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Cold Hard Creativity

Being self-employed puts you in the role of Wile E. Coyote: You've just run over a cliff’s edge and are now frantically building a bridge mid-air to reach the next plateau.

These plateaus represent necessities - you build bridges from the cliff’s edge to the Mortgage Plateau, the Monthly Living Expenses Plateau, the Federal Taxes Plateau, and the Health Care Plateau. All the while, creativity is the element that keeps this metaphorical Looney Tunes bridge from collapsing.

Creativity is in every beam, column, and girder of that bridge, and when your creativity falters, so does that bridge.

With that in mind, when you think about setting out to work on your own, you’re left wondering: How do you foster creativity in the midst of running a business?

Burnout

Starting Lunar Saloon with my wife, Megs, turned out to be the best way to cultivate and and grow our creativity. Were I running Lunar Saloon by myself, I wouldn’t have as much time to work on client projects, or have had time to create STARDECK, our set of sci-fi playing cards. Instead, by focusing on our respective strengths, Lunar Saloon runs more efficiently and has better creative output. Megs pays bills, handles bookkeeping, helps negotiate contracts, invoices clients, keeps up with taxes and legal requirements, manages social media, and helps with product research, promotion, and fulfillment. In short, Megs is the fullback to my halfback.

You might not have the (excellent) option of partnering up with your partner. Don’t sweat. Let’s take a look at some of the habits I established as a solo act that we still practice as a team of two.

For the first few years out of school, I was constantly in fear of not being able to solve whatever problem was put in front of me. My first job out of school was at Intralink Film, where I designed key art for movies and television shows. For the two years I worked there, I often failed to conjure up a worthwhile solution. School taught me the fundamentals of design and how to apply them to projects, but it didn’t teach me how to apply things quickly.

Fortunately, my job was salaried and I worked alongside seven other designers, so I didn’t have to maintain a perfect batting average. Had I been freelancing at the time, I’d have probably burned through a handful of relationships, solely because my output wouldn’t have met client expectations.

Later, as I became more experienced, I worried less about being unable to creatively solve briefs and focused more on fighting the ever-looming threat of creative burnout. Once I felt confident enough that I could consistently hit the mark, tackling new projects became easier, faster, and more fun. Able to work more quickly, I found myself wanting to make more. However, the two years of consistent 12-hour days at Intralink left me feeling burned out. I even wondered if I still wanted to pursue design.

To avoid feeling that way again, I’ve since adamantly maintained a strict 8:30(ish) to 5:00 work schedule. There will always be more work to do, but letting that work eat into my personal life limits my free time, including time where I might find inspiration outside of design.

A timely investment

At the time, we were living in Los Angeles. But when it became clear Megs and I couldn’t take anymore of LA, we started hoarding away every cent we could - a good habit to develop if you intend to eventually freelance - and moved to Minneapolis.

I took five months to develop my own projects and to hone additional skills I hadn’t learned while designing movie posters. I designed and illustrated a set of Tarot Cards based on LOST, a set of silkscreen band posters, an art deco typeface, and a set of icons.

Through this, I learned a great way to exercise and strengthen my creativity: In the absence of full time or client work, make your own project. Not everything will be a success. I’ve made a few missteps – the crowd sourced comic-sharing-by-mail Comic Relay being the most egregious. Fortunately, there were very few risks involved with the project, and in the end, it was a worthwhile practice in small-scale brand development. Successful or not, these projects built around my hobbies have been the best way to keep myself engaged and interested in design when I’m not tackling client work. This personal work, in turn, has allowed me to practice my craft and apply the lessons learned to improve any client work I received.

In this vein, I made the 2011 Time Travel Calendar, which collected time travel events throughout fiction and put them on a single timeline. The biggest hurdle with the first calendar was that we didn’t research the cost until the design was finished. I’d already devoted so much time to the project and we were faced with either investing most of our money into producing it, or scrapping it altogether. It was a very hard decision, but we took the risk and it paid off. Like any successful business, running a creative studio occasionally calls for you to invest in yourself, and it’s up to you to decide if the creativity and time you’ve put into a project demands a monetary investment. The iconography I designed for the calendar ultimately led to my job at Google and paved the way for my first successful Kickstarter campaign with the 2012 Time Travel Calendar.

Unfortunately, my icon work for Google led to an onslaught of icon-related projects. What might seem like a positive instead led back to burnout. People like familiarity - it’s a base level human instinct. Because of that, clients will often ask you to play your greatest hits, and at this point in my career, all of my hits were icons.

Playing the hits

I was left asking myself how I could break the cycle of icon design and branch out into other areas.

I’ve learned to listen to my gut when vetting clients, to get a feel for whether they’re legitimately open to a project differing from past work, or if they’re looking for a rehash of what I’ve already made. A proactive measure to avoid this is to curate your portfolio to include only the work you want to do. If you don’t want to work in a certain style or area, let it take a backseat to the the work you’d prefer.

To further resist repeating our greatest hits, we block out time for our own projects, carving out the space to make new hits and getting airtime for them. When it comes to figuring out what we want to spend our time on, we look outside of graphic design into other mediums. Only looking at other designers for influences will result in riding a wave of trends, rather than breaking out into new styles or developing unique processes. Being open to outside influences also means more time enjoying things that have nothing to do with design.

People often see self-employment as a dream scenario of sitting in your pajamas and playing video games in between projects, but success and growth rely on using that time productively. Juggling both business and creativity is required. You have to find the time and effort to foster both, as one cannot stand without the other. But, because it’s your creativity that likely first led you (or is leading you) to start a business, it’s important to find ways to keep that spark alive. Without a well-maintained business side, you won’t be making things for long, and without nurturing your creativity, you won’t be making things at all.

Hey, that Looney Tunes bridge isn’t going to build itself.

Alex Griendling is a designer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He's one half of Lunar Saloon, a design studio he runs with Meg Griendling, his wife and business partner. Follow Lunar Saloon on Twitter and get an inside look at their operation.