My creative process…

needs serious help.

I’ve had a 30×40 blank canvas sitting at a friend’s apartment since last summer. Whenever I come over I walk into that room and it stares back at me, taunting me with its blank vacancy. If anyone is afraid of a blank page it’s me.

But “afraid” isn’t exactly the world I’m looking for. It doesn’t quite capture the conflict of emotions I face when assigned a new project that requires some level of creativity. One would think, well isn’t that supposed to be fun? It is, but it’s also stressful for someone like myself. Something I’ve discovered about myself just in the last year, is that when faced with a blank page the following happens:

EXCITEMENT! -> burst of inspiration -> brainstorming and lingering on seemingly good ideas -> blankness for days or weeks -> anxiety -> S.O.S.

During the first three stages I’m on top of the world, anticipating a challenge, equipped to creatively solve a problem, and most of all, ready to show others what I’m capable of doing. Then it just stops. Once I reach the hour when all of my ideas must be structured into some coherent, tangible form, I draw a blank and the fear settles in. It is so frustrating, mainly because I have proven to myself time and time again that what I finally output is usually something to be proud of.

So what do I do? Let it sit, especially if I have the time. I’m not admitting this because it’s a good thing. It’s something I am working on for the sake of my work and sanity. I have a few personal mechanisms I have tried this year when pursuing challenging creative tasks.

To explain these mechanisms and my general creative process, I’ll take you on my journey as a new graphic design student. This semester I was tasked with designing a logo, stationery set, brochure, website, poster, and brief promotional clip for an education consulting company. It might not seem like a lot, but for someone new to this stuff it is. I initially began doing what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching,” which is essentially seeking out ideas in any way that works best for you. I began by thinking of every word or phrase I could think of that related to this company.

Passion, learning, relationships, team-building, children, growth, etc.

From there I picked out some of my favorite words and simply googled them followed by “symbols.” I.e. educational symbols. I do this because it keeps me from looking directly at other company logos and provides breathing room to coordinate all the images I see in a way that is unique to my taste. Then it’s straight to the sketch book – pen, paper, and too many thoughts. Sketching is my favorite method because I’m still very new to Adobe programs and am therefore much slower at making ideas come alive directly on the computer. The final product never ends up being exactly what I draw out, but it sure does give me a great starting point.

Naturally, things don’t always go our way. Design can be so frustrating and terribly discouraging when nothing you do seems to look even half good. That’s when I stop. It gets exhausting looking at the same thing for hours on end. The more you stare at the screen, the harder it gets. I promise it’ll still be on the USB if you walk away. Guilty as charged, sometimes my walking away constitutes a full day or even days. If there is not time, I simply go outside. I’m not really looking for shapes or inspiration, I’m seriously just getting fresh air and resting my eyes and mind. I also just love the outdoors. Another thing I love to do, which happens to help in creative funks, is talk to people. I love getting another person’s opinion, particularly someone who is completely unrelated to the project at hand. It’s my means of getting an outsider’s perspective. I constantly remind myself that this may look totally different to someone who hasn’t looked at it all week.

The reality is, funks don’t last forever. Maybe not the best explanation, but when deadlines start creeping up, something in me clicks and I get it done. And I know I’m not settling for less because I’m annoyingly nitpicky about doing the absolute best job I can do (and then days later realizing I could’ve done something even better). But I know things won’t always click, and that is why my creative process is something I would like to add some kind of structure to. So that I always have some mechanism guiding me back to the path, helping me to be successful in future creative pursuits.

Briefly

If you’re interested in planning or are simply curious in how ideas become tangible results, you should watch this brief documentary on Vimeo.

What I loved most about this documentary is not only its short length, but that it reaches beyond creative briefs within advertising agencies. There are book illustrators, architectural designers, and creators of all kinds that are receivers of creative briefs. I didn’t actually realize briefs were applicable beyond ad agencies.

The creative brief has a number of important duties, the most important of which is inspiring the people who have been tasked with solving the problem. A brief should be a thought-starter. It should be concise and constrained to a particular fixed medium, while simultaneously providing breathing space for Creatives. “A brief has to leave a lot of room. You have to be given a lot of runway, a lot of runway so you can take off,” President at GX John C Jay explained. This truly highlights the role of the brief as something that will continue to change as time goes on. The more brainstorming that is done and the more conversations that are had, the more the brief will transform. The reality is, creative briefs are meant to be challenged and changed.

I was particularly intrigued by Illustrator Maira Kalman’s take on the creative brief as something that has somewhat of a dual identity. “The nice thing about the brief in my world is that it’s both extremely pragmatic and concrete […] and then the brief is fantastically elusive and completely romantic,” she said. It is both a limitation and an invitation.

One thing that stuck with me from this documentary is that the term “Creative Brief” is in a sense contradictory of what a brief truly is. A brief is the establishment of a relationship between creators and clients, and this relationship is one that is intended to be far from brief. Relationships build trust and confidence, which in turn gets things going the right direction. Briefs don’t serve the purpose of ordering Creatives what to do and how to do it. Rather, they explore where clients want to go, what they dream of, and what their vision is – that goes much deeper than a request for an ad. “We say no to clients that come to us wanting a campaign. We say yes to the ones that are really great, have exciting problems and opportunities, and want a long term relationship,” CEO of 72andSunny John Boiler said. No matter how much this concept of building relationships is drilled into my head, I will always believe it makes the process that much more enjoyable, meaningful, and efficient.

On a final note, I learned a great deal from the discussion on the role of truth. Not every creative brief hits a home run on solving the problem. As Jay explained, if it’s not true then just stop. “You always have to be protected by truth. You’re naked without the truth; there’s nothing left. Cut the marketing bullshit and get to the truth, and then we can go from there,” he said. A brief forces you to question everything and to ask why you are being asked to do anything at all. “It starts with why and it just keeps why-ing the hell out of you endlessly,” Frank Gehry, founder of Gehry Partner said. It requires a deeper understanding of how people live with their products and what role culture has in the life of the consumer. It’s “letting the process of being alive inform what I’m going to do,” Kalman noted.

So with all of this in mind… I will proceed to make my first creative brief for a project next Monday. Wish me luck.