Maintaining A Creative Edge

Graphic designers and illustrators often find themselves working around the clock to complete multiple projects that seem to be due all at the same time. In this type of work environment, it can be very difficult to keep one’s work fresh and engaging. So we asked ourselves, “How do the pros do it?” It immediately dawned on us that maybe we should ask the pros that question instead of asking ourselves. (Not that we don’t have our own opinions on this subject—we’ve just been working around the clock lately ourselves, so we desperately needed someone else to answer this question for us.)

We decided to approach the six artists that we featured throughout 2009 in the pages of Layers magazine and ask them to submit their best ideas for staying fresh to keep that creative edge. And they graciously agreed. Here’s the result of our efforts (we mean their efforts). We hope their advice leads you to finish that one project that you’re currently stuck on.

By Jonas Bergstrand

Freelance Designer and Illustrator

Analysis: Ideas don’t appear out of nowhere; that only happens in cartoons. In reality, they appear after methodical provocation—analysis. Having a clear strategy on how to attack a creative problem is the best way to maintain inspiration because that rules out the fear of not coming up with an idea. Fears and uncertainties undermine inspiration and the end result. One has to believe in what one is doing, a vital part of all great performances.

Confidence comes in large part from having a solid working process. The first thing to do when handed a brief or problem is to strip the info all the way to the bone, cut it to the core, rewrite it in just a word or two, and then illustrate what’s left. The same method works well for any graphic assignment because it provides a core concept that helps govern the rest of the process. Colors, style, type, etc. can then be easily tested and valued against that fundamental concept.

Go my own way: I don’t scout for new impressions in order to stay fresh, contemporary, and in the forefront of anything. I look at designs and art in books and on the Internet just for the enjoyment of seeing beautiful work. It’s part of the relaxation process for me. After I finish an assignment, I often allow myself a present from Amazon. Buying books as a reward for a job well done adds to my motivation.

Everything I enjoy becomes a visible reference, influencing my work at some level. But in the long run, every designer must follow his or her own taste and intuition. Looking over someone’s shoulder, being occupied with what the competition produces, leads to nothing good. Fear and stress should always be avoided. Luckily, we don’t have a life or death kind of occupation, so we can usually get by if we just remain reasonably cool.

By Vince Fraser

Freelance Designer and Illustrator

vince fraser

Sketchbook: It’s very easy to forget a thought that could have led to a great idea; this is why you need to write things down and sketch out your concepts whenever possible. Try keeping a small sketchbook and pen with you at all times so you can gather inspiration around you. Pen and paper are a great way of throwing an idea down. Even if something’s rough, it’s easier to visualize and explore. It’s amazing how one original thought can lead to several others, and how one simple sketch can become very detailed very quickly.

Time out: Getting work done is one thing—getting quality work done can be a completely different story. Remember, you can never be creative all the time, so spending time away from the office definitely helps. Whether it’s a few days or a few hours, taking time away from work to relax usually generates better results than sitting and glaring at the computer screen, waiting for it to come up with ideas for your next illustration, campaign, or storyboard.

If I’m tired or distracted, I’d rather not waste time at my desk. Many times I never know when one of my illustrations is complete, which sometimes leads to overkill. I find stepping away from it for a day or two definitely helps. A good way to refresh the mind is to enjoy things you don’t often get to do—like visiting close friends, a short vacation, or a sports activity. I personally enjoy my gym sessions. When I return to work my mind is a lot clearer and I tend to work much more efficiently.

By Drazenka Kimpel

Creative Dust


Black+White=Color: From all my skills and talents, the ability to switch from illustration to design, and vice versa, is the one I’m the most grateful to possess and the one I think is the most beneficial for my profession. The two are entirely distinct in process and purpose, so I get to exercise and develop a variety of techniques, resulting in diverse outcomes depending on the project. By alternating those techniques, I get to do things differently each time using a variety of themes, subjects, and styles, which ultimately enables me to keep my ideas constantly fresh.

Always staying on one side of the fence could very easily become dull. The prospect of becoming repetitive could quickly result in the loss of ideas, which could cause artist block. Over the years, I’ve consistently been exploiting the idea of merging parts of both worlds into one, hoping to gain unique style, and create opportunity to elevate my skill to another level.

Curiosity+Experimenting=Rewards: Curiosity is a vital requisite of the creative world. To have an interest to better one’s skills through experimenting and learning new tricks of the trade is essential in the world of art. When time permits, I take a trip to the library or the bookstore and sit down with a pile of books containing reference material of all sorts of designs for print, Web, and painting (usually titles that contain The Best of…). Discovering what’s new and analyzing others’ works often provides clues and answers to problems I’ve had in the past. Finding new tools and experimenting on a daily basis to broaden my knowledge and skill helps me overcome hurdles in the creative process, keeps me on the cutting edge, and fuels my motivation to keep working.

By Christian Partl

Freelance Illustrator


Don’t be yourself: I sometimes imagine that another designer has to finish my work for me, and I have to offer him tips and ideas along the way. Ideally, this fictitious person is completely different from me and has many questions about the project. This little trick helps to work around the problem of attributing a particular type of idea to my person. In other words, I try to reduce my prejudices by including another person who doesn’t really exist. For me, it’s a good way to keep my work interesting.

Be defiant: Sometimes, I try to forbid myself to have good ideas in an attempt to activate a natural act of defiance. Often, imagining only bad ideas elicits the good ones. Good ideas can be a bit shy or behave like divas; they only come when they think you’re not around.

By Ben Sutherland

Vice President and Art Director of Color and Magic, Inc.


Escaping the box: I was born right handed and doomed to a left-brain universe. Everything had to be in order. Two plus two always equals four. In the box, everything was comfortable. On the six o’clock news they told me what I needed to know.
Close your eyes; find a comfortable position. Relax. Take deep breaths and exhale slowly as you count from ten to one, going deeper and deeper into a relaxed state. Roll your eyes upward toward the back of your head and move them rapidly back and forth as you go down and down.

Clear your mind of words. That’s not easy, but it’s very important. Use vision and not thought. See darkness. Move your eyes around. Look deeply into nothing. Images and shapes will come. The right brainers will get there quicker, but with practice the left brainers will arrive with their own visions.

Be different: Building the proper environment is important for creativity to flourish. The first step is to vary your daily activity. Talk to different people. Eat different foods. Skip a meal every now and then. Vary your workout routine. Wear different clothes. Wake up at different times. Go to bed at different times. Read articles on subjects that normally would never interest you. Listen to points of view with which you disagree. Begin to break up the monotonous patterns into which many of us fall.

The second step is to become a risk taker. Don’t be afraid to experiment with things you think can’t work. I call that dumpster diving. Sometimes what you can find in a pile of garbage is amazing. Remember, “garbage” is just a point of view. Experiment with colors and geometric shapes, especially colors that aren’t supposed to work together. Push yourself, and test your limits.

The third step is to become a mental vacuum cleaner. Stop watching the tube and start reading. Stop talking and start listening. Stop waiting and start doing. You should never be without at least two projects going at the same time.

By Linda Zacks



Turn off the computer: Hit the road, walk around, and take your camera. Get into the real world and leave your computer behind. Turn it off. Walk a new way. Snap shots of things and people that move you. Life living. The colors of nature. Keep snapping and don’t second-guess yourself. The exercise will rejuvenate your brain and reinvigorate idea flow. Take a bunch of hours. When you get home, you’ll have created a new and amazing photo reference library to feed off of. Delicious.

Watch the news/read the newspaper: Get juiced. Get happy. Get angry. Current events always spark ideas and passions and opinions—feed off of these and create a project just for yourself. No one can tell you change this or change that. It’s yours and everything is exactly the way you want it. You are your own client.

Quick hits from Linda
• Pull out the dictionary and read it. One word can lead to amazing things.
• Find things on the street. Go on your own personal treasure hunt for rare things that can be used in creation: colors, textures, materials.
• Go to an art store. Get stuff. Sit down and make a mess. Summon your inner child, in love with color and happy accidents. The picture paints itself.
• Scan in old clothes, old wood, and everything that has a wonderful texture that only can be created by Time itself. This leads to authenticity and richness.