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Creative Consolidation: Solidifying Foundational Knowledge

by Taylor Slattery | June 29, 2021

Creative pursuits of all kinds have one thing in common—they’re difficult. In both theory and practice, there’s a lot to remember. In learning mode, taking notes helps us to make sense of concepts, and when it comes time to put those concepts into practice, having a formalized workflow helps us to organize our process. But reconciling the two can prove challenging and with so many different balls to juggle, things still manage to slip through the cracks when transitioning from theory to practice.

Fortunately, for us, this line of work is essentially an open book test. We’re free to use our notes while we work, but the degree to which our notes are actually helpful depends on how well they’re organized. Unless we create useful resources to aid in our process, actually integrating the insights we gain into our workflows can prove difficult.

When it comes to illustration, I find myself often struggling with the same things. Upon finishing a piece, I like to write a brief reflection, making note of the areas I had difficulty with so I can address them with further study. Through these targeted studies, I’m able to gain new insights into solutions, but without enough repetition, I forget what I’ve learned when it comes time to apply them to the next piece.

I’ve begun the process of committing this new information to memory, but without repeated exposure, it has yet to become useful. I’ve tried different means of making this information more accessible while working, but the methods always felt disjointed and added friction to the process that made it harder to stay focused. They were more disruptive than helpful.

Recently, I finally found the solution to my problem. I discovered a tool called PureRef, which provides an infinite canvas that floats over any other program you’re using. This saves you from having to tab back & forth between reference images or split your workspace in order to house a mood board. You can place all of your reference material in PureRef and easily pan back and forth between different areas of your board as you need them.

PureRef also allows you to save your boards so you can organize them by project or use case. I first experimented by building boards based on some of my reference folders for materials. Rather than having to navigate through my folders and open up each image individually, I could now pan through a giant canvas that housed them all side by side. Once I saw how useful this was, it occurred to me I should take a similar approach to organizing my notes.

So I decided to begin with my workflow. I had already been using a system that worked pretty well but inspired by the visual nature of PureRef, I decided to dissect a couple of recent pieces into a step-by-step guide and ended up with something like a recipe.

This too proved to be a useful resource so I continued to give the same treatment to the rest of my notes, consolidating all of the knowledge I had amassed from courses, tutorials, books, and articles into somewhat crude, but extremely helpful cheat sheets. I made master documents for different subjects containing the basics alongside all of the insights I had gained through trial and error.

Throughout this process, I found that I was still struggling with things that I had already found the solution to years ago but had since forgotten entirely because I hadn’t been using my notes. Part of what makes this organization solution so successful is the visual nature of it. I was always a diligent note-taker but in being so overly thorough, I was creating obstacles that obstructed me from the core takeaways from what I was trying to learn.

Creating a master document with only the essential information gives me a singular place to update and check back on so I can avoid repeat revelations. Having notes in a sort of mind-map style layout also makes it easier to group and sort information, illuminating connections that might not present themselves when viewed in isolation. If you find yourself struggling to turn theory into practice, try making yourself a cheat sheet.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


If you are interested in developing your graphic design skills, Sessions College offers a range of graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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