Creativity as a Craft
This is a crosspost of an article I wrote that first appeared in Adobe’s Creative Cloud blog in October 2015, following Adobe MAX. Just a heads up: MAX is in early November this year in San Diego, CA. Definitely consider going; it’s great inspiration for the creative soul. -ECC
I had absolutely no control over my schedule earlier this month when I was at MAX, Adobe’s creativity conference in Los Angeles. Last year, I was able to determine which classes I wanted to take and when because I was covering the event for our corporate communications team as an employee “on the ground.” This year, I was attending the conference to cover the event for a track manager.
I was pleasantly surprised that my agenda included both a series of classes on design as well as a number of them on more general topics on creativity, motivation, and being a part of a community. These latter topics turned out to be incredibly applicable to me personally, so much that I felt compelled to blog as quickly as possible about it.
You see, I’m what I consider a multi-disciplinary creative. In addition to my work as an engineer for Adobe, I’m also a musician, writer, and fibercrafter. While I don’t make a living at any of the three, I consider myself a professional in the first two, as I’ve been paid to perform and teach worldwide and have some paid writing projects in the works. So while I’m not a designer, I do consider the the pursuit of making one of my core skills and, furthermore, one of my core values.
The message I received after sitting in seven classes over the course of three days was this: the difference between a hobbyist and a professional is the approach of your creative medium as a craft. This means that it goes beyond just dabbling every once in a while; it’s a process of constant learning and development that differentiates us from the people who simply have craft supplies in their basement.
So with that, here are four lessons I gathered about creativity as a craft from the Adobe MAX conference.
#1: Craft means producing something regularly
This first lesson was something that I resonated with a lot. As a multi-disciplinary creative, it’s hard for me to think that I have any momentum whatsoever when it comes to my creative pursuits. Allison House points out in her talk that “productivity is a pulse for your creative health.” She argues that rapid skills growth happens with both density and volume — going deep and practicing regularly.
Denise Jacobs tells a story during her talk about writing her book and how she went through a period of burnout. In the more tactical section of her talk, she presents a series of “mind tricks” or productivity tricks to keep motivated, everything from using the Pomodoro technique to rewarding yourself.
Both House and Jacobs, however, advocate continuity instead of falling into an intense sprint followed by a period of burnout. Speaking from personal experience, it also takes the practice of rest to maintain a regular pace over a long period of time.
This means, though, that self-discipline is an important aspect of maintaining a thriving creative life. Am I constantly writing, designing, composing, producing, and challenging myself? What does it look like to do this in a sustainable manner?
#2: Craft means taking creative risks
This, too, was a theme from the conference. Too many times, I’ve played it safe, buttonholing myself into one slot because I belonged. I was an a cappella singer and vocal percussionist for years, performing on the bleeding edge as the first female vocal percussionist on the circuit. When my band broke up, I waited for the next opportunity to come up. Six months later, I was invited to partner with a local spoken word artist to bring her one woman hip hop show to the world. I ended up touring with her for two years, exploring hip hop culture for the first time as a female beatboxer, far more out of my comfort zone than I was really used to, but I grew both personally and artistically through the experience.
Creative risk was what initiated Denise Jacobs’ journey to becoming a published author; without that initial step, she reasoned, there would be no payoff. All too often, we as creatives lack the faith that we can deliver or succeed, often stopping ourselves before we begin from the fears that crowd our brain.
Creative risk was also what began Susan Kare’s journey to becoming one of the most influential icon designers in the computer industry, with her work permeating the computing world so deeply that they still resonate today. Without her willingness to take a chance on a small startup called Apple, her work wouldn’t have had such broad impact today.
I came out of these sessions reflecting on whether or not I’m stuck in a rut, or if I really am stepping out of my comfort zone for growth.
#3: Craft means participating in a community
This lesson in particular is an easy sell at a conference like MAX, where you have thousands of people in the same place, all looking to be inspired. Looking at my own life (and Facebook friends list), I can see that the creative community remains one of my favorite groups of people. There are people I’ve kept in touch with for over fifteen years who were influential to me as a musician and who continue to do fantastic work. Some of them have gone on to major (and I mean major) new roles as they stretch out artistically, including being signed to major labels, touring the globe with Grammy-award winning groups, and pitching and producing major hit movies. But even more of them were, like me, moderately successful or community a cappella musicians that created a performance community to allow all to thrive.
Austin Kleon surprised the MAX community by talking about the role of the creative community, dubbing it the “scenius.” Through the scenius, we as a creative community provide the rich environment for a genius to be raised. However, participation in the scenius requires us to both invest and receive, avoiding the “vampire” phenomenon (“I’m only going to take”) and the “human spam” effect (“I don’t produce anything, but I’m going to tell you all about what it takes to succeed”). Through that active participation, he posits, we can create a creative community that fosters interaction and mutual growth.
Kleon also talks about teaching as a way of refining your own process, helping you to clarify what it is your process is and getting feedback from others about what might or might not work. The martial arts has a similar philosophy, and I found that my own technique only improved when I began teaching. Teaching is as much about your own process improvement as much as it is the student’s, and it has the benefit of feeding into the scenius.
Finally, Kleon suggests that we also share what other people do, giving attribution to those who inspire or challenge you. I make it a regular part of my week to look out for artwork on media that blow my mind with its technical merit or its vision, and I try to attribute to the original artists as much as possible. These things, while often not in my specialization, often remind me of the creative possibilities around me.
#4: Craft means focusing on the process
Sharing the process is a critical part of not only creative development, but proof of creative growth. Austin Kleon and Allison House both have a regular practice of “sharing how the sausage is made,” so to speak, because people want to see both the path to success as well as to be inspired by the types of risks others are taking. House shares her process work regularly on Instagram and Snapchat, and she talks about the relative merits of the different digital avenues.
This isn’t surprising, as I love seeing process work from other creative people. It reminds me that I, too, have work to do and work to share, and gives me hope that I can continue to persevere and make headway on my creative or technical goals.
There are some really interesting developments recently that allow people to see even deeper into other creatives’ processes. Adobe recently started a channel on twitch.tv to allow you to see the internal processes of some of its community, including people working with photography and image post-processing, typography, 3D modeling, audio and video post-processing, and more. Having access to this type of technology is a great opportunity to learn tips and tricks in a really new way, almost as a student used to learn from his or her master in ancient times.
It took me a while to figure out why I felt both demoralized and inspired by MAX. Part of the problem is that I, too, suffer from the feeling of despair that comes from not having produced much over the past ten years. But it took me a full two days to realize that the reason I hadn’t produced much is that I, as a multi-disciplinary creative, had produced a mediocre amount in about three or four different major areas.
I’ve written and recorded songs, but not a full album. I’ve written two full-length novels, a handful of short stories, and a number of blog posts to be proud of. I’ve made dozens of blankets and baby items for friends and for charity. I’ve performed over 40 gigs a year (including weddings) for the past 15 years on four different instruments and on vocals. I’ve arranged a handful of songs for a local university a cappella group. I’ve designed and implemented websites and software (outside of my day job). I wrote, shot, edited, and produced a video that won multiple awards.
In short, I’ve been productive, but it’s been spread thinly across so many avenues that it’s been hard to see significant progress on any of them. And this was the lesson from Adobe MAX: what I needed out of my creative life was momentum, and I already had it. I just couldn’t see it, and since I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t believe that I was in any way a serious, committed, professional maker-of-things.
I guess I proved myself wrong.
Many thanks to Colene for getting me to the 2015 Adobe MAX conference.
Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.