Is Your Computer Killing Your Ideas?

Everything in the digital world is easily undoable, resize-able, zoom-in-able, copy-paste-able and changeable. But is that really a good thing?

wait for ideas post

My uncle David used to have a typewriter. This was 30 years ago, when personal computers were still scarce (not to mention home printers!). As a kid who loved to read, the typewriter was an exciting and magical instrument for me: with it, I could literally create ‘real’ books, just like the books I loved reading!

One thing I do remember very clearly about using a typewriter, is the fear of making a typing mistake. Erasing a wrong letter was quite a bother, so the trick was to focus and try to not make mistakes. In fact, for anything longer than a couple of sentences, the actual crafting of the text had to be done the old fashioned way, on a piece of paper. Then you’d use the machine to create a nicer version of the already existing script.

A lot of silicon had passed through silicon valley since then. We now have ultra-sophisticated word processors, allowing us to make changes on the fly, with a flick of the mouse.

It’s not just writing that was revolutionized, either.

Using Photoshop and drawing tablets, digital painters can now press a button to “undo” a false ink stroke, which once would have been irreversible. They can completely change the color palette after the painting is done, and zoom in to the pixel level to achieve perfection to a degree that would have been impossible to imagine 30 years ago. 3D animation software feature movement graphs that allow animators a level of polish that was never even remotely possible with paper drawings; and with cheap digital printing right around the corner, sculpting is on the brink of a similar revolution.

All this is absolutely awesome and makes our lives as creatives a lot easier.

….Or does it?

The dreamer’s pitfall

For the creative process to work well, your inner Dreamer persona should be a playful and passionate character, who cares little for perfection and doesn’t mind making mistakes. The dreamer’s state of mind should be a whirlwind of options and half-constructed thoughts. The mere idea of fixing a spelling mistake or a brushstroke shouldn’t even cross your Dreamer’s mind.

This was easy to do in the old days. You jotted notes and ideas on a piece of paper, and didn’t bother fixing mistakes because it was too difficult and didn’t matter much. You sketched tiny little thumbnail sketches with a ball pen, and you didn’t worry about the details because it was physically impossible to control the pen to that degree anyway.

To learn more about your different creative personas, take my free 15 minutes mini-course Trust the Process. Take the complete Go*Create package to master the 5 elements of the universal creative process.

My tiny Obelix sketches from “Asterix and the Vikings”. You don’t worry about the details because it’s physically impossible to control the pen to that degree.

Not so today. Nothing is impossible and nothing is difficult. Everything in the digital world is easily undoable, resize-able, zoom-in-able, copy-paste-able and changeable. And it lures you in. As I’m writing these words, I’m constantly using backspace to fix small errors, even though I know it doesn’t matter at this point and that I should just keep on writing and fix it up in a later pass. I can’t help it. It has become a second nature.

The wrong tools for the job

Basically, editing tools are mainly Make tools. When your dreamer starts using these tools in a way that slows down the flow of ideas in favor of fixing trivial mistakes, he is no longer doing his job the way he should. It’s like your taxi driver suddenly decided to relax and give you a guided tour around the city. There’s nothing wrong with a guided tour, except that it’s not what a taxi ride is about!

In my free course, “Trust the Process” (which you can take here for free if you haven’t already), I explain that getting used to working with one creative persona at a time is an important key to clarity and creative success. By letting our dreamer use the Maker’s editing tools, we’re stepping away from that clarity, and we often get thoroughly confused.

Photo by Christian Gonzalez (revised)

Photo by Christian Gonzalez (revised)

A low-tech Dreamer is a happy Dreamer

The solution is simple, of course: don’t let your dreamer do any editing.

Easy to say, hard to do. For many creatives, including yours truly (as mentioned), it’s extremely hard to let an obvious mistake go when it’s SO easy to fix it. Need an example? I just fixed a mistake in the word “obvious”, even though I had decided to fix it later. It bugged me and made it hard to concentrate, and in the end I gave in. See what I mean…?

For me, and for many other successful creatives, the answer is simply to stay away from the computer when in Dream mode. I found that different kinds of projects work well with different kinds of solutions, so I suggest you experiment with several “undigitized” Dreaming methods and figure out what works best for you.

Here are some of the things I found helpful for my own Dream process:

  • To get writing ideas, I often go for a long walk.
  • For visual ideas, I scribble ideas on a big bunch of physical papers.
  • I sometimes record my ideas (yes it’s digital, but it doesn’t allow any editing, so that’s fine).
  • In animation, I like to repeatedly act out the scene, trying many options, sometimes filming myself doing it.

Below: Me, dreaming up some animation ideas away from the computer…

If you’re very used to working digitally, the first few time dreaming in low-tech might feel a bit weird. Give it a chance. Help your dreamer escape the lure of editing and the tyranny of self-evaluation, and give your ideas a chance to flow freely in their own weird way. It’s worth it.

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One Comment on “Is Your Computer Killing Your Ideas?

  1. Inkling says:

    Good points to ponder. More often than not these days I work on a Cintiq tablet , drawing/animating in an app called TVPaint. I like it a lot . But I do miss animating on paper. There’s something very direct about working on paper. Your comment: “Basically, editing tools are mainly Make tools. When your dreamer starts using these tools in a way that slows down the flow of ideas in favor of fixing trivial mistakes, he is no longer doing his job the way he should.” helped clarify something that I’ve intuitively believed for a while now: the best animation process is not “traditional” or “digital” , but is a hybrid process of the Dreamer using traditional tools (rough animation with pencil on paper) to capture the magic and creativity in thumbnail sketches on paper and a rough animation pass on paper , then the Maker can scan those rough animation drawings and finish them in an “editing” tool (like TVPaint or Photoshop) . The other solution (for me) has been to customize my TVPaint workspace so that when I’m animating I have only the main work area (canvas) visible , with all toolbars hidden except for a small toolbar with just a few essential tools , so I’m not constantly distracted by the plethora of custom brushes and tools that are available. I love TVPaint for it’s versatility and the endless number of custom brush tools that are possible, but it’s also a very real danger to become bogged down with too many choices (too many tools) , which is the same danger in Photoshop or any other digital app. I’ve also toyed with disabling the “Undo” command on my Wacom pen button , so if I want to erase a line I have to actually turn the pen over and manually erase it .

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