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Moving Past the Art Bias in Creativity

How much creative thinking does your job require? Our beliefs about creativity don’t align with data on the ubiquity of creative work.

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, when prompted to name a creative person, we consistently find that people are a lot more likely to think of celebrities and artists than of themselves or other people they know and work with.

At the same time, employers tell us they need their teams to be more creative, to think differently, to foster innovation. Of course, no one will argue against more creativity in their company. But, when asked to further describe what creativity looks like in their organizations, few employers can articulate what they want.

Part of what gets in the way of employees and employers aligning on the meaning of creative work is called the art bias in creativity. That is, we are culturally biased to think mostly of artistic work when we think about creativity. Much like we hold implicit biases about groups of people, creativity researchers have documented an implicit bias that confounds artistic ability with creativity more generally.

You may already be familiar with the implicit association research produced by Harvard’s Project Implicit. Through a study design called an implicit association test (IAT), researchers examine the strength of cognitive associations between concepts (e.g., sexual orientations, ethnicities) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad). An IAT measures how quickly people sort and categorize pairings of words representing different concepts and evaluations. An implicit bias is suggested by differences in response times from pairing negative associations (gay/bad) relative to positive associations (gay/good). Even when we honestly think of ourselves as unbiased, IATs have an unsettling way of exposing our implicit associations and stereotypes. You should give it a try.

Creativity researcher Vlad Glăveanu adapted the IAT approach to measure people’s ideas association of creativity with specifically artistic work. He asked participants to describe how much creativity was required for success in 16 broadly different jobs, such as musician, lawyer, and gardener. Participants were asked to make ratings as quickly as they could, without deliberating too much.

He found that prototypically creative jobs, like musician and writer, were rated the highest in requiring creativity, and that people made those ratings very quickly. In contrast, jobs like chemist or lawyer had lower ratings of creativity, and it took people longer to decide that. The results of this study provide evidence that people associate creativity with artistic jobs more readily than they associate it with more “mundane” professions.

Source: Glăveanu, V. (2014). Revisiting the “Art Bias” in Lay Conceptions of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 26(1), 11-20

However, a lawyer or chemist is unlikely to agree that their work requires little creative thinking. Understanding stereotypes of creative jobs is one thing, but what objective data do we have on the nature of creative work? The US Department of Labor collects very detailed job analytic data on pretty much every occupation in the US economy, including how often different types of tasks are performed, and how critical work activities, such as “thinking creatively” are to overall job performance. According to the DoL, thinking creatively is either “very important” or “extremely important” to 18% of all jobs in the economy. Fully 70% of all jobs regularly require creative thinking for successful performance, including jobs like production managers, physician assistants, and database architects.

Source: O*NET 23.2 Database by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA). Used under the CC BY 4.0 license. O*NET® is a trademark of USDOL/ETA.

Creative thinking manifests differently across jobs, but it’s required almost everywhere in the new economy. In some contexts, artistic ability or aesthetic outcomes may be truly important, but context is key. Organizations interested in attracting and developing a creative workforce can start by describing that context, and articulating what good looks like. Here are a few questions to ask to get started:

  • What’s the output of the desired creativity? Physical products, processes, concepts?

  • How important are aesthetics and artistry? Will there be objective or intuitive criteria for success?

  • Are we looking to solve old problems more creatively, or do we need to identify new problems to solve?

  • How much room for self-expression should people have in this line work?

Once the most relevant kind of creativity an organization needs is identified, then the really fun work of selecting and preparing people to perform can begin. What is the creative context of your organization?


Jake Trussell
Jake Trussell
Jun 19, 2019

It's also worth pointing out that the recently released McKinsey Design Index quantifies for the first time the business value of design. It shows that the most design-oriented companies generate 32% more revenue and 56% more total returns to shareholders. Design-oriented businesses are those with design thinkers in the C-suite who measure design with the same rigor as they do revenues and costs, who make user-centric design cross-functional, who de-risk development by continually listening to customers and incorporating their ideas, and who break down walls between digital, physical and service design:


Jake Trussell
Jake Trussell
Jun 19, 2019

Interesting in light of this article about how the creative industries contributed more than $763B to the US economy in 2017; more than agriculture or transportation. It points out that the public is often skeptical about the economic impact of creative endeavors which is ironic given that the design of new products, services, and business is an inherently creative endeavor and is the engine of the economy:

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