This is a write up of my presentation at Digpen this year.
Vision without execution is hallucination
— Thomas Eddison
Too many great ideas fizzle out due to lack of resource or enthusiasm. While seemingly mediocre, or even bad, ideas can go on to do great things with belief from the creators and motivation to make their vision a reality.
Last year I had an idea — to put on a small art exhibition. I work as a UX designer, but my background is in Fine Art. I thought it would be a fun side project to pursue.
Explore, Discover, Innovate
I decided to create a series of illustrations on the theme of exploration. And, came up with the tagline: Explore, Discover, Innnovate — which seemed to neatly encapsulate mankind’s motivation over the centuries for exploration.
In writing up this talk for Digpen I realised it also serves as a good metaphor for the creative process, which is also one of exploration, discoveries and innovations. Whatever medium you’re working in, the creative process is about getting from A to B when you don’t know where B is.
My first idea was to produce a series of schematic type drawings showing all the pieces of clothing and equipment an explorer would take on different types of expedition. In my minds eye I could picture this series and felt it could make for some engaging artworks. But the style I wanted to follow wasn’t really my style and required a way of working in Photoshop & Illustrator that I wasn’t particularly proficient with. It was taking me a long time to get the work done.
I knew the space I had to fill and therefore how many illustrations I would need. I had the realisation I was never going to get this finished in any sort of reasonable time frame.
I started experimenting with a much simplified drawing style that would, in theory, speed up the process. The work was OK but I wasn’t feeling overly inspired by it. Nothing was materialising that suggested it would be able to hold its own on the wall of a gallery.
Any designer will tell you, this is an inevitable stage of a project. You can’t jump straight into doing good work. There’s nothing wrong with doing bad work as part of a creative process just so long as you can recognise it as bad and learn from it.
However, no matter how much you know it’s all part of the process, it’s difficult not to lose motivation at this stage. You can start to question whether it was such a good idea in the first place, or even if you’re talented enough to execute your vision.
While I do creative work everyday, I found myself struggling at many points because I was working in a different context (work to be displayed in a gallery rather than on a website) and there was no client demands to define the project boundaries or set a deadline.
If you are working on a commercial project and there’s a financial imperative to complete the project, you will force yourself to keep working because you have to. When it’s a personal project or a more speculative business idea — there isn’t an expectation that the project will be a success even if you do complete it. So when you hit tough patches it’s easy to talk yourself out of the work. You can decided it isn’t such a great idea and not worth pursuing or that you don’t have enough time to dedicate to it.
When you‘re at this stage (and if you don’t get to this stage — you might be setting your creative ambitions too low) it’s important to remember that not only is it inevitable you’re going to go through a period of doing bad work, it’s necessary.
No matter how good a creative you are — you can’t jump straight into doing great work. Average work is easy to spot. Usually because it leans heavily on existing design solutions, so you have a clear benchmark and point of reference for your viewer or user who can instantly get your solution and understand it. This isn’t always a bad thing — quick adaptation is often an important criteria in a design project. But the more creative and revolutionary your idea is, the slower your audience might be to recognise its value.
While good work can be easy to spot, it’s often more difficult to define between bad and great work. Great work might not be immediately accepted by an audience because people are often reluctant to embrace change. With commitment, if your design really is great, it will be accepted and praised as people adapt — but as the designer you need to be confident in what you’re backing.
To identify the great solution you need to have identified the bad, the OK and the good ones first.
The work examples shown so far have been the type of sketches you’d expect to see as part of a visual design project. They’re looking at form, colour, composition and story. You can see how they could be developed into more substantial designs and they’re the type of sketches likely to be found in most visual design projects.
There’s another type of sketching though. And valuable even if you’re working on a non-visual design project. Low-fidelity sketches. You might even call them doodles, although I think this term has a danger of devaluing them.
When you start a project you will have absorbed lots of related information and inspiration. This will be merging in your sub-conscious with knowledge gained from previous experiences. The chances are you already have a hunch of a likely design solution or at least an intuitive feel of where to start the creative process. The problem is that it is processing at a sub-conscious level. It can be difficult to articulate these ideas to yourself on a conscious level.
Low-fidelity sketches should be very quick. Allow your un-conscious brain to guide you and build up dozens of fast sketches based around the problem. Sketch elements of the problem itself, concepts that you feel might help in solving the problem or any variation you feel inclined to get down on paper.
Eventually you will have a pile of these low-fidelity sketches. Some of them might not look like much more than scribbles. What you’ll find is two or three ideas that keep reappearing. The strongest ideas in your sub-conscious will keep bubbling to the surface. Once you can recognise the two or three ideas you’re most drawn towards, you can focus on these and delve further into developing and refining them into a more polished and tangible design.
The creative process is improved when you have two or three ideas to work around. Even if they don’t seem particularly harmonious companions, the ability to juxtapose and add tensions can spark new ideas or highlight strengths and weaknesses in solutions through the contrasts.
The reason a visual creative process is so powerful is because our brains are wired massively in favour of the processing of visual data.
Of all the parts of our brain that process sensory information, over 70% is dedicated to processing visual data. Humans understand visual information more quickly, intuitively and powerfully than any other sense. When you’re in a meeting trying to explain a difficult concept - even though it makes complete sense in your head - you sometimes fail to articulate yourself clearly when speaking. As soon as you reach for a piece of paper and draw your idea out, your colleagues understand you. In seeing the concept drawn out, they can suddenly understand you better and the activity of drawing it helps you articulate your explanation verbally.
Getting away from the office is also a key part of the creative process. Your best flashes of inspiration won’t happen sitting in front of a computer, or in a meeting room. These are places to apply the creative ideas. The ideas themselves will come when you’re out on your bike or doing the dishes.
For me, in allowing my intuition to guide me — I was thinking about exploration and the great wildernesses of Alaska and Canada. And I was making a further connection with these territories and Moose and Canoes. I had no idea where these connections were leading me, but in following these threads it prompted me to stop and look when I saw a book This Moose Belongs to Me in the window of a bookshop.
It was the moose that initially grabbed my attention, but what I ultimately took away from it was the contrast between Oliver Jeffers simplistic illustrative style and the contrast with the much more formal, Romanticist, landscape paintings they were depicted against.
This comes back to the idea of allowing contrasting elements into your creative thinking. Contrast between different elements can highlight the relative strengths in each of them.
While the contrast between simplicity of foreground figures and more formal representations of landscape isn’t particularly overt in the final works I produced — it was certainly an influence in their evolution.
I also explored the idea of using geometric shapes to frame the pictures on the canvas.
These eventually merged and became the first piece I completed in the final collection The Mountain.
The blue version was the original and it evolved into the lighter one as the series developed. Which you prefer is a subjective opinion — but the key point is that when working on a series of design works, they need to be consistent and cohesive. Each individual piece needs to be successful in its own right, but as designer you need a clear vision for the collection as a whole to ensure consistency in style, theme and message across multiple pieces of design work.
As you work on a series new ideas will develop, you need to be prepared to go back and rework designs you thought were finished, to include these new ideas. Other times, work on a particular piece will lead you down a route which seen on its own makes for a great piece of work, but isn’t cohesive when seen as part of the whole project — you need to be prepared to strip out elements, even if you really like them, if it’s for the greater good of your design project as a whole.
Canoe and The Balloon were the next pieces I completed. At this stage I was feeling happy. I’d settled on a visual style and approach to the subject that was working and would give me scope to keep it going over a larger body of work.
If you’d asked me at the time what I felt was successful about the works I’d have said it was an inviting colour palette, depictions of inspirational scenes and an aesthetic that was easily picked up by the viewers. These are not necessarily important factors in good design work, but in this instance it fitted within the criteria I’d set for myself.
As I continued working I found another level to the work — a lack of narrative. All the works show some trace of the explorer, but their story is never explicitly told. You don’t know where they are on their journey, what their motivations have been or if it has been successful.
This means the viewer has an initial pull to the works on an aesthetic level, but can engage with them over a longer period by building their own story. The scenes are largely aspirational. The viewer can place themselves into the scene and consider their own story on that journey.
A third level emerged for me too. I don’t even remember now if it occurred to me very late in the project or after completing them. It is a subtle element of the sublime. Once the viewer has been drawn in by the aesthetics of the work, and started to create their own narrative about their place in the journey — they might find an initial appeal at the idea of canoeing on a great lake or camping in the mountains, but then they’ll start to acknowledge the wilderness and the isolation being shown. How safe would they actually feel in that situation?
In the case of The Climber, there appears to be a great abyss waiting for him to fall into. Or Walk in the Forest — someone’s interpretation was it showed a murderer walking out into exile.
If your work can include deeper stories that only emerge over time and through use, it builds stronger engagement from your audience. I don’t think it’s possible to lay out these multiple threads at the start of a project and work to them as you go. They happen organically, by allowing intuition to guide you.
By going away and reflecting on the work, being open to fresh ideas as they present themselves and being able to rework designs across the whole project over extended periods of time your work can become richer and given greater longevity.
It does necessitate the luxury of time, which isn’t always possible on commercial projects. These deeper stories are subtle and might not be picked up when your work is first presented to the public. The extra hours spent honing your designs might not make any real difference to the work’s reception when it’s first launched. But while the work that hasn’t enjoyed such attention might be initially well received, it’s sheen might wear more quickly. In a year or two the audience can become bored and it needs a re-design.
The work that has been refined over longer periods might not have had a better initial reception — but five or ten years later this is the work likely to still be successful and relevant.
Intuition is really what creativity is all about.
I’ve always been heavily reliant on intuition for guiding my creative work. Experience has taught me I can trust it — but I’ve often still questioned its validity. Is my intuition a direct link to a deeper creative skill — or am I just making lucky guesses? It’s well worth reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, who shows that not only is your intuition a valuable resource in a decision making process — it’s often more reliable than conscious and rationally made choices.
The idea of being creative is off putting to many people. Mostly because we tend to associate the Creative with the role of artist and creating works for exhibition. We think creativity is the pursuit of the painter, graphic designer, musician or poet. In fact these are roles pursued by particularly creative people but the activity of painting, using Photoshop or playing an instrument are just tools to apply a creative idea. They are skills that can be learnt like any other.
Creativity is part of everyone’s job, whatever industry they are in.
Some jobs are more creative than others — but in even, seemingly, un-creative professions like law or dentistry — the best practitioners in their fields will be applying creative thinking to their job. They will be re-evaluating their knowledge and application of skills to work better, faster, smarter — to achieve more.
Creativity is all about exploration and going where no one has gone before. Just like an explorer you’re trying to head into unchartered territory
Sir John Hegarty, Hegarty on Creativity
Creativity requires a belief in your intuition. It needs a level of fearlessness to pursue an idea that isn’t immediately accepted by your peers, because you trust your gut and have the determination to nurture your idea and bring it to life. If you become more willing to follow your intuition, you can produce great things.
Hegarty on Creativity — Sir John Hegarty
Unfolding the Napkin — Dan Roam
Game Storming — Gray, Brown, Macanufo
Human Centred Design Toolkit — http://ideo.com/work/human-centered-design-toolkit
Blink — Malcolm Gladwell
Creative Intelligence — Bruce Nussbaum
The Lean Startup — Eric Ries