Christopher Suster | July 11, 2022
One day, when I was about 7 years old, I was sitting with my grandmother and gave her a drawing that I had created. She looked at it carefully and quietly, and then turned to me and exclaimed: “Someday, you will be an artist!”
Yes, she was being kind, but I believed her. Since then, her statement has stayed in the back of my mind and greatly influenced my life as a graphic design professional. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about creativity:
Later, when I entered college at Kent State University, like so many young people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. I tried several different majors, including criminal justice, speech pathology, audiology and journalism. I felt lost in my vocational direction.
Then a friend who lived in my dorm, Rick, shared his graphic design portfolio with me. When I saw what he was doing, I immediately knew I wanted to join the program. So, I did. And I did well. I was intrigued with color, hand skills, type and graphics. I wanted to design stuff! I loved learning about graphic design history, how it worked, who were its “stars”, what was current and how to develop my skills. I enjoyed pulling all-nighters and working with passion to be as good as I could be. My teachers saw my talent and hard work and were very encouraging. They helped to solidify my identity as a designer.
Little did I know that my grandmother had taught me an important lesson in creativity. Creatives aren’t born, they’re discovered. She had discovered my creative talent when I was little. My teachers discovered and encouraged my talent while I was in college. Some people are born with innate talent. Others, such as I, had to work hard – sometimes at an obsessive level – to succeed.
More lessons followed, as would the years, and I am more than happy to share some of those lessons with you.
Let me start with the most surprising aspect of the creative process: It is terrifying.
Every creative – designer, developer, videographer, writer – knows this place. It’s that moment when you start to question your choices and encounter the quintessential feeling you will fail. It will erode your confidence and make you wonder if you are in the right vocation.
Here is where the creative process truly begins. You must find a task, symbolic or otherwise, that will initiate the creative flow.
For me, the action of putting pen to paper offers a feeling of great relief. When I do so, I feel hopeful because it helps ideas to begin to flow. Or it may be that it is like taking the first step on a treacherous, but rewarding, journey. You’re no longer lost in the anticipation and worry that precedes the work. You’re committed, and the only way through is forward. You become intrigued by the project. It becomes a puzzle to be solved through many different avenues of exploration.
A shock many people find when they engage their creative side is how difficult the work can be. Most people picture the work of creatives as getting paid to daydream. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Translating those ideas into creative expressions that engage an audience and deliver the right message at the right time? That work is not pleasant. Sure, it’s fun near the end when everything starts coming together, but everything before that? Sometimes it’s agonizing.
The hours are long, the process is complex, stakeholders are demanding, everyone has an opinion, and missteps along the way can be demoralizing.
But then the time comes when you find and develop a few or several satisfying solutions, that incorporate colors, photography, content, or an idea or something else entirely. All the elements fit together, and the work shifts from breaking rocks to – well, sometimes more sketching, honing, and redesigning …
Eventually, I graduated from Kent State near the top of my class and soon was working at some of the best graphic design studios in Northeast Ohio. Friends and peers worked at some of the most amazing creative studios in the country. I met famous designers, went to design conferences, and kept in touch with my friends. Eventually, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and ran my own design firm for a decade.
Then one day, a friend who worked at Falls & Co. reached out and asked if I would like to join the agency as a designer. Back then, it was a communications agency exclusively, and I didn’t know exactly how I would fit in with a PR and marketing firm.
I agreed to do freelance work to get a feel for the company and to see if it was the right fit. Within several weeks, I knew Falls & Co. would be a fantastic place to learn and grow. Everyone was at least as passionate and dedicated to their work and their clients as I had been throughout my career. And their creative process was very similar to my own.
Making the leap outside my comfort zone taught me that creativity is everywhere. It’s infused in the work we do and the industries in which our clients operate. I learned that the creative process is built on a foundation of solving problems in innovative ways with passion and collaboration.
Part of what makes a creative profession so fulfilling is the process. As graphic designers, we’re challenged with turning concepts – like the essence of a company’s brand and brand persona – into tangible, visual elements that make abstract ideas simple to understand.
That’s not easy. There are always several paths that lead to equally acceptable creative executions, but few that will lead to an exceptional, appropriate design. Moving past the obvious to the extraordinary is a bit like unraveling a mystery. You’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your work as you proceed to find the best solution, narrowing the options as you get closer to the final result.
For me, the process begins by sketching on a decent sheet of white paper. My first ideas are often simple and expected. I develop them until I have a handful of good ideas. I translate those ideas from sketches into digital concepts, which frees my brain to think and produce other options and follow paths uncovered by each sketch.
I narrow those ideas down and present the best ones to our team. From there, we work together to narrow them down even further. Sometimes I go back to my original ideas to see if there is something that I could develop further into a better idea. There are always a couple.
Through innovation and collaboration, the best ideas are discovered.
There are two simple lessons I want to leave you with. The first is to embrace your mistakes. On more than one occasion, I developed wonderful solutions by making mistakes throughout the process. Maybe you set something in reverse or accidentally cover something up. If your eyes are open to possibility, you might find a unique answer you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
The second is to know when to step away. The work is fun, but it is just as hard. And, as I said earlier, it can ask a lot of you. When that happens, step away. Take a break. Let the work and your thoughts sit and simmer. Stress slows the flow of ideas. Don’t let it.
When you’re ready, return to the work and create something amazing.
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Christopher Suster is Vice President, Associate Creative Director at Falls & Co. He has more than 36 years of experience in the field of graphic design and visual brand development. His work is a study in elegance, restraint and functionality. Having collaborated and developed everything from logos to annual reports to environmental graphics and product packaging, Chris knows how to transform clients’ growth goals into clearly defined, strategically branded communication tools.