Can Productivity And Creativity Coexist?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the nature of creativity and productivity. Both are important to any freelance web designer and yet both are often at odds with each other. Is one more important than the other to our success? How can we work toward improving both and knowing when one should take precedence over the other?

I want to take a little time to discuss each and then talk about what I think is the key to maximizing both creativity and productivity.


Thoughts About Productivity

Productivity is about getting more done. Being more productive makes your business more scalable. A common definition is

Productivity is a measure of output per unit of input.

Both output and input can take many different forms. For most of us productivity will mean getting more done in a specific time frame, but it could also mean earning more money per expense in advertising or installing a second conveyor belt to an assembly line.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us as freelance web designers don’t have conveyor belts running through our offices and for us productivity will mostly come out of getting more done in less time.

Some things that can make you more productive include:

  • Automating repetitive image editing tasks by taking advantage of Photoshop’s actions and batch processing
  • Developing processes like the process I use for writing blog posts
  • Developing routines that can lead to being more consistent in your work habits and understanding when you’re better able to do certain types of work
  • Using a task management system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) specifically designed to make your more productive

There are many other things that can make you more productive, of course.

For example last week I was developing a WordPress site for a friend who I’d developed a similar site for a couple years back. This time around it took about half as long to complete the site. Some of that is due to processes in my workflow, but most of it is more knowledge and experience on my part where working with WordPress is concerned.

Knowledge is my power

Knowledge and experience can make us more productive simply because things we might have needed to spend time researching or actively working out a solution are now commonplace.

Another way to become more productive is to take existing process and systems that are in place and improve them. For example that set of Photoshop actions could perhaps be rewritten with less steps or those 20 lines of code could be reduced to 10.

A library for anything you use repeatedly like code snippets is yet another way to become more productive. Outsourcing some of your work yet another.

I could go on, but I’m guessing you don’t need me to. A few things stand out to me in regards to productivity:

  • Anything that you’ll do more than once can be made more productive by developing a process, a system or by automating it
  • Being more organized generally leads to greater productivity
  • Anything that has been made a process, a system, or automated in some way can likely be improved to produce more

At its core productivity is about being more efficient in completing repetitive things. Quantity is a key term when talking about productivity.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep

Thoughts About Creativity

Unlike productivity, creativity is more resistant to definition and it can be harder to pin down exactly what it is. At it’s simplest we could say creativity is the acting of producing something where nothing existed, however I think you’d agree there’s a lot more to creativity than just producing something.

I attempted to define creativity a few months back and will point you to my post on why you’re more creative than you realize if you’re interested in getting at what creativity is.

Some things that often lead to more creativity include:

  • Allowing time to get into a creative flow or mood
  • Taking a meandering path to solution instead of a straight line
  • Experimenting with a variety of possible solutions in order to find the best one
  • Freedom and encouragement to let your subconscious arrive at a solution

Again not an exhaustive list. We might gain creativity by seeking outside sources of inspiration and ideas or by setting up environments that helps us get into a creative state.

The idea of setting up environments is interesting because it reveals how different people find their way into a creative state. Some people will swear by working to music. Others to silence and solitude. And still others to any variety of stimuli. Different becomes a key word where creativity is concerned.

Some other words I pointed to in my previous post on creativity were new, original, and unique. Hardly words conducive to productivity.

In fact if you look back up at the list above you’ll notice each of the 4 items is antithetical to being more productive. If anything the less productive the more creative you might become.

You don’t create something new or different by doing things the same way over and over again. You break routines and step out of processes and automated systems when you’re seeking higher creativity.

As with productivity a few things stand out when it comes to creativity

  • It’s about the singular and not the repetitive
  • It’s often a subconscious thing and thus an unknowing thing
  • Slowing things down and carefree play are more likely to lead to creativity than improving process

At it’s core creativity is about finding unique and different solutions to either new or standard problems. Quality can be seen as a key term when talking about creativity.

Drawing of two hands shaking with the word bienvenidos below

How Productivity and Creativity Can Work Together

Both productivity and creativity, quantity and quality, are important to any design related business and yet as seen above what works to improve one tends to have the opposite effect on the other.

Either or both can lead to more revenue though. For example let’s compare themes and templates to custom design.

Themes fall into the productive. A single theme could sell again and again and again leading to more revenue (output) for a similar amount of time and effort (input) as a custom design. Because of this increased productivity a theme can be sold for less and the greater money is made in the quantity of sales.

A custom design on the other hand falls into the realm of creativity. It’s a unique solution to a problem, arguably a better solution than any theme could provide, but one which you can’t resell. A great custom design can lead to more clients and repeated success with custom design can also lead to charging more for the next custom solution.

Just to be clear creativity also plays a part in developing themes and productivity certainly plays a part in custom design. Both productivity and creativity clearly have their place and the most successful designers are likely both creative and productive.

So how do we reconcile the at odds with each other nature of both?

Comic book panel: Why aren't you blogging

Let me point back to my process for writing blog posts. Writing is generally seen as something creative and yet here I am talking about a process to make it more productive. As a reminder here’s the basic process I use.

  • Brainstorming
  • Outlining and Note Taking
  • Writing first draft
  • Editing, proofing, and linking
  • Adding images and media

The main idea in my process is to separate out the different tasks I do in publishing a post. Writing a first draft falls into the creative. Separating it from other tasks allows me to further systemize or automate those other tasks, without forcing the writing itself into the system.

By separating the different tasks; by separating those things that can be systemized from those that are better left unsystemized, it allows me to automate and generate processes where a process will be beneficial and allows me to be more creative where creativity will be more beneficial.

For example consider the last item above, adding images. To ultimately add images to a post there are several steps I go through.

  • Searching a handful of sites for images
  • Resizing the images to fit the existing design of the site
  • Make a final decision about which images to use and where in the post to use them

In the past I tried to make the final decision while searching, which made searching a time intensive process. It can be hard to find the exact image you have in mind or know how well any single image will work with the other images or the post in general until you see them in the post.

Eventually I discovered it was better to make a quick yes or no decision about each image while searching and to collect more than I ultimately needed.

Not having to think too much about each image while searching made the search quicker. When resizing the images I’ll now grab all that I’ve collected knowing that some won’t get used. Resizing images is a rather mechanical process, one I could automate should I choose.

After resizing I’m still usually left with more images than I need, but now I can quickly compare how they look in the actual post which leads to the final decision.

In the end I think the best way to reconcile the sometimes oppositional nature of productivity and creativity is to separate those things that need to be creative from those things that would benefit from greater productivity and then deal with each on its own terms.

For those things that would be better served by increased quality or by being original or different allow creativity to reign supreme. For those things that would be better served by increased output or reduced input allow productivity to reign.

Seek the best of both worlds.

Diego Rivera painting showing a factory asembly line


Productivity and creativity are both important to the success of any design business. Yet the things that aid one seem to impede the other. Where productivity likes automating repetitive tasks, creativity likes taking its time in finding a unique or different solution.

The key to maximizing both is to see everything you do as a process and to understand what parts of those big processes can be further systemized and what parts need to be left alone to do their own thing.

By separating that which can be made more productive from that which is better left to the muse you maximize the results of each.

Do you find productivity and creativity at odds in your own design business? What have you done to reconcile their opposition and maximize the output from both?

« »

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. Great article and subject, i was looking for long time. How one can do the same with composing music right from idea to full song.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *