Design Therapy

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“If anyone tells you that being creative is easy, you have my permission to slap them upside the head, because it’s not.”

It’s Getting Personal

I didn’t get into design originally because I wanted to change the world or to help the people I design for attain their own successes. In fact, I didn’t even start in design — I started in photography. I started taking photos because I wanted to capture moments, to create tangible memories stored someone outside of my brain; and because I was good at doing that. While it’s what I’m doing now (and I’m incredibly grateful for that), I didn’t start designing for other people. No. I started designing because it made me happy. There was something about it that was innately what I was “meant to do.”

Recently, I wrote about designing for myself as one of the main tenets I live (and design) by in my 2020 Manifesto. And while this may seem like a simple thing to live by as a designer, I think we often forget to do it. So often as a designer and an artist you will come across other designers and artists toting personal projects, or passion projects. They talk about doing things other than what you’re currently doing as a way to ignite those inner embers of passion and creativity if you feel you’ve lost it along the way. By no means are those external and personal projects bad or something you shouldn’t look into if you’re feeling drained and you think your work has become monotonous. All I’m saying is that I think there’s an integral part of our normal day-to-day work that we don’t pay attention to. Allow me to elaborate on what I mean in a little story.

Once Upon a Time

I am an illustrator (you probably know this by now). I give myself that label because that’s what I do, I illustrate. I create drawings and digital graphics based on ideas or scenarios. But, they’re not always my ideas or scenarios because I work for a team. I’m not a lone wolf, and I like it that way right now. Because I sometimes create other people’s ideas, I often don’t end up creating what I inherently want to create for myself. I’m getting better at bridging that gap, but I’m not there just yet.

So, sometimes I have to pull creativity out of an idea (or a combination of them) to create something new and original. I use the word “pull” here because it’s not always a smooth process. It can be frustrating because I don’t always have the best ideas and my drawings aren’t always the best — fun fact: this always happens at the beginning of the process. If anyone tells you that being creative is easy, you have my permission to slap them upside the head, because it’s not. Some ideas are great, and some are not. Some art is beautiful, and some aren’t. It’s not a perfect world and it never will be, because that would be boring.

And so, I focus on the process, not always the outcome. I also wrote about this in my Manifesto, because the outcome isn’t always what’s important when you have a growth mindset. Your focus should be on improving and growing, not creating perfection every time. Yes, the outcome is a great measure, but it’s only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

On one particular day, I found myself working on an artwork that wasn’t really working out, in my opinion. I knew this was just part of the process so I didn’t throw in the towel just yet. (If we did that every time we designed something then nothing would ever get done.) I was creating some outlines which I knew I would have to fill eventually with colour, but part of my process involves creating all of the outlines and then filling them all in at once, because it’s usually quicker that way. Often I’ll use a generic tool that fills everything in with a single click; but for some reason, that tool wasn’t working this time. Oh man, did that make the situation worse. Here I was, with a complicated line-drawing I already wasn’t stoked with and now I had to colour it in manually? What century is this and why did I have to resort to caveman methods?

Alas, it still had to get done so I calmed my rising blood pressure and confusion and settled into what would be a long exercise. Funnily enough, however, I’m glad that happened, because I then had one of the best working-afternoons in awhile.

I decided that I had to do it this way, and I was going to embrace it for what it was: the old-fashioned (and slightly improved with technology) way. I unravelled my earphones, made a cup of coffee and dug myself into my chair. I started filling those lines like I was paid to (which I was). I got grooving to my tunes and before I knew it I was bobbing my head at my desk, sipping away at some mocha and I was having a blast of a time.

I finished that part of the artwork before I thought I would, got up to stretch my legs and when I came back I took a long look at the current state of the artwork and for some reason, I didn’t think it was as bad as I did before. I made some progress. I may have made progress sooner if that tool had originally worked, but I don’t think I would have arrived at the same place as I had doing it this way.

I was happier with it but I couldn’t figure out why until I started another unrelated personal artwork a few days later. I got to the same stage where I had to fill in my line-work and I found myself excited at the prospect of taking my time filling it in manually. It clicked. I wanted to take my time. I wanted to enjoy the process of something as mundane as colouring in my lines. Suddenly the success of adult colouring-in books made sense. I got to be a child again for a little while.

Happiness Matters

There was something else that stood out to me about this experience. My mental state improved to a point where I enjoyed something more than I would have if I had done it the easy way and clicked a single button. I was happier and more content with my work because I embraced a seemingly mundane part of the process.

I think there were two aspects to that:

  1. I unplugged from the world and threw myself solely into doing one thing, and
  2. That task was more mechanical than not (it didn’t require much thinking)

I think embracing the mundane sometimes is worth giving some thought. We don’t need to do everything the slow way, but if doing something that way makes you happy then when you’re feeling down do it the slow way. Do what makes you happy. At the end of the day, happy people create happy things, and happy things make other people happy. Capeesh?

Those external passion projects are great, don’t get me wrong, but I think if we embraced our normal work a little differently, then sometimes we don’t need external projects to ignite our passion. What we need is already right in front of us, we just don’t see it until we stop looking.




Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.

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Zachary Styles

Zachary Styles

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.

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