Creativity vs. strategy: what do people really want?

It was super hard for me to find a job straight out of college—the places where I wanted to work weren’t hiring and many of the other jobs didn’t seem right for me. After months of searching and waiting by the phone, I decided to take the plunge. I had done some freelancing throughout high school and college and decided I would trek back home and freelance full time.

I had a strategy and I had it all planned out. I really did. It didn’t matter, though.

The work I was doing in an attempt to get noticed (and paid) was getting absolutely no attention. I mean, I purchased a website and got little to no views for weeks. I was trying my hardest, and I think on my best day I got maybe 150 views, and maybe 20 folks on my e-mail list.

My strategy just was not working.

The bright side, however, was that the work I was doing for fun got a lot more recognition than I thought it would and it eventually turned into some decent money. Who would’ve thought?


Why be strategic?

Having something organized and planned out works for some people. It’s what the experts tell us to do. I hate surprises so I liked the idea of having something to look forward to rather than feeling like I was taking a walk in the dark. Besides, it’s a lot easier to tell people you’re working on your web design business than it is to tell them you have no clue what you’re doing, but you hope it works.

Creating a strategy helps you to be prepared. You don’t want to just let yourself loose and hope something happens or catches on. Even when I was doing my primarily creative/fun stuff, I still planned it out. Think about it like this—how often can you open Photoshop (or the program of your choice) with no plan or idea of what to do and then end up creating something spectacular? I know I can’t. Web designers, print designers, architects, painters, and other creatives all have some sort of plan or some sort of sketch before they get into the development stage.

Strategy is what some people believe pays the bills. Now, I’ll say that’s up to personal interpretation, but if you have a plan and it makes sense, well then you’re far ahead of someone who has no clue what they are doing. Some folks come along and decide they want to create a blog packed with design inspiration and other creative articles or they want to create branded packages for small businesses. These are great ideas that have to have a strategy behind them…or do they?


Why be creative?

While I absolutely hate surprises, I had no idea how to create a good strategy. Mine were entirely too strict and didn’t give me a chance to totally be creative. If I look back at what I was doing, I was strategizing things down to the very bone—my goal wasn’t to get more Twitter followers, but it was to have 100 new followers a week.

My goal wasn’t to just create a website, but it was to create three types of freebies a week and get a certain amount of folks to download them. Thinking like that didn’t leave room for error, which I liked, but it also didn’t leave room for opportunity. If the results weren’t as I expected, then it was wrong.

Now if we recall, I said the things I did to have a bit of fun and be creative were getting noticed much more. I have two theories for that:

  1. While I still had a strategy, I was being creative. I strategized by saying, “Hey, I see people asking how to make this kind of effect in Photoshop, let me make a screencast video and put it online.” That was it. Nothing else, really. I didn’t even write a transcript (which I would do in the future). The idea here is that I gave my “product” time to sit and breathe and be itself. Perhaps with my other idea, I was too involved. Over-strategizing can be the death of any strategy. You’ve got to give your idea time to stretch out and grow and figure out what else it NEEDS to be. You can’t create something and immediately expect it to be something more. Especially when it was as generic as my over-strategized idea.There is an issue with trying to be too involved.
  2. People like creativity. Doing something new, or seemingly new, is smiled upon. I think there are a ton of psychological things we can explore here, but basically the idea is that folks are attracted to things that are new, that are different, that are unique. Think about the designers that stand out to you the most or the musicians and companies that are up and coming. Don’t they all have something new or unique to offer? Most times they do, and most times they start by serving a small niche, who were immediately attracted to it. Then as they got older, and got some more feedback, they figured out how to make it a monster—think of Macintosh back when they first started. Some of the greatest sites, products, musicians, etc. came about pretty much by accident (with little to no strategic backing).


The winner is…

I’m not saying that it’s bad to have a strategy but I am saying it is terrible to over-think some things. It’s also hard to put a strategy behind a purely creative idea. Strategies are extremely important to products or services that come about strictly to solve a problem.

Most app and program developers have found a problem and developed some app to try and help out. For example, with these high gas prices I was wondering (and hoping) there was an app out there that could tell me how close the cheapest gas was. I had a problem and needed a solution. Now that deserves a strategy for sure—how to get it in front of people who would use it and how much they might be willing to pay for something like that.

The thing to be careful of is trying to create a problem for our creativity to solve. For one, you’re probably boxing your creativity up. My bright idea straight out of college was to create affordable everything design for small businesses—I had ads up, I had made connections, but I was putting my creativity in one lane—small businesses. I was only following small businesses on Twitter and my portfolio only had stuff up for small businesses.

It sounded right, but I kind of made that strategic decision without letting my creativity find its own way. Secondly, being creative is a very sensitive thing—you can’t just push it on everyone and expect them to like it. Sometimes it’s best to just put your best foot forward and see what you get and go from there.

I know this is going against everything everyone else has taught you. Hell, it’s going against everything I was taught, but sometimes we’ve got to take risks and find out what ends up working for us. Take the feedback, cultivate it, and make something great.


Do you feel like this theory about creativity is true? What are your results when it comes to strategy vs. creativity?

  • Anonymous

    Great article and a debate I am not sure on which side of the fence I fall on. My job role is basically a creative strategist. I suppose I weigh the client and the project goals to decide which camp to lean toward. Some projects just require strict strategy to keep things on point, while others you can really break the mold on creativity. Sometimes you can even find a happy medium, but in my own experience that’s a rare treat.

    • Joshua Lewis

      I don’t see there being a fence separating the two. A loose strategy that allows lots of creative freedom is just as much and as valid a strategy as one that is very strict and rigid. The ultimate optimum balance comes down to the individual project and the team working on it.

      To me the idea that one can take precedence over and be more important than the other is absurd. In the context of design, strategy provides measures of success and effectiveness and is one of the sources of constraints (the things that make design design). Without that, pure creativity has no direction and it is impossible to identify what solutions are valuable enough to pursue and spend resources on. Of course without creativity novel, potentially better, solutions aren’t available.

  • Jason Gross

    I wonder how much the success of your more creative and fun projects had to do with your audience? As a designer you are more than likely to pal around with the design community on twitter/facebook/G+ so I find it natural that this crowd would be more responsive to the more creative, perhaps less strict, projects. 

    I would imagine this is because you are a designer yourself so you have a solid grasp on the target audience of other designers. What naturally comes to you as more fun and interesting comes as more fun and interesting to the rest of the design community as well and they are more receptive to it. 

  • Soan

    This one is undoubtedly the best article that i have read citing the thin line of difference between what you should do and what you are doing.
    i am going through the same phase of looking out for subscribers and have devised from the path where i started.
    keep it up.

  • City Website

    There is a fine balance of strategy and creativity!

  • Joshua Lewis

    Your examples of strategy strike me as more tactical in nature. Good strategy is about defining broad goals and should be largely stable over time and in the face of changing conditions. Tactics are more specific and much more variable and changeable.

    An example of a strategy would be “Build up a base of readership by producing and sharing valuable resources.” 

    One tactic that could accompany it would be “Actively participate in the twitter community by : tracking and taking part in discussions, starting new discussions, sharing found resources, and sharing my own resources”. 

  • Philip Toronto

    As with everything, there are elements of truth everywhere in what you have written. I think the key to a successful strategy is that it should allow flexibility. If everything were completely predictable then you’d have a plan – not a strategy. So the general idea of focussing on small business was a good one. You cannot have no focus. But while following that idea allow yourself to be open to variations. If a big business idea comes along – explore it. Don’t change focus to big business just because you have had a big business idea. But eventually you might decide to.

  • peter

    Great article. It is really innovative and inspiring. I agree with you that  strategy and creativity both are necessary to be a winner………

  • Dontblamemeimgerman

    Good article. I like it but it does not solve my problem of getting out of the misery of beeing a creative person lacking of strategy. The one or the other side will suffer from the effort put in the opposite. Think about it.

  • Daquan Wright

    I think when you create something that appeals to emotion (graphic design), creativity has more precedence. If you’re working on content or ui design/programming, then strategy is probably more involved.

    Naturally creativity and strategy go together too. I think it also largely depends on your audience and the particular project at hand. Strategy determines how things will be done but creativity determines how your audience will perceive it. There’s a link.

  • Anonymous

    What an article!

    All I can say is wow! I now have confusions on what to follow, my creativity or am I going to make my own strategies. These creativity and strategy that I may be making are not only applicable to jobs or works but also in reality that you may be engaging with people who uses those things, but I prefer more to be using both the two things to have a better works of ideas.
    Great job!

  • Evgenia Grinblo

    I don’t think strategy and creativity are conflicting concepts. There’s something really smart you said here (among others) which is that strategy is “something the experts tell us to do.” And often I find that when I begin thinking about strategy, I run through the latest reads in my mind and try to remember what it was that I heard should be working. The key, I think, is when strategy is born out of creative experience, when it comes from a place of creation rather than constraint. And I think you’ve come to own that source of creative strategy in your life and business.

  • Evgenia Grinblo

    Sorry, posted twice! :)