“We give you all the creative freedom.” If this is the client’s briefing, it sounds tempting at first. The client seems to have blind faith in us. After all, we can do and try whatever we want. We have the license to play. But actually, it means that sooner or later, we will inevitably lose control.
A game in which we can do whatever we want, without a clear goal, is not a game. We need guardrails. Basic rules that limit what we do and think. Only then can we focus our thoughts, dig deep, immerse ourselves in the task at hand and become truly creative. Too much freedom can be intimidating, superficial, and counterproductive.
A tight briefing is like a lighthouse on the open sea at night. How we get there is up to us, but the destination is always there for all to see.
So let’s accept the client’s constraints and rules to reach his goal. They are what ignite creativity.
A student said she doesn’t share her work and ideas on the Internet. She is worried that someone will use them elsewhere without her knowledge, even making money from them. We have only two options here:
A dream job does not only consist of dream tasks. The first step is to follow our passion in search of our calling. Once we find it, we quickly realize that our dream has a few catches. For example, writing invoices, maintaining the website, night shifts, stressful negotiations, and calls.
Project requests can also seem unspectacular and monotonous. “Why do I always get these boring jobs?” “I’ll get this one over with somehow now, and I’ll go full-throttle on the next one.” However, with this attitude, we sabotage our arduous journey to get here.
The only thing that matters is the work on our table here and now. Instead of condemning and devaluing it from the start, let’s dive into it and grow from it. This is the only way to keep the passion that got us here in the first place.
Rules, constraints, direction, templates, time pressure, or experience are guardrails of creativity. When we create something that is not bound by any conditions, such as a briefing or deadlines, it can quickly scare us… We are 100% responsible and accountable only to ourselves. Without some kind of primal trust, fighting this resistance is hard. We freeze instead of starting the journey and having an adventure.
I used to feel that the evening and night hours were when I was most creative and worked best. This is not the case.
Over the years, I’ve found that the time right after I get up is when I’m the most productive. I am concentrated, work faster, and hardly get distracted. I also find it easier to come up with ideas. The tank of thoughts is relatively empty in the morning. They don’t jump around yet.
As the day goes on, the tasks on the to-do list pop up and stick stubbornly because I still want to wash the car, write the bill and go grocery shopping.
Meanwhile, I put the most critical tasks in the first hour of the day. That means no meetings, appointments, and no social media, or news.
The first hour is sacred to me and belongs to me alone.
The search for my illustration style has been exciting, full of highlights, and at the same time, often tedious and frustrating. Because I wanted to reach clients, there were always thoughts like what might appeal to potential clients and what’s trending right now. So I tried my hand in different areas. But again and again, I hit a wall. I just didn’t enjoy the topics.
Without motivation and vision, I came across drawings I made as a teenager – a small A6 sketchbook. It was full of ink portraits of Hollywood stars and rappers. When I made these drawings, I wasn’t thinking about customers, the market, or my dream to make money with it. Nobody had paid me to draw this. It was my own drive. Maybe I’d better focus on that, I thought. I did, and it felt liberating.
When I think about advertising on the Internet and conversations with friends and strangers, it is strikingly often about the question: How do I get a lot of money quickly, without much effort? This is a legitimate, albeit risky, goal, as this incentive opens the doors to fraudsters and criminals.
10 years ago, I had the goal to earn a living with my illustrations. As I worked on it for months, searching for my style, I realized something at some point: no amount of money in the world would be able to help me do that. It wouldn’t have spared me the frustration I felt when drawing after drawing ended up in the trash can. Nor would it have made me realize that I’d be better off focusing on athletes and portraits, which I enjoyed the most. And finally, it couldn’t have given me the courage to publish my work on social media. That can only be done with the classic ingredient you can’t buy: Our passion.
In Singapore, I attended a design conference at a university. The host asked a successful creative director what advice he could share for young people and students looking for their own path. He replied, “Ignore the money. Focus on what you love and enjoy doing, and the money will follow you.”
Instead of asking ourselves what we need to do to become millionaires, what would I (continue to) do if I were already a millionaire today?
“You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.”
Chris Do (The Futur)
Business marketer Chris Do is talking here about how we have trouble seeing our own problems and the accompanying, most straightforward solutions. We can only see the world from our own point of view. People who give the most valuable advice often fail in their own lives. For the same reason, advertising and design agencies hire other agencies to develop their own corporate design. We are just too close.
I remember my classmate Laura. We were about 13 or 14 years old and sitting next to each other. While she was diligently taking notes in her notebook, I noticed something. Laura underlined headings and important points. Nothing unusual, actually. But the strokes were extraordinary: every single one was perfect. As if drawn with a ruler. No wobble, no quiver. They were all bolt upright.
I was amazed and asked her to draw several strokes in my notebook. She looked perplexed and drew several lines, one below the other. They looked like they were printed out even when I looked closely. Her friend on the other side had been listening and now noticed it too and said, “That’s right, they’re absolutely straight! Huh, how do you do that?”. It was fascinating.
But what surprised me the most was her reaction when I pointed it out. She was amazed at our enthusiasm, “Honestly?”. She had no idea of her gift. How could she not have known? Minutes later, as I turned back to my lesson, I saw Laura flipping through her notebook, examining her lines, and drawing more.
I don’t know what Laura is doing today. But somehow, I have the feeling that she still hadn’t forgotten that brief moment when she became aware of one of her talents. Just as I have not forgotten it.
When we recognize giftedness in people, we should let them know it. There’s a good chance they won’t have a clue about it, and who knows what direction their lives will take once they find out about it.
Sometimes we feel unmotivated, sluggish, and without energy. We all know this feeling. Yet we wanted to get so much done today. This mood can last for several days or even longer. The unpleasant thing is that we find it more and more challenging to get going each day. To get out of this hole, we can use a little trick that becomes easier the more often we use it: We consciously turn off our mind for a moment at the right time when we feel doubt and the nagging voice creeping up. For this moment, we leave all hindering thoughts outside.
When we decide to go our own way, in search of our vocation, we quickly realize that nothing and no one can take over anything for us. Perhaps a teacher can show us a shortcut, or compassionate fellow human beings can hand us a walking stick and offer us shelter. But we have to take every step. We have to face the uncertainty alone. It very much resembles times of grief or lovesickness. Not our mothers, not our friends, not all the money in the world can make it disappear. We are on our own. And that’s perfectly fine.
The first part was that the fear of the blank page can indicate being on the right path. It is important to us, so we should pursue it even more. Now we are talking about procrastination as a tool for quality.
Leonardo da Vinci was a genius in his art but a lousy freelancer. He was known for not meeting deadlines on commissioned work and even failing to complete much of it. It got to the point where his father had to do the condition negotiating, knowing how unreliable his son was at work.
But of course, he was never lazy. Doing nothing was as much a part of his creative process as the act of painting itself:
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work less, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”
Leonardo da Vinci
One day Leonardo da Vinci was discussing creativity with a dissatisfied client. He demanded that Leonardo stop taking breaks. But Leonardo replied that “sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate. Intuition needs nurturing.”
So doing nothing does not literally mean doing nothing. Ideas need time to take hold and mature. That’s why solutions or ideas often come to us during activities that have little to do with the task. The classic “aha” moment is while taking a shower or driving a car.
So we don’t always need to feel guilty when our bodies aren’t working. Our subconscious mind continues to do it. Without our action, however, it will never exist. We must be aware of this.
A tip when working with clients. Let’s not complicate the client’s life and our own unnecessarily. We need a buffer for schedule and fee for just this “doing nothing.”
Book Tip: Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography by Walter Isaacson
In 2003 I worked as a comic artist for an advertising agency. My boss at the time, Andrea, noticed that I was taking notes on my drawings during all our meetings and every brief feedback. She said this sentence, “The smart one writes it down, the dumb one remembers it,” which has remained in my memory. So often, we forget things. Yet we were so sure we would remember. Then we get annoyed when we have to ask the customer or teacher.
But taking notes is not only helpful in conversations with others. Without a notebook or sketchbook, a thinking mind is like a gold panning sieve with large holes. So many creative ideas, clever ideas, and ideal solutions slip through our fingers because we haven’t captured them at the moment. This can be recognized because long-forgotten thoughts jump at us when we browse our old notebooks.
On the other hand, we can also see it like Stephan King, who says: “A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around.” So maybe we just need the fat gold nuggets in the sieve after all? The fat fish in the pond?
Sure, the sooner the dishes or paying bills is done the better.
However, in the creative process, we often read about the burden of procrastination, the first stroke on the canvas. The first step is always the hardest, it is said.
But what does procrastination mean in creativity? It means to be afraid. Fear of our own failure. It means being afraid of disappointing ourselves when what we create doesn’t look, sound, or feel like we thought.
However, it also means that it is important to us. We want to do it well. We want to give it its due. Resistance knocks on the door whenever we care about something.
So as soon as the often frustrating state of procrastination and uncertainty arises, we can see it as our compass. We are on the right track.
As stressful as house moves usually are, there’s something very comforting about them. We can finally sort out the things we no longer need. Some decisions are easier than others. It looks more organized, and we feel relieved to have parted with things.
One of the most frequently asked questions by design students is “How do I find my own style?” The way to get there is by observing or absorbing our environment with all our senses. That’s why many teachers and professors insist on sketching regularly, capturing our environment. More about this here.
At the same time, we closely observe our reaction to it. What do we like, and especially why do we like it. Why can’t we get that book cover out of our heads? Why can’t we get enough of that song? What do we particularly like about this painting? Is it the colors, the motif, or the loose brushwork? By observing our inner emotional world, it is as if we are trying to taste the ingredients of our favorite dish.
Now comes the most crucial thing: action. Without the act of creating, we are stuck in this world. We hold on to our discoveries. But we need to make room for the next ones. So we start taking action. We draw, write, design, compose or build. We create. Only then are we open to new things again.
The intensive observation pays off because the gained “ingredients” slowly start to flow into our work. The more we produce, the more intensively we “taste” them, and the stronger our intuition becomes.