My friend Stuart Dooley told me he’d visited with mutual friends’ graphic design studio. He wanted to know how they did what they did. Stuart is a graphic designer. He helped layout an earlier version of BXI’s homepage, and as well as ALGORITHM’s poster.
Stuart inspired me. So, on Sunday I asked him if it would be okay for me to come by his place and see how he works. He said yes. This morning, that’s what I did. I didn’t plan on talking much with him because I didn’t want to change how he creates. I kept my mouth mostly shut, instead asking questions to help me have a context as to why he was doing what he did.
One of the earlier questions was, “Do you have an idea before you start or do you start with a black page and kind of find it, the way I do?” I don’t actually do it that way, but I didn’t realize that at the time.
“No,” he replied. “I have a pretty clear picture of what I want before I start.”
That made me all the more intrigued because here was a creative whose process is entirely different from my own. “Lots to learn here,” I thought!
As I watched Stuart do his thing, his speed at making and changing images was initially hard to follow. Since he’s using Adobe Illustrator and I use writing applications like Scrivener, Google Docs, or in this case Apple’s TextEdit, Stuart’s skill really impressed me. But, he’s at a level where he’s mastered the tools of his trade so I should have expected his Illustrator skills.
Today’s project was a coaster for a client he’d worked with in the past. I’ll get more into that later because it was pretty cool too.
THE CHEMISTRY OF CREATIVITY
I prefer to work in solitude. Being ADHD and working in shared spaces don’t mix. However, Stuart doesn’t seem to suffer from that. We started talking about a band called Phish. I said they were basically the new Grateful Dead and that if he went to one of their concerts, he’s probably going to get a contact-high.
We started talking about the effects of drugs and how they have been rumored to contribute to creativity. I’ve had this same discussion with another creative friend Sean Hackett. Neither Stuart, Sean, nor I use any kind of mind altering drugs. It’s not a purity thing, at least for me. It’s efficiency.
As I kept watching I saw that while Stuart had an initial idea of what he wanted, it morphed and changed as he worked with it. Each time he got an idea sketched out, he would have another new way it might work, and then he’d create another workspace and sketch out the new idea. This repeated itself until he forced himself to stop because of time constraints.
I asked, “Do you send all these versions to the client or do you select only the ones you think they’ll like?”
He moused over one of the versions and said, “I think the client will like these three, but they’ll probably choose this one.”
At the end of the drug conversation, I said “Edgar Allan Poe was a major opium addict.”
Stuart replied, “That’s where I’d be if I didn’t regulate myself. I’m pretty depressive… very self-critical.”
“Most great artists are. That self-criticism forces them to look at their art and think about how to improve it, which then makes them improve it.”
I continued, “The problem I’ve got is that I think everything I do is awesome.”
“I wish I had that.”
“The problem is, I need other people as filters around me to let me know when I actually do make something that’s good.” I’m able to filter out a lot of the crap I didn’t used to be able to when I first started creating, so it’s not quite as bad as total unfiltered, but it’s still a problem.
FLEXIBLE BY DESIGN
As Stuart continued to work I had a realization about myself: I don’t actually sit in front of a blank page wondering what to write next. I won’t even open a word processor until I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to write. Sometimes it’s just the first line, in the case of a poem or an essay. Other times it will be how a scene plays out… maybe even a bit of dialogue in the case of a script.
Like Stuart, I have a plan first. But, also like Stuart, I allow my plan to be flexible. I told him, “Writer/Directors’ think that making a movie means making it four times.
1. The thing that’s in your head.
2. The thing that ends up on the page.
3. The thing that actually gets shot on the day on set.
4. The final edit.”
There’s a physics law that states, “For every transfer of energy, there’s a loss (dissipation) of energy.” That law seems to happen in every kind of transition or translation.
As a result, those four stages are almost never the same thing. Each time the project morphs.The better the filmmaker, the closer each of those will be related to the previous.
The solution Stuart and I do is to allow for flexibility. The thing is, there are directors like Hitchcock who thought of everyone who wasn’t him as a tool to be controlled. I spoke with an actor who worked with Hitchcock and he said it wasn’t pleasant.
The better way is to have a vision, but not to be stuck on it and allow for any idea that’s better to rise to the top, regardless of its source. In my case, that means cinematographers, wardrobe, actors, P.A. producers, anyone. If the idea is better, it’s what we do.
As the initial creative engine, I’m the arbiter of quality. That has to exist otherwise it’s chaos and nothing gets made, or you get movie by committee, which is equally bad because the audience won’t know the difference and probably doesn’t care. They just know the result of movie-by-committee sucks!
Before he began to working on the coaster, Stuart looked over the previous projects he’d done for the client to re-familiarize himself with their style. “It’s important that their branding be consistent through their various products,” he told me. He then showed me some of the previous work he’d done for them.
I noticed something really interesting. I said, “So, when you’re doing client work, the self-critical aspect of your personality gets turned off and you instead come from the perspective of the client.”
“Yes. That’s it.”
“I can’t do that. I feel like the client usually has bad taste and I get angry. That’s one of the larger reasons I don’t do client work.”
Just before I started writing this, I had another insight. What Stuart does with the client, I also do–but not for the client, for the characters. When I write a character I’m not thinking about how I feel about something. That’s a problem I had as an early writer and it resulted in all my characters talking, acting, and thinking like me. The only difference was that they had different moods.
This ability to empathize with others, to see things as they see things, without the moral judgement normally used in daily life in a given society, that skill of detaching ones self from ones self and instead channeling the character is a requirement for writers, actors, and apparently graphic designers who work for clients.
MAKING THE MUNDANE BEAUTIFUL
As my morning with Stuart was coming to an end, he moused over one of the versions of the coasters he’d made and said, “That’s a coaster I would appreciate.”
That made me smile.
Stuart was taking something as mundane and forgettable as a coaster and making it beautiful. When there’s more beauty in the world, when the world is filled with better art, the worse art, the worse design becomes apparent, simply by contrast. Without people like Stuart and other graphic designers of his skill and standard, the acceptable quality of beauty in the world would slowly regress back to the meaningless scribbles of a kindergartener.
Steve Jobs said, “Microsoft writes good code. Their programs run and do what they’re supposed to do just fine. The problem is, they have no taste.” Before Apple came back with the iMac, people thought bland forgettable beige boxes was all a computer could be. Then Jobs and Jonny Ives showed the world what we’d been missing.
Before Elon Musk, Mars was the dream of science fiction writers and only JPL robots would ever sample the Martian air. Musk came and thought differently. Everything he does is about this singular goal of colonizing Mars. He’s showing the world what it looks like to hope.
You might be thinking, “Jon, it’s just a coaster.” And it is. It’s just a sunset. It’s just a butterfly. It’s just a kiss. It’s just the laugh of a loved one. It’s just the stars in the night’s sky. It’s just words on a page. It’s just a movie. But for the lovers and the dreamers and those who crave adventure and live in hope, it’s joy and passion and drive and mission and purpose.
Yes. It’s just a coaster, and it’s beautiful because Stuart Dooley cared enough to make it that way.