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Creative detox

It's a natural process for likes of James Bond and Dr Who. So it must be good enough for us mere mortals. Why do creatives need a detox?

There seems to be a point in an art director’s career (or any creative for that matter) where they need a reboot. It's an inevitability in films and TV shows so why not everyone else. Looking around at colleagues and friends I can see that after a certain creative trajectory they often need other outlets.

At the start of your career, there's a sense of amazement in selling your ideas for a living. I'd go as far as to say that it feels like a privilege. Even if there is some haggling to be done in the process. The bookend to that would be the extended chipping away at ideas to get them approved. Eventually, this can lead to a desire for creative purity or just simplicity.

I’ve seen art directors take up life drawing, painting, photography and sculpture. Most of those things I’d argue would have been experiences from their youth. And probably discovered during their art school foundation year. That period in people’s lives is often very potent and my reading would be that there's a need to get back in touch with the initial spark of their creativity, the initial excitement. Returning to these practices is a way to re-experience some purity, a way to tip the scales back to some sort of balanced creative whole. It becomes a way to regroup and grow creatively. How you incorporate new-found vitality into commercial work is unique to each person. And not always straightforward. But ultimately, everyone involved benefits.

Below: The hierarchy of the creative reboot.

If only I'd known...

During a recent sessional teaching day, I was asked what advice I could offer about working in the industry. In the interests of clarity, scope and brevity, my best answer was, "Read Paul Arden's book" (see below). However, I did wonder what I'd liked to have known early in my career. Here are a few thoughts...

It’s not how good you are by Paul Arden: For a start, it's small and perfectly formed. Secondly, tonnes of great ideas. Mainly it's about how to think about yourself and how to think about work. What happens when those two interconnect. Paul Arden's thoughts are not only unique but also funny.

The power of soft by Hilary Gallo: I have to admit I'm yet to finish this. But having done a workshop with Hilary I feel I've got the gist. Do many creatives have any interest in negotiation, I'm not sure. However, on one level it could just be seen as just a business book, on another, a tool for navigating everything in life.

Sticky business by Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale: Not a particularly recent book. However, it does discuss topics that are common today. Project-based work, company v consumer relationships, the individual as a brand, creativity & innovation in business. If business books aren't your thing keep in mind it reads more like a graphic novel.

Unstuck by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro: Another small and perfectly formed book. Teams get stuck, burnout or lose their vision. Unstuck looks at all the scenarios and how to fix them. All done with lovely graphic shapes, coloured panels and quirky illustrations that us designers love.

Iyengar Yoga by BKS Iyengar: Let's face it, long hours sitting, mixed in with a bit of stress, for extended periods, isn't a good mix. In the end, if a bad back doesn't get you something equally annoying will. We all have to remember that the office chair is a weapon of mass destruction. And it's never too late to perfect your downward-facing dog.

Prosperity without growth by Tim Jackson: This is a relatively dense, yet accessible, book on the future of the economy. In essence, why we should buy, consume and dump less stuff and at the same time live a better, more fulfilling life. Simple, right? All you wanted to know about GDP but were afraid to ask.

Life with Full Attention by Maitreyabandhu: I know, a mindfulness book! What a cliche. That being said, if you want to be able to think clearly when the office is in meltdown, a bit of preparation goes a long way. On a more serious note, it's about exploring the battle for your attention, in your own head and the wider world.

Oblique strategies by Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno: You could say this is Unstuck devised as performance art. However, it's older, snappier and really cool. Additionally, it was developed while producing some of the greatest music known to man. Physically it's a pack of cards, with each one suggesting a route out of your creative dead end. But don't expect any easy solutions.

Finally, what do you wish you'd known when you started your career? 

A few contributions from Sicily's capital, Palermo.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

There are many reasons to love Italy. Some go for the wine, others the food. Even stranger, to me, the football (it's a sport I'm completely immune to). However, there's a detail of Italian life that I don't always consciously acknowledge. It's what I can only describe as, civic type.

I only seem to notice it in Italy. Maybe it's the heightened holiday state or too many espressos. But, street signs, station names, office descriptions all seem to have a real elegance and beauty. And they are all deliciously inconsistent. However, the more I thought about it the more I began to realise they were nearly always from a particular era. 

In fact, the UK does have an equally impressive history of unique and idiosyncratic signage. Italy has just been better at preserving this part of its history. Despite the UK’s long history of design maybe there really are cultural differences in how certain things are regarded. 

The irony is that we are in an age where the ability to present something in a convincing and sophisticated way is open to all. A level of design literacy is pretty much a given for large numbers of people today. Yet our civic spaces lack beauty and a certain attention to detail. And, stating the obvious, in an era of savage budget cuts this is probably just a “metropolitan elite” issue. 

The question I’m left with is this: have we swapped character for conformity? 

Art Directors, what are they good for...

I recently came across a Do Lecture by Mark Shayler: Why we need to design better things, not design better ( What struck me particularly about what Mark had to say was how broadly he approached his own role. Maybe the fact that he doesn't have a consistent, defined job title underlines this. But my question to myself was this: are art directors too defined by the title and its understanding?

I think having a design education is a wonderful thing. But on the surface, people take that to mean we've learnt something about grids and type, possibly photography. And we can make things really neat. The reality is that all of those things are just the top layer, the manifestation. Beneath any solution we've had to formulate a coherent narrative, decide what’s appropriate to our audience, think about how it’s logically and emotionally understood, what it does for our client - both internally and externally. In addition, we have to consider how we explain all of this in a presentation. 

My understanding of Mark's career is that he's been able to shape and mould what he does according to what he feels is important. As well as meeting his client's needs. However, all the skills he’s using are the ones you’d develop through almost any design course. Therefore, is there a better way to put a creative education to good use? Could we solve other issues for our clients using the same lateral, yet strategic, thinking skills? Are art directors really just interested in the visual and therefore bound by it? Or being limited by the expectations? 

Best of all this lecture highlights that after all the big environmental projects Mark has worked on he's got even bigger ambitions. In essence, growing his job yet further so he can have a greater impact. As opposed to becoming more and more specialised. Thinking about the future of the creative economy and the importance of soft skills, is the role of art director open to a wider definition? 

Recently I've seen an example of how a different interpretation can be applied. Vince Frost’s book, Design your life ( Admittedly, it’s a very designed, visually led book. But it’s trying to use the design process to resolve a bigger issue. Something beyond just being visual.  

Having said all of this, I know there are numerous people who think art directors should be physically restrained from even looking at a copy of Word. 

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