Rediscovering Your Creative Spark During the Pandemic

As designers at Media Cause—like all designers everywhere—we are constantly challenging what has been done in the past in an effort to create something new or improve on what exists. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we pivoted a bit, like everyone else. But as the “the new normal” went from weeks to months, and every workday was spent at home with my kids running around screaming (AKA distance learning), I found myself falling back on techniques I knew would work—well-worn grooves, in an effort to stay sane and manage the mental and emotional load.  

When the intensity of the pandemic started to lessen last year—probably around the time I got vaccinated—I began to feel like I had more space again. More energy. More brainpower. I began to feel like I wasn’t just in survival mode anymore. Somewhere in me was the urge to try something a new way, learn something new, expand the boundaries of my skill set.

Inspiration came from two very different places. 

I was hearing a bunch of new buzzwords being thrown around on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog. One in particular that piqued my interest was Mindful Design, a new framework that supports the intentions of people using our products and services instead of pushing our own agendas—making purposeful design decisions that actually help people. When I shared what I learned about Mindful Design with my colleagues, they turned me on to a Design Thinking Course at IDEO U.

In terms of expanding the boundaries of my skill set, this IDEO U course was just what I was looking for. At its core,  Design Thinking is about creative problem-solving in an effort to improve products, services, and experiences. To spur this kind of thinking, the course poses the question, “How might we?” How might we improve distance learning? How might we continue therapy for working parents when meeting face-to-face isn’t possible anymore? How might we maintain democracy by improving the process of voting for both voters and ballot collectors? We were prompted to choose a problem to solve and then use this creative problem-solving to come up with a better solution.   

One exercise I particularly enjoyed was called the Mash-Up. The idea was to combine two seemingly disparate ideas and use that as the inspiration for your solution. I was prompted to choose an area of work-life I find unpleasurable—I chose time-tracking. I was then asked to choose something outside of work that inspires me—I chose nature. Through this exercise, I came up with the idea of a time-tracking app that features video footage of nature that plays in the background. Combining a workplace necessary evil with moments of delight was an inspiring exercise.

Around the same time as I was taking the IDEO U course—and I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence—a service called MasterClass started aggressively serving me ads on Instagram. One “class” in particular, David Carson’s Graphic Design MasterClass, really caught my eye. When I was starting out as a professional designer, David Carson was a celebrity. He was famous for pushing boundaries and I was a big fan of his unconventional work. A couple of years (or decades) had passed since I had looked at his work, but for some reason, I knew his class would be more of the inspiration I was looking for. A reminder of why I had pursued design in the first place.

One exercise I particularly enjoyed was collage for designers. The idea was the same as what we did in kindergarten as children: cut out images from magazines and assemble them into a new layout. Only now the directive was to think about color, contrast, composition, content—the building blocks of graphic design.

Rob Shaw Artwork

Throughout his class, Carson repeatedly talks about using one’s intuition as a design tool. In order to create work that stands out and makes people notice, makes people click, makes an impact, it needs to feel personal. The best way to make it personal is to use your intuition and make it your own. He also talks about the importance of getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things, aiming for the unexpected.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Venn diagrams and am always trying to draw connections between different ideas and concepts. What happens if I mash up Design Thinking and David Carson? How are they alike? Are there any throughlines?

On a macro level, Design Thinking is more left brain, more logical, more linear. David Carson is more right brain, more intuitive, more imaginative. Carson is not mindful. Or rather, he’s not out to improve usability—he’s out to disrupt it. Design Thinking is all about usability, but it’s also all about disruption, about trying something a new way, something unexpected.     

The through-line here is really about trying something new, something unexpected. It’s about disruption. But the added layer is that disruption itself can serve two different, but equally important purposes: disrupting your own patterns and habits to expand your skills, your vision, your field of possibility; or disrupting external, systemic, or organizational norms in order to create something better. 

In some ways, they each feed into each other. If we start by disrupting our own norms—following Carson’s model— there’s more potential for us to have a greater impact on disrupting what’s happening around us. And if we start by trying to disrupt and improve what’s broken around us—Design Thinking’s “How might we?” model—we often end up questioning our own previous patterns and assumptions and expanding our perspective, in the process. 

As the pandemic wears on, variant after variant, it’s tempting for both individuals and organizations to stay where it feels safe, to seek familiarity. It’s easy to fall back on those well-worn grooves. But if I were to choose the one takeaway from my Design Thinking and David Carson classes, it would be to challenge that impulse. We may be comfortable where we are right now, but change doesn’t happen by doing things the way we’ve always done them.

When thinking about your professional work—your mission, your programs, your marketing—or even your personal goals and aspirations, how can you get outside of your comfort zone and disrupt things? Where do you feel like you need a gentle kick in the pants? Start there! Look for inspiration where you expect to find it. Then look for inspiration where you hadn’t thought to look. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You’ll get so much more from trying something new and failing than you will by not trying anything new at all.