Feed the cauldron

If you plan on making magic you’ll need the right ingredients. They might be as exotic as eye of newt or fluxweed but more often than not they will be things like time away from the computer and targeted inspiration.

Consume and use the kinds of things you’re making. If you’re writing a fiction book, read novels. Baking a cake? Eat tons of different cakes. Inform your palette and make decisions about what you believe in important. You don’t need to replicate what you’ve explored but the act of exploring will give you new ideas, help you through sticking points and help you identify what you don’t want your thing to be.

And while you’re exploring, stray from the path and explore things that have no obvious connection to what you’re making. Develop new vocabulary to describe those experiences and ask yourself how they might connect to your project. The ingredients for creativity are all around us, we just need to figure out what to make.

Assemble a super team

We all wrestle with doubts and insecurities and it’s the job of our enemies to capitalize on our weaknesses. To foil their plans you need to surround yourself with people you trust. People who inspire you to be more than you think you can be. They might do this directly or they might lead by example. Track these heroes down. Talk with them, train with them and test your ideas against them. Spend time with people who make you stronger, faster, and smarter.

Be selective and choose people who won't flake when things get tough or collapse under pressure. Everyone needs support sometimes but be wary of people whose super power is causing drama.

Don't expect your team to go easy on you. If you're going to be ready for the next big challenge you'll need the members of your super team to tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. With support from the right team you can dream bigger and take larger risks.

Try a boss-free brainstorm

Want to kill a brainstorm? Invite the boss. Participants will hold back their wilder contributions and the second the boss opens his/her mouth the session will be dominated by their ideas. And even if boss holds their tongue the team will waste time looking for approval.

Bosses around the world might think, “Well, yeah, I’m the boss and I want my team to figure out to make my ideas work.” Fine, but that’s not how to get the best ideas from your team. Let them surprise you. A team needs some space away from their boss and the risk of judgement. Bad ideas will flow in a brainstorm and that’s fine because sometimes they lead to good ideas. If a team is second-guessing the quality of their ideas they won’t offer as much.

Hey boss, help your team by defining project goals and then step out for coffee. Try a boss-free brainstorm and you’ll see a difference in the quality and volume of ideas generated.

Beware the vocal minority

People are eager to offer what they think you should have done. They will describe in broad strokes how your product would be better if only you had done "X". They won't ask about your goal but they will project where your concepts are leading and how you should move forward. When pressed they will be shy for details but they will sow enough doubt that you'll question your path and it'll slow you down. We wrestle with enough doubts on our own. Beware the vocal minority. Don't give them too much power over your vision.

It's easier to identify what doesn't work than to articulate what is perfectly okay so most people's default mode is critical. Some people are just invested in being the one who can spot faults. They feel like they're accomplishing something by pointing out faults - they feel smart and sometimes they feel like they're helping. 

If someone expresses doubt don't take it as the gospel. Be critical of feedback, ask for details and test your ideas against multiple people.

The three paths to innovation

If you’re innovating on an existing product or idea the entire process might involve hundreds of decisions  - but the initial steps aren’t so mysterious. You have three choices that take into account your goals, risk tolerance and timeline:

1. Continue the current aesthetic. You might make this decision to save time, leverage existing brand awareness, etc. Safe and secure.

2. Evolve the the current aesthetic. Maybe you’ve received feedback that will help refine the user experience or you discovered something new about your audience that needs to be addressed. Assumes some risk and additional development time.

3. React to the current aesthetic. Perhaps you want to make a statement, surprise users with something fresh and possibly get press for the shift in direction. The riskiest option and possibly the most expensive.

Warm your brain before a brainstorm

I'm going to share a personal revelation from several years ago - designing and playing music use very different parts of the brain. If I worked all day then did an evening gig it took at least an hour before I warmed up and transitioned to using the right bits of my brain. The music bits. It wasn’t just a case of warming up my muscles, I had shift my emotional/cerebral patterns before I could play well. I learned to set aside time for the transition.

Warming up your brain before you dive into any creative task, like brainstorming, will make you more effective at that task. Well, duh. This isn’t a revelation so much as a reminder. Feeding your brain with ideas will help new ideas come quicker. If you’re about to choreograph a new dance piece, watch other dances (of other styles, even. Gasp!). If you’re baking a cake, visit a bakery. If you’re designing a new toy, visit a toy store. You get the idea. Then, when you’ve changed your state and fed your brain, start brainstorming. 

Don't wait, act now

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. The thing that separates the artist from the frustrated artist is action. It doesn't even need to be monumental action - it could be small, consistent steps towards an idea. The more you practice making use of small chunks of time the more likely you'll be ready to act when an idea hits you. 

You need full access to your creativity on the drop of a dime. The good ideas don't always come to you at the ideal time. You need to be able to recognize a good idea and capitalize on it when its fresh. Even if it's just to write it down. Push aside the stories and excuses. You have 10 minutes on the subway? Use that time. You're tired? Turn off the TV and read something related to a topic you love. Take a shower and pay attention to where you mind is wandering then write those ideas down when you get out of the shower. You are a wellspring of ideas. Let them breathe, give them life and take shape at your hands. Be firm. Show conviction. Prioritize yourself.

Telling Ourselves Stories

I believe in the practical. I believe in processes and habits that can make people more creative, things that get their ideas into the world faster. I believe in tools that teach us to be creative on the spot. No warning, no time for embarrassment or overthinking.

Companies like IDEO know their employees need the tools, the habits, and the mindset to be creative anywhere and anytime. Don't wait for the perfect conditions to be creative. I need my laptop and a latte. I need my favorite seat in my favorite cafe and I should be listening to the soundtrack of loons and viola in a minor key. I need to be alone. I need to be with people. I have to be somewhere other than home. I need, I need, I need. All those conditions are a house of cards and if one of those conditions is not met a card is pulled out and the resulting collapse is an avalanche of reasons, of stories, that we tell ourselves why we can't be creative right now...it can wait until later. No, it can't wait until later. There is no better time than now and later is too damn late.

The Idea Matrix

New ideas don't just appear. They are the result of conscious, or subconscious, connections being made by the creator. Someone took two or more disparate ideas and combined them to get an unexpected result. Concept artists use this strategy all the time. Need a cute dragon? Combine a dragon with something soft and fuzzy, maybe a peach or a puppy, and start illustrating. I call this the Idea Matrix.

The initial idea will probably evolve once pen hits paper but you're just looking for something to get the creative juices flowing. 

Here's how it works: I write down the thing I'm designing (character, logo, UI, etc). Then I'll list the qualities I want this thing to have. Following that I'll list other things in the universe that have those qualities. Once I have a list of those things I'll select my favorites and begin exploring combinations of the intitial concept with new references that represent more emotional associations. Try it out!

Brainstorming 101

As a creative tool brainstorms have taken a beating the past couple years. The key is setting expectations and organization. Don't throw a bunch of people into a room and expect magic to happen. Some tips...

1. Define the goals. Let the team know what the problem is that they're solving and describe criteria.
2. Appoint a leader. Keeps conversation moving along and polices judgement. Flags tangents.
3. Appoint a scribe. Documents all of the ideas on a flip chart or white board. Ideally in full view of the group.
4. Don't be critical. Nothing kills the desire to get involved like judgement. You can debate and argue later.
5. Embrace the wild ideas. The crazy thoughts can always be scaled back. 
6. Set goals. More ideas are better so go for volume. Set motivating goals like, "Let's come up with 25 new ideas."

Is a day job your excuse not to be an artist?

Time to move on. There’s a long tradition of celebrated artists who held down jobs to fund their personal projects. You might recognize a few: T.S. Eliot, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Bram Stoker, Kurt Vonnegut, Dustin Hoffman. Hell, even Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo did contract work to pay the bills.

Then are are the innumerable artists who aren’t universally known but hold down day jobs and still maintain their creative output. I’ve interviewed some of my personal hero/artists on TnR - Pete List, Rob Mastrianni, Baba Israel, Carmine Guida and more. I was recently emailing with a friend about how she maintains a high level of personal creative work while raising three daughters on her own AND homeschooling them. What’s your excuse?

If you think a day job invalidates your identity as an artist your ego might be sabotaging you

More is not always better

People like the idea of having options but when faced with too many they shut down. It’s almost always better to present people with fewer, higher quality, options than to overload them.

Remember the last time you tried to make a selection from an ten page Chinese restaurant menu? You probably chose something from memory. Back when Blockbuster was in business I had to decide what movie to rent before I arrived because, if I didn't, I'd just wander the aisles in a state of information overload.

Whether you’re sending a client mockups or designing an interface keep the options focused and few. Of course there are exceptions. A power Photoshop user want an array of tools at their fingertips, a pilot wants all their instruments in view. But if you’re designing for the mainstream and want to facilitate decision-making present fewer options that represent your recommendations.

Stay Relaxed

Whether you’re facing oncoming opponent, a difficult meeting or a big project you’ll be stronger, more nimble and better able to improvise strategies if you're relaxed. Breathe, trust your training and preparation, and accept that there is no situation you can control 100%. Be prepared to take some hits but don’t hold onto those bruises emotionally. Acknowledge them and move on. You'll have time later to review where you went wrong.

Before your next meeting pause to take a few long, slow breaths. Slow yourself down and review what you know in your head. If you’re prepared and relaxed your ideas will come more quickly. We’ve all been in situations where we’re underprepared and out of breath. It sucks. If someone surprises you with an unexpected, stressful, conversation, take control - tell them to give you a few minutes or take a deep breath before diving in. Either way, it’s up to you to set the tone and pace of conversation.

Use a single piece of reference

When exploring look and feel there can be only one. Okay, maybe there can be more than one but the point is this: Less is more. It’s more selective, it’s more empowering and it’s more efficient. Using fewer references forces you to select the most valuable starting point.

This doesn’t mean you should copy directly or be a clone. Just have a simple statement of your aesthetic goals and trust that the process of creation will result in something unique. 

For years everyone one of my projects had folders of reference matierial for character design, UI, typography, environments, etc. I wasted alot of time trying to synthethesize all those diverse elements. Now I force myself to be selective and choose the fewest reference points I need to get started. While working I allow myself to follow tangents so each piece can find its own identity.

How do you make the case for the unexpected?

My term for well-executed but flavorless, emotionally void, design is ‘cereal box art’. It includes actual cereal box art, architecture, music, dance, video games, movies and anything that has the potential to be daring but takes the frictionless path.

Not every design needs to be an emotionally rich, daring, adventure for the end-user but how do you determine when and where your work can be pushed to challenge expectations?

If you’re working on products for the mainstream this will come up. We all want our products to be wildly successful but that often results in designs and concepts whose edges have been filed away to maximize appeal. Focus testing is great but most of us don't have the budget to collect real data. So, when faced with conservative clients, how do you make the case for the unexpected?


Mastery is not an accident

Even though Luke had a natural gift for the Force he still needed to learn the ways of a Jedi Master. He had to travel across the galaxy to find a mentor and train hard to meet his goals. If he hadn't been committed to learning and growing he probably would've gone back to Tatooine and wasted away in the bars of Mos Eisley.

Through mythology we learn, over and over, that a hero needs to overcome trials before they can succeed but this is something we all face every day if we're taking steps towards growth. We're not all fighting Sith Lords but we do wrestle with the demons that supply excuses and limit the loftiness of our goals. Smite them.

Wishes and fantasies are great but they need action to make them happen. What do you want to master and does your effort match your expectations?

Consult the experts

I know you're probably amazing at whatever it is you do but I'm sure there are areas that are outside your depth of knowledge - areas where you aren't so amazing. No problem, that's why you have experts as friends, colleagues, and mentors. If you have the budget, hire them. If you don't have a budget, offer an exchange, or buy them dinner and drinks.

Consulting experts will get you to solutions faster and shorten your conversations with clients. That's more upside for you if you're working on a project or flat rate. If you work hourly it means moving to your next project sooner. 

Where do you lack expertise? Now, which of your friends and colleagues have the skills you lack? Reach out to them. Don't worry about being a pain in the ass, you'll return the favor at some point. That's cheaper than going to school or learning the hard way.