Breaks are boosts

No matter how much we love our work, we sometimes need a little time off to come back even stronger. For example, I love playing soccer but can’t do it for eight hours straight.

Illustrating is my greatest passion. I enjoy drawing every day, yet sometimes, I force myself to take a break for several days or even weeks. Then, I try to do things that have less or nothing to do with drawing. For example, I program and tweak my portfolio website, do the accounting, experiment with my concept for a fictional video game, or write texts like this one.

In my experience, I only realize how good this break actually feels as soon as I take a step back. Let’s consciously switch off our passion now and then so we can recharge. Otherwise, it may suffer from our ambition.

Seeing without knowing to get great ideas

To be able to orient ourselves in the world, we develop prejudices. Not in a harmful sense. But in order not to lose ourselves in the unfamiliar. We judge a situation based on our previous experiences and decide accordingly. These pre-judgments are like a template through which we see the world.

That’s helpful when visiting another city, learning a new program, or on our first day at a new job. Our experiences give us a sense of security and guidance.

However, this skill gets in our way when it comes to developing ideas. Children are much freer in this respect. We, adults, look at things in a biased way. A coffee mug is for drinking, a chair is for sitting, and a pencil is for drawing. Period. Or maybe there are other options? If you were born in the 80s like me, you know, for example, that there was no better tool for unwinding tangled tapes from audio cassettes than the pencil.

Let’s look at things through a child’s eyes as we search for ideas. Children are unprejudiced. They have no template yet, no bias. They look at objects they encounter from all sides. They twist, turn, play, and try all sorts of things with them. They discover.

Seeing without knowing is something we can learn again. Only when we can break away from our established prejudices do we recognize new connections because new connections are what make ideas original.

Once again, about “less is more”

My post 1+1=0 was about not overloading our work with information. Otherwise, we lose our audience. Be it illustrations, blog posts, or advertisements. In the meantime, two more examples caught my eye.

The movie Terminator 2 was a revelation to my 13-year-old me. It was the only movie in my life where after the credits rolled, I rewound the VHS tape right away to watch it again. I could almost speak the dialogue simultaneously.

One day when I held the DVD in my hands featuring a 17-minute more extended Director’s Cut, I couldn’t wait to watch it. Seventeen more minutes of Terminator! A childhood dream came true.

But the disillusionment was huge. The additional scenes were strange to the point of disappointment. Not only did they seem unnecessary, but they pushed the Terminator character in a different, almost ridiculous direction. Since then, I only watch the original cinema version. Again less was more.

I found another example in D&AD’s The Copy Book. Jim Durfree writes about professional writing:

“When you get your copy to the point where you’re really, really happy with it, cut it by a third.”

Jim Durfree (advertiser, copy writer)

Good designs are like evergreen songs

A brilliant melody like Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers or a timeless beat like We Will Rock You by Queen doesn’t need any instruments. We can whistle or clap it, and everyone knows the song immediately. On the other hand, a flat or banal melody cannot be saved even by the best orchestra with the most expensive instruments in the world.

It’s the same with design and ideas. A rough sketch of stick figures and speech bubbles on a napkin can visualize an idea for an advertising campaign worth millions. A boring illustration composition, on the other hand, doesn’t become more exciting when we color it in Photoshop. As far as logos are concerned, Kurt Weidemann puts it in a nutshell:

A logo is good when you can scratch it in the sand with your big toe

Kurt Weidemann (typographer, designer).

Before we waste too much time working out an idea or a design, let’s just put in the minimum effort as soon as possible. After that, we can always decide whether to take it a step further or drop it. Just visualizing it in some form usually shows whether it will work.

Feedback is a double-edged sword when generating ideas

On the one hand, criticism and the opinions of others can encourage us. We learn from the experience and mistakes of others. That is precious for our development. How often have professors, fellow students, and clients opened my eyes in despair? Communication is an essential tool for creative work.

On the other hand, the quality of our work is highly dependent on our ability to protect ourselves from external influences and opinions when necessary. For only in silence can we listen to our inner voice.

But each person is different in this respect. Brainstorming in a group, for example, can inspire some people’s creativity. In conversation, they bubble with energy and ideas. For others, however, collective thinking is counterproductive. They need time alone to think about the problem deeply and introspectively.

Figuring out what supports or hinders our creativity is an exciting process. Recognizing our highs and lows, and perhaps even logging them in writing, can bring about fundamental change.

Let’s enjoy having zero followers for as long as we can.

Each of us starts from zero – zero composed melodies, zero written poems, zero painted pictures, zero successes, zero failures, zero experience, zero attention, and zero followers.

We glance at our creative role models and the massive community they’ve built over the years. They have so much recognition in the form of likes, retweets, and comments. We wish we had that, too.

But not having attention can be a creative blessing. We will never be as free and at ease to create as we are today with zero followers. We can experiment, play, and do whatever we like. After all, we don’t have to be accountable to anyone or meet any expectations of others.

As soon as we share our work with the world, we must remember that it will be influenced. Whether positive or negative is not relevant. The fact is, the comments and number of likes will inevitably trigger something within most of us. Some work will get more attention than others. That will influence us, even if it’s just a little bit. That one nasty comment, among dozens of compliments, stays with us for weeks, maybe forever. That influences us, too, and with that, our work, focus, motivation, and creative development.

Feedback and followers will come with consistent social media channel maintenance. At a certain point, this is also beneficial for our further development and maybe even necessary. However, we have it in our own hands when that point in time is. And until then, let’s relish and enjoy our creative independence and freedom.

Let’s stop adoring our creative heroes

As artists, designers, and illustrators, we all have role models who inspire us. Beginners and students, in particular, tend to cling to their heroes initially.


But all that idolizing eventually gets us nowhere. At some point, we must pick up the pen and ask the only important question: What exactly fascinates us about our hero’s works? The answer is right in front of us. As we contemplate the artworks, we observe ourselves. What happens to us as we do so? What touches us? Is it perhaps the colors, the strokes, the subjects, the material? Finding this out while becoming active in the process is the key to our own artistic style.

4 reasons why toddlers are all artists

When we watch toddlers painting or blowing into a flute, we might be a little envious of how unselfconsciously and unbiased they approach things. Pablo Picasso said:

Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist once they grow up

Pablo Picasso

Let’s see why this is true:

  1. Toddlers feel no resistance to start – no procrastination, no overthinking, no anxiety over a blank canvas. Children get started right away with what is in front of them. They paint, craft, and drum fearlessly.
  2. Toddlers try everything without expectations. They don’t know failure in creating. When they paint a picture, they don’t care about the result. It has no meaning, no value to them. It is all about the moment of painting. They also don’t care (yet) whether we, the adults, admire their works or not. We are the ones who see value in their paintings by collecting or hanging them on walls. The toddlers move on as soon as they finish without looking back.
  3. Toddlers are immediately in the flow. As soon as they have something interesting in front of them, they grab it. We adults need time and think about strategies to get into a creative flow as quickly as possible and not get distracted by e-mails, news, or social media.
  4. Toddlers enjoy the freedom of being unattached to their identity, yet. It’s all about perception. They try everything they can find. They don’t define themselves as illustrators, composers, chefs, or professional tower builders. Adults do this to ensure their place in society and write it on business cards. On the other hand, a toddler can be everything at once, always, and sometimes even at the same time.

When we watch toddlers playing, we see the pure act of experiencing and creating—such a great role model for us adults.

When our tongue betrays our feet – about sabotaging our dreams and goals

When I was about 18 years old, I read a sentence in a small book that I had never forgotten:

A bridled tongue makes the head wise.

unknown

When we get excited about something, we want to talk about it. Maybe we want to apply to a university, go on a backpacking trip to Tibet, or take the leap into self-employment. These decisions are groundbreaking for our future. If we are serious about it, we should let this thought grow inside us before we spit it out too soon. Otherwise, the following may happen:

  1. There are always dozens of arguments against our decision, usually from people who care about us, for example, our parents. They wish only for the best and for us to have a more effortless and carefree life than they had. That is natural and lovely. But the easiest is not always what is also best for us. We can talk about our plan confidently when we are sure we won’t let ourselves be diverted from it. We have already reflected on these arguments and successfully disproved them for ourselves.
  2. Talking about our dreams gives us the deceptive feeling of already being in the middle of the process. In talking, we become euphoric and picture ourselves passing the aptitude test for college, standing in the Himalayan mountains, or driving our first Porsche. The feeling that we are already on our way creeps in. But that is simply not the case. We haven’t actively done anything yet to fulfill our dream. The journey does not begin until we have sat at our desks to prepare for the test, apply for the visa, or draw up a concrete business plan.

The tricky thing about talking about our dreams is that we load ourselves with unnecessary weight before we even take the first step. The arguments our parents brought up might sound reasonable and logical and now the first doubts arise. Or our friend, to whom we have described our plan so emotionally, now regularly asks how things are going. Without realizing it, we suddenly have to justify ourselves, and we take the risks that our motivation fades away.

Therefore, let’s mature our dreams long enough in silence before we destroy them by putting them out too soon.

Between precrastination and procrastination

Mentors, motivators, and coaches often use the term procrastination in connection with the creative process. Many people, especially inexperienced ones, can relate to it. They know the fear in front of the blank page and the constant postponement of the task.

The advice from experienced mentors is usually “Take action. Don’t procrastinate. The first step is the biggest.” I can also confirm this; you can find my thoughts about it here. Once we have drawn the first line, written the first sentence, and played the first note, we are already in the middle of the creative process.

Yet little is written about the opposite of procrastination: the precrastination, the tendency to do things too quickly, too soon, too hastily, or too rashly.

Great ideas require incubation time. We need time to look closely, observe, absorb, experiment, and let thoughts grow and connect. Leonardo da Vinci puts it this way:

“Creativity sometimes requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate”.

Leonardo da Vinci

Social media experts recommend taking action and posting consistently, daily, and as much as possible. I think that’s a great way to gain followers and attention and to feel productive. But is it the best and most effective way to get the most out of things? Isn’t this advice the fuel for precrastination and, thus, the direct path to banality?

As always, the truth lies somewhere in between. Let’s not wait too long, but let’s also think about Leonardo from time to time before clicking Publish too soon.

Only the visualization of an idea makes it one

Sometimes we have clear pictures in our heads. Be it an idea, an illustration, or a clear vision of which new table would fit perfectly in our living room. As clear as the images may appear in our mind’s eye, trying to describe them to another person is usually doomed to failure. Others can’t see what we see by telling it with words.

The same is the case with music. We ask a friend, “What is the title of this song?” and start whistling, humming, or tapping the melody. In our head, it’s spot on, while the other person has no clue at all. We can’t understand why she does not recognize it. It’s so obvious! When we finally remember the song’s title, enlightenment strikes, and she goes, “Oh, I see… I would never have recognized that.”

We are primarily visual beings. Seeing and recognizing comes easily to us. I never explain my illustration ideas to the client. I have to show them. For one thing, when I try to visualize them, I first recognize for myself whether the concept works at all. On the other hand, they give the client and me a joint basis for discussion.

Ideas are like tiny stars: the closer we look, the less we see them

It is a phenomenon that only happens in the dark: a faint star will disappear once we look into the night sky and stare directly at it. We perceive its light only when we let our gaze jump and dance around the star. The reason for this lies in the anatomy of the eye.

It is the same when searching for ideas. As soon as we concentrate too much on it, we lose sight of the essentials. Our creative mind becomes stiff and stuck, but that will never work.

Original ideas don’t fall from the sky. We need to discover them. They arise through new connections, and we only find them once we let go and let our gaze jump and dance around them.

1 + 1 = 0

Humans are sensitive creatures when it comes to paying attention. In design, illustration, and especially advertising, the now hackneyed-sounding guideline “Less is more” applies. After twenty years of experience, I can agree with this, too, when conveying messages to the viewer fast and immediately.

Let’s take my Mindshot-series as an example. I don’t refer to the minimalistic, black-white-red drawing style, which is just an inevitable reflex to the attempt to visualize complex content in a concentrated way. It’s about the message.

After hundreds of illustrations and thousands of ideas and attempts, at some point, I was able to realize: the illustration collapses as soon as it is overloaded with information. So the challenge is removing as much information as possible while it still works. Like a chef who is preparing the poisonous blowfish, this sometimes requires meticulous dissection.

We see the principle every day in advertising. Effective advertising conveys one main piece of information.

A car ad cannot unfold all the benefits of the vehicle on an A4 page or in a 10-second commercial. It cannot show to the same extent how fast, environmentally friendly, safe, economical, exclusive, status-enhancing, and beautiful the car is.

Well-done advertising distills the product’s advantage and conveys it unambiguously. Otherwise, our brain pulls the handbrake on too much information and turns its attention to something else.

Do what you love and don’t spend money

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and yes, from my own experience, I can confirm that financial pressure can inspire creativity and productivity and drive us towards our goals. Many inventions in the history of mankind were born out of desperation and misery.

However, one of my goals is to enjoy life for as long as possible. The stress I feel from lack of money feels unhealthy. Unhealthy for my body and mind.

In addition, we always talk about creative freedom. But how can creativity be free if I depend on it to pay the rent this month?

Lack of money can make you inventive, but it also has the potential to lead us astray. It makes us accept commissions we don’t want on terms that aren’t ours. We begin to throw our principles overboard and, in the worst cases, lose the fire within us with which we started.

We need to protect our dream from these influences. Financial reserves are, therefore, so crucial for self-employed and freelancers. My finance accountant opened my eyes when he explained that most startups and freelancers don’t fail with their businesses because their products, service, or ideas are wrong or bad. They fail because of financial mismanagement (find more here).

A new car, the most expensive smartphone, or a bigger apartment are worthless if they sabotage our passion.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his terrific book “Keep going”:

“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.

“Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.