What do you think I’m doing? I’m working, silly.
I used to walk by my writing partner’s office all the time, and glance in on the way past. Often, I’d see him with his feet up, leaning back in his chair with his green tea steeping on his desk. Every so often, I’d stop and stare at him. He’d look over from his daydream-like state, pencil to his forehead, and a blank word document open on his screen, as if to say “What?” Before he could inquire, I’d just pop in with, “What are you doing, Karl?” He’d look back at me flatly for a moment, then he’d grin (just slightly, as was his tradition) and reply, “I’m writing.”
I learned a lot from Karl. Not the visual craft, specifically, as he was a copy-writer (though he has a great eye for design as well), but rather a way of working. He’s a smart guy. Well read, well written and generally very intuitive about connecting a concept to a brief. Karl’s approach was to spend most of his time thinking, and a small part of his time creating. I didn’t get into the groove myself for some time, but it eventually began to rub off on me, as well. It wasn’t long before people were stopping at my office door and asking, “Hey Shawn, what are you doing?” I’d look back, marker in my hand, staring at a bunch of scribbles taped to my wall and say, “What do you think I’m doing? I’m working, silly.”
Letting your mind wander around without the burden of a layout page on your screen, or a half completed InDesign file printed on your desk is a wonderful way to develop good ideas and concepts. If you have a graphic design project with a load of copy, 4 photos and a logo, there’s not much point in staring off into space. Might as well just get to it. But, if you have a concept to nail, just turn the Mac off for a while, grab a marker pad and just “take a stroll” through some creative territory. Do some silly sketches, or weird little doodles to get your mind flowing, but don’t dive right into an 8.5×11 layout page just yet. Take some time to imagine cool things you haven’t created yet, but not in detail. Think big brush-strokes and half imagined fonts and colours. Don’t throw down Pantone 185 red and Frutiger Bold right away. It might kill an idea before it gets going, if you’re not in the groove yet. Be, instead, like a twig floating down the stream. Lay back, stare up at the sky and give your brain time to scan for influences and lock into ideas. When you get a bite, scratch it down quickly, then jump back in the stream. Those little scratches will be all the reminder you need later, and if it’s a great idea, it’ll design itself in your head. Just sit back now and again, and let it happen.
My first Creative Director had a great line on his business card: “Always thinking. Sometimes writing.” Be like the twig, my friend.