Posts about Creativity

If you do enough bad writing, it is inevitable that some good writing will slip through.” Love what Seth Godin has to say in his brief 5‑minute talk about writer’s block and doing the hard creative work every day.

Herman Martinus’ post about staying motivated as a solo creator struck a chord with me. It’s similar to my own schedule, but I need to get better at finding my people (locally, not just online) and sharing my work.

Design is hard in the middle

I’ve always found the work of design to be difficult. 

When I started working as a designer, it was difficult because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was tripping and stumbling in the dark, messing around in Photoshop and InDesign, trying to lay out magazine ads and technical manuals proficiently. I don’t think the work was particularly good; I may have had good taste, but I lacked the required skills to get there. 

Now that I’ve been working as a designer for over nine years — ten in October! — the primary challenges are different. As I get older, the blank page becomes more daunting, probably because I don’t want to repeat myself. I’d rather be like George Carlin and come up with new material for every project. But even once we get passed the blank page (try pen and paper first), the middle — the process — is hard. Design is not a straight line.

Good design resources about the process are scarce. I assume every designer struggles with this (especially post-COVID, when so many work alone from home with less immediate feedback), but none of us share the struggle in the messy middle. We just share the beautiful end results in our portfolio. 

In that respect, design is an odd creative field. Authors love to write books about their writing process. Filmmakers make documentaries exploring their craft. Musicians release demos as bonus tracks. But designers don’t share the process. We hide it like it’s some trade secret. Even Dribbble, ostensibly a platform where we can share what we’re working on,” is mostly used to share work we’ve finished.

The process is ignored.

My favourite video on the internet is Aaron Draplin taking on a logo challenge from Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning). I watch the video every time I get stuck, so I’ve seen it a few times: Draplin makes jokes, draws freely, zips around Adobe Illustrator and, most importantly, talks about all the cool stuff he has lying around his workspace.

The first several times I watched the video, I was amazed by the amount of junk Draplin collects (and worried that a key part of success as a great designer would involve becoming a pack rat). But I eventually realized that Draplin isn’t collecting these knickknacks; he’s noticing them. That act of noticing – of focused observation – is his process.

I think we as an industry could do a better job sharing how we work. A few years ago, I audibly groaned when a friend who was new to the design industry asked if I preferred Sketch or Figma. (I was kind of a jerk, I know. Dear friend, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.) That question isn’t particularly interesting to me, although I think the evolution of our tools and the impact they have on us is worth watching and considering.

The questions that I think are most important: how do we do the work? How do we create focus? Where do we get our inspiration from? How do we survive the middle?

The tools and the output

For years now, we’ve heard new conventional wisdom from all the creative gurus: the tools don’t matter. You have everything you need to make what you want to make.”

It probably won’t be surprising to long-time readers of this site that I feel the opposite is true. The tools reveal the process, or at least imply our process. There is no right or wrong tool, so much as there are right or wrong tools for us.

No tool makes you better at your job, but the good ones make your job better. If you do high-end work with computers, a fast computer will always be a good tool. The right kitchen tools make cooking easier, or at least more fun. A good desk chair literally saves your body. Any tool that motivates you to do more of the thing you love has value.

George R.R. Martin does all his writing (very slowly) with DOS word processor. Specifically, he uses WordStar 4. That looks something like this. One could make an argument it’s not the best tool for the job. But it’s his process. The tool merely reveals his priorities.

On the other hand, tools that get in the way have no value at all. I recently auditioned Sketch for the first time in years. Since 2019, I’ve used Figma with all my clients. In 2019, these apps were quite similar, but since then, Figma has completely leapfrogged Sketch. Things that used to take me ten minutes to do in Sketch take ten seconds in Figma. This audition was incredibly revealing of how the tools have changed, how my process has changed, and how my work has changed.

But it got me thinking: does the tool change me? Does it change my output? Are all my designs just huge Auto Layout demos?

Constraints breed creativity. What do the tools breed in us?

A swipe file for digital designers

Copywriters have something they call a swipe file — a place they store bits of marketing and writing material they want to refer to later for inspiration. Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist Journal includes its own swipe file.

Commonplace books have a similar idea: it’s a place to store your favourite stuff other people make. H.P. Lovecraft kept one. Ryan Holiday called his a project for a lifetime.”

You have to make your own wells of inspiration.

For many years, when I saw designs I liked and wanted to save for later reference, I would use Pinterest to save it, or simply take a screenshot and stick a copy of it in my Mac’s hard drive somewhere. (The latter is a much better solution than the former.)

Of course, a screenshot isn’t really enough. A good swipe file tells you where your inspiration comes from. It should include notes. Maybe even a full taxonomy. At that point, your basic file browser ain’t going to cut it. There’s no way to serendipitously discover things in the Finder.

These days, I like using Eagle, a macOS app that does a great job organizing all the visual media it saves. With support for everything from pictures to videos to full webpages, I think the app is a godsend. I was suspicious of it at first, mostly because it seemed to good be true, but it has survived three computers and a silicon transition without losing a single image, so I’m pretty confident in it these days.

It’s unfortunately Mac only, but it’s a darn good Mac app (if you like Mac-assed Mac apps). If you’re a Windows person or love your iPad for this sort of thing, I can’t help you. But I’d love to hear what you use.

Food for the creative soul

Twelve years ago felt like a golden age for indie bloggers. Shawn Blanc had just gone full-time independent and was writing up a storm. Austin Kleon posted the slides that ended up becoming *Steal Like an Artist*. The Great Discontentposted their first interview (with Dan Rubin). The Verge was still called This is My Next. John Siracusa was still writing 50,000 word macOS reviews.

The community was growing behind the web, too. Frank Chimero wrote a lot more then, and eventually a lot of what he wrote became The Shape of Design in 2012. Also in 2012, Kai Brach crowdfunded the first issue of Offscreen Magazine.

Maybe this is nostalgia. In 2011, I started freelancing and was actively seeking my tribe. For me, it was a magical time to be online. TGD was how I heard of all the designers I count now as inspiration. It gave me the confidence to explore my path. And Shawn Blanc quitting his job to blog full-time was an aha moment for me. Austin Kleon shone a light on how to do your best creative work (and continues to do so; he’s the best). Frank and Kai proved that there was still space and interest in sharing something deeper and more philosophical online.

Is there a community of people like this in 2023? Who is today’s Shawn Blanc? Who else is shining a light like Austin Kleon?

The newest additions to my list of must-read bloggers are Matt Birchler and Nick Heer. But I’m still looking for the next generation of creative pros and artists who remind us why we get up every morning and make stuff.

Who’s making food for the creative soul?

Measuring creative productivity

Austin Kleon just wrapped up a tour for his latest book. During a stop in Chicago. Eddie Shleyner asked him a great question: Do you ever feel like no matter how much work you do, you can or should be doing more?”

This question immediately resonated with me; it’s an issue I’ve personally struggled with and am currently struggling through.

Thankfully, Eddie recorded his answer and transcribed it on his blog:

Yeah, always,” he said. If you get into that productivity trap, there’s always going to be more work to do, you know? Like, you can always make more. I think that’s why I’m a time-based worker. I try to go at my work like a banker. I just have hours. I show up to the office and whatever gets done gets done. And I’ve always been a time-based worker. You know, like, did I sit here for 3 hours and try.’ I don’t have a word count when I sit down to write. It’s all about sitting down and trying to make something happen in that time period — and letting those hours stack up. So that’s sort of how I get over it.”

I love this. I love that the answer is simply to sit down and try and get some work done. If you don’t make it, that’s okay: try again tomorrow.

I think most people — certainly creative people — put a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver every day. We aim for perfection. I think the pursuit of output, rather than the joy of the chase, keeps us from doing our best work. Perhaps even more dangerously, it leaves us worse off as people.

A friend of mine told me that Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men and The Road (among many other popular novels), had to stop hanging out with other writers after he stopped drinking. All of his writer friends drank until inspiration hit, and he thought that was a poisonous attitude.

That idea, of creativity beholden to vices, keeps us from doing our best work. It keeps us from facing the blank page and making something. The fear of perfection will literally drive us to drink.

So what can we do instead?

We can sit down, measure our hours rather than our output, and make something. As Shawn Blanc says (and I love this), we can create without overthinking.

New Year’s resolutions for creative people

I’m the sort of person who needs a list of goals in order to accomplish something. Early every year, I come up with a theme for the year and a few goals to help me keep my focus. 

This year, my theme is about hunkering down and fostering my creativity. With that in mind, I’ve got a few goals that I think will be useful for anybody who wants to do something creative in 2019

  1. Grab life by the balls. if you’re going to do something, do it wholeheartedly. Not halfway. Doing something halfway is worse than not doing it at all.
  2. Consume less. Create more. For me, this means spending less time on YouTube and my Nintendo Switch, and more time making things. This isn’t a challenge to work more. It’s a challenge to spend more time playing your favourite instrument — even if you play poorly. You don’t, and won’t, always make good things. That’s okay. 
  3. Be aware of your needs. Do you need a new camera? Find the right one for you and buy it. Don’t waste hundreds of hours on research or the comments on DPReview. Just figure out your needs, go get the thing, and start making stuff. One day, we’re all going to die. Don’t waste time.
  4. Read more books. This is a notable exception to Goal 2 because it encourages slow thinking in a fast-paced world. We need more of that. 
  5. Say no to that which limits your creativity. Like bad clients, Netflix binges, and hangovers. This one is hard. You will fail. Get up and try again. 
  6. Act in the face of fear. I’m borrowing this from the great Steven Pressfield (The War of Art is amazing and you should make it one of the books you read for Goal 2). Fear is what keeps us from being creative and becoming who we’re meant to be. Stare that fear in the face and make the thing you want to make. Then you can declare victory, but not mastery, over the fear. Remember, the fear can fight again at any time. It wants to crush you. It knows no limits. But, then again, neither do you…