New book goes behind the scenes of the creative process

Creatives on Creativity features interviews with artists, designers and the odd adman, and offers insights into the often mysterious process of making creative work

Written by Steve Brouwers, a creative director at ad agency Ads&Data in Belgium, the book features an eclectic collection of 44 interviews with creatives spanning art, design, advertising, and photography. Each reveal personal insights on a selection of topics, from how their childhood has influenced their work, to where they get ideas and inspiration, to failure and fears.

Included are conversations with renowned adman and art director George Lois; Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert; artists Ryan Gander and Kay Rosen; leading designers Debbie Millman and Matt Willey; influential illustrators Maira Kalman and Yuko Shimizu; and a younger generation of rising talents including Nel Aerts, Tony Gum, Charlene Tyberghein, David Uzochukwu, Wade and Leta, and Shawna X.

Below we have brought together extracts from five of the interviews, with Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, Erik Kessels, Morag Myerscough, and Jack Stezaker, who reveal some of the secrets behind how they work.

Top: Jump Trump by Erik Kessels; Above: Cover of Creatives on Creativity


Where do you get your inspiration?
One of my most frequent sources of inspiration is a newly occupied hotel room. I find it easy to work in a place far away from the studio, where thoughts about the implementation of an idea don’t come to mind immediately but I can dream a bit more freely.

What do you do to call upon your creativity?
The process I’ve been using most often has been described by Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono, who suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random object as point of departure. Say I have to design a pen, and instead of looking at all the other pens and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is and so forth, I start looking around the hotel room where I’m working for a random object to help me think about pens: bedspreads.

My train of thought might go like this: OK, hotel bedspreads are … sticky, they contain lots of bacteria…. Ah! Would be possible to design a pen that is heat-sensitive, so it changes colour where I touch it? Yes, that could actually be nice: an all black pen that becomes yellow on the touchpoints of fingers. Not too bad of an idea, considering it took me all of 30 seconds to get there. Of course, the reason this works is because de Bono’s method forces the brain to start out at a new and different point, preventing it from falling into a familiar groove it has formed before.

Does creativity have to be provocative?
No, it does not. Wonderful work can be totally quiet.

From Things I Have Learned by Stefan Sagmeister


All of your ideas stay so fresh, what’s your secret?
I am not bored yet. I have periods of high creativity and some more shallow periods, no one is always 100%. I try to use the periods where I am failing or don’t like what I am producing as a signal that something has to change, and then I change something, and I usually make a discovery.

Is working for a good cause good for creativity?
It is exceptionally good for creativity. I use pro bono in different ways. Sometimes I’ll do it because I like the cause, sometimes I’ll do political posters or something on behalf of some good service. I always see if I have the time to do it and if I need to do something fresh, and I will use it for that. Sometimes I’ll do it if it’s a bigger project, because I want it to be seen, like the work I did for Shake Shack. I designed the logo and the banding around their Madison Square Park kiosk that was designed by an American architect named James Wines. I put typography on it and that became the Shake Shack logo. I did that for free! I probably get more calls for business based on that identity than because of Citibank. It is amazing, and that’s because it is a millennial identity and people like that.

The Highline logo I also did for free, because the founder Robert Hammond actually came to Pentagram for another job. He asked me if I would consider working for free for the park he wanted to start in New York City. I thought he was crazy, and I didn’t believe he could do it, but I wanted the other job, so I thought: alright, it’s a railroad track and it’s called the Highline, so I’ll make the ‘H’ look like a railroad track. I gave it to him, and that became the Highline logo. It’s kind of an iconic thing in New York and it was totally accidental. He never gave me the other job, by the way.

Public Theater poster by Paula Scher


Did your childhood influence your way of thinking about creativity?
When I was 11 years old, my nine-year-old sister was killed in a car accident right in front of my mother’s eyes. She was hit by a car as she was crossing the street. I was the only one left at home. My parents were grieving, and for about five or six years they were in a lot of pain. It made my world much smaller, and I just didn’t want to cause them any trouble. I was constantly drawing in my room and making things, locking myself away in my own world. It was a very difficult time, but although it might be strange to say, for me something positive came out of it.

How does failure inspire you?
Nowadays, people in the creative field use tools that come very close to perfection. Look at the cameras on our phones — they’re so perfect that you need an application to fuck up your image, to make it look authentic. The rendering that architects use in their presentations looks better than when the building is made for real. Everything is perfect, but this perfection is not really a good starting point for a new, innovative, creative idea. To get an idea, you need to go in the wrong direction. You need to make — metaphorically speaking — a mistake.

Let me explain this using a metaphor: a lot of people only use the front garden of their house. Your front garden is like the shop window of your house; it’s where you finalise and polish projects and show them to the rest of the world. But a lot of people never leave their front garden, whereas I think that people should start their work in their backyard, which is a filthy place full of unfinished projects. The mess is a bit embarrassing, so a lot of people have put up a fence around their backyard because they don’t want anybody to see the horrible stuff they have lying around there. But that makes it a place where you can really be creative, because you can walk around in your underpants. Nobody can see you, and you can just experiment and find new ideas. Later on, you take your idea through the house to the front yard, and that’s where you finish it. But you need start in your backyard and fuck things up and become embarrassed and ashamed of yourself and sometimes even desperate.

Standard hotel poster by KesselsKramer


What are things that prevent you from being creative?
Anxiety. I worry that I can’t do some things or that I have got no creativity left in my body. There’s that unpredictability. When I’m stuck, I like watching bad television, mundane things that don’t overstimulate my brain, which then allows my brain to open up. To do something new, you’ve got to give yourself time and your brain has to open up. Otherwise, you will always do the same thing over again. It doesn’t have to be something completely different, just something new, so that you’re moving forward instead of repeating. For me, being creative is opening up my brain, and sometimes I get scared that that’s not going to happen.

How important is failure in your work process?
I was brought up to think that failure was a bad thing. As a classical musician, my father was all about being absolutely perfect. That’s hard because it can stop you from doing things because you’re too scared to fail. When I was younger, I used to read situations incorrectly; I’d think that I had done something wrong, but it was somebody else who was controlling the situation. I realise now that when you’re in a group of people and something doesn’t work out, it’s not all your fault. There can be lots of elements that contribute to that failure. I’d rather say that you learn from your mistakes than use the word ‘failure’.

Morag Myerscough


When is the best time to work for you?
I work at night, because that’s when I get tired and start to lose control. I have to somehow be absent. That’s when I see the flashes of possibilities. Not all of them pan out immediately, but when these little flashes occur, they tend to lead to something later. Often when I’m combining male and female heads for example, there will be a gradual process by which those collections of photographs will find a natural scale order, so it is easy to combine them. But I don’t go around arranging them in convenient order in the first place. That often means I can’t find anything, which is quite good because within a minute or two of searching for a specific image, something else will come up that seems more pressing. Once I have digressed twice from the original path and I’m lost, that’s when I start to ‘see’.

How much do you have to do with a photo to call it a work of John Stezaker?
The minimum is to do nothing whatsoever to the original found images. I call these my ‘unassisted ready-mades’ — after Duchamp. They are quite rare and I see them as very special. I like to keep them with me. Most, however, are violated in some way — by accident or wear and tear. Some kind of violence to the image needs to occur usually. There is something very odd and unnerving about cutting through a photograph. It sometimes feels like I’m cutting through skin.

When I was about 15, I saw Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel, and I was unprepared for the image of the eye being cut with a razor. I don’t think I have ever been so shocked by an image in my life. And when I started cutting photographs, that image kept coming to mind, because the glossy surface and the white bits of a photograph reminded me so much of the eyeball. There is something very crude about cutting and there’s something very subtle about the photograph. There’s a violence about the act. You are cutting a skin—a skin of representation, you might say. I still find cutting photographs uncomfortable. I like to get it done quickly.

John Stezaker

Creatives on Creativity is published by Steve Brouwers on August 7 by Luster;