Issue 24 \\ Read past issues


Issue 24 // Unstuck

The creative process is not much of a process. Nor—when studied—is it very creative. Depending on how and where you learned your craft, the process could range from three nebulous stages (Ideate, Incubate, Evaluate; or Germinate, Assimilate, Complete) to seven concrete steps (1. Define the problem, 2. Determine the objectives…). Whatever form the process takes, it serves less as a recipe than as a loose collection of ideas to get from blank slate to finished product.

In this issue, our UX Lead Aarron Walter examines the meticulous process of artist Chuck Close and how his rigor and method keep him on track. We then delve into those times when our own processes fail us, and how we cope, by asking our fellow Chimps to share their mechanisms for becoming creatively unstuck. We conclude with links from the world of UX.
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EditingLaurissa Wolfram-Hvass & 
Gregg Bernstein
IllustrationCaleb Andrews
On Twitter: @MailChimpUX

Creatively Close

by Aarron Walter
The creative process is a riddle that often evades our understanding. We can identify the stages of the creative process and we can carefully study those who wield creativity deftly, but it’s not a power that can be conjured at will like some bottled genie. 

Or is it?
Big Self-Portrait, 1967-1968. acrylic on canvas, 107-1/2" x 83-1/2"

Big Problem, Small Pieces

Painting a hyper-realistic portrait is an immensely complicated task. Subtle variations in light and form must be rendered perfectly for the effect to be credible. It requires great amounts of concentration and time to execute. Few painters in the world can paint in this style as well as Chuck Close. But artists of Close’s caliber typically have to attend to business with galleries, collectors, and museums—all of which make long painting sessions hard to come by.

Yet Chuck Close has figured out a way to make art even with a busy schedule. His massive paintings are constructed bit by bit, one cell at a time. Close overlays a grid on a high resolution photograph, splitting a complicated image into small pieces for careful examination. Then he applies one stroke after another in multi-colors or grayscale on the canvas. 

The grid establishes a structure for his work. It breaks an overwhelming problem into small pieces that can be developed more easily and in short spans of time, each piece adding fidelity to the image like a computer lighting up pixels. 

 Chuck Close explains how the grid helps him solve big problems.

Setting Limits

Close’s process of filling in the blanks may seem mechanical, but the results are anything but. Though his process remains a constant, he continually experiments with how he makes marks—the atoms of his images.

Early in his career, while in search for an artistic breakthrough, he made a decision to make art hard for himself by abandoning the paintbrush using his fingers to make marks among other things:
“I threw away my tools. I chose to do things I had no facility with. The choice not to do something is in a funny way more positive than the choice to do something. If you impose a limit to not do something you've done before, it will push you to where you've never gone before.”
—Chuck Close

Close’s work is entirely governed by the limitations he imposes upon himself: he paints giant portraits, he builds them using a grid system, and when he’s too comfortable with his process he limits the tools he uses.

This is the exact opposite of the romantic vision we hold of the creative process. We’re most creative when working free of limitations with infinite possibilities, right?

Anyone who’s stared down a blank canvas on an easel or a screen knows nothing could be further from the truth. Infinite possibilities make it hard to discern which direction is best. When your direction is unclear, starting is damn near impossible. Ironically, infinite creative freedom can be very restrictive.
In 1967 Chuck Close swore off using paintbrushes, opting to make marks with fingerprints and scraps of paper to challenge his creative process.
Operating within limitations early in his career not only pushed Close’s work in new, exciting directions, it ended up saving his career. On December 7, 1988, Close felt a strange pain in his chest; he suffered a seizure caused by a spinal artery collapse, which left him paralyzed from the neck down. An event like this would crush the career of many artists, but Close was accustomed to operating within constraints. Paralysis was just another limitation that he could build a creative process around.

After extensive rehabilitation that gave him back some control of his arms, Close worked with engineers to create a mechanical lift system that would raise, lower, and rotate his canvases so he could remain stationary. He learned to strap a brush to his hand and use gross motor skills to fill in each cell of the grid, but now his fine strokes were replaced by loose, broad ones.

From a distance, his portraits remain quite realistic, but as you approach the canvas the image dissolves into an expressive series of colorful blobs. The effect is even more astounding than his early work, as it leaves the viewer pondering how apparent randomness could resolve into such high fidelity.
After being paralyzed in 1988, Chuck Close continued his work by developing a lift system for his canvases and a device to hold his brushes on his hand.

Lessons Learned

Chuck Close’s work holds sound advice for any creative thinker: big problems are solved more easily when divided into small pieces. Have an item that’s been sitting too long on your to-do list? Try breaking it down into the smallest tasks possible. Even with a busy schedule, small bits of time can be enough to move the project forward.

Defining a process is empowering. Perhaps that’s why software and web designers have been so obsessed with pattern libraries as of late. When we achieve enough understanding of the atoms of the problem, we can stop pondering minutia and start focusing on ideas.

Limitations can be liberating. When anything is possible, the starting point is too nebulous to find. Impose limitations on your creative process and watch yourself gain momentum more quickly.

When you’ve become too comfortable, it’s time to inject chaos. Remove tools from your process. Try working in a new medium. Your creative experiences will translate into any work you do. 

But the most compelling lesson I take from Chuck Close's life and career is that persistence is essential in the creative process. Clients, bosses, and sudden circumstances of life will always impose limitations upon us. The most creative among us are those who find a way to work through them.

Getting Unstuck at MailChimp

Chuck Close's imposed restraints make his tasks manageable and his project process clear. More typical, however, is for the creative process to bog us down—to have stretches where our work doesn't reach our standards, or where our challenges appear insurmountable.

We thought it would be useful to ask our MailChimp colleagues how they extricate themselves from creatively sticky situations. Our developers, engineers, marketers, and designers didn't disappoint. Their advice and philosophies follow.

Let's Get Physical

“A very long walk or jog (preferably through the woods) does the trick for me. I used to think it increased my concentration, but now I'm convinced it just makes me too tired to multitask, and therefore I'm more inclined to finish what I started. This is better as prevention than cure.”
—Ben Chestnut, MailChimp's Founder & CEO

“Physical or mental exercise. Best case: I punch things—Krav Maga to the rescue. If that's not an option, I talk with someone removed from my problem but familiar with my context—not specifically to solve the issue, but to think and talk. And if that's not an option, I play a video game on my phone for mental exercise. Phone games are generally bite-sized in both accomplishment and time consumption.”
—Eric Muntz, Lead MailChimp Engineer

“I mentally unstick by two methods simultaneously: I embark on a run of at least 40 minutes, and I imagine myself explaining my obstacle to a trusted coworker or friend. Something about concentrating on my run (step here, take a breath, watch for that pothole, go faster) while also trying to engage in a mental debate works every time for me.”
—Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher

“I go for a walk. The activity without effort helps me detach from whatever problem I have so serendipity can occur.”
—Chad Morris, Lead Mandrill Engineer

Chad also recommends this John Cleese video on creativity:

Mental Redirection

“Getting unstuck is all about perseverance, and realizing you're stuck is half the battle. It's not a new idea, but "focus on what you truly love." That passion usually gets me back to trudging up the creative hill. You can also escape what you're currently working on to indulge in free-flowing thought with no boundaries. Accept the process and listen to your feelings.”
—Jason Travis, Designer & Photographer

Jason points to this video of designer James Victore speaking of creative burnout as being spot on:

“When I get stuck in the creative quicksand of engineering, I study the struggles of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo NASA missions. I remember the words of Gene Kranz, ‘Tough and Competent,’ and that with talent, imagination, and technology, difficult problems can be solved.”
—Chris Beauregard, MailChimp Developer

“Like most detectives, I subscribe to the theory of working from what I know. If I keep thinking about the problem long enough I am eventually able to fill in the gaps and find a reasonable answer. Talking out loud with colleagues helps; so does a bit of research.

Sometimes it's just "one of those days," and the only solution is to come back the next day with a sharper focus.”

—Mardav Wala, UX Front End Developer

“I follow Sister Corita's rule number 7: if you work, it will lead to something. Also, I often go out after work with my partner and grab a beer when I'm stuck. I gab about the project and she asks insightful questions. Talking through it with someone who has no baggage is incredibly helpful.”
—David Sizemore, Art Director
David suggests taking a look at this short clip from a documentary on Sister Corita:

“My solution to getting unstuck varies. Building tiny Lego homes, writing just to write, or watching a documentary about someone interesting always helps. If I'm seeking context versus inspiration, talking to customers can also be useful. Hearing specific struggles from a customer can lead me to a solution I might have never discovered.”
—Caleb Andrews, UI Designer

“Hit return and start again. If I get stuck on a single sentence and can’t get the right words to come together, I hit return a few times and try again. If that attempt fails, I hit return a few more times and try again. Sometimes I do this for an entire page, but eventually I can read back over all my ‘failed’ attempts, gather up the best pieces, and figure out what I’m really trying to say.”
—Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass, UX Researcher

Laurissa also recommends Scott Berkun's Writing Hacks.

“Being continually creative is like exercising: you have to keep at it to be good at it. Mostly my way is to lull myself directly into a state of flow by way of some simple rituals, which often include music and a hot mug of herbal tea.

If I’m really stuck on something I look "outside" by reading about the topic that's causing me creative anxiety, or I'll check-in with colleagues or friends who might give me the spark, the courage, or a different perspective. If the problem still remains unsolved, I do something else and come back to it.”

—Steph Troeth, UX Researcher

Steph lists this 99u article as one of her favorite resources.

It's Not Just You

Brand manager Palmer Houchins brought the perspective of Esquire writer Tom Junod to our attention. As Tom so eloquently describes the mental states of the creative process:

“I'm shit.
I'm a genius.
I'm shit.
I survived.”

—Tom Junod

UX Around The Web

Ask Us Anything

We want this newsletter to be a dialogue. If you have questions for the MailChimp UX team about our preferred voice recorders, our favorite Atlanta dinner spots, or even Caleb's Hulu viewing recommendations, send them in! Seriously: hit reply and ask us anything. We'll try to answer every email and maybe even share our conversation in future newsletters.

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