It can be a task in itself to get through the creative process with a proper amount of sleep, unbattered self-esteem and dollars in your pocket. It is another task to engage in the process and enjoy it. Everyone has a unique way of thinking to get themself from point A to B, but each time we embark on the journey, the path seems to shift into another abstraction. How can we embrace an experience that is always presenting us with surprises?
The creative process has so many associated metaphors that hint at the individuality of the experience. Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing likened his process to “Jump[ing] out of bed and step[ping] on a landmine…After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” Jack Kerouac, in the awesome list Belief & Technique for Modern Prose describes “work[ing] from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea”.
On a more peaceful note, Steve Jobs alludes to the act of “connecting dots” in order to realize truly creative ideas. The dots in his metaphor are human experiences. He demonstrated that people who have more experiences or who have reflected upon their experiences imbue that knowing into the things they make. They have a greater, more nuanced basket of dots to build into surprising forms instead of the linear results that a culture of sameness would inspire.
Jobs suggested that “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
Although it may be a little cliché, a metaphor that I associate with the creative process is climbing a mountain. At the start of the year I was in between design contracts and took myself to Borneo on a whim to gain a new life experience. It taught me a lot by way of taking a journey slowly and not reserving my joy for an end result.
Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia standing at 4095m above sea level. It takes two days to climb if you stop at the rest house overnight to acclimate to the altitude. The mountain taught me the following important lessons.
Be gentle with yourself–make consistent progress
Every climber had to be accompanied by a guide, and they all seemed to say the same thing – take small consistent steps, not big leaps. Small steps allowed one to make progress, without completely straining their bodies. The same wisdom can be applied to the creative process for any project. Make steady progress instead of expecting your finished product to take shape after a ferocious burst of adrenalin. I can only associate the latter with all-nighters and cutting it close to deadlines, like the climb, it takes its toll on your body.
Take in your surroundings
I took so many breaks because I knew that I needed to experience what I was doing rather then getting stuck in my thoughts about when I would reach the top. Walking through World Heritage-listed forests, I was in a paradise far from home, experiencing something for the first time. My body was being tested in ways it never had been before. I was seeing some of the biggest calves on each person who walked by, hourly! Being present was something I actively practiced because I wanted to appreciate the circumstance I was in.
Whatever creative process experience we are having we too can stop and observe the uniqueness of our situation. Whether you are doing repetitive banner ads or something equivalent to that, take stock of what is actually happening around you and you may see the novelty in it. You are in the early stages of your career and one day you may miss the experience of having less responsibility. Someone is paying you to make something for them based on intangible qualities you possess–your taste and skill. You are making something that will potentially be seen by tens of thousands of people. There is a uniqueness and bizarreness in what you are experiencing now. You may not love it but experience it nonetheless.
Allow the way to reveal itself
After staying overnight at the rest house and rising at 1:45am, my sister and I embarked up the summit to catch the sunrise at 5:45am. It was such a surreal experience being awake at such an ungodly hour trekking up this giant rock with hundreds of other people, all from different parts of the world in complete darkness. At the time I was annoyed at how I could only see as far as my flashlight shone. I wanted to be able to see how far I had to go. It was only on the way down that I realised that if I’d seen how much effort it would have taken me to get to the top, I probably would have stayed in bed and passed off someone else’s photos as my own.
One of the positive things about our design process is that the solution and its corresponding obstacles reveal themselves little by little. Imagine if we knew at the start of each project all of the difficult people we would have to deal with, the number of iterations we would have to create, the number of hours we would be spending on a project, and how many tears we would cry until we got to the golden design. All of that would be so overwhelming in one hit. Perhaps for this reason we can take joy in the fact that creation is a process rather then a big bang.
You can never anticipate what you will feel at the top
When my sister and I reached the summit, about an hour before sunrise, we saw the sign that marked the peak and said “is this really it?” We were elated. We had made it, but it was not until we were making our way down the summit back to the rest house that the real joy crept in. The sun had lit up the intense terrain we had conquered and I was able to appreciate all of the stamina and energy it had taken to get where we were. I was so taken aback by how far we had trekked and how dangerous the path was. The rock formations were other-worldly. Alpine, bonsai-like trees were scattered in every crevice. We were above the clouds looking down on civilisation. It was an intense experience.
When it comes to our process, finishing a project may not be the sweetest thing, but looking back at the personal qualities we grew in order to get there may very well be. Sure you may have a new piece for your portfolio, but when you look through it, the patience and resilience it took to make it may stand out more.
Not every process has to be intense as climbing a mountain. Sometimes we will only be presented with foothills that prepare us for the big climbs. What is important, is to remember that creative realisation is a step-by-step process. Also rolling down hills is rather fun.
What is your metaphor for your design process? Taking the time to contemplate this may help you understand how you can make it a more enjoyable experience for yourself. Drop me a line and tell me a story at firstname.lastname@example.org.