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.

Why is personal productivity important?

Every week on Q&A Monday, I’ll be answering questions from the Uncanny Creativity community and the web.

Why is personal productivity important?
Anonymous asked on quora

Artists and designers use the word productivity to describe the art of deciding and acting on our top priorities. When we work with our values, we give our life a sense of meaning. First, we notice what we really want. Then, we figure out ways to keep those tasks and projects in motion.

Sometimes we don’t really think through the steps involved. We end up putting effort on reacting to situations we don’t really care about. We’ll often be distracted by helping others with their dreams. We’ll help them in ways that don’t make sense for our own lives. We’ll react to whatever random thoughts come to mind. Often any mental connect of our day triggers these thoughts if we don’t have a way to practice.

By taking action on what’s important, we get more of what we want and need. Researchers at Stanford surveyed almost 400 people about their thoughts on distinctions between meaningfulness and happiness. They found that getting what we need helps us feel happier. Such as when we put some effort toward our health, we’ll usually make healthier choices and then feel happier. The researchers linked thinking about the present linked to happiness.

Meanwhile, the Stanford survey found that thoughts about the past and future actions lead to finding meaning in life. Connecting to other people deeply with a sense of responsibility helps with both meaning and happiness. Finding meaning often is stressful. We might choose the career of our dreams, engage in hobbies, raise children, and travel. All of these include both levels of uncomfortable mental or physical trouble. Those choices also help us feel less stressed .

We could use the term task for anything that we need to carry out. We might have bigger more complex life projects filled with recurring tasks. Productivity for most people includes continually balancing our wants with those of others, dealing well with stress, and defining ourselves.

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

What’s the greatest part about being a graphic artist?

The one thing I miss lately in my design work: Super close work with others. Anthony Wood over at Creative Boom writes about his 10 favorite reasons:

Graphic designers are rarely alone; they’re often part of a creative team or working closely with the client, collaborating to come up with the best possible solution. You’re likely to get to know PR professionals, copywriters, marketers, advertisers… you’ll probably work with senior management and be expected to consult with company directors.

Your role will rely on many business relationships; the knock-on benefits of which will only boost your skills and experience – especially your ability to effectively deal with different personalities.

I love talking through visual approaches, getting super into detail about the schedules, and coming to agreement on changes. My current projects involve mostly independence – less collaboration. Much of the fun involves engaging with positive and passionate designers, editors, and project managers to put the puzzle together. 

For me, that’s the best kind of design work beyond making everything look pretty. 

Read more: 10 great reasons to become a graphic designer in 2017 (Anthony Wood for Creative Boom)

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

What types of mental blockades hinder creative thinking?

What types of mental blockades hinder creative thinking?
Anonymous asked on Quora

Often we get in our own way without realizing it. Figuring out which habit of thinking help or hurt us can be tricky. Often habits emerge from the environment and conditioning. The heart of creativity is solving problems in interesting ways.

Here’s a list of ten ways to look at your creative processes based on problem solving techniques used to change unhelpful thinking and the resulting behaviors.

Tip 1: Embrace the grey.

Compromise and find middle ground. Often when we’re stuck creatively, it’s because we’ve decided it exists as one thing or another other. It appears as the perfect most photorealistic painting or it is completely worthless. We must use all paints and no pencils. We’re a print graphic designer and don’t do the web.

Those are perfectly acceptable choices, sure. It’s also worthwhile to consider—revisiting the above examples—that any effort painting can yield lessons. That mixed media becomes really cool and interesting. And knowing a bit about the web, even if you’re primarily an expert print designer, is still better than nothing.

Tip 2: Focused on the task at hand.

Over-applying negatives about a task to all aspects of our life can trip us up. We’ll define ourselves by our job, our art, and our relationships. If we’re not “always” a perfect artist, this trap tells us, then we’re “never” worth much in all areas of our life. If your project isn’t the most original thing in the world, it doesn’t represent your self-worth.

Tip 3: Identify the positives.

We tend to only see the negatives. The positives are invisible to us. Notice what’s good about your efforts. It’s the only way to keep motivated to keep working and making.

Tip 4: Positives matter.

Even if we see the positives, it makes sense to take delight in good aspects. Make sure that you notice the positives about your work, and that you actually like and love those awesome aspects. Find where your strong happy emotions are. They tell your point of view.

Tip 5: Consider alternative solutions.

The first solution isn’t necessarily the best one. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Feel free to jump in to reality test your assumptions. Just because you’re trying something doesn’t mean it’s true either.

Tip 6: Stay present.

You can’t predict the future. We often envision disaster as a form of procrastination. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. We developed an imagination to help us understand and avoid danger. Catastrophizing and fortune-telling takes this to an implausible level and cripples our creative muscles.

Tip 7: Gather comments.

Don’t assume the worst. Clearly communicate as best you can to your audience and collaborators. We don’t know if others will hate our work unless we share. Carefully curate that feedback for what we find usable and doable.

Tip 8: Consider evidence along with feelings

Don’t believe everything you feel and think. Consider what these thoughts and feelings are really based on. From there, we can create brand new conclusions.

Tip 9: Work with what’s possible

Don’t demand unrealistically about yourself and others. Understand where your expectations come from and what they are. There’s a thin line between positive idealism and negative perfectionism. Learn to understand how to be most productive.

Tip 10: Describe specific circumstances.

Avoid negative labeling of yourself and others. There’s no need to use unkind names when a neutral word or thought will do. Consider all contributing factors.


These ideas are based in part by tips described in David D. Burns’s Feeling Good Handbook.

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

6 DOs and DON’Ts for Killer Creative Teams: Confession of a bad team player

In my day-to-day life as an art director, being a team player has some challenges. Most of the time I think I manage pretty well, though it has taken a lot of practice. Over ten years ago, I was just a fine art student at Bowie State University dealing with a dreaded group project. Cue ominous music. You all remember the collective groans we   all had when a professor started matching us up with the class full of strangers? The theme from jaws plays.

Fine art majors had the unusual requirement of taking twelve theatre credits. The structure of the group project was that the teams each had to make decisions themselves how to split the work and would receive a single grade for the entire group. We didn’t have an assigned leader or structure, we had to decide how to proceed from scratch from that I learned a few tough lessons. How do we as a member of a team contribute and be ready to take on various roles?

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” Helen Keller

Our first assignment was to research and individually present pieces of theatre history. It seemed easy enough for us to quickly discuss which part we would each work on. Once on my own, working on my section I’d run across information that my teammates agreed to take care of. I’d worry that they wouldn’t do their part, so I’d type up what excess research I found.

As a working professional, think about how ridiculous that really would be now. If I – as a professional designer – were to start editing copy. How this would show my lack of faith in my editor. Or in my ability to communicate and manage my concerns. I’ve had this happen to me, where a copy editor would redesign my pages according to their whims: Dude, either get a job as a designer or stick to editing copy. As pop singer Sara Bareilles once said, that kind of “help just hurts.”

On one hand, I took sole responsibility for my grade.  On the other hand, I didn’t take the step to even try directly addressing potential issues with my teammates. Ultimately, we discovered just before the presentation that my team member did fail to have their assignment completed. She did use my notes at the last minute. I had now encouraged and enabled her to continue to not contribute. It would have made more sense to meet well before the presentation to practice and check our work. At that point, we would have discovered the lack of committment and been able to decide on consequences from there.

DON’T be a pushover or enable others.

DO build in time to check your team’s productivity.
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In my imaginary version redoing these events, we would have discussed these problem as a team. My more assertive present-self would suggest to younger me to arrange regular meetings. Use them as a chance for everyone in the group to bring up concerns. The key is to focus on behavior and how it impacts the team. Be constructive and have empathy by asking them why they are struggling. They likely already know they are causing a problem, yet are acting unable to hold themselves accountable. If you really want a helpful response, it helps to appear sincerely curious as someone who is on their side. Otherwise, they may just be glad to bring you down with their sinking ship. If they’re really unable to do the task, discuss what can be done.

These days at work, if I’m really overloaded and can’t make a deadline I’ve learned to express politely honesty and to ask for honesty in others. The regular meetings build in opportunities for positive communication and a focus on constructive criticism as part of your regular interactions.

DON’T pressure, assign blame or take productivity issues as a personal assault.

DO be aware of feelings and find constructive ways of dealing with them.
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As the semester continued, we eventually wrote an assigned play together. Conversation was a bit uncomfortable considering we were a group of introverted strangers. Paying attention to this, a team member noted we weren’t getting more than a basic plot developed through our continued discussion.

In the spirit of improv theatre’s “Yes and” philosophy, we all nodded and had built on this thought to develop a plan. Since I had once a worked on a comic strip project once where each would draw a piece and then improvise based on what had come before, I pitched that idea for our writing play. We wrote three separate parts one after the other, with the person whose schedule allowed to finish the writing of our beginning and then passing it on to the next member.

We didn’t know then that the “collective intelligence” of teams is not based on IQ. It turns out that it’s based on the ability for team members to take turns during conversation according to research led by Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon. Being aware as individuals of the “social sensitivity” of the group dynamic as an individual and how you give to it can change your ability to perform. Listening will help find and work with the strengths and experiences of each team member

DON’T focus on your team’s weaknesses.

DO listen carefully.
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The teammate who I was enabling wasn’t the only problem. As I was the last team member to work on the play’s finale, I also had the least amount of time to study the first two parts. I felt I had a strong memory, yet didn’t account for the amount of time it took to memorize and practice lines. I totally bombed during our in-class play performance.  This was one case where the reception of the performance and disappointment among my team members was consequence enough to refocus my behavior. Internally, I took responsibility for my unprepared performance and future performances for the class improved. While the group was conflict averse, conflict is necessary for change and inevitable.

DON’T underestimate the time it takes carry out your plans. 

DO be ready.
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As I was a fine art student, part of one class was to have sessions overseeing the art shows on campus. A simple job of greeting people who entered the gallery asking them to sign the guest book. One of my group members visited the show and I greeted her by the wrong name… I noticed in the guest book after she left. It was a terrible faux pas that I addressed and apologized for next meeting.

Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory shows that teams who communicate outside of formal meetings and who have increased opportunities for information communication do better.

DON’T avoid addressing the elephants in the room. 

DO get to know your team personally.
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As none of us had much practice with leadership, the professor took that role and discussed our team dynamic and addressed directly that she would have liked to have assigned us to different groups for more balanced. None of us had experience with the necessary decisiveness at the time. Ultimately, even if the real group dynamics never really worked, this turned out to serve as a great learning experience which was the real purpose of college study. Just because it doesn’t work out the way we wanted, doesn’t mean it didn’t work out.

When we are learning, we feel that our actions directly impact our future. According to researchers Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister, this sense of control connects to to a meaningfulness and happiness.

DON’T beat yourself over imperfect experiences.

DO learn from every situation and give yourself credit
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For more ways to work with others, see my podcast episode on How to Collaborate More Effectively. So how do you think I could I have dealt with these situations better? Have you had any terrible teamwork experiences that had very little team or work?

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