How to Set Your Creative Spirit Free

A few months ago, a package arrived on HOW‘s doorstep. It was the debut issue of the reader-created HOWiezine, and inside were dozens of dazzling scenes that evoked a “Wish You Were Here” postcard kind of marvel. Turning the pages was like jet-setting through kaleidoscopic lands on some kick-your-heels-up road trip. And we were riding shotgun. It seemed the perfect answer to the question many of us are always racing after: how to rev our engines and barrel down the open road of unbridled creativity?

It started off simply enough: “HOWie’d you feel about making a HOWiezine?” That was the question Atlanta-based designer Patti Bachelder posed a little over a year ago to the other members who mingle in the forum and call themselves HOWies. Her plan was for each participant to design a 7-inch square, front-and-back page on the theme of “Imaginary Friends” to pool the far-flung pals together in the name of art.

The free spirit of the project—devoid of the everyday constraints of “That’s nice, but how about making the font bigger?” or “Why don’t you try red, instead?”—lured 29 eager designers to the starting line. Over six weeks, each participant foraged the nooks and crannies of their imagination for the pieces. They sampled new techniques and savored new horizons. Then they waited patiently as Bachelder pieced their pages together and shipped back the finished zines, bound with screws and posts.

Before long, forum posts were buzzing with estimates of how much each page was worth (anywhere from $45 to $2,070 to “priceless”) and a schedule was established to keep the creative jolts (now capped at 60 participants per issue) coming on a quarterly basis. They even set up a website to showcase each issue and have just finished the zine’s fourth installment, themed “Naked,” which follows the other issues, “Road Trip” and “Black and White.” It was as Bachelder had hoped: The HOWiezine was a smash with the forum crowd.

Pit stop at the playground
“Creative play is part of sharpening the saw,” says Bachelder (known as “whatsinaname” on the forum). “If we play well and often, it makes whatever we bring to the work table stronger.” But with tedious to-do lists and little free time, it’s often the one thing that falls by the wayside. That’s why this venture, with its deadline and thematic prompt, paved the way for these kids-at-heart to switch gears and get back to what’s important—creative exploration.

“I think I was hungry for a project like this,” says Devon Bender (“designgrrrl”), a designer in Erie, PA. “Artists are constantly searching for ways to express themselves. Hence the overwhelming response to the second HOWiezine—it doubled in interest.”

And why wouldn’t it? A project where you’re the entire creative team is hard to pass up. It’s simply a matter of steering yourself and your vision in new directions, as Philadelphia-based designer Melissa Morris (“mel829”) of melissahead design realized. “One of my most aggravating personal creative hurdles is pushing the boundaries. I admit I was conservative with my first HOWiezine pages, but my pages for the second HOWiezine are a little more gutsy. I’m hoping that by HOWiezine Version 25, I’ll be right where I want to be!”

Looking in the rearview mirror
For the HOWiezine artists, the project wasn’t just a chance to push the creative throttle; it invited a ramble through their own histories and experiences. “Everything in these pieces means something to us as individuals,” Bender says, alluding to her own contribution, which stars her childhood chum Chewley—the friend no one else could see. “Digging deep within yourself to come up with a tangible representation of fragments of memories and feelings is always beneficial, I think. Remembering the past helps shape who you become and how you relate to others.”

The same goes for Design Bureau of Amerika freelance designer Keith Bowman (“kbowman”), who put his own spin on growing pains. His pages trace imagination from its youthful innocence of kids frolicking with friendly monsters and vying to make contact with aliens, to its place in adulthood. “Adults often substitute developing their imaginations with plans of fulfillment that are often populated with imaginary friends, ideal situations and fairy-tale endings,” Bowman says. And that concept carries to the zine’s rainbow-crested cover, which Bowman also designed.

This chance to let their hair down funneled the notion of “art” back into “artwork,” where it’s more about eliciting a personal reaction than communicating some corporate message. “A sense of personal accomplishment comes into play, and there’s a feeling that you’re leaving a legacy of who you are,” Bender says. “I love that.”

Stopping for hitchhikers
But what’s a HOWiezine without the other HOWies? Judging from the zine’s “Make Your Own HOWie” paper doll (complete with the necessary accessories—a skateboard and computer mouse), this is one close-knit clan. “Seeing other forum members’ styles and art lets you learn some of the subtle nuances that you could never learn from simply reading the typed words of their messages,” says Tony Tellez Jr. (“8LU8LLZ”), owner of Phoenix’s Bluballz Clothing Co.

And while it might seem pretty intimidating designing for a crowd whose forte is just that, this project was simply about enjoying the ride. Some of the contributors rolled down the windows with lighthearted, sun-splashed designs, while others steered into the dark twists and turns of life. “I just love seeing other people’s work, kind of like learning by osmosis,” Morris says of the pieces’ variety. “With this project, I get to see a lot of artwork from people like me. And as much as I like to see what Stefan Sagmeister has been up to, I can identify more often with work that was created by an in-house designer working for a small company in some suburb.”

Ultimately, that’s the allure of online communities. They’re a haven where these unsung heroes can pull over after a hard day’s work and celebrate their creative passion with friends. “It’s hard to get a group of people from all different walks of life to get interested in the same project, meet deadlines, etc.,” Bender admits. “But when it all comes down to it, we just want to create art. Good art.” Mission accomplished.

Pack Your Bags
Thinking about starting your own zine? Whether it’s with your closest workplace buddies or some online folks you’ve never met face to face, the hardest part of coordinating a project like this is keeping on top of everything. Here are some tips and insights from Patti Bachelder, the maven behind the HOWiezine.

1. Create a plan of action. Potential players need to know what they’re getting themselves into. Include the specs, process, costs to cover shipping and approximate time line (plus a dropout date). Bachelder suggested everyone send $10 with enough copies of their design to make a complete zine for each contributor (and another for HOW).

2. Organization is a must. Bachelder started different forum threads for sign-ups and themes to keep the lists separate. After accidentally trashing one player’s pages, Bachelder revised her system for checking in received submissions; all the artwork goes into a box, and the empty shipping envelopes get filed in a different closet to avoid confusion.

3. Be reasonable about the project–and procrastination. “Client work always comes first. This was a personal project, so extending the deadline two weeks wasn’t a problem,” Bachelder says.

4. Relish serendipity. The hardest part of the process was deciding the page order, Bachelder says. She arranged them based on their color schemes and content, so each spread segued into the next.

5. Share progress and updates. You want to keep everyone excited about the project. “We all took a big part in that role, cajoling and pushing each other to finish,” Bachelder says.

6. Keep the project open-ended. Creativity should have a chance to run free. The first HOWiezine included hand-printed pages, a hidden snippet of Shakespeare, and a limited-edition CD featuring images, music and Photoshop brushes.




* 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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