The Creative Process

The creative process is a strange animal indeed. After spending most of my adult life involved in creative services I can’t claim to understand how we access our creativity in a reliable and repeatable way. Even after so many successful instances, the blank page of a new project provides a combination of excitement about the opportunity and something between worry and fear about “What am I going to do this time?”

I began my career as an advertising photographer, primarily shooting studio still-life. Over time I developed a process for discovering some important visual truth about the object I was shooting. I used this process mostly for personal and portfolio work and editorial work where I may have had more creative control. For agency work, I might still use my process, but the typical constraints of meeting the advertising goals didn’t always allow for using the learnings.

I would clear the studio. All equipment out. Assistants out. Even cameras out. Just me, and the subject. A larger subject I would put on the floor in the middle of the room. A small subject I might put on a tripod so I wouldn’t need to lay on the floor for a close view. Then, I would work my way around the object looking at it as an abstract shape. I would look at it from all angles, seeing how it’s planes, curves and colors changed from different perspectives.

Once I felt that I really knew what it looked like I would bring in a single incandescent light. I would again travel around the object, but this time placing or holding the light source in different positions, to fully understand the effect of light on the object. Usually, somewhere during this process with the light I would have the ah-ha moment when I found something that struck me as a visual truth that was different, unique, powerful, dramatic or otherwise compelling. Only then would I bring in the camera, build a set, add lights, etc. From that point, the shoot would progress with a clear sense of purpose.

I found it important to try and forget what I knew, ignore an instinctive approach and try and begin each shoot as a voyage of discovery. It worked for me.

While I still shoot, I rarely shoot commercially anymore. But running a digital agency provides plenty of opportunity for creativity. When projects allow it, I try and put as few constraints as possible on our art directors and encourage risk taking in design. Design is more of an iterative process than photography is. By taking bold leaps you may not immediately come up with a viable design, but you may well discover some valuable truths that lead you to the final design. Exploration yields revelation.

My very favorite clients are those that embrace risk, understanding that safe does not lead to differentiation. To achieve category ownership, brands must rise above and stand apart. Fear of failure is a recipe for mediocrity.

In the agency world, team approaches are both common and necessary. However, I would like to differentiate between a team approach and design by committee or any sort of crowdsourcing. The latter two are guaranteed to deliver middle of the road, lackluster results. Encourage individual inspiration, then in the iterative process pursue the breakthroughs.

It’s still a mystery to me where creative inspiration comes from, but experience has shown me that people gifted with talent and encouraged to explore will somehow find that moment of illumination. I am dedicated to achieving business objectives for my clients, but it’s doing the work itself that provides the deeper satisfaction.

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