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Getting to Know Your Creativity

There’s great value in learning about your creativity for people working in a profession which relies on our creativity, such as designers, illustrators, those of you in advertising, or really any role where part of our job is coming up with solutions. For many people, pressure can be a great motivator, however it’s inherently not a great ally of solid creative thinking. So it’s a worthwhile endeavor for us to really learn how our creativity works. When do we think best? When do we often have new ideas? What inspires that muscle?

All it really takes is awareness. And a lot of trial and error. Or as I like to think of it, exploration. The best way to learn about your creativity, particularly early in your career, is to try a lot of different things, and be diligent about paying attention to what works, when, why and where. I’ve met people who need to be outside, and people who work in very specific ways, and also people for whom it’s different every time. There are as many ways to relate to your creativity as there are people in the world. That’s how individual and varied it can be. So you really have to figure out what works best for you.

That said, I can share with you some strategies that work well for me, and I’ve seen working well for many people I’ve worked with and known over the years. I’ll describe them in the form of stages of a typical project.

  1. Part One: The Steeping
    I like to immerse myself in the information that’s available about a problem or a client first. I gather everything I can about the assignment, the company, the problem to be solved. I read, I might talk to some people about it, I research. Somewhere along this path I meet at least once and sometimes twice with the client and ask many questions so I can understand everything there is to know about them and their situation. When I used to work more for theater, I would always read the script, and then meet with the director. I don’t worry so much at this point about the ideas coming, and if they do I usually write them down in words rather than pictures. An important thing to learn here is how long it takes you to transition to the point where you are stating to have ideas. Also keep track of environmental factors, did it help to go for a walk or a run or a ride. What time was it when you felt the most refreshed and productive. Those sorts of things. You might notice that it changes all the time, good to know, or you might see a pattern, also very valuable.
  2. Part Two: Capture
    Once you’ve collected all the information you can, and that’s been working inside you, turning it over consciously and subconsciously, eventually you’ll start to have some ideas come to the surface. Capture. Those. Ideas. I’m an old school guy, so I like to do that in a notebook. Actually, I have two notebooks working at any given time. I carry a Field Notes book with me at all times, for capturing thoughts and to-do’s. Then I have a large moleskine notebook for actually working in. In this part of my process I like to be away from the computer, and I usually work in pen, because it’s a discipline for me not to be able to erase and refine. I purposefully want these sketches and ideas to be loose and rough. I do like to have tracing paper with me, so if I want to quickly iterate I can do that easily with layers of trace paper. At times, and particularly if I’m working with a team, I like to have a session or two with a big whiteboard and lots of ideas being thrown around. Volume is really great. Because when you have a lot to pick from, you can easily start to discern what’s worth pursuing and what’s not. The other great thing about volume is it encourages a wide variety of thinking. This is the time for yes, yes, yes. It’s not time to edit yet, it’s time to let all the ideas come and keep coming. And even to gather the ideas from all different sources. Good ideas can come from anywhere. This is also a great time to collect visual references. You’ll want lots of stuff to pull from in the next step, and looking at visual references can help generate ideas as well.
  3. Part Three: Refine
    Now you can start to say no. This could also be called editing. Once you’ve spent a good period of time generating ideas and concepts and collecting references, it’s time to put them together into something. You’ll want to take those sketches and thumbnails and start to look at how they might come together in the computer. For many projects this is the part that leads first to a moodboard or a style board, and will eventually deliver us to concepts. In my experience it’s very helpful to generate a moodboard for all sorts of projects, and now is the time to do it. Pull together those visual references, and perhaps look for some more that support the direction. Start to think about typography, even if it’s only in a broad sense. Not necessarily specifying exact typefaces so much as getting clear of the style of type. Ultimately you’re going to end up with a moodboard for each of your directions and a finished version of the creative product. Here it’s important again to pay close attention to what works best for you. How much computer vs. how much in the sketchbook. How much do you print out and put on the wall vs noodling in the computer. Do you share the work with anyone who could help give you perspective? What supports you doing the work you feel the best about? Only you know.
  4. Part Four: Collaborate
    Once you have a set of directions for the client, it’s time to share them and get feedback. This is the time when you can really enroll the client in the process. The moodboards we talked about help give them a sense of where you are coming from, and what your bigger picture plan is for their brand/design/theme. And now they’ll tell you what worked and what didn’t. They may have a clear favorite, and they may not. You may have lots to change, and you may have very little. It’s different every time. Here is where you can train yourself to not only be ready for, but to be eager for, and desirous of the clients feedback. They are the expert in their business. They will tell you if what you’ve done makes sense. And if you’ve done a good job setting them up, then they’ll do it knowing you did a great job with your part already, and now it’s time to work together to make something great. It’s also important because you will very likely need to continue to work on a project for several more rounds of this process, and creativity is fickle. Creativity loves shiny things, and will want to move on to the next problem to solve fairly quickly. So it’s important to exercise that muscle of having some discipline in your creativity as well.

So as you can see, it’s a give and take. You are both learning about your creative tendencies, and creating some habits at the same time. As with most things, it needs to be a balance of both of those tasks. And once you start to get an idea of what works best for you, it’s easier to replicate that process. In the best case, and this is certainly my wish for you, it’s a process you will continue to refine and experiment with throughout the rest of your career. Good luck, and happy creating!

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