“It has many children, this Hunger. Self-doubt is one of them. As is the desire to prove our worth. To live up to—no, to exceed—the expectations. The thing about Hunger is that it’s both the reason we accept new challenges and the fear that stands in our way. The starting gun and the hurdles. The muse and the misery. And what a combination! Hunger pushes us into unfamiliar territories and compels us to find new angles on familiar ones. It throws us in the middle of a busy intersection during rush hour. It puts an egg timer on our desk, says “you know that thing that usually takes you a whole afternoon? You have one hour. Go!” And by doing so, Hunger makes us better.”
“You always have to keep pushing to innovate. Dylan could have sung protest songs froever and probably made a lot of money, but he didn’t. He had to move on, and when he did, by going electric in 1965, he alienated a lot of people. His 1966 Europe tour was his greatest. He would come on and do a set of acoustic guitar, and the audiences loved him. Then he brought out what became The Band, and they would all do an electric set, and the auidence sometimes booed. There was one point where he was about to sing “Like a Rolling Stone” and someone from the audience yells “Judas!” And Dylan then says, “Play it fucking loud!” And they did. The Beatles were the same way. They kept evolving, moving, refining their art. That’s what I’ve always tried to do—keep moving. Otherwise, as Dylan says, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Some of my favorite passages in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography are where Jobs is ruminating on creativity, life, and philosophy. One of my absolute favorites was in the final chapter of the book, Jobs is reflecting over his life and work and he shares this story about Bob Dylan performing Like a Rolling Stone.
I finished the book months ago but find myself thinking and talking about this small quote often. I like this story because I think it perfectly describes why both Dylan and Jobs are heroes of mine—art is about movement.
The New York Times has a great profile on George Lucas and his desire to return to more personal “art-house” films and retire from the commercial films he is known for. I’ve been thinking about this separation between commercial work and personal work lately, after reading this interview with Nick Knight where he says there is no difference in the work he does for himself and the work he does for clients. This piece on Lucas seems to suggest the same thing:
But you wonder if this view — the commercial versus the personal, the blockbuster versus the experimental art film — is as reductive as the 1970s model. In fact, Lucas has always made personal films, just not in the traditional sense. The very first time Lucas showed “Star Wars” to friends, with World War II movie dogfights standing in for the unfinished effects, Spielberg is reported to have said, “That movie is going to make $100 million, and I’ll tell you why — it has a marvelous innocence and naїveté in it, which is George, and people will love it.”
We inject ourselves into all the work we produce, whether it’s for ourselves or for someone else. The line between commercial and personal isn’t as definite as it sometimes seems.
Jonah Lehrer has a great piece on why “creative geniuses” still have failures (Dylan’s Down in the Groove or Steve Jobs’s hockey-puck mouse). Quoting Nietzsche:
Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration … shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.
Being a creative genius is more than just having making things. You also need to have the ability to sort those things and sift through to separate the good from the bad. So that raises the question, how do you learn to separate those things? In short: take a break, step away, don’t let yourself get too close:
[W]e have no idea which ideas are worthwhile, at least at first. So the next time you invent something new, don’t immediately file a patent, or hit the “publish” button, or race to share the draft with your editor. Instead, take a few days off: Play a stupid videogame, or go for a long walk, or sleep on it. Unless you take a brief break, you won’t be able to accurately assess what you’ve done.
I absolutely loved everything about this piece from Susan Cain in The New York Times on the importance of solitude in the creative process. If I were to describe how I feel in a paragraph, it might be pretty close to this:
[T]he most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this idea of solitude and being alone with your thoughts. I think this can mean taking time away from your team/collaborators to collect your thoughts or write and think, but I also think this means getting away from social media—closing Facebook and Twitter and getting away from blogs for a while. I’ve been doing this more recently and have found and have found it hugely helpful in my work and life.
Jonah Lehrer explores the idea that true creativity is birthed within constraints and predetermined frames:
Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations. As Paul Valery declared: “A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difﬁculties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them.”
I’ve always said that the best work, especially for designers, comes from figuring out how to work through the constraints (whether that be time, money, etc). Constraints provide a framework to start from and then an opportunity to find new solutions. I’m reminded of a quote from the children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney from when I heard him speak earlier this year:
I love watercolor because of the limitations. And it’s within those limitations that I find new possibilities.
The renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami originally wanted to be a musician and explains how everything he learned about writing he learned from Jazz:
Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.
It’s always interesting to me how areas of interest outside our fields seem to always teach us the most about our craft.
I just finished watching the documentary The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. Originally filmed in 1966 and introduced by Steve Allen, the 45-minute telecast features the legendary jazz musician Bill Evans in conversation with his brother, music teacher Harry Evans on the creativity of jazz, improv, and teaching music. This is one of my favorite parts, featuring Evans talking about the ideas behind improvisation.
If you have 25 minutes this weekend, I recommend watching Saul Bass’s short documentary film, Why Man Creates. The film was produced in 1968 and written by design icon Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon and provide a look at creativity through a series of animated vignettes.
I’ve included the entire documentary, in two parts via YouTube, after the jump. Enjoy.
Part three of the online video series Everything is a Remix is all about The Elements of Creativity. The idea behind creativity and innovation is that it must happen in a network—no good ideas are ever birthed in isolation—they must build on what has come before.
I highly recommended Steven Johnson’s excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From that really dives into this idea. I completely devoured this book and it’s easily one of my favorite books I’ve read this year so far.
But no matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing, it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess – but it’s agony, agony, agony – while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world – and that’s the creative process which so few people understand.
It involves an indestructible sort of fidelity, an insane sort of hope, and indescribable sort of…well, it’s love, isn’t it? There’s no other work for it…And don’t throw Mozart at me…I know he claimed his creative process was no more than a form of automatic writing, but the truth was he sweated and slaved and died young giving birth to all that music. He poured himself out and suffered. That’s the way it is. That’s creation…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process. It’s in the nature of things.
So in the end, every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.
“Fundamentally, it’s an art of composition, the same way that, if you’re a musician or a composer especially, you’re trying to compose something that is coherent and holds together, the same way that our memories are coherent and hold together, but our experiences are not. We take in our experiences and then put them together in a way that makes sense to our personalities and explains our lives and our friends. But the experience itself can be very incoherent and sort of uncomfortable”
Look at that, a just-about-perfect definition of the creative process in three sentences. It’s all about organizing: taking each experiencing, processing it and framing it, and then making something new and real and true.
This past week, I’ve found myself involved in multiple conversations about keeping and organizing inspiration folders. I have a fairly elaborate, yet strangely simple system that I’ve been using for a few years that some people seem to be interested in. I think all designers keep a folder like this to some extent so thought it might be helpful to break down my system here for those that are interested.
This is a different kind of post than usually appears on the blog, but I think it fits into the overall arc I’ve established here as it can be a factor in doing your best creative work. And let’s face it, we’re all nerds here. We love peeking under the hood to see how something works and finding better taxonomies and systems. If posts about technology, organization, taxonomy, general nerdity aren’t your thing, you can stop right here. But, if you are into that sort of thing or are simply looking for a better way to organize your inspiration folder, then hop on in. It could be a long ride. Ready? Let’s go!