brain-wrangling for beginners

Art School culture is fading in the thrusting modern world of cost-effective business-facing academia. Design students often have meagre studio facilities, thin access to staff  / peers, so learning good work habits takes longer. Students are often found frozen in the headlights of an oncoming deadline and need help coralling their thoughts. I need to actively manage my own remaining brain cells more these days – general decrepitude, plus the distractions that are part of How We Do Stuff Now. Our unfocussed floundering brains need coaxing now and again.

Creativity was more taken for granted than taught in art schools when I attended St. Martins (as much to be with musicians as designers). I found it disappointing: despite being within spitting distance of Denmark Street the muso thing never took off (blessing in disguise #243618b) and my portfolio was ‘mixed’. Fortunately my first job was with Wolff Olins, then more like art school than art school. It was populated with eccentrics from burnt-out 60s casualties to clever inspirational people, applying a wide range of approaches to creative stimulation from Heroin to The Times crossword. It was instructive to compare the the appalling consequences of the former with the more manageable virtues of the latter (still can’t complete that crossword, though). WO was producing some of the most innovative work of that time and it came from those with the more sustainable attitude to creativity.

Working designers can’t wait for the muse – we must deftly jump between organisation and management to creative problem-solving on demand, regardless of entomological attention-spans or heads wrung dry from overuse. Environments, music, exercise and other interventions play their part in what self-help books probably like to call ‘mind management’. Novice or professional, intelligence needs focusing, habits of mind need challenging. These everyday methods can coerce reluctant grey matter into spaces where good things may happen:

1. Mood  For most designers I know music is inextricably bound up with the creative process and is the studio stimulant of choice, creating general mood, screening out all but the most pressing distractions. For studios with a democratic playlist there will be times when King Tubbys Meets the Rockers Uptown or Nöw That’s Whät I Cäll Speed Metäl (vol. III) may not be quite what the bookkeeper finds conducive to spreadsheet-wrestling. Equally not everyone finds that Adele (bless ‘er) evokes the headspace appropriate to calling into being Award-winning Works Of Creative Genius. Almost any vocal commands attention, so unless you are doing fairly mechanical / repetitive tasks an instrumental playlist might be an idea (Radio 3’s Late Junction on iPlayer? Eno? Spiro? Nyman? Pärt? Barry? Crush? Last?).

2. Irrigation ‘Healthy body, healthy mind’ said everyone’s Grandad back when beer & fags were good for you. As a fundamentally non-athletic type I find exercise a chore – but essential for irrigating and refreshing the brain. For some, a good walk, stretching the legs/lungs is the best way to mull over a problem. Running can do the same more powerfully and dispels stress. Accessible & cheap, running is however kinda boring. Swimming is good, arguably better exercise – if you can cope with chlorine, sticking plasters and other hazards. For a potentially deeper physical / mental reboot I recommend yoga if you can find yourself a good not-too-flakey instructor. You need to park your competitiveness outside, be patient and risk looking a little foolish but it can work even better than the above. Much is recently made of ‘mindfulness’ meditation to manage stress and clear the head. Many find it helpful. It sounds good – if you can banish all thoughts of hippies / David Lynch.

3. Problem-solving benefits from a disconnect with the familiar. Neutral spaces – any location where you are buffered from phone calls and physical interruptions can work. Unfixed locations are best: buses, trains, planes (select according to budget and destination). Not really being somewhere puts thinking in a helpful limbo. Fixed neutral locations work too but liking where you are can be a distraction. Hotel rooms’ hideous anonymity can be good, but so can a quiet corner of a McDonalds.

Then there are coffee bars with their hint of ‘creativity’ (blame Dr. Johnson). A recent, less-than-real article claimed Starbucks has banned Hollywood screenwriters from occupying its coffee shops. I can’t say the smell of creative genius is the dominant odour of my local Caffé Nero, more often its the plumbing. A coffee bar can be a productive location, but timing is important. They are subject to mood swings – a pleasant way to achieve wakefulness before a day’s work is later a restless open-plan office space and a chaotic scrum during Monster Truck Hour (10:30–11.30 when mums, young’uns and colossal over-engineered superbuggies clog all floorspace). The coffee itself only provides a swift mental arse-kicking (two hours later the mirror-image low lures you back – caffeine dependency makes coffee chains the only expanding retail businesses in the UK and is why coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world after oil).  Are coffee bars everyone’s office or the business equivalent of Bobby Chariot’s Jag? You decide.  n.b. If you actually care for your coffee, find a good independent – there are one or two left, i.e. Department of Coffee and Social Affairs London EC1N 7SU. Otherwise Caffé Nero’s coffee, staff and music policy are least bad (IMHO). Failing that you may tolerate Costa’s sometimes-drinkable coffee, comedy crockery & surly staff – if you must, there is always Starbucks’ catlitter-tainted brown stuff (n.b. a no-go zone Oct–Dec – xmas music).

4. Thinking about thinking  When the above still doesn’t help there is much simple neuron-nudging advice available (suspend judgement on your ideas, editing them later; step away / do something else when ideas dry up; and so on…).  Sometimes more active interventions are helpful. I like Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. Devised as a result of thousands of hours producing musicians with infinite self-belief but limited genius, this is a randomly shuffled set of gnomic ‘instructions’ in the form of a set of cards or website. From simply “water” to “Balance the consistency principle with the inconsistency principle”– you interpret them as you think fit. Just contemplating what they might mean can be enough to point your grey matter in another, more useful direction.

And if none of that works, it must be time for a holiday…





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