The careless artist and the careful editor

A few threads of thought that I want to write down while they’re in my head — and see if they make sense along the way.

I started watching Abstract on Netflix. A documentary series on designers across different disciplines. I’ve only watched the first two, but both have been excellent.

The first episode with illustrator Christoph Niemann made some great insights into the creative process. It’s not new but the reminder that, for most, professional designers the creative process is 1% inspiration and 99% inspiration is always good to hear and reassuring when thinking about my own work process.

He also makes a comment that in the course of working on an illustration — he often feels compelled to make a certain mark that his rational brain can’t justify. All common sense says making this mark will be a bad idea. It will make a mess of an otherwise successful illustration. He explains, however, that time and again it’s this inspired mark that proves to be the most interesting piece in the work.

I like that idea. That the best designs come from the gut. They’re not fluke — they’re born from years of experience, but they’re intuitive and unconscious. The logic often only comes out days or even months later. Interestingly, the second episode of Abstract with Tinker Hatfield says a very similar thing. Tinker shows some of his sketches that led to his seminal designs for Air Jordan trainers. He has pages not filled with sole patterns and colour schemes but of space (planets), the invisible man and other random concepts that just happened to be in his head. He sketches and sketches, not really knowing where it’s leading him, but several pages in — a trainer design suddenly materialises. It’s pattern, it’s form and it’s story are built by allowing an unconscious processing of everything he knows about trainer design and everything he has picked up from meetings and talks with Michael Jordan.

When you’re working on a commercial design project with real deadlines and financial implications — it’s hard to justify following ephemeral ideas. It’s hard to justify your time spent pursuing an abstract mark on the page when you can’t describe how it’s going to solve the design problem to your boss — but deep down you know it’s the kernel of a great design.

Christoph says of himself

“I need to be a more careful editor and a more careless artist”

And that’s the quote I want on the wall by my desk. To remind myself that to produce creative work and not churn out stagnating designs that keep people happy but not delighted — it’s essential to explore and test the boundaries. And only later to put on the editor hat and ask if your audience is ready for these designs yet.

It’s better, I think, to be an artist having your ideas pushed back on and restrained by a good editor than just going straight for the happy middle ground and instant approval. That gets dull fast.

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