Working at Creativity

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Can creativity be cultivated?
Albert Einstein is not remembered for his graphic design, but he was responsible for an abundance of creative new ideas in the field of physics. Not all creativity is visual. Or musical. Or literary. Every area of human endeavor has the potential for creativity. Read what Einstein said about solving creative problems: “As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you are patient, there may come that moment when, while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am!’”

To be sure, it is wonderful to have an inspired idea occur to you. It feels like magic. And if the idea really was inspired, it can work like magic, too.

How do those moments happen? I don’t know. But I do know how to encourage them to happen more often.

One way is to get engaged, really, deeply invested in your creative project as early as you can. Puzzle over the issue. Be hard on yourself, and don’t settle for a mediocre solution.

Then put the problem aside. Let your subconscious work on it for a while. Come back to it and slave on it again. Then put it aside again or sleep on it. I can’t tell you how often a beautiful solution has presented itself to me in a dream or when working on something completely different. The answer just percolates to the surface unbidden, as Einstein suggested. Most often, such inspirations really do work well.

But if you are a procrastinator, someone who gets to a job at the last possible moment, you can forget about “percolation time.” To summon that kind of help, you have to get the subconscious truly engaged. Once that has been done, your subconscious will work on your issue while you turn your conscious attention to something else. The key is that you have to give your subconscious time. If you don’t, it doesn’t have a chance to come up with those breakthroughs.

You might think that Einstein was saying that you can’t influence the process of getting inspiration, but if you know anything about how he worked, you will see that he was advocating the method I’ve just explained.

Here’s another key principle: don’t simply sit and wait for inspiration to strike. Leonardo da Vinci said: “It has long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Why do I bring this up?

Because those who fail to be proactive are artistic dilettantes, dabblers, pretenders.

Chuck Close is a celebrated photographic-realist painter. He was born with prosopagnosia, a brain defect that leaves him unable to recognize faces. Paradoxically, he made a successful career painting giant, ultra-realistic portraits. In 1988, he suffered a spinal artery collapse that left him almost totally paralyzed. Most people would have given up painting at that point, but he did not. Since then, he has continued to create giant portraits. Because his finer motor skills have been ruined by the paralysis, he breaks his portraits into large, multicolored boxes, each presenting an overall color.

Chuck Close’s triumph over such obstacles lends weight to his famous quote: “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Some people imagine that creativity is a mystical phenomenon that can’t be promoted or consciously influenced. I beg to differ (and apparently, so do Einstein, da Vinci and Chuck Close).

By your actions you can summon the muse. How do you increase the “eureka! moments”? One way is to stimulate as much of your brain as possible.

Working The System
The system I have already explained does exactly this. In relation to corporate identity design, we could make a checklist like this:
• Interview your clients.
• Discover specifically what they do
• Learn how they differ from their competitors
• Consider how their product or service might be represented simply
• Find out what their product or service does for their customers
• Discuss the ideals that they want associated with their company
• Discover what associations they most want to avoid
• Look up the meanings of their names (if any)

Sketch at least two concepts for each of the following combinations:
• Wordmarks showing corporate activity
• Monograms showing corporate activity
• Logos showing corporate activity
• Wordmarks with corporate ideals
• Monograms with corporate ideals
• Logos with corporate ideals
• Wordmarks showing the corporate name
• Monogram showing the corporate name
• Logos showing the corporate name
• Wordmarks using an abstract approach
• Monograms using an abstract approach
• Logos using an abstract approach
(This should give you a minimum of twenty-four concept sketches.)

Consider how each concept might be rendered with each of these visual processing techniques (even the weak, lame, stupid concepts):
• Meaningful Containment
• Planar or Silhouette
• Fragmentation
• Unique Coincidence
• Linear Treatment
• Ligatures and Flourishes
• Negative Shapes
• Essence
• System of Shapes
• Sculpted Type

Before executing any final designs, ensure that all seven deadly sins of logo design are avoided:
• Can’t work in solid black
• Lack of mass
• Obscure contrast
• Wayward or disharmonious parts
• Overlapping elements
• Unrefined shapes
• Tiny elements, thin lines

Can you even imagine that this process won’t produce results superior to whatever haphazard method you could otherwise employ?

This method works.

But there’s one catch:

YOU have to work at it.

No One Wants to be a Wannabe
Recently I was listening to a podcast in which a woman had given a lecture on book publicity (a subject on which she was an expert) to a group of self-publishers. After the lecture, a lawyer asked how he might get publicity for his book. The woman was taken aback, because that was precisely the subject of her whole lecture: pre-publication reviews, ongoing reviews in all the media, radio interviews, book distribution and so on. She tried to recap these principles for the lawyer, but he brushed her explanation aside and again asked the same question. Apparently the lawyer thought that, because he was established in his own profession, he somehow could jump the queue in the business of publishing.

To me, that’s what a wannabe is: someone who thinks he or she can arrive at the top of the mountain without climbing it. The helicopter ride to the summit may work for rich ski bums on physical mountains, but not in the real world in any career. Wannabes are amateur dabblers who won’t submit to the discipline of the art form, but still think they can make it as professionals.

Wannabes are different from hobbyists who are practicing an art for their own enjoyment. They are also different from beginners who are committed to learning their craft. Every proficient designer was once a fledgling, even an “aspiring designer.” There is no shame in that.

On the other hand, wannabes are guilty of the pride that makes them feel that they are special and are somehow exempt from the law of “paying your dues.”

Equally absurd are those who think they have nothing to learn. I fully expect to learn many things from you, dear reader, by sharing this blog. If I didn’t, I’d assume I already knew it all. And I don’t. But I have learned a few things, and I think others would like to learn them, too. Or at least consider them.

One of the differences between pursuing graphic design and working at another trade like plumbing is that we will never know it all. That, indeed, can be one of the joys of our profession—why it never gets old. So we are all learning, no matter at what stage we are in our career. And if we are legitimately always improving our craft, then we don’t deserve the label of wannabe.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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