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Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit

Do you wake up every morning to do work that deserves to be called creative? Which is a more appropriate title for your business card: creative director or manager that watches other people draw? Are creative professionals really all that creative? We all know that some days can be more inspirational than others, but the best designers find ways to be keep their creative knives sharp at all times. In search of my latest whetstone, I picked up a copy Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. While the book starts off a little slowly, I found three points she offers in the end to be refreshing and meaningful pieces of advice on becoming a creative creative.

The Bubble

Tharp created her best work inside of The Bubble, a place free of distraction. She sacrificed almost everything else in order to be productively creative, building an environment that she calls a “single-minded isolation chamber.” She admits that this approach is anti-social, but shows no regrets for the pro-creative trade-off. When I think about the most talented designers I know, each lived and worked inside their own bubble, usually during school. At the same time, I have a hard time coming up with a talented designer who did not apply this level of rigor and commitment to his work. A period of ultra-high productivity, especially at the expense of other aspects of life, seems to be a pre-requisite to creating great work.

Personality is a Skill

Ask a creative about their skills and they’ll tell you how good they are at things like drawing, photography, brainstorming, observation, or composition. Tharp encourages us to think about personality as a skill that needs to be developed too: “You can choose and develop aspects of it that will draw people to you and make them want to help you learn and improve.” I recently completed a survey to understand the most important skills in hiring an industrial designer. After drawing, personality traits most consistently appear at the top. How many of us work with people we love or hate all because of their personalities? You could be the greatest technician in the world, but without the right attitude, charisma, or confidence, you won’t be a great creative.

Build your MQ

“Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art…Without symbols, and the ability to understand them, there would be no writing, no numbers, no drama, no art.” When I think about the common threads that weave together different design disciplines, metaphors immediately come to mind. They tie together our discipline as a whole and keep it strong. Especially when I’m developing an idea that’s a little outside of my comfort zone – it could be a brand, a restaurant, a business – I lean on metaphor heavily to provide confidence and improve communication. While many consider an IQ to be an important indicator of intelligence, your MQ (metaphor quotient) is just as important in creative work.

One More Thing: Trust Yourself

Over the last few years, I’ve found trust to be one of my most important tools in doing good creative work. Tharp touches on trust in her book, but not as strongly as I would have liked. When I try to out-think my own strengths, I’m usually wrong. However, when I use my intuition and experience to do what I think is good (temporarily disregarding any conflicting input from a client or peer), I find I’m right more often than not. Trust is important when working in teams too. Empowering someone else to use their instincts means you might not get to the same conclusions, but you’ll probably get the very best from them.

Filled with conveniences that drive creativity away, our modern world is an ideal place to slip into the opposite of creativity: complacency. While some people have the natural ability to stay creative, most of us have to work at it. What are your favorite techniques for staying creative every day?

Article Info
Posted by: Michael Roller
Thinking About: Creativity / Culture / Design
Location: Cincinnati, OH
Twitter: rollermt
  1. Steve Peck

    Great post Mike, I’ll have to add Twlya’s book to my reading list. I agree that metaphor – or storytelling – is a crucial skill to creative work. Great ideas are great stories and a great story can work to help sell an idea or be the idea that catches mass appeal.

    As far as staying creative, I’m into archiving things… I take notes on every book I read and have a few notebooks full of quotes, learnings and anecdotes that is helpful to re-read from time to time. I also keep a tumblr blog of random photos I take while walking home from work in New York – it’s a stream of artwork, graffiti, and weird objects or happenings on the street.

  2. Caprice Yu

    Ways of staying creative… I try to do things that I don’t know how to do. I find that learning something new or trying my hand at something completely unfamiliar makes me think in different ways, especially things that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what I do at work. That ranges from making jewelry to sculpting to crotcheting. I also love taking gadgets apart and seeing how different gears work together – like little clocks and old watches.

    The thing though, is that it does end up somehow influencing my work – because at the end of the day, it’s all swimming around in my brain, like a big fun goo-y mess. The more stuff you put in there, the more interesting the results that come out.

  3. Michael Roller

    Some of my favorite things to stay creative are also the simplest. I didn’t think this warranted being in the original post, but I like to eat lunch in different ways, at different places, with different people. I don’t like to have lunch meetings, because the down time of being out of the office is also a great time to let your mind wander.

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