I grew up in an artisan family. By the age of ten, when most of the other kids were barely allowed to help in kitchen or visit and watch in their dads garage workshop, my parents were crazy enough that I was allowed to use and experiment with every tool and material I could find in our house. And we’re not talking paper scissors or clay. We’re talking lathe, hardwoods, melting glass and casting metal. I cut and burned myself so many times that it would drive child protection service nuts, but it was probably one of the most important and formative things that happened to me.
It taught me the way of craft approach to life. The amount of tries and times needed to get at least close to what I imagined as a final product. Very early on it prepared me for what any learning curve looks and feels like and how muscle memory learning works. But by far the most important lesson was the value of material. In a material world, every single piece of scrap material can be re- or up- cycled as well as saved for later projects.
Fast forward 10 years later, to my first graphic design and typography uni courses. I was at that starting point under the hill of learning curve once again. Knowing At most 5 commands in Illustrator and trying to make the coolest, cleanest, minimalist typographic poster EVER! (we’ve all been there, so cringey-smiley is the reaction you’re looking for). However as hours and tries pass by I noticed that I keep more suff off the dartboard than on it. My old craft habits showed up again. I was saving ideas, byproducts and scrap material for later. In the never-ending digital space. The same way I categorised and saved scraps of metal or glass when I was learning to work with it as a child.
That shape looks nice bit it’s not exactly what I’m looking for. That’s a nice composition but it’s somehow not working and I don’t know how to fix it yet.Instead of deleting all the “bad” stuff or enjoying the feel of cmd+n’s clean slate I kept it. And then the lucky coincidences happened . All those sudden overlays and recomps, you know it. I began just rehashing all on board and there it was.
We all do it. We all have the clusters of “temps” around our dartboards. These are the small side-projects. The stuff you do to wind-off, doodling out of boredom, as exercise or just to get that one annoying shape out of your head so it will stop showing up in every. single. project. you’re working on (and it’s driving you nuts and you star questioning if you’re not burning out, and you know the rest. We’ve all been there).
It’s easy to write them off as a necessary “creative waste”, but I decided that I want to give these little bastards a chance. Each month I’ll give them few hours and finalise them, combine and remix them. I’ll upcycle my digital scrap material. And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these small pieces are as valuable (or good) as the real, consistent, thought through work on a piece of visual identity or campaign for a client. They’re just another opportunity to learn and practice.
Here’s why you might want to try this as well. First, it will give you a great insight into your creative process and you’ll know better how to work with yourself (so meta, huh?). Second, it’s a great way to clean up your mind and imagination. Call it creative hygiene. There’s a difference between that one great idea you keep developing in your head for some time now, germinating and evolving, and that one stinky, maybe-possibly-cool one rotting away at the back of your mind. The only difference is that one extra line or step that will open you another view and visual possibilities. The 0.1% of extra work. And believe me, work pays off. And finally, the last reason why you should give it a try: The simple beauty of it. In our profession we’re all (self)trained to be those non-compromising perfectionists striving for spotless excellence (or other buzzword-sense-tingling bullshit you encountered). The respect you show for your work even if it’s not completely perfect — that says a lot about you. The moment you step back a bit is the moment you re-evaluate. The moment you learn and tackle what and why went wrong in your first try.
It has been said that design comprises of three equal parts: technology, art and craft. The traditional manual craft experience of our business might be lost or foreign for many of us nowadays. But if there’s one thing we should keep holding on to it’s its methodology. The process of constant improvement of our capabilities. The slower, more precise way of learning. The complex mastery, refinement and respect.