Do Your Work without Your Equipment

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Updated July 28, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

While most of the prompts in this book involve getting ideas out of your head and into the world by taking action, and creating ideas through action, this prompt is about working on an idea in your head and leaving your studio, laptop, or gear bag behind. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

These connections come from many sources, including what you see and experience. Photographer Ivan Chow leaves the house without his camera to practice his observation skills. He says, “By taking away the need to make photos, you’re relieving yourself of that pressure to deliver. This will allow your mind to focus solely on spotting moments that are worthy of capturing. You’ll get less caught up with what’s directly in front of you and you’ll start looking a bit further to spot potential subjects and points of interest. Being a good street photographer is all about being good at observing, and that means that you already have a very good head start.”

If your chosen creative operation is photography, you might choose to take a moment out of each day to observe a location or scene that would make for an interesting photograph. What makes it stand out to you? How can you return and recreate the moment, or would it be worth capturing in different lighting conditions? If it’s music, take a long walk and play with a melody in your head—when you take away the option of recording an idea right away, you’re forced to work with the raw materials in real time, which can lead to many surprising developments.

Working without equipment can also help us stay connected to our creativity when we can’t access resources. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter memorized lyrics during the early moments of his career, as he writes in a piece for Vibe. “When my thoughts began to crowd each other, I would go to the corner store, get a pen, and empty my head, pouring rhymes onto pieces of paper bags. But how many scraps can you fit in your pocket? I had to start memorizing my ideas until I got home, which was usually in the wee hours of the morning. Ironically, using memorization to hold on to my lines is the way I developed the writing style I use today. No pen, paper, or paper bags needed. Just point out the track and I’m all over it.”

This is what Michael Saviello says of his process: “I do a painting in a short amount of time, but I think about it 24 hours.” Saviello paints from still images, so this is a natural part of his process; he might have an image in mind but change the background or other elements. You can work mentally—consider different variations of your final product and change the structure, or the order, and imagine how it turns out. This helps to keep ideas accessible in your conscious mind, and to let the unconscious side of your brain work on them.

But whatever you come up with in that great brain of yours, don’t forget to record it, write it down, etc. As Jay-Z acknowledged about his early, equipment-less process to NPR, “I’ve lost plenty of material. It’s not the best way. I wouldn’t advise it to anyone. I’ve lost a couple albums’ worth of great material. … Think about when you can’t remember a word and it drives you crazy. So imagine forgetting an entire rhyme. ‘What’s that? I said I was the greatest something?’”

Or flip this prompt: Make Idle Time

Set a 10-Day Quota

The mystique of art and creativity shines a spotlight on inspiration and creative breakthroughs. A practitioner will speak more of the power of repetition, routine, and tangible deliverables.

This is a priceless lesson that many people have paid thousands of dollars in tuition to learn. As I share in Source Inspiration, graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut assigned a project to his students: pick an activity and commit to doing it for 100 days in a row. Bierut recalls his instructions: “The only restrictions on the operation you choose is that it must be repeated in some form every day, and that every iteration must be documented for eventual presentation.” Bierut would repeat this project in each class in the following years. One student chose to dance every day, another chose to make a poster in under 60 seconds each day, and still another made a different version of the same poster each day.

This is a reliable way to gain experience, improve your skills, and build discipline. Lindsay Jean Thomson, who facilitates the 100 Day Project, an online project inspired by Bierut’s class, told me in an interview that there is a noticeable improvement in how the projects turn out from day one to day 100. “If you sit down and do something every day, you will get better at it,” she says.

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