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:


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?


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?


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

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.

Ideas I Stole From Tina Fey: Uncanny Creativity 40

I previously read the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I’m working on reviewing the follow-up book “Show Your Work. Inspired by Kleon’s discussion of his inspirations, I think the creative ethic of Tina Fey is pretty great. So I’m going to discuss some of her ideas and how to apply them to be creative. One thing I love is that her ideas inspire having humor about art. Humor has been linked to idea generation.

Make sure to write and even sketch your answers to these questions. Writing a powerful way to take action.

What are you resisting?

“Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”  Tina Fey

Carl Jung would say that “what you resist not only persists but will grow.” This resistance connects to the psychological effect of priming. When we’re exposed to one thing, how we respond to other things changes. We often dwell on other people’s thoughts. These are real or imagined as worry. We’ll worry to the point where we’re less focused on our own goals and ideas. That’s natural. We have to counter balance the effect.

Ask yourself: What are you resisting? Notice your resistance. Be gentle without self and write something kind about the issue, Then refocus your attention back to your goals. We can counteract priming with “kindness priming”. When exposed to kindness, we tend to be more kind.

Is this information true and relevant?

When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.” Tina Fey

This ties into a logic problem. There are various names for this including genetic fallacy, the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue. We can’t conclude based solely on history, origin, or source. We have to consider context. If you don’t want to do something and can live with that, it’s really all you need to know.

Ask yourself: Is this information true and relevant? If they say you must try yoga, do they really mean that they are think that it’ll help you? If you don’t think it’ll help you, thank them for being so thoughtful and move on.

What’s the next action?

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”  Tina Fey

We call this analysis paralysis. We seek more and more clarity and not action. .One of my favorite poems Archaic Torso of Apollo describes in detail a headless statue. We can still imagine the head and arms, how intense this statue once was. Then we’re hit with one last detail: “You must change your life.” You know everything you need to act. Seek to balance seeking information with real creation. Small action leads to clarity.

Ask yourself: What’s the next action? Then do it. Make “Next Action” lists, not to do lists. David Allen describes next actions in detail in his book Getting Things Done. (To help you remember, print out my Getting Things Done cheat sheet.) This kind of list is specific verbs, places, and things. Avoid even broad goals like “Draw comics”. Instead try “Drawing in my sketchbook every day.” “Pencil a single comic panel every night”. Take action!

What can I do about this situation?

“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”  Tina Fey

Expressing negativity doesn’t make us feel better according to psychologist Jeffrey Lohr who studies venting. We just create a habit of venting. The issues you’re expressing are real. We often complain when we feel helpless. Acknowledge that we feel helpless and prepare to deal with that feeling.

Ask yourself: What can I do about this situation? As I discussed in the episode on Creative Optimism, helplessness comes from seeing problems as being an issue with who we are. We’ll see them as long-lasting. The story we tell us is that they will impact other parts of our lives. Once we’ve noticed a question or an obstacle, write a few actions. It’s great that we’re observant! Now put that power of observation to use on a task.

How can I turn mistakes into opportunities?

“THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.”  Tina Fey

Scott Berkin writer of Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds says that making a mistake means that you’ve created a situation where you make interesting mistakes. Once you gain confidence to accept yourself, you’ll learn by being courageous about making changes.

According to Scott Berk, there are four kinds of mistakes. Stupid, Simple, Involved, and Complex.

  • A Stupid Mistake happens when we stub or toe. Just an accident of everyday humanity.
  • A Simple Mistake involves missing something in an everyday process.
  • An Involved Mistake involves becoming conscious of a pattern. Figuring out what makes us late for a deadline on a regular basis, for example.
  • A Complex Mistake might involve all of these plus unforeseeable issues and difficult information, even when we care the outcome.

Ask yourself: How can I turn mistakes into opportunities? Even a complex mistake is really mostly a series of Stupid, Simple, and Involved mistakes. Identify the simple low hanging fruit. As babies, we had to fall a lot so that we could stand. Mistakes happen. The biggest opportunity is finding ways to laugh at it.

What can I do to keep my promises?

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”  Tina Fey

Creativity doesn’t just happen. We make it happen. It’s about making. Otherwise, we’d be trapped within the realm of thought and imagination.

Jon Stewart discussed with The Daily Beast how deadlines helped the Daily Show’s success. He made a promise to treat ideas as welcome from all staff members, not just writers. Stewarted created an environment where everyone felt comfortable sharing ideas remained important.

With this overall friendly environment, he could set a firm meeting with writers and producers at 9 am, first drafts of scripts due by noon with rewrites due by 2 o’clock. With his name and voice on the show, he felt free to rewrite drafts in his own voice which could frustrate others.

Ask yourself: What can I do to keep my promises? Notice how you’ve met deadlines in the past. If you had someone checking in on you, you might ask someone you trust to keep you accountable. You might be better with scheduled dedicated alone time. Find ways to make it super easy to finish what you start.

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