Despite its elusive façade, creativity likes structure. You can’t always wait around for creativity to stop by, so take a disciplined approach to solving creative problems.
Creativity is personal; everyone has his or her own use and interpretation. Once you find out exactly what creativity means to you, develop a creative process for your needs and working style.
Learn from the creative habits and advice of these four visual content creators to manage the right side of your brain:
Sarah grew up aspiring to be an artist, but quickly fell in love with advertising in college. She honed her software skills and earned an MFA in Graphic Design. Out of school, Sarah started as a designer at an in-house agency, later joining Allen & Gerritsen as a freelance illustrator that turned into a studio position. Aside from her studio responsibilities, she also has regular opportunities to act as an art director. Take a look at her latest projects and Behance site.
Angela is currently a graphic designer at Teak, a branding studio in San Francisco. Previously, she was an in-house communications designer at Chronicle Books. Angela began her career working in account management, but quickly realized she needed to do something more creative. She was advised to go to art school to make the switch, but instead she kept doing side projects to learn design programs and found internships that helped build her portfolio.
Christina recently began working at DigitasLBi as a Lead Experience Designer, a role that is quickly becoming her dream job. In this position, she provides UX consultation on a variety of projects and clients. Previously, Christina was a UX designer at Pearson Education for over six years. She started her design career taking on various freelance gigs for a variety of content formats, including Flash ads and print designs. Check out her painting and design work for a sense of her aesthetic.
Chris specializes in video and motion graphics. He currently makes videos for the Web as a producer on MathWorks’s in-house creative team. With previous agency and freelance experience, he has been a food photographer, logo designer, interviewer, copy editor, email marketer, talent wrangler, pool shark, and soccer mom.
Sarah: “Before I begin any research on a new project, I jot down my first, most candid ideas. I often begin with the obvious solutions, since, at this stage, no idea is a bad idea. Once I get those out of the way, I can start to think more creatively. Since I’m a visual person, these often manifest as sketches. Next I’ll research what has already been done in the category so I don’t copy something (my biggest fear!). This process often inspires new ideas and by then I’m usually in a good place.”
Angela: “I usually write down my main idea and keywords that I need to keep in mind for the project. Then, I look up visuals related to a direction I’m working toward and turn them into a mood board. I find it helpful to just do a real test if time and budget permits. For example, there was an ad idea to use a baseball to make a plate of food. I had to physically try this to see if it would work because there wasn’t a source of imagery to look up. I had to adopt the mind-set of a little kid playing kitchen and see how far I could push my imagination in making food out of deconstructed baseball material.”
Christina: “Often times, I get an idea for what the experience could be just by hearing the project name or reading a short description. Even though I know I should read all the requirements and review all the documentation, I usually start sketching and wire-framing my ideas before reading anything. It’s important to get in touch with what I envision for the product first, and keep something that’s 100 percent me in the back of my mind that I can always refer back to if the project gets either pared down or goes through multiple rounds of revisions.
If I feel blocked or jaded after a project has evolved in a direction I’m not crazy about, I come back to those ‘100 percent me’ sketches. Seeing the original germ of inspiration documented fresh reminds of why I do what I do, to keep me from losing sight of who I am as a designer.
With Adobe Fireworks soon being retired, I’ve been learning a lot of new tools lately, primarily using Sketch with InVision. I use Pinterest to gather references, and I use Feedly to stay up with industry news.”
Chris: “I take a question-based approach to my work, starting with the big questions and gradually getting more granular from there. Sometimes, if a brand isn’t well-established, there are some very ‘big picture’ questions that need to be asked. And for brands that already have a strong identity, it can be a good exercise to revisit these kinds of questions—even if the answers seem obvious—to help guide the discussion of the smaller questions and decisions at the project level. If you find that you can’t answer some simple questions like ‘Why do this?’ or ‘Who cares?’ you know you still have work to do in the planning phase of a project.”
Sarah: “My favorite source of inspiration is Communication Arts. The underlying concepts in there are so fresh that sometimes a package design will inspire a video animation. If it’s a logo design project, then I also love poring through the website, Logopond.com.”
Angela: “Inspiration is so much easier to find with social media now. Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, and Instagram are some of my favorite places to search. Specific types of work are so readily accessible; you can find packaging design, illustration styles, color palettes, etc. I also think it’s important to take breaks for unrelated activities—inspiration comes from keeping many different parts of your brain active.”
Christina: “I actually find a lot of inspiration in things non-UX related, such as industrial design, interior design, fashion, and architecture. Maya Lin is one of my favorite artists for her efficiency and grace. I enjoy minimalist art for its peacefulness and subtlety. I majored in painting at Boston University, so I often go back to art and art history; going back to my roots reminds me why I chose a creative field.
Architecture is a good one. There’s a certain ingenuity in great architecture and how it transcends the page on which it started, much like UX and Web development. We’re crafting an entity from our ideas that must house productivity and industry. It must keep businesses ‘safe.’ Good UX, just like a well-designed building or home, must be organized and sustainable. The difference being great architecture isn’t redone every year or two; it must last many decades, possibly centuries.”
Chris: “I think inspiration can be somewhat tricky. Since you never know where you might find it, it can sometimes feel fruitless to search. My philosophy is that it’s best to always keep your eyes open, because inspiration can come from mundane places. I also try to keep an eye out for people in my industry who seem to be doing things that are slightly against the grain or who don’t follow the ‘rules’ of content creation.”
Sarah: “I stop working, get up, and do something else. When I can’t think of an idea I tend to get frustrated and impatient. Going for a run, petting my cats, or flipping though an interior design magazine usually does the trick. I just have to distract myself from the frustration to get in a mind-set conducive to creativity again.”
Angela: “Play! Try something completely different. Make ridiculous things. Go for the most outrageous execution you can think of. Sometimes you have to see what doesn’t work before you know what does.
Often, I find myself stuck trying to refine an established idea. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to kill your idea—despite the effort you put into it—and just start fresh again.”
Christina: “Also here, I like to do something totally different, like taking a look at different kinds of design—any art form that’s not UX. I love the challenge of cooking healthy, delicious meals, so I go to the grocery store, admire all the colors, designs, and fresh foods. I like to think of something new to cook, some new ingredient I’ve never used. If I don’t have much time while at work, at the very least I like to take a walk and get some fresh air. Not only does getting away from the screen help your eyes, but also the experience of having more space around you and not being so claustrophobic, surrounded by walls and devices, is helpful for resetting and clearing one’s mind.”
Chris: “Forcing through a creative block does not work for me. I try to step away and find ways to refresh my eyes and my mind: chat up some coworkers, go for a walk, anything to avoid being in front of the screen for a little while. Putting things away and coming back fresh always seems to work.”
Sarah: “Think back to a project you were under the gun with a deadline for. Without the luxury of time, you probably streamlined your creative process and took only the steps that would help you create something quickly. There probably wasn’t an extensive exploration stage or any mindless browsing. In my experience, it was this first half of my process that was essentially procrastination. My advice is to give yourself time constraints. You might be surprised by how much more productive you are.”
Angela: “Keep making stuff. Push yourself to create a ton of work. Enjoy what you make along the way, even if what you make sucks. Know that you are learning as you go. There isn’t one foolproof process that will always work, so it’s important to remember certain methods that worked in certain situations. A group of designers and I actually started doing exercises from the Conditional Design Workbook that focuses on processes rather than final products. We’ve recorded some of our work on this Process Plus blog. I think it’s a good way to approach creative work and free your mind to think more playfully.”
Christina: “Don’t deny who you are, and be honest with yourself about what inspires you. What’s scary is the thought that it might turn out to be knitting, or boxing, or aerobics, or math—something we don’t expect. Creatives are extremely lucky, as we can be honest about what gets creativity flowing and can usually incorporate those habits into our jobs.
Virtually all of us have to maintain a full-time job to live. We can’t all just up and quit. Therefore, we have to incorporate the little things that make us happy into our jobs in order to truly be fulfilled. In other words, when you’re blocked, or need to get in touch with what you would do on a project, take a break and knit, box, do some lunges, or crack open an old math book.
Don’t separate your creative work from life. This is an unpopular idea, as we all strive for a healthy work/life balance. But what I mean is, don’t fight the fact that you have to have a job. Don’t just live for the weekend or evenings when you can do ‘what you really want to do.’ We are lucky as creatives that we can blend the creative non-work habits that make us happy into our work projects that make us money.”
Chris: “My advice for fellow creatives is to understand that while it’s great to learn from others, it’s important to learn from yourself, too. Know what works best for your own creativity, and don’t create unrealistic expectations for yourself just because you heard that there’s a so-called ‘right’ way to do things. Feel free to experiment with crazy methods if they fit your personality and lifestyle.”
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