It’s introspective, hopefully inspiring, but probably weird and discomforting Technocamp time, so hold on to your panties.
I should start by saying that this is just based off of my experience; many of you will have different experiences, and that’s okay. All that matters is that we respect one another, and that you and I are totally comfortable with you being wrong.
One of the many challenges I’ve become familiar with when working with an amazing rad agency is that we have incredible, high profile clients who have high standards and strict boundaries when it comes to working with their brand. It can be easy, creatively, to get stuck in a rut once you’ve become familiar with these brands. You start working off of a “formula” that you know will please your client’s watchful eye; you know what they like and you can make it for them quickly and efficiently. While this may work well initially, eventually you end up not really making anything new; you’re just repeating your same formulaic solutions to the same “problem” that’s being presented to you.
“We were working with a client that had hired a behavioral psychologist from Cornell University to help evaluate to what degree their competitors were victims of “heuristic bias.” I had never heard this term before. It simply means that people are victims of learned biases or orthodoxies. As we develop, we learn things that become ingrained patterns of behavior. These synaptic connections allow us to survive in the world and make quick and efficient decisions.
For example, a useful heuristic bias develops from learning that swimming with great white sharks can be a tragic mistake: a dorsal fin next to you while surfing = get away fast. However, this same useful bias can also lead to poor decisions. If a shark attack off the coast of California is widely reported in the national news, people will stay out of the water in New Jersey even though the statistical probability of an east coast event has not increased due to a happening 3,000 miles away.
(Insert image of light bulb going off here.)
I realized that I was an idiot. Even though I thought I was a good designer, generating copious creative ideas at will, I was actually severely limited by my built-in biases. My brain was automatically short-cutting to solutions for my work without exploring the range of possibilities available, one of which could be brilliantly unexpected and effective.
I learn how to “think wrong.” Some people are natural wrong thinkers. They short-circuit normal biases without breaking a sweat. Picasso, Fellini, Phillipe Stark and Stefan Sagmeister are examples… damn them.
The rest of us need to work hard to get our minds to break out of predictable patterns.
The bad news is that doing this is really tough. How tough? Try talking “wrong,” out loud right now. Link words in a nonsensical sequence meaning absolutely nothing. It’s probably possible but I can’t do it.
The good news is just knowing that thinking wrong can be a useful way to generate alternative ideas is an advantage in itself.”
The following are just some tips that I’ve researched, found, tried, and have been working with lately to try and keep my work fresh, interesting, and challenging. Some of them have been pretty successful, and other’s haven’t; I’ve given my thoughts on each, and you can try them yourself and see if any work for you. They could also all be bollucks, as well.
• Being “creative” and being “focused” are actually not the same thing.
Creativity is a process and not a talent. I’ve found that when I relax, and actually let my attention settle on something not quite, but maybe similar to what I need to come up with an idea for, things start spilling into my head. Concepting for a certain type of game? Play games similar to it on the clients website, all the while letting your head relax a bit and passively work in the background. It feels counterproductive, because you’re not grinding away at the concept doc like a robot, but being in this state allows ideas to move in and out of your head freely without you passing judgement on them. Some of your ideas will be crap, but a few will be noteworthy, and you’ll probably get there faster than if you try to force them out.
•Be as collaborative as possible.
There are ups and downs to this. The ups are, if you’re relaxed and honest with each other, you can actually create a collaborative idea that’s better than anything that you would have made alone. If you’re stiff and anxious about the other person judging your ideas, and instead of saying what your real ideas are you spill out the half-interesting-but-safe blobs of thought that you think won’t offend anyone, this tip is useless. So really, this tip is actually, “Either word vomit to other people who’ll bounce stuff back at you, or else brainstorm by yourself where you can at least be honest.”
• Listen to music to find a way into your work. Music is incredibly evocative: find the right piece that reflects your idea or your work, and you’re halfway there. Listen to a song enough times, and it provokes a Pavlovian response that helps you get back to the place you’re working at.
If you lose focus every time you get up to pee/get coffee/get lunch/walk to Jesse/Brandon’s desk, then this may be a good thing to try. Having something in your headphones that you’ve set aside as “time to work now” music has helped me sink down back into work more times than not. The only thing that works better than this is arguing about what music is playing over the speakers via email.
• Get an alarm with a long snooze function and set it early. Shallow-sleep dreams have been the source of many of my best ideas (sadly, small children are no respecters of prospective genius).
I do this anyway, and have actually solved some creative problems an hour before I’m supposed to come into work and present them by trying this. The solution wasn’t always immediately accepted, but the point is my brain stopped floundering like a crazed fish and finally spit something out.
• The best ideas are tested by their peaks and troughs. One truly great image or scene astride a broken mess is more intriguing than a hundred well-made cliches.
I’ve found this to be sometimes true for commercial work, and again, it depends on the client. Sometimes someone can see the potential in something that has one brilliant underlying concept but seems to stall a little in execution because it’s new and exciting and uncomfortable at the same time. Sometimes the well-made, safe concepts are what a client is looking for, and they don’t want anything too off course. So my conclusion is that, it’s good to have both. Be both Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.
• Once you have an idea, scrutinise the precedent. If no one has explored it before in any form then you’re 99% likely to be making a mistake. But that 1% risk is why we do it.
Sometimes playing with something you’ve never seen before just means that it’s been tried and doesn’t work, and you’re the 1 millionth moron who’s testing it out, thinking that you’re being incredibly original. But, in that mistake, I’ve usually figured out something else that DID work, and the end result wasn’t the first thing that I would have designed. Which is the whole point.
• An idea is just a map. The ultimate landscape is only discovered when it’s under foot, so don’t get too bogged down in its validity.
Our ideas are precious, but they really shouldn’t be, because once we spit them out, they’ll change. They have to. Raw ideas are like raw ore; not particularly useful in the original form, but full of potential. Once I realized this, I kind of got over myself and let it happen.
• Don’t forget to have a life.
This one seems to be the hardest for career-oriented ambitious agency types to swallow, but I always reference Jimm Lasser’s article “Be a Two Headed Monster” (also found in Never Sleep.) What you bring to the table besides your technical proficiency are the things outside of your work that make your work interesting. This second, non-work “head” gives you dynamic problem solving skills and methods of approaching a challenge that may not be available to other people who don’t live your life and know what you know about race cars, skateboarding, dancing, or skiing. That stuff is important. If you have a life, don’t forget about it. If you don’t, get one, and stop being boring.
It’s hard to be risky in a commercial environment, where ultimately your work is for a client. That being said, it’s also possible to play it too safe and lose any confidence in your creative abilities that way, as well. It’s a fine balance to walk, but you’re all rock stars, and you can manage it.
If anyone has other inspiring tidbits, send them to me and I can amend this post with your own personal creative habits, so that everyone can try them out.
I’ll finish with something that’s hopefully inspiring. It was for me.