Kill Your Darlings

“Oh, what are you planning on doing with your degree?”
I could never do that. I’m not creative at all.”

The number of conversations I’ve had about university is irrelevant. After the “what are you studying?” question is posed, one or both of the above two responses are inevitable. My unspoken answer to the first is always, “I’ll probably frame it and hang it on a wall somewhere.” At the second response, I merely offer a polite smile. Both reactions, to some extent, say the same thing: “Your field of study is worth nothing.” I cringe at both, but one thing I have learned in studying art and design is that it is valuable whether or not its value is recognized. I’ve learned to apply that to several aspects of life in general. But that’s not all I’ve learned.

Your First Idea Is Not Your Best Idea

Sometimes, you just need corny “motivational” posters on the wall to make it through art school.

Two-dimensional design was my first-ever art class, and I was more than excited. As a fall semester college freshman, I still had stars in my eyes just thinking about school. There was so much potential. There was so much to learn. I had a metaphorical straw attached to my brain and I was ready to suck every bit of education I could out of this experience. Sitting next to my roommate, I had my sketchbook open and a pencil at the ready, anxious to begin. I attacked our first assignment with fervor; I sketched concepts of over 60 different “connoted” squares. It took a long time. I didn’t realize I could come up with so many different solutions to the same problem. But I did. I arrived in class with my sketchbook open, ready to show my not-quite-squares. But to my dismay, the professor didn’t look at the connoted squares. Instead, he assigned 60 more. I was crestfallen. How could I come up with more? It had been a struggle just to finish the first 60. For almost an entire month of class, we worked with nothing but connoted squares. By the end of the project, I never wanted to see another square again. But I learned one of the most valuable things I have learned since being in school: your first idea is not your best idea.

If you haven’t learned this lesson for yourself, you probably won’t believe me. That’s okay. Your doubt doesn’t make it any less true. If you spend 60% of your time writing or sketching ideas, you may end up with hundreds of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad concepts, but you will also come up with several good ideas. Maybe even some great ones. If you lock yourself into a weak concept in the planning stage, you will waste a lot more time than necessary trying to pull yourself out of that trap. Time-saver: Just don’t waste your time. Sketch. A lot.

Kill Your Darlings. Brutally.

Okay, you’ve probably heard this one before. At the very least, those of you who work in a creative industry of any kind have heard the phrase. It’s an important lesson that I learned, though. I take criticism well. As long as the intent is not malicious, I will take criticism and improve my work. But any creative will find him(her)self in a situation where he or she will have a difficult decision to make.

“I love this line, but it is containing the piece and preventing it from reaching its full potential.”

“This scene was a lot of fun to shoot and it’s one of my favorite moments in the entire film, but it is distracting from the main focus of the movie.”

“This is my favorite typeface. I want to use it in everything I do forever and ever amen.”

But, unfortunately, the unhealthy attachments we creatives make with certain aspects of our work often prevent us from doing the best work we can do. And that’s a pretty significant problem. It is a painful process, but forcing yourself out of your comfort zone will allow you to develop as a problem solver (and that is what we truly are, when it comes down to it). Recognize when you are infatuated with a certain element and then cut it out. Get rid of it perhaps for the sole purpose of getting a new perspective. If it is genuinely the best choice for your work, you will come back to it.

Why On Earth Did You Do That?

At the end of my freshman year, I walked into a room occupied with about half of the art and design faculty with the task of presenting my year’s accomplishments. I nervously stood at the front of the conference room with a powerpoint presentation I had carefully crafted and spoke about ten of my projects. At the end of my presentation, each professor had questions. Actually, they all mostly had one question: why.

When you take a leap into the public forum of critiques, you will find that (shockingly, I know) most people can’t read your thoughts and thus, will not always immediately pick up on the reasons behind a decision you made. That’s okay, for the most part. As long as you know the answer. When I was faced with tough questions, nineteen-year-old me was shaking in her shoes and probably offered a lot of “ums” to her instructors’ dismay. Don’t be her. Know why you did something, and you’ll be able to explain your thinking to someone else. It’s that easy. Besides, if you fully understand your own decision-making process, then it’s easier to understand how to make better decisions in the future.

Looking at Good Art Is Good For You

It is easy to get caught up in the sometimes high-speed stress of creating and forget to take the time to appreciate. Slow down, take a breath, and look at others’ work. If it’s poor, it might encourage you. If it’s the closest thing to perfection you can imagine, it can be discouraging, but if you get discouraged, don’t shrug your shoulders and whine about your missing tail. Get your hands busy. Try to re-create the awe-inspiring piece of art. You may not be able to, but try again and again. Dissect the piece until you know exactly how the artist did certain parts of it. What makes it good? If you know that, your art will improve. Funny how that works.

Taking Notes Isn’t Just For Lectures

Taking notes of others’ critiques will help you improve your work both immediately and much further down the road.

We already know that it’s important to ask other people to critique our work, but let’s be honest. It’s not like you’ll remember all of the comments people make. Therefore, it will help you to take notes of the comments and critiques you receive. If nothing else, you’ll be able to look back at your work with its notes and see how you’ve improved. Personally, taking notes of critiques has helped me to continuously improve and to recognize the mistakes I make over and over again. Besides, once you’ve graduated, you won’t get nice, neat critique days where 15+ people will give you detailed assessments of how to improve your work. You’ll have to look for critiques. Make sure that you do. Seeing something through another’s eyes is invaluable.

Collaboration Is Your Best Friend

Being good at a lot of different things is really great, and can be very useful for both your own purposes and (so I’m told) for employment opportunities. But you don’t have to be good at everything. In fact, it’s better not to be. Find a niche and stick with it. Then find other people whose skills exceed yours in other areas. Build a team. Your vision will always be limited. Brainstorming and creating as a team will result in better work. You do your part, everyone else does their parts, and you get a good product. Three cheers for team efforts!

The Harder You Hold Onto Something…

…the more it slips through your fingers. Keep your focus general. If you are too focused on any one particular thing, it will more than likely be taken away from you. Set goals for yourself, but give your goals room to breathe. If you’re holding onto a job, or a client, or a concept too tightly, you’ll be more likely to build up stress which is not only bad for you, but also bad for whatever it is to which you’re clinging.

The life of a creative can be discouraging and very challenging, but if you take these lessons to heart, they can help save you a lot of heartache and frustration. They have certainly helped me.


Originally published on Medium in 2012. Resurrected because why not.