The seven steps of the creative process

Words by Yann Charles M Bougaran
Illustrated by Martine Strøm, where she take us through the process of creating the visuals for Nordic Creative Talent Award 2016.


When I became a teacher, I realised that most creatives go through the same process and problems during a project. Earlier I thought that my stress and my insecurity were unique; all other creatives were doing fine. Observing my students, I spotted the same symptoms I had before, and the ones I have today when I freelance. I describe this personal process in seven steps.

 The NCTA prize called The Brick.

The NCTA prize called The Brick.

The first step, happiness and excitement. I get a new brief from a client, a new problem to solve. Just by reading it I can already see all the possibilities, the opportunities—ideas are coming fast, millions of solutions to discover and thousands of interesting paths to investigate. My brain is bubbling. Everything makes sense and I feel more ready than ever to accept the challenge. It is time to start listing ideas, brainstorm, while my mind is active and at its best.

If I get stuck, I go out for a jog. Running for an hour or two helps me clarify my ideas. I have seen creative people go into a kind of trance, blocking out all external noise, leaving their desks to find a completely quiet room in order to think. Some prefer to team up with other creatives or a consultant. Everyone has their own preferences. I often tell my students to team up, because two brains are more efficient than one, but it's not a must. The creative process, from A to Z, is far too personal for rules and restrictions.

 Martine:  After receiving the brief I started sketching out some ideas, just simple thumbnail sketches with pen and paper. I picked out two of the ideas I believed in, and worked out a simple debrief to explain them for Abbey Priest (Adobe Nordics ad agency).

Martine: After receiving the brief I started sketching out some ideas, just simple thumbnail sketches with pen and paper. I picked out two of the ideas I believed in, and worked out a simple debrief to explain them for Abbey Priest (Adobe Nordics ad agency).

Step two: Confusion and doubt. The first part is done and It is time to make choices, to categorise my ideas and clarify my thoughts. But is it as simple as it sounds? How can I be a hundred percent sure that one idea has more potential than another? Of course there are the obvious failures, but what about the others? What if I pick the wrong one? Maybe this brilliant concept has been done before? However, creatives likes the challenge as well—driven by an urge to do always do better. This increases the pressure. Should I go left or right? Which direction would be best for the client?

I need to be rational: I have a brief, I need to find a solution for a specific client—it isn't magic, it is all about being relevant and logical. Everything is getting clearer, step by step, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place—and amidst the chaos, I start to see patterns.

 M:  The idea they chose is based on something all of the nordic countries is known for; their beautiful northern lights. Can I visualize the northern lights in a new, more abstract way? For example with paint-strokes? This might draw associations to both northern countries, and art and creativity.

M: The idea they chose is based on something all of the nordic countries is known for; their beautiful northern lights. Can I visualize the northern lights in a new, more abstract way? For example with paint-strokes? This might draw associations to both northern countries, and art and creativity.

I consider the two first steps the most important ones. A good friend once asked me: Do you re-write the briefs you get from your clients? It took me a couple of minutes before I understood the meaning of his question: Are you able to truly understand a brief, and are you able to redefine it in order to find a relevant solution to a specific problem? It became clear to me that this is what I do during the first and second steps of my creative process: I understand, I research, I investigate, I classify, I organise and I filter. Then, I’m ready for ...

... step three: Clarity. I see it every day at school, when my students don’t need help or feedback for a while, they are working non-stop, sketching, drawing, writing ... Whatever they need to visualise their ideas. When I’m in this phase, my ideas are taking shape, especially if I have done proper work during the first two steps. Since clarity sometimes is a painful step, I cannot be disturbed, I go into a semi-autistic state of mind, blocking out all external nuisance and slowly but surely turning into a very unsocial creature. Everything makes sense, the clock is ticking, and I have been working long enough as a creative to know that this stage won’t last, the next step is right around the corner, one where I’m not going to be as productive. I need to embrace this step to get the most out of it. It is a beautiful part of the process, I feel strong, lucid, accurate. I am finally solving all the problems, I feel confident and I believe in my work.

 M:  The first early sketches I sent for feedback. The client wanted less corporate colours and said that I didn't have to use the actual brick, at least make it less centred. 

M: The first early sketches I sent for feedback. The client wanted less corporate colours and said that I didn't have to use the actual brick, at least make it less centred. 

 M:  I made an 'impossible object' of the prize, changed the perspective and added some depth to the background. I was very happy with the result at this point, and considered it almost done. 

M: I made an 'impossible object' of the prize, changed the perspective and added some depth to the background. I was very happy with the result at this point, and considered it almost done. 

 M:  Feedback: 'Can you make the brick more part of the artwork? We like the room, but it might be hard to adapt to other platforms.' I really liked the previous drafts, and now I felt I had to start over again from scratch.

M: Feedback: 'Can you make the brick more part of the artwork? We like the room, but it might be hard to adapt to other platforms.' I really liked the previous drafts, and now I felt I had to start over again from scratch.

Step four: Complete darkness. When I give it absolutely everything I get exhausted. The emptiness that follows the previous step has a tendency to make me see everything differently, to make me believe that my work is not as good as I thought. I need to take a break, work on something completely different, another project. I need to get back to the first step of the creative process to be able to look at my work with rational thoughts later.

I have seen how devastating this step can be to my students, truly painful; a heavy lack of confidence. There is no miracle cure. Just get used to it, tame the emotion with work. If you learn to deal with it, you learn to get the best out of it as well. I need to stay positive and keep my head clear and strong. The process is demanding enough as it is, mentally and physically, there is no need to increase the pain with self-pity.

  M: My brain was a creative mess at this point. Stuck.

M: My brain was a creative mess at this point. Stuck.

Step five: Anxiety. Right before presenting my work to a client for the first time, the level of adrenaline in my body is increasing. I feel ready but not ready enough. The spotlight will be on me for an hour, maybe more. My work is going to be seen and analysed by people who were not involved in the process. I try to keep a cool head, going through an emotional roller coaster. This is my work, I gave it everything I had, went through so many sketches, research, meetings with colleagues and consultants, argued with my team mate. From total happiness to darkness, from clarity to insecurity—all of it coming to an end if the presentation is not a success. It is a bit like a first date. You feel at your best, but still doubtful. You are a bit nervous, you have butterflies in your stomach, and deep inside you really hope this is the beginning of something, not the end.
Whatever happens during this first presentation, it always leads me to…

step six: Full panic. The client was either fully satisfied and is considering to go further with the direction, or they simply weren't convinced by my arguments and would like to see something different as soon as possible. In both cases I’ll be working non-stop for days, weeks maybe. Adjusting my work under pressure. Looking at it with different or fresh eyes, detaching myself from the work, total neutrality. I imagine somebody else doing the work, in order to see all the small mistakes, details I’ve missed while being attached to the creative process.

If it wasn't a total success, I go through the feedback and try to understand what is missing, what isn't working, where I have failed. Sometimes it makes sense, other times it doesn't. Full panic is also triggered by my need to be a perfectionist. This step is often the most difficult one, not because of the pressure, but because the adjustments are all about details. A sentence, a word, a shape to refine, a slight modification of a colour. During this time I can evaluate my work, my skills, my determination, and my loyalty and respect for my creative integrity.

  M:   I tried to focus on the second part of the feedback; creating a pattern of brush strokes. The first one I named Order, the other Chaos. The next step was to try to make them work as posters and market material.

M: I tried to focus on the second part of the feedback; creating a pattern of brush strokes. The first one I named Order, the other Chaos. The next step was to try to make them work as posters and market material.

Step seven: The deadline. The end, from which there is no escape. This is where I have to deliver everything, even if it is unfinished. I may call myself an artist, but I also work for clients—there's no way around the deadline. At the end of the creative process the deadline is the last shot of adrenaline into my exhausted body. I can’t think properly, but I have to be productive. The clock is ticking, the palms of my hands are damp. I become sensitive, stressed and centred on my own work, I wouldn’t notice if the rest of the world collapsed. I see things that should have been adjusted and modified, improved. But it is too late, I just have to keep working, get the files sent on time.

But the deadline is also a blessing, a release. The final step is the debrief; evaluation of my work, the process and result. How can I learn from this project? How can I become a better creative? I think that's why we keep doing this — it's a job where we'll never stop learning. There's new mistakes and lessons to make for each project. This is the beauty of our work. We can never outgrow this profession, constantly driven by curiosity and the need to solve new problems.

So, let’s go for another round.

  M: Finally we landed a look including a poster, a DM and the two patterns. The whole process took give an take one week from the first sketch to the finals.

M: Finally we landed a look including a poster, a DM and the two patterns. The whole process took give an take one week from the first sketch to the finals.