When I teach about visual design, whether graphic or video, I lead with the idea that artists are primarily problems solvers. While this is not necessarily obvious, it is intuitive if given enough thought.
The primary problem that all artists face is one of communication. How do we communicate what one person thinks is critical to an audience? Further, how is this problem compounded when the audience is not aware that they need to know something or, harder still, when they don’t care?
The design and placement of an emergency exit sign is a good example.
What color a fire-extinguisher should be.
A poster for a product sale.
The exterior layout of a storefront.
A handbill for an upcoming concert.
The position of a sculpture combatting a dysfunction in society.
All of these things work to solve the problem of presenting information to observers in functional and memorable ways. Functional, because if no one sees it, does the message exist? Memorable, because if no one remembers it, what’s the point?
Then there is the problem of solving internal coherence. That is, how does the composition work as a piece of art?
You can have all the right information, but if the layout is flawed, the composition will work against the goal of being memorable.
Local US television commercials are prime examples. Most people know them well: the camera quality is poor, the shots are less than flattering, and the copywriting is schmaltzy. The worst part, however—at least for me—is what happens at the end of such commercials.
I was leading a client consultation for a new ad when the business’ CEO said, “At the end of the 30-second spot, I want all four business addresses listed, as well as each office’s phone number, their fax numbers, our two main email addresses, and please include the old PO Box in case people are still sending mail there—we have forwarding set up.”
My reply was preplanned as this wasn’t the first time I had encountered such a request (though the PO Box element was a new spin). I rotated my laptop and played another local company’s commercial. As it ended, a similar title screen displayed multiple business addresses, phone numbers, and an email address. I closed the laptop and asked the CEO to recite any of the business information she had seen. She stammered for a moment, and then said, “I can only tell you the name of the company.”
“That’s all your audience will remember too,” I said, smiling.
Without further argument, she agreed with my proposal that her company logo should close out the ad, nothing else. To date, it was the best performing commercial in their history.
All of these examples serve to illuminate a primary principle in the human experience: beauty is memorable.
The converse is equally true: the absence of beauty is forgettable. It’s not that we won’t remember ugly things, as they certainly leave impressions, it’s that we don’t wish to be reminded of them.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a graphic designer, a parent, an engineer, a teacher, a server, or student; the idea that beauty is memorable has been at work in your life since you were born. The real questions are whether or not you’re aware of it, and what you are doing to make life beautiful.
Being aware of beauty has a significant impact on the quality of life—our’s and other people’s. Beauty, in and of itself, is not the goal. Instead, beauty leads to experiences which compose the sum of our existence. If those experiences are creative, proactive, and solve problems, then someone could easily conclude that ‘life is good.’ If those experiences, however, are deforming, dysfunctional, and lead to more problems, then that same person may conclude that ‘life is bad.’ As a result, beauty is not just about seeing beautiful things. Instead, it is about the quality of our human existence. People who value beauty value life.
This is important insomuch as it affects the way we occupy our homes, our communities, and our workplaces. If our desire is for people to lead ‘good’ lives, in that we want them to treat their spouses with love, children with honor, friends with respect, and enemies with dignity, then we need to create beautiful faces, spaces, and places for them. There is no better example by which to establish the quality of life than to offer the world elegant ways of solving deep problems.
Teaching people to value life can start with seemingly unimportant things in your environment: mowing your lawn well, addressing a lighting issue in your apartment with creativity, or creating an enjoyable seating area in your backyard. You might think up a new way to manage a tedious process at your work, a better chores list for your children, or a tasteful way to cook and present a meal. Even more, you might discover a cure for an ailment, create a better tool for an old task, or successfully convey a powerful truth in an unconventional way to a previously unwilling student.
The point of all this alternative creativity is that it speaks to souls. Whether or not people see past your inventiveness, the transaction occurring out of sight is one of profound care. It’s essential that you and I tell other people that their lives matter; however, showing them that your creativity has taken their future happiness into consideration is something words cannot convey.
Cédric is an industrial project engineer by day. As a husband and father, he loves to use his creativity to solve problems around the home. His ingenuity came out when he thought of a way to recycle rainwater for his washing machine, garden, and handmade outdoor hot tub. To accomplish this, he routed his roof’s four drain pipes into the basement to a pump, a water filter, and a distribution network. The hot tub is even heated by a small wood stove that he designed himself.
While Cédric was not thinking about me when he first built the hot tub, the experience of seeing and enjoying his ingenious pool inspired me. However, it’s not the hot tub, per se, that had the most significant impact on my life: it’s the fact that someone used their genius to create something which had other people’s wellbeing in mind. I propose that this is the reason God created the earth for people and people for the earth. When we are creating for people, we are behaving like God.
Of course, obsessing about any particular creative channel can be taken to extremes and miss the mark of valuing people. But not engaging at all is guaranteed to rob people of what you could have offered them. Instead, look to find the balance between creative care and intentional rest—especially rest that doesn’t stem from ambivalence. (Hint: That’s not real rest).
For some creatives, perfectionism is a real problem. Their work of art is never good enough, and as a result, few people get to partake of their offerings. For perfectionists, it’s not about making art that is perfect for all time but creating something that was good enough for today. The best art documents where you have been, not where you think you should be.
The famed novelist, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry once said:
“There is a kind of idealism that seems to be native to farming . . . The crop year is a long struggle, ended invariably not by the desired perfection but by the need to accept something less than perfection as the best that could be done.”
No matter what your creative process is or what you’re creating, excellence means doing your best with what you have in the time you have to do it in. Anything less is unfair to the work and anything more is unfair to yourself.
Perhaps you aren’t even aware that your creativity has been impacting people in powerful ways. You don’t see your cooking as something exceptional, you don’t think your database entry methods are anything significant, or maybe you don’t recognize the way you fold laundry is important. But it is. All of it is. You aren’t creative for creativity’s sake; you are creative to let people know that they are valuable.
Intentional ingenuity is most potent when serving people is the goal.
If you’re going to do something, take a few extra moments to make it better. That might mean spending more time to think about a job before you execute it. Or take extra care when making a paper fold, setting silverware, or arranging the coat rack. Details matter and they speak to souls more than you—or others—may realize.
Eventually, all of these things add up. After people have encountered your creativity, at least one person will sit back and say, “Life is very good.”