Where does creativity come from and what does “creative process” mean? These are questions I have been asked frequently and in this post I will share my perspective.
For people who do not consider themselves creative (for in my opinion, everyone is creative in some way but not everyone is connected to their creative side), creativity is a mystery, magic. Like the wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, they assume that you just pull a few levers and ‘poof’, out pops a brilliant creative thought.
Yes, innate talent does play a part in creative ability but it also plays a part in whether you are a good golfer, stockbroker or lawyer. My point is that creativity is no different — it’s not magic. Creativity, just like any other skill can be learned, nurtured, honed and refined.
So I’d like to impart some things I’ve learned about creativity that has been very valuable as a graphic designer, beginning with what I consider to be the most critical: a computer does not help you be creative.
Computers are great, don’t me wrong, but they are an instrument of a creative professional, NOT where one should look for creative ideas and inspiration. Just like a pencil or brush was the instrument of Leonardo Da Vinci creativity in the Renaissance, so is the computer merely an instrument for creative professionals today.
I would go even further to say that the computer not only doesn’t help you be creative, it can actually hinder truly creative thought. This may seem surprising to say in this digital age, especially from someone who uses a computer on a daily basis, but for me it is absolutely true.
“The horror of television, is that the information goes in, but we don’t react to it. It goes right into our memory pool and perhaps we react to it later but we don’t know what we’re reacting to. When you watch television you are training yourself not to react and so later on, you’re doing things without knowing why you’re doing them or where they came from.” — Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
When Jerry Mander wrote the above quote in the late 1970’s, he was referring to what he saw as the dangers of the digital medium, in this case: television. The computer is different than television, you are not just passively watching, but the effect of staring at a digital screen can be the same: deadening to the senses, numbing to the mind. What happens when one looks for creativity to come FROM the computer is that one is passive in the process, in other words, after playing with different buttons, filters, styles (which are so easy to do on a computer), you eventually arrive at something that ‘looks good’ but there no rationale for why. The end result has no strength, impact and looks like a thousand other ‘designs’ which were created as a result of pushing a button instead of from true creativity.
The key is that the “magic” part of creativity comes from free associating, tapping into randomness, combining things in an unexpected way. That’s hard to do when you have everything at your fingertips. Why think when you can just Google it? The computer allows are brains to be lazy and lazy brains are not creative.
When I need to come up with a creative concept, I do some brief research on the computer but then I get as far away as possible, in completely different environment, and with a pad and a pencil I observe everything around me and allow myself to write down whatever come into my mind. Below are some recommendations on how to connect with your creativity.
Tips Kickstart your Creativity
- Observe patterns and visual relationships — one of my favorite fiber artists is Kaffe Fassett who is a genius with color and is inspired by things he finds in every day life
- Look @ fine art, handicrafts and anything else you find beautiful or visually interesting
- Spend time in nature
- Talk with young children — their minds are open and they free-associate naturally
- Read poetry or philosophy
- Focus on shifting your perception
In one of my favorite books of all time, Camera Lucida, author Roland Barthes talks about what is the true “reality” of a photograph. I found the book very provocative because the a an unmanipulated photograph is considered by many to be a document of what is real. However, the question is, what is the definition of real? Barthes describes a photograph of his mother which to him, doesn’t communicate anything about what his mother represented to him. Whereas another photograph, of a woman who is not his mother communicates a quality about her that he identifies with. So which is the real photograph? This is an example of shifting perception.
Once you have shifted your perception / begun to think ‘out of the box’ / tapped into the creative magic, the ideas should start flowing. Like a brainstorming session, don’t eliminate anything in the beginning and once you have enough ideas, slowly edit down. When you have a few well developed concepts, then go to the computer to execute them. But, remember, the computer is just a tool, not a magic box, and great design will not just spew out of it — it needs to be fashioned with the same care as the Renaissance artists toiled over their masterpieces.
The computer is not be your source of inspiration, but it is a fabulous tool for producing the final form of your design. However, here are some things to keep in mind.
10 Rules for Designing with the Computer
- A computer is a tool not a designer — just like a brush doesn’t create the painting without the artist, don’t expect it to do the work for you
- Less is more — just because you can doesn’t mean you should
- Use with caution: gradients, bevels, drop shadows, animation
- Don’t make everything 3D — flat graphics are still good
- Practice with all the filters/bells & whistles once and then only use when really needed
- Strive for image through form and concept, with simple rendering, versus “wow” digital graphics
- Don’t start ‘designing’ on the computer without a clear concept and sketch
- Just because it’s looks cool doesn’t make it good design
- Design for the final medium — print, web, video — versus just the medium you are designing with
- Know your formats: TIFF, JPG, EPS, CMYK, RGB and design appropriately
Two moments I remember when I was completing my education in Maine College of Art, which impacted my creative process profoundly. I majored in Graphic Design and Photography:
When I was in my 3rd year as Photography major, I was so excited to take my first course in color photography. The first two years were only black and white photography. So the first assignment in the class was to “photograph colors you like.” I was so excited because color is one of my favorite subjects. So I went overboard and took tons of pictures and hung them all up with everyone else’s for review by the teacher. And he said… “Ok, now that you have gotten that out of your system, don’t do that again.” and when on to talk about how color should be used as another element in the communication of the image. Point taken!
- During the summer of 1992, I attended the Maine Summer Institute of Graphic Design which consisted of 3 workshops with 3 different international designers. In my workshop with Rudolph De Harak he banned the use of the computer in the project and I remember that I struggled with the execution of the design using manual cut and paste. Mr. De Harak came by my desk at one point and was appalled at the messy scraps of paper and the ink stains. He ordered me to scrub my desk before I could continue working (and I must add there was a time limit on the project). Another teacher said that he was being too harsh, that I would not have these problems if I was designing on the computer and he replied “She needs to learn good work habits. A serious designer treats their space with respect and care — a computer won’t change that.” Very true.
So use all the tools available to create with but don’t expect inspiration to be available at a push of button. Surround yourself with beauty, challenge yourself on a daily basis, and stay open.
— Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
— Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
— Finnegans Wake
— Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
— On Photography
— The Lens of Perception: A User’s Guide to Higher Consciousness