Training Thoughtfully: Developing Strategies for Creative Growth
by Taylor Slattery | January 17, 2021
It’s recently occurred to me that the process of skill acquisition is universal. It may seem like the paths towards becoming a judo practitioner, a chef, or a musician are completely different, but they’re much more similar than they seem. Regardless of the field, it’s only through repetition that one can reach proficiency. Countless hours must be spent practicing, identifying mistakes, correcting them, and practicing some more. The exercises take different forms but their goal is usually some marriage of mind and body, linking your mind and your reflexes to work in unison.
When it comes to physical strength, the means of becoming stronger are well researched. Through repetition and progressive overload, or increasing the difficulty over time, our muscles respond to the stimulus and become stronger. It’s this line of thinking that has led me to begin treating my creative training like I would any other physical exercise.
But much like when you first become a member at the gym, you must first learn how to train properly before you can see any real progress. You set goals and develop a routine consisting of exercises each meant to target a specific part of your body. Over time, you come to perfect your form in each exercise, at which point you can safely increase the difficulty. If we were to practice different exercises every time we go to the gym, we might still see some growth, but not nearly as much as would result from a well-planned routine.
I see this mistake often made by students and I’ve made it myself as well. When it comes to creative training, we lack a well-developed routine and as a result progress at a slower rate. We might decide we want to get better at a task and the only thing we can think to do is to begin throwing ourselves at it until we’re better. But this approach lacks structure. If you want to get better at drawing people or improve your photography, rather than deciding to simply draw 100 figures or take 1000 shots, you need to first develop a plan of attack. In the gym analogy, the general goal would be to get stronger, but to do so, you’ll need sets of exercises that target your various muscle groups. Treat your creative training the same way, identify the “muscle groups” to target and develop a routine of exercises you can do daily or several times a week that focus on these areas.
For example, if your aim is to improve at drawing, daily exercises might consist of drawing a series of identical straight and curved lines to improve your accuracy and control, or identifying the grayscale values of photographs. Each exercise should be just a fragment of your overall goal so your studies can be more focused. While doing these, it’s important to focus on your form, as it’s only once your form is perfect that you can increase the difficulty. So make sure to correct your mistakes. Establish some sort of metric you can quantify to act as repetitions. That might be drawing a set of 10 lines, or dissecting the values of 3 photographs. Keep a record of your performance and set goals for accuracy or speed. Check your progress as you go and increase the difficulty once your goals have been met.
To recap, we improve through repetition. To reach your goals you need to first understand your problem so you can design exercises that target specific aspects of it. The exercises should be quantifiable so you can check your progress and adjust them over time. They also shouldn’t take too long to complete, there’s no point in taking the time to plan out a routine if you won’t be able to stick to it.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.