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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Your Creative Life

Get A Life (And Other Remedies for Creative Atrophy)

When creative impulses are few and far between , designers often turn to outside sources for a boost. Whether it's hiking in the mountains, getting a tattoo or bringing your pet iguana to the office, this freedom to explore your inner child feeds your business finesse.

- by Jenny Pfalzgraf

Wouldn't it be great if you could go to a brain spa to get steamed and exfoliated of dead ideas, kneaded into shape and primed for creative brilliance? Imagine if, for the low, low price of $49.95, you could wrap yourself in a tinfoil cocoon, shed your inhibitions and, in a matter of hours, emerge as raw and unbiased as a newborn.

Unfortunately, there aren't any snake-oil cures for creative brain-block. Innovation can't be bought or patented that easily; if it could, we'd all be Einsteins. But you can clear your head of stagnating ideas—a condition Doug Hall refers to as "mental constipation" in his book Jump Start Your Brain. It all starts with the environment you call work.

Today's most enlightened design teams are embracing the fact that creativity gestates in weird and mysterious ways. Creativity is a byproduct of life—not just a 9-to-5 exercise. Smart companies are giving their designers the chance to have a life, with hopes of seeing a creative ROI (return on investment). Here's the scoop on some of the creativity boosters they endorse.

Exploring the Mind/Body Connection

Creativity is often described as a "muscle" that needs exercising to stay in shape. While this is true, it doesn't help to bench-press your creativity to death at the expense of your other body parts. Sometimes the best way to rejuvenate your creative prowess is to ignore it for a while and take in a good physical workout. "Fitness is a big part of our culture," says Rex Peteet of

Sibley Peteet Design in Austin, Texas. "One year, we all did a lot of mountain biking. Then we bought a Foosball table. Next we got hooked on Frisbee golf." The firm's designers are as adventurous with sports as they are with new projects. You can't help but wonder if there's a correlation.

At Tran Interactive Design Group, a Washington, D.C.-area multimedia boutique, exercise isn't mandatory—but it is subsidized. Soccer games, swing dancing, rafting, skiing and self-defense classes are factored into the firm's annual budget. "When people have fun, it's reflected in the energy they bring to their work," says Creative Director Hung Tran. "It's well worth the investment."

Some firms take the idea of sports therapy to extremes. Last year, the creative trio at MB Design in Bellingham, WA, expanded its horizons (literally) by climbing 10,778 feet to the summit of Mt. Baker in Washington's North Cascades. "It was a personal goal that each of us had," says owner Matt Barnhart, who footed the bill for the two-day excursion. "I wanted the office to do something as a team that was healthy and would create a sense of camaraderie." It worked.

"On the mountain, we were all roped together," says designer Sean Fields. "If you fell into a crevasse, you literally had to rely on the others to save your life. We all saw each other in a different way. When we got back to the office, I think we all felt more open to discuss new ideas and voice our opinions."

Getting Out in the World

Even if your studio is situated in a particularly swanky city, it's still only one point on the map. That's why Minneapolis-based Kilter Inc. sends its people to "walk" other cities to collect creative artifacts. A fully loaded sensory experience is good for stimulating new ideas.

Recently, the firm dispatched two designers to New York City to prepare for a re-branding project for Lidz, a Boston-based hat seller with 300 stores nationwide. "We wanted to study how consumers experience a brand in other places," says Kilter Creative Director Cynthia Knox. "So we sent two of our people to study retailers that are masters at defining the brand experience for the customer—companies like Starbucks, Ralph Lauren and the Gap." Kilter's explorers observed the latest trends, "took tons of pictures and lugged stuff back to present to the whole group."

Taking a more global approach to cultural anthropology, Peekskill, NY-based YOE Studio will soon swap staff members with an Australian design shop through an international exchange program. The three-month stint "down under" will broaden YOE's window to the world.

Escape from Reality

Then again, inspiration is sometimes readily available in your own backyard. At the Los Angeles arm of TBWA/Chiat/Day, designers don't even have to leave the office to get a change of scenery. The mega-agency recently moved into a 100,000sq.ft. warehouse that's anything but typical. Billed as an "advertising city," the space houses a full-length basketball court, an indoor park with trees, three-story cliff dwellings, and workspaces—called "nests"—designed to nurture innovative thought.

"There are lots of places to escape within the building," says agency spokesperson Jeremy Miller. "Of course, employees are allowed to leave at their leisure, too. They can do whatever they need to grow professionally. It's an extremely open environment that enables the creative process to happen the way it needs to happen."

On the opposite coast, YOE Studio shares this "otherworldly" philosophy. Located in a 19th century Gothic-revival castle overlooking the Hudson River, the company sports a picturesque facade. But when you go inside, all hell breaks loose. The studio—which caters to kid audiences via clients like Nickelodeon, Mattel and Disney—is self-consciously loony. The "corporate" conference room features Mickey Mouse-shaped furniture surrounded by treehouse wall murals. YOE's hot-pink bathroom doubles as a shrine for Barbie memorabilia; the green bathroom pays homage to Kermit and the gang from "Sesame Street."

"Our designers thrive in this unorthodox atmosphere," says co-owner Craig Yoe, a self-professed pop-culture addict. To discourage routines, Yoe summons his 21 staffers to impromptu readings of Dr. Seuss and to brown-bag lunch screenings of movies like Austin Powers. The team also benefits from weekly "Yell and Tell" sessions, in which "aliens" from the real world enter the castle and share their expertise. "We've invited illustrators, animators and even the town historian to come talk about what they do," Yoe says. Most recently, the company entertained a local tattoo artist. After discussing his craft, the artisan offered a live demonstration of his skill, using a willing employee as a guinea pig.

"The dichotomy here is that we're all still kids, but we treat everybody like adults," Yoe says. "We trust that everyone is going to do their work. I'm not interested in micromanaging—or really managing at all."

What's next for this off-the-wall studio? YOE is flying the entire staff to

London for a weekend of fun, bonding and British culture.

Getting Down and Dirty

Most designers don't enjoy the luxury of castle living. But many are finding other ways to channel bygone eras in the name of creativity. One rejuvenation practice that's increasingly popular is making art the old-fashioned way—without a computer, that is.

Six years ago, Nerve, a Cincinnati-based design firm, began hosting digital-free creative sessions known as "Crafternoons." "I wanted to work collaboratively and to make things with my hands," says founder Lori Siebert. Once the idea caught on, local designers began making bimonthly pilgrimages to Nerve (at the time known as Siebert Design Associates) to get a creative fix. Although their handmade items were routinely auctioned off to charities, participants left each session with something else to take home—creative inspiration.

"People were jumping in, and it was changing their lives," Siebert recalls. "It was amazing. They might not have sewn or sculpted in a year, but they'd resolve to start again. Another staff member and I started illustrating as a result. Illustration has since become another stream of revenue for our company."

Perhaps the best-known champion of handmade art is greeting-card giant

Hallmark. With a creative staff of more than 740 (the world's largest), the Kansas City, MO-based company churns out roughly 11,000 new and 8,000 redesigned cards per year, not to mention licensed products. Hallmark expects its employees to produce, but it also gives them the time they need to explore creative ideas without the looming pressure to generate deliverables.

Among its countless perks, the company offers workshops ranging from experimenting with traditional oils to textile art to blacksmithing to birdhouse-making. These are conducted during company time, and they aren't necessarily intended to produce salable items. Senior creatives at Hallmark have the option of embarking on independent study sabbaticals or "rotations" at the company's vast Rice Center facility and at its Kearney studio, a 300-acre working farm.

Last year, Hallmark illustrator Denise Chevalier took a four-month hiatus from her "regular" job with Shoebox Greetings to experiment with raku-fired ceramics, primitive rug-hooking, mosaic art, Native American seed beading and automata (mechanical sculpture). "I made a hand-powered wood sculpture with gears," she says. "When you turn the handle, this fox tries to catch prairie dogs that are jumping down into their holes. I also made one of a bear trying to catch trout leaping upstream. These projects challenged me to use my design sense, to carve and to assemble found objects. I also worked with color.

"For me, it was an exercise in renewal," continues Chevalier, a 22-year Hallmark veteran. "It wasn't really about the objects themselves that I was making. It was the problem-solving aspect that was really enlightening. It's a win-win situation for Hallmark and for me. I learn something new and, in the best possible scenario, something new may eventually appear in the card line."

During an age in which corporate loyalty is virtually unheard of, it's no wonder so many designers continue to log lifelong careers with Hallmark: They never get bored.

There's No Place Like Home

In the end, field trips and sabbaticals are only effective if the progenies can return home to a comfortable workspace and implement what they've learned. A studio whose environment isn't conducive to creative noodling will never get the most from its staff—no matter how often it sends them away for rehab.

When it comes to nurturing creativity, there's a lot to be said for stress control. Tran Interactive Design Group keeps its employees sane by offering alternative work hours (a 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule lets staffers miss rush-hour traffic), plus a fully stocked fridge and a studio where pets are welcome. "We want people to come here focusing on work—not on the errands they didn't have time to run, or that they're hungry, or that they need to let the dog out," says co-founder Tran. "Also, having animals around is a good release. With dogs in the room, you can't take yourself too seriously.

Creativity is born when you're relaxed and having fun. Next week, we're going to bake homemade dog biscuits."

On the 100-acre campus of SAS Institute, a major software developer located just outside Raleigh, NC, staff designers enjoy a 36,000sq.ft. gym, unlimited sick time, free self-serve soda fountains and a bottomless supply of M&Ms (the company purchases roughly 23 tons per year). But for Lynn Scott, SAS manager of visual communications design, the cushiest benefit is free, on-site daycare.

"There's nothing that can compare to having your child well cared for while you're at work," says Scott, a single mom. "I've been appalled to attend design conferences where female design leaders have more or less said women have to choose between being a mother or mothering their work. No profession should support such a prejudice against women." Knowing that her son is in good hands, Scott is able to focus more intently on environmental graphics, ads, collateral materials, conference programs and being creative.

Taking Responsibility for Your Creative Muse

In the quest for creative fulfillment, it's always tempting to blame your clients if you're feeling impotent. This kind of self-imposed victimhood will get you nowhere fast.

Kilter Inc. avoids this slippery slope by not relying on clients to shape all of its creative pursuits. Under the name Kilter Industries, the company runs a product-development lab that produces, among other things, a groovy line of watches that the firm licenses to retailers and manufacturers. "We don't just wait for clients to give us directions," Knox says. "We brainstorm for really good product or packaging ideas, mock them up and try to sell the rights."

Not by coincidence, Kilter is following up its identity project for Lidz by designing a new line of hats for the company. "The interesting paradox with design firms is that you have all these great creatives working for you, but clients are the ones dictating needs and parameters," Knox says. "Product design creates a role reversal. It gives creative people the opportunity to execute the ideas that are in their heads."

In the end, creativity is what you make of it. Every few months, Nerve's designers leave the office and burrow into some serious soul-searching. "We want to help each person—not just as a designer, but as a person—determine what drives them," Siebert says.

In one recent exercise, Nerve staffers were challenged to create "image boards" representing themselves. "We asked each person to show how they envisioned the perfect workspace, the perfect client and the best sources of inspiration. You work with people every day, but you don't necessarily know what makes them tick," Siebert says. "We want to get at the essence of the way we think and the way we work. We want to marry clients to that ideal, not vice versa. We're now looking for opportunities that will reflect us. And we're going to proactively search out clients and projects that fit with that goal."

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell writes: "We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

"Follow your bliss."

Jenny Pfalzgraf works in Northern Virginia, lives vicariously through the creative types she interviews, and dreams of one day having a lifetime supply of M&Ms.

- HOW design

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