I spend a lot of time talking about creativity and the creative process. At work, after work, with designers and non-designers – even strangers on long flights aren’t safe from this frequent topic.
The number one thing I hear from non-designers is that they want to be creative, but “just aren’t”. They deeply admire creativity, and want to be creative but have blocked themselves from believing it possible. They lock it away in a little box that only other people seem to magically access.
This is so common that many of these people even joke that they’ve made a hobby out of collecting art supplies. Saving them for an unspecified project, resulting in a pile of brand new sketchbooks left to gather dust. Touching the cover lifts their spirits, but they feel shame at not living up to the perfect potential held within those pages.
But paper is just paper. It’s a renewable resource, much like your sparks of creativity. The only way to build a bonfire from those sparks is to add fuel. In this next exercise, we feed it fresh paper and all it’s potential. We are tasked with letting go of perfection in order to progress and nurture our creativity.
There’s an exercise I like to do with sketchbook collectors.
Open your favorite sketchbook. The one that brings you the most joy when you touch the cover. The one you truly covet.
Grab a pen.
On that very first page- Scribble. Scribble until you’ve released the fear of messing it up. Scribble, because now this is the worst page in the sketchbook. Because anything and everything that comes after is an improvement. Allow yourself room to grow.
Now, turn the page.
On this fresh, new page, I want you to scribble something smaller: a thoughtless jumble, but not enough to cover the page. Take a long moment to look at it. Flip it around, look at it from multiple angles. Start finding shapes inside the scribble – an eye, a hat, a mountain. Darken those lines and begin to find the picture. Add features, and try to use what’s already there to frame your decisions. Let your mind wander, and tell yourself a story about these lines. What are they? Where it is? What emotion does it elicit in you?
Sometimes, people will look at their own scribble and start judging it’s worthiness. If you’re struggling to overcome this, try scribbling with your eyes closed, or ask a friend to scribble for you. Happy scribbling!
Sometimes you need to start with a box to be able to think outside of one.
You see, creativity thrives on boundaries. It means having a framework to explore within rather than creating from nothing. That framework can be self-made – like your scribble. Begin with a single question: “Who is this person?” If it’s a landscape, ask “Is it day time?” Build your own framework, and the picture in your mind will become clearer. If creativity is a process of connecting the dots, and the more you explore the framework, the more dots you’ll discover. While it may feel like magic, the end result is the product of the creative process.
Outside of the sketchbook, we can use this same process. Whether you’re tasked with developing a product or want to understand your customers better, the questions are the same: Who are your customers? What problem do they experience? How are they currently solving it? We can use research to answer these questions and build the framework. Real data allows us to test our assumptions, and build creative solutions for real, verifiable needs.
So the next time someone tells you to think outside the box, just remember the box is a starting point. Build off what is already known, and continue to make new connections.