Can You Force Creative Work?

When I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, it can become anything. I might sketch a scene, draw a cartoon, write a poem, write a joke or make notes for a book. But more often than not, that blank piece of paper stays a blank piece of paper.

Creative block is not something that happens to me once a month or even once a week. It happens almost every day. It’s almost as if when I wake up I have to make a choice, an analytical day or a creative day. Most days, by default, I have to make the left brain analytical choice. My day job is more important right now than poems or drawings.

In the evening, after work, it’s always a struggle to turn off the programmer and turn on the artist. But if I don’t do it, I’ll never get any of the things I enjoy done.  I’m trying to teach myself to switch between my left and right brain tendencies at will. This is more difficult than it might sound. It’s like your body going from burning carbohydrates to burning fat. There’s a period where you haven’t yet started producing ketones from the fat but you’ve used up all of the glucose stores in your body. You feel miserable and useless and just want to give up.

So to make the transition as quick and painless as possible, I usually try to jumpstart the process. This means reading someone else’s poems, looking through a comic book or watching a stand up show. Anything to spark an idea or give me a prompt.

Another thing that helps jump start the creative battery is photography. You don’t have to use a fancy camera. A phone will do. Just go through your kitchen or neighborhood and try to take a photograph that tells a story.

If the above methods fail, I’ll try freewriting. I’ll just write down whatever comes to my mind without filtering anything. This is often the most effective way to start getting creative ideas quickly because you’re entering into a diffuse mode of thinking where you are letting your subconscious do the thinking.

Whatever you choose, if it isn’t working, try something else from a different angle. Eventually you’ll hit upon something that will open up your mind.

Creativity in Motion

Boredom can eat away at your enjoyment of a day. That’s why when I walked into my son’s room the other day and saw him listening to music and staring blankly at the wall, I knew something had to be done.

Usually when I hear the words “I’m bored” from my kids I take it as an opportunity to remind them of all the chores they have put off doing. But this time I pitied the boy and decided to work with him on some ideas for interesting projects.

Here is the list of things I mentioned he might enjoy:

  1. Create wall art for his bedroom. He enjoys drawing and is actually quite good. I encouraged him to make a large version of a smaller drawing he had already done. Then we could frame it and hang it.

    My son’s hand drawn Hollow Knight fan art.

  2. Make origami. He has dabbled in origami in the past so I thought this could be a good opportunity to get back into it. I recently bought a pack of origami papers to practice with and have on hand for the kids.

  3. Painting miniature figures. He likes fantasy and miniatures games already. He could get a game that comes with figures or buy them separately.

  4. Build PVC weapons or other crafts. PVC is cheap and readily available. There are some really cool things you can do with it.

  5. Build model planes, boats or cars. I had fun building plastic models and painting them when I was a kid. You can find models that can be glued or snapped together. The real fun and creativity is when you custom paint your model. It takes time and a steady hand but can be rewarding.

Basically, I was looking for something that would be a challenge but something he could do mostly on his own. Anything that would be more than just a flash-in-the-pan activity. In the end he choose PVC weapons.

Over the next two days we had a great time building a PVC sword and dagger.  Although I helped buy materials and gave a little instruction on measuring and cutting and painting, this was a project done primarily by my son. I wanted it this way so that he would have something enjoyable that he could do any time and could get his creative juices flowing.

I could tell he was having fun creating something of value to him. As he built his projects he kept telling me about his other ideas for more PVC projects. That’s what I was hoping for; something to spark his creativity and thinking. Something to get the ball rolling and keep his mind busy.  Creativity in motion tends to stay in motion while creativity at rest tends to stay at rest.

Creativity in motion tends to stay in motion while creativity at rest tends to stay at rest. Click To Tweet

 

A study In Light

Sometimes I just look up and see an image that I want to make with my camera. The other morning the sun was coming through the window and shining on a mechanical desk. The desk has a hand crank that moves it up and down. I thought the shape of the crank handle was cool so I started taking some exploratory photographs at different angles.

At one angle I noticed the shadow the handle made and decided to follow that theme. I put a sketch pad down on the floor and tipped the desk over into the light. My final image is no masterpiece. But it is an interesting study in shape, light and the absence of light.

 

Speaking Better by Speaking More

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of speaking to a leadership class with three of my colleagues from the GIS world. We were tag team speaking since our two separate GIS systems share data and we work together from time to time on projects.

I’m not the world’s greatest speaker. It’s not that I don’t have great things to say. But when it comes to delivery, I often feel less than adequate. There’s a psychological boost that you get from speaking with a team of people though. When you’re up there by yourself you have to have all the answers but when you have someone with you, you have a fallback.

After my speaking segment I was able to sit and watch the others present. It’s beneficial to watch others speak on your same subject because it shows you that all the stumbling, bumbling and uncomfortable pauses are common among normal people who are called on to speak in public. The key to getting better and reducing those problems is to do it more.

Better Creativity Through Better Rest

I haven’t been sleeping well lately. It’s partly my fault since I’ve been staying up late watching pointless TV shows on Hulu. When I do go to bed I end up thinking too much. I usually come up with ideas that I feel I have to write down. So I get up and write them. Or worse, I use my note taking app on my phone. That kind of late night screen time, even a few seconds, just wakes me up too much. Unfortunately, this behavior can be a detriment to creativity. 

I used to not even bat an eye at not getting enough winks. But it’s been affecting me more lately. When I’m tired and sluggish I have little capacity for creative thinking or doing. I’m OK working on left brain analytical projects which is a lot of what I do for my job. It’s after work when I have time to write, build or edit that I find myself flagging with little motivation to do the things I really want to do.

I started thinking about this today after coming across an article on the London School of Economics and Political Science Review website (LSE). The article asserts that creativity isn’t a fixed commodity. It waxes and wanes based on several factors including rest and stress.

Stress is another big creativity killer for me. I get really nervous when preparing to speak publicly. When I’m prepping to give a talk, that’s about all I can do. Forget writing poetry or sketching something the night before an event.

After a stressful event, my mind relaxes and it more easily shifts to creative endeavors. The same thing happens when I’m more rested from adequate sleep. The key, according to the LSE article authors, is in allowing physiological recovery, primarily through sleep.

Of course this isn’t anything new. Last year I read an excellent book called Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Pang makes the case for not only a good night’s sleep but resting throughout the day to allow your mind the time it needs to work on problems and ideas subconsciously. There’s a lot more to his book and I highly recommend you read it. It’s one of the rare books that I actually read all the way through.

Ultimately, the point is that we’re much more creative and productive when we aren’t running ourselves too hard. Putting in more hours to the detriment of rest and reflection will only make you less effective at what you’re doing.

Now I have to heed this advice, keep Hulu off at night and get more sleep.

It’s Always Been Broken

Sometimes, when debugging an error that has just popped up in a program, the problem lies in some external parameter that has recently changed. Most of the time, however, the thing that has changed only serves to reveal how some static code had a dormant bug already. The code can work under one set of parameters but not another. Either way, it has always been broken.

Creating a Simple Hamburger Menu Icon

A while back I was updating a web app that was targeted to desktop users. I wanted to make it more mobile friendly. One of the ways I did this was by changing the layout on different size screens. The app had a toolbar header that I wanted to collapse into a single icon on mobile devices.

On a lot of mobile apps this single icon takes the form of a hamburger menu. Whether you love this icon or hate it, it’s somewhat ubiquitous so I decided to use it. I wanted a simple version of the icon that when clicked would open an overlay to display the tools the header does on a desktop.

I was able to craft a very simple menu icon using a very small html skeleton and a tiny bit of CSS. Basically it’s an <a> tag with three spans inside. I used an <a> tag but you could just as easily use a <div> or any number of other elements. The spans are given height and width dimensions and a solid bottom border via CSS.

 

See the Pen Stacked Navigation Menu by Ryan Davison (@ryandavison) on CodePen.

That’s about it. If you want to play around with different approaches to your own icon you can edit this code on codepen.