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One Is Not Enough: Why Creative People Need Multiple Outlets

The most interesting, creative people I know express themselves in a variety of ways. I used to do it myself.

I can still remember the satisfaction I took from dragging a crayon against a particularly toothy piece of paper in a coloring book when I was very young. Unlike the cliché, I was trying to stay in the lines, but even then, it was the creation process that gave me the most pleasure, not the results. A year or so later, I began to draw freehand, and from that point on no blank page, post-it note, page margin, envelope, or napkin was safe.

Needless to say, that compulsion was what led me to become a graphic designer. Some people specialize in ideas, constantly scheming, iterating, finessing. I prefer doing. I don't know what makes me want to make, but often the impulse strikes without warning. If I don't satiate it immediately, it becomes a dull ache that lingers all day.

You'd think this would be a non-issue—after all, I'm lucky enough to be paid a salary to design all day. But increasingly I've realized that for people like me, one creative outlet isn't enough. The most interesting, creative people I know express themselves in a variety of ways. I call this practice informing practice, and I used to do it myself. Back before I made money from being creative, I was involved in up to five different creative outlets at a time. Now that my work consumes my life, that number has dwindled to one, and I can feel my non-design creative muscles twitching.

For as long as I can remember, I've associated creative pursuits with other activities. In every class from kindergarten through college, my head was always down as I listened to entire lesson plans while doodling superheroes, 3D cubes, and stylized words. I created logos for bands that didn’t exist, bands that did exist, comic books I wanted to make, and movies I wanted to film. Teachers often assumed I was ignoring them when I was drawing, constantly asking why I found the blank page in front of me more interesting than their lessons. But these doodles weren't a distraction, they were a core part of my learning process, visual evidence that I was taking information in. Finding a way to put mark on the learning process made me feel like a better student.

Fortunately, my coworkers understand the concept of auditory learning, because I didn't stop doodling after I left school. During any meeting at the GOOD office, I'm drawing faces, hands high-fiving, the words “DOPE,” “FRESH,” “HOLLA,” and “WHOA,” and more. A lot more. I try to contain my work to sketchbooks, but I'll settle for scrap paper, napkins, or paper cups. I doom a lot of objects to a decorative demise.

Of course, doodling isn't a substitute for another creative pursuit, and it doesn't fully silence my gnawing need to constantly make things. Only diversity of form can solve that problem. That might mean non-design related artistic pursuits like making music, writing, or performing—or non-artistic yet brain-stimulating projects like gardening, building, or even playing a game of D&D (a pursuit I have yet to take up, but I'm told would fit the bill).

The key is finding a form in which the final product matters less than in my professional work. The framework I craved as a kid is omnipresent in professional design. There will always be limitations, and I like working within them. But the impulse to create is a different beast altogether. Without the need to produce a polished project because I'm on the clock, the creativity process feels more fluid. I explore more ideas more freely and don't feel the pressure to turn them into complete package. The process feels like rediscovering how to be a student of making.

I start to dig into a little idea, and before I know it the compulsion takes over. Sometimes I won't move from my seat for hours on end, only becoming aware of the world around me when my stomach growls and I remember the only things I’ve consumed all day are a Clif bar and an iced coffee. And even then, often I’ll just keep going. I get engrossed in my work too, of course, but that activates a different part of my brain, one that prioritizes success through creation instead of the process of being. That’s why I doodle the same few items constantly—they are all things I love but never need to finalize, which means they're always comforting.

Creativity in any form is healthy, as study after study has shown. Designing magazines and drawing on every surface imaginable has helped define who I am and my understanding of the world—and allows me to inform that world, shape it, and make it something imaginative and delightful. Finding a secondary creative outlet would allow my creativity, not my craft, to define me. In the meantime, it's nice to know I can drag a crayon across the page and feel like it’s all going to be ok.

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