Creative survival guide: Five ways to start the year right
We explore the unique ways to get back in the swing of your practice when feeling stuck, uninspired or if you’re looking for a complete overhaul of your creative process.
It’s Nice That’s 2024 Forward Thinking series is supported by AKQA, the globally renowned design and innovation company. AKQA is at the forefront of creative technologies, telling unforgettable narratives across service, experience and product design that capture the imagination.
We’ve all heard the saying “new year, new me” calling you to create a number of resolutions and completely turn your life around for the better. It could be in the form of signing up for a new course, creating a whole new daily routine, or getting rid of any objects, habits (or even people) that are deemed a negative influence, all in the hopes of bringing about holistic change.
But we’re well aware that when these often grand changes you’ve set for yourself (inevitably) start falling through, the guilt and sense of failure can be pretty overwhelming. So, instead of helping to load onto that guilt, with the help of some creatives we’ve come up with five simple, more accessible ways you can hopefully spark some change in your creative practice this year, big or small, short-term or long. We’ve got a mini-brief from Elliot Ulm, tips on how to sort out your posture from Angela Lian, and some ways of giving back to your community from Olivia Twist. So read on to find out why the nature you crave might be closer than you think, and how looking back to what you’ve already got might be the best source of inspiration.
Hold on to what you’ve got
When we’re looking for a fresh start, many of us start throwing away miscellaneous items, objects and collectables of the past year as a way to clean house and usher in the new. But, what if you sat with them for longer and thought about how they can truly benefit creativity throughout the coming year?
Having become a popular phenomenon over the past few years, there is no doubt that archiving strikes a cord; it’s no longer purely an institutional practice, with individuals finding creative ways to hold onto and incorporate inspiring digital and physical content into their work. But, some of the most interesting examples we’ve seen are those who have an almost symbiotic relationship between the items and the creative because of some eccentric interest that later became a huge part of their work. And we simply can’t help but reflect on some of those shining examples on It’s Nice That last year.
Jane Housham is an artist and writer with a love for investigating the past, but she’s also a collector, as we explored in our article last year. In this piece, Jane spoke about her journey from her childhood collecting small dolls to curating her collections of small versions of everything – from toy cameras, phones and televisions to bloodshot eyeballs. She tells us, “the tiny things I’ve accumulated are very useful. They’re like a shorthand language for trying out inspiring combinations of things: colours, materials and textures, but also the memories and ideas attached to them.” She adds: “Being playful and lowbrow, they can spark creativity purely through their endless combos.” And, with a long journey of admiring, preserving and showcasing objects, Jane has undoubtedly seen the benefits of holding on to what you’ve got.
“The tiny things I’ve accumulated are very useful. They’re like a shorthand language for trying out inspiring combinations of things: colours, materials and textures, but also the memories and ideas attached to them.”Jane Housham
Artist Jeroen van den Bogaert’s journey is deserving of similar awe. When we spoke to him last year, he told us about his start collecting images from both classical paintings and modern imagery found on Google and social media that he was drawn to because of his interest in masculinity and behavioural patterns. What’s most interesting about his practice is that he probably doesn’t come across any more imagery than the rest of us, he simply tunes in and admires the cultural relevance of them. And when it comes to his process, he spends hours and hours going through what he has already collected over the years, before finding new ways to incorporate them into his tapestries.
In 2020, it was estimated that we share and forward 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of videos daily. With this having a great impact on the environment, leaving high carbon footprints, deleting everything may sometimes seem like the way to go. But, as we will always be impacted by images (online and off), there’s a likelihood that after a few months, weeks or even days of clearing everything out, we'll go back to mindlessly collecting again. Jereon’s process teaches us that not only can keeping your digital collections enhance your practice, but it can help bring greater intention and appreciation for the countless images you do see.
So, whether your things are digital or physical, serious or fun, here’s your chance to stop and ask (before throwing it all out): how can what I already have aid my creativity this year?
Mini-brief with Elliot Ulm
Getting motivated at the start of a new year can be hard, to say the least. Though one fool-proof way of getting yourself out of a creative block is setting your own little brief. Who said you can’t be the boss for once? Last year this approach resulted in Sebastian König’s wonderful Facts & Figures zine, which began after the illustrator set himself a personal drawing task for just a few minutes at the start of every working day.
None other than the mini-brief guru Elliot Ulm – whose Design Chef initiative has seen hundreds of designers create posters driven by his thought-starters – has provided us with a few easy steps to kickstart your own creation.
“If you tell me to just ‘design’ for the sake of designing, no designing will be done. But if you tell me that the Mario Brothers need a new business card for their plumbing business, then I’ll make a card so beautiful that their clientele will triple in a month.”Elliot Ulm
What do us designers do when there’s no clients flooding our inboxes with work? Relax? Go outside? An equally enjoyable third thing? No, silly! We make up a fake client and pretend that we are employed! A very normal thing to do!
I adore a good fake brief. If you tell me to just “design” for the sake of designing, no designing will be done. But if you tell me that the Mario Brothers need a new business card for their plumbing business, then I’ll make a card so beautiful that their clientele will triple in a month.
Fake briefs take the best part of designing (designing) and let you forget about the worst part (everything else), so let me teach you how to construct the perfect fake client brief to get you out of creative block and back in your Herman Miller Aeron.
Combine Your Passions
Graphic design may be your passion, but you can have more than one passion. Some people may find that very hard to believe. My entire career is built on combining my passions for design and comedy to construct the perfect blend of interests that makes working a very fun time. The best fake briefs incorporate other facets of your life, and will make finding inspiration the easiest part of the process.
Think about the tangibility of the design you’re about to make. It’s gotta feel real. Is it a poster you could see up on your wall? A business card for the Mario Brothers as previously suggested? A hat? That you could wear? On your head?
If you can picture the physical design, you’ll want to make it even more.
What’s New About It?
No client = no judgement. This is the perfect place to challenge yourself to experiment and go far and away from your usual style. Don’t hold back! Stretch that type! Make choices that would make a client say, “very interesting, but let’s go a different direction 🙂”.
You Will Probably Get Distracted Around Here
5 minutes on, 25 minutes off, am I right?? Just me???
Make it Happen
I love to chuck on a timer and see what I can get done in an hour. The ticking clock keeps me focused and weirdly on edge, and the time limit stops me from overthinking and backtracking on cool choices.
Follow these steps and you are guaranteed to make something cool. That’s the elliotisacoolguy guarantee right there. I’m a very trustworthy source. I have a lot of followers on Instagram. That means I know what I’m talking about.
Sorting out your posture
The life of a designer: long days spent working at your desk hunched over a laptop, with little time allotted to get your body moving. It comes as no surprise that it’s an industry well known for inducing bad posture.
Angela Lian is a designer who uses her playful, video-led practice to highlight issues surrounding the physical health of creatives, and she advocates more awareness of the impact your work is having on your body. Much like the design studio Yonk, who use VR body suits to create characters, Angela’s trademark is putting herself in her work, using her body and physicality to enhance her work’s visuals.
Prior to becoming a designer, at the age of 12 while a competitive gymnast, Angela suffered a back injury after her coaches refused to listen to her body. From that point onward, Angela’s spinal health has deteriorated significantly, a factor that made studying graphic design at college the “ultimate test”. Angela explains: “My stress, chronic pain, and bad posture were at its peak while I was making projects I was most proud of. It wasn’t until I graduated that I could properly take a step back and see what design can do to my body.”
Now working as a full time designer, Angela tells us that she has “no choice” but to listen to her body if she wants to continue, and she’s set herself on demonstrating what other designers can learn from taking the same approach. “Movement means something different for everyone, but as long as you are listening to your body as you do it, it can become a new way to think about your design practice,” she says. “That physical flexibility can lend itself to mental and creative flexibility.” Here are Angela’s top three tips for engaging your body with your design.
“Movement means something different for everyone, but as long as you are listening to your body as you do it, it can become a new way to think about your design practice. That physical flexibility can lend itself to mental and creative flexibility.”Angela Lian
Find a place for movement in your practice as much as you can throughout the day. Is it taking a walk during the brainstorming phase? Stretching during meetings? Designing for 20 minutes at a time followed by 5 minutes of moderate exercise? Find your groove.
Minimise inflammation to maximise creative potential
Besides exercise, this could mean eating more anti-inflammatory foods and less inflammatory foods, getting an air purifier for your space, managing stress better, using ergonomic tools, improving your sleep, hydrating often to flush out toxins, and cutting back on screen time (my greatest culprit.)
Wellbeing over productivity
When creative people are in the flow, it’s hard to recognise when we should stop. But bodily pains can build and accumulate to something bigger. Remember that physical flow can also be so beneficial to creative flow. Listening to your body can only help your design practice in the long run.
Disconnecting and getting outside
This one is nothing new. In fact, it’s probably something you’ve heard over and over again; the importance of disconnecting, getting offline, getting together your various well-designed hiking equipment and experiencing the great outdoors. Though some issue lies in the way experiencing nature is often framed and sold, as if the only true way to engage with the outdoors is an extended endeavour, going on a long hike or a weekend camping trip. But is this really that accessible or feasible?
In the climate magazine It’s Freezing in LA!’s Health edition, writer Elspeth Wilson penned a beautiful article about how disabled perspectives can reframe our personal relationship with nature; specifically, how we can learn to appreciate the ecological systems that already surround us – even from within our own four walls. “I’m realising that I don’t need to travel far or go to remote places to find nature,” Elspeth writes. “Wherever I am, it has always already found me.” Elspeth uncovers how the birds outside of a window, bedroom succulents, a wrinkled orange, and even the wooden floorboards underfoot can all connect you to nature.
“Worlds tend to emerge the longer and more closely you look, sometimes involving very little physical movement, and more of a shift of perspective.”Lexi Visco and Calvin Rocchio
Companion Platform is a creative studio founded by Lexi Visco and Calvin Rocchio whose work is “ecologically oriented”, seeking to uncover the intricacies of our natural environment. They’ve provided a few simple tips for how you can feel more engaged with nature when you’ve not got heaps of time on your hands.
One is the act of ‘visiting’, making a conscious effort to visit a nearby individual organism when stepping outside; a tree, plant or even a bend in a river. “A mutualism arises when you share your attention with an individual from another species, as well as a certain kind of intimacy,” they say. Moreover, when you’ve only got a small green space to engage with, the pair often find it useful to “zoom in to smaller worlds”, paying closer attention to small aspects of nature – a patch of soil, a decomposing log, the underside of leaves. “Worlds tend to emerge the longer and more closely you look, sometimes involving very little physical movement, and more of a shift of perspective.” Finally, they advocate for sharing your observations with others: signing off your email with a summary of the weather outside of your window, or sending a digital postcard to your friend over text: “it’s this act of sharing that enlivens much of our attention and time outdoors”.
So whether it’s taking a moment to appreciate the nature that surrounds you in your own four walls, or being more engaged on short moments outside – before work, on your lunch break or at the end of the day – there are small yet effective ways of feeling more at one with nature, that don’t involve packing up your kitchen sink and embarking on a days-long voyage.
Few established creatives haven’t attempted or been called to give back – to their communities, people wanting to get into their particular field or local initiatives. But oftentimes we usually see this as something quite grand, you know, philanthropy and the likes. But there are so many ways to offer a helping hand, advice and your skills to others, that can also help to remove you from the tunnel vision of your own practice and birth new ideas.
Olivia Twist is an east London based illustrator, arts facilitator and lecturer in animation illustration at Kingston University. Over the years, her visual work has offered a unique tapestry of social history and community that she defines as having three strands: “place, the mundane and overlooked narratives”. Having created in collaboration with her local community and embedding facilitation as a core part of her practice, we couldn’t think of anybody better to demonstrate the power of giving back.
“Facilitating can help you to see your practice from a wider, more full perspective. The questions you are asked by participants really get you thinking and challenge you to consider new possibilities in your work. It’s given my work legs both inside and outside the gallery sphere.”Olivia Twist
Help for when you’re stuck
“Each participant comes to the session with a range of experiences, approaches and their own expertise,” Olivia tells us. Different from, say, teaching a class, facilitation offers more of a practical exchange and horizontal learning approach to artmaking (or whichever medium is being explored), where the facilitator guides the group but isn’t wrapped up in a hierarchical structure. Offering an opportunity for facilitators to leave feeling rejuvenated and poured into too.
“Facilitating can help you to see your practice from a wider, more full perspective. The questions you are asked by participants really get you thinking and challenge you to consider new possibilities in your work. It’s given my work legs both inside and outside the gallery sphere.”
How it grows your creativity
Often facilitating workshops with teenagers, Olivia’s sessions explore methods of storytelling, documenting oral histories, and belonging, alongside socially engaged methods of illustration. “Each session is tailored to the specific group I’m working with at the time,” she tells us. And when you consider the amount of thinking, brainstorming and idea-generation that goes into this tailoring, it’s not hard to believe that these methods can birth creativity when answering briefs or working on personal projects too.
Also, in an interview with the Association of Illustrators last year, the illustrator said that she felt the practice of facilitating workshops gave way to a “natural pivot and progression,” into lecturing, and at her Nicer Tuesdays talk in 2022 she mentioned how working with groups is a catalyst behind her illustration work, such as her mural don’t ask why we’re cousins in collaboration with Carney’s Community youth club.
Olivia’s advice for your first steps
Facilitating can be a huge step, because after all, sharing the most treasured parts of your process can be difficult to translate to strangers. For Olivia, the first and best way to ease this is by connecting with local community groups and initiatives in your area.“It’s important to see how you can work with people as opposed to working for them,” she tells us. And sometimes, when it comes to planning these sessions and putting them together, it can be easy to forget the soft-skills or approaches needed to engage groups for an entire one- or two-hour session. Olivia believes that the best way to go about it is by starting small – “you should test out sessions on friends and family first.”
Although it can be a sometimes daunting feat, the illustrator believes that it is truly rewarding once you master your “pedagogic approach” – the theory and practice of teaching – and how to best engage the various people you are creating with.
After some years facilitating workshops with communities from the elderly to those who have English as a foreign language, Olivia has truly seen the practice of sharing and guiding others as an integral part of her practice. The power of facilitation is not only evident in the freedom to create your own framework and the impact it can have on others, but the impact that it can have on your practice too. So, whether you’re stuck, longing for a more community-centred approach or wondering how you can navigate 2024, it may just be one of the ingredients for your creative survival.
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.