5 Tips on How To Be Creative On-Demand

My Muse isn’t returning my text messages. I think she skipped town with all my best ideas.

If you’re in a creative field you are daily called upon to be creative on-demand. To those just starting out in their career this can feel daunting and can generate no small amount of performance anxiety. The weathered professionals among us feel it too but are just better at hiding it. Far from the simple formula of A+B=C, the creative process entails adopting an ethos of creativity in one’s life, seeing yourself as a creative person in every sense, not just in the compartmentalized setting of the work environment. You are a creative person, you don’t just do creative work, 9–5, M–F.

I remember my first design job out of college where I worked for a greeting card company. Due to schedule lag times, we were required to work on holiday themed products during times of the year that bore no relationship to the actual holiday. Christmas came each June, Valentine’s Day arrived in November. Hard to get into the Christmas spirit on a beautiful summer day. It was very difficult to find my muse, poetically speaking, and be creative at-will. I didn’t feel “inspired.” My employer, however, couldn’t wait for my inspiration to come knocking so neither could I.

I’ve learned several tips, from a combination of trial and error and observing more senior professionals, that assist me in coming up with original, fresh and creative ideas whenever I am asked to do so by following these steps.

1.Expose yourself. You’ll never come up with the next great idea living under a rock; get your butt out there and expose yourself to every different discipline. Go to gallery openings, go shopping just to gather ideas (when I worked at Mattel we called it cool hunting), look through design publications such as CA, HOW and Fast Company, follow inspiring people on Twitter. The idea is not to rip off other people’s work but to stimulate your mind with all the cool stuff you’re seeing.

2. Build a library. Gather a collection of books and other resources you can turn to when your next project comes along. Keep a journal of ideas, files of ads, business cards, brochures and web addresses that contain ideas you love. Typography books, design annuals, heck, even that cool paint swatch brochure you saw at Lowe’s last week could be your next great inspiration.

3. Create Sacred Space. This means carving out time to actually focus on design in a space that encourages this process. You aren’t going to have an “a-ha” moment driving around looking for a Starbucks, talking on the phone and listening to Lady Gaga on the radio. Creativity is the result of a complex set of processes that require interruption-free focus. Text messages, emails, phone calls and other interruptions are the enemy of this process. Find a place untouched by distractions where the mind has time to wander and weave, explore and imagine.

4. Get away from it. So I went to the museum, flipped through a magazine and am sitting in my sacred space but nothing is happening! Now what? Stop thinking about it. Put it away and go do something else. Stressing over not having an idea will only make it worse. Trust your creative subconscious. The ideas are there and will emerge in time.

I did a project last week. A straightforward black & white “appreciation” ad: the < one > company wishes to thank the < other > company for their continued support, that sort of thing. You know, cheery. I struggled all day to come up with an idea that should have taken an hour or two. I wasn’t happy with the result but sent it to the client for feedback anyway. To my great embarrassment their comment was, and I quote, “Looks sort of crypt-like and funereal, kind of like a headstone. Can you go in different direction?” After I recovered, I put it away and didn’t think about it until the next morning. When I got up and looked at it again, voilà, I had a great new idea that was approved that afternoon.

5. Consult with colleagues. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Or woman. Show your work to colleagues and other creative professionals for feedback — something I should probably have done with my “crypt-like” ad. Some of the best ideas are made better by having them seen by fresh sets of eyes from a circle of respected peers. They will see things from a different perspective and can challenge and provoke you to do that much better.

So go and be creative. Now.

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Read my related articles: 3 Tech-Related Ways to Fuel Your Creativity and Why Your Smartphone Is Killing Your Creativity.
For another perspective, read this article by Hollywood screenwriter Mark Sanderson: Screenwriters need to observe and be fully present.



Filed under Creativity

2 responses to “5 Tips on How To Be Creative On-Demand

  1. Mark

    This article hits home as I too had to come up with creative ideas recently under a deadline. Your articles are always inspiring and seem to appear just when I need them on my creative journey. Keep up the fantastic work!

  2. I’ve always found putting something away; looking at it again the next day, the next week, causes me to view my writing in a fresh perspective. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, “Did I write that?” Revisions are sure to follow.

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