Inept strategies: how accidents and pratfalls can aid the creative process

In which our hero unwittingly uncovers the creative potential of punching himself in the face

Something has happened. I’m not entirely sure what, but something has definitely happened.

I know how it happened. A moment ago, whilst attempting to simultaneously sneeze, drink coffee and readjust my specs, I managed to punch myself in the face and spray coffee everywhere. It was about as graceful and brutal as it sounds; like a very brief, very unpopular stage revival of Fight Club. And then I did something stupid. Stupider.

I had to plonk my mug down somewhere, so I plonked it onto my keyboard. Not the coaster right next to the keyboard, oh no. The keyboard. The board with all the keys. The keys that make the magical things happen on the computer, those keys. The keyboard that you definitely shouldn’t rest heavy mugs on because you’ll definitely trigger a whole bunch of unknown shortcuts and you won’t know which ones until it’s too late. That keyboard.

With a gentle chorus of clack, chaos dropped into the middle of my work. Something happened. Imagine a bone china zone of destruction, a few inches in diameter; a ring of keys all being pressed at the same time.

If this was back in the day, if this was a typewriter, it would simply result in the entwining of several type bars – fklunk – followed by a minute or two of unjamming and mumbled expletives. When things were mechanical, the outcome of smacking multiple keys was more or less the same every time. It was infuriating, but comprehensible. Not anymore. Keys serve a thousand purposes, bending to the will of different contexts, applications and combinations. The digital equivalent of typewriter jam is … well, I have no idea what it is, but it’s looking right at me. The cover I was working on just a moment ago has changed in some way. I’m not entirely sure how.

My first instinct is to dive for the cmd-z. But before my forefinger-thumb pincer can pounce, I pause. I take a moment to see what has happened and appreciate the uncanniness. A couple of elements are missing, something has reappeared. Have things moved? Changed size? It’s hard to tell. But it’s interesting. It’s … oh. Hang on. It’s better.

Better is better. And better is good, right? Obviously I should keep it like this. Or should I? Isn’t it a bit dangerous to acknowledge that the things I don’t want to happen are better than the things I do? Surely rational is better than random? Is this design only better off because I punched myself in the face? Should I punch myself in the face again? Should I always be punching myself in the face?

Best not to overthink this, or resort to unnecessary violence. I’ll just save as and come back to it later. A bit of distance and fresh, unpunched eyes are needed to differentiate between inspiration and abomination.

I know this because I’ve been here before. This kind of messy predicament happens surprisingly often. Not the fisticuffs specifically, but happy little accidents and random acts of positively-charged wrongth that change the course of a design.

Thinking back about the work I’m most proud of, there’s a definite pattern of fortunate unintention: accidental treatments and effects and elements that have turned out nice.

(Not that I tell the clients this, of course. “Hi, yeah, I’m sending over the three options you asked for … plus a fourth one that is clearly just the first three haphazardly layered over each other. Not at all what you asked for, but there was a bee and I dropped my Shreddies into my lap and one thing led to another. Trust me, it’s nice. Hello?”)

So perhaps these stupid interruptions to the creative process are to be welcomed. It’s got me thinking about Oblique Strategies, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s card deck of aphorisms, intended to encourage lateral thinking and unclog those unwelcome creative blocks. I’ve never dabbled, but I like the idea of these planned diversions and disruptions; anything but the obvious path to the solution is a good path.

I could harness the awesome and violent power of my own clumsiness and draw up my own deck, Inept Strategies, made up of directions for productive pratfalls and serendipitous spit-takes. It’d be a whole new approach to design. In fact, no, forget design. I’m no longer a designer, I’m a graphic accidentalist! Chaos is the way forward! Complete and utter chaos! Tightly controlled and regimented card-based face-punching chaos!

Or maybe I’ll just get myself another coffee. My face hurts.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray. Image: Janne Iivonen. janneiivonen.net

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