Creativity is a muscle, much in the same vein that muscles are... well, muscles. In fact, there are a bunch of things I can liken to muscles. Intelligence is a muscle. Skill is a muscle. And they all need to work out to stay in working order.
Perhaps the biggest reminder of this to me is intelligence. In my high-school years, I was far from being the best of the best, but I was a regular honor-roll recipient — smart enough to mingle with the formidable dangers of the Pythagorean Theorem and long division. And now, less than a decade removed from school, I have trouble with even the most simple of maths. Of course, I have a calculator to help me with that, but often the process of making maths happen is the biggest hurdle.
I'd imagine the same is true for design. I've got the tools at the ready to solve any given problem, but not regularly exercising the process of design will inevitably hamper creativity. Much like my brain muscles get cramped up these days when I try the maths, after 3 years of designing ads for a local alternative news weekly, self-employment has been a bit of a challenge. My workflow has changed considerably during this transition, and not necessarily for the better. Where I used to find my days filled with designing things that I didn't much enjoy designing, at least I was designing. Nowadays, I spend much of my time trying to run a business — sending emails, replying to emails, making phone calls, losing bids on jobs, etc. — and I can noticeably feel my creative muscles weakening. While the end result is still great work I am proud to present to clients, the process takes longer than it used to. Which ends up resulting in many late nights finishing projects, or often starting over from scratch as the clock hands tick past midnight and into the one o'clock hour.
Enter Matt Gondek, local illustrator with a penchant for monsters and nice thick hand-drawn key lines. We were both at a recent Creative Mornings event, chatting over some hot Zeke's coffee. Conversation eventually shifted to my fledgling design operation, and I expressed these same griefs to Matt — struggling to find new clients, not doing enough actual design work, etc. His response was quick, simple and on-point.
Do more work for yourself.
Rather than looking at these long slow winter months as a bane to the independent design profession, flip the lack of creative work into a positive, and use the spare time to design what you want to design. As Matt was quick to mention, these long slow winter months should be a designer's playground. Start a few projects for yourself, do your dream work, and stick it in your portfolio as an example of what you can do when you are at your best and free from constraints.
It's a notion I've heard many times before, often at lectures or presentations. And its a notion that has always been in the forefront of my mind. But for some reason its still something I never took completely to heart — perhaps because I had always thought of the concept as one that takes time away from client work. I had been thinking about things from the wrong perspective. And perhaps it all sounds more believable coming from a peer rather than some rockstar graphic designer on a big fancy pedestal (not that Matt Gondek isn't a rockstar, mind you). It is simple advice that has the potential to solve a number of problems... and it sounds pretty enjoyable to boot.
In fact, this silly little gunslinger doodle from last year led to a ton of work in 2013, essentially convincing me to add illustration into my professional repertoire — which has come to make me significantly more money than my identity work has in the same time span. All a direct result of sitting there one afternoon and designing for fun.
So, I suppose with the new year hitting hard, the timing is perfect to actively work out these weak and under-utilized creative muscles in a new way. Luckily I've got performance enhancing drugs (coffee).