What I Learned from Making 270 Illustrations in 270 Days

Since July 5th, 2015, I’ve taken up to one hour everyday making a design or illustration and posting it on my Instagram. I gave my project a name: Creative Habit.

PAINT THE TOWN: Sometimes you’re in a rebelliously pink mood and feel the need to cover a wall with your feels. Also, Pantone is everything when you’re in a print mood.

You might be asking why someone would do this. It’s a lot of work and a lot of hassle. People don’t even remember to take birth control everyday, and that’s as simple as popping a pill. Imagine doing something for an hour everyday where you have to dig deep and make something new.

My reason for doing this project was simple. I’m an Art Director at Primacy, and I face a challenge that many designers and creatives can appreciate. We’re constantly asked to come up with those brilliant, surprising, and delightful ideas, and we are often not given enough time to do it. How do you hit the mark every time when you aren’t given enough time?

You train.

ZERO BARS: Spent the weekend in the Catskills at the Caspary Estate sans signal. It felt both liberating and uneasy. Inspired by the real deer head on the cabin wall too.

I started Creative Habit as an experiment. I wanted to bring the scientific process into design and see if it was possible to get more efficient at creating. If I sat down for up to an hour everyday, and moved from ideation through production: could I get faster while maintaining quality?

Nine months later, the data is in and the answer is a definitive “Yes.” Here’s what I’ve learned so far from doing Creative Habit.

Don’t wait to get inspired, collect your inspiration ahead of time

When I started, I spent a lot of time trying to decide what to make. Creative people are sometimes hindered by too much freedom, because creativity often requires constraints. So when you’re faced with the possibility of doing anything, you sit there and you wonder what you’re going to do? So I quickly realized that was a giant waste of time, and that made me more decisive.

Time became the constraint.

PICK YOUR BATTLES: Inspired by some real life politics and the story of Alexander Hamilton and his longstanding rivalry with Aaron Burr that ended in a historical duel and his untimely death. Some neuroscience thrown in there for good measure. Science for the win.

Gradually, I got used to making snap decisions about what to create. I would select and idea or concept had been floating in my head recently. And as I got more comfortable with this, I started coming in with specific goals of what I wanted to do for my Creative Habit.

Ok, today I’m going to sit down and illustrate my favorite place in the world, and throw in some typography, go retro maybe. I’m going to use a color palette I recently saw that was cool but that I’ve never used before. I’m going to make a collage. I’m going to play with type.

TRAVEL MAKES US MODEST: Thinking about Flaubert on a train ride to Connecticut. “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

In the same way you build a mood board when you’re preparing for a client engagement, my brain became a personal bank of inspiration.

It’s okay if you don’t like what you made

I’m not happy with every piece I do for Creative Habit. But if I spent a full hour trying all sorts of things, even if they ultimately didn’t work, it still counted. It was still an accomplishment.

Creative Habit was about training the neural connections in my brain to work faster, and it was important to keep the momentum going. It’s like going to the gym even when you don’t want to go. Maybe you don’t put in 110% and you aren’t feeling as strong today, but you still go and you still finish. And finishing matters.

E FOR EGRET: I was in the mood to play with type. And I happened to see the egret that lives on the lake near my parents’ house in Georgia. This was the result.

Learning only happens when it’s okay to fail

I mentioned trying new styles and new color palettes and things that I knew going in might not work. That really helped me develop things that became actual client work. You don’t have time to fail at work, so you lean on things you know you can deliver.

Creative Habit allows me to create without fear, which has allowed me to not only develop new styles and new techniques, but also I’ve shed trepidation at the beginning of projects. Instead of leading with the tried and true methods that I know will work and make clients happy in a time crunch, I’m more comfortable going in without a plan, genuinely starting with here’s what the client needs, and how can we make that happen?

ADVENTURE BOLDLY: Uncertainty is scary. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to step firmly and boldly into places and roles that scare you. Obviously I’m trying to reiterate this to myself.

Creating is personal

The project has become a sort of visual diary. Some people write everyday, and I do Creative Habit. There’s a kernel of my life in every single one. Sometimes it’s a reaction to a special moment, sometimes it’s preparation for an upcoming challenge, sometimes it’s an expression of outrage from something that happened. It all comes from somewhere, it all comes from my experiences.

VIVE LA SOLIDARITE: In light of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, a design that depicted solidarity and hope was necessary. A beacon of light shines from the Eiffel Tower amidst letters that spell ‘vie’ or life in French.

Because I allow myself to try different techniques and different approaches, it takes on a different look compared to my corporate work. As a by-product, I can point to some weird and unusual styles that I can do. At Primacy, I’m typically leading the design for a website experience. I’m building a product. My work on Creative Habit is a little more offbeat and represents more of my personality.

H FOR HAPPY: The beginning of a new adventure is exciting. Was feeling like my head was in the clouds.

Design can be therapy

For me, creativity is very much tied to my emotions and some days it’s really hard.

DINNER WITH AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST: One of my best friends is an anesthesiologist, and because I love her stories our dinner conversation typically centers on her interesting cases or why she went into anesthesiology. Quote of the night: it’s fun titrating people’s pain meds.

There’s a lot of research about happiness and creativity that shows that the happier you are, the more creative you are. When I’ve had a really long day, or I’m in a terrible mood, it can be tough to get started with my Creative Habit. But I just try and remember that even when it is causing me anxiety and stress, the act of producing something creative is cathartic — it is a release and an escape. I know I will feel much better once I’ve finished my design for the day.

When I was younger, I used to be a very serious dancer. Every time I missed class, I would be racked with guilt, even if I always had a legitimate reason, like being injured. But when I did miss, I would always take more classes to make up for it because I hated the feeling of letting myself down and not keeping up with my training. Creative Habit is the same way. I feel better after doing one, even if I don’t like what I’ve made, because I feel like I’m growing and that I’ve tried something new.

T FOR TUMBLE: Yep. I took a pretty ridiculous tumble down the stairs while holding my laptop. Interesting survival instincts for sure, as I went to save my laptop instead of my knees.

Fear is what hinders growth

If you are so busy being afraid that it won’t be good, you won’t try anything. And if you don’t try anything, you don’t grow. Part of growing is struggling, doing something you aren’t comfortable with, and figuring out what works for you.

It is similar to how designers start out, with emulation. They see something they like and they immediately integrate it into what they are working on, even if it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit, and you get a Frankenstein design. They add this piece because they don’t think what they are working on is good enough, but they also refuse to modify the new piece to fit the design, so they end up with a mish mash design that doesn’t work for anyone.

BEYOND THE BOX: I’m sure everyone has had the experience of being boxed in or labeled in a certain way that limits them. Been thinking about why this happens and how to counteract it. Sometimes you just have to drop bombs and see what happens.

When you let go of fear, you aren’t afraid to tweak and noodle, and sometimes it looks God awful, but you keep going and hopefully it ends up in a place that you’re happy with. It’s not a 100% guarantee, but every time, you get better, you sharpen your eye, and you figure out what works. The more times you do it, the probability of magic happening increases. Besides, if we all knew we’d nail a design 100% of the time, it would no longer be a challenge. Now where’s the fun in that?

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya is an Art Director at Primacy, a full-service design firm with offices in Connecticut, Boston, and New York City. She founded Creative Habit, is a partner at Ship Your Side Project, holds a graduate degree in design from Pratt Institute, and studied neuroscience at Columbia University. Get her daily Creative Habits on Instagram.