Feeling Your Way to Breakthrough Creative Work

How tapping into your emotions can lead to great ideas

It's a given among creative people that many of us do what we do because we love it. We're extremely fortunate to be involved in enterprises our 10-year-old selves would love. Think about it: In some respects, we draw pictures, tell stories and color things in for a living. 

None of us really got into the creative fields to make our fortunes. If that comes as a byproduct, then fantastic. But if we wanted to make mad, sports-car money, we'd be doing something else.

When we've gone to design or creative conferences in the past and speakers showed or talked about their work, we've felt it was a bit of a missed opportunity. What we wanted was for them to discuss the emotions that drove their creative process—the very human truths behind what they do and why they do it.

We're drawn to this because of a single, overarching truth: We're all trying to reach people emotionally through our work. If we're doing it well, we're injecting a piece of ourselves into our projects, using our own unique lens, shaped by our experiences—our backgrounds, loves, failures—to create something that speaks to us and our audiences.

We saw that, along with each new creative project, we experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions. We think the best way to deal with this is to accept these reactions as natural, rather than fight or resist them, and instead allow them to guide your head and heart in the creative process. 

These emotions include:

▪ Terror
▪ Self-Doubt
▪ Empathy
▪ Love
▪ Optimism 

Terror

Terror is great. It's what gets you up in the morning, and makes you stay late. If you aren't totally afraid that you're going to screw up horribly and have to change your name because your career is going to be FINISHED, you aren't pushing yourself enough. 

There's a difference between terror and fear. Fear is paralyzing. Fear is a mind killer; it stops you from acting. Terror inspires you to act. It's necessary. It's uncomfortable. It shows a level of healthy respect. Terror is a sign that you're doing something new, and that it's important to you.

Fear can hold you back and stop you from choosing challenges. We believe there's real value in running at challenges. 

Self-Doubt

As creative people, we all suffer from a degree of artistic insecurity. Yet it's important to shine a light on this monster under the bed. It's a strong motivator. It keeps you honest, and hopefully humble. It feeds into empathy and love, which are integral to being a successful opinion-haver and it-getter. 

It's an interesting dichotomy, though, because while it's important to question and challenge yourself, it can also be crippling. The weird thing about this industry is that you need to have confidence in yourself, and be able to project that confidence. You need to be able to stand up in front of a room full of people and confidently sell them on why your idea is better than that of the three other companies they're talking to. 

When asked to create something new, you're also being asked to have total confidence in being able to pull it off, sometimes with no idea of how to do it. It's a sweet irony. 

Empathy

Empathy is about seeing and feeling things from another's perspective. It's intrinsically linked with the research stage of what we do as problem solvers and visual thinkers. Research leads to understanding. Understanding brings empathy. Empathy breaks down fear and creates trust. The more we empathize with our audience, a brand, or a community, the more we can speak to them with sincerity, honesty and understanding.

We believe trust is the foundation of delivering good work. It means getting your client to trust you through being genuine and motivated to give of yourself, and trusting that your team will bring their A game. 

Since we often think of design in terms of visual translation, consider this: Directing, or any kind of massive creative undertaking, can be like throwing a dart at a target on a windy day. The more trust you build with those around you, the less wind, and the more likely you'll hit your target.

Love

Graphic design was our first love, and like any relationship, it takes work. We often spend so much time doing the workaday jobs that it's easy to lose sight of why we fell in love with design in the first place. (The way the wind would blow through some beautiful type kerning, or how a set of colors seemed to inspire music.) Many of us find ourselves, like we did, at the point in our careers where the business of design started to overshadow our love for it. The chemistry was there, but life got in the way. 

So here's our suggestion: Take a holiday with design. Buy it a drink and ask about its day. Allow yourself the time get to know each other again and fall back in love. Perhaps don't take it so seriously. Get drunk with design and see where it goes. We've seen people lose the love they have for making work. It happens slowly, and can be irreversible if you don't pay attention to it.

It's important to take on the kinds of projects you can be passionate about and believe in, working with people you respect. This is an industry built on passion, and if you stop caring, it's a quick slide to irrelevance or a premature retirement. 

Optimism

How do you maintain a sense of optimism amid the negativity and fear in our industry right now? Technological shifts have created opportunities, but also have denigrated the importance of craft. Ground rules that people used for years have disappeared overnight. Budgets have shifted or disappeared entirely. 

The bots are coming for us. Staying ahead of the templates, the AI and the stock-library solutions is a rapidly evolving process. The ad industry is fragmenting into ever-smaller silos. Big agencies have splintered into consultancies, clients are looking for "creative partners," and lots of new buzzwords describe the business today.

In short, it's an exciting time to be alive.

Falling back in love with what you do—or never falling out of it—can lead to a renewed sense of optimism. Our trick is to have a very simple ethos: Make things you're proud of with people you like. 

Proceeding along our five stages of emotional discovery can feel like being on a roller coaster. But if done with courage and determination, it allows you to tap into the human virtues and characteristics that make us who we are. And if, as the old adage goes, you should write what you know, then starting with an honest embrace of your emotions and feelings is a good way to make your creative ride not just a thrill but a success. 

This piece was adapted from a presentation given at the Semi Permanent conference in Auckland, New Zealand, in August 2018.

Profile picture for user Alan Bibby and Marc Smith
Alan Bibby and Marc Smith
Alan Bibby and Marc Smith, native Kiwis, are creative directors at MPC Creative, the original content arm of the global visual effects and design studio MPC. Marc has designed title sequences for programs on HBO and Netflix and directed commercials for brands like Microsoft and Converse, while Alan has directed music videos for artists like Rihanna, directed ads for clients such as Audi and Google, and creative directed VR experiences for the Nature Conservancy.