Creativity: Ideation and Decision-making

The 7 Criteria of Project Selection

Deciding which creative projects to attempt is an incredibly difficult job, both as an artist and as any kind of executive producer.

We live in a world of infinite creative ideas but painfully finite resources. Each of us has a limited set of resources and skills, goals and values, and most importantly a limited amount of time with which to create, so it will never be possible to pursue every idea we have, no matter how good it seems on the surface.

In my estimation, there are no fewer than 7 specific criteria that must all align before a project makes sense, and each of these is variable and carries different weight on the decision.

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First, as obvious as it might seem, we must start with a genuinely (1) Good Idea that can translate well to the chosen medium (video, audio, design, etc.).

Ideas are easy to come by, but frequently (especially in the non-profit world), they aren’t workable or interesting when turned into videos. Over the past 15 years that I've been producing original creative content, I've generated and/or been pitched several hundred different concepts, but very few of those were actually good for the intended medium.

Visual (and auditory) storytelling is different than writing an article, a white paper, or a book, and writing for video is a special skill that takes thinking beyond abstract concepts or dialogue, so finding an idea that actually makes sense for the medium is not easy—especially in an environment dominated by left-brained, systemizing thinkers such as economists, philosophers, and political scientists.

But beyond merely having a Good Idea, these ideas must (2) Fit Brand’s Vision, and they must (3) Fit Brand’s Tone.

For example, FEE is a 72-year-old institution with the crucial mission of advancing a free society, so producing any good idea still isn't enough. It must be an idea that actually advances our vision of a free society in some meaningful way.

In addition, because FEE is an organization that caters to parents, young students, and the general public; because it has donors to attract and keep; and because we have a long-standing legacy to uphold, we must also be very careful about the tone we present to our audiences.

The tone we want to cultivate at FEE is “optimistic, empowering, dynamic, morally principled, credible, and collaborative.”

This is can be a tough needle to thread when we also want to dominate social media as an organization. It’s no secret that much of the most shareable content online is pessimistic or angry, sarcastic, insulting, tribal, and deceptive. In general, if you can get someone to feel outraged or present them with content that provides a new reason to hate an enemy or pat themselves on the back, you’re probably going to get them to click on your content and possibly share it with their friends.

For example, there are is no shortage of content online like this:

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Note that in both of these cases, the content is designed to pit one group of people against another and relies on a sense of outrage or anger to connect with its intended audiences. My view is that while this is quite often the easiest path to success online, it is also frequently unethical and probably damaging to society in general.

But more importantly, from the standpoint of project selection at an organization like FEE, "good ideas" that are mean-spirited, inappropriate, fail to honor donor intent, which violate 501(c)3 rules, or fail to comply with the law in some other way simply must be rejected.

From there, once we have a Good Idea that Fits FEE's Vision and Tone, I begin asking questions about the idea as a matter of strategy. Is the idea (4) Relevant to an Audience that we're trying to reach? Is it actually (5) Likely to Succeed given all that we currently know about what's trending, what topics or styles are popular, and what kinds of stories people, in general, seem to respond to? Is it (6) Unique, both to FEE (ie. do we have overlapping projects happening simultaneously?) and to the market at large (ie. is someone else doing this already?) and thus unnecessary?

Last, but perhaps most importantly of all, we have to be realistic and ask whether this idea is actually (7) Possible to Execute.

Like many other organizations in our network, FEE has an incredibly small production team—just 3 full-time staff members and a handful of independent editors and producers who work on specific projects.

This means we have serious limitations both with regards to time and to overall capabilities.

While I like to think that we have built a strong unit, quality media production is still an incredibly difficult and complex process that requires a variety of skill sets from understanding and internalizing aesthetic ideas like story, design, composition, framing, rhythm/pacing, etc. to hard skills like using cameras, lights, editing & visual effects software, and other technology. We also have a budget significantly under those found in the broader media industry, and yet a core goal of the YEAR project requires us to be able to produce a wide variety and large quantity of content, so we need to make all of our resources go as far as we can.

Another, often underrated, aspect of assessing whether or not a project is truly "possible" is how passionate the creative team that will actually work on it is about the idea. Our now award-winning documentary series, "How We Thrive" is successful partly because the director/producer team contracted to shoot and edit those films went into the project with a strong passion for telling stories about female entrerpeneurs. That passion inspires them to work harder, pay closer attention to the fine details, and care enough to get every aspect of the film right.

Regardless of their professionalism or talent, pairing that same team with a project they weren't passionate about would not create the same results and that fact plays into project selection. Even when a project is technicallypossible, a lack of creative inspiration can be even more destructive than a low budget or tight schedule.

After taking into consideration all these criteria, we end up with a pretty narrow set of projects that are truly viable and a lot of projects that might seem like good ideas on the surface but are out of reach. There are a lot of tough choices that need to be made in that regard, based on our judgment of what's feasible.

These seven steps are essential to making effective production decisions and if well-understood can help organizations and individuals create their best possible creative work.

What Makes A Good Project? 

This is going to seem like an obvious answer, but the best projects are always going to be the ones that you actually do. 

The fact of the matter is that if you can find an idea that passes the seven-step test discussed above, the project is going to be pretty close to “good” already. That is, if you’ve come up with an idea that works within its artistic medium, and fits your goals or the tone you want to express, and you’re convinced that it has a shot at appealing to your target audiences, and you are capable of executing it at a level that will be successful, that’s already an incredible feat.

As long as you’re passionate and excited about it, “all” that’s left is to execute.

On a more practical note, a “good” project is one that is actually creative and uses the traits of the medium in innovative, clever ways. For example, if you’re using a visual medium such as video or graphic design to present completely non-visual content (talking heads, text, etc.), then you’re not using the medium effectively. If you’re retreading the same ideas and aesthetic expressions that other people have already done, even if you’re using a medium effectively, you’re not being particularly creative.

To condense these ideas into a pithy set of three rules, a good project is…

  1. Actually creative, both with regard to the concept and originality of idea, and with regard to its use of an artistic medium to express those ideas

  2. Technically well-executed

  3. Something you’re passionate enough about to sustain over periods of frustration and failure.

Of course, being innovative and creative while coming up with ideas that actually work and meet all the other criterion is incredibly difficult. So the real question is: 

How do we streamline the ideation process so that we’re mainly generating ideas that have a high probability of being good?

There’s really no easy answer, but I do think there are two absolutely essential things to understand when dealing with this problem. 

  • Everyone can be creative (given the right conditions)

  • There is no substitute for experience

There’s a lot to say on both of these subjects, so I’m going to draw from a range of essays I’ve written over the years to help explain what I mean, starting with some tips on how to put yourself in a position to be as creative as possible by studying the essence of creativity itself.

The Two Modes of Thinking 

Before we get into the point of this section, please take a moment and watch John Cleese talk about creativity at VideoArts in 1991:

Then watch this related talk he gave in 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMpdPrm6Ul4

Now that you've all watched that wonderful video (you did, right?), you'll notice that Cleese separates human thinking into two distinct "modes": Open, and Closed.

“Creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have… [The psychologist, Donald] MacKinnon showed that those the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood -- a way of operating -- which allowed their natural creativity to function. In fact, MacKinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play. Indeed he described the most creative when in this mood as being ‘childlike’, for they were able to play with ideas, to explore them, not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment. Play for its own sake”

— John Cleese

In the open and more creative mode, people are thinking playfully and creatively - that is, we're exploring all of the different types of ideas that may come out of our minds without too much consideration for practicality, factual accuracy or whether or not they're logically sound. In the closed mode, we are thinking practically and rationally and critically. Some people might describe this as "right" vs. "left" brained thinking.

As a mental model for how people operate, there's probably a lot to what Cleese is saying here.

While Cleese rightly offers no easy answers, he does provide 5 fairly significant conditions under which creativity can become more likely. Maria Popova of Brain Picker conveniently condensed them for me already, so I'll just quote her:

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)

  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)

  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)

  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)

  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

Psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of the book “Flow” has extensively studied the productivity and personal benefits of entering what he would call a “flow state”. According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is defined as the “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best”, but more notionally, you might call it “being in the zone” -- complete immersion in a particular task. It’s a function of being present and mindful of what you’re doing, but not really thinking about it consciously.

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John Cleese’s five conditions are essentially designed to help people get themselves into that state, with respect to creativity.

Cleese repeatedly comes back to this idea of building a "Creative Oasis" where you can create a unique space away from the pressures and distractions in other parts of your life in order for you to become creative. In the 2009 video, he devotes more time to discussing the need for boundaries and the importance of not being interrupted while in this Oasis.

On a personal note, the reason I often find myself working late into the night or on the weekends and I believe the reason I tend to do my best work between the hours of 11pm and 2am much of the time, is precisely because the rest of the people in my world (including my co-workers) go home or go to bed, leaving me free from other human distractions.

Oddly, by the way, I find that non-human distractions aren't that big of a problem. I can have music or movies on in the background and easily tune them out for most of my work (except when writing), but the minute real people are in the room, I can't focus on being creative in the same way. This makes working in an open-office environment particularly difficult for certain types of tasks -- including individual brainstorming sessions, creative writing, and any other kind of job that requires a significant degree of creative problem-solving.

I’ve found that it's really important to be able to shut yourself in that Oasis if you want to get into a good creative rhythm. The Oasis concept is one of the shortest pathways to attaining the state of play and flow that you’ll need to come up with your best possible ideas.

I also find that once I'm in that mode, I really don't want to stop until I've exhausted my ideas, but per John Cleese, there’s a danger in that as well. If you block out too much time to work on one problem, your mind will eventually get stuck again and that can be aggravating. In many cases it’s probably best to plan shorter bursts of Creative Oasis time to avoid those situations.

That brings me to two additional key quotes from Cleese's original lecture (again, thanking Maria Popova for her transcriptions):

"We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness."

...and:

"To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.”

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

Getting into the open mode is difficult... But it's also entirely at odds with the closed mode

The two modes cannot really coexist simultaneously, and this makes a lot of sense if you consider what the different modes of thinking are doing -- ie. what purpose the two modes each serve.

  • The Open Mode is a free-flowing "brainstorm" of largely disconnected ideas, shapes, colors, or words with which a person's creative mind can hopefully build brand new connections.

  • The Closed Mode is an analytical process which absolutely requires you to put boundaries on your thinking and assess reality as it is.

What's more, a recent study by Anthony Jack of Case Western Universtiy published in NeuroImage in 2012 used MRI scans on people solving different types of problems and discovered that when people's brains are engaged in what could be considered "empathetic" types of thinking, the parts of their brains which are used in reasoning and rational thinking were deactivated. Neuroscience seems to be demonstrating that it may be impossible to be both rational and empathetic simultaneously.

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I think this sheds some light onto why many artists are simultaneously so great at understanding and engaging people in universally human terms and so bad at understanding science, math, economics, and even philosophy: 

The skills needed to become an incredibly great artist and creator seem to be almost entirely at odds with the skills needed to become a great intellectual and thinker.

I suspect this provides some useful clues as to not only why the artist community tends towards promoting bad (but emotionally resonant) ideas about various academic disciplines, but also why it's so hard for economists, engineers and other people whose job it is to think rationally about the world and who more thoroughly understand the boundaries of reality, to be very creative about how they present their ideas to others.

It’s an interesting paradox, though, isn't it?

It is the creative person - the person who can most easily access their "Open Mode" - who can be most effective at telling stories and moving other people emotionally, but it's also the person who spends the most time in their Open Mode who has the most difficulty engaging the world rationally.

It really gets at the heart of the challenges for people like me who kind of exist in the two extremes of these different modes of thought in conveying good ideas to others as creatively as possible. It's a major part of the core problem those of us who want to use the creative arts to advance important ideas... The more you have to tell the truth and not embellish the stories you're telling -- the more you have to stick to "the facts" or the logical ideas, the less creative you can be. 

And that means that creativity and intellectual honesty often wind up being at odds as well.

See: "Kony 2012", "The Story of Stuff" or Robert Reich's "The Truth About The Economy" as a few major examples of this. There are, of course, also social and economic pressures to lie.

At any rate, there is one thing I might quibble with John Cleese on in this - and that's that there should be no judgment of good or bad ideas when being creative. if you're working in a team trying to brainstorm, I do think that criticism can be a good thing - provided that the people doing the criticizing are people you respect and trust and whose critiques are useful.

There’s also empirical support for this point. Psychologists have spent decades running experiments around the idea of group brainstorming and have consistently found that these groups rarely produce original or high quality ideas.

In a 2008 paper titled “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, UC Berkeley psychologists, Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth found that the “do not criticize” rule could be at the root of that observation.

They write:

“This research scrutinized the effects of imposing rules on the creative process of brainstorming, and also specifically examined one of these brainstorming rules – do not debate or criticize one another’s ideas. We contended that the nature of rules is, in and of itself, one that may confine and constrain. Therefore framing brainstorming instructions as “the rules of brainstorming,” as is commonplace, might well hinder group creativity relative to groups where the brainstorming instructions were clearly framed as general suggestions. We found that in head-to-head comparisons, using multiple methods of measuring creativity, the suggestions conditions outperformed the rules conditions. Moreover, there seems to be evidence that relative to a control condition, rules impede creativity, whereas suggestions foster it.”

Nemeth’s research has shown that brainstorming sessions which engage in what she calls “debate and dissent” generate 25-40% more ideas and the ideas they create are rated as more original than those that don’t allow constructive criticism during brainstorming.

That said, the key word for me is “constructive”. 

I don't think that blasting bad ideas is a good thing in a room filled with people who offer no ideas of their own - then it's just negativity. This can be especially damaging to younger or less experienced people. I also think it's better (as Cleese suggests) to build on good ideas rather than shut down "bad" ones. But I know from my own experience that I'm at my best and most creative when I’m bouncing ideas around with other (trustworthy) people.

Healthy, constructive competition and challenge can absolutely aid the creative process.

None of this stuff is going to be identical for every person - and getting in the right headspace to generate really creative ideas and make the best decisions you can happens a little differently for everyone. But it does seem to require some time and separation from the practical or rational concerns of the rest of the world.

So for me, a serious question remains: How does one find more artists who are at the extremes of their creative "open" modes and their rational "closed" modes? Is it possible to cultivate great artists who are also brilliant and rational thinkers?

I hope so, but in my experience, it’s incredibly rare. Speaking of experience...

Experience Matters

Another critical aspect of getting better at consistently coming up with great ideas simply comes down to experience. 

It is true for everything in life: Mastery comes with time and effective practice. 

The more experience you have at any creative endeavor, the easier coming up with workable, high-quality ideas tends to be -- if for no other reason than because with experience you learn what not to do. Art is a constant battle between the creator’s vision and his or her ability to actually materialize that vision through craftsmanship. 

To quote Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile.

You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

For some people, creativity is an elusive or magical process... but the truth is, the secret sauce is just time and emotional resilience.

I can honestly say - and I believe most of my artist friends would say this as well - that there is not a single thing I've ever made in my life that I have been perfectly happy with. I've never done anything creative that I’ve looked back on and thought, "Well, that couldn't be any better". I have hours and hours of recordings from bands and musical projects I've been in - a few hours solely of music I've written, even - and it all has flaws and shortcomings.

Everything I've written and produced, all the videos I've made, all the infographics, my attempts at animation... It all falls short of what's in my head. I think this is true for nearly everyone if not absolutely everyone.

But what makes an artist successful is that they push past their own creative failures and try again. And again... And again. 

The disconnect between what you "see" internally, and what comes out on the page, canvas, instrument, camera, etc., is usually what’s most disappointing. You'll be annoyed that the thing you wanted to make isn't the thing that you made, and in the early stages, you won't know enough about what you're doing to know how to fix what's wrong with it - and sometimes you won't even be able to express to anyone else what you meant to do. As Ira Glass said, a lot of people never get past the phase of having their work disappoint them, and they quit.

The biggest trick of it is just not to quit.

Don't decide you can't write, or you can't draw, or you can't make a film based on your first attempts if you want to be serious about creating art - especially if you think you might want to be serious about doing it professionally. The reality is, barring the handful of freak prodigies out there, no one gets it right on the first try... and the only way to get better is to practice.

I have an uncle who was a professional (and literally "international award-winning") chef for many years until he switched careers in the 90s to become an equally incredible woodworker. 

He used to have a home kitchen which he had remodeled himself. On the floor was painted a timeline of his own work and experiences as a chef. The timeline started at the garbage can, and on the floor next to it, he had painted the words, "This is shit."

That always stuck with me.

Most of the time, nobody else sees the early "shit" as artists (if we're lucky). So people who aren't artists tend to think that it's all just pure talent or alchemy and that there’s no real development process. The general consensus among laypeople seems to be that creative talent is just something some people are lucky enough to be born with and others aren’t. 

Personally, I think that creativity remains mysterious for a lot of people because the amount of time it takes to get really good at art is the same as the amount of time it takes to get good at anything else, but nobody in their right minds spends that kind of time on learning how to draw or paint, or sculpt, or make movies and music because there’s so rarely the possibility of earning a living with those skills..

But getting good at creativity is not magic. It's just putting in the work, and caring enough about making it better.

That's why the best thing you can do is just create...  And create a lot.

The more you create - in any medium - not only will you improve your technical skills in that medium, your taste will be refined and your artistic sensibilities will be sharpened.

You'll start to be able to anticipate problems and correct for them before they become problems. You'll eventually be able to articulate the things you like and dislike aesthetically in very specific ways - and once you can do that, then you can start making choices with your own art, rather than creating purely by trial and error. Once you can do that, then you will find that the art you make is far closer to what's in your head and your heart than it was when you started - and you will have moved beyond the phase where you experience that sense of constant disappointment.

As your skills progress, you get to move from anticipating and correcting "mistakes", to honing in on what you really love aesthetically & creatively. As you do that, you’ll start to see the most important details more and more clearly -- and with less effort.

I’ve gone from being a musician learning how to play what other people wrote to writing original music myself; then from writing music to be performed alone to writing music that attempted to tell stories in parallel to other people’s film and video projects. Then I moved on to writing, producing, shooting, and editing my own movies. I’ve also spent years building skills in photography, graphic design, and animation… And with each new attempt at building another skillset, I’ve had to endure exactly the same process

The good news is that the more times you do this, the easier it gets. 

And you don’t need to rely exclusively on your own experience (though personal experience is essential). You can also benefit tremendously from the experiences of other people who have been through the same struggles as you’re going through now. Seeking (and internalizing) quality feedback from the right sources can also be a great help in coming up with excellent project ideas.

Note that not all feedback is actually worthwhile. More on that in “The Art & Science of Building Strong Creative Teams”.

The point of all this is that there really isn’t a viable substitute for hands-on experience, and unfortunately, for young artists or people just beginning this journey, too often experience is grossly underappreciated… But if you want to know how to come up with good ideas consistently, experience is essential.

Ideas Are Cheap, Execution Is Everything 

Now that you’ve got a good idea, the next step is to execute. 

Much of the rest of this book is be dedicated to providing you with specific tools and insights on how to effectively produce content in different mediums, but before we get into the details, I think it’s important to face a hard truth.

The world is full of people with big ideas. Most of them are terrible. 

At this point in my career, four or five people a week email me to pitch creative projects. They’re overwhelmingly bad. But even when they’re alright, they end up just getting added to the list of hundreds of other unproduced ideas I’ve developed and written down over the years.

The reality is, the vast majority of creative ideas (including some of the very best ones) will never get made.

This happens for a variety of reasons. 

The concept might be too expensive, too technically challenging, maybe the right collaborators aren’t available or aren’t willing to work with you, perhaps they don’t fit the vision or priorities of the organization you’re working for, maybe you have other projects already in production and can’t afford the time. Perhaps it’s just poor timing and the pieces just don’t fall into place.

Often, a project doesn’t come together simply because the idea doesn’t spark the necessary level of passion for the producer. A lot of people, particularly those in the non-creative world, tend to downplay or overlook that as a minor problem, but it may actually be the biggest challenge of all.

Almost any media project that is worth doing is going to take a lot out of the creator: Time, effort, emotional and creative energy, social and logistical organization… The whole process is about solving problems and making one decision after the next, and there are rarely any obvious signs or predefined answers along the way. The most exciting projects tend to rest at the limits of the producer’s capabilities, so there are always new and unique challenges to overcome.

But for most people, that’s pretty stressful, and if the initial idea doesn’t inspire excitement in the creator, the final product just won’t be very good, assuming it gets completed at all.

This is why trying to force a creative idea onto a producer who doesn’t connect with it is rarely a good idea. Even for professionals, finding the right fit for a project is critical. The better the fit, the better the end result will be, and when you’re thinking about execution, it’s foolish not to recognize that what the people working the project are actually passionate about is every bit as important as whether or not you can theoretically afford the hard costs associated with the production.

The point is, execution is never just a matter of money or having the right idea. It’s also about people’s skills, interests, and their dedication to seeing that idea through to the end. Maintaining Quality Control

No matter how skilled, how experienced, or how preternaturally talented an artist happens to be, flawless execution is impossible.

We all forget things, we all make mistakes, we all get so wrapped up in some aspects of our work that we overlook others… And after a while looking at the same thing day after day, we all get stuck seeing our work from one point of view and our brains start auto-correcting the errors instead of seeing them clearly.

This is true for absolutely everyone, including me.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. In the immortal words of Alton Brown:

“Organization will set you free.”

For years, I’ve treated this phrase like a mantra, and I’ve tried to get everyone who’s ever worked for me to do so as well. Well-organized, smart processes are the cornerstone of quality control, and it really all stems from the recognition that none of us is superhuman. 

We all make mistakes. No exceptions.

The best way to reduce the number of mistakes we make is to reduce the number of opportunities we have to make mistakes in the first place and we accomplish that through better organization and more effective system.

I will talk extensively about my systems for editing in another chapter, but there are a few things I’d suggest to anyone regardless of what kind of creative work they’re doing.

Organize everything before you begin:

If you’re working on a new graphic design, have the creative brief and brand standards sitting next to you and all the elements you need to include in the design (fonts, logo files, etc.) in your project folder. If you’re a sculpter or a painter, have all your tools, brushes, and paints easily within reach before you start. If you’re a chef, have all your ingredients prepped and laid out in advance. Chefs have a term for this: “mise en place” or “everything in place”.

If you’re about to go on a film shoot, collect all of your equipment, lay it all out on the floor and create a spreadsheet of what you’re going to take with you so that you know what you have and when it’s time to strike the set and pack up, you don’t leave anything behind. If you’re about to edit a film, make sure all your footage is in one place and that it’s clearly labeled so that clips are easy to find when you need them.

The better organized you are, the less you’re going to be scrambling to find the information and equipment you need at the moment you need it, and the easier it will be for you to go about the business of actually being creative instead of spending your energy tracking down information, assets, and tools.

Rely on checklists, not your memory:

Your memory is not as good as you think it is.

You may think you’ll remember to go back and tweak something that you wanted to change later, but more likely than not, unless you write it down, you will forget. Carefully writing out a list of everything you need to do to get a project done can be extremely helpful.

I tend to write lists with varying degrees of specificity as I go through the stages of a video project. At the beginning, I might start with just a basic outline (ie. write script, contract crew, schedule shoot, etc.), but as I get into the editing phase, I start writing highly detailed punch lists of everything left to do any time I spot a new problem, I either fix it immediately or add it to the list.

Here’s (part of) a punch-list I made on a recent project:

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Do (as much as you can) right the first time:

This one seems obvious to me, but in my experience, it’s not particularly intuitive for a lot of creative people.

Earlier, we talked about the importance of “flow”. It’s the point of highest creativity for most people, and it’s really valuable to stay in that state as long as possible. As a result, most people who do creative work really don’t like stopping or even slowing down to work on the fine details. Instead, they’ll work as fast as they can to get as far into the project as possible with the intention of cleaning up errors and polishing their work later.

I get it, but this can also create big problems that need to be solved later, so you have to find a balance between sprinting forward as quickly as you can and making sure you’re not leaving devastating little time bombs for yourself down the road.

My advice is to do as much as you possibly can to its highest level of quality on the first pass.

For example, if you’re inserting a video clip into a sequence, before moving on to the next one, take the handful of seconds it takes to make sure it’s scaled and rotated correctly and positioned in your timeline at the exact frame the way you want, so that you don’t have to go back and do any of that later.

If you’re working on a design and you want an element centered or aligned with another element, don’t just eyeball it and try to remember to come back later to make it more accurate. Just do it now.

Now… This should go without saying, but to be clear, I’m not arguing that you should just stop everything and invest all your time polishing aspects of your work on the first draft. That’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons. It would slow down your process by knocking you out of your flow state and it would result in a ton of wasted effort when you decide to make big changes on the second draft. But doing as much as you reasonably can on the first draft will help you reduce the number of things you have to fix in the future, and the more you get in the habit of doing this, the easier it gets to move quickly while still producing a high quality product.

In my experience, this advice is valuable at every stage of production, and with that in mind, stay tuned for more specifics.

Sean MaloneComment