Guest series :: Finding time to fail

by kath_red on 19/07/2012

in Community + Creativity, Guest series 2012

Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Niamh O’Connor is a Minneapolis based Illustrator and the founder of the embroidery website Urban Threads, dedicated to making machine embroidery awesome one edgy, elegant, innovative, and/or offbeat design at a time. 

Creativity is an often misunderstood thing, no matter which side of the fold you feel you stand on.

I have found sometimes to those who work in a self-described “non-creative field”, they equate the action of design and creation to a form of magic. I’ve been told that we “artsy folks” are just little magic balls of creativity, with beautiful things spouting out of our ears at any given moment, no effort required. They long to be a “creative” type, because in their mind it seems a state of being, not a form of discipline.

To folks who do creative work, we know this to be a painful fallacy. While many of us would love the world to perceive us as genius fountains of endless creation, we know that creativity, like any skill, is something that needs to be worked, nurtured, and practiced. This is made all the more difficult by the sometimes fickle nature of our muses. An accountant is very unlikely to wake up one morning and suddenly be unable to do math, yet I certainly have days where the flow of creativity is halted to a trickle, and my deadlines still loom with ominous certainty. You must learn to work through what is sometimes a wax and wane of inspiration.

The issue of creative flow is really a lead-in for what I think can be a bigger issue for me when I’m creating something new, and that is finding time to fail. What I mean by this is not necessarily allowing yourself enough time before a deadline to fix something if it goes catastrophically bad (though that’s important too). What you need to allow yourself is the time to try all the wrong ways in order to find the right ones.

When I started work on our new Misfits Nursery series, I felt nailing the style was extremely important. Children’s nursery characters have been done for hundreds of years, in hundreds of ways, so really, it’s not the content I needed to explore. It was the character. I had to give myself time to try dozens of different versions of Bo Peep to find the real version hiding somewhere in between. This can be a difficult step to explain to some people. From an outside point it might look extremely redundant, but if I don’t give myself the time to draw and fail at many versions, I’ll never find the one that I feel succeeds.

I knew when I looked at my work … it just didn’t look right. So I kept trying. For me it’s the difference between getting something done and getting something done well.

This time is so crucial to an artist, and yet is often the first to go when your schedule picks up, projects get rolling, and fantastic opportunities finally start arriving. You push yourself. You think it’s wonderful you finally have all these projects on your hands … and yet, you find yourself always looking at your feet. You stop thinking ahead, you just react. If a project needs to get done by tomorrow, well by golly, the first thing you create better be good enough.

Creativity becomes reactive instead of proactive, and the exploration used to find something truly creatively satisfying is lost.

Time management, then, is crucial to supporting the creative process by allowing yourself time to fail. To make plans, to think ahead. To find ways of saving time on small tasks to leave more breathing room for larger ones. I use a number of project management tools, from a Google Calendar, to task managers like Wunderlist and Evernote, to keep my life and work organized. Work out what steps are really important to your creative process. What are you doing on a daily basis that, if you really give it a hard look, isn’t doing you any favors?

All these things give me a chance to breathe and look three feet ahead of me so I can really sort out what it is I’m doing. Sure, I’m drawing nursery rhymes, but for whom? In what style? What will make these designs different from any of the thousands of others that have come before? What will people use these for? Design without purpose can sometimes be creatively rewarding, but rarely commercially so. A product without purpose will have a hard time finding an audience, even if it’s cute.

So I always try to design with purpose, and remember that this work is not meant for me, but for everyone else.

This can be a hard struggle for artists sometimes. You go through life hearing all the nasty terms about “selling out”, about not being true to your vision. That somehow making your art for commercial purposes means you are sacrificing your own artistic tastes. This is absolutely bunk. Creating art for a commercial audience is quite literally the definition of a commercial artist, and if your career goal is to make a living doing what you love in a creative field, you darn well better keep your audience in mind.

If you want to design for no one but yourself, that’s fantastic, and is a wonderful creative outlet. But I wouldn’t recommend becoming a commercial artist with that attitude. You won’t get far.

I think the biggest problem many artists face with this is more the limitations it sometimes puts on how they create. You think, if only I could do it in any way I wanted, it would come out so much better! But I have learned through my processes that these limitations can be a wonderful catalyst for creativity.

When I first started designing for machine embroidery, I was often fighting against its technical limitations. Heavy directional stitches mean tiny details didn’t work. Too many colors added too many trims, too many stitches make a design too heavy on fabric. You can’t design a really cool T-shirt front and make it 50,000 stitches. It simply isn’t something that will work on light fabric; no matter how cool the design looks, your beautiful creation is useless.

These are also very important “failures” to learn. To take the time to figure out all the ways you might make your own work obsolete by not accounting for its intended purpose. These stumbling blocks of stitch direction and form have taught me to take advantage of embroidery’s dimensional structure and create sculptural, ornate designs. Issues with detail and weight taught me to make running stitch designs with experimental, open fills. These challenges basically forced me to create something I now consider wonderful by keeping my design parameters in a little box.

When designing illustrative style designs such as this Misfits Nursery series, I needed something that was stitch friendly and still evoked the charm of hand-drawn illustrations. Looking at gorgeous drawings from vintage Alice in Wonderland books and old nursery rhyme books from my childhood made me realize that doing this series without some form of that hand-drawn charm would make it loose its roots. So to mimic this, we designed a series that had messy, hand-drawn style outlines.

This seems especially counterintuitive when designing for machine embroidery, which can achieve perfection of line with ease, but if you remove too much of the hand of the artist from the work, it sterilizes it. So we designed it with intended imperfection, with the hopes that it evokes some of that old-world charm we all loved in our storybooks as kids. Believe me, though, creating that style look a heck of a lot of getting it wrong and working things backwards before we got something that looked right.

In the end, we must all take the time to fail in that oft quoted but unverified tale of Thomas Edison and the creation of the lightbulb, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

Whether the quote was ever uttered by him, the message still stands. If Edison had not given himself the time for those 1000 failures and just said after a couple times, “Good enough, I have a billion other things I need to get done before tomorrow…”

Where would we be?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 roxane July 19, 2012 at 9:19 am

Very well said… and very accurate!! Keep up the good work!!


2 Dana Marie July 19, 2012 at 9:30 am

Well (and creatively) said Niamh!


3 Karen Jennings Wilson Timewrinkler July 19, 2012 at 9:46 am

Well, Niamh, you are certainly not alone. There are fine lines we walk, and a balances to maintain between being true to ourselves as artists and pleasing the consumer, producing excellent work and meeting deadlines. This is the bane of all artists who work in a commercial world. Knowing that your job hinges on your ability to be creative puts a lot of pressure on you! Figuring out how to ward off the artist’s blocks, or kick-start creativity when it’s flowing at a trickle is invaluable.
And about failing…There are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn! For every “mistake”, there are 50 tangents to explore. Yes, this can take some time. That’s why you find some artists burning the midnight oil for days at a time. Being an artist means working when your creativity is flowing…it’s sometimes hard to fit “being an artist” into a 9 to 5 job’s time-frame. In fact, trying to do so can halt creativity altogether.
Whenever I’m on a creativity bender, I let a lot of things go, like cleaning house, shopping, etc. It will look like a cyclone went through my house! I end up with fabric scraps and threads in every room of the house. And in the end, I emerge, victoriously waving my beautiful creation. Only then do I “see” what a mess I’ve made. If I’m lucky, I’ll actually get the whole thing cleaned up before the next wave of creativity hits me!


4 Joy James July 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

This is so true. I have only recently found your designs and love them all to bits.I’m not young only young at heart and love the gothic, vampiry, steam punk stuff. Just love the sketched look. I love how it looks and feels when it’s stitched out.


5 Walden121 July 20, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I loved this post!


6 Jan in the UK July 23, 2012 at 3:31 am

What a great feature:) Really very interesting to read how you personally go about designing. Thanks so much for sharing.


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