Complacency Is Bad Design
As our design careers get longer, how do we stay creative?
Recently, while leading a tour of American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) members and students, I was asked how, as an ‘old’ designer, I keep up with what's happening in the design world. (I’m paraphrasing a little here.) A related question is, as a designer who has worked most widely with cultural institutions and in higher education, how do I stay creative? Both of these questions hint at the idea of staying relevant while our work patterns normalize. The questions also imply that longevity as a professional designer erodes our creativity.
It's as if we are born with a finite amount of good ideas, which run out as we age.
I think the idea of finite creativity is false, but if anything can bring that on, it’s complacency. Life and careers have a tendency to get more complicated as time passes, which means we all have to focus on the things that better our creative lives, expose us to new ideas, and keep our minds nimble. The other option, of course, is to coast. Falling back on safe patterns that may help meet deadlines with fewer struggles will likely come at the expense of enthusiasm in what we’re designing, which erodes creativity. In John Gardner’s iconic work, “Self-Renewal,” he addresses complacency head-on. “As the years go by, we view our familiar surroundings with less and less freshness of perception. We no longer look with a wakeful, perceiving eye at the faces of people we see every day, nor at any other features of our everyday world.” Gardner warns against “the dry rot produced by apathy, by rigidity and by moral emptiness,” which often comes with attaining a certain level of complacency, immediately impacting our craft. In other words, if we’re bored of our work, others will be too.
I'll likely never experience an environment as conducive to creativity as I had as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. That's when I decided to pursue design. The space and curriculum were painstakingly constructed, by people far wiser than I, to encourage creative exploration. I was taught the foundations of design, and given a challenging workload that accelerated practice. I was surrounded by a wonderful, intelligent, diverse group of people to make and critique one another’s work. As many of us who are a decade or two out of school often say, I want to go back, especially armed with everything I now know. It takes both effort and good fortune to construct an environment in which to create, and yet it’s essential to do so. So if you're isolated from other designers, and working without the benefit of peer critique, fix that first.
If you're on a large team without a healthy feedback culture, you're just as likely to feel as isolated as a freelancer working alone.
I couldn't survive as a designer without talking to other people about design. Rob Walker of the New York Times explains "design [as] a fundamentally social act that makes the world a better place." (“Inside the 21st Century Craze for Redesigning Everything.”) I couldn’t agree more. If the social piece is lacking in your work life, chances are your creativity might be too. Create a group, seek out new designers, or put energy into revitalizing your team’s critique culture. Whether it’s with new peers or trusted co-workers, agree on a structure, or change the rules you have to ensure your critique promotes respect and intellectual honesty. There are a lot of good articles written about running a constructive critique. I’ve pulled together a few -- find some new rules and try them out. Keep evolving your rules until everyone in the group is satisfied; the goal should always be helping one another make better work.
Speaking of inspiration, it’s everywhere. It's not enough for me to just enjoy design on the surface. When I see interesting furniture, products and interior spaces, I tend to get close and look at the details, examining the craftsmanship and clever decisions that are going on which are less obvious. An interesting form of joinery or choice of material can be the detail that makes something extraordinary.
I actively work to make my home a creative space. Whether art or design, it’s important to me to have someone else's creativity in my house. Surrounding myself with other people’s ideas is important, especially when I can learn about the thinking behind the piece from the artists through either research or conversation (I like work from friends and peers the most). I find it beautiful how differently we all see things, and how that can manifest in artful solutions that seem so clever or foreign. Looking deeply at other people’s work inspires me to try new things, because that’s when I see new things. If we look a little longer, get beyond the surface of the object or digital experience, and learn from others through critique, we effectively ‘fix’ our work before it’s broken.
Make work, a lot of it, and approach each project as an opportunity to make something original. Your next idea might permanently change the way you think, but only if you push beyond your first, second, or even third solution. It’s important to have the ability to look objectively at your past work. Are there patterns in how you’re solving problems? Is there variety in your approach to typography and color? Are you following your own trends? Call yourself on your own baggage, and push yourself to explore new outcomes.
The best way I know to change my work is to change my process. Perhaps the next time you set out to solve a common problem, you’ll approach it with new constraints. Make yourself create a certain number of sketches before narrowing in on an approach. Forbid yourself from using gray. Don’t allow your typography to overlap your imagery. Making rules to shake up your process may feel forced or rigid, but it’s a practice that has helped me enormously in my career. At the end of the day, it’s about increasing awareness in our practice so we’re more likely to spend our creative energy in pursuit of creating unique work. It’s about making work that’s unique and challenging to you.
You don’t have to wait for challenges to come to you, there’s plenty in the world around us. There are at least a dozen problems in my own house right now, and coming up with an interesting fix or improvement to any one of them would take creativity. These can seem like skippable tasks, but the catharsis which comes from the resulting change proves they aren’t. We aren’t all the same, but If I go too long without doing something constructive or creative, I start to feel like I’m wasting my time. I don’t have the same kind of pride in my life.
In other words, the only way to stay creative is by doing hard work. It takes intentional effort to maintain relationships, seek out rewarding experiences, and learn from the world around us and the work of others. Maya Angelou once said, “You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have,” which I find very true. But, making work and meeting deadlines doesn’t mean we are exercising our creativity. To do so, we have to take an honest look inward at the energy we are putting into our design and make the steps necessary to break the negative patterns that creep into our creative process. Sometimes that means looking back through our portfolio and saying to ourselves, these few things are remarkably similar, how do I make them more distinct next time? It’s hard, but it’s essential.