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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.

How do we stay connected with new people?

In the Artist and Designer Networking Guide, I discussed many tips on how to connect with other artists. Meeting new people is the first step Now what do you now that you know them? That’s the question for todays Monday Q&A:

How do you continue after having met new people?
Hi folks, I love your ideas on meeting new people. But how can we become friends or continue from there? (I don’t mean finding a partner or lover.)

Anonymous (via Quora)

How do you form deeper connections with others? Be genuinely interested and curious about the people in your life! Have the courage to be the one who follows up. Being human as we a;; are, we fear the vulnerability of reaching out. Interest creates opportunities to follow-up. Reaching out feels less scary if we know it’s something the person likes.

Having interest in others is not as one-sided as it sounds. Empathy and thoughtfulness are traits that you bring to the table. Listening is a key idea in conversation, relationships, and friendship. Contact me saying “Hey remember the other day you mentioned you love art! Want to do dinner at Place and then check out the new Art Show at Gallery?” Wow I’m impressed! You know what I like. And you gave me an easy plan to say yes to without me having to do the work of asking a billion questions. And you treated me like a grown up who can make suggestions if I need to.

“We teach best what we most need to learn.”
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

We’ve all been there. The new school. The new job. A new town. Old friends move away or caught up in other parts of their lives. I’ve experienced all of those. It’s not easy. New things never are. Here are some tips I’ve squeezed out from my experiences:

Tip 1: The cool thing about respect

Perhaps there was radio silence for a week or so. Rather than just sending a blank “Hi”, bring something to the conversation. “Hey you said you were going to have a big meeting last week. How’d it go!”

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey borrows the concept of the “Rule of Agreement” from improvisational comedy. With this rule, we agree with other people’s right to their beliefs by thinking “Yes”. Even if you disagree with someone, we’ll earn respect by being respectful. If we respond negatively to most things, we’re not very fun to be around. Who would be your friend, the guy who says “No, that’s a stupid idea!!” or the one who says “Oh yeah? Why do you think so?”

Agree to disagree. A cool thing about respect is that it’s okay to disagree! Close friends don’t agree on everything. We don’t want to walk on eggshells feeling like we can’t be ourselves. Especially not around our friends who are supposed to be a positive force. Awesome friends are people who will say “I totally hate tennis, and I get why it’s awesome and fun for you!”

“Social fallacies are particularly insidious because they tend to be exaggerated versions of notions that are themselves entirely reasonable and unobjectionable.”
Michael Suileabhain-Wilson

In his article on the “Geek Social Fallacies“, Michael Suileabhain-Wilson touches upon disagreement. The first two fallacies discuss how many of us feel we must be agreeable or even people-pleasers. It’s okay to not like everything about everyone. You don’t have to like anyone or anything. Accept not being interested in every friend’s every interest. Having respect for someone’s interests is a different concept than agreeing.

If a friend hates tennis, they will be supportive when they can. They still won’t want to hear about tennis all of the time. Friends won’t always be a positive force either. Neither will you. The idea is that you’re adding to each others lives when you feel you can.

Tip 2: Choose to contribute

Tina also discusses the improv concept of “Yes, AND”. Be an interesting person with your own passions, dreams, and goals. Learn to be comfortable adding to conversations. Add in both expected and unexpected ways.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

Experiment. Experiment by bringing up subjects with waiters, customer service workers, and coworkers. You’ll get to see a variety of reactions. Some individuals will be delighted to jump on a subject. Others will be uninterested. Many will be less excited to talk one day and in a better mood the next.

When you test the waters, you’ll get to witness how the response rarely just about you at all. Most of us wish we could embody sunshine and rainbows and bring joy in every action. Sometimes though, I just don’t feel like going to a movie tonight or talking about my weekend. It’s not personal.

Get outside of the box and keep trying new ways of connecting.One experiment found initial evidence that people who sing together as an icebreaker are more likely to become friends over time.

Believe it’s not personal. Some days I may have the energy to explain “I really love seeing you and I’m tired, so not up for hanging out. Let’s plan for next week on Friday night.” Other days I’m exhausted, it’s just easier to trust that other people will understand if I say “Not tonight.”

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Be honest and considerate. If you’re still very unsure, be honest about not being clear. Just ask! Practice asking follow-up questions with kindness. “Hey New Person, I’m getting the feeling that you might not want to see this movie and if so that’s okay! Am I reading things right?”

I feel closest to people who understand that I give my time and energy to them freely. It’s tempting to be demanding when feeling anxious. Resist that urge.

In the book “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work”, Chip and Dan Heath float the idea of taking small steps to test your assumptions. Asking questions, listen to the answers, and if they fit with the actions. Practice leaning toward the benefit of the doubt. I’ve learned to underreact to hinting. Hints or perceived hints lead to miscommunication. React without jumping to conclusions.

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
Elbert Hubbard

Is your new friend honest? And are you? A paper in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships discussed a strong relationship between authenticity and connection. In a study of young girls, those who strive to be honest and open with friends and family were happier and had greater self-esteem. It makes sense that their connections were more meaningful and intimate. Conflict is inevitable. Honesty in conjunction with consideration and respect is the best bet for dealing with it.

Tip 3: I’m often wrong and a great person

There will be some new people you meet who you hoped would be a great friend. Then it turns out that you’re less compatible than you thought. That’s okay!

“There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”
Tina Fey

Some people you may never see again. That is okay! If plans or connection or friendship doesn’t happen, it’s because it wasn’t right for both of you. It’s not because anyone did something wrong. You both show up, you be yourselves, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Even if you both had the ability to act perfect, that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll connect in the exact ways you’d hope to.

So what if they aren’t your new best friend. Sometimes you make it on each other’s Christmas card lists and rarely much else. Maybe you just comment on each other’s Facebook posts. This may be someone who you just see when you hang out with mutual friends. Perhaps you’ll just check in every few months or in a year just to have a nice online chat.

Have various activity partners. Some are friends who just like to get together for a certain activity like for a painting class. You might just have a dinner a few times a year or every year and catch up. You both love the renaissance festival and that might be the one time you hand out.

As the last of Michael’s Geek Social Fallacies suggests, friends don’t need to do everything together. Like with any investment, diversify. We can’t be all things to all people. We can’t expect any one friend to be all things to us.

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
Linda Grayson

There’s no such thing as a perfect friendship. There are no prizes for perfect friends. Unless you want to have trophies made and hand them out, which would be hilarious. I have all of these kinds of friends and they’re all awesome.

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

Is an open space office the best for designers? No.

“On the topic of new office spaces, is it better for creative designers, animators, motion designers etc, to sit together in open space or rather in their own separated spaces?”
Anonymous (via Quora)

Different individuals have a different tolerance for different environments. Individual desires change how work spaces impact creative output. There are studies that show the trends. An open office has the disadvantage of being a one size fits all solution. The premise is that managers place employees into a space of a certain design. Once they figure out building design, won’t workers collaborate and create naturally?

Collaboration issues may perhaps be solved with new required steps and goal-setting. Everyone in the company has to have a clear expectation for the cause and effect for certain actions. How is thought rewarded and encouraged? How can we make decisions about new ideas? How do we make working together least scary?

I have worked in a variety of shared spaces. I’ve worked in a community newspaper newsroom, a mixed used open office, smaller 2-3 person shared spaces, and in a completely a private office. The newsroom was surprisingly easy to work in. Everyone was very focused and professional, with our tasks being very interconnected this made speaking aloud fairly easy.

The mixed use space was most difficult for me. I could overhear most conversations. These had little to do with my own work, so I had very little reason to collaborate. It’s like being invited to a 5 day, 8 hour meeting each week. Almost all of which has little do with my projects.

Privacy in open office plans

There are artists and designers who don’t mind or even enjoy working in view of others. Think of the plein air, street and caricature artists who frequently create with others watching in awe. There are also others who work in private studios, only to reveal their work only when ready.

Does the work of artists require more or less privacy than other types of workers? Having separated office spaces is dubbed “Architectural privacy” by psychologists. It is connected to “psychological privacy”, the feeling of control over ourselves and social interactions. This is according to study released in 1980, before the current boom of more open spaces.

A lack of privacy is connected to decreased productivity. Employees are aware that they can be overheard. The may feel judged for their interactions. This decreases the amount of risk many will take during conversations. In a more traditional office, , my personal experience was that there amount of serendipity in hallways and running into familiar faces was casual and enjoyable.

Do we build relationships as one group or in our individual responses? When I had either a single person office or two- to three-person shared office, collaborating with members in other areas wasn’t an issue. It was easy enough to email, call, walk, or arrange meetings when they were necessary.

Employees who move from a traditional private office space to an open office space tend to be less satisfied. That’s what a detailed 2002 case study of a Canadian oil company found. They measured feelings, relationships, and performance. These employees were significantly less satisfied in all tested areas.

We all have different needs. Extroverts will be less impacted than introverts, who are more easily distracted by noise. In this experiment reading comprehension to be most significantly difficult with background distractions for introvert. Creative productivity is impacted by positive social and group contexts. Introverts are generally more sensitive to external stimulation.

Health risk with an open plan

“Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.”
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Noise is a factor. With five experiments, scientists demonstrated that a moderate ambient noise such as that a crowded coffee shop enhances creative productivity and performance. A higher level noise reduce participants ability to complete creative tasks. Even at moderate noise levels, productivity decreased on tasks that required more detail-oriented work.

What about physical health? If mental health wasn’t enough of a factor, sickness was also found to be more common in open office spaces. The study compared seven office configurations and found open office and shared desks to be the most risky.

Case Study: Pixar

Pixar made huge efforts to balance these factors when building it’s office spaces. Pixar President Ed Catmull described the details in the opening section of his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Encouraging employees to take ownership of their private spaces was one of Steve Jobs’ goals. As the company is filled with passionate artists and programmers, each decorated their workspace with their own style.

“In overseeing both Disney and Pixar Animation, each studio has a unique culture.”
John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios

The layout encourages community by having multiple lunch areas and paths which all meet in the center. Various spaces accommodate the idea of projects and require work best with different team sizes. By filling the space with large white boards and different furniture layouts, the entire space becomes more interactive. Large Pixar character models help break up the space and make it feel less formal.

A table provides an interesting example of the thought of each detail relating Pixar’s culture worked with their space. Again, from the book Creativity, Inc. A more traditional and good looking table within one conference room emphasized an artificial hierarchy. With leaders sitting at the head of the table, employees were noticeably intimidated. The solution was a round table, modeled in concept after King Arthur. This way all who attended meetings were equals.

A more blended situation combining the best of traditional and open spaces seems to be the solution. Consider embracing the company culture and individual needs. Find ways for artists to experience privacy and avoid noise. At the same time, they found ways to encourage teamwork when needed. A review system allowed for regular discussion and health constructive criticism. Pixar built systems that have opportunities for collaborating rather than relying on the pure serendipity of a seating chart.

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

Should artists apologize less? Sorry or not sorry

Do artist’s apologize too much? Today’s question isn’t focused on creativity and art directly. The question of workplace apologies reminded me of an important point: artists apologize too much for their work.

It’s a process. Make something. Show it to clients and colleagues. Edit based on the feedback. Stand by your work where you need to. Love what you make at every step of the process. Many of these tips will give you confidence in presenting your work. As Tina Fey wrote:

“I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

How many artists, illustrators, and graphic designers have you met who have apologized their work? Are you sorry that you didn’t make the “right” design the first time with every bit of feedback?

Question: How do I know when I’m part of the problem?

How do I make amends with my boss when he threatens to suspend me over what he thinks is unprofessional behavior?

My boss knows I will be moving on to a new job in the summer. They have asked that I travel to sign the contract in person. My current boss got upset that I had to take a day off to do that and is threatening to suspend me … how do I make amends / apologize?

Anonymous (via quora)

There are many types of apologies. In a workplace, focus on your future actions. The concern here is following the business’s procedure for taking days off. Mention how this impacts the business and that you know the expectations:

  • “I know that ideally I’ll give more notice when I have a day off. I acknowledge the inconvenience this causes for the business. In the future, I’ll follow policy X, Y, and Z. I’d totally understand if you feel you need to take additional action. I really appreciate this opportunity and if there are any ways I can help ease the transition as I leave, I’m happy to discuss”

Do feelings matter?

Feelings are important! However, it’s helpful to keep those feelings in context. You are addressing only how this impacts the work. Only work that needs to be done within this time frame. Address availability only as necessary for your role. The expectations is to address to cause of his concern. It is reasonable to take a day off and for reasonable days off to require some coordination.

In business conversation, avoid using emotional language or focusing on feelings where possible. Relate those feelings directly to the business. For example: any mention that your manager is upset; or, that he thinks it’s unprofessional can be left out of the discussion.

Tone is important, speak with concern toward the business. This is counterintuitive. At the same time, arguing and acknowledging his point of view helps him see that you know you’re on the same side. He’ll be less likely to respond defensively.

Focus on the future

In the future, when you take a day off you do not need to inform a manager of your reason. Next time, telling your manager that you’re unable to work because you’re preparing for your new job is unnecessary. It is also fairly unusual. You’ll be set yourself up to not have to apologize by using this as a lesson. Your manager would rather not (or at least shouldn’t want to) be put in the position to be this involved in planning your personal time.

If you’re unable to figure out the policy or manager’s specific concern, then bring it up as a question:

  • “Hey after the discussion the other day, I wanted to talk about your concerns. What is our policy on personal leave?”

If your reason is not related to the current job, then it’s personal:

  • “Hey Mr./Ms Z, I will be taking a day off on Friday.”
  • “I’ll need to take a day off within the next week. Is there a day that works for you?”
  • “I’m unable to work tomorrow.”

If he or she asks why, repeat calmly as if personal days off are perfectly normal (which they are):

  • “I’lI need the day off for personal reasons. I’’ll be unable to make it.”
  • “I’m dealing with a private matter.”
  • (Speak more formally than you normally would. This sets a different expectation.)

It’s also quite unusual and kind of you that you’ve given such long term notice. Two to four weeks is fair more common. Giving notice that you’ll be starting a new job in the summer is a risky move. For this very reason. It puts both you and your manager in an uncomfortable position. Expect things to be a little awkward for the duration of your employment.

Magic words are magic

“I’m sorry.” isn’t your only option for a smooth apology, there are other magic words! The Emily Post Institute reminds us that essential words are easy to say and powerful in conveying your positive intentions. Not just for children, but for adults as well. For more words that express your awareness of kindness, consideration, and respect for others as equals we have: “Please”, “Thank you,” You’re welcome”, “Pardon me” and “Excuse Me”.

Prepare to use the words “Thank you” a lot in a place of apologies. HR pros, psychologists and business experts have noted that over apologizing in the workplace is a common concern. Especially among women and minorities.

Men and women both apologize 81% of the time when they believe they were wrong. This is according to a set of small studies published in Psychological Science. However, women tended to apologize more frequently. This is because they believed more of their actions were offensive.

No need to apologize about your perfectly reasonable decision to make a career move that is right for you:

  • “Thank you for understanding” (Even if he or she doesn’t.)
  • “I appreciate you working with me to help figure out my work schedule.”
  • “It’s been very helpful that you discuss and mentor me with your thoughts on professional behavior. I look forward to taking those lessons forward in my life and career.” (Even if you disagree with everything he said. It’s still honestly helpful to know different points of view exist)

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

Are doodle makers bad at focusing?

“I have noticed, that some people start drawing things in a small notebook, every time they get even a few minutes. Why do they do this? Is it some technique to keep your mind from distractions, and always occupied?”
Anonymous (via Quora)

The research shows that yes, doodling does help keep your mind away from distractions:

UC-Blog-Square-Doodle

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