Create Unafraid


One of the many great things about Pratt is Free School, a full day of art and design classes taught by Pratt alumni that’s open to the public. Every April, 200+ students and members of the design community enjoy its free programming.

I was honored when I received an invitation to teach a class this year, and jumped at the opportunity. My class was called Design Unafraid and it was an interactive workshop on design, growth and throwing out the rules in favor of innovation. Here’s what we covered.

The Three F’s

We’ve all been there. A new project has come in and we need to get something back to the client right away There’s pressure to be both quick and impressive. And while we see an opportunity to do something exceptional with the project, the reality is,we’re juggling a bunch of other tasks. So, instead of pushing ourselves to do the risky, exciting thing, we draw on recipes and formulas that have worked in the past to make a nice design for the client and the job gets done without any hiccups.

The client is happy: they are positioned to grow with the help of your beautiful and effective design, and that’s important. But another important thing to consider is: are we growing as designers? We pick up various systems, grids, rules, and constraints because we love to simplify and elucidate. Over time, we figure out what works, and we go back to that every time — making clients happy in the process.But what if all these rules are holding us back from unlocking creative genius?

What if, instead of settling for nice, we could produce work that’s extraordinary? It would mean going into unexplored territory and doing things that might not work. And that can be scary. No one likes to experience failure but if we don’t experiment and try new things, we’re steadily stunting our growth and wild, creative thinking. Now that we’ve acknowledged it, we can break free from the cycle, by creating unafraid.

That doesn’t mean we recklessly throw all the rules out the window and make weird s*!$. It means we strategically set ourselves up for personal development and reframe our thinking. Let’s go over a couple of principles for creating unafraid. We’re going to talk about the F word, actually we’re going to talk about 3 F-words: failure, freedom, and fear.

#1: Failure

The fact of the matter is that as creatives, especially in agencies, the processes and systems are setup to make us feel like failure is not an option. We don’t have time or space to fail.

And that’s unfortunate. Because making anything starts with making mistakes, It starts with failing. Trying a new color combination and finding that while promising, it doesn’t hold together a piece. Trying a new piece of software and spending two hours only to make something you could have done in 20 mins in Illustrator. Trying to shoot your own photography instead of using Getty or hiring a photographer and feeling like your shots came out subpar. These are important learning experiences that support our long-term growth as designers but feel like failures we can’t afford to have.

We stop thinking that way, and start allowing ourselves to fail. The more we fail, the better. It means we’re experiencing new things. Experimenting. Learning. We’re allowing ourselves to be more curious and ultimately training ourselves to fail, so we fail faster and can bring it back around to a brilliant solution more efficiently.

But we can’t fail all over the place at work, obviously, so this brings us to the next ‘F’ word, freedom.

#2: Freedom

You need to find the freedom to fail. This is where my impassioned pitch for side projects and doing work for yourself comes in. These side projects create a free space, a safe space, where you can do what you want and fail miserably without consequence. In this space, we can forget perfection and focus on growth. Side projects might seem like a lot of work but I promise you’ll reap the benefits.

Take my side project Creative Habit for example. I started it last year as an experiment, to not only make my design process more efficient, cycling in an hour from ideation to production, but also to give myself a safe space to play. So I sit down for an hour every day and create a design. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like what I’ve made. In fact, I fail at resolving designs often, but it’s no big deal because I can just make a better one tomorrow.

Good Creative Habits

Not-So-Good Creative Habits

It is valuable in and of itself to struggle and fail. Side projects are lot of work and take effort and discipline to maintain, but the benefits are exponentially enriching. What’s why I also run a bootcamp to help professionals launch their personal projects called Ship Your Side Project.

I have gotten twice as fast at executing and more decisive with ideas, which allows me to get more done during the day and be more engaged and responsive in client meetings. I can hear client pain points first hand, and quickly respond with a creative and thoughtful plan that might even push them a little out of their comfort zone. Another enormous benefit is the body of work I’ve built and the breadth of styles and techniques I’ve had the opportunity to try. My Creative Habits are very different from my agency work, but many aspects of them have found their way into client work.

#3: Fear

The last thing I’m going to talk about is fear. Unmanaged fear is a creative blocker. You get scared, and then you freeze and then you revert back to things you know work. But if you think about it, fear is actually a good thing. In a way, fear promotes creativity. But you can’t access this creativity unless you do things that scare you first. Let’s analyze how this happens. Let’s say you’re tackling a project that you’ve never done before, you don’t know how it’s going to go. But because fear makes us freak out a little and get all squirrelly inside, you find creative ways to mitigate your fears. You grow when you’re out of your comfort zone.

Failure, freedom, fear. Once you’ve failed in a space where you have the freedom to do so and experienced how freedom helps you grow, then you’re more likely to take on things that you fear and reap the creative benefits of those experiences.

The Antidote: Play

So what is the antidote to The Three F’s? It’s play. Since we’re all trying to access creative genius, it’s only fitting to quote an actual genius:

“Play is the highest form of research”

—Albert Einstein.

I encourage you to treat play as research on your next project. Take some time to play, even if it’s a only an hour once a week or two, and explore something different. It’s an opportunity to find the germ of a brilliant concept around which a campaign or brand can form. In that way, side projects become research and you are constantly filling up your bank of design solutions as you show up and dabble in new, and unfamiliar things. As much as you look at inspiration and pour through creative briefs and brand guidelines, find equal amounts of time to play, so your creativity doesn’t get trapped behind a wall of fear.

The Workshop

I asked the group to call out some characteristics of good design.

Then, I challenged them to play. To turn “good design” on its head, to do the opposite of the characteristics we’d just brainstormed, and create a poster (print or digital) for Pratt Free School 2017. There were mixed responses.

But eventually, everyone got comfortable with doing what they normally wouldn’t. Some took to using motion in digital posters. Some went analog. Here are some of the pieces from the workshop.

I put together a Tumblr page where students submitted all their “badly designed” posters.

The workshop was a successful experiment. Participants were able to let go of their patterns, rules, preconceived notions and perfectionism and simply play. They riffed on mistakes, tried new things and covered new ground, producing visually compelling and experimental pieces. Asking them to create outside of their comfort zones without fear of judgement was what make it really work.

How about you? Next time you’re struggling with creative block or staring down the barrel of a tough deadline, think about how you’re dealing with The Three F’s. Recognize that you’re afraid of failing, and remember that you’re always free to try something new. Consider turning a requirement upside down and doing a little play. It just might be what you need to do your best work.