Learning To Unlearn

Despite being viewed by many as an extremely positive person, I often find myself faced by days where creativity and excitement just stops. While yesterday may have been extremely productive and positive, today may leave me frustrated, irritable, and utterly confused about who I am as a designer, and who I am as a person. If my schedule allows, I tend to use this as a signal to get out of my office, and decompress. As projects pile up, I find my big, exciting ideas for the future often getting smashed under the more immediate tasks. It leaves me stressed, and in turn, uninspired and uncreative.

 While this article could branch off into several separate subjects, the one I want to elaborate on is that of feeling uncreative.

Today, on my personal twitter account, I tweeted:

“Lately I’ve been wanting to unlearn everything I think I know about design. Would be great to get that youthful excitement back.”

It was really only the tip of the iceberg for what was on my mind. Unlearning. Many of you who have been in the design industry are probably familiar with the term. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, well, you’re in a good spot. You’re still fueling off the newness of your career in design, and you’re still learning everything for the first time.

I’ve been doing this for a decade now, and I’m beginning to envy that youthful excitement.

A couple replies to my tweet came in quick. Matthew Flick, Vice President of The School Of Advertising Art, and Owner of Flick Design said: “Agreed. And learn from people you admire to see why they design things the way they do. Just design for fun.”

In addition to Matthew’s reponse, independent graphic artist, Brandon Moore,  added: “I was thinking the same thing last week. Studying old work, there were things that I liked, but would never think of doing now.”

Both responses struck a chord with me. Matthew stressed from learning from people you admire. I love this idea, and I have definitely made the attempt where I could to learn from designers that I looked up to. But I also want to be that to people that look up to me. I want to have the answers for people on how to maintain the passion and excitement for design that initially ignited us all.

Brandon Moore’s response had me nodding my head as well. I often look back on my own work as a little more fearless, original, but also more naive. I’d like to take my wisdom, and mix it back in with the fearlessness.

To get to the point, my issue is that when I first started making a living from my design work, almost every thing was new for me. Every new font blew me away, every new texture technique made my heart race. I used to look at Aesthetic Apparatus and Ames Bros portfolios and drool. It was like seeing colors for the first time, or being introduced to the capability of the computer before I had even realized I could create with it. That newness. That excitement. It was like being pushed hard enough that I knew it would be a long time before I would ever slow down.

Maybe I’ve even gone on longer than I expected. I had a head full of brand new ideas that had always seemed bottomless. I wondered if there would ever be a time when I would run out of ideas, because, at the time, it was evident that there was an idea factory in my head – and it was quite a well-oiled machine.

But if the time has come, when my ideas have run out, it hasn’t happened quite the way that I thought it would. I thought there would be a brick wall that I’d run into, and I would know, for sure, that the well had run dry.

But it’s come in the form of confusion. There isn’t one day where you wake up, and your work just isn’t cool. Instead, there is a day when you wake up, and your tastes are a stark contrast to the majority. You find yourself convinced that what the majority likes, just, well… sucks. This all seems fine and good if you want to align yourself with a snobby class of designers, but I don’t want to align myself with the snobs. I want to care about my clients and my clients‘ demographic. It’s part of my job to care about what the public thinks, and to design with them in mind. But what happens when you are convinced that the public is wrong, and they don’t know what’s best?

Now, I have obvious answers to my questions. Yes, I know that knowing my demographic is crucial to being a successful designer. I also have always ignored my own “aesthetic” to a certain extent, if it meant that I could more effectively solve the problem. I haven’t set out to show the world my so-called “unique aesthetic,” but instead, I’ve set out to show my clients that I can solve the problem. I will stand firm in my belief that graphic design is about solving the problem, not implementing your own agenda into everything that you send out. I’m way more impressed by the designer portfolios that show an amazing range, than I am with the ones that simply regurgitate the same aesthetic, over and over again. I don’t operate like a fine artist. I operate as a commercial artist. There is a huge difference.

But, the drawback that I’ve realized with my method, is that I don’t want to do anything twice. I’m terrified for anyone to look at my work and say that something looks just like something else. I want every piece to be a new journey. It’s way more exciting to me if I’ve never been there before, so I do my best to blaze a new trail as much as I can.

But what if something that I already did was the best stuff that I have ever done. Do I return to that aesthetic, and find a home there? It doesn’t seem very exciting to me. I don’t want to get a new project, and know that I’m gonna go through the motions, because the client wants me to regurgitate something that I’ve already done. It’s quite a conundrum for me, and one that I’m trying to navigate to someday find an answer.

So many artists stick to one aesthetic, and get quite popular with that one style. Everyone comes to them for that one thing, until that trend has passed. I wonder if they are left wishing they would have made themselves more versatile, if ever the day came when their style phased out.

I guess my excitement comes when I am trying something new. My current dilemma is that I’ve explored so many styles, that I may be running out of new ideas to explore.

So that leaves me with the option to relearn. In a sense, I want to mentally start over, and revisit old methods that I’ve previously used, and put a new spin on them. I want to go back to seeing the world with the awe and wonder that I once had. I want to think about being fifteen years old, and dreaming about how cool it would be to design a t-shirt graphic for a band, or someone’s official logo! The idea of these types of projects used to excite me to no end, and I’m dying to have that zeal back. I’m dying to look at the world as if I’ve never seen it before, where everything is an opportunity to create something new.

I’d love to hear your comments and stories, if you’ve found yourself in a similar predicament. We can all learn a lot from each other view points. I’d love to hear yours.




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