The “T” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just go away.
Anyone who has taken “Graphic Design 101” has heard the advice for when stuck on a composition problem: “Turn it upside down and get a fresh perspective”. That also applies on a larger scale.
On being tenacious
Design practice on the whole is not for the faint of heart. It takes a fair degree of confidence and persistence to weather the forces of naysayers, technical setbacks and politics of practice. Accordingly, design fields tend to attract people who expect to be tenacious and persevere. When the going gets tough, designers don’t tend to jump ship in the hope of having an easier go of it elsewhere. Sure, having an easier go of it would be fine, but not at the expense of a design vision!
So, what do you need to do when you get stuck? My advice: Don’t abandon your idea — just give it a rest! After all, we’ve all experienced getting stuck on something, then taking a break – be it a walk around the block or a good night’s sleep – and finding ourselves renewed and more capable of moving an idea forward.
The message here isn’t to take a nap or turn on the TV at the first onset of difficulty. That message would be wrong on two levels. First, “taking leave” shouldn’t necessarily be construed as “tuning out”. Secondly, “taking leave” can and should be as much a proactive, preventative practice as a reactive, curative one.
Let’s take a minute and define “taking leave”. Taking leave is simply, making a change in your environment, or focus. So, using television as a metaphor, while you literally could leave or turn off the TV, simply changing the channel may well be enough to jog your experience.
Tuning in or tuning out
We all have our ways of recharging our batteries. It may be as simple as picking up the phone to talk with a friend or relative. Or it might be going for a walk or run. The architect Le Corbusier was famous for doing oil painting in the morning in one studio and conducting his architectural practice from another studio in the afternoon. Inventor Thomas Edison on the other hand was famous for taking short “catnaps” whenever he felt the need – right on a nearby lab bench! You only have to discover for yourself what works for you.
The best advice for “taking leave” is to do it before you find yourself at a seeming dead end. If you’re like many, you tend to say: “when I finish XYZ, then I’ll give myself a break”. Forcing oneself to reach completion before allowing “the luxury” of taking leave is often how they get into trouble. I think the artist Picasso had it right. He claimed that he never finished a painting at the end of the day, but rather left something undone so that he knew where to start the next day.
When practicing “preventatively”, schedule breaks ahead of your work. For large breaks such as a trip, book it six months in advance, while your calendar is still relatively empty. When the time arrives, and you inevitably feel totally in the middle of your project, you can shrug and say “what can I do now but go”? You reluctantly pull yourself away. Invariably, when you return your energy level is higher – and you’ve probably got a few new ideas to boot.
An example from design practice
When in my third year of design studio in college, I was tackling the largest design problem that I’d been assigned up to that point – design of an entire city block in Center City Philadelphia for a high density, mixed-use development with a hotel and single-family residences. Early on in the project I got stuck on trying to find an overall building massing that I felt comfortable with. At the time it felt like I was trying to solve a huge simultaneous math equation – where variables included: neighborhood view corridors, vehicular access and parking, separating public vs. private domains, respecting zoning height and setback constraints, etc.
Weeks went by with my struggling with small site models. I wasn’t getting anywhere. It must have been in about the third week that professor threw me the life-saver I needed. He said: “Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, why don’t you start focusing on what you do know”. This was the “taking leave” I needed. All of a sudden I felt flush with ideas. Suddenly I was focused on making places where people would want to live, as opposed to what was “allowed” by external forces on the project. With a clear idea gained as to what was desirable, working within the constraints became easy.
Be proactive in giving yourself opportunities to “take leave” to renew your energies and enrich your creative thinking.
Remember, Take Leave.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter T, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Teal and Terra Cotta, and a photo of Taking-off on an ultralight.