Creative people recognize brilliance in everything–nature, fine art, sculpture, fiction, music, movies, photography, graphic design–it’s all around us. It’s impossible to mature as an artist without being heavily influenced by what we see.
However, name one of your most favorite artists. Whether you said, O’Keefe, Bjork, or Beethoven, you probably chose someone whose work is fiercely original. So much so, that you can hardly think of anyone who pushed the limits as far as they did. No one quite compares to them. Without their existence, there would literally be a void in the world.
How did they get to this highly evolved, elite, and remote place as artists? Most likely, it wasn’t by comparing themselves to other artists around them. It probably wasn’t by emulating sounds, colors and words of their contemporaries. They walked out on a tightrope, over the ravine, and kept walking beyond their safety zone, until something new happened. They pushed their vision to the extreme, to the exalted, to the grotesque.
They were highly individual.
Some artists are abstract, some are humorous, some are realistic, but all are trying to tell a certain type of truth. They are trying to communicate something that can only be told from their unique perspective. Maybe, it’s something that can only be told by someone who has their DNA, their wrinkles, their sadness, their hopes, their heart.
In your next creative project, don’t look outside of yourself. Look inside, further and further. Don’t look at “reference.” Don’t listen to marketing strategies or focus group results. Don’t follow the rules. Make something that is only yours. Make it wrong. Use your wrong hand. Write the ending first. However, use something you feel, deep inside, as your reason for the creative decisions you make. If you fell off your bicycle at the age of five, and your memory of this is still strong within you…create your project by lying on your side on the floor.
Do you dare to be you?
A fiction editor once told me to take my worst habit (that I like long run-on sentences), and do it more, and more, and more. Write an entire story, or novel, with no periods or paragraphs whatsoever. Could I sustain my style to that level? Take your most awkward creative trait, and project it, extend it, build it out into a new construction.
Creative Individuality is scary, ridiculous, courageous, embarrassing, and sometimes selfish. But, it might be the most truthful creation of your life.
A topic that I struggle with on a daily basis–both in my own work, and that of a creative team–is “quantity vs quality.” When I write a new creative brief, I will brainstorm literally dozens of angles on the problem. I try to stay light on my feet, and give my team the maximum amount of entrance points to the project, so that their minds are stimulated and engaged to begin. I am constantly asking for 10 visual concepts, 20 visual concepts, 50 visual concepts on a subject. At a certain point, every designer will ask me, “You just want a bunch of crappy ideas, we couldn’t possibly make any of these ideas great.”
My creative experience has been that you should begin to develop as many visual concepts as possible to solve the problem. More more more! You can’t have enough approaches. If creativity is energy, I want energy zapping in electrical field orbs around the paper they’re printed on!
Once I feel like the energy of the work is at a high level, then it’s time to address “quality.” I sometimes call it “execution” or “finishing.” I believe that a lot of creative professionals start to worry about quality way too soon. They take their very first concept, and begin to tirelessly work on aesthetics, techniques, typefaces, illustration styles, and photoshop layers! Before we go there, we need to explore a lot of options, pick the few that really work, then talk about finishing them.
Quantity vs. Quality? Quantity + Quality!
My method has always been to brainstorm feverishly until I hit a bit of a brick wall, a spot where I simply can’t write another word, phrase, or idea on the subject. Then, the next day, I add a few more last minute concepts. Only then do I begin the process of executing my favorites.
I was reading a book on creativity about a year ago. I’m pretty sure it was, “How to get Ideas” by Jack Foster. He had a chapter that rang extremely true with me, and relates to how I create ideas. He explained the difference between creating “the” idea, and creating “multiple” ideas. He mentioned that most of us believe that there is one amazing idea out there, looming out there somewhere, eluding us, and that we just haven’t found it yet.
Maybe there is. But, it makes a lot of gifted creative people give up way before our minds are truly engaged in the solution.
For me, if I’m honest about the brainstorming process, I soon find that 1 idea leads to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 5, 5 to 8…sort of like the Fibonacci series! Within the course of a day or two, I have dozens of viable ideas. In fact, there are literally millions of solutions to any given problem–there are as many solutions as there are individuals on Earth. We each have a unique way of solving a creative problem.
Why is this so important? As we create, we self-edit many great ideas, believing that we’re searching for ONE idea that always seems to elude us.
For the sake of my sanity, I’ve made some rules for the future of my creative happiness:
1. The ONE idea does not exist. We can strive for it, approach it, but it’s not real. It’s Utopia.
2. There are an infinite amount of solutions to each problem. Allow yourself to explore many solutions and judge their effectiveness later. The more you look, the more ideas and solutions you’ll find.
3. Listen to tangents. Often, when creating, we get momentarily distracted by an idea which doesn’t match up with our current problem. Allow for a short sidetrack–this just may be your genius idea for the night! Many great solutions have nothing to do with the logic that you might use to start the brainstorm process. If you shut them out, you might just miss an A-Ha moment as frivolous.
4. Night Vision. When you’re walking from your sofa to your bed, late at night, your night vision kicks in, and you see things out of the corners of your eyes. In fact, if you turn to stare right at something, it seems to disappear. Creativity is the same way. If you stare at the same problem, over and over, hour after hour, you might just burn out. Turn the lights off! Close your eyes. Keep a notebook near your bed for these night visions.
5. Laugh. Sometimes I’ll get sarcastic and make fun of the problem itself. This produces an entire second set of solutions that I can combine at a later time. The simple element of humor can change the angle of my logic process, and might free me to create something odd or quirky. It might reveal a word or phrase that makes the project work.
I say create more ideas. Lower your head into the bucket of apples and start bobbing.
How to Design a T-shirt
1. Start hating everything. Hate everything, especially people, politics and relationships. (It helps if you’ve been dumped more than 7 times before the age of 16).
2. Plan a murder-suicide route. Please be specific. Write out details, people, landmarks, weapons, and even animals. (Use Google Maps, if possible).
3. Change your wardrobe drastically. Really think about who you are, and start wearing those clothes. Trump it up. If that means tank tops under blazers, go for it.
4. Draw evil self-portraits. Draw yourself cutting trees down, or older, or meaner– exaggerate your worst features, paint with black ink on black paper.
5. Write out every cliche you can find. Start with, “Everyone loves a clown,” all the way to, “Good guys finish last.” Keep the list in multiple Moleskine notebooks, in a cloth backpack, tightly cinched across both shoulders for months.
6. Pirate a copy of Photoshop. Please don’t buy it. You’ll only need it to scan your self-portraits and cliche lists.
7. Match up your cliches with your portraits. Here is the real creativity. Showcase your talent. Spread your wings. Match your “mean” face with your “Don’t talk to strangers,” cliche.
8. Print your work. Print all your designs in black ink on white t-shirts, or white ink on black t-shirts. You really don’t need to bring colors into this.
9. Post all t-shirts on Cafe Press. It’s the Louvre of t-shirt design. A shrine.
10. Calculate your profits. Please use a cool airbrushy calculator widget.
Sometimes I feel like I should be careful before admitting things, but here it goes anyway!
Over the years, I have found myself to be a fairly good “concepter.” In fact, I can create concepts on almost any subject, from creative projects, databases, copy, production techniques, retail ideas, job offers, ways of re-telling Dane Cook jokes with different vocal inflections…
For me, the process of concepting is very similar to “channeling in” on an idea and feeling the concept spin in my mind like a circle, and seeing the tangent lines piercing into space all around.
I find solutions. Multiple solutions. Vast solutions. Solutions that make solutions.
However, when someone actually likes one of my concepts, I am not the first person who comes to mind to finish, or execute the concept. If it’s a database, my Office Manager tells me to send her the idea. If it’s a display idea, my store manager sets it up. If it’s a garment idea, my buyer takes the catalog out of my hands and writes out the Purchase Order. If it’s a graphic idea, often another designer that works with me will re-do it before it hits production, cleaning up the lines, refining the gradients, or re-setting the type.
• Does this make me a total hack?
• Is there value in “concepting?”
• Do I secretly choose to be a poor finisher?
By this, I’m not saying that my creative work is without merit, I have had my little accolades through the years (Print Magazine inclusions, shirts in Urban Outfitters, etc.), but what do you see as the main differences between a concepter and a finisher? Should I get over the differences and just concept the heck out of everything?
What does anyone think about this?
You’re the Creative Director of a small staff of 3-10 designers. The creative brief has been written, you’ve gone over the angles, you’ve answered the questions, you’ve inspired your team!
Now, the deadline is approaching! In fact, it’s coming up quickly. You see some progress, but the work is not quite coming together. Well, now you’re caught..you have, Creative Expectations! You are expecting great work from your team. You want to make the customer go crazy with happiness. You want the work to increase revenues. You don’t want to be thrown out the window. But, now you feel like you’re pushing.
Expectations can be hazardous, just as in a relationship. In fact, creative expectations work almost the same way, psychologically, inside of a company, as they do inside the home or apartment of a couple–the more you demand, the less you receive! Your expectations can be felt throughout the entire work zone, it hovers, darts, shocks people with static electricity, leans on their shoulders like an evil spirit, and can block your team’s creative flow.
So, how do you turn off your own stress, forget the deadline, and calmly re-direct your team? First of all, I believe that this is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake. I’ve made every mistake once or twice, so here we go!
1. Don’t get angry. Do not bring the individual personalities of your creative team into the equation, when pushing for last minute creative bursts. If you get angry, toss books around, raise your voice, or throw another type of office tantrum, the creative energy is greatly reduced, not to mention your credibility. Write down your frustrations, take a walk, or get a coffee before unleashing on your team. It might even be smart to sleep on it, and come back tomorrow with a fresh mental game-plan.
2. Don’t judge the work. This is tough, but try to not pick out parts of the emerging creative work and pre-judge its value. “This is not a full presentation,” “This isn’t up to our customer’s standards,” “Who did this?” all pinpoint someone’s work and trash it publicly before it’s done. Be diplomatic and constructive while you urge for a new creative direction. In fact, find compliments and positives everywhere you can, even if you have to dig deep!
3. Be prepared to contribute ideas. No one likes an idea-less Creative Director, who constantly says, “Figure it out,” and walks back into their corner office! When critiquing a project, use all of your creative energy to offer fresh angles for your team to find breakthroughs. There have been dozens of times where my entire staff is stuck (The project is “boring,” they just want logos moved around, it’s not an exciting brand to work with, etc.). Well, help them to spice it up! If you find the road for them to drive on, they’ll take it the rest of the way.
4. Suggest overtime gently, not as a threat. If you say, “Everyone is staying, even if we have to sleep here!” you may just have someone quit on the spot. If you need to demand some overtime, suggest multiple options for overtime, that everyone can agree on. “We can come in early tomorrow, work late tomorrow, or there are some hours I can let someone in over the weekend, if that’s more convenient. Heck, I can probably order pizza if you need me to.” You might be surprised at the teamwork, if it’s suggested in the right way.
5. Remind everyone of the true goal. Often, through the course of an important project, the true goal can be lost behind art, colors, logos, materials, egos, and lattes. So, it can turn the entire team around to say, “Hey, remember, it’s for Heidi at Hundai!” It helps to diffuse any negative energy, and prove it to be rather frivolous.
6. Crack a joke. In times of high-stress, a funny joke or make-fun-of-yourself moment can bring life back into the room (I often like to experiment with my Fran Drescher laugh). Most of all, humor can prove that we’re all human, and that we are working toward a common goal.
7. Call the customer, secretly! I’ve done this hundreds of times. I will turn up the heat on our creative staff, letting them know that it’s getting to crunch time. Then, I’ll ask the sales staff to call the customer and see if we might just have an extra hour, day, or week to make the final presentation. More than 50% of the time, the customer says, Yes!
8. Be specific with changes. When you make changes to existing work, try to be as specific as you can. For example, “Move the logo down 1″, over to the right 2″, make it black vs. blue, and put a 10pt white space around it on all sides, and use a metallic silver for the outside edges.” Plus, write your changes down on paper, or assign one person the task of finalizing all changes in Word or Excel and hand them out before the meeting is over. Vague changes can actually cause more confusion and frustration than the original project.
9. Keep the forum open. You might be surprised that the solution comes out during the meeting by collectively talking the problem through. Or, you might think that your idea is weak, only to find that your entire creative team says, “Yes yes yes! We were hoping you’d say that!” Stay open and find consensus.
10. Be realistic. If your staff votes to re-build the entire presentation with popsicle sticks and buy stock options in their competitor, it might be time to stay on course. Keep your solutions and revisions simple and realistic. You only have a few days left, so don’t take on something which is completely undoable.
Well, I hope some of these techniques help to deal with the Creative Expectations you’ve built up lately. Now, it’s time to get home in time to do the laundry and take the kids to piano lessons!
First of all, I would like to thank Seth Godin for commenting on my previous post. He didn’t necessarily agree with me (which I love), but he read the post and took the time out of his busy schedule to comment. So, thank you Mr. Seth Godin!
I have been both obsessed and horrified at the idea of creative output lately.
So, what is creative output?
Is it how much work you do in a week/month/year? Is it how much sells? Is it how the work evolves? Is it the consistency of the work?
Well, for me, it’s something that I struggle with every single minute, and I think it’s about how much creative work I finish, or have the courage to complete to a level where I can show it to someone other than myself. If the idea is locked on my computer, buried in a tiny personal folder called, “exp” (for experimental), which means that I might not even open the file again, it doesn’t count.
Creative output is about finishing…you can’t always control if your work is average, good, or great–that is for other people to judge–but you can control whether you finish or not.
As a creative person, I find myself in brainstrom mode a lot. My co-workers want me to solve their toughest creative problems quickly, as well as my own. I have found myself to be a formidable conceptual designer. I am almost like a design-psychic at times, able to channel into a creative problem, and come up with something every time. But, is that my job? Is that enough?
After hours, days, months and years of creative work, I can say that it is not enough! I find myself looking through creative ideas–handwritten notes, lists, sketches, and computer files–and finding literally hundreds of concepts stopped in mid-stride. Why?
There is a small passage in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, where she talks a little bit about creative people wading in a sea of their own half-completed creative masterworks. She offers humorously that, the mere mention of completing one of these projects brings out a defensive, fearful and defiant artist! Well, I do the same thing, and I would imagine that a lot of other people do the same thing. We start something, work on it for a while, and then stop. We feel safe that we are “creating” because the project is not complete. Once it’s done, the idea of being outside of an active creative project can be frightening.
What are we afraid of? Well, here is a challenge:
Ask yourself to define your major creative life goals. Is it writing a novel? Creating a catalog? Composing a string quartet? Whatever it is, write it down on a notecard, with a Sharpie marker. Put it on the refrigerator with a magnet. In one year, do you think you’ll be done? 5 years? 10 years? Will the notecard’s prophecy still be on the refrigerator after you retire, unrealized? That is scary, too isn’t it?
So, what can you do, to insure that more of your creative dreams become reality?
1. Write out a creative calendar: Try, as best you can, to create a calendar, or timeline, for your dream work. Make the calendar specific, even it’s as simple as “10:00-11:00am M-F, write one page.”
2. Make your work schedule consistent: If you work best in the morning, then start each day with an hour of creative work. If you’re a night person, make it from 11:00pm – midnight. Try to make a schedule that you can keep. If it’s M-W-F, fine, then keep to it, exactly.
3. Don’t judge your work while you’re creating: One of the biggest mistakes I make, is that I turn on the Mr. Perfectionist inner voice while I’m working creatively. It’s the worst! Turn that person off for your creative work sessions. There is no good or bad while working. I remember Ernie taking the volume knob off of an old radio, sticking it to Bert’s stomach, and turning him down! That’s what you have to do to your inner perfectionist. For these creative sessions, it’s about volume, consistency, and getting it down! There will be a time to go back, edit, re-write, and construct the pieces.
4. Use music to stay positive: Keep your mood positive during your creative work. A great help for me, is to play music in the background which helps set my mood. I choose classical or mood music (no lyrics). But, I find that music can really help to keep out the negative energy and creative pauses.
5. Stay determined/focused: Picture yourself walking, step-by-step, toward your creative goals. You will see your momentum increase to the point where nothing can stop you. There is a great book called, “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield that is amazing on the subject of not losing focus. There is also an amazing podcast on iTunes called, “The Accidental Creative,” by Todd Henry, which gives advice on how to keep your creative rhythm.
Well, I hope I can take some of my own advice, and maximize more of my creative energy and finish something today!