Theories of Creativity

In the latest instalment of Future Imperfect, Sven Johnson has been trying to unearth the roots of a creativity myth.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Why is it that we tend to see the creative professions as the province of the young, when there’s so much evidence to the contrary?


I spend a fair amount of time on design-related forums and, as a relatively senior designer, tend to answer quite a few questions posted by relatively young people considering a design profession. As it turns out – since so few “digital natives” seem to understand what “Search” means – many questions are repeats. One particular repeat goes something like this:

I’m 27 years old and figure I’m too old to enter a creative profession, but can’t imagine being a [insert profession here] for the rest of my life; is there any chance I could become a [insert creative professional title here]?

Most repeat questions are irritating, but I’ve read that one so many times it’s now become a source of bewilderment.

I can understand parents steering their children to “safe” careers (even though it seems as if such careers are dwindling in number), but what I don’t understand is something altogether different: the outdated and unsubstantiated belief that creativity – and, by extension, traditionally creative occupations – are for the young. Maybe I’m being dense, but I don’t see a definitive and exclusive connection.

Truth be told – considering some of the uncreative stuff I see in the portfolios of young, newly graduating designers – I can’t imagine how this creative myth ever gained traction. There are plenty of youngsters that seem to me to be so creatively challenged I’m not sure age, experience or a paint-by-numbers set is going to help them.

Furthermore, this bias seems especially odd considering a) it has nothing to do with financial security, b) many people looking to move into such careers often already have “safe” college degrees, and c) there are so many examples disproving it. Consider the following:

  • Pablo Picasso‘s amazing “Guernica” was painted when he was in his 50’s.

5 thoughts on “Theories of Creativity”

  1. Maybe it has something to do with creativity being a province of children? In a general sense, children are more receptive to their environment and to crazy ideas, making them more likely to be creative, and the older you get the harder it is to get back there. It comes easily to children, whereas adults have to work at it. I can understand how someone would make the erroneous assumption that, just like creativity, creative careers are for the young.

  2. I think you might be on to something there, Dave. Personally my suspicion is that the media “cult of youth” certainly has a hand in this matter; creative success is frequently portrayed as the province of the young and attractive. Maybe Sven’s right, and there’s a conspiracy at work…

  3. That’s strange. I’m young–a few months past 22–and I’m totally under the impression that my chances of “making it” before I’m 30, are incredibly slim. I mean, I think part of it is that finding success as a creative *maker* takes a lot more work and pratice than we’re willing to admit, even with the internet and all of the great technology that makes this easier, I think 10-20 years isn’t *that* long… But then what do I know, I’m just a kid. heh. 😉

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