If you’re anything like me, you’re almost obsessively curious about how other creatives work. From their daily routines to how they sketch out ideas to where they find inspiration, I love taking a peek into the minds of other creative folk. I’m such a voyeur to be honest.
So today I thought it’d be fun to walk you through my own creative process, from idea generation to the final product. Like many creatives, I struggle with self-doubt (read: hating myself and everything I make), perfectionism, and comparison, so I’ll touch on those topics as well.
Whether you’re looking for ways to shake up your own creative process or are simply a nosy bugger like me, I hope you enjoy. Let’s go!
01. Coming up with ideas
Graphic design for clients is my bread and butter, but I find joy in other creative mediums as well, and because of this my creative process can vary just a bit. However, whether I’m designing a brand identity, art directing a photoshoot, or writing a screenplay (yes, I write screenplays!) I find there’s a general path I take every time.
As far as coming up with ideas, I typically do it one of two ways:
a. Have an idea randomly pop in my head while I’m showering, doing the dishes, poking my dog, etc.
b. Consciously and intentionally generate ideas
Nine times out of ten it’s the former that happens, and even with client projects I usually have an immediate idea of the direction I want to go in (which still requires lots and lots of refining and reiterating). I’ve always been a chronic daydreamer, and I love creating more than anything on earth. So naturally my mind is almost always in create mode (much to the frustration of the person I’m talking to at any given time).
Whether an idea is spontaneous or I sit down and brainstorm, I keep track and organize them in the exact same way.
Enter Evernote, my BFF4L.
Being both a daydreamer and obsessive organizer, a convenient yet comprehensive note system is key for me. My Evernote is currently organized into several different categories, including separate areas for creative, business, and personal.
How I organize within Evernote (click to enlarge)
I’m a digital girl and get twitchy when I have to rely on pen and paper, so hopefully the second an idea pops into my head I can quickly open Evernote and categorize it. But if that isn’t possible, I’ll write it down on an index card or Post-It and either transcribe it or scan the image into Evernote later on.
I love organizing my ideas this way because being able to brain dump is huge. I’m one of those people who worries about forgetting or losing track of something if I don’t write it down, and I’ll fixate on a new idea until what I’m working on – my current priority – is eventually just tossed to the side. Automatically filing away my ideas not only clears my head, but gives me a long list of jumping-off points for future projects.
Idea generation is honestly my favorite part of creating. I love getting to sit around and daydream, and come up with ideas without having to edit or analyze them. I can think outside the box and get a little weird, which is always the best.
02. Researching + gathering inspiration
Once I’ve chosen an idea to explore, I’ll dive into the research/inspiration process. This is where the different project types really differ, especially if it’s for a client project, as they require more thorough, business-related research (like target market discovery, user behavior, conversion rates, etc.). I’ll save that part of my branding process for another post, because it’s pretty in-depth.
Tumblr and Pinterest are hands-down my favorite places to find inspiration. A lot of designers prefer the old-school method of sitting down with a stack of books, and while I have my own beloved library, I can find a much broader range of ideas on these two sites.
Out of the two, Tumblr is my fave. Pinterest is like Tumblr’s classier, more straight-laced big sister, and I find lots of graphic design inspiration there. But for that weird, out-of-the-box stuff, there’s no better place than Tumblr. (Like, I’ll certainly find a perfectly styled dinner table on Pinterest, but will I find a photo of a polar bear biting into a block of ice filled with apples? Not likely).
It’s funny because I’m actually not active on Tumblr and don’t have an account I update regularly. Instead I have a bookmark folder where I save all the blogs I like for one reason another, and star the ones I like-like. Then, on a regular basis, I’ll go through the list and check my favorite blogs for updates. It’s probably not the most efficient method – checking every blog to see if they did or didn’t update recently can be tedious – but I honestly can’t stand the Tumblr user interface, and I don’t need another social media platform to keep tabs on.
For now, this method works just fine.
And it’s pretty straightforward from there. On my desktop I have a folder where I keep all my inspiration images, which contains its own nested folders. I also have separate folders on my desktop for graphic design-related inspiration and general creative ideas (both containing, of course, their own nested folders).
My current desktop (yes, I have Kanye’s Fade video on my desktop). You’ll see said folders in the bottom right corner (click to enlarge)
Inside my main inspiration folder (click to enlarge)
In the screenshot above, under “Folders” the first one says “Style”, which is where I keep my personal style inspiration. Under that it says “Savanna’s Things”, which is a folder I’ve been putting off organizing (ditto “ORGANIZE!”…). There are more nested folders inside “Misc.” and “Architecture/Interior Design”.
As you can see, I have quite a lot of photos, with this folder alone containing a couple thousand. For years I would just throw my saved images into their respective folders, but after a while I couldn’t find anything when I wanted it and it was a big ol’ mess.
Now I take a minute to add tags to every single image I save, and you can see some of those tags in the bottom left of the screenshot above. To do this on a Mac, just right-click any image, and click “Get Info”; add tags about the image to the box at the top and voilà! You can search for any of those keywords and the correct images will pop up.
Inside my graphic design inspiration folder (click to enlarge)
03. Shitty first draft
For client projects I’ll put together a moodboard with a handful of collected images, but for other project types it’s not so structured. I might create a folder for the project and stick the images in there, or I might just take note of inspirational elements and use my own idea as a jumping-off point.
Now, every creative has her own point in the process where she has to talk herself down from a ledge, and mine is the first draft. Starting is my Moby Dick, every single time. Even when I’ve done my research and gathered inspiration, that blank page may as well be an endless black abyss with how menacing it is.
For me, this is where the self-doubt kicks in.
What the hell am I doing? I have no idea what I’m doing.
This sucks, what was I thinking?
Why can’t I design like THAT person does? She makes it look so easy.
I am literally the worst designer on the face of the earth.
You’d think considering this exact dance happens every time I sit down to create, I’d know by now to ignore it. But I’ve learned that the human brain doesn’t work that way, and you have to push past that resistance every single day.
The best way I’ve found to do this – and prevent total creative paralysis – is to just make a line. Make that first stroke, and there’s no turning back. If I actually make it my goal to create the worst possible first draft, I find I can create without procrastination getting the better of me. It’s sometimes even fun!
When it comes to self-comparison, I’m Guilty with a capital G. I don’t think anyone can make things without looking over at someone else’s paper and comparing the two. But I’m also incredibly inspired by the work of other designers and creatives, and when I find myself falling down a rabbit hole of comparison, I try to remind myself of that fact.
I like to thank that person – either in my own head or by reaching out – for making such inspirational stuff, because it’s something for me to keep working towards and it serves as motivation. If we were the best in the world at what we do, it wouldn’t be much fun after a while, would it?
If things are really bad, I’ll re-read certain passages from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. This book should be required reading for all perfectionists and creative people, FOR REAL. Get a copy right now if you haven’t read it.
Depending on my mood and the project, for graphic design work I’ll either start with a sketch or dive straight into my design program of choice (Illustrator for all the things). Lately though, I’ve been LOVING starting with a sketch, and it’s now my favorite way to begin a project.
There’s some science-y stuff out there about how working with your hands engages a different part of your brain, and gets your creative juices flowing. When you start out digitally you subconsciously want to edit as you go along, which not only sets up crazy expectations for your work, but disrupts the necessary mess of the creative process.
Some weird sketches – credit to Jessica Hische for the “ght” typography practice (click to enlarge)
When you sit down with a sketchbook and a pencil, you get to play. A lot of your sketches will be terrible, and that’s the point! I love drawing whatever comes to mind, and giving my eyes a break from the glare of a computer screen. When I draw I find myself in a more childlike state of mind, and what’s better for creativity than that?
Once I’ve grit my teeth and pushed through the first draft, I feel like a weight has been lifted. At this point I’ll take a break – whether it’s a day or a week – and go back to edit with fresh eyes.
04. Reworking and reworking and reworking…
I don’t typically ask for opinions on my work before it’s finished. I know many creatives who would find this sacrilege, but I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work for me. I find that very rarely is the feedback helpful or constructive, and sometimes only muddies up my original vision, sending me spiraling down a path of multiple versions and lots of second-guessing. (When something isn’t right with a project and I’m not liking how it looks, I find that I can figure it out and get back on track with a little space and mindful editing.)
I’m also very particular (read: picky) about what I make, and while everyone preaches about the importance of collaboration, I honestly work best by myself. It took me a long time to not feel bad about this, but at this point I’ve realized it’s just how I am.
Of course, there are exceptions depending on the project – sometimes collaboration is absolutely the best thing to do – but most of the time I’m happiest holed up at my desk, making stuff on my own.
Feedback is obviously super important when, for example, you’re designing a website for real users. But my research process before I begin design is ridiculously thorough, and I present my best work when I’ve been given the space to experiment and refine on my own.
With graphic design, what I’ll typically do is choose a few strong ideas (vectorizing any sketches) and bring them into a large design document where I can C+P and tweak all day long. Depending on how confident I’m feeling with the work, my editing process can range from a few hours to a few months, and in that time it’s not unusual for me to have a sudden thought while I’m vacuuming or whatever that the T should be wider, or that orange makes more sense than pink. And of course that thought will go straight into Evernote, where I can easily find and pull it out when I go back to the project.
It goes pretty much the same with other project types: for photography/mixed media projects I’ll separate Original/Favorites/Finals into their own folders, with writing projects I’ll go in and edit or tweak my outline, etc.
I’m still learning to take a break – rather than sit and try to force my way through it – when I get stuck. It’s weird but I usually have creative bursts in two-hour intervals, and if I sit and try to solve a problem for longer than that I hit a wall. I find I have much more clarity when I take my dog out or go get a bite to eat, than if I try to force the solution to the surface.
When creative block gets really sticky, I double back to the inspiration phase. I’m constantly inspired by the creativity and work of others, in every type of industry, and getting lost in their creative minds helps me find new motivation and inspiration for my own project. Great artists steal, after all (another great book to read).
05. Shipping it
Finishing something is just about as hard as starting for me. I’ve been known to obsessively tweak details of a design for weeks, even months, in an effort make it “perfect”, and sometimes even abandoning it altogether. There’s nothing noble about being a “perfectionist” who never produces anything, and I’m still learning to embrace imperfection instead of fear it.
When it comes to client work, obviously the deadlines help light a fire under my ass. But with personal projects it can be a lot trickier, because I can drag the thing out forever if I want to. I’ve been working through this by simply making more stuff, faster. I’ll challenge myself to design something in a short period of time and share it before I can dissect it, and I’ll remind myself that done is better than perfect.
Sometimes, a design or creative project just ends up fizzling out. Either I get bored with the idea (in terms of personal projects) or a realization/new information means the previous direction will no longer work. I only recently realized that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and not all projects are meant to be seen to completion or published. Every project either teaches you something or helps build your skills, and sometimes that’s all a project is meant to do. And it’s actually pretty freeing when you think about it!
So that’s my general creative process, and I hope you got something out of it! This was a meaty post, so props to you if you read the whole thing. Let me know if you have any more questions or if I forgot something :)
And I’d love to know…what’s your creative process like?