The Culture of Creative Thinking. - The Long and Short Blog
More than just corporate buzz words, understanding cultural context of creative thinking will help your visual communication be accurate and nuanced.
culture, creative, thinking, design, long, short, Siying Wei, Damian Salter, Siying, Damian, The Long and Short, Blog, visual, corporate
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The Culture of Creative Thinking.


he culture of creative thinking has become rather a buzz saying around hip corporate internal communication, as a way to say, hey we’re inclusive, forward thinking and embrace constructive objective input from any level, not just senior management structures. And of course in many respects its nothing more than a not so subtle branding tool to bring new talent into the fold.

Needless to say, that’s not what the culture of creative thinking is really about. It is much more than just an appropriated corporate saying to get talented millennials onto the company payroll.

Taking it Back to the Start.

The ability to think creatively and apply rational thinking to our situation is one of the main things that separate us as a species from the others that we share the planet with. And it has almost single-handedly for better or worse lead to the emergence of human existence as we know today.

Of course in the early years there was nothing sophisticated about it, but a very basic rudimentary answer to a problem. How to collect water. How to make fire. How to build shelter. How to hunt. Later things became a bit more complex. How to prevail in conflict. And in general, the societies that had the most effective, the most creative answers to these questions were the ones that stood the best chance of survival.

As our collective understanding of the world around us and beyond became more advanced, so did the possibilities for creative thought. When science came into the equation with the emergence of the Period of Enlightenment, folk law and religious doctrine made way for rational thought. It was this intelligence for visualizing and planning that helped us develop our societies, and before the term “design” became prevalent in the early twentieth century, it still every much existed as a construct that exerted its influence throughout culture from that point on. Designers were, and are still, the quintessential planners for society.

“Visual communication is the great facilitator of our time when it comes to disseminating information and ideas that ultimately shape our societies.”

Of course, the creative planners were constrained to the context of their time. Initially predominantly for the construction of buildings, the design of bridges, later on the development of transport. Over centuries of establishing their craft, these types of creative planners became known as architects, engineers, and industrial designers. Design for visual communication is a much younger industry, in the way that we know it today, being in its infancy up until the 1920’s and only becoming more predominant as understanding around visual communication blossomed in the 1950’s.

So What is the Culture of Creative Thinking?

There are some that would question whether design and in particular graphic design really contributes to the culture at all. However, the key to the advancement of our modern societies, the equality of people’s, the emergence of economies, and the showcasing of cultures, are down to the availability of information, and the ease with how that information is received, and more importantly understood.

Visual communication is the great facilitator of our time when it comes to disseminating information and ideas that ultimately shape our societies. It allows governments to inform citizens, corporations to sell products, charities to raise funds, universities to educate, hospitals to disseminate public information, cultural institutions to reach out to communities, and for all to stake out their territory in the visual world, and get their information and messaging to you in a way that is both palatable and easily understood. So much so that in our modern society, it is very much taken for granted as part of our everyday. And just because we may be unaware of its presence, it does not mean that it is not in every facet of our lives.

The branded proposal

A great corporate example of how creative thinking and design has helped a company substantially influence culture and establish what now for some time is considered a much beloved and accepted norm, comes from De Beers. Starting in 1938, when diamonds were considered the adornment of the super wealthy, they implemented a strategy to encourage more regular folk to justify buying diamonds. The trick was to create the emotional bond to a cultural event that most engaged in. “Diamonds are forever” and accompanying brand marketing and design through the years was one of the most effective campaigns in the last century. With the diamond engagement ring becoming ever more normalized through cultural representations in film and popular culture, it became the aspiration for any successful man or woman. After that, showing off something that once may have seemed crass and opulent, now became and excepted part of a coming of age. Showing one’s commitment, love, and fidelity by spending at least two months salary to buy a diamond engagement ring has become an American tradition, that has permeated throughout the world. One that most don’t think twice about how or why such a tradition came about.

Visual communication revolution

Another amazing example of how design and visual communication has helped organizations influence massive cultural change, in this case through implementing technologies in an intuitive way, is the Macintosh Operating System.

In the beginning of the personal computer age, the screen was nothing but black and the user was able only to complete very basic tasks with a dizzying amount of complex codes. The home computer really was restricted to the realm of nerd. And then Apple OS changed everything. Literally. Developing an interface who’s cornerstone was a consistent visual environment with an intuitive system of menus and icons, that was easy enough for a child to use, suddenly made personal computing available (from a user perspective, if not initially from a financial one) to the masses. For the first time, if you could use a calculator, you could operate a personal computer. The visual look and feel was developed in such a way that it picked up on then current filing and icon languages that were already accepted, normal and familiar to the prospective user and brought them seamlessly into the digital age.

The Internet itself, only came into its own, once designers had grappled with how to present a vast amount of information in such a way that was second nature.

And while undoubtedly it was the technological and computer programming advancement behind the look of the operating system that was the genius, it is the graphic language and visual presentation system that facilitated the breakthrough, without which, there very likely would have been created just another obsolete idea. From that point on computer, interfaces were welcoming and simple to use, so much so that you didn’t even need to think about how or why they worked a certain way. They provided easy access for everybody in an appealing and straightforward way. That is the power of visual communication. It helped set the foundation for the digital era we know today.

Casting the visual net

With further technological advances through the subsequent years, visual communication was there by ingenuities side to facilitate the progression. The Internet, social media and apps all rely heavily on accurate and intuitive visual communication. Pushing the perception of what practices are normal, drawing on familiar visual systems and language and applying it to new ones. These, in turn, have been normalized, and then applied to subsequent systems of new technology, and so on. It is no coincidence that the ‘keyboard’ on your touch screen resembles the one for your computer and before that the typewriter. It’s not accidental that icons on your smartphone are the same shape as buttons were on cell phones, and before that the home phone.

The Internet itself only came into its own once designers had grappled with how to present a vast amount of information in such a way that was second nature. Now e-commerce leads brick and mortar retail in many countries. It is a testament to the visual presentation of information online, that when I go on holiday to London, I can book my flights, rent a car, book a hotel or AirBnB, make restaurant reservations, buy and post gifts, catch up on work, watch that missed episode, chat with friends, receive that congestion zone infraction, look it up, see the evidence, and pay it, all with complete ease, even though in most cases it is the first time of visiting the respective sites. Without a second thought of how I am able to do what I want. It’s almost as if (with the good sites) that someone read my mind and put the information exactly where I needed it, and in a visual language that I can understand completely.

Design in miniature

Through evolution, as platforms became ever more complicated and scaled down in size, design and visual communication had to make a plethora of information available in a click.

The idea of a smartphone itself was in a way already being normalized by the introduction and then ubiquitous nature of the iPod. We suddenly thought nothing of having over 1000 songs in our pocket, and it subsequently wasn’t a leap to have photos, email, videos, games and eventually our whole lives in there too. And the visual systems throughout helped with the seamless evolution.

We now take it for granted that we have easy access to the entirety of human knowledge, in the palm of our hands.

Then social media came in, followed by apps that introduced many new possibilities. The simplification and miniaturization of information presentation, truly transformed how we interact with each other and the services we use on a daily basis. From banking to comparing gas prices, to knowing how many minutes till the next bus arrives, to sharing video in real time, these developments have a huge impact on our lives and humanity in a much broader sense. Having Social Media available on a device the size of a calculator has interconnected people in a way like never before. This has been a boon for commercial direct markers. But more influentially, it has been leveraged by political campaigns and news outlets. Most impressively it facilitated organized protest with unparalleled effectiveness, of which the first major example of massive broad political engagement that eventually lead to revolution, was the Arab Spring.

“Designers are both a product of the culture they come from and the creators that influence the perceived norms of the culture.”

These technologies have been integral in effecting change both incrementally and massively in our societies, but they can’t be executed without effective visual presentation. Their compatibility on different platforms and devices and their intuitive navigation save the user a lot of time in so many ways. People don’t realize it because it’s invisible, which is actually the goal of design – to make sure the user absorbs the correct information and in many cases disseminates information without going through effort to do it.

Getting to the Core of Creative Culture

Now the case for design and visual communications preeminent place in effecting and developing culture and cultural change beyond just being a tool for commercial gain has been unequivocally made, it’s time to get to the core of creative culture, and much of this stems from where we started.

Designers are both a product of the culture they come from, and the creators that influence the perceived norms of the culture. And this plays out in two major factors.

1. The cultural background is aways in the vein of the designer, which influences their creative thinking. 
2. Cultural context is the primary consideration when designing for specific groups. 


The cultural background is aways in the vein of the designer which in turn influences their creative thinking. Culture and design, design and culture, have been in continuous evolution since before the industrial revolution.

All cultures have their strengths. Some it is cuisine, others dance or comedy, and some it is Design. Did you ever wonder why you associate certain things or attributes to certain countries and cultures? Some cultures are perceived as very rational, efficient, cold even. Others more passionate, artistic, emotional and hot blooded. When you think of Japan and Germany, it will conjure very different ideas of cultural identity than if you think of say Spain or Brazil.

Of course, you will find that there are individuals that excel at things not necessarily associated with that culture, but by and large, on a broader cultural plain at least, those countries are not known for those qualities. This is because different cultures revere different qualities and enjoy different things in life, and over generations, these cultural ideals have become ingrained in the fabric of society. It is what makes the world such a wonderful and diverse place.

And so it is that some cultures have a better association with objective planning and problem-solving in a modern context, which is certainly an advantage when it comes to creative thinking in design.

Nowadays with the emergence of the global economy there are a great many amazing designers from countries all over the world. But there are three countries that have embraced a history and ingrained a culture of objective planning. America, Germany, and Japan illustrate how attitudes to design can vary greatly from culture to culture, culture to designer, and designer to designer. Being three of the largest economies in the developed world, and the most culturally influential, they are great examples of how their cultural perspectives, though different, are both reflected and projected by the work of their designers.

Germany has a reputation for being one of the most industrious nations on the planet, in particular in engineering. And of course, this just didn’t suddenly happen. The culture valued and nurtured the traits that encourage this kind of development over generations. As one generation made progress that in turn inspired the next, leading to unparalleled reputation in automotive design, transportation technology, and household appliances, amoungst others. And of course, the general aesthetic was simple, functional, efficient and effective.

Postwar America also went through a boom period of innovation and cultural influence across many sectors. The era of American Exceptionalism heralded unparalleled corporate and cultural influence, and the exuberance and optimism of their creativity reflected this. And as corporations became international in nature it was America that ushered in the concept of international corporate identity in the late 60’s, with such design powerhouses as Paul Rand.

In Japan, the designer’s such as Kenya Hara or Naoto Fukasawa, had an approach that was really quite minimal, just as in many aspects of Japanese culture. If you visit any traditional Japanese architecture, you will see that they barely have any furniture. And the rooms are mostly multi- functional. People will use a room to have meals and entertain, and then when night comes, they will put their duvet on the same spot to make a bed. And this minimal and functional focus is very much reflected in the work of most Japanese designers’. They are inspired by their own experiences and cultural context.


The second part of the creative cultural puzzle, is that while designers are indeed influenced by their cultural background and experiences, they also actively for practicality and functionalities sake, take care to address cultural context when designing for specific groups.

There are many different aspects that have different meanings. Words may seem an obvious thing to get right. But many companies have got product and brand names terribly wrong. General Motor’s had a famous and embarrassing fiasco marketing their Chevrolet Nova in Central and South America. Trouble was that in Spanish “Nova” means ‘it doesn’t go’. Hardly an inspiring and reassuring strategy.

“There are the more nuanced cultural considerations, such as how different cultural groups revere and respond to different shapes and colours.”

Languages themselves can play a big part in overall function and aesthetic of the creative. Typographic presentation of information will change as many languages do not follow left to right on a top to bottom page reading structure that we are used to in Latin based alphabets. There are 46 alphabets in use today. Hebrew and Arabic, for example, read from right to left on a top to bottom page, and Japanese and traditional Chinese reads top to bottom on a right to the left page with characters as opposed to letters. Although with the massive modernization of the Chinese economy, and the push to advance literacy they have adapted a simplified character system that follows the Latin flow of reading.

Then there are the more nuanced cultural considerations, such as how different cultural groups revere and respond to different shapes and colours. For example in many cultures red has connotations of romance, love, warmth, excitement, and celebration. In China it represents luck. However, in South Africa, it is the colour of mourning, so not as cheery there as you might expect. And then there are the various corporate cultures to take into consideration. In business circles, red represents debt, and so more traditionally would be purposefully left out from corporate annual reports, for example.

Of course with the emergence of free market economies and massive trading blocks, international trade and commerce have broadened the reach of design and creative thinking, from any one spot in the world. So understanding cultural nuances and differences are more important than ever.

The Short

The culture of creative thinking is something that has developed over years, decades, centuries even. Some societies seem more inclined to leverage critical thinking, for objective creative problem-solving. They have embraced and pushed evolutionary advancement in technology, human rights, standards of living, and social freedoms. These environments have set the foundation to broadly cultivate an understanding and appreciation for design, and allow a culture of creativity to flourish. In turn, designers, being a product of their culture, have used visual language and communication to facilitate various advancements and cultural change.

To sum up, the culture of creative thinking has un-superficial objective based problem-solving at its core. Something that is the very essence of effective design and visual communication.

This has been The Long and Short on ‘The Culture of Creative Thinking’. We hope you have found it to be at least a little informative. For more chat on graphic design topics in the future, be sure to check back in with us here, follow us on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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