How To Be Creative

How does one actually become creative? How do we think of our own unique ideas, and try not to steal? Most of us steal ideas from all over the place, whether we realize it or not.

Here is a simple how-to on being creative — derived from what I’ve learned on the journey to success.

Why We Copy

To define creativity, let’s find the opposite of what true creativity is. What is the opposite of creativity? Copying and repeating other material. To get to the source of all our problems, we need to discover why we copy. Only then can we stop, and start creating original works.

Reason Number One: It’s Easy Money

We copy material from all over the web because it’s easy. It’s our escape. As long as we get the job and get paid, we’re satisfied in the end. We get a pat on the back from our employers, our clients, or whoever pays us in the end and we’re very happy. We made their job a success. What’s our motivation to be original anymore?

Money

Reason Number Two: Copying is Standards-Compliant

Copying others ideas, layouts, and techniques have become so standard, that we often use standards to justify it. Does using the same color scheme, layout, and style make a web design more user-friendly, just because that’s what people are used to?

We tend to think if people are used to it, they can navigate through it better. What we often forget, though, is that someone came up with that idea originally, and even with that new idea, it still became a success.

Standards-Compliant

Reason Number Three: We Copy Success to Get Success!

Also, copying means success — to a point. If anyone has been following Webitect for awhile now, you know that it’s a much bigger blog from it’s meager beginnings. How did it get that way? I get a lot of emails requesting my techniques, lessons-learned, and other forms of consultation. Well here’s the answer: I copied.

I didn’t copy great articles from other websites, the blog designs Webitect has been through, and I didn’t manipulate my way through any copyright agreements. I wrote my original material, researched, studied, and helped bring Webitect to the blog it is today. Even though I’ll admit I copied quite a bit, I worked hard to get to where I am today with this blog.

So what did I copy? The techniques for success, for post writing, for traffic gaining — you name it, I did it. I learned awesome social media tricks and entrepreneurial ideas from IncomeDiary.com. I learned great design techniques from WebDesignerWall. I learned how to engage an audience through the experiences of Darren over at Problogger. I even learned a great deal of my blog writing skills from Vitaly over at SmashingMagazine.

Sure enough, doing what they do has brought success to myself and my blog. The problem is though, for everything I do, I didn’t come up with any of it. It’s all been done before, and many people reach the stage I’m at now. Now that I’m here though, now what?

Success

Why Copying Isn’t Worth the Fame and Fortune

After learning all of this stuff from the experts, either directly or indirectly, I found myself with a popular blog. With over 500 subscribers, under the 100,000 Alexa ranking, and thousands of pageviews a day, I found myself even making some advertising money off of Webitect.

I’m 20 years old, and my blog has only been alive for 9 months, but I’ve already found myself in a position that would have made me happy at 30 as a career goal. I’m excited to be in such a position, but lately I’ve been finding myself lacking in motivation. After struggling for over a month, “Just get through it, Kayla. Just write the posts, just find and manage the new writers, just do it…”, I’ve finally come to realize the source of my lack of motivation: This is not me at all.

I’m fortunate of all the techniques and ideas that have come along to help me develop as blogger, designer, developer, and freelancer. However, I went too far with it. I tried to be exactly like every other design blog on the Internet. However, that’s not me. I love owning a design blog, but I don’t love everything other design blogs have to offer. I tried copying the stuff I just wasn’t interested in too.

I realize I’m going of on a tangent by talking about the blogging lifestyle when most of Webitect’s readers are indeed web designers, developers, and other freelancers. However, lessons can still be learned for people in these fields, because we all specialize in copying within our own fields. Hopefully realizing this can help us pause, and rethink our habits. Let’s all stop copying others.

Here are five steps to help.

Step One: Stop Thinking About Design

I’m going to try to gear the rest of this post towards designers to hopefully benefit the majority of my audience, but I’d love to hear alternate strategies to these steps for other professions as well.

The first step to being creative is to stop thinking about design. Ok yes, it sounds crazy — but it just might work. Whenever I write a post on how to find design inspiration, one of my steps is always to get away and let go of things. Stress is a major creativity killer. With stress, we often find ourselves saying, “Let’s just get this done and over with.” That leads to none other than copying. Copying is a way to get things done fast and the easy way.

So just go rest! Stop stressing about money, clients, designs, and other to-dos. Also, stop trying to find and define design in everything. That is often times a designer’s nature, but it can quickly cause design overload. Give yourself some time to just enjoy life the way it was before you had a career, before you designed for money, and before you had to deal with all the stresses currently in your life.

By getting out of our routine, we can start thinking for ourselves again. When I was stressed and always eager to get things done, I would go throughout my daily tasks — even the ones that didn’t apply to my job — always looking for design inspiration. Sounds like a great technique, but all it did was keep me in the same thought cycle at all times.

When I saw some old furniture at my mom’s, I thought of the ever-so popular vintage design. When I saw a vase of flower, I just thought of how I could turn that into design. But oh wait…I’ve already done a million designs inspired by flowers and nature, not to mention all the blog posts!

Also, to be completely honest, even when I design nature-inspired things, my techniques stem from Nick La. He’s a great deal of inspiration for me, but it’s become so tightly knit that even my own hand-drawn designs copy his techniques to the point where they are almost identical. I then have to stop and remind myself that he is the original — not me.

Be Original

So to start being a creative designer, one must stop thinking about design all together. This can keep our stress level much lower, and most importantly, our mind open for new and truly original ideas.

Step Two: Remind Yourself of What You Love

This blog was a lot more personal when it started out. It was not a diary by any means, but it wasn’t at the professional level it is now. I let myself out more, just as I am doing in this specific post, but within all my posts. I was able to write better then, and write longer posts. Writing was much more successful with my own voice.

Also in the beginning, my design strategy was much different. When I designed I tried to think of things I loved — just like a little girl drawing all of her favorite things.

Webitect’s early days inspired me to write this post, and reminded me of my original design style. What was it? None other than a composite of my favorite things. The most original designers I see always seem to have some sort of niche in design. Whether it be underwater, a certain animal, or a certain era. Everything we love as individuals is completely original, and only a truly original designer can bring themselves into their main source of inspiration.

So let me see… I love Giraffes, old TV shows (I Love Lucy is my favorite), the color purple, video games, seahorses, Andy Warhol, the taste of a cold Diet Mountain Dew, Chrysanthemums, Italian food, and when I was little, I collected precious rocks and even seashells from the beach.

Listing off your favorite stuff is something a little kid might do, but doing it just now reminded me of a lot of memories and favorites I could draw inspiration from. Better yet, nobody has that same set of favorites but me. Artwork that stems from this would not only be fun to work with, but also completely creative.

Favorite Things

So as an exercise, list off what you love. Even share it in the comments! What’s your favorite animal, TV show, color, or food? Your favorites in life are perfect for defining your own design style.

Step 3: Remember the Basics of Design

If you went to school for web design, remember what you learned. Even if you didn’t, think of what they would teach you. Did you learn how to create vintage web design? Did you learn how to create impressive WordPress themes that sell? Did you even learn how to “Draw an Under the Sea Scene in Illustrator”? No.

So what did we all learn in design school? Whether it was for web design, graphic design, web development, or even your art class back in high school — we all learned the same stuff. We learned how to use the pen tool in Illustrator, how to do photo manipulations in Photoshop, how to find colors that match, understand why whitespace and contrast matter, and how to use positive and negative space. What we learned in school are design principles and how to function standard software.

That’s a very smart approach, too. “Teach the kids how to make whatever they desire to create look good.” Yet, right out of school we started reading tutorials, how-tos, and other people’s design processes. We trained ourselves to use the design principles we studied to be applied to already made techniques.

School

Now, I’ve posted tutorials on Webitect, and probably will continue to post them in the future. So am I telling you not to read through tutorials? Of course not.

Learn from tutorials, and study techniques. However, don’t copy! With advances in software, amazing things can be accomplished. We may need tutorials to learn how to work with a new feature in future versions of Photoshop. We also may need tutorials to discover features we didn’t know Photoshop had to offer. (Or any design programs for that matter.) Tutorials can help us discover. What we don’t want to do is copy tutorials directly.

Step Four: Shut Off the Computer and Get the Ol’ Pen & Paper

Not yet though — I’d appreciate it if you at least finished reading the article and left a nice comment below! However, when you are done reading this article, shut down the computer and grab the traditional pencil and paper. We’re going to bring back old school design.

Think of that list of favorite things above — the things that make you who you are. If something inspires you, start drawing it. Draw whatever is in your head. Think about anything and everything — except for the following:

  • “Will this design make me money? Is it able to sell?”
  • “How am I going to code this into a web design?”
  • “Where will the logo, navigation, and content go if this is a web design?”
  • “How does this compare in talent to [insert favorite graphic designer here]?”
  • “This is crap. I’m starting over.”

Just draw! Is it that hard? As a designer, you can finally stop stressing to get the original results you want, and you can just do what you loved to do as a kid — create!

Bonus Tip: If you really want to have some fun, get some crayons when you’re finished with the drawing and go crazy.

Drawing

Step Five: Inspire Yourself

Take that drawing you did and turn it into a web design. Now you can start thinking about ways to make it possible. If it is impossible to fit the design accordingly into web design with any of your prior web techniques, then that’s perfect! As a designer, you can finally start thinking of ways to bend the layout around your design. Bend the navigation, the content, the logo — customize everything!

You can finally start using your own design to inspire a web design. Remember the general design principles you learned back in school, and apply them to the web. Remember usability, navigation, and organization. Remember contrast, balance, and alignment. Don’t remember your favorite graphic designer or the tutorial you read earlier today. You can now bend your own design to match basic design principles.

Wrapping Up

The overall lesson to be learned is to become yourself again. This is the only way to find your own unique style, and the only way to bring it out into your own designs.

As time went on with Webitect, I ended up researching and writing about sections in web design that I wasn’t at all interested in, at least not yet. All that came from that were horribly short and badly-written blog posts. Also, it left me with stress, and made what used to be a hobby, into a full-time job. It’s great that I’ve found such success at such a young age, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for all of it just yet. Remember, time is always on your side.

Remember to always have fun with design. If something is becoming stressful down the line of your career as a designer, stop and reflect. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it line up with your career goals?
  • What is the source of the stress? Disorganization? Too many tasks at once?
  • What part of this current project are you interested in? What have you grown apart from?

We all grow and develop as people and as designers, so our interests are changing constantly. To stray from confining yourself from one aspect of your career for too long, remember the stuff you’ll always be interested in: your roots.

Written By Kayla

Kayla Knight is a 20 year old college student, part-time web developer, freelancer, and blogger. Webitect is where she spends too much of her freetime, sharing interesting finds and valuable resources. Be sure to check out her portfolio.

11 Comments

  1. Henry

    July 18th, 2009 at 08:14 pm

    Interesting read Kayla. Copying can be a redundant especially in the design field. You see it every where. But some people have to start some where. I’m not saying “go ahead copy”, what I’m saying is that for people starting out, they might not have a clue where to start. I remember when I first started to learn CSS, I was at Chris Coyier’s (CSS-Tricks) blog all day copying his screencast ’till I got the basics down. People will learn not to copy same as they learned how to copy. They will develop a “style” they will enjoy and will have no more need to. That’s just my opinion. I really enjoyed reading this, I was actually planning on doing a post on something similar to this lol. Have a good day.

  2. Caroder

    July 19th, 2009 at 03:10 pm

    Speaking about creativity : http://www.creativeopera.com/ :-)

  3. countzeero

    July 19th, 2009 at 07:26 pm

    Interesting post Kayla…

    I think that step 4 is not really a step though, I ALWAYS have pens – millions of various black fineliners, and sketch books (Moleskine of course) in A6, A5 and A4 right by me on the desk. Contrary to what all “non-designers” think, Ideas do NOT originate on the Computer – neither on a mac nor a pc!

    Ideas originate in the Head and the Heart and you should get them down using your Hands. I call them the 3 H´s!

    The (Web2.0) trend of “Cloudsourcing” Inspiration for Creative Projects inevitably leads to bland and faceless “same old same old” graphic design… If I can´t get my head into a project then I do menial and mind-emptying things like data backups, tidying up folders or sorting my inbox. If creative block is the problem then an empty mind is easier to fill with new ideas when the “Creative Buzz” finally takes hold of you again…

  4. iWrite2Know

    July 20th, 2009 at 02:28 am

    Hi,
    We are pleased to confer upon you the “Friendship Chain” award. For more go to http://www.iwrite2know.com/2009/07/friendship-chain-award.html

    From the desk of the iW2K team

  5. Marcelo

    July 20th, 2009 at 07:20 pm

    I really think the issue here is more of EGO than anything else.
    Everyone thinks their sucessful because they have a blog these days.
    If you’re 20 how would you know what will make you happy in 10 years as a career goal?
    You can rediscover your entire life in 10 years.
    Everybody think they are original even when they copy something, they always have that “adding flavor and personal touch” excuse. Everybody does it and will continue doing it forever.
    And “Remember, time is always on your side.”.. it really shows that you’re 20. Good for you.

    Success is measured by your efforts and the obstacles you overcame to get there, not by your alexa ranking and money in the bank.

    Cheers and good luck.

  6. Drew

    July 20th, 2009 at 07:43 pm

    The insight re: standards in this article is misinformed. Standards exist for accessibility, not ease of use or user comfort. For example they are derived to allow blind people the opportunity to read a web page, not to make it easy for your neighbour with 20/20 vision to be able to check the weather quicker.

    You’re mistaking design with standards, and its a BIG mistake. A quick look at your page’s source code reveals dozens of standards initiatives designed to do everything from defining the language this page is written in, to allowing a blind person to decipher what an image means.

    They have nothing to do with design.

  7. pG0

    July 21st, 2009 at 01:27 am

    nice post.
    designing needs time. And this is what which is not given by the clients.
    so i think we can at least take inspiration in such conditions.

    But according to my thought, if time is given then such steps should surely be avoided. creativity is something which has no substitute.

  8. Sundavion

    July 21st, 2009 at 09:21 am

    My best work has always started from doodling, whether it was pen and paper or Photoshop. I remember people asking me how I came up with concepts and telling them “I just played!”. In my current situation it seems hard to play, I’m immediately cut down, even though they say use your creativity.

    I also get to myself sometimes since I’m a web designer as well. I first think that’s too hard to replicate on the web with my time constraints. Instead I should design the way I feel and worry about how to get it working later.

    Thanks for rekindling my fire Kayla.

  9. Stuart Pringle

    July 23rd, 2009 at 11:30 am

    @Drew, I think Kayla was making two points about standards – first, that copying others’ layouts is W3C standards compliant (assuming the layout was made standards-compliant in the first place, but I think that’s a safe assumption), and second, that it’s ‘standard feel of the web’ compliant, which is a bit of a play on words.

    As to the article, it was a very interesting read and I think it’s a helpful one – it’s all-too-easy to get carried away with worrying about whether a design will fit in or not, etc.

    Thanks for the creative spark unleashed here upon all mankind, Kayla!

  10. John Goodwin

    August 11th, 2009 at 08:50 am

    First off – great article Kayla, thanks. Different things work for different people, and it’s nice to hear how other people go about boosting their creativity.

    It’s so easy to fall in to a trap of following the same design conventions, and it can be difficult to find something different that actually works, without first taking a step back and looking at things from a different perspective.

    @Marcelo:

    “I really think the issue here is more of EGO than anything else.
    Everyone thinks their sucessful because they have a blog these days.”

    There is a massive difference between a blog that has a regular readership and those plagued by a lack of visitors and the occassional tumbleweed. How is your comment relevant to the article? Webitect has a regular readership, which, in blog terms, can be a measure of success. Any idiot can post to a blog, but to write something worth reading takes is entirely different.

    “If you’re 20 how would you know what will make you happy in 10 years as a career goal?
    You can rediscover your entire life in 10 years.”

    True, perhaps, but irrelevant and unbelievably condescending. I’m 33, and I wish I’d had the ability to both build and run a blog as successful as this one when I was 20. Which I can assure you, I didn’t. (Although, I’m not sure there were too many blogs around back then!). I’ve been designing and building sites for 8 years now, and find Webitect a useful resource – and very well written.

    “Success is measured by your efforts and the obstacles you overcame to get there, not by your alexa ranking and money in the bank.”

    Wrong – success can be measured by however we decide to measure it. Alexa ranking and money in the bank can be a measure of the success of a site, and if Kayla chooses to use either as an example of how successful her blog is, fine. It’s certainly not for you to criticise her for doing so.

    And finally:

    “Everybody think they are original even when they copy something, they always have that “adding flavor and personal touch” excuse. Everybody does it and will continue doing it forever.”

    Are you suggesting that we don’t even bother trying to do anything original?!

    The purpose of this article was to inspire those of us who are trying to stear clear of copying. Yes, there will always be people who copy, and most of us are guilty of it one way or the other, but that’s not the point. Those of us who strive to be good designers feed on any idea that can help us think of something new. Inspiration is often hard to come by, and any article that offers techniques to help is always welcome.

    Thanks Kayla – keep up the good work.

  11. dave willingham

    August 13th, 2009 at 03:58 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! It’s exactly what I needed to hear. I’ve been struggling with creativity for about a year now. I consistently find myself reaching back into my bag of tricks and never really branching out into some new with my designs. It’s all too easy to copy what you’ve done before or modify what someone else has done…but it’s never satisfying. My passion for design seems to have faded into rushing through a job, only to get paid so that I can move on to the next one.

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m headed back to the basics to rediscover the passion that once drove my career.