The Creative Process
Or, Perfect is the Enemy of done
For a few months now I've been dabbling at two separate drafts: 'Creative Process,' and 'Perfect Is The Enemy Of Done.' Last night I realized they are, in fact, the same thing.
Allow me to explain: basically, my creative process boils down to "make something awful, so you have somewhere to start, something to correct." I employ this approach in design, painting, sculpture, writing; anything that involves making something from nothing, at least as it relates to imagination and originality. I use this technique when I'm feeling blocked or lazy or overwhelmed or on a deadline, which is essentially always, and all at the same time. Of course, I only remember to use said technique after I've already spent a fair amount of time banging my head against a wall, sighing dramatically, wringing my hands and depression napping. I wait till the last possible second and then somehow manage to bang out a whole heap of work.
Before I get to the ‘bang out a whole heap of work’ part, I start with something awful, or at least woefully lacking. The magic of my process is the inevitable reaction I have when faced with something awful and woefully lacking: I MUST FIX IT. It is my intrinsic need to solve problems [and improve upon failures] that ensures I will respond to what I am facing; I will toil away till I feel at least somewhat proud and unashamed of the outcome.
I can’t remember the exact inception of this approach, but it’s likely it began my freshman year in art school. The first two semesters included a series of core classes: drawing, light/color/design, 3-D design and Art History. It was in the 3-D class that I was introduced to the process of developing new ideas by first constructing arbitrary sketch models. At least they felt arbitrary, but really they were not.
Each new project began by brainstorming with lightweight cardboard structures that we shaped with cuts, scores, bends, rips, whatever. We were instructed to bear in mind the importance of including a mass, plane and line, and that said elements must demonstrate “contrast and variety.” Aside from that, we were free to make whatever the hell we wanted. And in fact, we weren’t even told what the final objective or requirement was until after we had completed the construction and refinement of our “arbitrary sketches.” One such project involved using trash instead of cardboard, later evolving into a freshman opus, but we had no idea where the assignment was going when we started.
In design, either product or graphic, I first assemble a set of elements. With product design, I employ the sketch method I described above, generating physical brainstorms which I then visualize in different contexts as a means of pushing an idea into a more practical reality. I imagine to what purpose the shapes lend themselves: Is it something handheld? A space? How does a person interact with what I’m designing? WHAT am I designing? It may seem like putting the cart before the horse, exploring the form before the function, but this technique allows for what’s known as “blue-sky thinking” and often leads to surprising innovation.
With graphic design, my starting elements are blocks of text, shapes to represent the placement and use of imagery, color palettes, some typographic hierarchies and examples. I prefer to do this work entirely on the computer, but many others start with thumbnail sketches; speed is important to me, and it feels like double-work to sketch something on paper only to recreate it digitally as the design progresses. The immediacy and trueness of using software from the start, allow me to find out sooner rather than later what might be lacking or problematic, like font selection or document size. Working out these practical concerns frees up the more creative, idea-generating part of my mind to labor in the background undisturbed. It is this freedom that most affects my process; if I were to start a project with the intention of designing something brand new, entirely from scratch, I’d get overwhelmed and probably wind up staring at my screen in a stupor, devoid of motivation or inspiration. To instead focus on completing menial tasks that are at least in service of the final product, results in my solving the problem by detour. There’s just something about raw materials and building block elements that provoke me into pushing ahead.
When painting, I begin by drawing with motion. I move along a canvas with charcoal pastel in a manner that resembles a dance; improvised, spontaneous and somewhat blind. The resulting lines are almost always enough to start a reaction. I pull out patterns and larger shapes, fill some things in, cover others, introduce color and mass and texture; each decision builds upon the former until the piece finally shows itself.
Sculptures begin with construction, the selection of a single object or material. I set something at a particular stance, then attach another single object or material. And again. And again. I react, I break, I reattach, I turn, I look.
It is worth noting that I don’t create sketches for any painting or sculpture. I only create in these mediums when I become overwhelmed with a compulsion to create. Though I may sometimes have an image in mind, the process of painting or sculpting controls the result. It is only once I’ve completed something that I’m able to see the subject. And I only know when something is completed once the reactions stop. If I were to force the work, it would have no soul because it would have no reason to exist.
My method of writing relies on the same sequence. I start with an idea which is almost always a title, or draft of a title. I sit with these idea-titles until they feel ready to hatch, till the sight of them stirs something within me. At that point, I open the blank but titled page, and I sit. I drink coffee. Maybe I do some googling. Then I write what I intend to be a rough first line or intro. Sometimes it ends there and I decide the idea hasn't incubated long enough. Sometimes a flurry of words tumbles out of my mind's mouth and down through my fingertips. I see it, I hear it, I dump it out as fast as I can. I often pause for more coffee, a bathroom break, a scratch of a cat head. I return to my seat and continue as needed. I break things here too; reassembling faulty structures and contextualizing ideas that got lost along the way. This process goes on indefinitely till I feel ready to begin reading aloud to myself so I can see if what my mouth-mouth says matches what my mind-mouth created.
No matter the medium, my approach is always the same. The value of employing my loosey-goosey, “make something awful” technique allows me to get started on new projects without judgment or pressure. It’s not always the best outcome, but at least there is an outcome — something is always better than nothing, at least concerning creativity. Perfection is a myth and being able to let go of the struggle to make something flawless means that I am free to make more. Eventually, the habit of making more things and more often, will lead to stronger skills and higher quality. Still, ‘perfect’ remains the enemy of done. And I prefer done.