Burnin’ Down the (In)House: 6 Tips to Fire Your Creativity

Okinawan karate master, Gichin Funakoshi stated that karate is like boiling water: Without constant heat it returns to its tepid state. Creativity is like karate: without the constant applied heat of input or fuel, our creativity cools and reactions to our work go from “Wow!” to “Mmm, nice.” If you have been there (and I have), you know how soul-crushing those lukewarm compliments sound.

All creative folks are prone to this trap, but as in-house designers, we’re in a particularly high-risk category. We work for companies whose bread and butter business is most likely not creative services. That means we work within the same brand guidelines day after day which can sometimes feel restrictive and uninspiring. High workloads with tight deadlines don’t help, and neither do clients who sometimes have low expectations and don’t value good design. (“Don’t spend too long on it – just make it look nice!”)

Photo from Shutterstock; creativity

Photo from Shutterstock

Even location can be a factor.  A subway ride to an office in SoHo is a journey loaded with visual stimuli—billboards, storefronts, magazine covers and even street art that jumps out at you at every turn—compare that to my commute to a suburban office where the only visual stimuli I typically get are the packaging and in-store displays when I pick up my coffee at Starbucks.

Just as boiling water doesn’t cool down immediately without heat, our work doesn’t immediately suffer from a lack of input, but continuing to neglect seeking input will eventually take its toll. Also, never forget the idiom – “garbage in garbage out.” To keep your creativity at the boiling point, the input needs to be quality and diverse, so while watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills may help you unwind after a stressful day, it doesn’t really count as creative fuel.

So, how amidst the daily hustle and bustle of our corporate lives can we continue to fuel our creativity?

1. Ask questions. Continually.

Supposing is good, but finding out is better. – Mark Twain

Curiosity drives creativity. It’s curiosity that compels us to experiment and try new things and create unexpected solutions, so our curiosity must be constantly at the boiling point.

And be curious about ALL aspects of your job and your company, not just the deliverables coming out of your department. Do you know how the sales cycles work at your company? What pushbacks do the sales force hear from prospects? What’s the employee retention rate at your company? Questions like these and, more importantly, their solutions will make your work richer and more effective, make you a more valuable employee and open the door to some interesting projects (See number 3).


2.Web-based research

Geography is no longer our master. – Austin Kleon

Cruising the web is the easiest way to fuel your creativity. HOW, Behance and Dribble can all be scanned over your morning coffee. Set up inspiration boards on Pinterest and subscribe to one of the billions of blogs that deal in creativity. If you work in a small department or alone, joining an online community can help! (Though keep in mind the “garbage-in, garbage-out” idiom. Cat videos on YouTube, while fun, won’t necessarily help turn you into a creative powerhouse.)


Photo from Shutterstock; creativity; lighting a flame

Photo from Shutterstock

3. Personal projects

At one time or another you’ve probably created personal projects outside of work hours. Some are paid, some not. Some are for a good cause, and some are just to challenge you as a designer.

This is a great way to keep your creativity hot, but have you ever extended your reach and looked for opportunities at work? My team found an opportunity when we illustrated and designed a desktop calendar for our company’s “brand pack” – a bag filled with tchotchkes given to each employee at the beginning of the year.

This year we’re also finding a way to give back to our community by donating our design skills to help local non-profits with their fundraising materials. We’re very fortunate in that giving back is a core value at our company and each employee receives 12 hours, every quarter, to volunteer for causes close to his or her heart.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

The most creative people have this childlike facility to play. – John Cleese

Chances are your department is already known as the “fun department.” Marketing or creative services departments tend to have that reputation in a corporation, but do you have fun DOING your job? To unleash your creativity and regain a childlike sense of wonder through play – where anything is possible even for a short period of time – is when the magic happens. When you produce a great piece of work, people talk about the work – not your methods. Anyway, they already tend to think of us designers as a little odd, so what have you got to lose?


5. Playing with restrictions.

Try your hand at placing a few Easter Eggs — not the chocolate kind but the hidden joke kind. Let’s face it, some of the projects we work on in our day job can be less-than-inspiring. As designers, contrary to popular opinion, most of us work better with more – not fewer restrictions. If we didn’t, we would be fine artists in a garret pondering the meaning of life.

Spicing up a job brief by adding your own restrictions will challenge your creativity. Try designing a brochure using only one typeface; create something in only one or two colors. I remember reading about a designer who set all the periods in an elegantly designed brochure in Comic Sans and nobody but his team knew or noticed!


6. Seek professional help!

If your car needs a tune up you take it to the automotive shop, if you have toothache you visit a dentist … so where do you go if your creativity needs a B12 shot?

If you have ever attended a HOW Design Live event, you should be familiar with Stefan Mumaw and his Creative Bootcamp. Stefan proves that creativity isn’t waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike, but a habit that can be nurtured to help you produce more and better ideas. Two of his books, Caffeine For The Creative Mind and Caffeine for the Creative Team should be on your bookshelf.

HOW Design Live

Besides Mumaw, there are other great creative coaches such as HOW Design Live regulars Todd Henry and Sam Harrison. There is still time to register for this year’s HOW Design Live!

So do these suggestions help you burn down the in-house? They could – in a good way, of course. The above examples are things that have worked for my team and me. What makes them achievable for us is that they can be woven into our daily routine. As with most things in life, you need to find out what works for you. Hopefully, it will be something that will set your work on fire.