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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.

Sharing Your Work Early and Often (Even When It Feels Scary)

Chances are you’ve felt a little hesitant to share your creative work in progress with others at times. I know it can be intimidating to share your creative work with others, especially when you feel like it’s not quite “perfect” yet. Trust me, I’ve been there. But I’ve found that sharing my work early and often can be incredibly beneficial for my creative process.

I like to share my early sketches with notes (or doodles!) or create a presentation slide or two of my ideas with comments to show what I’m thinking at this point in the process. I’ll also include images of my inspirations on the slides to give people context about the direction I’m considering.

For example, you might say something like: “I’m working on a new design and I’m at the sketching stage. I would love your feedback on the layout and composition. What do you think is working well and what could be improved?” Or, if you’re feeling a little stuck, you might ask: “I’m feeling a little stuck. Do you have any ideas for how I could approach it differently?”

I’ll often seek out the perspective of someone who is knowledgeable about the topic I’m working on, as well as an outsider to the project: “I’m really excited about this project I’m working on, and I think it would be helpful to get some feedback from someone who isn’t as familiar with it. I’m in the early stages and I could use some fresh perspectives. Do you have time to take a look?”

You’d be surprised at how valuable the insights of someone who isn’t as familiar with the project can be.

And sometimes, I’ll even share on my Instagram story (just with close friends) to get a wider range of reactions. Just make sure to choose a few trusted individuals to share your work with, like a mentor, colleague, or friend.

Meeting people at in person events especially can help making the process less lonely and intimidating. I love attending meetups or just heading to a coffee shop with someone who shares my interests. It’s a great way to connect with others in your field and build relationships that can be super beneficial for your creative process (or just really love your memes about local restaurants).

Consider creating an opportunity to connect with a friend or acquaintance: “I’m really excited about this project I’m working on, and I’d love to get your thoughts on it. Can we meet up at our favorite coffee shop and chat about it? I’d also love to hear about your thoughts on the latest episode of that Game of Thrones dragon prequel”

While it’s convenient to share your work online or through email, there’s something special about meeting with someone in person. For one thing, you can get a better sense of their body language and how they are responding to your work. You can also hear the tone of their voice, which can make feedback sound more human, gentle, and connected.

The next best thing for would be to get on a phone call: “I’ve been struggling to come up with new ideas for my creative work, and I thought it might be helpful to brainstorm with someone. Could I send you the file and then hop on the phone with you sometime in the next day or two?”

This also gives you a chance to hear their voice and check in with the person and your own emotions.

You might also meet people who are interested in what you create at local events such as at a meetup. This gives you a chance to both share your work and help you to connect with others in your field and build relationships that can be super beneficial for your creative work.

Sharing the process can help you to connect with your audience and community. By sharing your work in progress, you can give people a peek into your creative process and build an audience of folks who are interested in your work. I find this especially powerful on social media or through email newsletters

It’s natural to feel a little nervous when sharing your work with others, especially if you’re a perfectionist or if you’re not used to seeking feedback. But it’s important to remember that everyone feels this way at some point, and that seeking feedback is a crucial part of the creative process.

Try reframing your thoughts and reminding yourself of the benefits of sharing your work. Remind yourself that you are seeking feedback to improve your work, not because you are not good enough. And if you’re still feeling nervous, I like to share my work with just one or two trusted individuals first, rather than with a larger group. This can help you to build up your confidence and get used to the idea of sharing your work.

So, how do you go about asking for feedback? It can help to be specific about what you’re looking for and to be clear about where you are in the process.

Be clear that it’s an early draft or a work in progress: “I’m really looking for thoughts on the color palette. Do you have any recommendations for colors that might work well with this concept?”

By being specific, you can help the person giving feedback to understand your goals and focus on the most important aspects of your work. This can help the person giving feedback to understand that you’re still refining your work and that you’re looking for guidance, rather than a final critique.

Another helpful thought is to practice self-compassion. Remember that you are doing your best, and that it’s okay to make mistakes or to have work that is not perfect. Rather than beating yourself up, try to focus on your progress and the things you have accomplished. I’m not expecting my first draft to be perfect. I’ll try to be kind to myself and remember that the editing process is part of the creative process.

It’s also okay to feel stuck or uninspired sometimes. Give yourself permission to take a break and come back to my work with fresh eyes later. You’re allowed to have off days when you’re not as productive as you’d like to be. It’s okay to take some time to recharge and come back to my work with renewed energy.

And if you do receive negative feedback, try to see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than as a personal attack. Make mistakes and experiment with different ideas. That’s how we learn and grow as someone who engages in creative work.

Be proud of yourself for trying, even if the work isn’t where you want it to be yet. Be patient with yourself and focus on making progress.

Finally, I love to let people know that you value their feedback and appreciate their help. By expressing your gratitude and making it clear that you’re open to hearing their thoughts, you can create a positive and supportive environment for receiving feedback.

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.

Should creatives specialize or generalize? Yes

“Is it really good to be Generalist? Will it pay-off someday as it does for Specialists?

Recently came across this interesting article on Harvard Business Review: All Hail the Generalist. And was wondering what is the general verdict on this topic.”
Anonymous (via Quora)

I majored in fine art with concentrations in both fine art and piano. I remember my advisor and a trusted artist professor told me that I needed to pick a single route and focus. At this point I had really decided art was my route. Piano performance was too risky if I tied it to my financial future. I’d worry about hitting all of the right notes, both figuratively and literally. As a hobby it’s a huge stress reliever to just zone out creating music.

As my degree progressed I gravitated toward painting while working as a designer. I started both college and my job at the same time in the fall of the year 2000. My sister worked at this company in customer relations and she connected me with the position. I really enjoyed the job right away. Since I was a kid, I loved computers and technical detail. This career path merged art and computers, I’ve stuck with the career path ever since.

Engaging with your areas of interest

 “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.”
Marie Forleo

How do we know when to specialize and when to generalize? Involve exploration as part of your decision-making process by taking small steps. Because of confirmation bias, we’ll tend to try to prove our own assumptions. If we believe generalization is best, we’ll tend to look evidence for generalization. The reverse is true for believers in specialization.

Many college students pursue their degrees and careers without engaging with their careers. In my personal anecdote, I worked as a graphic designer and performed as a pianist as I pursued my degree. Having a more realistic expectation for the lower salary of creative careers prepared me.

I know I’d have to take more small risks during my career and be more conscious of my spending and saving rates to finance this. To this day, I frequently test making bold designs and float my ideas that push past the limits of projects. The feedback from these smaller actions is invaluable in quickly discovering what ideas my clients are open to. In practice, I’m taking a risk by specializing in certain types of design that interest me most. At the same time, I am prepared to shift gears to more general and approachable visuals with mass appeal.

Taking small steps of engagement allows for specialists to generalize and vice versa.
“If your target audience isn't listening, it's not their fault, it's yours.” Seth Godin

Compartmentalize your skill-set to target your audience

Many apparent specialists are generalists who are skilled at compartmentalizing. Target your audience. At work as a design, very rarely does anyone need to know that I’m a skilled piano player who regularly memorizes sheet music. If coworkers ask about my above average memory, I’ll share that this is skill that has come with practice.

“If your target audience isn’t listening, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.”
Seth Godin

Often different descriptions of the same circumstance arises in different conclusions. This is a type of cognitive bias called the framing effect by psychologist. Without this bias, different descriptions wouldn’t affect the outcome.

The ideas presented differently should still equal. In technical logic speak, we might call the framing bias a “violation of extensionality”. After all, don’t “1+1” or “2” or “105-103” mean the exact same thing? I’m a designer, however, so I will believe presentation matters.

What if we had to choose between two candidates with an equal list of skills? It’s natural that a hiring manager will prefer the candidate who is able to focus and prioritize the most relevant skills. That candidate appears to be more of a specialist.

An experiment published in Psychological Science demonstrates targeting specific personality traits. The ads were deemed more effective if they understood an individuals needs. Some value openness of experience, so the ads emphasizing that strength had a bigger impact on those individuals. Extraverts were most appealed to with ads demonstrating social benefits. Understanding the benefits to the most likely listeners will make them more open to the skill set you have.

Transferable skills complicate the answer

My habit of diligent practice comes from being a classical pianist. In many contexts, sharing that unimportant background information that would cloud my message. The important part is that I’m able to transfer the skill of quickly learning and memorizing music to learning the ins and outs of Adobe Indesign, Photoshop and Illustrator.

“Design is one of the few disciplines that is a science as well as an art. Effective, meaningful design requires intellectual, rational rigor along with the ability to elicit emotions and beliefs. Thus, designers must balance both the logic and lyricism of humanity every time they design something, a task that requires a singularly mysterious skill.”
Debbie Millman, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer

A common complaint in my field is that graphic design job listings often ask for generalists. The most successful candidates realize that the hiring managers treat job posts as a wish list. For many years, I specialized working in the print and magazine industry. While working as a magazine designer, presenting myself as a print designer specializing in programming and technology expertise.

As the demand for publication design specialists changes, the ability to work on a variety of projects is a huge advantage. A generalist will be more adaptable when markets change.

Advantages of diversity

Changing market conditions change the demand for specialists during generalists. In a case study, the University of Richmond examined 134 counties and cities in Virginia looking at the impact specialization and diversity. They found that faster growth of any one industry hampers regional growth across all industries examined.

As an aside, a study by MIT economists found that more gender diverse workplaces performed better by having a greater number of skills involved.

From a market standpoint, having a balance between specialists and generalists may be the best move. On the individual level, adaptability for a variety of circumstances is possible and ideal for most people.

Readers, do you prefer to specialize or generalize?

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

How does hardship impact your creativity?

Today’s Q&A Monday question asks about the link between hardship and creativity:

What is the quality of the science behind the idea that “hardship increases creativity”?

While artists and engineers can both grow by playing intellectual games with artificial constraints, is real hardship actually correlated with increased creativity and productive output?

Context: All those office perks? They’re ruining creativity.
Anonymous (via Quora)

The linked piece by Eric Weiner for The LA Times is written as an opinion piece. It’s written in that context. That said, some people who experience hardship are certainly able to channel that creatively:

However, these experiments show that creativity can be boosted by hardship. They did not find hardship necessary for creativity. Workplaces also have other factors that pure creativity: happiness, retention, and profit. Many creative workers who are simply don’t want hardship. They won’t tolerate it. The economics of business development are more complicated than simple creativity.

Many “fun” perks are popular in industries where employees have many job options. They’re also often designed to keep employees within the office longer. Even if  these employees are not purely working at all times. Making longer office hours more acceptable may generate increased overall productivity.

Amenities may be a consolation prize for the other hardships involved in very difficult work.

Readers, have you had a difficult experiences that helped with your creative projects?

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