How to Mess Up (Perfectly)

“I’ll be teaching ‘effed-up’ Fosse,” he said.

When our regular Broadway jazz dance instructor left for the summer, a well-respected contemporary dancer/choreographer filled in for him. Our new instructor started the class by explaining he is not a Broadway dancer and that although he did not formally study the choreographic style of Bob Fosse (renown American choreographer, known for “All That Jazz,” “Cabaret,” “Pippin,” and “Chicago”), we’d be learning Fosse-esque choreography.

How liberating, I thought, I won’t have to fret about technique today. Then it hit me— at times, that’s how I teach. For instance, without any formal instructions, I might say to my university class, “Let’s construct objects out of felt.” My messed-up pedagogy fosters a willingness among students to dive in, to explore—to do what my graduate school painting professor Louis Finkelstein used to refer to as patshke, a Yiddish word that roughly translates to mean: “to mess around inexpertly.”


Fig_08_burger_toy  Margaret Grzymowski – “Food Bank Burger”

Just like dancing an “effed-up” style, employing a messed-up method is a kind of creative deliverance. Employing this method in a group offers opportunities for spontaneous social interaction and collaboration, too.

Additionally, if you don’t link the exploration to a specific design project, you’re more likely to feel free (terrified or thrilled) and perhaps learn more from the experience. After all, we benefit from engaging in play. When I asked Dr. Peter Gray, author and a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College, “What is the lifelong value of play?” he replied,

“The most direct way of answering this is to say that play is what makes life worthwhile. A life without play would be dreary indeed. Play, by definition, is what we want to do as opposed to what we feel compelled to do. Adult ‘work’ is playful to the degree that adults enjoy. Sociologists studying employment satisfaction have found that the qualities of a job that lead to most satisfaction are those qualities that make the work playful: autonomy (freedom to choose how and when to do the work, no micromanagement by bosses), creativity (the work could not be done by a robot), and challenge (play is never easy, because when it is easy it becomes boring and is no longer play).”

As Dr. Gray also points out in his interview in my book Nimble, there is an evolutionary purpose to curiosity, which is an educative instinct. In his book, Free to Learn, Dr. Gray points out the environments that promote play, curiosity and sociability are optimal environments for learning.

Believing you must master a visual art technique in order to utilize it might hamstring you. This is not to say we shouldn’t strive to dance Fosse’s choreographic style well or expertly or to excel at any image-making technique, design, or anything for that matter. It simply means being willing to daringly jump in advances one’s overall ability to think creatively, lessens risk aversion and fosters curiosity. If you think you need to do something perfectly in order to do it all, you are setting yourself up for frustration. Of course, you need to know how to fail and recover. When I studied ice skating, the first thing I learned was how to get up from a fall on ice. And, if you fall or fail, well, as psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis wrote in The Myth of Self-Esteem, “…losing is also part of life and if you keep trying, it will inevitably occur.”

Fig_07_milk_writing_instagram  Watercolor and milk illustrations by Margaret Grzymkowski

My students’ advertising and graphic design solutions incorporate found objects, animations, textures, and patterns created from our messed-up play sessions, as well as work based on step-by-step visualization technique sessions. Inevitably, graduating seniors return from interviews saying creative directors admired their ideas visualized using messed-up methods.

When you learn something new, dopamine levels increase in the brain, which is why creative challenges make you feel good. Try a new technique or process. If you think you’ve messed up, mess up some more. And most importantly, if you’re willing to try for the sake of a learning adventure, you’re doing it perfectly.

nimbleIn graphic design, creative thinking skills are undoubtedly important, but oftentimes the importance of critical thinking skills is overlooked. In Nimble by Robin Landa, discover how to develop a creativity that is strategic, and able to cross platforms, industries, or sectors. Find a creative thinking process that allows you to generate scalable ideas that are both sticky and stretchy. Learn how come up with ideas rich in not just quantity, but quality, as well, and develop a flexible mind ideal for visual communication, digital marketing, or social media.