Two years ago, I began to fall out of love with the computer. It had become a claustrophobic box that dictated how I communicated and how I created. I felt like I was losing my design sensibilities, and treading a well-worn trail through the same digital menus, with my fingers commanding the same virtual assets.
I’ve been a fan of my friend and colleague Nick Dupey, a member of Young Monster, for years. He and I once collaborated on a poster for Moogfest, and the first night we got together, he pulled out a stack of multi-colored construction paper and began cutting out shapes. That moment stuck with me—it brought back memories of elementary school art class, a time without computers and inhibitions.
So as my holiday break began, I committed to return to that headspace. For over a decade I had kept file drawers of old clip art, temporary parking passes, owners manuals, security envelopes, and other ephemera that caught my eye. I guess it’s a kind of graphic designer kleptomania, pocketing found type and imagery to display or repurpose. I fumbled through the stacks, tore apart some junk mail and magazines, and began reassembling.
There was nothing precious about it. In fact, it was so quick that it felt like whiplash. My intent was simply to reassemble the mass of trash on my tabletop. It was an intuitive, thoughtless act that allowed my fingers to be free to make new movements. My sense of touch was back. I could hear the pink noise of tearing paper. I could smell the tape and glue. I had escaped the box.
Every day during the holiday I made a collage in an empty notebook I had long forgotten. I would slip away into my home studio during a lull and assemble another combination of type, images, and textures. I got lost in it. My creative freedom awakened. The feeling of creative wonder from my childhood was rediscovered.
I’ve kept it up since then. Early in the morning before I fill my mind with calendar to-dos, email, and other grown-up activities, I make something. It’s 10-20 minutes that sit somewhere between meditation and puzzle solving. My visual skills are sharper. My fingers are smarter. My ability to find resolution from chaos is faster. And even though I still don’t love my laptop any more than when this obsession began, I no longer feel trapped by it.
So how can you escape the box? Here are a few suggestions to help you rediscover your 8-year old self:
Reframe junk mail as an endless stream of new mediums. Security envelopes from credit card bills, retail catalogs, and poorly designed postcards get me excited about checking the postbox when I get home.
Begin with only a few elements—faces are the easiest starting point. Put three items together to get yourself going. The more you do, the easier it is to build complex creations.
Don’t start with intention or a desire for meaning. Meaning will reveal itself as you create. The majority of what I’ve collaged is meaningless. It’s an exercise in associating form, color, and lines. But there’s the occasional moment when a story comes through.
Always be willing to call your session a failure. I do these quickly and sometimes I just throw them away because they don’t resolve well. This isn’t an exercise in making something precious—it is a process that happens to have an occasionally stunning result.
Save your scraps. I have drawers of them now and they often are the starter for my next image.