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.”

 A Content Strategy Rallying Cry

The internet makes it simultaneously easier and more difficult to have your words heard.

The trash heap of shitty content increases by the millisecond. We all have the ability to write (technically speaking) and access to the marketplace (social media, blogs, ads, etc.). Because of this radical democratization of communication it’s more crucial than ever to start with why when considering whether to produce content.

The distinction between ads or “sponsored content” and editorial content is becoming so blurry it’s like we’re all swimming underwater, and we all need to clean our goggles with that goggle-cleaner fluid but no one wants to miss out by taking the time to emerge on the surface, clean his or her goggles, and see more clearly. Brands instead choose to churn water, pushing forward with mediocre, unnecessary, uninspiring and even self-defeating content that actually does more damage than good (and is an incredible waste of resources).

Brand managers and content strategists are generals in the battle for authenticity in modern advertising. Social media is where the bloodiest squirmishes are lost, in the form of dull content that falls on deaf ears; no one sees it. At least no one valuable to your bottom line sees it. If they do, they aren’t persuaded to do or think in any meaningfully different way.

If a shitty Facebook post gets no reach, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes – in the form of a digital footprint. It’s easy for competitors or prospective business partners to check out a brand’s Facebook page only to find tumbleweeds. You don’t delete posts that fall flat; they remain there for all to see.

Savvy and strategic thinkers already know this; the problem is getting through to the masses. Fortunately, this means there will always be work for content strategists. Unfortunately, everyone with opposable thumbs and an internet connection fancies him/herself a content strategist.

All we can do is stay calm and carry on.

Check out the (7!) books closely/loosely relevant to this topic I bought yesterday. Reviews to follow!

books on branding