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The Five Dirty Words Creatives Don’t Want to Hear (But Should)

Inspired by Adam Savage’s "Every Tool’s a Hammer"

The Five Dirty Words Creatives Don’t Want to Hear (But Should)

Inspired by Adam Savage’s "Every Tool’s a Hammer"

Adam Savage of MythBusters fame identifies as a maker, which he defines as “anyone who puts something in the world that didn’t exist before.” Writers, developers, designers, carpenters, sculptors — we are all makers, taking a blank piece of paper or dark screen or slab of wood and turning it into something.

Savage’s lessons are all crafted for the maker, and while his particular flavor of creating is the hands-on, elbow-grease-required kind, his lessons and vision are applicable to all kinds of creative processes. Most compelling are his arguments for the struggles inherent in creation that are actually beneficial — and why, as makers, we should appreciate them.

Savage spends a large portion of the book explaining why many concepts that makers may find frightening are actually assets to the creative process. Here, we’ve broken them down as the five dirty words creatives don’t want to hear, relating them to the creative industry, and our common struggles as storytellers.

#1: Ideation

Follow all of the secret thrills.

Few activities terrify creatives more than staring at an empty page and thinking, I don’t know how to start. Designers, writers and developers alike know that an empty page isn’t freeing — it’s often constricting and terrifying. Savage’s advice to creatives with beginner’s block: go deep.

By getting obsessed with their subject — in Savage’s words, going deep and following the secret thrills that pique your interest — makers uncover deep understanding that leads to meaningful production. Content produced with an intimate understanding of the needs of the reader can only be created out of specific knowledge of that reader, which comes from cultivating curiosity and becoming a subject matter expert.

Marketers like to tout the importance of the single most important message, the one differentiator that drives a user or consumer to purchase. Understanding the ins and outs of that one thing is important, but there is a lot to be gained from treating brands as a holistic entity.

Lesson 1: To find and nurture creative spark, dive into the details and get obsessed with every facet of a project, even if the topic isn’t pants-on-fire exciting.  

Not every project is thrilling at face value, whether you’re working on a campaign for toothpicks or an app for office supplies. But if you can find your “in,” a way to get obsessed with whatever you’re working on, you’ll be much more effective at convincing your audience that they should be, too.

#2: Iteration

Creation is iteration.

Makers often get bogged down by trying to work perfect. Rather than getting out that initial messy draft and then working through revision, we can get stuck toiling away on one final version.

For some people, that’s the right approach. They work through all of the iterations in their head, and then push out a single culmination of all those mental arrangements and rearrangements. But most people, Savage argues, would do better to get out a few quick and dirty iterations, working through issues as they arise rather than being precious with labor and materials.

When struggling with a project, it often feels impossible to even get to that first draft or prototype. Allow yourself that quick and dirty beginning, because often, once the ideas are on the page it’s easy to sort them into order and figure out what’s missing — along with what doesn’t belong. In the words of Stephen King...

Lesson 2: “To write is human, to edit is divine.”

#3: Failure

You’re only failing if you’re not doing.

So many corny adages frame this line of thinking — like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,”— but there’s actually truth to it.

Working hand-in-hand with the lesson of iteration is the acceptance of failure. Makers can get wrapped up in the fallacy that you are what you make, taking each failure personally. It can become debilitating —rather than having the ability to make, fail, and move on, we get caught up in what that failure means — dwelling on what went wrong and worrying, “I’m not good enough” and “why am I even doing this?”

Lesson 3: Accepting that mistakes are part of the creative process is the key to not letting them overwhelm you — and to actually learning from them.

Expect that setbacks will happen and plan accordingly. Maybe a client won’t agree with a direction, a campaign won’t have the same impact you were hoping it would, or development will be set back again and again. But by having a laissez-faire approach to failure and not dwelling on your shortcomings, you set yourself up for more success by opening yourself up to the lessons that those failures teach you.

#4: Deadlines

Perfect is the enemy of done.

Deadlines are the clarifying lens through which products are given focus. If someone told you to build a table, that could mean almost anything. You could spend years building any type of chair, from any material, sourcing exotic woods from around the world, toying around with varnishes. But if you were given two hours to build a table, that challenge on its own would answer a lot of questions — material and style would be dictated by the deadline. You can only get to Home Depot so fast, or maybe you can’t make it there at all — so you have to use the tools and materials around you.

When projects are nebulous and open-ended, makers get overwhelmed by possibility. Savage argues that deadlines force decisions, even leading to a higher level of creativity. When you only have an hour to do something, you’ll resort to methods that wouldn’t have occurred to you had you been given a month.

Lesson 4: Make the deadline your opponent, not the project itself.

Designers, writers and developers alike should learn to ask,“what is the essence of this project?” constantly, and more often as the project nears completion. This pushes the creative process along by whittling away everything that isn’t necessary until you arrive at the heart of your story, whatever that may be.

#5: Collaboration

Sharing information is the fuel for the engine of progress.

At Edgar Allan, we make it part of our practice to share our knowledge, opening our toolbox to the greater community. Not because we’re eager to give away our trade secrets, but because success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For us, that means acting as nocode evangelists and sharing all the stuff we learn as a small agency making it up as we go here. But whatever it is for you, figure it out, and get sharing, because making great tools accessible to others can only help those tools improve in the future — and maybe someone will tell you about something you’ve never heard of, and get you to add it to your toolbox, too.

Creatives often fear that if they broadcast their great ideas, they’ll lose their competitive edge. But this mindset inhibits growth.

Lesson 5: By keeping progress to yourself and being selfish with knowledge that could benefit others, you only hold yourself back.

Embrace the hard, messy parts of the creative process, and approach each of these dirty words as an opportunity to hone your craft.

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Edgar Allan is an agency in Atlanta, Georgia, that focuses on digital products. We see great products as the intersection of the brand and user story. If you would like to hear more drop us a line.