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Why Being Obsessively Organized Makes You More Creative

Apr 17 2017

by Becky Lee

I’ve never considered myself an artist. My handwriting is too neat, I enjoy coloring between the lines, and I don’t always get poetry. I imagine artists as forces of raw, unbridled creativity—messy, like mad scientists, but with more color, magic flowing out of their fingertips like a scene from Fantasia. I, on the other hand, live and die by my Google Calendar.

Backend Creativity 4

Photo by Diego de los Campos

In 2015, I spent a month in an Airbnb that doubled as an art studio. Upstairs, there was an airy drawing room where my host taught scientific watercolor classes. In the garage, a multimedia artist named Diego had built his own 3D printer and spent his time creating furiously—everything from ink paintings to cardboard sculptures to warped digital imagery. I started spending my afternoons in the garage, watching him work and quietly editing travel photos, hoping to soak up some of the creative juices.

One day, after over-contemplating whether the photo of three chairs I had just edited was art, I worked up the courage to ask, “What do you do with all of the stuff you make? When does it become art? What does it even mean to be an artist?”

First, he laughed.

Indian Ink Drawings

Backend Creativity 3

Photo by Diego de los Campos

Then, Diego opened up his laptop and plugged in his external hard drive. A few clicks later and we were deep inside his folders, files, and spreadsheets. "This," he said, "is what I do with all of the stuff I make." He showed me how he edited and selected images in Photoshop, created cohesive photo series, added titles and captions, wrote artist statements, meticulously noted the date/medium/size of each piece and how they should be displayed, exported PDFs, and organized the files by theme. He showed me his spreadsheet of deadlines and requirements and contact information for calls for entries, residencies, conferences, and shows.

Backend Creativity 1

Photo by Diego de los Campos

I felt like I had just pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. The image I had in my head of the artist as natural born creator was just the front end, hiding the logistics of what it takes to really make it work as an artist. Creativity as an effortless, inherited talent was a myth.

I found comfort and familiarity in Diego’s near-obsessive organization and realized that my love of structure and systems isn’t actually at odds with artistry. In fact, formal processes can unlock new ways of thinking and doing. Structure can reduce the mental and digital clutter that often blocks people from actually making things. If categorizing and list-making and data visualization gives me creative confidence, then so be it. Knowing I have an entry point into the world of creativity has made it much easier to dive in.

Indian Ink Drawings with bamboo brush, on paper

Backend Creativity 2

Photo by Diego de los Campos

Today, as a business development associate at IDEO, I sit at the intersection of creativity and strategy, art and operations, design and business. Though I am in near-constant awe of the making and creating that seems to flow from the fingertips of my deeply talented colleagues, I know that design doesn’t just happen. Behind the curtain of creativity, there are layers and layers of order, process, painstaking detail, and hard work. These days, I find just as much beauty (and madness) in the back end.

Diego de los Campos is a multimedia artist from Uruguay who currently resides in Florianópolis, Brazil. His work can be found at diegodeloscampos.wordpress.com

  • Becky Lee

    Business Development Associate, IDEO San Francisco
    Becky Lee is an alliteration aficionado and former Fulbright in perpetual pursuit of prosciutto. She still sends postcards and loves finding marginalia in used books.

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