How do creative professionals get inspired? Ever since our ancestors first made handprints on cave walls thousands of generations ago, humankind has wondered about inspiration. After all, if we knew exactly how to cultivate and spark our creativity, then we could summon it at will, in any situation.
But of course, it’s not always that easy. And it’s become a lot murkier over the past 15 months. How we collaborate, innovate, and channel our creativity have all changed forever. Recently we connected with Extensis CEO Toby Martin to get his take on how creative professionals can find inspiration in the years ahead.
Andrew: Since the early part of 2020, many of us have had to alter our workflows to accommodate our new digital reality. As design teams embraced remote work in all its forms, our world became both more connected and noisier all at the same time. How do you think creative professionals can find, express, and maintain their unique voice in this environment?
Toby: First off, I think that there are definitely some people who thrive when faced with more input and stimuli, and then there are people who feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of aesthetic content out there. Regardless of which camp you fall into, I believe that this increase in connectedness and access to visual stimuli require us to be more mindful of how we’re spending our attention.
Especially during something like quarantine, it’s easy for creative professionals to escape into an online world with endless sites where you can explore design. And while it may be a great source of inspiration when your day-to-day feels more routine than usual, you have to be conscious of the random sites that drain you of more energy than they give back. The challenge is in selecting the spaces where you want to be active, and choosing designers who you want to actively follow. Curiosity and a commitment to learning will help you gain real inspiration.
One great way to ground yourself is to reconnect with the mentors in your life, whether they’re your old colleagues, professors, or simply creative people that you admire in your community. Find out how they’re curating their favorite designs and carving out their own space within all the noise, and implement what works best for you.
This current atmosphere has also given us an incredible opportunity. Each of us has the chance to shift from being a passive participant to producing work that ignites our creativity. It begins with reaching out to our communities, learning as much as we can, and folding that inspiration back into our work. Be active, be engaged, and help drive the creative community in the direction you want to see.
A: You mentioned how curiosity and a commitment to learning will help creative professionals get inspired. So, how can creative professionals stay focused these days when most of our interactions are through digital means?
T: This is a great question not only for creative professionals, but for EVERYONE in the world experiencing Zoom-fatigue. The simple answer here is to get out of the digital space every now and then, and remind yourself that the world isn’t two-dimensional. Go for a walk, take photographs of scenes that catch your eye, or find a new space to explore and wander. Every minute outside is a gift, and more than likely time away from screens will help you focus since there’s less stimuli coming at you. Look around, be present, concentrate on the beauty of street art, landscapes, and architecture. These experiences are refreshing for the mind!
A: Exactly! Stepping away from our screens can be a great way to find our focus and gain a fresh perspective. What are some of the things that have inspired the Extensis team over the past year and helped team members keep things in perspective?
T: We’ve been all-in on customer success for some time now. One major source of inspiration for us has been our customers, both how they’re finding their groove and how we’ve been able to support their efforts. If you only look at the bottom-lines, you might miss out on a lot of the amazing things your customers produce. We have it pretty good because so many of our customers create beautiful art we can see. But if you look at your own customers, I’m sure you’ll be able to get inspired by how you’ve helped them achieve their goals.
Next, we value education and learning new skills, especially for our creative teammates. Just take a look at the recent blog about our incredible designer Demi Todor. The creative process is often oversimplified and underestimated, so we’re passionate about deepening our understanding of these unique, complex workflows and helping others understand their nuances.
All of the above is geared around us better understanding our customers so we can help map solutions to control their creative chaos.
A: So far, we’ve talked a lot about how creative professionals can find focus and get inspired. Yet creativity isn’t just important in design work. What are some examples of creative problem-solving you’ve seen from the Extensis team, our customers, and the wider global community?
T: The simplest answer is the pivot to remote collaboration forced upon all of us over the last 15-18 months. While many people may have thought the old ways of doing business were the only ways, this adaptation and shift has revealed the resiliency, creativity, and adaptability of teams under pressure.
In that same vein, we’ve also seen the workforce at large, especially the creative community, more inclined to discuss their challenges openly and ask for solutions from everyone on the team. This is a net positive change not only for work, but for whatever community you’re in. To put a positive spin on an over-used phrase, I’m optimistic that this is the new normal.
A: Returning to my earlier question about improving creativity in an increasingly connected and noisy world… when someone feels stuck, like they’re not performing at the height of their potential, what are some ways they could spark their creativity?
T: Like I said before, get outside, especially in the springtime when flowers are blooming and the sun is out (though fresh air is important throughout the year). I’m also a huge fan of picking up a book, and not only work books, but things that are distinctly not related to your chosen discipline. It’s good to get some distance now and then. Just like going for a walk can improve your focus and give you a new perspective, refreshing your mind with a book outside your normal routine can help you make new connections.
My personal antidote to feeling stuck is to cook. I find the prep work, the balance required to bring out flavors, even the clean-up can cure that feeling of stagnation. Plus, you get to eat the results!
A: What have been some of the hurdles to successful collaboration that you’ve noticed within Extensis since early 2020? What are some of the ways members of our team have overcome these challenges?
T: I think our biggest challenges have been self-imposed. One major challenge is our tendency to work in siloes, where different teams don’t communicate with each other. When information is prevented from flowing freely between parties, the important conversations, fresh perspectives, and true collaboration just don’t happen. It’s easy to get stuck in the path of least resistance — the way things have always been. Having the right tools to support open communication and transparency throughout the design process and beyond is a great place to start, but those tools can also exacerbate the problem if we’re not intentional with them.
Have you heard the cooking expression, “if you think you’ve added too much spice, ADD MORE?”
I feel like communication is the spice of any company culture, and communication challenges
can be easily overcome when they are a top priority.
To try and address the silo effect I mentioned earlier, every member of the company’s Leadership Team takes turns writing emails to the whole company each week. We share notes on what we’re discussing in our Senior Staff meetings, so, if you’re not aware of what’s happening, it’s not because you weren’t given the opportunity. Overcommunicate, break down silos, invest in the right tools, and nearly any issue can be overcome as a TEAM.
A: Extensis is focused on giving design professionals more of their time back so they can create their best work. So, I’m curious, what would you do with an extra 60 minutes every day?
T: For me, it’s about taking time to do more things in the community, and recently I’ve been undertaking more philanthropic work. I am in the enviable position of spearheading a company that is moving in the right direction, and I have the ability to give back in my spare time. Giving back is a pillar of our company culture — and it’s just the right thing to do.
My sincere hope is that the last few years have allowed many of us to see how truly fortunate we are. Recognizing that privilege is only the beginning. Let’s invest that good fortune back into our communities and pay it forward to those who are not so fortunate. I challenge the entire Extensis team, our local community, and everyone else — it’s on us to think bigger than ourselves and walk the walk as well as talk the talk!
Inspiration is an unlimited resource, but we don’t always have the bandwidth to take advantage of all the incredible work that surrounds us every day. But what could you do with an extra 60 minutes every week? The more focus we can bring to our work, the more productive we’ll be and the more time we’ll have to apply our creativity to our next big project.