Jeff Zych

On Creativity: My modest guide to being more creative

“Creativity is a gift I accept.” This is one of my daily affirmations that I adopted after doing the Artist’s Way. In that spirit, I’m always trying to strengthen my creativity (it is a skill that can be practiced). Here are some tips and tricks that have helped me over the years. I cobbled these together from personal experience and reading many books on the topic (skip to the end if you want some recommended reading).

Tweet-sized summary: Generate lots of options. Refine the best ones until you have something you like.

On generating options

  • Quality comes from quantity. At the start, generate as many options as you can with no concern for how good they are. Turn off your inner critic and the voice that tells you whatever you’re making sucks (this is easier said than done, but it can be done and improves with practice).
  • To get going, start with the easy options. Even if they’re basic, or simple, or derivative, or just plain bad (you’ll refine them later. Plus, even a basic idea can spark a more innovative one).
  • Create the worst version of your idea. Improve it from there.
  • Start small. Rather than trying to tackle the whole project at once, which can feel overwhelming, try zooming in to one small corner of the work and start there. Once you get the ball rolling, the work will start to flow and you can expand outward from there.
  • If you’re feeling stuck or not seeing paths forward, set a target number of concepts to generate. It doesn’t matter how bad each one is or how small of a change one version is to the next as long as you reach the goal number. It could be 10, 20, 50, 100 — it doesn’t really matter, but it should feel slightly out of reach (but no so out of reach as to feel impossible. Also, I’ve noticed it depends on the domain you’re working in. I’ve found product design to be more constrained than lettering, for example). Once again, you’re just going for quantity. Generate enough options and the sparks will start flying. Eventually at least one will be good.
  • A-B-Q method: I got this one from Well Designed by Jon Kolko (see end of post for more book recommendations). It goes like this: Create a version of your idea (A). Then do an iteration of that idea, such as by changing one part of it (B). Then come up with a completely different version of the idea (Q). It should bear no resemblance to “A” or “B”. This is a good technique to find new, uncharted territory to explore. It’s also a technique I use when I’m stuck.
  • Pay attention to when you get into a “flow” and the work just comes, versus when you’re stuck and can’t seem to make progress. Figure out what you can do to get yourself in the right mental state every time you sit down to create. Maybe it’s the time of day, or your physical setup, or the music you put on, or a candle you light, or morning routines like having a good breakfast and doing your morning pages to calm your mind (these are all things that help me). Everyone has different triggers that get them in the right mental headspace, so figure out what those are for you (this is one reason I love reading about other creators’ processes).

On refining

  • After you’ve generated lots of ideas, choose the best ones to refine. What is “best”? Only you can decide. Whatever is speaking to you. Or closest to the vision in your head. Or feels right. Or you’re most excited by.
  • Identify the rough edges, and sand them down, one by one. Keep doing this over and over again until there are no more rough edges to sand.
  • How do you spot rough edges? And how do you fix them? Spotting them is usually easier than knowing how to address them. This is the most mysterious part of the creative process since no one can really say what led them to make the leap from point A to point B. The best “technique” I have is to regularly fill your creative tank with work you admire and inspires you. This will hone your eye for what’s “good” and “bad” (sidenote: there’s no universal “good” or “bad”. It’s only what you deem “good” and “bad.” Chasing what other people tell you to like won’t lead you to create work you’re proud of and excited about). It will also give you new ideas to try in future projects. I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters and blogs that contain inspiring work, but I’m also constantly paying attention to the world around me for objects that catch my eye.
  • Save good work into an “Inspo folder” (this is what I call my Notion page. Austin Kleon calls his a “swipe folder.”) so you can refer back to them later. This can be helpful when you’re feeling stuck.
  • At the beginning of projects, create a mood board of inspiration for that project. This is a great resource to draw on when you hit creative walls in a project.
  • Analyze work you admire and try to figure out what makes it good. Looking at creative works with a critical eye will help you identify aspects of their work you can incorporate into yours.
  • An even better version of the above tip is to re-create work you admire. Doing so forces you to engage with it on a much deeper level than you would otherwise. You’ll see all the details that would otherwise go unnoticed. You’ll find decisions the creator made that cause moments of surprise and you’ll ask yourself, “Why did they do that?” Those moments are gold. You’ve stumbled across a decision another person made that you wouldn’t have, which is a new trick that you can use in the future. These are growth moments and new neural connections are being formed in your brain.
  • The work you surround yourself with and re-create will come out in the work you produce. So surround yourself with good work! And continually push to broaden your horizons to new fields, new artists, new cultures, etc., etc.
  • Share your work with other people for feedback. Their reactions can help you gauge what’s working and what’s not working. This can be other creators you admire, trusted friends and family, or people in your target audience.
  • Make time for play. Just do something for fun that isn’t tied to any specific project. This could be learning a new technique, trying a new tool, following a tutorial, or just making a mess with materials that inspire you. This is another way of learning new techniques and tricks that you can pull out in future projects.
  • Always be willing to throw out what you have and start over. If you’re stuck, it may be because this idea isn’t the one. There may be better concepts out there.
  • Embrace mistakes. Sometimes these lead to the most interesting and novel breakthroughs.
  • Remix the most promising aspects of different concepts together.

On getting un-stuck

  • Try a different tool. Look at the work upside-down. Listen backwards. Run it through some filters. Use your non-dominant hand. Just do something different. Let go of the expectation that it needs to be “good” or “usable” to be worth spending the time on. The idea is to break out of the mental rut you’re in. And to have some fun!
  • Seek out inspiring work. Your folder of saved work can often come in handy here. But also, keep a catalog of places to go (websites, books, museums, etc.) that has work you can draw on for new sources of inspiration. Passively waiting for inspiration to hit doesn’t always work, so actively seeking out new sources can get you un-stuck.
  • Take a walk. Wash the dishes. Pet the dog. Sleep on it. Just stop focusing on the work for awhile and let your unconscious go to work and pop new thoughts into your head.
  • Instead of trying to create something good, try creating the worst version of the thing. This can break you out of mental ruts, let you ignore constraints (real or imagined), and see new paths to go down that you didn’t see before.
  • Remove all constraints. They may be inhibiting you.
  • Add constraints. Too much freedom can overwhelm you with options and the intimidation of “the blank page.” Constraints force you to come up with creative solutions.

Creativity is weird. There’s no set way to get un-stuck, just techniques to try that may or may not work for any given project.

On knowing when to stop

  • Stop when you can’t find any more rough edges to polish.
  • Stop when the work matches your vision.
  • Stop when it feels as good as you can possibly make it.
  • Stop when you like it. When you’re proud of it.
  • But be wary of over-working an idea. Sometimes you can spend too much time refining the work. Some decisions may be overthought, or come across as trying too hard, or you remove the small imperfections that make a work seem personable and human. Where that line is is really hard to judge, and depends on the nature of the piece. I’m still figuring out where that line is for myself.

Reading list

Those are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years that have helped me be more creative and produce better work. I’m always searching for more, but some places that informed my thinking are:

  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This is, by far, the best book on creativity I’ve ever read. It’s more than a book – it’s a 12-week program that will actually make you more creative. I wrote about about my experience with it here.
  • Keep Going by Austin Kleon
  • Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
  • Creative Doing: 75 Practical Exercises to Unblock Your Creative Potential in Your Work, Hobby, or Next Career by Herbert Lui
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
  • Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Producers by Dennis DeSantis
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Well Designed by Jon Kolko
  • The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero
  • The Storm of Creativity by Kyna Leski
  • Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray
  • Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by Ken Kocienda
  • Draft No. 4. On the Writing Process by John McPhee
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
  • The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky
  • Working by Robert Caro
  • The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
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