On Accidents: Thoughts On Creativity from David Huyck

David Huyck's Desk

My drawing table’s natural state. Draw like a photographer: make a lot of pictures, and pick the best ones.

A couple weeks back I tweeted simply, “Is it possible to design by accident?” I had been thinking that morning about the act of design. That it tends to be about problem solving, trial and error, but does that include accidents? Brush strokes can be accidents, pottery can involve accidents, but can Photoshop be an accident?

Thankfully my friend David Huyck – illustrator, designer and professor – had some interesting thoughts on the matter which I found to ring quite true. So he was kind enough to write a piece for the site which I hope you find inspiring.

I love to draw and make stuff. I always have. But there was a long time where, even though I knew I needed to practice, I just couldn’t force myself to even try. I was caught in that gap that Ira Glass describes in this video, where I knew what was good, and I knew that what I was making wasn’t all that good. So I just didn’t draw.

While I don’t exactly regret the eight years I spent making websites and databases, I am sure my illustration career would be in a very different place by now if I had just kept drawing the whole time. Seven years into a career as a college-level art and design professor, I try to save my students from falling into that same gap.

I talk about it with them through a variety of different anecdotes. The Ira Glass video is one. Another is a something Tim Biskup said in a talk I attended in 2005: he had been working as an animation background painter, and he wanted to get better at drawing, so John K. told him that everyone has 100,000 bad drawings in them, and you just have to get those out of you so you can get to the good ones. Similarly, Malcom Gladwell asserts in his book Outliers that it takes about 10,000 hours of anything to become a “phenom” in it. Anne Lamott devotes an entire chapter to “Shitty First Drafts” in her gem, Bird by Bird.

One take-away from all those stories might be “practice makes perfect.” But a more important lesson, I think, is that you have to make mistakes. You have to screw up a bunch and make things that might turn out just awful. It’s what you do with those accidents that can make you great. Knowing that accidents are a part of the process makes risk less scary. You are more willing to try things and experiment and, yes, crash and burn. But that is where discovery happens. That is where you begin to make work that is different and interesting and yours.

All of that applies broadly to the creative process. More specifically, when I teach design, one of the more difficult things to impart is that the finished work is all made deliberately. No matter how much time a student spends on a design, the piece they turn in is up for critique in its entirety – accidents, neglected margins, printer problems and all. If you don’t fix something – whether you notice something is wrong or not – you’ve left it in the design, and your inaction is, essentially, an act of design.

Which is not to say that is all bad. When you make the same mistake enough times, you can learn your weaknesses, and you can wrap them into your process. I once asked Dan Ibarra of Aesthetic Apparatus how to tell the difference between the designs he makes and the ones his partner, Michael Byzewski, makes. To paraphrase Dan, he said, “I’m the moron who makes all these complicated tight-registration designs that take me forever to get right on press. Michael just sets up his designs to be okay if they aren’t printed perfectly.” Wisdom through accidents.

December 17, 2012 / By