Art Chantry on Creativity and Design

I’ve been a fan of Art Chantry‘s work for many years. When I first saw his posters in the late ’80s, I was impressed by their raw power and intrigued with the designer’s knack for exposing the dark side of what seemed superficially bright and cheerful. Today I admire Chantry for enduring in a field driven by trends and marketing whims. His work from 25 years ago looks just as fresh by today’s design standards as it did then. Coming up with a great concept for any design assignment is a feat, but maintaining a high level of creativity for a significant period is remarkable. When asked to write this article, I jumped at the chance to discover the secret behind Chantry’s prolific and long-lasting brilliance.

Spending time with Chantry during a recent visit to Cincinnati and engaging in a lengthy telephone conversation gave me insight into how he generates great concepts. After a quarter century of practicing graphic design, he’s come to some conclusions about the creative process and honed his own method for making ideas happen.

The Art of distraction
Chantry first began to develop an awareness of his creative process when he was in college (he attended three schools in six years, before graduating from Western Washington University in 1978) and landed his first professional assignment. “I finally got a job to do a poster,” he says. “I was so excited.” But after many days of trying to come up with an idea, Chantry was still waiting for inspiration to strike. “There I was, staring at a blank sheet of paper,” he recalls. “It was about 11:00 the night before my morning deadline and I had nothing. I admitted defeat and paced nervously around my apartment practicing my failure speech.”

Chantry called it a night and filled his bathtub, thinking that a relaxing hot soak would soothe his bruised psyche. “While I was laying there in the tub, my head started filling with all of these great ideas,” he says. “I got up, dried myself off, went to my board and did the poster. It was a big hit and the launch of my career.”

Although he was initially mystified, Chantry eventually realized that distraction is a key component in his ideation process. He elaborates: “As the years went by, I tried all kinds of things—exercise, drugs. What I began to realize is that the brain is not a grid. It’s a mosh. Ideas are constantly flying through your head. The creative pro-cess happens in the unconscious. The trick is to kick it into the conscious part of your brain. That’s where relaxation and distraction help.”

Although he no longer engages in some of the distractions he experimented with earlier in his career, Chantry has incorporated other rituals into his design process to help trigger the creative flow. “I used to love playing records while I worked,” he says. “While I was busy going through the process of pulling out a record and putting it on the turntable, my mind was still working.” Chantry compares this process to driving a car. “You’re not consciously driving that car. Your body is driving it, and you’re thinking about other things,” he explains.

Chantry has observed other creatives using distraction as a means of getting to a place where their subconscious lets loose. He says it’s most apparent during group brainstorming sessions when participants engage in throwing a ball or some other mindless physical activity. “There’s this problem of trying to come up with an idea in a short period of time and do it vocally in a conscious fashion,” he says. “That’s when you see people doing this Nerf-ball thing. They’re trying to break the conscious effort and let the subconscious flow. It’s almost like they’re self-medicating.” Although he sees the benefits in collaborating, Chantry says the ideation phase should be a private process: “When the group decision-making turns into a conscious effort, stuff starts to get kind of crummy.”

The Art of Inspiration
Another key component in Chantry’s creative process is research. “Every client you meet introduces you to their world. Getting to know that world well enough to do the assignment requires a huge learning curve,” he says.

For Chantry, research also means continually taking in a wealth of visual material and other information. He has immersed himself in subculture and pop-culture ephemera—references that keep cropping up in his work. In fact, he’s a walking dictionary of pop-culture trivia. For instance, he knows where the smiley face and peace symbol originated. He can even tell you who put the tail fins on the Cadillac.

Chantry also draws inspiration from people he refers to as 20th century folk artists: ’50s hot-rod artists such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch. “When you become a designer, you become a perpetual student,” he explains. “Be interested in everything. Constantly fill your mind with stuff. Look at the world around you.” Being a sponge and absorbing a range of rich, visual content yields a wealth of material from which to draw. “Your mind puts these things in a subconscious place,” Chantry says.

Like driving with your hands on the wheel, guided by an unconscious auto-pilot, Chantry experiences the creative process as a mind/hand sequence of events, where the images and ideas stowed away in his subconscious flow through his hands. “The decisions you make while putting the artwork together often take you in a totally different direction,” he says. Unlike most designers, Chantry has resisted relying on the computer as a rendering device and uses collage to produce designs. “Ideas that you don’t consciously realize come out through your hands. It’s this wonderful, magic process,” he says.

The Art of Incompletion
Because his process is driven by traditional materials and techniques, Chantry doesn’t produce digital comps that show what a piece will look like when it’s finally printed. Instead, he submits black-and-white sketches. Showing his ideas in rough form gives Chantry a chance to verbally pitch his concept and the client an opportunity to get involved in the creative process from the onset. “The core of the idea is there,” he explains. “When you get them jazzed and then go back and finish it, they’re thrilled. If I present a comp that’s fully realized, that destroys the creative process.”

After many years of dealing with clients, Chantry is convinced they’ll always want a degree of involvement. Letting clients participate in the refinement of a strong design concept helps him ward off the bastardization that often occurs when a client wants to change a fully realized design. Chantry believes a solid concept will survive a client’s scrutiny and the revision phase. “People usually want to stick their finger in the pie,” he says. “And that’s often the most difficult process for designers—your child is being ripped apart and put back together in a strange way right in front of you. But the core of a great idea is inviolate. They can’t break it because it’s so good.”

For Chantry, the combination of research, relaxation and hand-rendering a concept produces what he describes as “the first shot the one your body and your brain did for you.” Says Chantry, “Your first idea is your intuitive brilliance. It’s taken me 25 years to get to a point where I can do that effortlessly.”

(First published in HOW, October 2003)


* The next time you’re stuck for a great brainstorming idea, check out all the prompts in Caffeine for the Creative Mind or the author’s on-demand Design Cast 7 Killer Steps to Generating Big, Fat, Hairy Design Ideas.
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