Does Creativity Suffer With Responsive Workflows?

A couple of weeks ago I posted how workflows are changing with responsive design. Mike raised an interesting question in a comment on the post wondering about creativity or a lack of it with the new workflows. I replied, but had more to add.

Here’s Mike’s comment in full.

Do you think this method of designing/developing will result in less “creative” websites? I’m personally finding it difficult to get started on a workflow like this even though I know static mockups aren’t doing a good job of showing responsiveness.

As I mentioned in my reply, I don’t think a process of moving things to the browser and iterating more will result in less creative sites, though I do understand the concern. Ultimately our tools and workflows don’t make us less or more creative. Perhaps they’ll lead our creativity in a different direction, but different is neither good nor bad. It’s simply different.

E3 2010 Creativity Unleashed
E3 2010 Creativity Unleashed

We Are Creative

While many will insist they aren’t creative because they can’t draw a straight line, the truth is we’re all creative. It’s one of the greatest strengths of being a human being. You don’t have to take my word for it. Go spend time with any 4 year old. You’ll see creative pictures, hear creative stories describing those pictures, play creative games, and a whole host of other creative things.

We’re born creative. We have it bred out of us as we get older in order to make us more productive, but we’re all more creative than we realize.

Again, I understand the concern. We’re creative creatures, but we’re also creatures of habit. If you’re used to starting the creative process by picking up a pencil and sketching a few lines in a notebook, it can be stressful when you wake one morning to find your notebook stolen and your pencil broken.

Change doesn’t take away creativity, though. If anything it stimulates it. It shakes it up and forces it out of the same old patterns. Take away your pencil and you’ll have to find something else to draw with. Can’t find a piece of chalk, a pen, charcoal, a tube of lipstick? Guess you’ll have to create something to draw with.

What will you come up with when you can’t rely on favorite tools and established processes? I don’t know, but I know you’ll come up with something.

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

The Cycle of Web Design Creativity

Look around the web and you’ll find that most sites look a lot alike. There’s a reason for that. It’s more productive. It’s businesses. If you look at the more creative sites, even they start to look alike after a time. We all borrow from each other. Rather we steal, internalize, and produce something our own.

Think of the brief history of design on the web.

  • Starts with text only pages because that’s all you could do
  • Images come along and design gets more creative
  • Someone discovers images inside tables can make things more interesting
  • CSS comes and tells us less images and more code leading to less visual interest
  • CSS improves and designers improve their skills using it.
  • We get more creative through a combination of code and imagery

The last year or so has had web designers who are often untrained in graphic design rediscover foundational design principles. Better typography and grids are finding their way into designs. That’s led to more order and organization and less of the free and chaotic we often equate with creativity.

Sites are leaning toward a minimalist aesthetic, which to some probably comes across as less creative since the eye catching pictures aren’t included. They’ll be back. These things happen in cycles. Some of the newfound minimalism was simply a reaction to the overuse of imagery without purpose. People will eventually react against minimalism and more decoration will come back. Study the history of design or art and you’ll see the same thing again and again.

Right now we’re moving to a world of responsive design and with that we’re discovering our existing workflows aren’t working well. As happens from time to time, the creative might take a step back while we sort through the technology and see what it’s capable of and what we’re capable of doing with it.

We”ll come out the other site as creative as ever. We always do. And then it will start again where technology changes and we need to relearn how to be creative.

The pattern is always the same.

  • New technology replaces old
  • We struggle to learn the new technology
  • We complain about what was lost
  • We see the possibilities in the new
  • We learn to master the new technology
  • We do amazing things with the new technology
  • The next new technology replaces the old
  • We struggle to learn the new technology

A new workflow will be difficult for some. They won’t be able to rely on solutions they’ve worked out for certain problems. They won’t have their comfortable tools and patterns to fall back on. And then they’ll adjust.

Others won’t find it difficult. They find the status quo difficult and will quickly embrace the new. They won’t need to adjust. They’ll just create with tools more akin to their creative way.

Book cover for 'Out Of Our Minds, Learning To Be Creative' by Ken Robinson

How to Adjust to the New Creativity

You are creative. A change in tools or process doesn’t change that. Yes our workflows are changing, but that doesn’t change the creative person that is you.

It can be a struggle to uproot your routine, but you weren’t born using Photoshop or Fireworks. Your first words weren’t static comp or wireframe. You learned these things and you’ll learn again.

Whatever your favorite tool, you had to develop the skills for it. You learned what it could do. You practiced with it. You spent time exploring it’s nuances. Your workflow didn’t spring to life on its own. You developed that too. Now you’ll develop a new workflow.

Don’t think about what you might be losing. You aren’t losing anything. You can still work with the same tools and workflows you always have, but know that both are changing for what I think is the better. See the opportunity to learn anew. With that learning will come new avenues to explore and new ways to create.

Learn, practice, and master the new. It will take time, but the sooner you begin the sooner you’ll feel comfortable with the changes. Once you do you’ll be able to incorporate your current tried and true and you’ll find you come out the other side as creative as always.

Creativity carved in a stone tile


Creativity is not in the tools we use. It’s not in the processes we follow. And it’s not in the workflows we set up. Creativity is in us. Change the tool, the process, the workflow and human beings will still find a way to be creative.

Moving our creative work away from graphics software and toward a browser doesn’t have to result in boxy designs that all look alike. It’s possible that for a time we will see designs that feel less creative. That’s only because we’re adjusting to what our new workflow is capable of achieving and what we’re capable of achieving with it.

We’re learning to apply new brush strokes with new brushes. We’re applying unfamiliar strokes to an unfamiliar canvas and we’re having to do so with workflows that are new to us.

We’ll adjust as we always have. The unfamiliar will become familiar and we’ll find ways to let our creative shine. It’s what we do.

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