How I learned to be REALLY creative
As I grew up, being a “creative child,” which was the description my school psychologist used to explain why I didn’t care for school or the usual subjects like math and why I wasn’t like the other children, my mother would get frustrated and call me “bull-headed, just like your great grandfather!” There was little hope for me being anything else but a pain-in-the-butt artist. It was, unfortunately, that incorrigible demeanor I had, either through genetics or experiences that would keep me from being an artist.
Talent for space, shapes and colors would never be enough until I learned to open my mind. Just having the talent to enthrall the other kids in my class, the “normal ones” who would gather around to watch me draw dinosaurs eating army tanks and superheroes ripping the head off our teacher and then point and tattle to that very same teacher that I was drawing naughty pictures — the very same kids who grew up to be Wall Street brokers, lawyers and politicians — would not be enough to make me an artist for my career. As I would find out years later, neither would art school. Not at first.
Things were different in high school. I was allowed to take elective courses and chose, of course, lots of art classes. I spent three of five days in my week with the same teacher, in the same room, just trying different things, using whatever material I could find, or sitting, copying the drawings of Jack Kirby, hoping one day to be a comic book artist like him. I actually got to meet the man and shoved my ripped out notebook pages with various sketches at him. “Yeah, very nice, kid!” he said with a big cigar clenched in his teeth. With that rave review, I continued on the same path until I stepped into art school.
Eighteen year-old mind of moosh
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I started art school by taking a few night courses while working days and it all seemed so easy when I got to pick my lessons. To their credit, when I entered full-time, the school required a foundation year of exploratory classes; painting, sculpture, life drawing and art history. Little by little, the ability to draw like Kirby was ripped from me and I resented my “idiot teachers” as artsy-fartsy types who knew nothing. There was that bull-headed nature of mine that held me back from so many things and so much understanding in life.
It wasn’t until my sculpture teacher, another poor soul I labeled as an idiot, without fair cause, failed my term paper, that I started my road to understanding how to open my mind to creativity. She had taken us to an art show in lower Manhattan, in a sand-filled lot and gave us a tour and explanation of each piece, which naturally I ignored. The show, Art on the Beach, was, as I think about it now, brilliant, thoughtful and creative. How I regret entitling my term paper, “Fart on the Beach.”
It wasn’t hard enough she failed that paper but she also opened it up to class discussion as to why I failed. I was mortified and I’m sure, red as the devil as she went over why I was wrong in front of my friends and the usual art school douche bags in the class, the ones who took delight at another student being torn to pieces. When she finished, the douche bags started in on what they thought of me and while I remember wanting to walk out, swearing at all of them, never to return to school, I didn’t. I took my lumps and just figured they were morons who would never amount to anything.
The teacher insisted that she and I revisit the exhibit so I could rewrite my paper. “Fart with the Bitch” I cruelly joked to my friends as we smoked a joint in the park between classes. I sadly regret that title now as it serves to remind me how unbearable I truly was.
Meeting at the sandy lot again on a hot spring day, the teacher walked me around the exhibit again explaining how each piece was important and the thought and purpose behind each one. The face-to-face, one-on-one interaction didn’t allow me to ignore what was being said and what I was learning. I opened up a little more — more than I had in my life, I must admit. I rewrote my paper and received an A grade. I also considered what the supreme douche bag in the class had yelled at me, embarrassing me in front of my peers, that I “always did the same thing in all of [my] classes.”
A good beating knocks sense into most of us
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From that point, I started to explore. Whatever my mind told me to do with a sculpture or drawing, I did something completely different — something I would never consider doing — something completely alien to my sensibilities. It was my first step into being creative.
It wasn’t, however, a complete and instant transformation then and there. It took years for me to understand the message many teachers were trying to hammer into my thick skull. One teacher, a famous magazine art director, who I admired for his position, autographed one of his magazines for me at the end of the semester with the inscription, “it was a pleasure having you in my class and watching you completely miss the message.”
At the time I laughed but years later, as I apologized to him in an email, I understood what he meant. I had missed his message as I did with many great teachers, some too long gone for me to thank and apologize to them. To their credit, they must have seen something in me that I couldn’t see myself — something yet to be released, past my stubbornness.
Don’t be good, be GREAT!
The motto of my alma mater was, “being good is not enough when you dream of being great.” Surely that is what every creative wants out of life and as my career went on I couldn’t understand why I was never truly happy with my work. I hid myself in studio jobs administrating, rather than designing but I couldn’t stay away. I worked as an illustrator for years but again, it just didn’t click with me. I considered myself mediocre and that’s a terrible feeling to have. Sure, there are mediocre creatives who consider themselves great and aren’t but to have talent and not be pleased with yourself is torturous.
From that point on, doing good work was not enough; it had to be GREAT! Part of that thinking was to look at an idea when I was done and say to myself, “this is good, but what’s the next step that will make it great?”
I do remember the day I had my creative epiphany. I had left a very constrictive design job where every editor and administrator fought to rule the output of the art department. What came out was boring garbage and I was glad to be out of a place that made me physically sick before leaving for the office each and every morning.
I was interviewing for a job with Tom Corey, the owner and creative director of Big Blue Dot. During the interview, he asked me to name some of my favorite logos. I told him I thought the most innovative logo was the Nickelodeon logo ( this was in 1998 and not the current logo). He smiled and asked if I knew he had designed the logo. He explained his thought process behind creating a kinetic logo where the standard was the simplicity of the type, always white against the Nickelodeon palette of orange. Within any shape, be it a ball, dog, rocket, bird or what-have-you, the type would remain the same for the identity. He also gave me an inside look at his newest logo creation for the Noggin channel.
As with the Nickelodeon logo, the Noggin logo was ever-changing with the static smiling lower face. Absolutely brilliant and inspiring!
Yes, it was the late Mr. Corey who shot me between the eyes with the creativity bullet. He kicked my ass over the line of good into understanding great. I didn’t get the job but the lesson on creative thinking was worth more than he was willing to pay me.
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As my career progressed, with my confidence in my abilities and excitement at new challenges, my peers laid praise on me as a brainstorming genius, a conceptual master and, at my last position, I received certain tags such as the “King of Die Cuts” and the “Master of Paper Engineering and Evil.” I’m not sure what the evil part was, but I’ll take any clean, professional nickname I can get.
What you should take away from this
When I speak to students entering art school, I like to start by insisting they respect their fellow students as they will form the important network that will follow them through their careers. The second thing is to impress upon them the importance of opening their minds to new things and new ways of thinking.
There are different teachers with different thoughts on design and each one has something great to take away as their student. Open your mind to the possibilities and not the boring realities you have learned in eighteen years of life. There are many, many more years of growth and realization of what can be and not what others say things should be.
When I speak to senior art students, about to graduate and enter the industry, I again remind them about their base network of their classmates but the important thing I want them to remember is to look at their finished work and ask themselves, “is this good or is it great? Is there a step I’m missing? What could be done to take this to the final level?”
What makes GREAT work?
There is always another dimension that can be explored, another step that can be taken before falling over the edge… and that falling over the edge is sometimes how we learn to fly. Logos can be more than just a signature for a business — they can be a personality. Even to look at the brilliant type work of Ji Lee, and his ability to see more than words is amazing and inspirational to every designer.
Why does a logo have to have the same parameters they have had for centuries? In the age of digital movement, paper-thin t‑ink and lenticular technology, what is the future of paperless logos?
Web sites, applying the same thinking, can be an immersive experience and not just a layout of blocks of information. It’s not just the delivery of information through programming languages and other web technology that defines web design — it’s how sites and apps are designed by look and function. Will you be able to look at a site you’ve designed and see a level of innovative design no one else has seen? Can you say, “how will I make this different and exciting?” This is the freeing process to experience a leap into a creativity you have never thought you could imagine.
Even the use of graphic software allows for effects that can be taken to a level of wondrous creativity. Take the textbook lessons and explore how they can be twisted and turned and you can discover something great. Although a tool, we are the masters of our computer and not the other way around.
As with the paper engineering I mentioned before, why does an ad, brochure or billboard have to be a rectangle? Why does a piece of paper have to lie flat in two dimensions when it can be three dimensions? Imagine all possibilities your designs can have and take it farther… as far as your mind will allow and budgets be damned! It’s better to aim high and let others bring you back to Earth.
Yes, it will be disappointing at times but within you, the feeling of the ability to put forth your best… to be great and not just good, is a feeling you will always treasure. If I look back over my career, I feel a sick anxiety about the early years. I suppose I should cut myself some slack about being young and headstrong, as youth can be, but I still, as part of my bull-headedness, hate the time I wasted not thinking creatively. It bothers me more than having to tone down my great ideas into just good solutions due to someone else. At least I know my own capabilities and that’s the point of being a designer.
Have you ever faced a moment of epiphany with your sense of creativity? Do you feel you are still waiting for such an epiphany? What has inspired you to reach farther with your sense of creative thought? Let us know in the comments.
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