Escape the Comfort Zone: Uncanny Creativity 41

Making art often means getting out of the comfort zone.

Alan Henry of Lifehacker explains the science of breaking out of your comfort zone:

Routine and patterns minimize risk. Making something scares us. Creating something inherently feels risky. Who knows if it’ll be good?

The comfort zone feels happy with low anxiety and low stress. This is why most people never make anything.

Optimal Anxiety

Slight anxiety helps us. “Optimal Anxiety” increases performance. Too much stress and we do poorly. Comfort is the opposite of productivity. Volunteering as a designer helps me escape my routine. It can feel stressful, yet also I’m helping people.

Regularly facing fear in controlled ways prepares you better for out of control problems according to researcher Brene Brown:

Try this: Venture a new medium, performance art, visual arts, practice new tips. Small tweaks to normal ways of producing art involve exploring your curiosity.

Productive Discomfort

It gets easier to push boundaries the more you do it. Alina Tugend describes this effect of “Productive Discomfort” for the New York Times.

It’s easier to brainstorm if you’re seeking new experiences, new skills. You get used to looking at the world in new ways and question confirmation bias. Old problems will seem new.

Try this: Do old things differently. New restaurants, drive a new route, switch out apps you normally use.

Take small steps

Avoid putting things off. Keep a list of “someday maybes”. Review it regularly to see if they match with your schedule. Always wanted to paint dogs or nudes? What’s the next small step to make that happen.

Take small steps. Set small actions. Weekly daily. Think big in the long-term and small in the short-term. If you want to have a huge gallery show, first you need to slowly make painting
Try this: find clarity through action.

Remember to return to your comfort zone. Have rituals that you return to for comfort.

Try this: Slow down or speed up on decisions that you have to make. Be more spontaneous in areas where you’re usually very planned. Try being more calculated in the parts where you usually are carefree

The Sweet Spot Between Overconfidence and Anxiety

Optimal levels of anxiety tested as middle range by scientist, Business Insider explains. If we’re overconfident, there may not exist enough anxiety to focus and perform the task at hand. With too much anxiety, we’ll have trouble performing even basics of tasks. Self-described worriers tended to have “high levels of brain activity when they made mistakes”. The test became difficult compared to those with less anxiety.

Try this: Actively Practice worrying less. Actively practice worrying less. Working out. Meditate. Question and answer the facts behind your worry. Practice optimism. Seek help – friends, family, therapy.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

When Creativity Feels Hard, Take Action

You might think being creative on demand is “hard”. Here’s what I’ve learned on the job.

I’m sad that society heavily sells this idea that creativity is “too hard” That we are constantly being indoctrinated into it. Adults spout tropes about the difficulty of creativity, sounding like children talking about monsters under their bed. No evidence of a monster, just fear. (See also: Face the Fear of Failure)

Hard is one of my least favorite words. Most of the time considering difficulty is impractical. When you catch yourself doing it, take it as a sign to practice. Pondering how easy or difficult a task manifests as a common procrastination habit. We place mental blocks in front of our own goals to protect us from imagined outcomes.

Anyone who got to the point where they could read this has already tackled countless difficult tasks.

Fairly early in my career, a more experienced designer told me starting with a blank page is the hardest part of the job.

So I’ve found to make it easy, at the beginning of a project I focus on the most practical parts of it. Break apart the project. Open a document. Get the size right. Put something on the page without judgment.

If it’s a particularly creatively challenge project, I name the file “Project Name Ideas”. Then it’s a super judgment-free space.

If you know any text or ideas for text, put it on the page. If it’s even more intimidating, scribble some messy thoughts on paper.

Sometimes just drawing boxes or grabbing a photo or texture works. Or make a list of steps.

Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Look at inspiration and try using very specific parts of what you like in your own idea. Draw from a few inspirations and try getting them to mesh together

Try out the bad ideas too. Afraid of becoming unoriginal? Copy something and then try to fix it until it’s unique. Make something hideous and see if you can fix that too. Even at your worst, you’ll have some usable thoughts.

The important part I’ve found is to show your work. If someone could see you, could they describe an action? Thinking is not an action in itself.

Think through actions and through making.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Your Environment Changes Your Imagination

How’s your office space? I’m in an exposed area surrounded by people. While I like these people, I don’t feel I have any sense of physical security. As an introvert, it’s also difficult to work  in the presence of so many others. And as the article says, it’s hard to tune out since they work on dissimilar tasks. I loved working in the newsroom. It was easy to see how their work tied into mine.

We’re more creative in the dark.

Dimmer light and darkness helps creative performance. Darkness inspires feelings of freedom and encourages riskier behavior. Researchers published six studies on the effect of light. Four of the experiments linked darkness and dim illumination to more creative outcomes. The final two tests found connections between darkness and increased exploration. Other ways of encouraging feelings of freedom helped keep participants creative.

That matches my exploration style. I’m definitely a night owl. It’s not just the darkness. Night time feels more free from me. Generally I have less planned and less obligations later in the evenings. So that sparks the feelings of being able to do anything possible with my time.  Researchers also found that imagining that you’re in the dark has similar results.

“Freedom from constraints: Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity” explains the details in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013.

High ceilings spark the imagination.

“When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly. They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.”
Joan Meyers-Levy, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management (Science Daily)

Simply moving to a room with higher ceilings helps you think outside of the box. Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu discuss in “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use”

Privacy helps us think in new ways.

I’ve written before about how private spaces help many of us in our creative processes. We’re more likely to take risks when we mistakes aren’t public. Increased noise levels and physical health concerns come into play in shared spaces as well. We can take action to create space by taking walks and meditation,

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Bowie State University offering a Hip-Hop Minor Program

One of the things I loved the culture and curriculum at Bowie State. For Fine and Performing Arts majors, we had to take courses on the history of people of color, women, subcultures. For a creative, surrounding yourself with as many different perspectives as possible. I attended Bowie State in the early 2000s. Imagine a time when Wikipedia was brand new. Information on minority history was difficult to find anywhere on the internet.

The new Hip-Hop Minor offered at Bowie State will be a great opportunity to expand on the school’s current academic focus:

“Three new courses developed by Bowie State faculty will explore hip-hop’s roots in African and African-American culture and its societal impact, while developing projects that span multiple academic disciplines. Melchishua designed a hip-hop studio course focused on visual arts design. Renowned hip-hop scholar, musician and author Dr. William Smith created a course exploring black contemporary music and its impact on society. Helen Hayes Award-nominated playwright, director and actor Greg Morrison will teach a hip-hop theater course he developed to introduce students a unique form of musical theater.”

When I attended, professors knew their students, our goals, and dreams. Especially in Fine and Performing Arts where they’re full time professors as well as being artists in their own right. They were proud to be there. I had professors of various races and backgrounds. It’s hard to explain such a welcoming culture other than to say it’s common among HBCUs:

“In 2015, a Gallup poll was released showing students at HBCUs had a higher sense of well-being in five areas (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) compared to students who did not attend HBCUs.”

“HBCU grads were substantially more likely to say that they had professors who cared about them and mentors who helped them pursue their goals”

The program emphasizes learning a lot of history in context. We’d learn abuut Bach, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Monet. We’d study Cab Calloway, Zora Neal Hurston, and Henry Ossawa Tanner in the same breath.

There’s whole history of minority artists that is mostly ignored in our culture. I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned. That it’s possible that I’m not going to be surrounded by images of successful people like me in popular culture and history. You still gotta go out there and do your thing.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Silence fosters creativity

Silence is more important than you think.

The study of silence first happened by accident. Researched compared silence at first as a baseline to other sounds. (As reported by Rebecca Bear for

Physician Luciano Bernardi explored silence in his research on music. When inserting randomly stretches of silence, the pauses induced a relaxing effect. Even compared to even the most relaxing music. Observing sensory processing at the University of Oregon in 2010, Michael Wehr found that both sound and silence signal change to neurons. When sound or silence is sustained it’s viewed by the brain as inactive.

Taking space from connecting with others may help encourage creative thought. Meditation including silence benefits critical thinking as argued to the paper “Reflectivity, Creativity, and the Space for Silence”, by Jane Dawson of St Francis Xavier University:

“The role of creative expression, as with the role of critical reflection, is to uncover them, and help us understand them more deeply. And creativity, like thought, takes quiet time and a sense of space to encounter it with our full attention.”

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Survival distracts from creativity. Leaders say they want innovations, but don’t take action.

Let’s discuss three notable stories currently in the news about creativity:

1. Taking care of basic survival needs aids in creativity

Earth’s creatures test new ideas all of the time.  This Scientific American article shows that survival helps and hinders creativity. One study discussed notes how the economically challenged find solving problems in new situations more difficult. Further studies of this effect show that financial help positively impacts cognitive performance. Meeting basic needs makes us all more able to take advantage of opportunities.

2. The best CEO’s want to be imaginative, innovative and flexible

In a cross-industry and international survey, CEOs agree that they want to be ahead of their industry. They want to hire highly creative employees as a top priority. In a piece for Harvard Business Review, Emma Sepal writes about how executives are cultivating their own innovation. Terykson Fernando – who is Creative Director at Sativa – tries to integrate observation into everyday activities. “The entire universe is filled with ideas and has in it what I am trying to create, so I take clues from everyday life by observing every little thing and being inquisitive about the how, why, what of things around me.” Leaders also look for a variety of feedback from diverse sources, create space by taking walks, use mindfulness meditation to clear their heads, and embrace natural and artificial limitations.

3. Strong cultures encourage leaders to play it safe even when customers want innovation

Managers tend to evaluate ideas based on cultural fit rather than possible positive outcomes. Research discussed in the Wall Street Journal notes this. Leaders say they want creativity. Their decisions don’t often match. They fear taking a risk on a less proven idea. That prevents employees from discussing controversial or unpopular ideas.  More support needs to be built into workplace system to show employees how to accept and implement creative ideas. They have to reward thinking like artists in ways that encourages action.


Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.