Friday, September 21, 2012

A Stick of Dynamite to Blast You Out Of Mediocrity

Alex Cornell (editor), Breakthrough!: Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination

I particularly like that Alex Cornell, a graphic designer himself, does not focus primarily on famous creative individuals in crafting this guide on overcoming the impediments to creativity. Of his ninety selected authors, only three—Douglas Rushkoff, Alexi Murdoch, and Daniel Dennett—count as even slightly well known. Even they have a primarily narrow, self-selecting audience.

Most of the creative professionals Cornell chooses are workaday creators, with a preponderance of designers and web professionals. These people have to create, in a regular and reliable way, if they want to get paid. These are not celebrities who can trade on their names to leverage years-long sabbaticals when the ideas dry up; this is creativity as a blue-collar enterprise, the way most of us experience it.

This slim book claims to offer “90 proven strategies,” but if you read it as a how-to, you’ll get frustrated in a hurry. The contributors’ essays run very short, most only a page or two, some barely longer than a Tweet. The main body of the text runs only 155 pages, and is so brief, you can flip through it as needed for inspiration. Some essays describe the techniques the authors use to break creative block; others speculate on ways you can break your blocks.

But I doubt even Cornell expects you to merely follow these prescriptions. All the newest research reveals that “creativity” is a complex melding of mental processes, always, changing, and always unique to the individual. If you find your creativity growing stagnant, the best way to fix that is to surprise yourself and try something new. These essays give you ideas how to do that, but more important, they provide new ways of seeing an age-old problem.

Some of the advice is good: reframe the problem. Get away from it for a while so you can see it with fresh eyes. Keep a running portfolio of successes (yours and others’) to delve into when you need to shake up the sediment. Get something on the page, screen, or design table, because having raw material you can refine or discard is better than having nothing. When all else fails, get some exercise.

Some of the advice is jokey, and suggests the authors were winking at Cornell. Hitchhike to Mexico? Check into an expensive hotel? I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take these very seriously, and the authors mean to rattle your cage. But surely Cornell knew that too, so I wonder why he put them into a book for which he expects truly blocked creative professionals to pay their scarce money.

Some of the advice is downright bad. Several writers suggest pouring a glass of wine or popping a beer. I cannot recommend highly enough against alcohol or drugs for creative professionals. Drunken minds produce many ideas, but remember or record few. As for drugs, study your history: amphetamines made WB Yeats and Philip K Dick immensely productive, but led both into irretrievable death spirals.

Let me offer a few quotes I think embody some of the best suggestions in the book. These are not necessarily the sexiest, though you’ll find those easily, since the book designer has an eye for good pull quotes. (The book itself is a masterwork of “less is more” design, as much fun to look at and hold as to read.) Herewith some very worthy nuggets:

Creative block is the result of too much thinking.
—Camm Rowland

I am a proponent of practicing multiple disciplines.
—Shaun Inman

Try pen and paper. It forces you to focus on the basics, on simple solutions.
—Marc Johns

The more mistakes you make, the more you learn, the more you grow as an artist and person.
—Tim Navis

Today increasingly merciless capitalist competition demands that an artist be primarily an entrepreneur.
—Ulrich Schnauss

Creativity requires conditioning, intellectual skills, discipline and preparation.
—Nice Collective

If you’re stuck in the middle of the design, it probably means that you’re not asking enough questions.
—Robert Andersen

Learning can be a great way to generate new ideas and to make sure you don’t overuse old ones.

Take notes, constantly.
—Aaron Koblin

The era of the romantic artist, alone in a garrett with a candle and a notebook, sketch pad, or staff paper is gone. Today’s media-saturated society cannot stomach the self-indulgent showmanship that artists once cultivated. As an artist today, you have a responsibility to create with professionalism and purpose. That, more than anything, is the lesson this book teaches, if readers are willing to learn.

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