Why I make something awful, every day

Practice makes perfect, but awful makes practice

I don’t know how to play the violin. Sure I spent several hours a week from fourth through sixth grade taking lessons, but when I was supposed to be at home practicing I mostly just stared at the sheet music frustrated. The awful squeals I was producing were not good, and I did not have the patience to make them better. I soon developed what I thought were excellent mimicry skills for when it came concert time. I focused on moving my bow in the same direction as the kids around me, letting it hover millimeters above the strings without ever touching, faking it without ever making it.

15 and performing the Boy from New York City in Taiwan

This technique also proved useful in high school, where for some reason the camp counselor version of a middle school camp for gifted children in South Dakota morphed into a show choir camp. For rehearsals and the final performance each summer, I stood near the back of the stage flailing my arms in choreographed movement just slightly behind that of everyone else, once again trying to fake it when it mattered without ever putting in the extra time I needed to get my body fully prepared to do the “Bandstand Boogie” with forty of South Dakota’s best, brightest, and awkwardest.

Kern it till you earn it

In college, several of my studio art + design classes featured the ubiquitous “one hundred thumbnails” by Monday assignment, which I resented greatly at the time. Wouldn’t it make more sense focusing on a few good ideas instead of wasting time generating lots of bad ones? We were encouraged to keep sketchbooks, which some instructors checked weekly and graded based on page count. As I grew more familiar with design culture, I learned about the habit many designers have of “design as play.” I couldn’t do it. Design was work. Why would I fiddle with nothing if I didn’t have to?

Scene from a late night college comic sprint where I forced myself to do twenty single panel strips in an hour. Sometimes we must produce crap in order to achieve… more crap.

I did, however, latch on to some important bits of advice from my studio art classes:

  • Make it big
  • Make it red
  • If you can’t make it big, make a lot of them

I took the “make it a series” advice very seriously, and during a controversy my senior year between the student art guild and the administration over a display case that featured a dummy from the drawing studio (“partially unclothed child manikin” in the words of a complaint letter), I put together a series of art rants to stitch together to censor our display case. I’d tricked myself into playing with design without even realizing.

Our censorship got its own censorship due to “the paper covering the case had been strategically ripped to provide a small opening for viewing inside the case revealing the unclothed or partially unclothed child manikin still inside.”

Why be cool when you can be awful?

Fast forward to late 2009. I was almost two years out of college and had lived in Chicago for just over a year. After a demoralizing eight-month stretch of being unemployed in mid-2008 (shoutout to the Great Recession!) to early 2009, I landed my first real design job. I now had to do design for other people every day, whether or not I felt “inspired.” An influential professor told me in college that divine inspiration was bullshit. The only way to make something was to sit down and actually work at it. Part of that work was research, and I needed to see what others were doing in order to break my own bad design habits. At the time, Brock Davis’s Make Something Cool Everyday project and Mark Weaver’s version of it were taking over the design blogs and image bookmarking sites like FFFFOUND!

Some personal takes on the FFFFOUND! / Make Something Cool aesthetic from 2008 and 2009. (Photograph by Bud Rodecker.)

Make Something Cool Everyday had a noble cause: get unstuck by producing work within the time constraint of 24 hours. I was drawn to the idea as a diversion from my day job of doing a very specific kind of design, but something about the “cool” aspect bothered me.

Was I supposed to make more pretty design fluff? I’ve never been big on design as decoration, oftentimes to a fault. These pieces aren’t solving a problem or executing on a strategy, but they are getting the creative cobwebs out… and into a pretty package. I knew it was too late to learn the violin or perfect the required choreography for “Fever,” but I could still do something about my art + design practice. Could it be… I needed practice?

The easiest way to blog.

I originally started a tumblr in May 2009, shortly before landing the day job, as a fake fanblog for some college friends’ fake high school record label, based entirely on the influence of Look at this fucking hipster. By July, the fanblog was dead and tumblr had taken over my life. My post-college creative output had become anemic. I wasn’t painting, I was barely drawing, and I certainly wasn’t doing design as play, but I knew that had to change. Tumblr’s continuous flow of content inspired me to start making small, terrible pieces I could share with my internet friends. It was mostly bad, self-referential drawings and memes, but it was something.

By November, the popularity of projects like Make Something Cool Everyday lead to an idea: I, too, could make something every day. But it would not be cool. It would be awful. If I really wanted to flex my art + design muscle, wasn’t it better to get something out into the world and not fixate on whether or not it was pretty? I could really experiment! Play! Ideate! And I wouldn’t have to worry about how good it was. I began regularly posting pieces under the tag #msae, but by January 2010 I was ready to formally start a standalone 365 blog and change the name and tag to the possibly more grammatically appropriate: Make Something Awful Every Day, or #msaed.

My desk, featuring the Sticky Notes, in 2012

To start with, #msaed was a lot of the same bad in-jokey memes, but I quickly fell into the rhythm of creating new series and had soon begun bodoni is boring, sleeper cell, sticky notes, threes, and iPad portraits, which all more or less continue to this day.

On (in)consistently maintaining awfulness

In #msaed’s five years of existence, its regularity has had its ups and downs. I posted 365 times in 2010, but not on a daily schedule. In 2011 I resolved to work on bigger ongoing projects, which was semi-successful with some big freelance projects and the launch of a queer Chicago zine celebrating culture and class(lessness). It did come at the cost of posting daily. In August of that year I only posted four times. In 2012 I resolved to go back to more regular drawings and again ended up posting less than ten times for several months, largely due to reasons. In 2013 I started making pixel gifs, which led to a great increase in posting frequency for awhile before I again burnt out. In June 2013 I only posted three times. In October activity picked up as I began preparation for a longtime goal: my first show at a Chicago coffee shop. I had lenticulars printed and brought gifs to the real world.

After the excitement of preparing for the coffee shop show, I decided to double down on my commitment to the project. 2014 was the first year I actually posted one thing a day, every day. No one noticed, but I think the quality of work improved. I was able to get in to a real creative groove and stick with it, but maybe you’re wondering why I’m discussing quality when this project is supposed to be awful? Or maybe you’re wondering when I’ll get around to actually explaining why I choose to make something awful.

The awful present

By January of this year, I was once again at a loss. I half-jokingly started a new side project called Lambtime365, which would (will) feature 365 drawings of a single person whom I’ve never met. The subject shortly thereafter had his blog deleted for copyright violations, which took some wind out of the project’s sails, but it is now partially back on track. This year I also wanted to start work on a book collecting the first five years of #msaed as a follow-up to the year one book I designed, but I never got started. Instead I just stopped posting. In April and June, I only posted four times. I became increasingly anxious that it’s detrimental putting time into something self-described as awful, and I wondered if the project still had anywhere useful to go.

But guess what? I realized even when I’m not happy with the quality of the work (it is supposed to be awful after all), I was still happy to be making something. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make myself learn this whole time. Yes, practicing the violin was extremely frustrating. Yes, my body wasn’t capable of getting the timing right for kick ball change. At the time that made me give up. If instead I’d stuck with the awful frustration of practice, I could have at least looked back and said, “Look at how much time I’ve spent practicing being terrible! I still have no talent, but at least I’ve put the work in!” Okay, that’s being cynical, but the thing is, a lot of what you hear about natural talent is a lie. Had I actually practiced in good faith I would have improved.

I think I was still in college when I heard the path to being a successful painter required first making one hundred terrible paintings and giving them away. Only after getting those hundred paintings behind you would you be ready to start selling your work. In a way, #msaed is me still self-consciously chipping away at those first hundred paintings. Five years and nearly 1,500 posts later, I should really put down the mouse and pick up the brush again, but I don’t think that should mean I stop being awful.

Why be awful?

Think about it.

I disagree that the computer is bad for generating ideas, or that it removes you from the work. While a lot of #msaed has been about getting me away from the digital into my sketchbook, it’s also been about learning to loosen up digitally and start exploring. While working on #msaed, I’ve also come to love the iPad as a drawing tool, using only my fingertip as a stylus.

You can still get your cursor dirty without using your hands, and I don’t just mean using grunge textures and brushes. The way you place a point on a path is uniquely you. How you draw a bezier curve is indicative of your personal style. The way you drag your mouse in your hand or your finger across a trackpad or screen to make a shitty drawing is your own aesthetic at work.

Yes, as Austin Kleon aptly points out in his fantastic Steal Like an Artist (seriously, read it), “There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key.” However, there are equally as many opportunities to choose “Save As…” Save often and ideate. Ideate! Ideate! Ideate! Iterate? Both! I use several working documents in InDesign that are hundreds of pages long to make most all of the digital text pieces in #msaed. The awfulness you see has been lightly edited and occasionally selected from even awfuler siblings.

I personally like InDesign because I can keep creating new pages, but still leave a version of whatever isn’t working behind. You can do the same with artboards in Illustrator or blood sacrifice in Photoshop. I often find myself scrolling back through the documents and finding something that I thought was too stupid to share at the time, but with a little distance finally feels the right amount of awful. Throughout the course of the project, I’ve resisted creating work that is intentionally awful as that often ends up being a cop out. However, another benefit of making quick daily pieces is that you don’t have time to overwork. Kill your darlings… by blogging them and letting them die of exposure.

Bullet points are scientifically proven to be awful

Pros of making something awful every day:

  • Make work
  • Kill your editor
  • Boundless creative freedom
  • Overcome fear of the blank page
  • Avoid criticism — “It was supposed to be awful”
  • Throw everything out there and see what sticks
  • Freedom to experiment without making it matter/high art
  • Play with concepts you might not explore seriously otherwise
  • By being awful, you strip away the pretense and find your own style

Cons of making something awful every day:

  • Could be confused with popular early 2000s website Something Awful
  • Avoid even constructive criticism — “It was supposed to be awful”
  • Get charged with murder for killing your editor
  • Make work you’re embarrassed by
  • It’s an excuse to be lazy
  • Forget how to be good
  • Make bad work
From an early conversation about the project

What awful things does the future hold?

I still don’t know how to answer this. In the back of my mind I’m often thinking of the alternate definitions for awful:

  • solemnly impressive; inspiring awe
  • full of awe; reverential.
  • Informal. very; extremely

I don’t think anyone’s shitty internet art blog is going to inspire awe, but I can make something very every day. I’ve been hearing a great piece of advice repeated a lot lately: The best way to get work done is to start working. Awful or not, this is work and has become a primary part of my art + design practice. I still have new, terrible ideas I want to explore. I also have bigger projects to work on, but what I missed before is that the daily routine feeds into and improves the big things. I’ve been hesitant to show much process work in the past, but marrying the daily routine to the ongoing projects makes that easier. Practice makes perfect, but awful makes a practice.

Go, be awful. Terrorize the world like only a 9-year-old learning violin or an awkward teen practicing choreography can. Make the Vines you would’ve made if you had Vine as a teenager, or if you’re a teenager, stop making Vines and start writing bad poetry in your alog (analog web log).

Remember: all those awful things you make could end up inspiring awe in someone else or, better yet, maybe even yourself. #msaed

Ahh, Reflections

This is Topher McCulloch’s first post on Medium, and he tried very hard not to mention Malcolm Gladwell or the 10,000 hour rule. He can be seen most days being awful at http://makesomethingawfuleveryday.tumblr.com.