If you don’t seek inspiration, how can your work be inspired?

Image sourced from Flickr by Powell Burns

At its essence, creativity is about combining different things in exciting, unexpected new ways. Which means creativity can’t just spring from an empty place. To conjure up brilliant ideas and designs, your brain needs a diverse repository of life experiences, memories, and inspiration to draw from. All your favorite examples of creativity and imagination have at their root other outside influences—be they from books, movies, TV shows, ads, art, music, fashion, architecture, graphic design, industrial design, or other forms of pop culture. 

Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that you don’t let the pace of school, or work, or life consume your schedule so much that you can’t make room for creative inspiration. Not just from advertising and design industry magazines, blogs, and websites (as I highlighted in an earlier post), but also from the greater world of imagination. 

We’re lucky that we live in a digital age where a plethora of great (and uh, not-so-great) entertainment and creativity is right in the palm of our hands via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, and other streaming services. But don’t make the mistake of letting that, and say Spotify, be your sole sources for inspiration. 

Get out and really mix it up. Live a life where you absorb all kinds of diverse experiences. Stroll through a park. Have an adventure at the zoo. Watch an IMAX premiere. Drop by an art festival. Catch the latest exhibit at the museum. Explore local art galleries. Jam out at a music festival. Of course, there’s also endless inspiration you can soak up for free. Listen to a podcast on creativity. Sample a different style of music. Watch a documentary. Check out a few Ted Talks online. Or spend a lazy Sunday afternoon at Barnes & Noble (yeah, they’re still around) flipping through magazines and leafing through a bounty of books. Inspiration can and should come from all kinds of random sources. 

However inspiration finds its way into your head, it’ll eventually find a way into your work. Sometimes you can see the direct correlation in your creativity. Sometimes it’s more subtle. But trust me, it’s there. If you want to enjoy a prolific creative career, your work needs to exude surprise, variety, and freshness. That only comes from being exposed to a broad, fascinating array of inspiration. 

As the esteemed Sir John Hegarty (co-founder of BBH) so succinctly phrased it, “Do interesting things and interesting things will happen to you.”

God is in the details.

Image sourced from Flickr by Angie Garrett

A big, bold, juicy idea should be the goal for any project you tackle—whether you’re comping up a spec campaign for a class assigment, or delivering on a legit big budget client job. But don’t make the all too common mistake of overlooking small details. As Mies van der Rohe succinctly points out in the title of this post, details have huge importance. Misspellings, grammar errors, and sloppy execution can spoil a great idea every time. (BTW, did you catch the spelling mistake in this paragraph?)

The bottom line is that craftsmanship matters, both in design and in writing. But this relentless attention to detail shouldn’t be limited to creative work. It needs to extend to every part of your personal branding. Resumes, cover letters, portfolio sites, business cards, and thank you notes not only need to look good and be thoughtful, they need to be error-free. 

Is the line leading consistent? Are there any unintended spaces in the paragraphs? Do the font sizes match up?* Has all the copy been proofed, then proofed again? Trust me on this tip: Don’t trust yourself to proof your stuff. Get a fellow student, a co-worker, or a writing intern to give everything the once over. The top writers at top shops use proofreaders. So should you. 

Why, you may ask, the fanatical focus on spec work and personal branding? Because if you don’t care enough about craftsmanship in your personal work, then most Creative Directors who interview you will assume that’s how you’ll treat their paid client work. And little missed details on client jobs can cost big bucks.

Starting to see the significance of the small stuff? Good. 

Now let me pass along two simple resources that can help save your butt from potential embarrassment: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. They’re handy little paperbacks that every creative person should have on their desk for questions of grammar, punctuation, and editorial style. Order them today and start becoming a master of the details. 

*These questions obviously don’t apply if you’re David Carson.

Brilliant ideas are useless if you can’t sell them.

Image sourced from Flickr by GmanViz

Being able to clearly and succinctly present your ideas, and then defend them from compromise or outright extinction by a roomful of risk-averse clients, is a true art form. Yet not nearly enough young creatives put the time and effort into studying and perfecting their presentation skills. Libby Brockhoff, founder of Odysseus Arms, puts the importance of it in proper perspective: “A great idea is only 20% of the process. The other 80% is about convincing the client.” 

Winning the presentation battle starts before you ever get into a presentation room. You need to think through how to dramatically set up the idea, and effectively tie it back to the strategy, as well as the client’s business objectives. Next, you have to anticipate any fears or questions they’ll have. Because let’s face it, it’s rare that a little fear doesn’t creep into the spines of most clients whenever daring designs or concepts are presented. A quick, confident retort is critical to squashing those fears lest they grow louder and stronger. 

Actually, you’ll significantly improve your odds if you can put yourself into the shoes of the people you’re presenting to. Empathize with their concerns. Remember, they’re looking for reassurance that this unexpected design or concept will resonate with their target audience. They also need “ammo” to sell the work up the chain of command to their bosses. The more you can help them, the more receptive they’ll be to bold ideas. 

Of course, the “what” and the “why” of the presentation are only part of the challenge. You also need to practice how you present. For that I’ll draw upon the brilliant advice of Kerry Feurerman and his invaluable book, The Five Deadly Sins of Presenting Creative Work. What are those sins? Blurting, Ad Whispering, Wanderlust, Telepathy, and Impalement.

  • Blurting is jumping into the sell of the work before establishing trust with the client and the reasoning behind the idea.
  • Ad Whispering is a lack of proper volume, stage presence, and timing that leads to a weak reveal of the work.
  • Wanderlust comes from a lack of focus and preparation that can cause clients to lose interest in the presentation (see above).
  • Telepathy involves leaving out crucial information and failing to connect the dots for clients. If they struggle to “get” the idea, they’ll worry that customers will too.
  • Impalement results from being defensive about client comments, rather than diplomatically defending the work. This is where negotiating skills and “creative judo” come in handy.

For a deeper dive into all of these sins and how to prevent them, get Kerry’s book. Study it. Memorize it. Live it. Keep your great ideas from dying an untimely death. 

As George Burns famously said, “A person can have the greatest idea in the world. But if that person can’t convince enough other people, it doesn’t matter.”

There’s no substitute for hard work. (Now write that 100 times.)

Image sourced from Flickr by BluDawson

Let me be clear from the start—you need natural talent and creative smarts to do well in advertising and design. Those are fundamental to success, but they’ll only get you so far if you don’t pair them with a relentless work ethic. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of young creatives with noteworthy talent who eventually fell by the wayside as their harder working counterparts blew by them.

Am I just talking about putting in longer hours at the office? Heck no. Though you definitely don’t want to be that dude who jets out right at 5:30 every day. I’m talking about working smarter and making the extra effort to go above and beyond expectations. Because let’s face it, creativity doesn’t work a typical 9 to 5 schedule. Big ideas usually pop into your head at the oddest times of the day or night. Often when your mind isn’t even focused on the problem, but your subconscious is still churning away. 

Which means, slot in some time to think about creative challenges out on your patio, early on a Sunday morning. Or in the shower. Or just before dozing off at night. Or while commuting to the office. Those moments are much more conducive to great solutions than trying to force something on Friday afternoon in your cubicle, after an exhausting week, when all you can think about is Happy Hour. 

Hard work also means making or finding creative opportunities, rather than just sitting back and waiting for them to find you. Here’s a perfect example. My buddy Chad, a very talented art director, had a great idea for a series of TV spots for the Tampa Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the client had zero budget to do something like that. So what does Chad do? He has lunch with a director who’s looking for a cool project. Next thing you know, the two of them are spending several weekends together shooting and editing those spots. No compensation for their time or effort. But both end up with three really nice spots that eventually get shared with the Museum client who loves ‘em and finds money to run ‘em. A win-win for everyone. 

Now that’s just one of countless ways to stand out from the pack with hard work. Here are a few others that come to mind:

  • Jump in on new business pitches
  • Take some projects off the shoulders of overloaded co-workers
  • Rather than whining about small, unsexy assignments, find a way to turn them into killer opportunities
  • Volunteer with the local AAF or AIGA chapters to work on their promotional or award show projects
  • Sign up for creative webinars or attend local seminars
  • Come up with a list of “out of scope” ideas to present to current clients

I’ll leave the final word on this subject to the late Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, who wisely observed, “I think the harder you work, the more luck you have.”

Know the best. Study the best. Aim for the best.

I’m often amazed at the number of advertising/design students and recent grads I interview who seem to have little or no awareness of the actual industry they’re going into. Ask them what their favorite agencies or design firms are, what recent campaigns have inspired them, what new websites they love, and they look back with blank stares. 

Now I’m not expecting an encyclopedic knowledge of which agencies have what clients, or the winners’ list from Cannes, but I would like some sense that their passion for doing great work has driven them to study the best in the business and set their creative sights accordingly. 

More than ever, students and young professionals have access to an endless wealth of news, interviews, creative reviews, and award-winning examples of the latest work. First off, you have trade publications like Communication Arts, Archive, Graphis, and countless others filled with inspiration. Sure, you may have to pay for them in physical form, but much of their content can be accessed for free online.  

Next, you have daily emails from the likes of AdAge, Adweek, FastCompany’s Co.Design, and more that you can subscribe to for free. They feature account moves, new work, and recent award show winners, plus editorials on the latest tech affecting the biz.

Third, you can hop on your favorite social platform and follow the hot shops, big newsmakers, and outspoken insiders. Some standouts that I’d recommend: Anamoly, Huge, Goodby Silverstein, Cannes Lions,  Lee Clow’s Beard (humorous, yet profound tweets).

Just as easily, you can head straight to the websites of the best agencies and design firms, such as: Droga5, 72andSunny, David, Frog Design, Pentagram, Ideo, Big Spaceship. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even touched on industry blogs, podcasts, books, webinars, YouTube channels, yada, yada. 

So c’mon aspiring, young guys and gals, lose the blank stares and start feasting on the smorgasbord of industry inspiration that’s all around you. Before you know it, you’ll be the ones that future classes of students will be studying.