What is “a Creative”?
The Creative Quotient (CQ) defined.
It started with an air show by the Blue Angels. I was 10 and decided I wanted to be a Pilot.
I would sit up in my bed with my legs straight out. I’d then grab my top sheet, wrap one end under my foot and the other over my head and under my butt, then pretend it was the cockpit of an F–16.
My mom wanted me to be a pianist. I hated the way some people pronounced it (peen-ist). Plus, even though I was taking two lessons a week I never really practiced enough.
Pilot. Pianist. Scientist. Doctor. Lawyer.
These are all titles of careers that convey concrete meaning for most people.
But for the majority of my working career, I’ve been called a Creative. What is a Creative really?
I had someone tell me once that they were an Intellectual. That sounded incredibly pretentious. I think it just meant they were a full-time college student getting lots of degrees.
Saying you’re a Creative also comes with a bit of that pretension.
The other day I had an epiphany about this whole “being a Creative” thing.
Being creative vs. being “a Creative”
First, we need to make a distinction between being Creative and being a Creative.
Everyone can be creative. It’s a learned skill. Put time into practicing how to solve problems by making unexpected connections, and you can employ the power of creative thinking. Sure, this comes easier to some than others, but it can be mastered. Like playing the piano. You may never be a great pianist, but you can surely learn how to play.
Being a Creative goes beyond skill. It’s actually applying judgement. It’s an internal judgement or aesthetic that guides how you evaluate what you experience in the world. You either have it or you don’t.
It’s important to note the the process of being creative means removing judgement. But being a Creative is applying judgement.
It really is like having a type of OCD. It’s this gut feeling inside that says “something is not quite right with what I’m experiencing. What I’m experiencing could be better.”
Sometimes you know how to make it better. Or sometimes you know someone who knows how to make it better. Or sometimes in that moment you know it could be better, but don’t know how. But you are massively intrigued to figure out how. Obsessed even.
Being a Creative means that you’re the kind of person that evaluates everything you see in the world against your unique internal standards. When something doesn’t meet that standard, it drives you crazy. It can literally make you mad. It can also inspire you to track down whoever was responsible for that experience and offer up suggestions on how to improve it.
The font choice on a restaurant menu. The signage at the grocery store. The design of someone’s resume. The choice of music on a commercial. Someone who is a Creative notices all of this and cares deeply about it. I have friends who, when I bring this stuff up, have no idea what I’m talking about and think I’m crazy.
When you experience something that exceeds your internal standards, it’s beautiful. It’s emotional. It’s inspiring. Movies make me cry. So does music, or something I read, or art. But it’s not usually “sadness” that causes the tears.
It’s those moments in a movie (or music or book or art) where the craft applied to making that experience reaches a new level. A level beyond your internal standards. Beyond your expectations. That’s what moves me.
I’ll give you an example of that. Towards the end of Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is lying down. It’s raining. His life has just been spared. Gaff (a partner of Deckard’s at the LAPD) appears, throws Deckard his gun.
Gaff starts to walk away, turns and says “it’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” The Vangelis soundtrack begins to swell.
I cry every single time I watch that. I’m not sad. I’m touched and inspired. To me it’s just beautiful filmmaking at every level. The cinematography. The sound design. The choice of words. The music. All working together.
A Creative is someone who sets high standards for the things they make. Someone who cares massively about the details. Who, if something is not quite right, feels it in their gut. And if they move on without making it “right,” they actually feel incredibly guilty about it. They will remember what they didn’t fix for a long time.
These are internal judgements. The best Creative people I know also listen to, and respect, other opinions immensely. They think about those opinions and take the time to determine if they are additive or subtractive, or just completely neutral.
Sometimes those opinions suggest ways of doing things that we know are wrong, but have a truth at their core that inspires new approaches that will make our work better. If those opinions make the work better, then awesome. If they don’t then it’s ignored. If neutral, then a decision is made whether to act on it or not.
At the end though, the best Creative people are ultimately guided by their internal standards, their own internal North Star.
IQ… EQ… Here’s how I would define Creative Quotient.
Like IQ or EQ, there’s a CQ. I found this Medium article where the author did some research into this.
Basically it starts with defining creativity as the ability to connect ideas apparently disparate to compose a novel synthesis. Completely agree. This is the definition of being creative.
Creative Quotient, as defined in this article, is the expression of “ideational fluency” (volume of ideas) and flexibility (quantity of categories that gathers the ideas).
This is a measure of how creative someone can be. No doubt, for some this comes easier than others. But again, it’s a skill that can be practiced and mastered.
I believe the real CQ is what I describe above. It’s an internal standard or aesthetic against which an individual measures what they experience in the world. It’s what guides them when they make things. It’s what guides them when they work with a team to make things. It’s the difference between someone who can play the piano and a great pianist.
The real Creative Quotient is an internal standard or aesthetic against which an individual measures what they experience in the world.
This internal standard is unique to each of us. It’s why great designers like Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Michael Bierut or Aaron Draplin have their own unique voice. It’s why the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei, while all amazing, are completely distinct and unique in their own way. Their CQs are off the charts.
Movies. Music. Retail stores. TV Commercials. Websites. These are experiences that people engage with. And when someone who has dedicated their career (and life) to being a Creative passionately applies themselves to crafting these experiences, you notice the difference.
You don’t have to be a Creative to notice the difference. You may not care about or notice the details that make it great, but you feel it. Great experiences have greater value to us, both monetarily and spiritually. It’s why you pay more for a great hotel or restaurant or concert ticket. It’s why you pay more for one brand over another, even if they are essentially the exact same product.
That’s what being a Creative means to me. And though I may not have the CQ of a Ridley Scott, Paul Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright or Ryan Adams, it’s truly a worthy profession. Like Pilot, Pianist, Scientist, Doctor or Lawyer.
Though I do still dream about being a Pilot.
About me: I’m a Partner/Creative Director at Teak in San Francisco. I’m from Colorado, moved to Chicago for 8 years then settled down in San Anselmo, California (the birthplace of mountain biking) with my wife to raise two amazing kids. I’m a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, Denver Broncos and Peet’s Coffee.