Does your psychology impact your artwork?

Want to be more productive artist? Understanding how the human mind and our natural behaviors impact our actions can go a long way with creating a way of working that works for us.


Examine your creative habits.  As the author of several books on happiness including Better Than Before and The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin talks about several examples of what have worked for many famed artists in an article on Psych Central. There is a central question here: What has worked for your in the past and what hasn’t?

I enjoy quite a bit of distraction as part of my creative process. I enjoy the escapism of having music, television or podcasts on in the background as I paint, draw or design. I feel like this puts what I’m doing in perspective. Otherwise, if I’m drawn into the idea that what I’m doing is all there is in the world, it can be really difficult to keep going when something doesn’t go perfectly right. If the television is on, I can take a mental break just long enough to regroup and come up with the perfect solution when I tackle the next step. It’ll take some trial and error to figure out what methods make you the most productive. 


Does your gender play a role? Maria Popova examines psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his text on how artists defy traditional gender norms. Artists tend to think outside of the box, therefore we might not need to act in a way that is expected for our gender. This isn’t about our sexuality, it’s about how we are told to react within our culture.

Women artists might be more assertive on average than the general population. Male artists certainly have an anecdotal reputation for being more emotional and passionate than the average man. Do you feel you have broken any of these molds with your art or personality? 

Brain Rhythms

Can you improve the rhythm of your brain? The University of North Carolina School of Medicine has used weak electrical currents to literally boost creativity. “We’ve provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a causal trigger of a specific and complex behavior – in this case, creativity,” senior author Flavio Frohlich, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology says in the official press release.

These brain oscillations have been associated with our senses and are more prominent when we come up with ideas. While we probably aren’t going to be using electrical currents for this effect, finding more natural ways to induce these waves could make you a more productive artist. Meditation and daydreaming are associated with alpha oscillations; they’re also much easier and safer to do on your own.

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

Art History Continues to Evolve

History isn’t static, even when it comes to art. Many artists we think of as famous today were unknown in their lifetimes. Even the ones who were quite successful had periods where they slipped back into obscurity.

I remember noticing many artists we read about in my African American Art History and Music classes in college didn’t have Wikipedia articles. That was over ten years ago. I didn’t want to use it as a primary source, of course. It would have been a helpful to have an idea of who I was reading about. Back then, I reformatted a lot of my homework and started or expanded a few articles. The community did a good job of making those additions readable up to some standard. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has teamed up with the Wikimedia Foundation to add over 50 African American Artists to Wikipedia.

We also have the ever changing history of the “master’s” as their paintings continue to resurface and exchange hands for exhobetant prices. Picasso’s painting of his second wife is estimated to be sold at auction for around $150 million.

“Modern man has been in search of a new language of form to satisfy new longings and aspirations – longings for mental appeasement, aspirations to unity, harmony, serenity – an end to his alienation from nature. All these arts of remote times or strange cultures either give or suggest to the modern artist forms which he can adapt to his needs, the elements of a new iconography.” 
Herbert Read, English anarchist, poet and literary critic

Germany has been hard at work restoring many paintings seized by the Nazi’s to the heirs of their World War II-age owners. Mattisse’s painting “Woman Sitting in Armchair” will be returned as Germany reached a settlement . Another looted painting by El Greco, “Portrait of a Gentleman” was also returned to the heir’s. Speaking of Nazis, one of Adolf Hitler’s own paintings is also up for auction.

In Romania, a Renoir painting was found in the former prime minister’s safeA painting that was suspected to be by Claude Monet has been authenticated. Using a special camera, experts were able to uncover Monet’s signature. It’s now the first Monet to be held in Finland.

Take a look at this video where art experts enjoy some prints from Ikea. Ikea has some good stuff, yet even people who are supposed to account for artistic taste won’t always hit the nail on the head.

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

15 Tips to Work More Like Pixar: Creativity Inc. Summary and Book Review

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration tackles Pixar and Disney from the view of technology, individuality, and artistry all while creating a viable business. 

As a graphic designer, I love to balance creativity and responsibility. Like Pixar, we’re in the business of bottling and selling our imaginations

Ed Catmull, the computer scientist who became president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, deals with this awesome collision of seemingly conflicting interests with sincerity right out of Wall-E.

I’m a huge pop culture fanatic: My friends would do trivia and one night they turned in a guess before I even heard the question figuring no one would know the answer. I felt shocked to learn that no one else knew who played Robin in the old Adam West version of Batman. It was Burt Ward, people. Burt Ward. Do people not know this?

So as you can imagine, I’ve laughed and cried with Pixar in the theatre over the years. Remember in Toy Story 3 when Woody and friends held hands and resigned themselves to incineration? You have no soul if that didn’t rock you to the core.

In the spirit of Pixar’s films, I have 15 tips on how you can apply Ed Catmull’s experiences at Pixar and Disney to your own life full of imagination and wonder:

Tip 1: Build trust

In business we all hear so much about positivity, though do we question what that means? 

For Ed, positivity is about putting people first. People want to trust, hope, and have faith. The book targets anyone who wants to be creative and says anyone can be creative. We want people to solve problems without feeling that they have to ask for permission.

“Trust doesn’t mean that you trust someone won’t screw up – it means you trust them even when they do screw up”

Ed Catmull

Tip 2: Respond well to failure

When we create an environment not driven by fear and failure, we develop the people around us and help them grow. 

To cut the natural fear response of controlling and micromanaging, we have to make surprise more comfortable and not threatening. Trust can’t be created as quickly as fear.

Ed tells us that facing the fear of failure and forming trust happens when we avoid secrecy when it’s not necessary. Sharing “secrets” shows that employees are trusted. When given trust, people are more likely to keep secrets. As a company, Pixar is excellent at keeping secrets internal by treating employees as smart, trustworthy, and capable partners.

“Every single Pixar film, at one time or another, has been the worst movie ever put on film. But we know. We trust our process. We don’t get scared and say, ‘Oh, no, this film isn’t working.'”

John Lasseter

Tip 3: Step back to see the big picture

Our view remains the only perspective we really will ever know. 

Pixar views daily versions of each film to discover problems. Ed describes “The Problem of the Beautifully Shaded Penny”, that if not aware of the big picture each employee will treat their piece as if it was the greatest piece. 

The penny metaphor describes how a motivated animator could create a very detailed penny if that’s the task given, even though in the final film it would only be seen for a blink of the eye.

“Working at Pixar you learn the really honest, hard way of making a great movie, which is to surround yourself with people who are much smarter than you, much more talented than you, and incite constructive criticism; you’ll get a much better movie out of it.”

Andrew Stanton  

Ed reminds us that we can’t that assume creativity can’t be quantified as data. Creativity times time, it takes several revisions, and we can compare time estimated versus real-time. We can view the state of work at deadlines and the quality level at every transfer between departments.

Tip 4: Know your weaknesses

Ed acknowledges that sometimes we’re all confident. Sometimes we’re not. The key reason for constructive and practical communication is letting others know it’s okay to make mistakes. 

How we deal with mistakes is what counts. As a designer, I have to make revisions, corrections, and changes. Rather than leap to the idea that we should have known, remember this is part of the process.

Tip 5: Evaluate the process

Something as simple as the shape of a table can change the way we interact. A beautiful table at the Pixar office was impractical for work, setting up a hierarchy that left employees feeling too intimidated to speak. Remember how King Arthur brought his knights together at around table. This showed they were all equals.

In our personal and professional lives, encouraging proximity and equality in all situations benefits communication. The Pixar building was also designed to force employees from all departments to interact. 

Informal interactions between employees with no working relationships encouraged solutions that you’d never come to in a meeting while sitting around a table of any shape. This matches research about proximity and friendship.

How do we enable you to solve problems and do things differently? Question the perceptions and assumptions that went into the current situation.

“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your first picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done.”  David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Tip 6: Embrace the unknown

The best managers make room for what they don’t know. 

Loosen controls, accept risks, build trust. Engage with and pay attention to anything that creates fear.  The book’s subtitle, “Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration”, is a great summary of this theme.

Ed reminds us that many of these forces may stay unnoticed and may not ever be visible. Employees may never want to discuss certain issues with their manager. The best managers, according to Ed, are the ones who don’t need all the information.

When Pixar employees attempted to become middlemen, Pixar reminded them that in their culture anyone can talk to anyone at any level. Communication structure shouldn’t mirror the organizational structure. 

Being a manager means employees won’t be so open with you.

Tip 7: Show that you listen

It’s not enough to listen. Take a responsive action.

Use words that connect those actions to what you heard and who gave you the idea. Try not to expect others to guess where you’re coming from.

Ed describes how the Japanese made manufacturing defied the conventions of American companies who only allowed the very highest levels of managers to stop the production line. Manufacturers in Japan shifted assembly lines away from quality control inspection after the fact.

Instead, every employee on the production line was responsible for product quality. While the American system gave each employee no say in how to make their job more efficient, Japanese worker culture created pride. They felt encouraged to carry out even the smallest changes and not just accept their role in a robotic assembly line.

Silicon Valley, Pixar, and Apple brought these ideas to the United States building trust with each employee as an ally in making quality products.

Tip 8: Embrace humility

We tend to think success or failure signifies factors within our control.

Often external forces and randomness play a role. We must use care in not believe our own hype. We can’t account for the factors. The simplest explanation with fewer assumptions. Unforeseen things happen that are not anyone’s fault.

Tip 9: Take risks

Don’t prevent risk, make it safe for others to take a risk.

The cost of preventing errors is often greater than fixing them. Pixar animators show characters moving before going forward to make movements predictable. Moving left for a split second makes the audience anticipate moving right. Leaving out these moments and ignoring the rule, however, gives an element of surprise.

Tip 10: Acknowledge the challenge

General agreement won’t lead to change, it takes a lot of energy even when all agree. 

Success in creativity isn’t repeatable by process and pointless to try to recapture it exactly as it was. Steve Jobs predicted that Pixar would one day make a bad movie, it was inevitable. 

The team had to be prepared for a disaster and look for other hidden problems. Accept that flaws exist. Inevitably, there will always be some problems that cannot be avoided.

“Our fate lies within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it. “

Merida, Brave

Tip 11: Be decisive

Director Brad Bird learned to deal with stress by acknowledging he holds stress and must find coping mechanisms. 

We all have feelings, it’s just about how we deal with them. Sometimes Brad’s coping method is simply to do nothing.

As Andrew Stanton said, “Hurry up and fail”. Decide to be decisive and forgive yourself. A director is like a ship captain. Commit to a destination and if you are headed in the wrong direction, you can change course then.

“When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.”

Dory, Finding Nemo

Colleagues want committed decision-making and honesty about decisions that didn’t work. Make your best guess and hurry up about it, then simply change course. Collaboration creates complications.

When we have allies, the nature of collaboration makes us a solver of problems. Letting others know about problems allows them to offer solutions as well. Be prepared and not irritated with challenges. Creatives know that when we’re sailing, we will face weather and waves.

Tip 12: Embrace teamwork

Movies don’t often emerge from a single visionary, even if it’s possible as a seed. 

Even a good idea needs to be excavated through effective collaboration. Like in archeology, Ed tells us that the bones you find in creative work may belong to several different dinosaurs. 

When working with Disney, they decided to move away from a notes system where people who did not have film experience and did not know how to give constructive feedback.

“You and I are a team. There is nothing more important than our friendship.”

Mike, Monsters, Inc.

While Ed and his new team started at Disney, he did have to train Disney employees to be more helpful by steering clear of negative evaluations and focusing on the positive. This balance helps everyone feel more comfortable with the facts of the day. 

With their own truths, detached from those of Pixar, Ed helped Disney as a modern studio to have its own individuality reflecting the culture its own employees wanted. 

In graphic design, art, and movies, the most effective creatives know that every team and every project is unique.

Tip 13: Expect Change

Creativity is complex and evolves. Small companies work differently than big ones. 

Things change and we have to keep changing. New employees didn’t know the history or reasons for processes and had new ideas for processes. 

At Pixar, as new employees joined the company that was now viewed as a modern legend, new challenges to the core values emerged.

“I can’t stop Andy from growing up… but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Woody, Toy Story 2

As a bigger company, Ed and his team created drawing, sculpting, and coding classes to teach about each other’s work. Classrooms are where mistakes happened. This also put all of them in social interactions outside of the work structure and set a tone for everyone to keep learning and be flexible.

“Protect the future, not the past”

Ed Catmull

Tip 15: Make it personal

In a creative business, we all know that there exists a huge personal element. 

At Pixar, the leaders would not only hand out bonuses. They would personally deliver them with a thank you. After the success of Tangled, they printed personal letters and give each of them a DVD copy.

“Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”

Ed Catmull


Creativity, Inc. uses the how-to and self-help book format to tell the story of Pixar. 

When viewed as a storytelling framework it is an effective and time-tested format for all kinds of content. 

Tina Fey told her story this way in Bossy Pants and Amy Poehler took the format self reflectively with Yes Please that seems more comparable here. 

Ed has some of the expected behind the scenes stories for the Pixar movies up to this point. Still, his focus remains on cultivating an environment of ideas.

We also get a look at Steve Jobs’s evolution and how his strength of views. His vision remained malleable and formed based on his reliance on building a good team of people. 

As a designer and artist, the idea of incorporating that feeling of creativity into sustainable living is the end game for me. For the creatives, at Pixar, Disney, and everywhere else the obstacles of combining creativity, art, and business ultimately form our lives.

More book reviews


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

No One Understands Graphic Design

Graphic design is everywhere. Our work is seen by thousands. Often we’re uncredited and our role in the process is diminished. After all, we are hired to visualize another company or person’s vision. When you tell someone you’re a graphic designer, be prepared for the barrage of questions about exactly what that is. Part of it that is that our industry uses the term graphic design to refer to a wide variety of specialties. Sometimes that makes it easier for us to take on different types of work. Sometimes it makes it hard to tell people we specialize in print and not web…

You’re more function than form

Design has always been about functionality. Whether it’s to market a product or to help instruct on it’s use, what differentiates design from non-commercial art is that we have a function. Let’s take flat design, which web designer Luke Clum so eloquently deconstructed as a user friendly step forward in his beginners guide for Creative Blog. The premise of flat design is using simplicity to our advantage to grab attention and focus on the most basic elements. Solid blocks of color and simple type choices help using flat design very straight forward. This has become especiallyl useful in smart phone apps where designers attempt to balance branding with ease of use for consumers on the go.

You’re not in an art museum…yet

Graphic design needs it’s time in the spotlight,” writes Olly Wainwright for the The Guardian. While various museums and institutions are dedicated to architecture and crafts, we’re just starting to see graphic design rise. Wainwright tells us about initiatives in London and how design is seen in British culture specifically. As a print designer, I found it especially interesting that print is still a huge and growing part of the industry. As much as we are told about digital, there is still a big market for analog products. Are there any initiatives in your area that show off the art of design? How do you tell people about your job?

You’re not a computer program

Have you seen the video “FYI I’m a graphic designer” with mention after mention of graphic design in television and movies? “I’m a graphic designer,” we hear in the film by London based designers Ellen Mercer and Lucy Streule. “So is everyone with a laptop.” In pop culture, graphic design exists in a Jetson’s like future where a push of the button does it all. In Hollywood, it seems like graphic designers are portrayed as if we’re failed artists, that it’s something anyone can do, and that there’s quality design is easy. In real life, even the most well-educated designers are challenged by our work. It’s still funny and cool to laugh at ourselves. There’s a lot more depth and hilarity to our work! I love all of the parts where they try to explain to people what they’re job is…

You’re not photoshop

No seriously, Photoshop doesn’t design things. A lot of designers don’t even use Photoshop much for their work. I’m more likely to be in InDesign and Illustrator when I’m designing magazines and infographics. It’s like saying anyone can use paint. It’s very true that anyone can put paint on a canvas. It’s just a tool. Anyone can cook. Doesn’t make you a chef. Speaking of tools, the San Diego Reader’s Ask a Hipster column explains the stereotypical connection between hipsters and graphic design. Do you agree with his assessment that it’s the perfect stereotype of the mdoern day hipster.

You’re not just a designer

In an interview with designbloom, designer and art director Jorge Leon talks about how he has a life outside of deisgn. “I love being a graphic designer,” says the designer who works out of Barcelona. “but I can also imagine myself being a photographer or something equally creative.”

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

Be Creative About Making Your Own Opportunities

It’s not that I particularly like being a person who tries to make my own opportunities. It’s just the easiest way. So I’m very lazy in that sense.

I wish opportunity just all appear before me. If all the things I want appeared like magic. Then everyone knew what I want and did it. So that I wouldn’t have to look to find all the things I imagine.

I’m a realist. We see many who live as if that fantasy is what’s supposed to happen. They serve as a good reminder to ask for what you want. Be cool when you get what you get. Do what you can to find what you’re looking for.

At the same time it still often feels like I imagine things and they happen.

When you’re used to be a creative, you forget about the work a lot of the time. It’s a habit that is developed and cultivated.

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