December 17th, 2008

Playing is Serious

By Frank Chimero

Playing is Serious

Every once in a while, I marvel at the fact that I can work on an illustration or piece of design, and then share it with an audience halfway across the world within seconds of my finishing it. The internet has made it easier than ever to share the final results of our labors, and we’re still coming to grips with how to apply an order and structure to our boundless visual consumption habits.

In a time when the final result is placed on a pedestal and obsessively consumed, I think it’s wise to discuss process. By putting so much of our emphasis on the product and not on the process, I think we’ve led our younger practitioners to some false assumptions:

  1. Good work is always easy, and is usually the result of a lightning bolt of sudden inspiration.
  2. Everyone that’s successful has some secret bit of information that they’re not sharing.
  3. Everything before the final stroke is magic. If the work isn’t easy, you’re doing something wrong, or you’re just not cut out for this type of thing.

All are, of course, wrong. Often times the best, most “effortless” solutions are the result of an arduous process. No secrets here: good work is hard work, and you burn through a lot of bad ideas to get to the good ones. As Alan Fletcher said, there’s tons of waste when you’re mining gold.

It’s startling to me how little the creative process is discussed online. This is probably because it’s easier to save a jpeg and upload it, than to analyze your process, find some insight, and then frame it into the context of the project. Or no one wants to show the man behind the curtain and appear anything less than brilliant.

I believe in transparency, so I’ll let you in on the “secret” of my process: I play. It’s nothing new: Saul Bass called it fooling around, and there’s a lot of material out there about how ardent a supporter of playing Paul Rand was. The idea is this: if process is typically such a strenuous task, you should try your best to make it enjoyable. Fooling around is serious stuff, whether it’s for the sake of our work or for the sake of our sanity. Don’t get me wrong: design can be serious stuff, and every professional has the right to take their craft seriously. But, somewhere in the myriad of analysis and tight deadlines, we’ve revoked our permission to play around with ideas and experiment.

Playing has been relegated for far too long to the dark corners of our profession. Every once in a while, the general premise will sneak back, cleverly disguised as something palatable for the suits: “brainstorming sessions,” or worse, the make-me-want-to-punch-you-in-the-face term “ideating.”

Under this guise of seriousness, we’ve stripped the heart out of our work. I sincerely believe that work that is more enjoyable to create will, inherently, be more enjoyable to consume. In a world where clients are starved for audiences, I see the benefits of allowing creatives to play as nothing but beneficial for all parties involved. Clients will finally be able to retain captive audiences. Our audiences will finally be presented with something captivating. And, more than anything, creatives can let loose, being granted permission to play around and enjoy the process of creating.

Playing won’t fix everything and it’s not a silver bullet (those don’t exist). But it’s time to take play seriously again. By playing, we look for answers. And if we consider ourselves “problem-solvers,” we should let fooling around out of it’s dark corner, so it can once again become one of the cornerstones of our profession.