Embracing The Process v. The Product of Creative Expression

3 min read

One of the hardest parts of working for yourself is managing your time. Especially if you’re in the business of helping to manage web content that is goal-oriented and likely to produce positive results.

Pitching work as packaged deliverables with deadlines is a skill. It requires organization, foresight, planning, experience and discipline. You’ve got to communicate the deliverables and the deadlines clearly, and ensure you meet them. If the project involves other team members, this also includes follow ups and budgeting for the kind of “stuff” that “happens” and slows projects down. Toss on top of that things like staying on top of industry news, learning new tools to improve your work, networking, sales calls. Prioritizing and reprioritizing. Maintaining your online presence. Updating your portfolio with new work.

Creating work to pay the bills

To produce impactful digital content takes time. It takes thought and planning. Research and analysis. Creativity is the key ingredient and good creative requires direction, purpose or constraints. Creative briefs are great for this, but you may be the one responsible for creating those as well, depending on project resources.

Self-imposed structure is hard to enforce. You’ve got to stick to the schedule you created. Be realistic about commitments. Communicate with clients and friends in a purposeful yet positive manner.

Creating work for personal expression

When getting paid to produce creative work, it’s often necessary to separate your ego from the work to move projects along. But it leaves you feeling in need of a creative outlet elsewhere – and who has time for that? If you’re going to invest on creating something it better be worth it, because time is money…right? As a self-employed creative, making time for personal creative expression can feel like an irresponsible squandering of your most valuable resource.

Solution: Process v. Product

Show Your Work” is a practical approach by Austin Kleon for putting creative work out there – which in today’s world means putting it online. Sharing influences, inspiration, rough sketches, etc. It’s about embracing the “process” as part of the work.

Show Your Work, Austin Kleon

“The only way to find your voice is to use it,” says Kleon.

The same advice is found in “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron – the Bible of unleashing creativity and transforming potential into practice. Cameron says to enhance the quality of the work once must first increase the quantity. To create better work – you’ve got to create more of it. Kleon’s book focuses on placing one’s work into the public domain. This sets a process in motion, as you’re more likely to get discovered by those who share your interests, which can inspire more work.

So, starting today I’m taking this advice to heart by implementing a routine in which I sit down and write for 25 minutes, first thing in the morning, every day of the week. Even before I take my dog out. (She values creative expression, and is a creature of habit so I’m confident if I stick to this routine she’ll get used to Mommy sitting at the desk for a bit before we go downstairs. I think she’d agree that Mommy needs to find her voice on this damn blog once and for all.)

Day 1: Check!

#showyourwork

Book Review: “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman

Brand Thinking is a collection of interviews conducted by Debbie Millman, veteran brand consultant, host of the podcast series Design Matters and co-founder of the Master’s in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The book explores what branding means as a concept and a profession through a series of interviews with industry leaders in advertising, marketing, design, business strategy and anthropology.

Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman

I found the first half of the book to be much more enlightening and inspiring than the latter half, but this is probably just because many of the core themes were revisited across several interviews. (Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell’s interview was last, which involved a discussion as to why he doesn’t use the term “brand” in books that explore that very concept. He also points out the fairly obvious yet simultaneously enlightening — classic Gladwell — by stating our love of social media speaks to our biological need to connect to others by communicating our thoughts.)

I highlighted and underlined a lot of this book. Below are a few of my favorite tidbits and quotes pulled from what were the most memorable interviews for me:

Brian Collins – Discussed branding as a source of connection with others, and introduced the concept of “archetypal” brands and Jungian psychology which led me down a serious rabbit hole from which I hope I never emerge…For example, Apple plays the role of the rebel, offering consumers a way to assert their individuality or “coolness” without explicitly stating this (“the art that conceals the art” as Virginia Postrel puts it). Apple is the proverbial “Eve” – a temptress, a seductress, a rebel. By choosing Apple, we gravitate toward this cultural concept known as an “archtype” with which we are all familiar.

Wally Olins – Stresses the importance in possessing a combination of strategic and design capabilities. His advice to young brand strategists or those considering a career in branding is to consider whether they truly want to join what’s a very demanding business. Not everything is quantifiable; he’s highly suspect of analysts who quantify everything with neat metrics. We can see what has not worked in the market, but we cannot quantify what will – which is what the most successful brands predict. And you have to be OK with that.

“In order to be truly imaginative, you must possess an unusual level of self-  confidence and creativity . . .”

“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment.”

Grant McCracken – Sees designers as vehicles for corporations to take culture seriously. Has a PhD in Anthropology, and points out that while most of the world perceives the passage of time as circular, Western culture uniquely decided at some point to consider time as linear, symbolized by an arrow. We therefore find ourselves in an endless projection forward, for what’s next. He sees designers as uniquely able to “create and interpret” culture within a business that is otherwise focused forward. Designers are like messengers from the holistic, universal, cultural world into the bottom-line-driven world of the mundane. (I particularly loved and identified with this.) It’s an interesting challenge to marry the two sides of the brain and I got a sense that the best designers are also strategic thinkers – which Wally Olins says as well.

“What I’d rather hear from designers is, ‘These are the twelve cultural meanings at issue here, and this is where the world is – this is what the world wants. This is how we’ve crafted the brand out of these twelve meanings. This is how we’ve combined them, and this is how we’ll manage them over the next six or twelve months.'”

Dori Tunstall – A “Design Anthropologist” currently teaching at a university in Australia. She views design as a lens to interpret what it means to be human – and a key element in creating products and services that accomodate our needs, as opposed to imposing them upon us. Just seeing the words “design anthropologist” together made me feel I was meant to (a) read this book, and (b) participate in this field. I actually found Dori on Twitter and she offered to help me find people in New York who are involved in this type of discussion.

“Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the  world a better place.”

Virginia Postrel – Everything this woman said was mind-blowingly interesting and articulate to the point that it was intimidating just reading her words. She’s a cultural critic, essayist and journalist and has written extensively about “glamour” and its relationship with beauty, fashion and style in our culture. She also points out that the internet mimics our brain’s natural “associative” state, making it easy to quickly bounce from one thing to the next. While this is the way we naturally think or daydream, it has led to extreme overstimulation and a serious deficit in attention; this directly leads to the need to compete for the attention of others, which is why our culture values “outrageousness”.

Your outside self projects something to the world and also reflects back into you. The image of you in specific attire helps you imagine yourself as the person you would like to be.

Other enjoyable and noteworthy tidbits:

David Butler – VP of Design at Coca Cola – An early proponent of user-centric design and an appreciation for design thinking/design strategy. Believes in the ability of large corporations to improve the world, with their reach, networks, infrastructure, etc.

Stanley Hainesworth – Former VP Global Creative, Starbucks, Former Creative Director, Nike. Hainesworth is responsible for creating the five pillars of Starbucks’ brand: handcrafted, artistic, sophisticated, human and endearing. Talks about the challenge for brands to retain authenticity (which is definitely a buzzword, but this book was written in 2011.)  He says in order to recapture one’s audience, you must stay on brand, digging deeper into its essence/history/story/mission, rather than creating something new and off-brand that won’t communicate.

Dan Formosa – Co-founder of Smart Design and proponent of user-centered design which designs for people at “the edges”; the democratization of design. He describes himself and his colleagues coming out of college in the 60s and 70s and wanting to change the world, as an impetus for him to focus on people, design and how the two relate, at a time when designers didn’t yet care about concepts like usability or user-friendliness.

The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes.

Joe Duffy – Celebrated creative director and founder of his own independent branding studio, Duffy & Partners, which prides itself on carefully selecting which clients it works with. They work to establish each client’s “branding language”, a full identity system which serves to inform every design decision made by the brand.

“I don’t want to work with clients who are successful in spite of their lack of design or in spite of their bad design.”

“…Design is really so damn simple. It’s so straightforward. Anyone who tries to make it convoluted or complicated does a disservice to designers everywhere. Anyone who buys crap gets what they deserve.”

Seth Godin:

“Brands must build on past associations but go beyond nostalgia to novelty.”

The Anxiety of An Artist Who Doesn’t Create

“From the point of view of one who creates, everything is a gamble, a leap into the unknown.”

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama wrote this in her autobiography, Infinity Net. She’s an 80+ year old Japanese artist of international fame, who made a name for herself in New York during the 60’s as “doyenne of the counter-cultural art scene”. After returning to Japan in the 70’s, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo where she currently lives – and continues to produce art that’s shown worldwide.

Artist autobiographies are powerful pieces of literature. Perhaps the strongest type there is, when it comes to escaping one’s self by identifying with the thoughts of another. Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother and Yayoi Kusama’s book are the two works I’ve read in recent years, and each one resonated with me in a way that may or may not be healthy. Obviously these are two individuals who were as dark and tormented on the inside as they are brilliant and electric on the outside. Both suffer(ed) from psychiatric stress, yet both created such expressive and magnificent artwork despite (or because) of this disposition. This dichotomy is overwhelmingly encouraging to me.

All the anxiety I have about the unknown, the time it would take to create truly remarkable art, to get back into the practice, to set aside time to be alone and nurture my creativity for no purpose other than to nurture my self…I’m encouraged to transform the anxiety into something remarkable. I know I have the energy in me just swirling around with no place to go – a kettle of  water on the stove, screaming that it’s boiling and has been for years.

I remember in college leaving art class on Thursday evenings and heading toward my car, excited to spend the night at home pouring over a piece I felt was on its way while my friends went out clubbing or bar-hopping. Staying in — staying inside my mind — was more satisfying to me than going out. Not necessarily more “fun”, but definitely more interesting and more important feeling. I have something great bubbling inside of me waiting to get out and this blog is sort of the prelude to whatever that is.

I do know this: it’s not to be found on social media. It’s somewhere inside my own mind, in my own space.

As Kusama said:

Before and after creating a work I fall ill, menaced by obsessions that crawl through my body – although I cannot say whether they come from inside or outside of me.

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Some odd similarities between this book and the last one I read (i live in the future and here’s how):

  1. BOTH social commentaries on influence of time
  2. BOTH have all lowercase titles

What they don’t have in common is the fact that I couldn’t put the latter down.

I feel kind of silly even reviewing it here because it’s a national bestseller, it won the Pulitzer Prize and it seems like everyone else already read it…but this is my blog so…here goes.

Switching Perspectives

What impressed me most is the seamless jumping between perspectives. Each chapter focuses on a different character. Some are told in the first-person, others in third. But you feel as wrapped around each character’s life as you were around the last. There’s no feeling of “uch, another one?” Yes, you feel sad to say bye to the inner-workings of the last character, but you are dying to learn a new set of idiosyncrasies, quirks, hang-ups, self-defeating prophecies and so on.

One of the most chilling chapters is written in second-person narrative. “Out of Body” is the chapter title and its opening lines struck me so much I re-read them a few times:

Your friends are pretending to be all kinds of stuff, and your special job is to call them on it. Drew says he’s going to straight to law school. After practicing awhile, he’ll run for state senator. Then U.S. senator. Eventually, president. He lays all this out the way you’d say, ‘After Modern Chinese Painting I’ll go to the gym, then work in Bobst until dinner’, if you even made plans anymore, which you don’t — if you were even in school anymore, which you aren’t, although that’s supposedly temporary.

Time is the Goon Squad

This was definitely one of those books that falls into your life at just the right time, so it seems like it’s pointing right at you, causing you to look at the world around you with more clarity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. The passage of it, how I wish I could freeze it as some points, fast forward others, and always, always rewinding.

A NYTimes review of the book stated: “Hanging over Egan’s book is a sense that human culture is changing at such warp speed that memory itself must adapt to keep pace.”

This anxiety over time speeding by and our inability to make sense of it all speaks to Bilton’s discussion in his i live in the future and here’s how. It made goon squad an unlikely but stunningly playful companion to Bilton’s drier view of things.

Amazon should suggest these two books together to people interested in either one separately.


Book Review: Power and Influence, by John P. Kotter

This book was recommended to me by my dad, and was the first book I downloaded for myself on my Kindle.

Originally published in 1985, its prescriptive remedies for office politics are still must-haves in today’s workplace. The book is divided into sections geared at three levels of employees: junior/entry level, managers/executives, and those nearing retirement. It’s full of practical and insightful advice on how to navigate the workplace despite the “bureaucracy, parochial politics, and destructive power struggles” that consist in most firms.

Takeaways ~

  • Most employees can be divided into two categories: the naive, who believe that “good performance speaks for itself”; and the cynical, who believe no matter who well they do nothing great will come back to them due to office politics.
  • One must manage all relevant relationships – subordinates, peers, bosses, those outside one’s chain of command, employees in interdependent departments.
  • Bosses can be divided into two groups: “listeners” and “readers”. Some bosses prefer reports, others prefer meeting in person. (Peter Drucker’s theory)

Useful Quotes ~

On taking the higher road past naivete and/or cynicism:

Beyond the yellow brick road of naivete and the muggers lane of cynicism, there is a narrow path, poorly lit, hard to find, and even harder to stay on once found. People who have the skill and the perseverance to take that path serve us in countless ways. We need more of these people. Many more.

On managing relationships:

Effective leadership in a job that includes a complicated set of lateral relationships requires, first, a keen sense of where those relationships are.

…managing the relationship with the boss is a necessary and legitimate part of a job in a modern organization, especially in a difficult leadership job.

On psychology and behavior patterns:

In terms of self-awareness, nothing is more important for a subordinate than to know his or her temperamental reaction to a position of dependence on an authority figure.

  • “Counterdependent behavior” = resisting authority, urge to rebel
  • “Overdependent behavior” = yes-men

Further Reading ~

  • I will definitely re-read this book several times as my career-stage shifts or I find myself needing a reminder of how to effectively cope with office politics
  • Harvard Business School’s “10 Must-Read Papers on Managing Yourself”