How to Become a Master of Your Art

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become deeds. Watch your deeds; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Author unknown, although this quote has been ascribed to: Gautama Buddha, Lau Tzu, Ralph Aldo Emerson, Frank Outlaw and Margeret Thatcher.

If you decide to become a master of your art you will need to devote a lot of time and energy to the cause. So it is important to know what you want to be a master of.

In this module you will learn what it means to be a master and how to become the best in the world at your art. We show how you can speed up your transition to mastery if you:

  1. Find masters who you can emulate
  2. Branch out on your own and develop your own style
  3. Discover your special areas of expertise
  4. Stake your claim in your artistic domain
  5. Use skill stacking to become the best in the world at your art
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

What is a master?

A master is a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity. The word “master” brings to mind people like Leondardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Kiri Te Kanawa, Albert Namatjira, Homer, Ernest Hemingway, Maggie Smith, Elena Kats-Chernin, Sun Tzu. 

Behind each of these names—and for all the names of the people you admire in your artistic domain—there is a lineage of talent. A history of achievement that has been passed down through the generations; from one artist to the next. And now it is your turn.

One excellent first step to becoming a master is to find masters who you can emulate.

It saves a lot of time to learn by observing and then imitating others. For artists in the past this meant going to a school or a studio for classes. This was expensive, time consuming and there was a limit to the number of masters you could access in this way. Now the internet lets you learn from many masters at once. Which significantly speeds up the transition towards mastery.

For example, if you choose to study Leonardo Da Vinci on the internet you will find: examples of his work; expert commentary on how and why he made such pieces; analysis of the value of his work; an historical documentary on his life; and thousands of other resources. 

Leonardo became known as The Renaissance Man. A polymath—(in greek polymathḗs: having learned much). Someone whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. He studied under and with many masters (Andrea del Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi.) An artist, scientist and thinker, Leonardo could do anything. He designed airplanes and helicopters, catapults, machine guns, diving suites, dissected human bodies, and understood the way humans grow in the womb. In painting, he invented sfumato (where tones of different things are blended together to lose hard line outlines) and he invented aerial perspective.

Masters do not have to be old or famous. They just have to be better than you in the given area of expertise. In the continuum of potential expertise (shown below) your best teacher is often someone who is only a little way ahead of you. This is because they have more recently passed through the same learning curve and will remember what it is like to acquire that knowledge and experience. They are more likely to understand where you are coming from and speak your language.

For example, as a painter I have learned a lot from the following artists: Brandon Schaeffer, Tom Hughes, Ric Nagualero, Andrew Tischler, Jose Salvaggio. Each of these artists has a different set of skills and strengths. I watch these guys (and others) because I want to become great at a combination of these skills and then build my own special style. Plus they inspire me. I particularly like how they come from very different parts of the world (Calafornia, United Kingdom, Sweden, New Zealand, France) and have very different styles and attitudes.

What is mastery?

Emulation is useful, but the next most important step in becoming a master is to branch out on your own and develop your own style

Experiment with techniques, mediums, formats and content till you find something that suits your personality. 

Then stake your claim. Inevitably this will require the courage to show your work. And to receive feedback. You must be able to say “this is my contribution”, in order to take your place in the pantheon of your particular lineage of talent and artistic domain.

In that moment—when you find the courage to take the plunge and have this sort of faith in yourself—that is when you become a master. Of your own destiny and consequently of your art.

Ultimately a master is not someone who knows everything (a common misconception) but someone who is committed to continual improvement in their areas of expertise. Mastery is a state of mind, not an outcome.

What art would I like to be a master of?

It may not yet be obvious to you which artistic domain you are most suited to.

As a starting point we suggest you answer a few questions starting with: What are your areas of expertise? What set of skills and strengths are you striving to develop? What projects are you working on and why? 

Practice makes perfect; but what do you want to be perfect at?

Vincent van Gogh did not think he could draw well. He couldn’t get the perspective right, his lines were wonky, the details of his drawings were not accurate. He tended to rush everything. Observers described paint and pencil going everywhere as he “dashed off” his images. He admired the easy proficiency of the great dutch masters (Rembrandt, Frans Hals) who could “catch an impression” with minimal effort and great economy of stroke. He tried to emulate their technique but he lacked the patience to develop the technical proficiency. He fell out with his teachers in drawing classes at art school because he refused to perform the tedious repetitive tasks they assigned to help develop his skill.

Vincent became quite despondent and was so obsessed with his failure at drawing that it almost derailed his whole career as an artist.

I see drawings and pictures in the poorest of huts and the dirtiest of corners. In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.

Vincent van Gogh

Then he had a breakthrough. (Actually it was a breakdown.) Vincent found himself in Arles, recovering from mental and respiratory illness, when he finally gave up on drawing, as such. He found instead a new passion—plein air landscape painting in oil—where his tendency to work quickly became a strength that allowed him to rapidly create an impression of a scene by focusing more on light and colour. As a consequence, he stopped being distracted by his drawing skill and started to focus on expressing what he felt. From this point forward he produced the huge body of work for which he is famous. This work is greatly admired and transformed the way many of us actually see the world. Wonky lines and all.

The Siesta (after Millet) by Vincent van Gogh, Musee D’Orsay (Source: Wikimedia]

In Vincent’s case he seemed to want mastery over a skill at the expense of his art. He was also very concerned with other peoples’ opinions and struggled to maintain his self confidence in the face of critical feedback. Every time he got a negative review he either abandoned a venture; or persevered, without gain, out of willful defiance.

It is really important to know why you are working on your current projects and how they might help you to develop your expertise.

What are my areas of expertise?

Expertise means you have skill, knowledge, ability, deftness and merits in something. Expertise underpins mastery.

In the creatementality course, as a whole, you are being encouraged to develop expertise in artistic, economic and strategic areas. We see all three areas coming together to give you mastery over your sense of creative freedom. In this particular module, however, we encourage you to examine the assortment of skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits you may call on to advance your artistic practice.

EXERCISE: Expertise audit, part 1
Complete the following sentence “I want to be a master of. . .”
Make a quick list of the skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits that will help you to become such a master.

If you are like most people you probably focused exclusively on a single artistic domain. For example: plein air oil painting; or satirical fiction writing; or folk song writing; or minimalist photography; or documentary filmmaking.

Then went about producing a list of expertise related exclusively to that core artistic area. Such as: (for plein air oil painting) sketching, composition, colour theory, limited paint palette, blocking in, atmospheric perspective, stroke making, tonality, framing, and so on.

What does it take to be the best in the world?

Obviously each artist will have their own idea of the path to mastery and what it means to them. But if you are only focusing on one core artistic area (which most people tend to do) and you would like to be the best in the world; then you have a hell of a battle ahead of you. 

Consider the following example.

Rafael Nadal wanted to be a soccer player when he was little. He loved FC Barcelona striker Ronaldo and his uncle Migual played for the Spanish national soccer team. But his uncle Toni, who was a tennis coach, recognised a natural talent and introduced him to tennis at the age of three years old. By the time he was 8 Nadal was winning regional tournaments. So he had to give up soccer. 

Nadal turned professional at 15 years old and has carved out an 18 year career; winning 19 grand slam single titles and holding the World number 1 title for 209 weeks. To become the best in the world at tennis Nadal has had to fight it out with the best for 18 years. And come up with his own personal backhand return (not to mention learn to be a left-handed player when he was born right handed). It’s obviously taken a toll on his body (long term back and knee injuries) and I’m guessing that was not a very fun childhood. 

I don’t think Nadal himself would be able to tell you how many hours he has spent on the tennis court (probably most of them). Or how many matches he’s had to compete in. Sure, he made $120 Million in prize money and he will go down in tennis history—but in any given year there are 1,814 pro tennis players ranked in the ATP tour. And only the top 5 make this sort of money or have any prospect of becoming legends. Everyone else has to do the same amount of work as Nadal, without the glory.

For example: in 2013 Michael Russell, ranked 92 “won a tennis tournament in Manta, Ecuador, logging 8,628 miles just to get there and back. It was one of his best performances all year and the victory netted him $5,000.” [Source Forbes magazine].

[Source: Tomas Pueyo, Forge: How to Become the Best in the World at Something.]

So let’s be realistic. Trying to be the best at one thing isn’t the smartest path to success.

Most people (in the blue zone, above) have very little of a specific skill. A bit of work can quickly get you to the top 10% (the green zone). But as you join the elite, it becomes harder and harder to move up, because you are facing competitors who are deeply committed to that skill. So if you focus on only one skill; there will always be someone working harder, with greater genetic gifts, or more lucky—or all three. It is just too risky.

[The above graphic and the ideas in the following section are based on an article written by Tomas Pueyo in Forge.]

Skill stacking

Creative people have one great advantage over most: they can think of creative ways of solving their problems. So, if you feel competitive but don’t want to work as hard as Nadal to become the best in your field consider the following creative solution called skill stacking.

“It’s easier and more effective to be in the top 10% in several different skills — your “stack” — than it is to be in the top 1% in any one skill.”

Quote by Tomas Pueyo

In other words, create your own artistic field. Then you will be the best no matter what the competition is doing. Sure, someone else can come along and copy you (as a generation of top spin backhanders have been doing since Nadal hit the tennis circuit) but you will have the first mover advantage; which will give you time to cultivate new skills to add to your unique mix.

[Source: Tomas Pueyo, Forge: How to Become the Best in the World at Something.]

How does this work? Each peak in the above graph represents a skill. Getting to the top 10% (the green zone) of two skills requires much less work than becoming the best at a single one. And these two curves don’t overlap much, meaning most people who are good at one skill are not good at the other.

“If your city has a million people, for example, and you belong to the top 10% of six skills, that’s 1,000,000 x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% x 10% = 1. You’re the number one person in your city with those six skills. Bump that number up to 10 skills? Boom, you’re the best in the world at that combination of 10 skills.”

Quote by Tomas Pueyo

Ideally, the skills combination would be unique and also complementary. Imagine someone is reasonably good at talking to a camera; remembering script lines; getting into character; photogenic; charismatic. Who is this person? A movie star. Most successful actors don’t seem to be off the charts amazing at individual skills, but check off the right boxes and they flourish.

This principle applies across all fields. A painter can be just about the best technician in super realistic portraiture; but probably won’t find the same success as the person who is a reasonable portraitist, calm under pressure, a pretty fast sketcher, a beautiful colour stylist and has the interpersonal skills to enter competitions. See Christabel Blackburn winner: Sky Portrait Artist of the Year 2020.

What is your unique skill stack?

Tomas Pueyo, the author of this approach, explains that “the best skills to choose are those that don’t tend to often go together, but complement each other well.” For example, artists are not known to be great teachers or demonstrators, so those who are have a huge professional advantage. (See Brandon Schaeffer who has 440K Youtube followers).

For example, say you would place yourself in the top 10% in plein air oil painting in your town. And also in the top 10% as an art teacher. These two things are complementary but they are also quite common in most towns. You need something else to differentiate you, that is also complimentary. For example, you might also be an experienced designer and have an interest in anthropology and social history, making you good at storytelling. And also an experienced multimedia designer. Plus you enjoy bringing people together and running events. This was the case with me when I set up my PaintStory program, so my skill stack looks like this.

Notice how we have deviated from the core skill set into complementary skill sets? This is the critical idea in skill staking to make sure you are unique.

EXERCISE: Draw your own skill stack
Identify a range of areas in which you have a reasonable level of competency. They do not have to be directly related to your art, but could be made to complement it.

Finally, what type of project might you kick off, using all the skills in your skill stack? Upon reflection, considering this new skill stack, how would you now complete your skills audit?

EXERCISE: Expertise audit, part 2
Complete the following sentence “I want to be a master of . . .”
Make a quick list of all the skills, knowledge, abilities, deftness and merits that will help you to become such a master.

The Science of Art: Lifelong Experimentation

Life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is the greatest experiment of all. And you are its subject.

If you’re anything like former Mythbusters host Kari Byron, you might now be saying “I’m not a scientist! I’m an artist, a curious person who likes to make stuff”.

But experimentation is something artists and scientists have in common.

Frequently, we see a rigid divide between ‘art’ and ‘science’. But are they really distinct? Is there a clear definition between them?

These are questions Prof. Stephen Mumford, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham asks, noting that there is no universal agreement.

Art vs. Science

All too often, we assume that art = creativity and science = the rigorous application of a method. But in reality, scientists apply creative thinking to define and solve problems, and artists use scientific methods to test and develop new ideas.

The line between ‘art’ and ‘science’ has always been blurred. Like the boundaries of all subject areas, it is an artificial construct, an intellectual shorthand. Before Aristotle divided up the subjects pretty much along the lines we recognize today, art and science were simply considered forms of knowledge.

Today, Byron advocates recombining them, adding ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ to ‘STEM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to form ‘STEAM’.

So many of humanity’s greatest innovations have come from some combination of the fields we consider art and science. Novelist Mary Shelly is the grandmother of science fiction. Ada Lovelace had the idea of using numbers to make pictures – essentially inventing digital computing.

‘Use both sides of your brain’ commands Byron. ‘Foster art, combine it with science, and you’ll get something that is truly groundbreaking.’

In her book Crash Test Girl, Kari Byron dispels the myth that you are either born creative, or you are not. ‘Every single person is born to be a maker, a generator of ideas.’

Byron also busts the myth that you have to be a scientist to use the scientific method. Not only is she herself not a scientist (at least in the sense of someone with a qualification in one of the physical sciences) but her co-hosts Tory and Grant are also ‘creatives’ – not scientists.

We aren’t ‘creative’ types or ‘logical’ types. We are all both.

We are all creatives

It is true, Byron says, that some people may appear to be gifted with what seems to be a ‘natural’ talent in the arts. But while talent is useful, ‘it’s not essential to creativity. All you need is a curious mind and the drive to follow wherever it leads you.’

Aptitude is defined as ‘inborn potential to do certain kinds of work‘. Those with outstanding aptitude are often described as ‘talented’.

Talent vs. Hard Work

Aptitude is difficult to pin down. It’s easy to test abilities, but much harder to test underlying potential. And according to Malcolm Gladwell, it is difficult or even impossible to distinguish between someone ‘talented’ and someone who got there through hard work.

Could that be because there is no difference? That hard work really is more important than some innate, difficult to define ability?

That’s the position of Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, authors of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. While in the past, learning was considered to be “just a way of fulfilling one’s genetic potential”, they argue that our brains are plastic, not hardwired. Importantly, the authors suggest that whether we want to succeed in arts, music, or sports, deliberate practice is key.

Lifelong Learning

Life is but an endless series of experiments

Mahatma Gandhi

The most important gifts we can bestow upon children is “confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job” write Ericsson and Pool. As the concept of lifelong learning recognizes, learning should not confined to childhood or the classroom, but takes place throughout life, and in a range of contexts.

Novelist Charlotte Wood, author of The Weekend composed an essay for the Griffith Review entitled ‘Experiments in the Art of Living’. She describes how life actually gets better as we age. And it’s not just her experience and anecdotes that suggest this. Global studies show a ‘paradox of age’. Following childhood, happiness tends to decline. Most people are miserable in their forties. But those in their eighties and nineties are as happy as – or even happier than – those who are eighteen or nineteen.

The purpose of aging, says psychologist James Hillman, is to fulfill our true character. To become our essential selves. Ageing itself can be its own art form. Therefore, Wood suggests, artists can teach us to practice aging:

‘Push beyond your first ideas… Develop a tolerance for solitude, and for failure. Make your mark, defend it, then challenge it, overturn it.’

Or, as Jasper Johns puts it, ‘Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.’

Rather than capitulating to reduction, Wood says ‘we can keep adding to our concept of how to age – turn our thinking about oldness into an art, and keep exploring it. Doing something to it, and doing something else.

In other words: keep experimenting.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing… It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

Toni Morrison, Write, Erase, Do Over in The Art of Failure: The importance of risk and experimentation

We are all scientists

The scientific method, Kari Byron says, is more than just an elegant method for figuring out all sorts of things. It’s the ‘perfect narrative vehicle for proving and disproving myths’. Including our own life lies.

Here are the five steps:

  1. Question. Learning begins with ‘I wonder what would happen if…?’ Authors and actors will notice that this is suspiciously similar to how many writing and improv prompts.
  2. Hypothesize. Formulate a theory about what will happen based on what you already know.
  3. Experiment. Find out what really happens.
  4. Analyze. Study what occurred.
  5. Conclude. Answer your question, and think of how you might do things differently in the future.

The science of inspiration

So how do we apply the scientific method to creative problem solving?

Consider something as elusive as ‘inspiration’. How could science possibly help us figure out where our ideas come from – and how to get more of them?

Byron asked herself this question, and developed the hypothesis that for great ideas, ‘you have to be able to concentrate, alone, in a quiet room, with no distractions.’

And then, she tested it: comparing how inspired she felt and how productive she was in a variety of settings. In her own apartment, set up exactly as she wanted. In a busy cafe. With a roommate who was in a band. And in the hustle and bustle of India, versus in a quiet ashram.

What did she find?

Byron concluded that ‘When you have no choice, you rise to the creative occasion.’

All too often, we have a picture in our head of what creativity is supposed to look like. We tell ourselves we ‘can’t’ be creative or inspired unless we have the ‘perfect’ conditions. We might, for instance, tell ourselves the life lie that without Byron’s ability to seek ‘enlightenment’ in India, we are unable to create.

But while she was in India, taking in the exotic sights, sounds, and smells, Byron learned that she could be creative anywhere. Nor did she need to follow any specific rituals.

Like many of us, Byron believed that in order to be ‘enlightened’, she needed to learn how to meditate. She believed that she needed the sweet Indian coffee served in the tiny cups she drank on the way to yoga each day.

Yet, after observing her, Byron’s yoga teacher Rama Krishna, told her she did not need to learn meditation: ‘you are always painting. You are an artist. That is your meditation,’ he said. ‘You will never be able to be quiet. You must paint.’

And what about the mystical coffee Byron loved so much?

One day, she arrived at the cafe early and saw it being made.

Her ‘morning enlightenment in a cup’ was Nescafe and condensed milk.

In hindsight, Byron says her quest for enlightenment feels ridiculous. ‘Now I know that you get “answers” (practical or mystical) by asking questions and experimenting.’ The creative journey, she concludes, is always inward.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to experiment with creativity and inspiration. You can perform an experiment just as successfully by keeping a journal in which you write down how you felt when you wrote, played, painted, or sketched in various conditions. Make a note of the time of day, place, your general mood, and any other relevant factors, and look for patterns.

Novelists who take part in the annual National Novel Writing Month may have already taken part in such an experiment, tracking their mood, writing method, location, and word count on the website.

If you put your mind to it, you’ll find lots of ways you can improve your life using a little creative science.

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.

David Cronenberg

Activity

Brainstorm some questions that relate to your life. This could be a question about your creative life, like where your ideas come from, or whether it is possible to be creative on demand, as Byron explores in her book. It could be about your finances – in her chapter on money, Byron asks ‘What role should money play in life and love?’

Next, develop a hypothesis. For example, Byron puts forward the hypothesis that money = security and stability. (Or maybe, for you, money = freedom) {LINK}

Design an experiment to test that hypothesis. Byron put together a ‘Starving Artist Financial Plan’, seeking advice and becoming the ‘CFO’ of her family.

Analyze your results, and come to a conclusion. Kari Byron found that while money is necessary to keep you fed (important to avoid being a starving artist!) money can’t buy happiness.

There really is no such thing as a ‘failed experiment’. Any test that yields valid data is a valid test.

Adam Savage

The Design Brief

The design brief is a written description of what a new project or product should do. It asks and helps to answer: “What is the true problem or opportunity here?”

The design brief is written by the designer to clarify what will be achieved, particularly in relation to client expectations. It shows what the designer has in mind and gives other parties, like the client, a chance to influence proceedings. In a commercial relationship it becomes an agreement. 

But more importantly, the design brief allows a designer to lead the way, bringing stakeholders on the creative journey and setting a creative tone for the project.

Designer and client. Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

How does this help a free creative who may not have clients?

All creative projects involve other people. In my painting practice I have run projects with fellow painters that eventually toured around my state and involved people from the media, government and community groups. Not to mention the viewing public. Writers will deal with editors and publishers. Musicians with band members and venue operators. You get the picture.

On the path towards financial independence you may have commercial relations with actual clients. Or funding bodies, sponsors, patrons, partners, employers, bosses, etc. In this module you will learn how to write an insightful brief for your creative projects in one hour or less.

What is the true problem or opportunity here?

In design school writing the design brief is considered the most critical element in the success of any given project. It pulls together all the conversations held between the client and the designer and articulates the desired results that everyone needs from the design. It clarifies that the designer has understood project requirements and sets the tone for interactions during the design process.

Who are you doing this for?

A client is someone who uses the professional advice or services of a designer. It also means (according to Lexico) “a dependent”. So, someone who depends upon the designer—to use their creativity—to solve their problems.

A client is a person who sees a problem and does not think they can solve it on their own. A person who values your creativity and is willing to pay money to get your help. 

Wow, what a wonderful opportunity for a creative person. If you ask around, creative people who work as designers tend to love their careers. Because they get paid to use their creativity to help people by solving problems. Designers get a lot of respect, appreciation and, lately, money for doing this work. No wonder they like it.

What sort of problems do you want to solve?

Knowing what sort of problems you want to solve will ultimately dictate who you chose to work with as clients. You always get a choice. 

For example, industrial designers want to use their creativity to design products. They want to solve problems using everyday objects. Some will specialize in motor vehicle design, which means they are interested in solving the transportation set of problems. Others will work on medical products—they are interested in solving health related problems. And even within these areas designers will specialize in, say, medical appliances for aged care—which ultimately means they want to solve health problems for older people. And finally, the true problem you are solving may be as specific as helping an older person to walk, or open a door, or sound an alarm, take their medicine…

There is always someone who will benefit most from your design—the person who uses it.

Clients are usually representatives of the user. For example, the client for the design of an appliance for aged care is likely to be a manufacturer of those appliances. Who will bring you in as the designer to consider the needs of their clients—older people. 

In this sense the client relationship is a custodian or steward type of relationship that passes down from the client to the designer, on behalf of the end user and other key stakeholders. When you accept a design challenge you become the de facto custodian of the interests of important other parties; particularly people further downstream like the end users.

The challenge of the design brief is to get all the potential interests clear in your head and make a commitment to the set you want to champion. For practical and ethical reasons, that is usually the end user’s requirements. But if it is not, you have to make this clear from the beginning.

As a designer, it is best practice to understand the project at hand before getting to work on the design concepts. 

Getting started

Print this blank Design Brief

The following headings provide the basic structure of the design brief. (Over time you may develop your own template.) It is incredibly important to keep this document simple and straightforward. This is hard to do because it requires clear thinking. But that is EXACTLY the purpose of this process—to help you think clearly about what is the true problem and opportunity here.

As you fill in each section remember:

  • limit the word count and be as clear and concise as possible
  • focus on a limited and prioritized set of items, rather than creating exhaustive lists
  • use plain English for readability (see the Hemmingway App if you need help)
  • it is a living document, so you can come back later, with the client, to make adjustments

The problem statement 

(1 or 2 paragraphs)

What is the true problem or opportunity here? 

The problem statement describes the issues to be addressed or the conditions to be improved upon. It outlines the gap between the current state and the desired state (of a process, product, service, system). This statement helps to define the scope of the project. It does not describe the solution or the methods for reaching the solution.

Sometimes the true problem or opportunity is not the one the client initially describes to you. As the creative thinker in the house, you are in the best position to look outside the box and discover the hidden underlying issue or problem. If this is profoundly different to what the client is expecting, you will have a challenge convincing them. But the design brief will help.

The structure of this first statement of the problem should get everyone on the same page. To write a persuasive problem statement, you need to describe (a) the ideal, (b) the reality, (c) the consequences and (d) the proposal. For example:

Ideally older people living independently at home will be able to take their medicine without the daily assistance of another person. In reality the labels, bottles and prescriptions for medicine have very small writing that is hard to read and full of medical terminology. As a consequence older people get confused and scared and make mistakes that cause stress and complications in their health. So we propose the creation of an object and/or system that will remove the need for daily intervention and increase independence.

It is easy to see how a problem statement like this might lead to any of the following solutions:

Design goals

(The top 1 to 5 goals: one paragraph each) 

What are your desired design outcomes? 

Design goals are targets for design work. They are usually agreed on by stakeholders as the criteria for comparing and evaluating design outcomes.

When writing a SMART goal make it Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Realistic within a particular Timeframe

Design goals may be tangible, aspirational and/or practical. For example: you may want to win a design award with this project. This is an aspirational goal, but it is also tangible (since the final design must align with the selection criteria for the award); and practical (since the project must be completed in time for submission to the award).

Typical design goals: the quality of the end product; the type of styling; the level of innovation and authenticity; the degree of complexity or simplicity; usability and user experience; customer needs and perceptions; fitness for purpose; technology; manufacturing; compatibility; maintainability; learnability and discoverability, privacy and security; safety—the list is endless. And highly specific to the project.

For example, the final design for dispensing medicine to older people will allow the patient to take their medicine each day without assistance; will be easy to use (open, close, clean and store); will be easy to read for people with diminished eye-sight; will be easy to fill at the pharmacy or in the home; will cost less than $5 per unit to manufacture; will be in production within 3 months of this brief.

In determining your design goals it also helps to consider how this project ties in with your broader career and life goals. See our module on Getting Things Done.

Functional requirements

(Up to 10 functional requirements in order of importance: one paragraph each) 

“Form follows function.”

Carlo Lodoli, Jesuit Monk, 18th Century.

What are the functions that the design must perform to succeed? 

Some functions will be obvious, essential and non-negotiable.

Obviously a water bottle has to hold water and not leak. A watch has to accurately keep the time. But both of these items will also have additional functions that may be less obvious, seem less essential; but are also non-negotiable. For example, each should be easy to carry, maintain and clean.

And both will have some number of aesthetic or psychological requirements that may not seem obvious or essential and even begin to compete with each other. For example, the watch must also be easy to read, reliable, comfortable to wear and attractive. The water bottle may have to withstand rugged treatment, be easy to find if dropped in poor visibility conditions (snow storms, caving, water sports, etc.) but match standard dress requirements for an organisation like the army or the scouts...

The hierarchy of design needs

When identifying the functional requirements for a design there will always be a hierarchy of needs that the designer must balance as they develop and refine concepts. 

In order for a design to be successful it must first meet people’s basic needs before it can attempt to satisfy higher level needs. The following diagram maps the hierarchy of design requirements to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

[Source: Universal Principles of Design. See also: Designing for a Hierarchy of Needs.]

Mapping the given functional requirements for a project against this hierarchy helps designers to evaluate and choose between options when they are forced to make trade offs. The lower levels must be satisfied before moving on to the higher levels. So in the case of the watch, you would not focus on the attractiveness of the watch (creativity) at the expense of readability (usability).

What aspects of the design are critical to success?

Defining success criteria is essential to good design. A design is generally admired both for its beauty and for its functionality. And it is often difficult to separate the two. The most effective approach when considering the functional requirements is to ask: “what aspects of the design are critical to success?” If aesthetic considerations are critical, then this becomes a prioritized functional requirement, because it concerns higher level user needs.

When making design decisions, focus on the relative importance of all aspects of the design—form and function—in the light of success criteria. 

Design constraints

(Parsimonious list: clearly specified)

What are the limitations on the design?

Any given project will have constraints that limit the actions and scope of design. Proper application of these makes designing easier and minimizes error.

It is easy to over-constrain a design. Clients and other stakeholders often frame their expectations as constraints. For example: “the end product has to use the corporate colours.” It is the designers responsibility to sift through the potential list to identify things that are really critical to the performance of the design and/or the designer.

The constraints list should be parsimoniously (stingily) added to. This means that nothing goes on to the constraints list that is not absolutely necessary. As the designer you have to fight to keep things off the list (remember to be nice).

Design constraints can be physical or psychological. We are designing for human beings so we must consider natural biological limitations and limitations inherent in the usage context. For example, if you are designing a toy, then it will have to suit the physical and psychological abilities of a child—which differ significantly from those of an adult. If that toy is to be used in a bath, then it will have to suit a wet environment.

Once a constraint has been imposed on the design you must provide exact specifications and tolerance levels. For example, a 2 year old child has different hand dimensions to a 6 year old. This type of data is very specific and can be found in anthropometric databases.

Design variables

(Optimal list: one sentence each)

It saves a lot of time and confusion if the designer is clear about what they have to play with as they generate and develop ideas.

For example, many painters use a limited palette of colours when painting en plein air (outside). This means they need only carry 6 to 8 tubes of paint to make up almost every colour they can see in nature. A limited palette is easier to pack, lighter to carry and cheaper. The great benefit, though, is that once an artist has acquired the skill of mixing colours accurately, the limited palette reduces the distraction of finding tubes and colour matching and allows the painter to concentrate on capturing the scene.

What are the high impact variables?

Not all variables are worth worrying about. Especially if you consider that everything is a variable until it is locked down as a constraint. And since only a few things are constrained (as per the above section) that leaves just too much scope for design.

“Incredibly, research in psychology has shown that we are often more creative when we have some kinds of constraints. Where people have no constraints for solving a problem or creating something, they tend to focus on what has worked well in the past – coming up with uncreative, derivative works. According to Patricia Stokes, author of Creativity from Constraints, such freedom can hinder rather than promote creativity.”

Source: Enrichmentality

From the endless array of options a designer must select the few that will have the greatest impact on the eventual design.

For example, think about the elements in an app that the developers open up for users to customize. At some point, these aspects of the finished application were not locked down. They were seen as high impact variables from a customer satisfaction point of view.

In any project there will be a small subset of things that if you focus on these you will arrive at the optimal final product. The following diagram illustrates how a designer was able to explore a wide range of ideas for the design of a microscope by focusing on only two simple variables (form geometry and dimensions).

Source: A Short Course in Industrial Design, Eskild Tjalve

Budget

Design decisions have economic impacts. The scope of a design project is often determined by the available budget.

For example, there is no point designing a medicine dispensing system for older people that will result in a handcrafted finished product, if the budget specifies that manufacture should cost less than $5 per unit.

Timeline

As with any commercial project, the designer will be working with a real world timeline. Often these timelines are tight and not very flexible (hence the word “dead” in delivery deadline). Under these circumstances the creative process must fit into an operational context, with measurable stages and deliverables. Whether this process is a warm coat or a straight jacket depends on the designer’s attitude.

Design Thinking

Thinking like a designer can transform the way organisations develop products. The process for arriving at a solution is not set in stone, anymore than the solution itself. Ultimately, you as a designer can decide what you will do in the given time to arrive at the optimal design outcome. However, you will have to help others to come along on the journey which means your plan will have to make sense to them too, and feel safe.


Creative Problem Solving is a Superpower

There seem to be many problems in the world at the moment. Which often feel overwhelming and even insurmountable. How can we save the environment? What will happen if our economy fails? How do we survive a pandemic? How do I keep my business afloat in these troubling times? How can I afford to live if I lose my job? How can I be happy with less? How can I live with uncertainty? How can I have a lifestyle of a high quality that heals rather than harms our global eco-system?

Problem solving cat [Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash]

The good news is, that you are a natural born problem solving machine. After 7 million years of evolution, you and your siblings are the pinnacle of 350,000 generations in your family line. [Using an average yield time of 20 years per generation]. As a result, your physiology, genetics, mental capacity and general fitness for survival is superior to all those ancestors before you.

Given your superior ability and the tools at your disposal; your prospects of succeeding are ever-improving. The greatest of these tools is your creative mind—and its fine capacity to innovate—to come up with something new that will free you from harmful traditions and speed you towards safety.

In this module you will learn how to put your mind into top gear; using the creative problem solving process. This is a superpower that will help you to invent a high-quality, sustainable lifestyle.

The Scientific Method of Inquiry

“Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.”

Piet Hein

Humans have an excellent way to solve problems and learn from their experience and mistakes—they run experiments.

Experiments help us to test what will work best, going forward. 

You see little children, even babies doing this instinctively. For example, a baby will adjust the noise it makes to get it’s parents to pay attention and do things for it. If a high pitched yell doesn’t work, then choking-type sounds will certainly have them galloping into the bedroom in the middle of the night. Clever babies register such results and reuse effective sounds until they stop producing the desired results. Since this is all they have to control the world—the sounds they make—babies are really inventive in the audio realm. If you went into a maternity ward or a creche and observed: you would hear the most amazing range of audio experiments being conducted—inciting squads of adults to action.

Over time this experimental approach to problem solving for humans has crystallized into what we now call “the scientific method of inquiry”. Simply speaking this involves five simple steps:

  • Question: Ask “I wonder what would happen if…?” 
  • Hypothesize: Formulate a theory about what is going to happen. 
  • Experiment: Do it. Make it happen. Test your theory.
  • Analyze: What happened? Did it match your theory?
  • Conclude: What do you conclude and what should happen next?

This approach is a time-honoured method that shows up in all fields of human endeavour. Science, engineering, academia, design, medicine—you name it. It has taught us everything we know.

It is very scientific, but also very practical. Anyone can be systematic and follow the above procedure. Especially when the stakes are high.

It is widely used. You can watch hours of fascinating experiments using this method on the Mythbusters TV series. In her book “Crash Test Girl” Kari Byron, from the Mythbuster series shows how to “crash test your way through life, no lab coat required.” She thinks the scientific, experimental approach is the perfect way to solve everyday issues. [See our article about The Science of Art.]

Creative Problem Solving

But where is the creativity in all of this? Well we are not machines or computers so we have lots of scope to use our imagination. [Trying a choking noise to control your parents, as a baby, when you are not actually choking is pretty imaginative, don’t you think?]

The scientific method is augmented by creative thinking approaches.

This is what designers and other creatives do when they problem solve. This type of creative problem solving is also known as designing.

How Do You Get Really Good Ideas?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein

The value and effectiveness of the creative problem solving process depends upon the quality of the ideas being explored. Predictably, crappy ideas for experiments will result in crappy outcomes—and a waste of time. We need to solve big problems, so we need big brilliant ideas.

In the end, we want to design solutions that will work not only for individuals and the economy; but also for communities, society, the future and the planet. In other words: solutions that are truly sustainable.

The Design Process

People in creative professions adopt the design process to make sure they are truly innovative (different, new and better than anything beforehand). The design process involves:

  • The design brief: Creating a clear statement of the problem and the design goals and requirements helps to set you on the path to success. This becomes an essential baseline and navigation tool as you go exploring ideas and running your experiment.
  • Ideation: Running sessions (alone or in groups) to rapidly and exhaustively generate and brainstorm many ideas. Rather than settling on the first idea that comes to mind—this approach loosens up the imagination and gets the creative juices flowing.
  • Concept selection: Strategically selecting the pick of the litter. Among your brainstorm ideas will be some real gems worth pursuing. These often stand out immediately; or you can search for themes, patterns and qualities that match the requirements of the brief. Designers tend to limit the selection to three options to avoid confusion.
  • Concept development: Experiment and test. This usually involves making mock-ups, models and a functional prototype of the selected concepts and running experiments on them to see if and how they work. Through a process of analysis, elimination and perfection you will arrive at the final design. This is an iterative process because you can continually return to the brainstorm, if your ideas fail to make the grade. Concept development is the engine room of experimentation. Each idea passes through iterations of development till one emerges as the superior option. (Similar to the way you have evolved.) The tests to which you subject your ideas determine how robust the ideas are and how fit they will be for purpose. [Being creative and imaginative about the tests is just as important as coming up with the ideas in the first place. Creative testing expedites development.] Presenting to clients, users and critics to seek their feedback is a critical test in the development of a concept.
  • Implementation plan: Specifications and a plan will be required for building the final design. Describing the form of the finished product. How your idea will manifest in the world. What is visible, apparent and readily perceived by others. For example, if you are designing a new way to manage your finances:- the finished product may be a set of budget goals and rules, an expense recording app, and a tailored savings and investment portfolio, etc.).

Designing is creative experimentation in the real world. It is so commercially effective that the entire economy is invested in it. Every effective product, service or system on the market has been designed—using the above process.

Now it is time for you to invest in becoming a designer by adopting the design process to change your life for the better.

Life is an Ever-Improving Experiment

“All life is problem solving.”

Karl Popper

Looking at the historical improvements in the life expectancy of humans (shown in the chart below) we can see clear evidence that our experiments are paying off. And each of these experiments was started by an individual and eventually taken up by the whole human race. That’s a superpower right there!

For example—looking at the lines below—in the 1870’s we (the human race) found ways to improve health care for mothers and babies—which significantly reduced infant mortality. In the 1930’s we discovered antibiotics. In the 1950’s we introduced vaccinations. Each of these interventions began as an experiment in a lab by a scientist and was then adopted by the rest of society.

Life expectancy [Source ourworldindata.org]

Very encouraging! But now we must solve the problems that naturally arise when you keep more people alive for longer. 

As the population grows, the dynamic between individuals intensifies. Which means that every lifestyle choice we make as individuals has an increasingly significant impact in the wider world.

Take for example the recent rush on toilet paper in Australia, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis:—

In the beginning, each person decided to get a few extra packets of loo roll to tide them through a period of isolation at home. A simple, individual decision.

As a consequence, within a day every supermarket ran out of stock on their shelves. So everyone—seeing empty shelves—got scared and decided to stockpile a few extra rolls the next time they were available. Another simple individual decision. But then every supermarket ran out of stock in their storerooms. 

Some customers started to complain and fight for the limited supply. Which led the supermarkets to introduce security measures and put pressure on their distribution centres; who then put pressure on manufacturers; who put pressure on paper mills; all the way down the line through to the timber industry. 

All of a sudden (and this only took 21 days) a noticeable impact was felt on the environment because the timber industry increased the logging of trees to fuel economic demand. These forests and this supply of trees was already under stress due to recent destruction by bush fire.

This type of chain reaction has cumulative, exponential power. So that the pressure felt by the logging companies was far greater than the pressure exerted by the consumer. (Except when they started throwing punches).

Here we see how the seemingly minor lifestyle choices of individuals lead to significant impact on the wider world and environment.

If exponential growth is not interrupted or moderated it will quickly get out of control. Watch the following simulation of exponential growth which shows the dynamic between individuals. 

VIDEO OF THE CORONA CHANGE OVER TIME SIMULATION By Stevens, Harry. (2020) Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”. Washington post. [View simulation.]

A Moderated Lifestyle

“Pay attention to the inner voice that tells you when something feels right. Much of your creative problem-solving occurs at an unconscious level.”

Nita Leland

We need creative ways to interrupt, moderate and counteract the behaviours that cause the big issues. To be effective, these new ways will have to work at the individual level.

At creatementality we help you to bring your lifestyle into equilibrium. We argue that if you can do that, you will be far less susceptible to the pressures of the world around you, which will allow you to contribute in positive rather than negative ways when faced with problems.

We focus on building a moderated lifestyle that places reasonable limits on how you use your energy, resources and time. And we encourage you to establish daily practices that will free you from the frantic/panic mainstream world that hordes and fights over toilet paper. 

Scientist are predicting a pretty challenging time for the human race over the next 100 years.

“We are at an extraordinary crossroads in human history and our actions, or failure to act, will determine the fate of the earth and human civilization for centuries to come.”

James Martin, the Meaning of the Twenty First Century

In his book, The Meaning of the 21st Century, Jame Martin as you to “think of the 21st century as a deep river canyon with a narrow bottleneck at its centre. Think of humanity as river rafters heading downstream. As we head into the canyon, we’ll have to cope wit the rate of change that becomes much more intense—a white-water raft trip with the currents becoming much faster and rougher… At the narrow part of the canyon, the world’s population will be at its highest and worlds resources under their greatest stress. In these coming decades, as we are swept towards the canyon bottle neck we must unlock extraordinary new technology… and find ways to get the whole of humanity through with as little mayhem as possible into what we hope will be smother waters beyond… Solutions exist, or can exist, to most of the serious problems of the 21st century… The bad news is that the most powerful people today have little understanding of the solutions and little incentive to apply them.

Which leaves the ball in your court. In our court as individuals.

If you are free from frantic consumption, aggressive competition and the fear of missing out (FOMO); you will be able to hear that inner voice that tells you when you are on the right track. Instead of getting caught up in a dodo-like race over the edge of the cliff, you will be concerned with the well being of others and be able to design constructive solutions.

Ultimately, we aspire to sustainable practices and finding ways to make a quality lifestyle ecologically neutral, so that everyone in the world can also have it.

Exercise to Test the Theory

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

—Mark Watney, the Martian

Let’s get you to run an experiment and use the creative problem solving approach. If it works this time, you can use it again and again, until you solve enough problems and we all get safely through the canyon.

Pick a problem that you would really like to fix in your life right now. Download The Creative Problem Solver worksheet and fill in the blanks. 

Thinking through problems in this systematic way is always helpful. Whether you completely solve any given problem—you will be better off in the end for having given the issue some creative attention.

If the experiment does not entirely solve the problem the first time —be like a designer and simply run a new experiment. Till you do solve the problem. And then the next problem. And the next. In this way you take your superpower and turn it into a lifestyle.

In this way you will be part of the bigger solution, no longer part of the problem: because you will be thinking creatively instead of just consuming and living mindlessly.