June 10th, 2016
Creativity isn’t just about expressing yourself. It’s also about solving problems by putting disparate pieces together to form a new, unique whole. Practical Creativity fuels the everyday work and once-in-a-lifetime breakthroughs of designers, engineers, and scientists.
So what can you do when you feel stuck, blocked, or just plain uncreative? Dan will share his easy, practical tricks for getting unstuck, as well as simple daily practices that you can use to keep your mind energized and your creative tank full. You’ll be so inspired, you’ll want to use them all right away.
To see the video of Dan’s talk, visit the UX Immersion: Interactions section in our All You Can Learn Library.
Dan Saffer: Alright, great, thank you.
I’m going to start by asking a couple of personal questions, the favorite kind. You can raise your hands if you’re brave. How many of you have ever been bored while working on a project at work?
How many of you have ever felt that you were in over your head on a project at work? How many of you have ever locked up a project or an idea, and had people say really terrible things on Twitter or other places about it? Have you?
How many of you have ever gotten stuck or just could not come up with a creative idea to save your life? Great, this talk is for you. I dedicate this talk to all of you, and to myself. This talk is about how we can all be more creative in our work and how to go about actually doing that.
First I want to address the word creative. I don’t really like the word creative. It feels unnatural. I never had thought of myself as a creative person. I’ve been a creative director for many years, so creative is actually in my job title, and I still don’t feel creative. To me being creative is like a verb. It’s not meant to be an adjective or a noun like this. When I think of creative, I think of guys like this. I’ve never in my entire life felt this creative as this guy looks right there.
Dan: If you start thinking about creativity, it’s like “Oh you start comparing yourself to geniuses like Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison, or Einstein, Shakespeare, Brian Wilson, all the like.” For me I don’t usually feel creative even when I know that I’m actually being creative. I’ve been creative before because I actually have some proof.
In 2008, I did a whole bunch of stuff. I started a conference, I did some general recitals, I was on three major design projects, had lots of speaking engagements, I started my design studio, I wrote a whole book. I did these all in a year, so I was like “Wow I was really creative then.”
Dan: By 2011, it was all gone. It was all gone, I had left the company I started, I was broke. I had no job, I was working contract at a really terrible company, doing really terrible design, and I honestly felt like I was never going to be creative again. That no one would ever ask me to come up and speak at a place like this.
I never thought that was going to be possible. I really needed to do something to reboot my professional career before it all went away, which is where the idea of practical creativity came from. I had to reclaim creativity for myself.
For much of my life, for much of my career, I had taken a pretty haphazard, the care and nurturing of my own creativity. I had to start actually paying attention to it and deliberately building it up. That’s what this whole talk is all about.
I’m not here to teach you how to be creative. You have to be creative on your own. I agree to Jim Harrison you can’t really teach creativity. Only you can do that. I’m just going to teach you what I learned and hopefully some of it will resonate with you and that you can go and take it back, and use as much of it as you possibly can.
Here’s what we’re going to talk about in the next 40 minutes or so. The first is how to think about creativity, how to think about it in a practical term. It’s not so crazy, then we’re going to talk about what are the parts of a creative project. That’s where the grappling hook method comes in.
We’re going to talk really a lot about building a creative habit. What are the things that you can do right now as you leave this room to start being more creative. The last bit we’re going to talk a little bit about failure and what happens when stuff goes wrong and you have to recover from that.
The first thing I had to do, stop thinking about creativity like this guy, and started thinking about creativity like this guy. This is Michael Bierut. He is one of the partners at the design firm Pentagram. He has more awards than probably all of us in this room put together.
He is a former president of the American Institute of Graphic Design. He’s done stuff for “The New York Times,” the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, the Sachs Fifth Avenue, the Hillary Clinton campaign logos. All these things, he is very prolific.
He’s a celebrated designer, and extremely creative, which is why when I read this, I was startled. The first line, “Design doesn’t involve that much creativity.” It involves creativity the way doing a crossword puzzle involves creativity. You need some imagination, and knowledge, but he thinks of artists as being the more creative because they don’t start something out of nothing.
We design, because we have to work with something. That’s where practical creativity comes in. There’s this combination of Michael Bierut’s imagination, and knowledge, and part of building up the creative habit that we’ll talk about in a minute is about, how do you get more imagination and knowledge?
But it’s got constraints. Creativity only happens here when we’re bouncing off constraints. What you can’t do is just as important, if not more important, than what you actually can do in the kind of work that we do. Importantly, these constraints are not of our own making.
If you’re an artist, and you’re like, “Well, I’m going to write a science fiction novel,” you’ve already made some constraints for yourself, but our constraints don’t come from inside. They come from outside. Their technology, their business, the hardware that we have to use, the platform that we’re going to be on. All of these outside constraints push on us, and force us to really be practical about what it is that we’re doing.
The next thing is time. These outside constraints are always on a deadline, so the kind of work that we do is always on a deadline. This is good and bad. Deadlines really force these really hard choices. They focus the mind, make us make choices, but bad, because you may not have enough time to do the actual creative work that you need.
If you want to be more creative, you’ve got to spend as much time as you can with the problem. Although the most creative ideas take a long time to actually percolate. Even something as simple as this talk took over a year to do, so the longer that you can mull over an idea, the better it is.
To a point, of course, if you can arrange your schedule so that you can think about things for a longer time, the better that you’re going to be. The Catch-22 is, of course, we don’t often control our own schedules. This idea that Steve Jobs talks about, of living with the problem, so that you can peel more layers off, I think is the real value of spending more time.
One of the real values of user research is this idea of living with the problem, and being able to focus on it from multiple angles, and ways that you haven’t really thought about. Things from the user’s point of view, that are outside of your scope.
This idea of living with a problem, and this whole idea of rethinking creativity led me to think, “OK, what is the problem? What is it that we’re actually trying to make?” That’s where I came up with this idea of the grappling hook. Grappling hooks, for those of you who don’t know, beloved of ninjas everywhere including design ninjas.
Grappling hooks, big metal hook on the end, throw it up, there’s a rope, and then you’re able to climb up to your destination. How does this relate to the work that we do? All creative projects, if they’re well done, have two things. They have the hook, and they have the line.
The hook is what draws the audience in. It is the problem, it is the micro interactions. It is the small things that answer the question, “Why is this interesting? Why is this useful? Why would I want this? What if I didn’t have to wait for a taxi? What if there was a bookstore with every book in the world in it?”
It’s these kinds of hooks that really get us to be interested in a product. Musicians, of course, are really good about this ability to make a hook.
There’s no sound on my laptop again, hold on. Nope, still not happening, we’ll continue. It’s the line that really gives the work some kind of resonance. Good, now there’s just feedback, even better.
Dan: It’s the line that gives the work some kind of resonance, so the line is this idea. For us, it’s the structure of what we’re building. It’s the theme, it’s the plot, it’s whatever takes you through, it’s the melody. It’s the things that tie everything together in this really beautiful way.
Things without a hook aren’t very interesting, and things without a line seem frivolous or disjointed. Where do we actually start to get these ideas from? We don’t know where they come from. We do know that we don’t get them from our laptops. Where do we actually start to find these hooks?
As Chuck Close says, “If you’re sitting around, trying to think of great ideas, you can sit there a long time before anything actually happens, but if you just start getting to work, something will occur to you.” We’re fortunate, as designers, that we get problems handed to us.
We don’t have to come up with something out of nothing. The problems themselves bring the hooks with them. Things like, “What if my thermostat wasn’t done?” Just by inverting stuff. “What if I didn’t have to guess which restaurants are really good in this area?” Things like that are really powerful.
Now, finding lines are much harder, simply because finding the lines means that you have to look for the deeper truth. What’s the deeper thing, of what this product really is? What it really means to people? Now, doing this is difficult, and I’ve compiled a list of things that inhibit creativity. It is basically this.
Dan: Almost everything is going to distract you from being creative, your mundane tasks, “The house is dirty, I need to do this,” or, “My office needs straightening up.” Twitter, Facebook, television, email, RSS feeds, that podcast about the murder that you enjoy so much, “Daredevil” on Netflix.
All these things seem more enjoyable than actually doing hard, creative work. Instead of writing this presentation, I had to find out the 25 top sit-com episodes of all time, and I disagreed with their number one. If you want to be more creative, you have to do different things.
You have to get away from that idea. Super depressing statistic is that 90 percent of what we do most days is habit, is rote. We don’t think about it. To be creative, you’ve got to break out of that routine, and start to make your own creative routine in place of that.
That’s why building a creative habit is really important. I’m going to give you a long list of things to think about, and do, unless you think that I’m some kind of just amazing, talented, that does all these things. This list is also for me, for when I started to feel less creative, I can turn to this list and be like, “Hey, this are the things that I need to start. I need to start doing, instead of doing what I’m doing right now.”
If I had to say one thing that you could do to be more creative, or if I had to say one word, it would simply be this. Prepare. You need to prepare, before you’re ever creative. You not only have to prepare right before you are creative, but also you need those very long-term preparation.
To be creative at a moment’s notice, you need to have done a lot of work, so that you have that imagination, and you have that knowledge to draw upon at that particular moment. Go up to the white board and start sketching some stuff. OK, great, but if your well is dry, if your tank is empty, it’s going to be very hard to do that.
How do we build a creative habit? One of the easiest ways is to read books, not these.
Dan: I would actually recommend, not these books, or any design books, really. If you want to grow, you want to be able to see what’s inside somebody else’s head. Being able to see the world in other ways, things like science fiction or things like historical fiction are really great for that.
They can cause you to see the world entirely differently, and that’s what you want. Now, if of course you’re starting your career, I do advise you to read as many design books as you can, but once you’ve actually been established in your career, move past it. Look at everything else, but design books. Bring in things that are outside of our discipline, to really nourish your creativity.
Creativity doesn’t just happen. You can’t expect creative projects to be creative all of the time, so you have got to make time for them. It’s better to have a really consistent, small block of time, than to expect, “Oh, at some time in the future, I’m going to have a full week where there’s no meetings, or nobody wants anything from me. I’m going to save that time.”
That never, ever happens. If you can block out a very small amount of time, every day, every week, even if during that time you do nothing but doodle, or stare out the window, or take a walk, or perhaps especially if you do those things, you’re going to be more creative.
I wrote books with a half hour of time every morning, just a really small amount of time. Over time, that builds up into something large. It’s important, really it’s essential to understand when you’re the most and you’re the least creative. For most people, we have a real sweet spot that’s only about 90 minutes to three hours a day.
Figuring out when that time is, for most people it’s usually early in the morning, or late at night. Of course, for most of us, our work day is really not early in the morning, or late at night. It’s very difficult to try to adjust our schedules, but it’s also important to know, “Hey, this is my creative time.”
You definitely don’t want to do non-creative work during your most creative times. Save your emails for when you’re in your least creative periods, or do other stuff. Use this time wisely. Put this creative time on your calendar, show up every day.
When you first show up, you want to start with a ritual. You’ve got to get your mind into the mindset of doing, of being able to do these kinds of creative, to get yourself in the creative state, even when you don’t feel like being in one. Sometimes you just get there, and you’re like, “I’m not feeling it.”
You need a ritual to get there. This is where ritual comes in. Twyla Tharp, the famous dancer choreographer, who wrote probably the best book on creativity that there is, “The Creative Habit,” talks about that it’s super important to establish this ritual so that you don’t chicken out, so that you don’t back away.
You’re like, “OK, I’m going to get started.” Her ritual is brutal. She gets up at 4:30 in the morning, then goes to the gym, then comes back, and it’s intense. My ritual is having a cup of tea, and listening to some Brian Eno music, and then I get there.
It’s important to have the small things, whether it’s arranging a pencil, or thinking about something, or visualizing something, or being in a special place, at a special time, that’s really important. It’s easy, in our disjointed day, to forget what it is that we’re supposed to be working on, what the big picture stuff is.
Keeping a list of big questions, somewhere visible, is a really interesting and important idea. Get a little, tiny white board, or just pin it up on your wall. What are the big questions that you should be looking at? If you’re working on something like an ad for television, you might want to put a big question like, “What’s the future of television?” Put that up there.
Having this list of your top three questions allows the mind to work on them subconsciously, when you’re not even thinking about it. Keeping your brain on this low simmer allows for serendipity to happen. You’ll notice things that are related to what it is you’re working on, even when you’re not really working on them.
When I was working on this talk, a lot of these research things that came up about creativity just started to appear on my radar, just because I was working on them. I hate to tell you this. You will not remember much of what I’m saying here, or much of what anyone else is saying here.
Our brains are terrible. You will remember the idea that you had yesterday, the article that you read two days ago. You need some means of external cognition, and that’s where notebooks come in. I have five of them. I don’t recommend that, but you need, I have three physical, two digital.
You need some means to collect the hooks. You need some means, when hooks appear, to put them down somewhere, or a germ of an idea. You need some means, because your brain is not going to remember them. The faster you can put it on paper, or put it in a digital file, the better off you’ll be.
A side note, please don’t be pretentious about the notebooks. All right, enough said.
Dan: This is an image of Darwin’s thinking path. When Darwin was stuck, he would walk up and down this path, down-house, to exercise his body and mind. Movement helps the body relax and that subconscious work. Too often, I end up just staring at my computer screen, or just staring at a white board, or desperately trying to be like, “Ugh,” when I get stuck.
You’re better off getting up, walking around. You don’t even have to walk outside. You can just walk around your office. The Stanford study actually said it didn’t even matter where you went, as long as you were moving, as long as you were up and mobile.
Now, Friedrich Nietzsche, who really did have the best mustache of any philosopher ever, I definitely agree with his, “All great thoughts are conceived by walking.” What you’re trying to do is really fill the well. The whole point of this is to fill the well.
We do. We sometimes have to be creative at a moment’s notice, and we need this storehouse of good ideas. Otherwise, it’s going to be like driving a car with an empty tank of gas, you just won’t have things to do. Your job, as designers, as creative people, is to collect good ideas, different ways of seeing the world.
What you’re trying to do is to collect that knowledge and imagination, so that you can combine them together, so that you can combine different things together, because you’re trying to disrupt your normal way of seeing, and being in the world, because you need different ways to experience the world, in order to have different ideas about the world.
Art is perfect for this. Go to a museum. Good art exists to basically disrupt the normal way that we all see the world, and it provides us with alternative views. Travel is another great way, seeing how other people live. Of course, conferences like this one. You’re already here.
Any project managers in the room close your ears, because sometimes doing things the fastest, most efficient way is not the most creative way. If you try to do stuff the fastest way, you’re going to miss out. If you always go the most efficient route home, you may not see something different.
If you’re trying to do the same design process over and over again, in the exact same way, it may not work. You want to do things that are not efficient. You want to take different ways home. You want to window shop. You want to talk to people that you don’t know.
All these things are about killing your default. Your default is, “I am going to do this.” When you accept, and really justify your defaults, “This is how the world is,” you start to shut down creativity. It’s an emotional painkiller. “If the world was supposed to be this way, it’s OK if it’s this way.”
What you really want to do, and that kind of thinking just robs us of the outrage that we need in order to change it. To stand against things that are either unjust, or things that are just dull, and we need to change them, to make them better, to make them more humane.
The starting point here is curiosity. Why does the default exist in the first place? The next leap is how can I change it? The whole point of this idea of creating all these different ways of looking at the world, so, that you have this bag of lenses. You have a tool box so that you can say, “OK, these are different ways of looking at the world.”
You find them. You can find them in books. You can find them in art. You can find them in travel. You can steal them. Other people can say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way? That seems great. I’m going to borrow that.” Or you build them yourselves. You combine different ways of looking at the world. “This is another way of looking at the world that I can apply to this.”
Caveat, this does not mean looking around to see how other people have solved a very similar problem. You can do that a little bit, but it’s eventually going to limit your thinking. Once you start doing that, you’re going to get the idea that, “Oh, other people have solved this problem this way, so it’s a solved problem.”
I’m here to tell you that there are no fully solved problems. Absolutely, definitely look around, just not too much, because there are no solved problems. If you strive for your product, your project to be better, it’s going to be different. It will be better. It will be different, just because it is better.
I struggle with this on an hourly basis. Your mind needs time to work, and process. If you’re like me, and you aimlessly go between Facebook, and Twitter, and email, and back to Facebook, and back to Twitter, and back to email, it’s not leaving anytime for process.
We have a tendency these days to think every damn moment has got to be filled with some piece of information coming in. Being bored and staring off into space is totally fine. Allowing your mind to wander allows for new thoughts to come in. You can do this right away.
When we leave this room, and you wait in line out there to pick up your coffee, or your pastry, or whatever we’re heading for a snack, don’t pull out your phone. Don’t pull out your phone. Just stand there, and let yourself sit in line for a whole five minutes without pulling out your phone, and just let yourself be bored.
You’re going to find this to be really hard. This study at UVA, they had experiments, 700 people said it was unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts, 6 to 15 minutes. 6 to 15 minutes, that’s it. Even more so, 64 percent of people, 64 percent of men, 15 percent of women, once again proving women are smarter than men, began administering to themselves, electric shocks when left alone to think.
Dan: They could not stand it. All of them had previously said that they would pay money to avoid getting an electric shock. 64 percent of men started shocking themselves, 15 percent of women, to avoid sitting there with their own thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. Incredible.
This video is not going to play, because I have no sound, but philosopher-king Louis CK talks a lot about this, about the dark place, deep down, that when you’re driving in your car, you can’t stand it. You’re always texting, because you can’t stand that time by yourself. You can’t stand to have your mind not going.
If you can master that, if you can master the boredom, if you can master being able to look at that darkness and realize that, we might not be here for any known purpose whatsoever, and your life, and your work might be completely meaningless, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you can do anything. You can accomplish anything.
Screen sabbaticals and Shabbat. Part of giving your mind a rest, Jewish tradition of rest is Shabbat, the seventh day. God rested after making heavens and the Earth, you also need this time to rest.
This woman, Tiffany Shlain, is a big proponent of this idea. One day a week, you need to get your mind in a completely different state, and you just need to not work. What I try to do is on Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, which not much work is happening then, turn it off. Turn all the streams off.
It’s easy to turn off, then. Elon Musk has the best thing about this. The best ideas come to you in the shower, because it’s the only place you’re not looking at a screen.
Dan: Once or twice a year, it’s also good to do a longer session. The week after, between Christmas and New Year’s, turn it off. Turn it off for the full week. A week in the summer time, turn it off for the full week. It’s going to suck for two days, and then it will be fine. I promise, you’ll be fine, it is difficult, but worth it.
Since this is California, we are obliged to say, meditation is another way to really start to build up that creative muscle. I don’t really like to use the word meditate, because it sounds so San Francisco, but for me, this is really just sitting quietly for a couple minutes. You can do it in the middle of the day. You can do it whenever you get that chance. Breathe in, breathe out, clear your mind, turn the stream off.
They’ve discovered, this Cleveland Institute study, that certain types of meditation are great. The kinds that aren’t deep focus, but that are more let your mind wander, are very good for increasing your creative abilities. On this lesson is this idea of having a hobby or side project.
Let’s face it. Your work is not going to meet all your creative needs. It’s just not. I don’t care if you have the most amazing job in the world, it probably isn’t going to meet all of your creative needs. It’s great to have this idea of a hobby, or a side project, something that you’re just doing for yourself.
A year ago, over winter break, my teapot tweeted me when my tea is ready, or send me a text when my tea is ready, I forget what it was. Why did I do this? Because no one is going to pay me to do this, and I wanted to know when my tea is ready, when I went into the other room.
It was totally silly, but it was something I did just for myself, and it gives you that kind of flexibility to play with different constraints. Things that have small outcomes, that increase, stretch your muscles. The point of all of this is to heighten your sensitivity.
The world that we live in is extremely numbing, with everything coming in. The point of really having a creative process is to take sandpaper to your life, to take sandpaper to your brain, and make yourself sensitive again. There’s a theory that I like, that is completely unproven, but I really like it anyway, so let’s pretend it’s true.
It’s this idea that your brain, which is the most complex object that we know of in the universe, is actually some kind of radio receiver. That it’s drawing in different signals from other places, and that’s what we, as creative people do. We’re trying to pick up those signals. The more sensitive you can make yourself, the more signals that you’re going to be able to get in.
There’s some drawbacks, of course, to that. There’s a Zen saying that says something like, “After enlightenment, then laundry.” This is the laundry portion of the talk. Making yourself sensitive has a fairly painful side effect, which is mostly this. There’s never been a harder time to be a creative person.
The instant feedback that you get can be cruel, and painful. In the past, you would make something, and you’d put it out, and maybe a couple months go by, and you might get a review in the newspaper, or something like that. Some people might not see it, or word of mouth. People would say things about it, but behind your back.
Now, you put it out, within 30 seconds, there’s somebody on Twitter saying mean things. These are some of the things I’ve been called in last year, myself. I’m all like, “Yeah.”
Dan: Don’t tweet mean things about this talk, OK? This idea, to be a writer, you’ve got to be thin-skinned, but to be an author, you’ve got to be thick-skinned. It’s the same with the work that we do. To be a designer, you’ve got to be thin-skinned, but to ship a product, you’ve got to be thick-skinned, and that’s the problem.
How do we get over this kind of critical hurdle? It’s this idea of divorcing ourselves from anyone piece of work, and thinking about the body of work that we do. Picasso, in his life, made conservatively 10,000 pieces of art, maybe as much as 30,000 pieces of art, they don’t really know.
That’s one piece of art, every day, for like 27 years, at a minimum, and they weren’t all good. That’s the thing, they weren’t all good. How many were amazing, 50 out of 10,000, or 30,000? If Picasso is going to fail a lot, you’re probably going to fail a lot, too.
The way that people get great in their fields of study is by doing a lot, finding a lot, getting more variation in the kinds of stuff that they do. Getting up to bat a lot, to use the sports analogy. The more things that you try, the higher probability there is of doing something original, but you are going to fail.
People that celebrate failure, who are these people? Failure sucks, failure is terrible. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you my credit rating. It’s terrible. It’s terrible when something bad happens. The only people that will tell you to celebrate it are people that have never had a crippling failure in their lives. Failure can be just devastating.
What to do? How do you move past this? Especially when you get stuck, you have writer’s block, or you’re on a deadline, and you can’t get into flow. I’m sure most of you have seen this diagram, the shades in the eye flow diagram. It is almost obligatory to any design conference that you see this, so I’m showing it to you here.
What is interesting is that they never tell you what to do, if you’re anxious, or if you’re bored. They never tell you how to get into flow. They’re just like, “Oh, you should be in flow.” Great, thanks. If I’m bored, or I’m anxious because the work is too hard, how do I get out of those? How do I get into the zone?
If you’re bored, we should take some advice hear from Thoreau, where he says, “It’s the way that you do something that’s interesting.” How can we improve it? If the task is boring, the way that you make it interesting is you have to make it interesting for yourself.
You have to figure out something, make it personal. What is it that you’re going to get out of this job, out of this project? How do you want to make this interesting for yourself? What do you need to learn, and how can this project help you with it? What interests you?
I was front seat at this design project where an Asian company had asked a bunch of our strategists to do some evaluations of different mobile carriers in the United States. You can imagine that this could’ve been the most boring report you’ve ever read, that doctors would prescribe it to people who have insomnia, to read this thing.
What the strategists in the design team did was rather than give this report, they said, “OK,” they were going to do it by foods. They had a report to back this up, but they also said, “Hey, this group has these kinds of characteristics, and there is this kind of food that represents that.”
They made it into this interesting, sensory experience, something that could be really boring, because it could’ve been really boring, but it was something that instead, they love that, the client loved it. It became interesting for them. The designer Paul Sahre says, “Designers who aren’t selfish do terrible work,” which I think is really interesting, because we’re taught to empathize about other people.
Sometimes, in order to do better work, you’ve got to think about yourself, because there has to be motivation for you to go beyond where other people would stop, to really do great work. Now, on the other side…What about when the challenge is really high?
You’re like, “Oh God, I have real anxiety about this.” The first thing you need to do is to think, is the challenge that’s in front of me, is it really too high, or do I just think it’s too high? You have to do a reality check. Am I just afraid? The worst enemy to creativity is this idea of self-doubt.
Fear is born from the story we tell ourselves of what we can and cannot do, so it’s easy to become paralyzed with fear before you even start. How do we get over this? Act as though you’re 10 percent more courageous, 10 percent. If you can just be a little bit more courageous, this is the cure.
How do you do this? 10 percent, it’s not that much. Just a little bit more. This will allow you to be like, “OK, am I really afraid of doing this, or is this really hard?” If it’s really hard, there’s a solution for that, too. You can ask for help. It’s not an admission of failure. My daughter, she went to art camp a couple summers ago, and they’re like, “You know what? You can never say that you can’t do anything.”
That was their rule. You can’t say that you can’t do anything. You can only say that you couldn’t do something yet. That’s the kind of mindset you need to go in. Nobody knows everything, so ask for help if you need it. If you get into that anxiety thing, ask for help.
The two unstuck strategies that are fairly clear, power through it, procrastinate. How do you know when to do each? Powering through it means, sometimes you’ve got to just focus on the craft. You know what you need to do, you’re just bored by it. You have to think about going back to making it interesting for yourself.
This is why there’s a great creativity mind pack that says, “Stop when you know what the next step is, so that when you come back to it, you automatically know what to do next, and you can power through it that way.” You can procrastinate, when you hit the wall.
You haven’t found that hook, or that line. You’re still looking around. Procrastination is part of the process. It gets a bad rap, but it just means that you’re not ready to do something yet. Your brain is working on something. It’s working on something behind the scenes, or you just don’t understand yet, what it is that you don’t know.
You haven’t found that hook, or you haven’t found that line. Go back, look for the hook, look for the line. Some of this is also, with the feeling behind the procrastination, are you stressed, are you afraid, are you doubting yourself and your abilities? Search your feelings. Look for that.
There are, of course, better ways to procrastinate than others. The first, we’ve talked about pretty extensively, taking a walk is a great way to do this. Another thing that many people, including, and I’m very sorry for putting this image in your head, Woody Allen, take showers.
Woody, and many other people, take multiple showers a day, going back to that bored Elon Musk thing. You’re there, you’re warm, you’re relaxed, there’s no screens. Take a shower. Similarly, take a drive. It doesn’t matter where, take a drive. You’re trying to get your brain on autopilot, so it’s not thinking about the problem, it’s working behind the scenes.
You can go somewhere new. Think about going and seeing something new, could trigger something, could break something loose in your mind. Drinking alcohol, this has actually been shown to actually increase creativity in moderation. As my friend Jeff Bean says, “Alcohol is for generating ideas, caffeine is for documenting them.”
Dan: Finally, this moment of Zen. Sometimes, it’s only really when we stop, and just pause. We stop trying so hard, and that’s when the solution arrives. That’s practical creativity. Reframing and thinking about it as a means of working on problems where the constraints are from the outside.
They’re not ours. You need that imagination and knowledge. Then the grappling hook, what’s interesting about this work? What’s the theme that runs through it? What’s the spine that runs through it? Building your creative habit, looking for that bag of lenses, trying to do different things.
Taking walks, meditating, taking sabbaticals from the screen, turning off the stream, doing all those things. What happens when you fail, or get stuck, or get bored? Make it personal, or ask for help. These are not admissions of failure.
One last thing to leave you here with, this is my daughter, Fiona. Fiona is a sophomore in high school, and she has been thinking about colleges, and asking us things about jobs. She’s like, “I don’t know if I want to do a creative job, like being a designer, or a writer, any of those things. It’s not safe.”
I said, “No, actually. No, that’s the exact wrong thing.” This is what I said. I said, “You need to be weird, you need to be unusual, you need to be creative, because that’s what’s going to save you.” In the next 20 to 30 years, two billion jobs are going to be lost, including people in this room.
To automation, to robots, to AI, to different kinds of processes, and the only way that you can really save yourself is to be these things. To be weird, to be unusual, to be creative, these are the things that AI, and robots, and automation can’t do. These are the only things that we can do. I urge you all to go out, be weird, be unusual, be creative, because that’s what’s going to save you. Thank you.
Jared: Excellent. I have a question for you.
Dan: You do?
Jared: I do. In your career, you have managed some amazing teams. On those teams, you’ve had some folks who were new to the field, and just coming in. What is the trap that those people tend to fall into? What should people be looking out for, when they’re bringing in folks who are new to the field, juniors, as it were?
Dan: A couple things. A lot of junior people think that they should know it all, and be able to do it all, so they often get deep into a problem without letting people know, “Hey, I’m in over my head here.” They don’t ask for help. They get deep into anxiety, and then they don’t ask for help, and the anxiety gets bigger, and bigger, and it gets worse, and worse.
Then you’re like, “Oh my God, we’re going to blow a deadline here, because I thought you could handle this, but you couldn’t. You should’ve just asked for help, and I could of course, corrected you very easily.” When people are hiring junior designers, they don’t expect them to know what all. That’s a real fallacy.
We expect to be there to help and guide you. That’s one of the real joys of being a creative director.
Jared: I wonder how much of that is caused by school, where to get through school you’re taught, you cannot ask someone for help, you cannot use someone else’s answer. You have to come up with your own thing.
Dan: It could be, yeah. Part of the training is like that.
Jared: You have to break that habit.
Dan: You have to break that habit, yeah. Design is a team sport, we’re all working together. People think, “Oh, my ideas are going to be the best, and I’m going to defend these to the death.” Good ideas are going to come from anywhere.
Being able to recognize when a good idea is coming from…could come from the client, could come from an engineer, could come from anywhere, and mixing those in, just because you’re the designer doesn’t mean that you’re omnipotent.
Jared: Fantastic. What questions do you guys have? We have time for a couple questions here. What would you like to ask? Someone’s got to have a question, you’re very creative. Yes, you think about it. OK, we have one here, fantastic.
Audience Member: I know this is kind of different for everybody, but as far as the actual workspace, do you have any thoughts on minimalistic, clearing your space, clean slate, or just filling with clutter to get this?
Dan: You’ve obviously never seen my desk. I am a clutter person. In fact, my Master’s thesis was on creating digital piles of objects on virtual desktops. I am definitely of the, get everything out, and then you can piece stuff together, because, “Oh, I have vision nods, I know that this file’s over here.”
I work with designers who every day, clean their space, that “This is my sacred space and here’s where my ruler goes, here’s where my pencils go.” I don’t think there’s any one right way for that. It’s like the ritual. It’s like all that’s going to work for you like your personal style.
Having a dedicated space is a good thing. There’s offices now that are like “Hey,” and no one has their own space. Everyone comes in and just picks a desk. During the day, that’s a terrible idea. Having your own space even if it’s a really ugly cube that you can decorate somehow, it’s an important thing, so it’s like “OK, when I’m here, I can focus and here is my stuff, here’s my tools of work,” but whether it’s clean or cluttered, that’s a personal thing.
Dan: You can come up to me later. Is there another?
Jared: Yeah, we have another over here.
Dan: Sorry, it’s blinding up here.
Audience Member: I was wondering when it comes to making sure that yourself and your team is living when the problem, is there a certain point that you can ensure that you’re all doing that, and are there practical things that you’re doing to make sure that taken place, and when do you let go of that?
Dan: It’s related to this idea of the space. Having that creative like wore room and space I think is great. Every time that I’ve worked with companies where you don’t have that space, it’s really hard because when you can put stuff up on the wall as when you can put the…Get the foam core and start putting picture up, and so you can just live and breathe it a lot. That is a big thing for just living with the problem for a long time, just having sit-in.
The duration of that, how long you have to be there and how long that you have to live with the…Some things are fairly assured. You can probably do this fairly fast, but some things the bigger the problem, probably the longer the time that you really need to digest it.
Sometimes it takes a couple iterations to get that right. We see this in some products all the time where the first version of it is terrible, but the fifth or sixth version is pretty amazing. Sometimes it is just that time to live with the project.
Doing anything you can, not only just within that teamwork space, but to socialize it out so that people, either want to stick their head into that space, and so that the whole company starts to get this idea like “Hey there’s something really interesting happening here.”
Jared: I know there are couple more questions, but you’ll have to come up and ask Dan during the break. Dan, thank you again, fantastic.
Dan: Thank you all.