Over the last 22 years I've been creating and designing brand and communication material in all mediums using digital tools. I've gained a lot of experience doing it, and I've had the opportunity of helping some people grow in their own knowledge and skill. In all this, I've also come to appreciate some of the habits I formed over the years that helped me improve my productivity. I didn't always have them, which is also why I know that they worked for me when I did form them. I also know that all of them won't necessarily fit into every creative professional's pattern, but most of them will. I still live by these, and I'm growing in every season of my life. I hope they're helpful to you.
1. Start with a raw idea. Sketch it on paper first.
There's that tendency to assume that the tools you use for your work are responsible for the great output you get. You don't trust your own ability anymore so as soon as you receive a task you dive into Photoshop or an illustration software and wonder why it's taking you so long to make any headway. But then remember that communication occurs between people. The material you're embarking on creating is meant to inspire a feeling. That feeling comes from a thought, a thought that you produced from your mind. Even if you don't know how to draw, consider this phase of putting your thoughts on paper first as a logging action. If you can't sketch (even a shabby one) then just write what you're thinking. 2. Keep an idea trap handy. Write down or sketch down ideas as soon as they arrive in your mind before they vanish. Ideas and creative thoughts are like that. I used to keep a small notebook and a pen in my pocket wherever I went. Once a thought popped into my head, I'll write it down or sketch it. But there were lots of times I didn't have it on me. But that was over 15 years ago. Now I use Google Keep Note, Docs, or my Gmail box. Once I get a thought, I whip out my phone or tablet or open my computer... no matter where I am - they're omni-channel. I can open a new Note, Doc or a new email from any device and write my idea down. I can continue adding to it later from any device if I want to, that's the beauty of it. And it's all saved! The only time I have ideas that are likely to get lost is when I'm in the shower.
3. Have an objective before you touch your tools. Know what you want your work to look or feel like at the end. You must be creatively ambitious, and aim for stuff that may even seem impossible to achieve. There are a lot of people I've met in my career that can't push a single pixel in Photoshop but they have the entire visual idea in their heads. These folks will use words... they talk you through as you execute the design on their behalf. They reject and endorse as you go along. They know exactly what they're aiming for. A design professional must start with a clear target in mind, be it a website or a brochure. Don't just start clicking around and hoping that you'll get hit with inspiration that will produce great work, have a clear creative direction, and begin putting together the elements that will bring it to life. Don't bother starting if you don't know where you're going. 4. Copy. Feel free to emulate what has been done before. In fact aggressively seek out the best in the world, then set about to "decipher" what they did and how they did it. Almost anything you see out there is inspired by something else that already exists. What we know in life is a function of what we've
been exposed to. There's no shame in drawing "inspiration" from the work of great designers out there. Pick one who you'd like to emulate, if that's how you roll. Every creative person has influences. When I started in real motion graphics back in 2000, I basically followed the style of a guy called Eric Jordan the creator of 2advanced.com. If I and my colleagues didn't get to see what he and his peers were doing with Flash and After Effects back then, we wouldn't have known what was possible. Trying to copy/imitate - and indeed surpass - what they were doing forced our skills to grow at rapid speed. 5. Try everything that you think the tools you have can do. Heck even try what it doesn't seem that the tools were meant to do. More importantly don't be afraid that you will "damage" the software you're using by pushing its perceived limits. The worst thing that could happen is it will crash. Reboot and continue, that's the beauty of the digital age. We have the "undo" button! According to the late Dr Miles Monroe, "Only those who venture get to have an adventure'. I've discovered - and still keep discovering - so many cool features hidden in plain sight of the tools we use regularly. Just 2 years ago I decided to click on the 3D tab in PowerPoint just to see what it does, and I was sucked into a fascinating journey experimenting and discovering things that completely blew my mind. That journey saw me diving into my native 3d software creating objects and learning to export them into formats compatible with PowerPoint. Now I have an additional weapon to keep my presentations one step ahead of the game.
6. Cultivate McGyver thinking (improvise). Sometimes the process isn't clean and academic. In fact, most times it isn't at all. That's what creativity is: finding new ways to work with what you already have. You're trying to lay audio tracks to produce a meaningful sequence but your SoundBooth, Audition or other environment isn't coming up. If you have Premiere, you still have a good chance. Lay the tracks on there, sequence, edit and export. You may not have the functionality you need for full-scale audio sequencing, but if you're creative enough, nobody will know. Trying to record your voice? If you don't have access to a studio or even a Zoom H1 recording device, use your smartphone. Sitting in a car will give you a makeshift soundproof booth. Be inventive. 7. Take them one at a time. Skills are best developed when tackling a task. Don't try to know everything you think you'll need to know about digital content design in one swoop. Most of it will leave your head. You're best off learning from experience, so just get cracking. Don't wait until someone gives you a task. There's always a need out there, find a friend with a small business that could use what you are trying to get good at, and do something for that business. Build a website, shoot a video, design a flyer for your neighbour or friend's event. Whatever it is, you're more likely to develop the skill and experience you need while working on something that is real.
8. Be fearless. Don't be afraid that your work will be scoffed at or rejected or that you will be labelled crazy. You won't be the first. Don't be afraid to go in a direction nobody you know has gone before. Creativity means exactly that: making something from nothing. So, that "nothing" literally means no template. 9. Define your work-space. Don't be shy to emphasise your need for quiet time and space to create. Your job as a designer is to bring non-existent visuals into being - mostly from deep inside your mind. It is often laborious to extract thoughts from deep within your mind if you're constantly distracted by comments, requests, shouting and all. Some people have enough thick skin to actually work in a rowdy environment, but even they often require a quiet - empty - moment to process the initial idea that will result in that great work. Even if that moment is not longer than 15 minutes with a pen and paper. 10. Learn when to stop. Learn how to stop the design process when the work is done. It's easy to get carried away when layers of creativity start to peel back on each other. It's like a rolling snowball in reverse. You have to force it to stop. It helps when you had an objective in the first place. And design jobs usually begin to get ugly - even to you - the more you overstretch it. 11. Keep it simple. It'll save you from frustration. Having more elements on your canvas doesn't necessarily mean better design. In fact it usually makes it worse. In my early days in digital content design it was popular to flood the canvas with all kinds of objects. Video posters were crowded, flyers were crowded, motion-graphic sequences had too many moving objects, and interactive app interfaces were very busy. This was all in a bid to prove that you were using digital tools - which could select, isolate and feather objects, apply filters and gradients of all kinds. This was new, and people wanted to show that they had the capability. But none of that is necessary anymore. Everything is literally digital now, and the available tools are in their thousands. The fact that social media and the proliferation of high-frequency content sharing means that people are already inundated with visual activity. So the simpler ones stand out even better, and are less trouble to create. 12. Don't expect a single application or tool to give you all you need. Sure, many of them have functions that can actually give that impression, but if you're looking to deliver creativity professionally - which means you need flexibility and control of your outcomes - then you need to understand the core role of each program you use. A doctor can cook her own dinner, but that doesn't make her a chef. Just as in the example I used earlier, Premiere can sequence audio pretty convincingly, but if you want to perform that task on a real pro level, kindly use tools that are designated audio sequencing and editing environments. You have better control over your process and creativity, and a far more reliable output. 13. Try new things every time you embark on a task or project. It's like when you're at the gym or following a fitness regime, each new day when you start working out you aim to go further than you did the last time.If you did 15 push-ups last time, you should try 18 this time. That's the only way you can make progress - by stretching yourself beyond your last limit. When embarking on a design assignment, always plan your output to include a stunt you've not pulled before. If, for instance, you're editing a video sequence, decide to try including a zoom blur transition, and embark on a mission to make sure you achieve it. This attitude also guarantees value from every project - even if it doesn't pay that well.Knowing that you will grow from it is a motivator on its own.