The Creative Process: It’s a Fine Mess


May 10, 2019
Todd Alley

So there you are, fresh off bringing your latest creative brainchild to life. You gaze upon the fruit of your labors in wonderment, marveling at how your initial inspiration progressed so swiftly and fluidly to its pristine completion. And then, you rouse form your Pinot Noir-induced daydream. Coffee-stained notes, heaping piles of inspiration samples, and a recycling bin overflowing with revisions glare at you.

The creative process is a messy enterprise. Like a head-strong three-year-old, the more frantically you attempt to rein in the chaos, the stronger the tempest rages. Regardless of your creative form or end product, the hallmarks of the decidedly non-linear slog toward the light include frenzied research cobbled together on a swarm of Post-It notes; late-night epiphanies scribbled onto scraps of paper littering every room; and, in some cases, an overabundance of discarded food containers.

How, then, can creative folks cope with the mess? In my experience, you start by embracing it—wallowing in it, really. After all, do you really want to add “Clean Up My Act” to your to-do list in the midst of launching your ideas? Equally important: Creating almost anything of real staying power requires diving into the muck, breaking stuff, getting dirty and bloody. Jackson Pollock went through his entire professional life with acrylic paint clogging every pore of his body. Ever had lunch with someone trying to develop a name and logo for their start-up? They’re a sleepwalking, disheveled, you guessed it, mess.

Owning the mess of creativity, harnessing it even, can actually expedite the ideation process. The president of an ad agency I worked for once placed a sign on an empty cubicle that read, “Shitty Ideas.” The edict he issued to the creative staff was to generate as many bad ideas as possible, and fill the cubicle with them. The thinking was that encouraging us to generate voluminous bad ideas as possible would lead to more great ideas, faster. As luck would have it, we did fill the cubicle with pages of crappy concepts. And the good ideas that carried the day won us a new client. It was an extraordinarily messy (and yes, wasteful) exercise. But it really highlighted the need to roll with thoughts as they come, to scribble, doodle, vomit out the thinking, discard, and start again.

It’s simple: The right-brain thinking of the creative process does not respond well to left-brain tidiness and structure. Admit it, your creative subconscious is begging for any excuse to take a break or even give up. When you start bringing analytical assessments of your hygiene, housekeeping, and the general orderliness of your method, your creative muse is heading for the couch.

The creative process is not like a marching band proceeding in perfect left-right, left-right precision toward its predetermined destination. It’s more like the Paraguayan kids who created classical instruments from landfill garbage and perform with them in a chamber orchestra. Ah, the beatifically sloppy joy of creativity. My grandmother’s crocheted wall hanging said it best: “Bless This Mess.”


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