Between Creative and Technical

Between Creative and Technical by James White

I recently received an email from a fellow designer named James. I’m not really one to reply to emails in public via the blog, but the nature of his email is something that I’ve seen a few times before and thought it might be relevant to others out there. James tells me a bit about his struggle in the design industry, being just out of school, and asks some questions on how he might find his way in the field, specifically with his own work. Here is the short version of his note to me:

“I recently graduated in multimedia, and I’m not particularly happy with the development side of my work. I would really like to push my graphic design work, but the nature of my studies has turned me into a bit of a “jack of all trades, master of none”, For example my knowledge of design for print is lacking and I know 10 times more about photoshop than illustrator.

I’m just lost on how to take it to the next level as I have many ideas but still feel very intimidated, and I have no personal style (rather opting to hop from trend to trend, spending most of my time envying the work of others!). if you have the time any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.”

I know this is a pitfall with a lot of designers and artists out there especially in early career mode, and I’m no exception. So I thought this might make for a good post on the blog (with James’ permission) if it helps out other like-minded designers out there who might have similar questions. Bear in mind, I write this based solely on my own experiences.

1. Pursuit of ‘Style’

I spent a lot of time during my early career (starting in 1998) trying to find “my own style”. I had been watching artists online developing their own unique work for a couple of years at that point, experimenting with the same graphic software I was using and creating results that boggled my mind. This is when I registered Signalnoise.com and started diving into Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash on my own time just like the artists I admired. This became intensely frustrating for me as I tried to force my creativity in different directions, almost entirely based on the work and direction of others. It didn’t work, which led to a lot of unfinished projects as I couldn’t get my ambition, creativity and technical know-how to line up at all. It was overwhelming.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was doing things for all the wrong reasons. Personal work shouldn’t feel like work, it shouldn’t have pressure or deadlines attached. Personal work should be fun. When you start having fun generating ideas and trying new techniques it relinquishes all of the pressure you put on yourself to create, and it feels like you’re a kid again slopping around paint just for the hell of it. Style happens by accident along the way as you continue to say “I wonder what would happen if I tried this.” I’m a metal-head who creates art with rainbows, so to say I never saw that coming would be a big understatement.

So my advice would be to forget about it. The idea of ‘style’ sounds like a destination, when art should be a constantly evolving beast.

2. Sources of Inspiration

I post a lot of inspirational artists on my blog because they inspire me and I figure like-minded creative types might think the same. Seeking out inspiration is a big deal for me, and the internet is a huge help in getting exposure to different artists through research or advice from others. That being the case, where does one start? I’ve always been nostalgic, so in my case the best inspiration I can find is the stuff I loved when I was a kid.

Everyone has a different range of art, music, movies, etc that they admire and from there one can draw a huge amount of inspiration that is uniquely their own. Flickr and Behance are wonderful for seeing what is new and cutting-edge, but try looking into things you enjoy offline. I have a bookcase full of art books with everything from Norman Rockwell to cosmic photography which is awesome to have on hand whenever I have a blank canvas in front of me.

Not to be too philosophical, but you have to look to what you love for inspiration. From there, it’s just research which is the fun part :)

3. The Tools

You have to know your tools and be willing to spend great amounts of time learning them, it’s as simple as that. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight, but after many many nights of playing with your favorite software packages. If you are a designer working at an agency, you can’t always be expected to do advanced Photoshop on all the jobs you work on, but you can on your own time. Never, ever, stop messing around with the tools you want to use for your work. Try some online tutorials and use the information you learn in different ways to see what might happen.

For a long time I had a disconnect between my creative and my technical and there is no one answer of how to overcome this. It’s all about how much time you put into it learning the subtleties of your software and discovering new ways of executing ideas. A bit of advice I can give here is to try creating things from the ground up on your own, without pre-fabricated textures, brushes, filters, etc. There are wonderful resources out there, but without leaning on pre-fab elements you will get a greater appreciation for what you can achieve on your own.

4. Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of the post, all of this information comes from my personal experience in the design field while exploring my own potential during free time, and the path is different for everyone. The key is to have fun with what you do, which is what creativity is all about. Research what you enjoy, draw inspiration from it, manifest your ideas, learn your tools, and never ever stop. The more time you put into developing your own skills, the stronger you will become. I started my own path in 1998 at the age of 21, and I’m still pushing myself today at 32 :)

So, I certainly hope this post gives a bit of insight into the abstract area between creative and technical, and feel free to sound off in the comments with any questions.

18 Comments

  1. Agree with your point about style. For those (including myself) who battle with this issue I’ve discovered that you can’t “find” your style. Your style will evolve over time with the more work that you produce. Like a piece of wood that starts out rough, you widdle it down with each project you create by building your strengths and discovering your weaknesses.

    It’s totally normal to emulate the people you look up to early in your career, but if you find that you’re emulating others simply because you think your own style/talents are weak then you’re just delaying the inevitable. This might be why you see so many artitst/designers having persona projects. That’s where you cut your teeth, have failures and bounds of creative discovery. 1hr a day of personal work is a great prescription for discovering who you are as a creative.

  2. Ray

    great article james,
    i think the research part of designing is the most exciting part of being a graphic designer because you always learning something new.

  3. Thanks for the insight James, was a really good read. I’ve been following your blog for a while but haven’t posted before now. Even in the short time I’ve known about your work I’ve seen it evolve and progress while sticking to a ‘style of your own’.

    It’s actually refreshing to know you’re 32 as I’m 26 and thinking “I need to hurry up and find my niche, there’s 20-year-olds who blow me away with their [insert Adobe product here] skills!”. That’s not a dig at your age, it’s just great to see you’re still pushing your creative boundaries and enjoying what you love :)

    I was trying to think of a question to ask but you pretty much covered it all in this post. Thanks again.

  4. szy

    “Personal work shouldn’t feel like work, it shouldn’t have pressure or deadlines attached. Personal work should be fun. When you start having fun generating ideas and trying new techniques it relinquishes all of the pressure you put on yourself to create, and it feels like you’re a kid again slopping around paint just for the hell of it.”

    Oh, man, I really wish I could tattoo that on my brain. I try so hard to force myself to do creative stuff that I loose the pleasure of doing it. I’m still struggling to find out who I really am as a creator, but posts like this help a lot. It’s reconfortiing to see people already suffered from the same symptoms and overcame them. Thank you :)

  5. Duluoz

    Your article has a lot of good advice.

    I have actually been struggling with the question, “is this even fun anymore?”

    I have been actively working (yes, getting paid) since I was 11 years old using Corel Draw back in 1991. When you’re 11 years old and you get a lot of attention and MONEY, you can’t help but enjoy it. I took to photoshop and illustrator like a duck to water, went to design school, got my degree, working the whole time, advancing along the way – could write the book on technique.

    Don’t get me wrong – I really don’t mean to be boastful. I say this to set up a point.

    I am now 29 years old, and have been wondering if I truly enjoy designing, or do I just enjoy the praise and money it brings. I rarely do ‘personal work’ anymore.

    One of the things you bring up is ‘style’. To be honest – I don’t have a personal style – I can mimic any style I see (and often do for various jobs) to an exacting level of attention to detail. I follow all the trend to stay wanted.

    I often wonder if there are others out there who design because they CAN, not because they LIKE it.

  6. Abe

    super timely post James. something i’ve been wrestling through for awhile now. thanks for the insight.

  7. starlight86

    wow..that is awesome article and really inspired me. thanks again james.

  8. Awesome. I’m really glad I read that.

  9. james (Author)

    Thanks for all the comments and stories, everyone. We all go at personal art and design differently so it’s wonderful to hear how others progress and develop their work.

    Eddie, great points. When it comes to emulating the work of others, it’s a great way of learning new skills by examining and replicating. I have done this many times myself and it’s a wonderful way of honing technical skills, but you’re right in saying it delays the personal creative journey.

    Michael, you hit the nail on the head. There’s no rush in developing your own material, it’s a process not an overnight epiphany :) I don;t put a time limit on these things anymore as it’s all about personal fulfillment.

    Szy, my pleasure! As I said, I don’t see my personal work as a destination, it’s all about the path. If you never stop moving you will only discover new things :)

    Duluoz, you raised a very interesting point. I take it for granted and assume that designers do what they do because they love it. But you are right in asking if others fall into the field due to technical know-how. Very interesting topic.

  10. Great words, I printed this post and fixed on my bacheca!

  11. To expand on the personal style topic a little-

    I think modern young designers are so inundated with the amount of high-quality work online that there is a ton of pressure to immediately be as good. There is this demand for instant gratification in one’s own work that I think is very detrimental to designers, especially ones in school or just out of school.

    People believe it is so important to have a unique, ground-breaking style when the REAL value is in your fundamental skill a visual thinker, regardless of the style that you dress it up with. Tools like Photoshop make it easy to throw everything possible into an image, many times giving the illusion of skill or quality, when the underlying fundamental design principles in place are very poor.

    So my advice is to focus on the fundamentals and learn proper design. That alone can take decade to master, and a personal style is something that only really shines once that has been achieved. Modern designers put too much pressure on themselves to be unique and not enough on their foundations.

    The struggle I had personally was that even in school I didn’t comprehend a lot of the fundamental material that was taught, I didn’t see its application. It’s only been a few years later that I’ve picked up some books, done some reading and have really been able to apply fundamental principles to my work.

  12. Awesome, great james…

  13. I think this is my first post on your site…which should be taken as a compliment that i appreciate you sharing this response from your experience. it’s very similar to my own and encouraging to feel the resonance. It’s a bit like people trying so hard to be unique or individual and end up being one of the crowd that seeks the same…you don’t become unique by seeking that as a goal but rather it happens accidentally as you become gripped by a vision of something you have to pursue at any cost. Then people start to recognize something unique about the flavor that life starts to take on. For me one of the biggest distractions to getting down to business in my own work is often getting lost in how much there is to explore on the internet. Everything in moderation!

    great post.

  14. Miharbi

    This must be my first post as well. But I’ve been visiting this blog ever since I first saw it about a year ago. That was a very interesting article. It was something I needed. I’ve always loved art, and I did pretty well when I was in school. I studied traditional painting and drawing, but that was such a long time ago. I can hardly remember a time when I last touched a real paintbrush. I’ve been using PS since version 5, but I have never been able to perfect any special technique or style. I was very enthusiastic when I first started using the computer. Back then we didn’t have the internet, and whatever I learned it was from borrowed books and experimentation. I was 18, now 28. I have a wife, a kid, and a decent job. With all the pressures of life, I am finding it very difficult to do what I always loved. But reading this article made me realize that its never too late or too early to keep moving.

    Your work was something fresh. I became a fan ever since I first saw it. I just want to thank you for this great blog, where you post articles about your inspirations and thoughts behind your work. Really valuable info.

    Anyways thanks for everything, and I hope that one day I would be able to do something as exciting as you are doing. Meanwhile I’ll keep on visiting and admiring your work.

    Thanks

  15. This has come at exactly the right time for me.. or maybe just a little after my own personal discovery – but still on target. For years now (I’m 27) I have been working as a graphic designer and honing my skills for work. This in itself has been very rewarding, but earlier this year I found I wasn’t enjoying the job. Looking at many other designers/artists I was like a moth to a flame (i.e. I was drawn to the wonder and spectacle of such great composition in design but could never get close to what I was seeing – thus being burnt). Sadly, this ‘try but never quite get there’ phase led me to design depression and I spiraled downwards – passing my old designs as I tumbled and consequently hating all that I put my hand to creatively.

    It wasn’t until I stumbled across your site James and saw the growth and experimentation in your work, that I realised that design (no matter how old you are) is art and art is a journey – a continual self exploration and demonstration of what makes each creative tick. Once I began to change my perception, my designs began changing and I actually started to enjoy designing again. I found myself like a child in mud – exploring, laughing out loud and generally getting down and dirty.

    So thankyou so much for this post. Like I began, it came at just the right time. Even though I had already began to realise this, it was reassuring to know that I was not alone in previous frustrations.

    Keep up the great work. You are an inspiration.

  16. thanks for the catch. I’ll get in there and fix it….

  17. Hi James, I never thanked you for your help! Great article it sorted me right out.

  18. Super post James. Thanks!!

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