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A new category of tech users: Creatives

Once relegated to the back-of-the-building art department, creatives are now front and center, in roles such as graphic artist, website designer, video artist, and virtual world creator. What are vendors doing to fulfill the needs of this new and important user category? What do creatives need to make them productive and happy?

Until recently, personal computer vendors usually described their equipment lines in terms of three categories of users: consumers, businesses, and gamers. While the differences varied somewhat between, say, consumer and gaming computers or consumer and business computers, business computers were generally thought of as rugged and down to earth, and built to produce documents and crunch numbers (with higher-end, light versions for executives). Consumer computers looked snazzy, had good displays suitable for video and basic games, and were equipped with easy-to-use (or promotional) software. Gaming systems tried to look like racing cars, with top-of-the-line components for fast, immersive game play.

One user category wasn’t typically included in these roundups, however: creatives. These are the people who generate the visual artwork used in websites, advertisements, videos, and games.

The existence of this influential user category does not mean that it’s huge—or even that anyone’s quite sure of the number of people involved. Discussions among development teams often rely on suggestions that a team should include one interaction designer (plus part-time attention from a visual designer) for every two product managers (assuming one product manager for each 6 to 10 engineers). Additional research has determined that the most typical ratio is one dedicated designer for every 20 developers—but with a lot of wiggle room based on company size, type of applications, and other factors.

It is, however, a unique type of user, with a different role from the often logic-centric development team. A creative uses graphic design software to define what websites and elements should look like. This aesthetic is then coded by a web developer using HTML, JavaScript, jQuery, CSS, and other programming languages to make everything work on the web. They use—and need—different tools.

Using computers to aid design work is not new. Computer-aided design (CAD) has been around since about the mid-1970s, when it became apparent that engineers and other designers could produce more accurate and faster work using computers than with manual drafting techniques. About the same time, innovative artists such as Barbara Nessim began using computers as a new artistic medium. And as technology improved—and as well-designed websites became more important commercially and culturally—the tools improved as well, so that computers equipped with touchscreens became the main tools of commercial and many creative artists.

Streaming video and gaming popularity is now bringing the role of creatives front and center. The artists responsible for the graphics in popular games are being covered in mainstream media; website designers have become key to attracting customers; and the huge popularity of comic-book and sci-fi movies depends on those who are expert in computer-generated imagery (CGI) and other graphic-based technologies.

But it hasn’t been only the professionals who have benefited from this surge in better graphic technology. The increased capabilities in computerized drawing, animation, photography, and video have filtered down to the consumer level. Consequently, activities that once were the province of art departments and hobbyists have become familiar to almost anyone who owns a computer. Smartphones are sold on the sophistication of their cameras. And features such as video stabilization, slow motion, and time lapse, once available only to high-end users, are done easily in-camera. “It’s part of the democratization of creativity,” says Art O'Gnimh, senior global director of the keyboards business at Logitech.

This wider interest in graphic technology has not been lost on manufacturers.

Another element is the conscious split between back-end software development and the user interfaces created by graphic designers. Software development teams have acknowledged that each element in creating usable and responsive (if not loveable) applications requires attention to product functionality (where the traditional developer or engineer comes in) and also to user experience, which gradually has earned more respect. Not to mention a market category of its own.

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From specialized to consumer-based vendors

Until recently, most professionals who wanted to use design technology went to companies that catered specifically to their needs. Wacom, established in 1983, produces graphic tablets, pens, and related products for the creative community. Wacom is still producing high-end tools for its users, such as its 16-inch Cintiq Pro tablet and Pro Pen 2. However, there are now other companies in the game.

It shouldn’t be surprising that major computer manufacturers, known primarily for their consumer and business hardware, are drawing up new business plans. Several manufacturers are introducing devices that are specifically targeted to professionals who use hardware to produce graphic design, illustrations, and other visual media—or to non-professionals who want to try to create upscale media products on their own.

What are creative professionals looking for?

Creatives who want to produce good-looking graphics, animations, photography, and video need tablets and touch displays that render color accurately, along with fast, high-end systems that react quickly. Additional equipment unique to their roles includes active styli, or pens, that allow creatives to draw delicate lines or generate widely spraying tints.

Many hardware manufacturers also offer dials of one sort or another. Like a mouse, the dial allows users to manipulate software tools without having to look away from a task—something that can be even more important in visual arts.

“Drawing with a tool that responds instantly is key to productivity,” explains Mary Lester, principal of Mary Lester Design. “Any lag, odd scratching noise or sensation, or awkward grip distracts from the process of getting your idea sketched out quickly.”

The idea is that users easily can change the width of a brush tool or the size of a font. “Productivity for creatives means working with more precision and the sense of being in your flow,” agrees Logitech’s O'Gnimh. “This is particularly important when you’re doing creative work; you want to look at the work you’re doing and nothing else.” In aid of that, Logitech’s Craft wireless keyboard comes with a built-in input dial that works contextually with products from Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office Suite. (For more on choosing keyboards for productivity, see "9 great mechanical keyboards for coders.")

Apple has—very successfully—advertised itself for years as the go-to manufacturer for creative professionals and amateurs with products such as the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. “The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil stylus have been the best experience I've had for drawing on a screen,” says Lester. “I use mine for sketching logo or layout ideas. Being able to draw with a tool that responds instantly is key to productivity.”

Wacom and Apple now have at least one major competitor targeting the needs of creatives. In October 2016, Microsoft introduced an addition to its Surface line of systems: the Microsoft Surface Studio, an all-in-one system with a 28-inch touch display that has 4500 x 3000 resolution and 10-bit color. It can be used traditionally upright, or as if the display were a piece of electronic paper on a drafting table. A small, separate device called the Surface Dial looks like a hockey puck; creatives can use it to interact with various graphic tools either as a separate mouse-like control or directly on the display. There is also an active stylus called the Surface Pen that, like the Apple Pencil, reacts to the amount of pressure you use against the surface of the display.

And these new appeals to the creative community are paying off. According to Digitimes, the Microsoft Surface Studio did better than expected: Despite its high price, starting at about $3,000, up to 30,000 units were sold in the fourth quarter of 2016 (based on orders), more than the 15,000 originally expected.

In fact, Microsoft has become so interested in attracting the creative community that the last update to its operating system was dubbed Windows 10 Creators Update and is being following by the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. One addition is the Windows Mixed Reality development kit, which will work with headsets and motion controllers that track movement in field of view using sensors in the headset. The update also includes a new version of Paint called Paint 3D, which can build basic 3D images and support for virtual reality hardware.

Make your creative staff happy—and productive

So does this new emphasis on hardware for creative professionals mean that companies need to take another look at how they supply their employees?

Probably. Multimedia, 3D, and virtual and augmented reality are all important developing technologies—and companies want to attract professionals who can do great things with them.

“The kinds of jobs in the high-tech arena have changed dramatically,” says Doug Little, Wacom’s senior PR manager. “Animation is huge, game development is huge. Those are things we didn't see that long ago, and [technological] advances have really caught up.”

This applies to not only high-end gaming and animation, but day-to-day business graphics as well. You can’t just go with old-fashioned PowerPoint slides anymore. “The way we create presentations today is different,” says Logitech’s O'Gnimh. “We have much more imagery. It's all part of realizing that today people want to put their best foot forward in their interactions with digital work and what they’re creating.”

The best thing you can do, many creatives agree, is to trust your staff to advise you on what type of technology they need to do the finest job they can. “Talk to your top creatives. They know what's best for them,” advises James Yang, a professional freelance illustrator. “All the best companies know how designers can enhance the bottom line. If creatives feel their voices are heard and they feel as appreciated as the other divisions, they'll do great work. Creatives are proud of what they do.”

Creatives: Lessons for leaders

  • Trust your staff to know what they need to produce the best result for your company. Talk to the creatives in your company—or to several representatives—to find out what current hardware and software might produce faster and better results.
  • Don't necessarily depend on the same vendors you've been using for the past few years. New companies have been coming into this space, and they may be offering systems that are better than the ones you've depended on up to now.
  • At the same time, be cautious about jumping on the bleeding edge of the latest creative technologies. While you need to maintain your competitive edge—and definitely need to look at the latest immersive multimedia technologies—you may want to wait until the market settles before committing to any one type of VR or other product.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.