Towards the end of last year Holly Kielty, our London Studio’s Creative Director of Brand Language, wrote a column for Computer Arts Magazine (Issue #273 December 2017) about how to escape the hell of a blank page (and a blank brain) and drag yourself out of a creative rut. The lovely folk at Computer Arts have kindly let us publish it here on our blog, so if you’re looking for some much-needed creative inspiration during the dreaded First Week Back At Work 2018, here’s Holly…
“You can find inspiration in anything”, said Paul Smith. And he’s right, of course. But how about we get specific, because whether you’re in a creative rut, suffering from writer’s block, or just not quite cracking that brief, sometimes you need to take direct action.
OK, ok, you hate your commute, we all do. But try to see it in a different light. Take out your headphones, put down the Kindle. You might dread family get-togethers, but try to see them for what they are; a real opportunity to see what makes people tick. Listen to people’s conversations, their opinions. Think about why they’ve chosen the shoes they’re wearing, the lipstick they’re applying. Take a trip to parts of town you’ve not ventured to and walk amongst the markets and parks to bus stops and stations you wouldn’t usually wait at. You won’t get to grips with what motivates people in the real world by sitting at your desk.
We’ve all got our secret creative crushes and I say, embrace them. If you’re a sucker for Starck, or a bastion of Bowie, go all out. Buy the books, listen to the music, see the films, wear the fur coat. Sometimes it helps to have a creative middle man (or woman), because then you can trace their inspiration ‘ancestry’; see what led them in certain directions and explore where they’ll take you. Whenever I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll grab Diana Vreeland’s books down and off I go, to the end of Prohibition for Tanqueray or the suave gentlemen’s clubs of Piccadilly for Floris. When it comes to journeying into your imagination, it helps to have a travel companion.
Bookshops are as much about images as they are about words. The cover of a book is effectively a poster, drawing you in with intrigue, with beauty, with an abstract encapsulation of a narrative. The pages inside, rich with story, information or opinion. And in a bookshop, you can see just what succeeds and fails in design – which covers grab you, which titles provoke, which illustrations cause your inner magpie to take flight. When first pitching to Fortnum and Mason, we told them that we wanted to think of their ranges as we would editions of books, intertwining of visual wit and expert storytelling. That thought (and a long-term love of her work) prompted our later collaboration with Coralie Bickford-Smith on Fortnums’ honey range – through her delicate illustrations of hives, flowers and foliage, the story of each flavour is told with the same elegance seen in Coralie’s beautiful work for Penguin.
And my favourite haunts? Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, Strand Books in New York, Richard Way in Henley-on-Thames and Blackwells in Oxford. I never come out empty handed.
In our industry, consumer is king. So behave like one. Get out into the supermarkets, the department stores, the delis. Watch how people behave in front of products, advertising, shelf wobblers. Let your eye be drawn to different finishes, patterns, typefaces, copy lines. Think about what they’re saying to you. Got a brief to rebrand an eco-friendly hand wash company? Head to a pharmacy and look at the shelves – is the colour green always earth-friendly? Or is it more clinical than that? Try to decode some of your own assumptions and behaviour. Take photos, buy things, and when you get back to your desk, make mood boards that really encapsulate what you saw. What themes emerge? You’ll be amazed at what a supermarket sweep can stir up, even if your brief is for something you wouldn’t even buy off the shelf. Top of the shops? Wardour News, any decent stationery shop, the whole of Whole Foods, any large Boots, John Bell’s & Croyden in Wigmore Street… I could go on.
I began running to benefit my waistline, but I’ve kept running because it’s good for my mind. I run without music, and I plod along with no concern for any improvement in speed. It’s the meditative process of putting one foot in front of the other that really helps me overcome any creative rut. On runs I’ve come up with the thrust for whole presentations, written backs of pack, come up with design routes. All without the presence of a laptop. I’ve won awards for the things I’ve thought of midway round a lap of Chorleywood Common. Running is a lesson in persistence, in self-motivation and timing; all vital in our industry, where good ideas sometimes simply have to happen on demand.
Ah, there she is – Diana Vreeland, again. And she’s bang on – nothing beats getting out of your comfort zone. Heading to somewhere where the air smells different, where the streets echo with another accent and where even the sirens have a different wail is the ultimate awakener for the creative brain. There’s no way we could have created our Guinness Africa work without actually going to the bars of Nigeria. But you don’t even necessarily have to go far – I defy anyone to go to Dungeness and come away unmoved. In fact, take any brief, and most destinations can offer some sort of excuse for a visit. You’ll never see colour quite like you’ll see it in Italy. Berlin is six cities in one, each loaded with incredibly emotive stories (and signage). And my heart will always belong to New York, where the subway system alone makes you think differently about design.
Travel may not be cheap, but as they say, it’ll always make you richer, so get on Airbnb and get booking.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it might just prompt you to get you off your chair and into a more creative way of thinking. I’ve sometimes even found that NOT thinking about the brief for a solid hour has been the best way to refocus my mind on the task in hand. An esteemed colleague and I once brainstormed a list of our top ten TV detectives one night when we really should have been working on a pitch, but it was the light relief we needed to then get on with the job. The fundamental thing is, when you’re stuck, don’t panic, take action. After all, it’s actually pretty rare for an idea to ‘come to you’, you actually have to go to them. So, er, what are you doing still sitting there?
Holly Kielty is Creative Director of Brand Language at Design Bridge in London.