Creativity and Wonder



Written by Russell Shaw

Published on August 29, 2013

Last Edited on June 04, 2014



Lately I have been spending time in thought about why it is that I do what I do.


The simple answer is that I enjoy the work of illustration and design – or, at least, significant parts of the process. (There are moments when work is work, and those moments usually come at midnight when I’m making tedious comma splice edits to text in a long document and briefly contemplating career changes). I’ve had different clients ask me what it is that makes me willing to stay up so late or take on more work over weekends on even menial design tasks. If it’s only for the enjoyment, just what is it that I enjoy about it? Am I enjoying it for healthy reasons?

I have been reading thoughts, interviews, and memoir pieces from a lot of my favorite designers and visual artists recently. I find it interesting that most of the greats seem to speak about having a deep sense of enjoyment over their work. One described it as a feeling of being in a zone – some trance-like state of creativity in which he fails to notice time passing. The artist described his effort to wake up every day and strive to be in that zone for as long as possible. The greats are also able to remember their first creative memories as young children, and speak about how they knew then that they enjoyed the creative process enough to pursue it professionally for the rest of their lives.

There are significant moments of happiness in designing things, and they are the moments for which designers live.

In one moment, there is a rather selfish and shallow feeling of validation that comes when someone else likes the work. It is the moment when someone stops what he or she is doing because they have seen something well-designed on the your screen (or, moreover, when you notice someone stopping to view a completed version in public). I hate to admit it, but it is true that some of this is a self-gratifying experience. It validates; it gives us the attention we all crave; it establishes a feeling of self-worth. Having something that boosts self-esteem is good and valuable on some levels, but I do get worried about enjoying the work for only this type of gratification. Everyone knows a someone with a god-complex, and they're never fun to be around. Working for a pat on the back means trying to create what others will like versus exploring, experimenting, and pushing out in new directions. Further, what happens to our careers if people stop patting us on the back or fawning over our work? Is it just work for work’s sake for the rest of our lives after that? And on a personal level, are we really so egotistical (or more likely insecure) that we work so passionately only to have someone say “that looks nice”?

But there is another type of moment that is less about people-pleasing and self-worth validation. It’s the moment when something comes back from the press and it looks just how you imagined. Or when the site or app is finally launched or deployed, and it works like a charm. No one else even really has to be around you saying “good job” when you experience it. It’s an inward happiness that is very exhilarating, because you know you are experiencing something that was once only in your mind, and is now strangely tangible here before you. It was an idea, but now it's in your hands. Working through it from sketches and prototypes to when it is fully made, we then look back through the whole process and there is this strange feeling like what we’ve done is magic.

I don’t mean to sound whimsical. But there is a bit of magic to the process of making an idea into a real thing, especially when the process gives wonder to those who did not see it from the beginning. A couple of years ago, I was working with a project manager who would send me emails about revision changes or briefs for a new piece of a project, and she would say something like, “I don’t know how to make these requests work, but you can just press the button that says ‘Magic’ on your computer and send back the new designs.” At first, the statements bothered me. The idea of a “Magic” button! That button actually looks like hours and hours of late night work, not some instant fix! But over time, I’ve actually come to enjoy that people see the work this way (heck, I want to see it this way) – that there is a design problem, and through applying the creative process, somehow the solution (an idea) will become a reality at the other end of the work. It’s magic.

If I recount my first creative memories, there are a lot of small blips about drawings from when I was really little. But one I do recall more vividly was from the second grade when I started my own comic book series. It was based on a family of potato chips. Each issue dealt with the family living in constant threat of getting crunched (I was a weird kid, I know). I showed it to friends and family, and they all patted me on the back and said, “You’re a good artist.” And I enjoyed that feeling immensely, selfishly, and still chase after the approval of “you’re a good artist” to this day. But there was a stronger sense of accomplishment and enjoyment when they would leave and I was by myself making the next issue – that even though I could buy already finished comic books off of any news stand I was choosing to create rather than continue to only consume. I had found a way to make new things – things that were only in my mind before, but were now something that I could tangibly show to other people.

I believe that, in so many ways, we are all creatives – even if we are not illustrators, designers, writers, etc. Everyone enjoys working on a good DIY project around the home, or Pinterest-ing some arts piece that they can make for fun or to give to a friend. It really is human nature; it’s like there’s some internal commandment in our DNA telling us to make. There’s something great about seeing an idea and then forging it into reality through long and quiet hours. Bucking the system, even for only a moment, and saying that we can make for ourselves, rather than take only what was there before us.

I think that’s the feeling that I’m chasing in everything I do. I hope I never get tired of the wonder.



“...[T]here is a bit of magic to the process of making an idea into a real thing...”