Charting your creative path: Follow the vision or trust the process?

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Danielle Evans joins us on the blog to shed light on the two types of creative processes: the process that follows the vision, and the vision that follows the process. Read on to understand which workflow is best suited for a given project.

My pencil scratched in fevered passion, every muscle in my hand tense and frantic to capture the magnum opus spilling onto the page. A greasy, charcoal smudge transferred to the back of my hand, which I brushed away dismissively. The process is messy. Years poring over horse books brought me to this pinnacle of my artistic expression. In my mind’s eye, a stallion, wild with eyes aflame, reared on its back legs. Majesty spilled from its wind blown mane, a lightning shot against a background of billowing clouds.

I looked down, my consciousness descending from the heavens and back into my chair. I was nine. The horse had five legs and looked like an overcooked sausage.

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Unfinished Horse Drawing, by Reddit user marsel_zdr via Know Your Meme.

The creation process is an awkward dance, one we refine over time. Our intuition and training shape the way we experiment into two distinctive paths, and every creative utilizes both of these throughout their careers. However, most of us start with the above, attempting a grandiose vision through a test of skill, which can dampen a child’s artistic expression if the final product doesn’t measure up.

Every creative person holds vivid memories of reaching for greatness and “nailing it”. As a professional artist and glutton for punishment, I continue to temper my expectations of my skills. My projects now align more closely to the original vision. I allow room to surprise myself with the results, as a treat.

Follow the vision or trust the process?

Creativity exists on a spectrum, at either extreme is “conceptual” and “technical.” Some of us are naturally gifted with an overabundance of brilliant ideas. Others execute any production to a professional grade, regardless of tools or ability. Everyone has a sweet spot for their processing but can stretch themselves to encompass the entire spectrum. We understand that ideas cannot simply be good and executed poorly. We recognize when work is cool but utterly superficial. In order to attain balance, we find a leverage in one of two workflows. A creative path is charted either by trusting the vision or trusting the process.

We follow the vision when our inner picture of the final product guides our exploration. This workflow relies on the strength of our intuition and asks our skills to make up the difference. This process is innate, the one we associate with traditional artistry. A Frenchly artiste stands over an easel, guided by a thought bubble, and renders a masterpiece while wearing a beret. Voilá! Vision aligns many parts under one banner, searching for answers in the endless possibilities that lay ahead.

We lean towards one method more naturally. Some of us are visionaries, some of us are technical masters.

Trusting the process is a learned behavior, whether through experience or formal education. Vision casting doesn’t vibe with everyone, although it’s how most of us come to the creative arts. Following the vision favors our inner dreamer, while relying on the process allows our inner tinkerer to shine. The research leads the way because the vision is too large or too fuzzy, and the final expression is the sum of its efforts. Our technical skills flourish as we determine the final course, step by step. The journey is the destination in process development. Process takes a divide and conquer approach to creation. And besides, building something technically marvelous is just plain kick-ass. Process workflow finds the beauty in what currently is and elevates the output to its greatest existence.

All creators harness both flow states, sometimes simultaneously, during their professional workflows. But which is best for what project? We lean towards one method more naturally. Some of us are visionaries, some of us are technical masters. Our backgrounds dictate which functions as our primary method of discovery, but we utilize both based on different criteria.

How to assess which process is best suited for a given project:

Abstraction

Big goals like brand identity, film, app development, etc. are nebulous and may require multiple teams and multiple digital/physical outputs. They may start with a mission statement, possibly a name. A process-based workflow is ideal in this case. Market research and testing will guide the output, and the final product determined by the baby steps along the way.

Vision processing works beautifully for day-to-day projects when a workflow is honed from experience. The process is internalized and becomes a secondary function. Illustration, animation, and coaching relies on a vision for brand consistency and style. Like a map, vision casters can understand they will realize the image in their brains without knowing the exact journey ahead.

Scale

An identity or brand is nebulous and encompasses a variety of mediums. Tackling this kind of process means allowing the research to guide color selection, typography, and collateral. These pieces collectively become the vision. Teammates will affect the final product considerably based on their experience and specialties. Process-based workflow is meant to unite different skills into a whole.

For specific outputs like a social media campaign, a series is unified by a vibe that may span video, still image, or audience engagement pieces. Guesswork is removed by instituting mood boards early on. Details of color, lighting, and copy are already decided. The process is secondary to the overall message.

Time

What is the turnaround on the project at hand? Daily/weekly project needs involve bringing new ideas to life. Because each project has different parameters, the process changes each time. The vision is the guide, helping us achieve the final idea without knowing exactly how we’ll arrive.

In many digital art forms, testing and rolling out requires a process-based workflow. A UX/UI designer overhauling an app will sift through iterations to achieve the final form. A/B testing and data collection inform the larger mission, indicating who sees what, when. This process inherently requires more time. Every step counts.

Team Hierarchy

For those in senior positions such as a Creative Director, Art Director, or Photographer, casting the vision and onboarding teammates is part of the job description. You empower others to drive the process. Vision process with a team feels like the Fellowship of the Ring; the road is ahead, and there are many paths to tread, all of which end with a volcano.

For the solopreneurs or direct-to-client creatives among us, letting the process guide the outcome provides freedom and maintains boundaries with decision making clients. Technical approaches chart a course while gently educating the client. This makes for well-informed end products with less likelihood of revisions. Process-based flow informs and creates value from the journey. Process on a team feels like Harry Potter; every level is a level-up to becoming a fully-fledged, magical bad-ass.

Final Thoughts

Mastering a flow state doesn’t mean we avoid misfires completely. As we evolve, our processes also change to enable greater risks and better rewards. Mastery is less about refining one method and more about the balance of both. Fluidity helps us hit the mark, regardless of our personal skill levels or soundness of concept.

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About the author: Danielle Evans is a dimensional typographer and art director from Columbus, Ohio who writes about design’s many intersections with social equity, mental health, and education. Past clients include Disney, Target, the Guardian, Cadillac, Sketch, Wix, and your mom. Sign up for her newsletter.


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