The Psychological Needs of The Creative Process
The creative process is a series of steps we go through to create a work of art. In the context of commercial art, it always starts with a brief and ends with the creative product—perhaps an illustration or some kind of designed object or entity. It’s those steps in between that are the domain of the creative process. The creative process is a series of actions, which, if we do them in the correct order, will yield a creative product. It’s a procedure. It’s an algorithm. It has inputs and outputs.
Of course, the art part of the creative process is part of what makes it so mysterious to many. How can great ideas and great images emerge from a predictable routine? Obviously, there is more than just following a recipe: there are aspects of talent, ingenuity, intuition, and sensibility at play. This more mysterious, personal aspect is perhaps something we either have or do not. We are less in control of the hardware we are given. I prefer to focus on things we can control.
We cannot change what we’re made of, but we can optimize our surrounding conditions. There are certain conditions that make it easier for our creativity to thrive. Having a creative process in the first place is one such condition. Another part of these conditions is motivation—something to drive us forward, either by pulling us from up front or pushing us from behind. We are led by incentives and chased by various pressures. I wrote about this in yesterday’s post, The Carrot and The Stick. Today, I want to continue exploring these more psychological needs of the creative process.
While the steps of the creative process show us what to do, when, these more psychological needs of the creative process give us insights as to why or why not a creative process is working or not. Have you ever been working on a creative project and felt completely directionless? Have you ever been stuck in an endless loop of sketching and scrapping ideas, going through page after page of ideas but never certain that you’re getting anywhere? You can be following the steps of the creative process to a tee, but still feel like you don’t have what it takes to complete the job. Beyond the practical creative skills and step-by-step procedures required of the creative process, there are more abstract, psychological elements at play. While equally important (to the practical skills), they are less tangible. Perhaps that is why they are so easy to overlook.
The Psychological Needs of The Creative Process
The following is a list of (what I am for now calling) the psychological needs of the creative process. These are intangible but important conditions that must be met in order for any commercial art project to survive. By naming and understanding these, they can help shape how we structure and move through each project. These are particularly useful at the outset of the process, where we are defining the overall vision for the project, a.k.a. the brief. They are also helpful as a check-in tool as we move through the process. If we get stuck, we can return to this list and ask if any of these critical conditions are met or not.
Aside from actual creative skills, the first and most important need of the creative process is structure. Structure gives us a map of how to move through the creative process. It helps us know what we should be doing, when. The steps of the creative process itself give us this structure. To summarize, these steps include The Brief, Research & Discovery, Sketches, Finals, and Delivery. I have written about these steps, and of course, they are the basis of my entire thinking on the subject. A creative project without structure is like a person without a skeleton. It has no form and cannot stand.
02 An Incentive
Creative projects take effort. They involve some struggle as new ideas are formed. Like any job, creativity is work. When things get hard, when the initial enthusiasm for the project fades away, we need a reason to keep going. A huge reason, of course, is that we’re being paid. We’re not just artists, we’re commercial artists. We get paid to make our art. While money shouldn’t be the number one reason we do what we do, it is the number one incentive. The difference between reason and incentive is that the former is bigger than any one job, while the latter applies to each job, specifically. Why we do what we do for a living is bigger than the creative process itself, and, I think, it’s outside of the scope of this topic. Incentive, on the other hand, is always a specific factor in each project. Whether you are driven by the reward of a large paycheque, or by the sense of responsibility to make good on the client’s investment, having a financial incentive makes a job feel real and worthwhile.
In yesterday’s post about The Carrot and The Stick, the incentive is the carrot dangling in front of the horse. It’s the key pull factor in almost all commercial work. But what about pro-bono work, you might ask? Or when your client does not have a big budget? Or when you are doing a personal project? The honest truth is that without a compelling financial incentive, the project will be harder to complete. A financial incentive in front of the artist, and a financial sacrifice (or investment) on behalf of the client, makes the job feel real; it assigns an literal value to the work, which in turn makes it a priority, something worth giving attention to. In the absence of a lucrative financial incentive, we must establish some other incentive—something that pulls us from in front. Maybe that incentive is praise and adulation. Maybe it’s having a portfolio piece. Maybe it’s just the sense of accomplishment you gain from helping your client with your art. But these other incentives, while important and hopefully also present, they cannot alone keep you going. The only thing that will ensure that you can keep making your art is your ability to keep making a living.
We are lazy by nature. If we don’t have to do something right now, we probably won’t. We are selective by nature. We will prioritize what we would rather do over what we would rather not. Or, we will prioritize whatever feels most pressing in the moment. While we would rather sip cocktails in a hammock, if our house is on fire, we’ll take care of that first. If we want our creative projects to happen at all, we need to add a little bit of pressure. This sense of urgency usually comes in the form of a deadline. Without a deadline, there is no reason to prioritize a creative project over other things that so easily grab our attention. Because creativity is hard work, and we know this deep down, we will procrastinate. We will put off the effort for as long as possible, often doing things that feel like work, or things that we’d simply rather do.
I wrote about this yesterday too. This sense of pressure is the stick, the push factor, that drives us from behind. It’s not the positive reward that we run toward; it’s the negative consequence that we run away from. The most available source of pressure is a time limit. When you set a deadline, it makes each moment more valuable. When time seems to matter more, we use it with more care.
There are other sources of pressure, such as fear of failure. A healthy fear of failure keeps us on our toes. Who wants to fail? Not me. But what is failure but somehow missing the mark. A time limit gives us an easy mark to aim for: do the thing before time runs out. In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how many games have a time constraint, which drives the game forward and creates a sense of urgency. This keeps players on their toes; in order to win, they need to work hard and pay attention. Time is the most obvious source of pressure.
While there are examples of other pressure sources, like keeping score or relative competition (as with baseball, golf, or a game of Monopoly), only time works well in the context of commercial art. As small businesses, freelance creatives have to make a living; our time is limited. We cannot work on projects that, like a game of monopoly, can go on indefinitely. Projects that carry on like this are time-sucks and corrode at everything else we are trying to do in our work and lives.
In creative work, I cannot imagine not having a deadline. Whenever time is left open, nothing happens. There’s always something else that is a priority, that does have a pressing deadline or sense of importance. For projects that don’t have hard deadlines, I now insist on creating artificial deadlines. Whether we set the deadline or it is set for us by the client, time pressure gives us a reason to pay attention to a project, not later, but now.
04 Purpose and Goals
Commercial art is always practical. What other kinds of art is for, I cannot say, but I do know that the art we make as illustrators and designers is always for a specific purpose. The goal of our work might be to sell a product, or to help clarify a difficult concept. It might be to alert or inform. Or, it might just be to make people pay more attention (that is usually what we do as illustrators). So, needless to say, our art needs goals. In our creative process, we need to know what the actual use of our work will be. How will it be used? What is its purpose? How will we know it’s working or not toward this purpose?
If the goals of a creative project are vague or undefined, I will not know how to enter into the process. I won’t know what to research. I won’t know what reference material I should be gathering.
When setting up a brief with your client, always be clear on what their goals are. What do they hope to achieve through the project? How do you and your art fit in? What goal posts can you set? How will you know if you’re on target or not? By setting up goals for the project, both you and the client have a more objective way of knowing whether your art is working or not. Ideas and options are infinite. There is no limit to how a problem can be solved. But if you define the problem, and then actually prove that you’ve solved it with your art, you can say you’re done. There is not enough time to offer every possible solution to a problem. But when you’ve set goals, the moment you know you have something that works, given the available time and budget, you can let go of the fear of missing something (by ceasing further creative exploration).
Goals give us something to aim at, by which to measure success or failure, and, along with the pressure of a deadline, give us a sense of finality. Even without a hard time limit, Baseball works because it has a goal: the most home runs within 9 innings. When projects bleed past deadlines, only goals are left to help us know when we are done.
Goals can be easily confused with purpose, but they are different. Goals are specific things the art must accomplish. A fully formed work of art can have a purpose but still not meet its goals; it can have a function and a failure at the same time. The purpose is the intended function of the object, while the goals are about how well the object functions. That being said, purpose and goals are tied tightly together. A creative project must have a purpose—an overall function—and it must also have ways of knowing how well the end product serves this purpose.
(I’m undecided whether goals and purpose should be separate or together in this list of needs).
A creative project needs a leader. A leader is responsible for setting up and seeing a project through. A leader understands the creative process and guides everyone involved through it. A creative project is just like any other group effort. The group needs to know not only why they exist and what they are supposed to be doing; they also need to know who within the group is responsible for what. People need direction in order to accomplish tasks. In creative work, it should not come as a surprise that it is we, the creatives, who are responsible to lead. We often come into a project feeling not quite like a leader, but more of a hired hand. But who understands your process more than you? Who knows how to make the art? Who knows how to translate business needs into creative ideas and images?
Leadership does not mean you are the boss of everyone. It doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want or have the final say. It does mean you can be relied on and trusted with your area of expertise. As commercial artists, we are guides. Guides lead by showing the way through an unfamiliar territory. An expert is always a guide. As creative guides, we don’t know what’s best for our client; we know what’s best for our process. We know what we can and cannot do with our abilities and how this can help our client. We are not there to tell us what our client needs, but to help translate a need, first into a creative problem, and then into a creative solution or outcome.
The creative process is a dialogue. We are not making our art for its own sake. We are not being asked to go make some art and come back with it fully formed, without any check-ins along the way. I guarantee it, if you go about your work like this, your final art will rarely be accepted. Clients need to be included in the process at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. They are relying on you for the creative work, but they don’t want to stand completely aside and feel powerless. After all, it is for their business that your art will exist. You are a commercial artist. Similarly, in order for you to make your art, in order to define the goals of the project and know if you’re on track along the way, you need to have some feedback from your client. This back and forth between creative and client is vital for the success of our work.
There is an art to this dialogue. Just like any good conversations, there needs to be a respect for each participant. There needs to be time for each to formulate their ideas and express them fully. One must listen while the other speaks. Timing is also important. We mustn’t speak out of turn our say things that are not relevant to the conversation. Filtering is also key. If we were to say everything we have in our head, it would be confusing for the others. The conversation would get side tracked. We would go on tangents and never make a point, or come to a conclusion.
In the creative process, it’s important to know when to interact with our clients and what we should be sharing at that point. We should know when it’s our turn to share ideas and when it’s time to listen. Similarly, our clients should know when it’s their turn to review our work and give feedback.
What does it look like to have a creative dialogue with your client? It starts by working together to form the brief. Here, you establish the needs and goals of the project, and also establish meeting points throughout, where you show your work and the client offers feedback. There’s much more to this exchange, but this is really what it comes down to.
The stages defined in the creative process map out when these points of dialogue happen and what the expected outcomes are. When working with clients, we must see our process as a dialogue and treat it with the same care we would have if we were having a civil debate and trying to persuade others to see things from our perspective. Since it is our job to creatively project our own perspective, being able to persuade others in this way is pretty important.
We cannot do our jobs if we feel we are not trusted. A client cannot give us space to do our job if they do not trust us. How do we earn the trust of our clients? We start with a proven track record, i.e. our previous work and experience, i.e. our portfolio and CV. We establish our clients’ trust, even before they become our clients, with evidence.
Of course, full trust has not been given to us until we have been awarded the job. In the beginning stages, a client often comes to us with a query or requst. Further trust is built up in the conversations we have at this stage. It is in how we answer questions and listen to their needs that will give them the impression that we can be trusted with their project.
The true test of trust will come when you present your first concepts to the client. It is here that they will see how well you have understood their problem. It is here that they will see your creativity at work. In every creative project, your goal should always be to nail this first presentation. If you disappoint them here, they will lose their confidence in your ability to meet their needs moving forward. They will feel the need to be more prescriptive, to hold your hand more, to try to share the creative role. Avoid this at all costs, because the moment a client loses trust in your ability to do your job, the more they will try to do your job for you. I’ve been there, and it sucks.
As creatives, there are so many ways to fall short and lose our client’s trust. The way to avoid missing the mark is to start projects out by eliminating as many variables and unknowns as possible. When setting up the brief, be as specific as possible. Know what the client wants, and make sure the client knows what they want themselves! Importantly, you need to be on the same page in terms of artistic goals. Do they know what style you work in? Are they expecting something that falls outside of that? Make sure the client knows what to expect at that first presentation as well. Let them know how many ideas you plan on presenting, and what these will and will not involve.
If you can establish and maintain trust by the first sketch, the rest of the project will likely go smoothly. Even if you have a few hiccups later in the process, the client will know that you are capable of listening and addressing their needs professionally. They will be willing to let you go off and do the creative problem solving on your own when you need to, and even give you the time you need to do it.
If it’s important for your client to trust you, it’s even more important for you to trust yourself. This is confidence. You need to have confidence you can successfully do the creative work.
Creative confidence comes from skill and experience. You will be less confident at first, but grow in confidence as you go along in your career. That being said, even at the beginning, you need some kind of confidence. Often early confidence is delusional, but it at least gets your foot in the door, and from there, you’re already on your way to building up more experience.
How can you be as confident as possible in your creative work, for real? Knowing what value you bring to the project. This requires self awareness and brutal honesty. What do you know you are good at? What are you not so good at? How can you put your strengths forward, or use your weakness to some advantage? If you lack in sheer creative confidence, perhaps you have confidence in your ability to lead the creative process (this has always been my stronger suit). Confidence in commercial art is not always directly about the art we make. It’s more about leadership and clear thinking. Confidence is about understanding how we can best help and starting there.
This should almost be the first item in this list. In order for a creative project to thrive, you should be interested in it! Interest comes in many forms. Maybe you are interested because you like your client; you can relate to them and like what they’re about. Perhaps you find a project interesting because it poses a new creative challenge. Maybe the project or client aligns with your long term goals or personal mandate. In the absence of other key needs in this list, (especially a financial incentive), your sheer interest in the project will drive you forward and keep you engaged.
There is nothing worse than finding yourself bored and unengaged in the middle of a long creative project. Just as you must be confident you can do the job before taking it on, you should also know you are interested in it. Sometimes, I know, we have to take on projects that don’t float our boat. We have to pay the bills. Work is work. But as much as you can, say no to jobs that don’t seem interesting or inspiring to you. It may seem like a foolish financial decision in the moment, but in the long run, it will give you more time to take on work you do care about. Don’t fear not getting the next job; fear the job you’ll dread doing.
These ideas are a work in progress. I’m always happy to hear what you think. How well do you relate to these psychological needs? Do you think there are some I’m missing, or perhaps disagree with the ones I’ve listed? Please let me know in the comments!