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?
Whether it’s an insurance company, a manufacturer of gasket rings, or a designer of handmade jewelry, when it comes to marketing, the topic of storytelling quickly comes up: “What story can we tell about our product or service?“ The answer is that we don’t need to find a story. We already have one: our own.
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.
Every one of us knows these questions and has certainly used them before. “Can you print that out for me real quick?”, “Will you take a short break with me?”, “Can you write him back just briefly?”. Whenever someone asks us to do something like that, we know it will never be quick, short, or brief. Both sides know that even writing a “short” email takes time and that printing something out can lead to complications, for example, when the printer cartridge is empty again.
But that is not all. “Do you have a second?” is a distraction vortex. If we are pulled out of our work, we lose our flow. Just as we lose momentum when a slow truck moves into the passing lane in front of us. We have to work our way back into it later, which takes time and energy. We always lose significantly more than “one second.”
In their well worth reading book “Make Time,” Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky write about how minor distractions create much larger holes in our day. They call these events time craters and explain how to prevent them and protect ourselves from them.
To have important emails quickly at hand later, we can include keywords that we can then enter into the search. For example, in price negotiations, we often send several versions of the offer until we have agreed on a fee and the rights of use with the customer. Keywords such as “clientname-finalestimate” help here. Other possibilities are “projectname–hiresfiles” if the print data has been sent or “database” if the contact is to be entered in the database later.
These keywords can stand below the signature in light gray or in white font if they should not be visible to the contact.
From my experience as an illustrator, most communication with clients is via email. And that’s a good thing. The written record, starting with the inquiry, the individual process steps, and the data transfer, gives both sides the necessary security for smooth cooperation.
It forces us to think in a structured way and quickly shows which points are still open or incorrect. Especially at the beginning, all basic conditions must be clearly formulated, such as illustration style, scope, rights of use, and deadline. Even before it goes into pricing, establishing these points is crucial for the client and us. They are our location coordinates to keep track of where we are and where we are going during our journey together.
Emails are our joint diary on this trip. A documentation of our collaboration. The client and the freelancer keep each other updated and agree on our next steps.
Phone calls and Zoom meetings are great for quickly exchanging information or discussing more complex issues. However, most misunderstandings and mistakes hide here. Discussed points are forgotten, and things are understood differently. That is simply human. Therefore, we take notes during every call and announce that we will send the customer a short email with the discussed points after the conversation. In it, we ask for a quick confirmation that everything has been recorded correctly.
We secure ourselves and our work steps. At the same time, we also give the customer security. This is so important for cooperation. He feels transparently kept up to date and can devote himself to other tasks with complete peace of mind.
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.
When we commit ourselves to doing something that will significantly change our lives, we automatically look for a safety hook. What if it doesn’t work out? Isn’t it comforting to know that we can always go back or have an alternative at hand so we don’t find ourselves destitute on the street?
When I decided to do illustration for a living, I had a plan B (more on that in a more detailed post). Even today, I think that plan B would have been a great success. The idea was good, the demand was high, the effort was manageable. For weeks, I worked on it, the product, the website, and the logo (all this while trying to get a foothold with my illustrations). But one crucial ingredient was missing, with which, however, everything stands and falls: passion.
It actually felt like work, unlike drawing and experimenting with colors and materials. So I deleted plan B from my life and was finally able to invest my gained time in plan A, the only plan that matters.
We feel fear precisely because something is important to us. Fear of the unknown is part of our journey. It has to be. After all, we’ve never been there before. Let’s set out without a safety rope, without a double bottom. Otherwise, we rob ourselves of this critical component on the way to our goal.
One student said that she always feels guilty when she tries to copy work from her role models and lacks the motivation to start. “It’s not even my work.”
My math teacher at school once said, “Go ahead and make your cheat sheets. Write down the formulas, the example calculations, and the solutions. Then before you enter the classroom, throw the slips of paper in the trash can.” She knew that something was already happening in our minds when we write things down, and more of the subject matter sticks.
It’s the same with creative work. Let’s copy, trace, and replicate our heroes’ work as many times as possible. Eventually, something magical happens. The more we copy, the more a secret ingredient gets mixed in: It’s ourselves. In the process of creating, it is impossible to prevent our personality, our view of the world, our interpretation, our handwriting, our attitude from flowing into the work.
There is also nothing wrong with sharing this work with people, as long as we include the source of inspiration. There is hardly a greater and more flattering compliment than reading “Illustration based and inspired by one of my favorite artists Sergio Ingravalle.”
Only when we copy work and put our name on it, it’s like slowly pulling the cheat sheet out of the pencil case during the exam and painfully straining our eyes.
On my 40th birthday, I resolved to publish a post here every workday. That was just three weeks ago now. Sometimes I’ve caught myself taking an excerpt from one of my existing texts and posting it. But that is not the point. It’s not about hitting the “publish” button for anyone or anything every day. It’s about writing something every day. Even if it’s just a short post like this one. When we write, we think. When we think, we organize, and in doing so, tomorrow often becomes more transparent and more manageable.
“Actually, I hardly have time,” I thought again today. But what are five minutes? I have watched at least 30 minutes of Youtube videos and news today. For this, I also had “actually” no time…
Sketching has many forms. For example, a product designer can visualize his idea through sketching. He slowly feels his way towards the project and can share and discuss the designs with others. The same is true for logo designers or illustrators when finding a suitable composition. So sketching is the first or preliminary stage of the process to realize something.
He is an artist, craftsman, and salesman in one, and all three “beings” feed on one essence: creativity.
The artist in him has learned to ignite the creative fire. However, the designer’s task is now to tame and focus on this fire. Only in this way can he aim laser-precisely at his customer’s problem and solve it.
The craftsman in him has the task of using skills to turn the inner world of the designer inside out. He is constantly improving his skills and looking for new possibilities to accomplish this. He experiments, changes, fails, frustrates, and keeps trying.
The salesman in him has the task of presenting the work of his two colleagues to the world. He looks for creative ways and opportunities to reach people who will benefit from the work.
A designer can only consist of these three beings. If he lacks even one, he is not a designer anymore. He transforms himself, for example, into a free and independent artist, an art dealer, or a master craftsman in his own business. However, all of them make a living from creativity, just as the designer does.
In the creative industry, the term graphic designer describes an all-rounder. His portfolio is full of different works from various fields. He designs logos, posters, brochures and offers illustrations and web design on the side. At first glance, the everyday life of a graphic designer is diverse and therefore exciting. He acts like a Swiss army knife. But something fundamental missing distinguishes him from an expert – a recognizable, individual signature in his work. Even if he masters his craft and reaches customers with his service, he dances on a razor’s edge. Because he doesn’t specialize in a niche, it’s difficult for him to develop his own style that would set him apart from his competition. He simply lacks the necessary time to do so.
In the post „Using time pressure as a motivational power-up“, I wrote that time pressure can be an excellent incentive to get a lot done in a short time. With the help of little tricks, we can also create this positive pressure consciously and literally fly over our to-do list.
For example, one day, I worked on my laptop in a coffee store when I realized I had forgotten the charging cable at home. I got annoyed with myself and started working. After a short while, I noticed that I had worked off more than usual. I was focused and didn’t waste a minute.
The battery indicator on my laptop was my hourglass. It drove me on like a boss standing behind my back, nagging me. But it was a positive pressure. I accomplished everything I set out to do and still had time for a coffee with friends afterward.
Since then, I’ve left the charging cable at home more often. If you have found such hacks that increase your productivity, please feel free to share them with me.