Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.

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My tea-bag offers good advice for our first week back at work, after the holiday break:


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Day 3: The 12 Days of Discovery

The Creative and the Productive

These posts are taking forever to produce! I grumbled to myself in frustration. I’m lagging behind by several days now. My 12 Days might as well be 20.

Well, Self huffed back, that’s because you’re creating, not simply producing.

Well played, Self. Well played.

“Make it pretty”

It’s become disturbingly easy for me to confuse creativity with production. My day-to-day activities for almost two decades have been conducted in environments where creativity is under-valued — or not valued at all. Creativity, in these environments, equates to “making it pretty” (for the visual designers I’ve worked with or (for writers like myself) “making it sound good.” In each instance, the expectation is not creativity but a kind of decoration. Often we are asked to take some piece of dreck produced by someone else and fix it up so that it won’t embarrass anybody. And that, frankly, is generally the best we can do.

The situation — and the attitudes that form it — is frustrating for a number of reasons. First, it completely misses the communicative impact of what we do. “Pretty” isn’t just color or form or shape or size — it’s a delicate balance of all them, which moves people to feel and think and, ultimately, do something based on those feelings and thoughts. In fact, “pretty” isn’t even the point. Persuasion is, even if whatever it is we are “prettying up” isn’t perceived as being persuasive. Everything we design or write is persuading someone to do something:

  • believe we are credible
  • get excited about our ideas
  • want to hire us
  • be a better person

Equally irritating is that the idea that creative people are there to “make it pretty” dismisses us as educated professionals, reducing us to production adjuncts armed with crayons and thesauruses, ready to leap cheerfully to spiff up that presentation or add a bit of pizzazz to that web page headline. We’re reduced to afterthoughts, the “finishing touch” on a project, rather than an equal partner with professional knowledge having an important bearing on its outcomes. The fact of the matter is that, because we understand communication and persuasion, we can make things that work well work even better. And we can motivate people to do things they might not otherwise find appealing. And we can make things easier to use. And we can construct our message or our design so that it works smoothly with the medium that delivers it.

“Pretty” is the least of our concerns — albeit, still a concern because we value our art, take pride in our professions. What we do requires more than adding a splash of color here or a clever turn of phrase there. While what we do might, for many of us, be a labor of love, it’s still a labor.

“It needs to be creative — fast!”

However, because our work is seen as just the frosting on the cake, it’s also seen as easy to produce. As such, it’s afforded little time on the project schedule, which derails the creative process — you know, that time we waste “playing around” — and reduces it to mere execution. And, by golly, we need to execute the requested masterpieces on a tight deadline.

The problem is that creativity requires what we “creatives” are often not afforded — or even perceived as needing: the time to think, the freedom to try things, and the permission to fail. Wait, let me bullet that out for you so you can really drink those three things in:

  • time to think
  • freedom to try things
  • permission to fail

Where software design and production, for instance, assumes iterative passes and multiple forms and rounds of testing, visual design and copy-writing are expected to just flow out of the creator. Perfectly. The first time. (OK, maybe with a slight tweak or two, after getting feedback from the client or requester.) For this reason, creativity shouldn’t take much time. And if it does, the designer or writer is obviously either lacking talent/skill or is “overthinking it.”

Thinking (our first bullet) is, after all, not strictly “productive.” Goodness knows you don’t want to be caught doing too much of it, especially if it’s accompanied by — *gasp!* — research. I mean, what could a designer possibly have to think about or research? They’re creating, for pete’s sake, which means it’s just sort of…coming out of them.

Trying things (our second bullet) is ok if you are a techie or a scientist or someone with a “real” degree or occupation. But then we call it “iterating” or a “release schedule” or “experimenting,” which gives it validity and weight. Noodling around with pencils and markers, trying to get the phrasing right or stretching the limits of shape and color is a waste of time.

And, naturally, those science-y folks are allowed to fail sometimes (final bullet), as long as they cheerily chirp, “Well, back to the drawing board!” and head off to erase the second blackboard from the right or add something a little more stable to that compound they were creating or paste in that bit of code they missed on their first pass.

Because, you know, those folks have real jobs.

Production value

Production — putting words or imagery on screen or paper as a final, consumable product — has often been the only part of the process valued by most of the companies I’ve worked for. And it is, in fact, a valuable part of the process. What we finally produce is what gets delivered, approved, paid for. But it’s not the only part of the process, and even mentioning process in relationship to creative work inspires eye-rolling, smirks, or both on the part of the people who don’t see past the pretty. The problem is the disparity in our definition of production for, say, programmers versus the one we use for graphic designers. For the former, it includes (even assumes) time to think/research, try different approaches, and even fail. For creatives, however, scoping and planning the work generally starts with production and cuts out the most vital (in the richest sense of the word, meaning alive) part of the creative process: the thinking, experimenting, and failing. We force our designers to try to hit the mark by producing a single design concept. We expect our writers to delight with the first draft of their copy.

If they fail to do that, they are deemed incompetent.

 Resistance isn’t futile — but it’s difficult

As I’ve been unpacking this “if it’s not easy, you must not be good at it” attitude, I’ve realized how many parts of my life it’s touched. I often find myself firing off answers to questions quickly, often in the form of additional questions so I have a little time to think about what’s really being asked of me. I cope by churning out rough drafts so I can use the time I’m waiting for feedback to try new and different approaches to my next draft, to which I’ll add the feedback before sending it out. Behind the scenes I whiteboard and sketch and scrawl on scraps of paper before committing my writing to the computer, discarding my failures before anyone sees them and more carefully crafting iteration after iteration until I find the intersection of satisfying my professional pride and satisfying my client — wherever that’s possible.

Still, I feel the pressure of production, the expectation that perfection shouldn’t take all that long because I’m “only writing.” Because, after all, any fool can type words into a laptop.

(This rant required 4 drafts on the computer and one on paper, 3 complete reorganizations, 7 trips to, 2 trips to, 2 Advils, 6 different headlines, 5 different subheadings, two rewrites of the synopsis for sharing, and 14 hours over the course of 8 days to write. In case you wondered.)