriving creative business will automatically invite mess, but I’m finding that structure is what ultimately allows a business to focus and grow, regardless of the industry. I find I work best when I allow a little room for “messiness” when first working on a new idea, but then quickly try to put a plan in place of how to rein that in so I can put the idea into action.

    What’s so amazing to me is that I find more and more successful, “structured” business types in the creative world every day – it’s very inspiring!

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