Sarah Cortese, Senior Animator+Designer at Trollbäck+Company, writes about the creative joys of parenthood and finding inspiration in her kids.
There are many parents here at Trollbäck+Company, climbing mountains day and night between creative challenges at work and parenting challenges at home. Inevitably there’s overlap. Parenthood can teach us a lot about both the creative process and team management.
Before I had kids, people would always tell me, “Being a parent is hard,” and I would say, “then why do it?” And then I did it, and it made sense. I’m not going to lie, it is really hard – like finishing a complicated design system, learning another language, or running a marathon (which is sort of what bedtime feels like). But being a parent can also give new perspective on hard things. Now that my kids are older, we’re bonding over a shared love of creating. As a designer, I’m amazed at how much I learn from them.
“Art resides in the quality of doing. Process is not magic.”
– Charles Eames
Optimism on Repeat
My four-year-old son likes to craft before bed. He’s very proud of his crafts; each one is the best picture/drawing/craft ever. He explains the complicated storyline - “These are stars connecting together to make something magical - a heart and a golden firework.” or “This is a bat cave for bats (not Batman, he has his own lair)” He then lays the work aside and never looks at it again. By the next day he’s moved on to a newer, better, best picture/drawing/craft ever.
I love this cycle of creating. He takes so much pride in his daily work and is on a seemingly infinite, optimistic loop to continue his progress.
As a grown-up in the creative field, I often look at my blank screen at the start of a project and nervously think, “This better look great soon!” There’s a self-inflicted pressure to come up with a perfect idea. My son’s creative process is just to start creating and allow something good to rise to the top. He just believes it will, and this propels him forward.
The Trollbäck team is very supportive of the creative process. I’ve loved seeing where a project can start and how it all comes together at the end. I’ve learned to embrace that the cutting room floor will be covered in failed ideas; it’s part of a healthy process. You only need a couple of great ones to make a project successful.
I like to keep in mind my children’s sense of optimism, especially when going through rounds of feedback. Critique is not meant to cross out what you’ve done but to build a scaffold, to make better work on top of.
Ugly and Beautiful
Lately, my two-year-old daughter has been really into picking up bugs. As much as I hate bugs, I’m inspired by her curiosity. Bugs move so differently than we do and have so much detail in the colors and patterns on their bodies. They’re pretty amazing if you put aside the gross factor.
Learning to see things in a different way – without judgment – has been so helpful to my creative process. I find the “don’t” section in a style guide very freeing. It feels like that gross bug I want to flick away and then become fascinated with. I’d never want to see a logo mangled in those ways, but it’s fun to do this purposefully ugly work and flesh out what isn’t working about it.
This process also pushes me to try new things to find what works within design systems. Motion design is a series of micro decisions. Veering outside the boundaries of “good design” helps me experiment more and strengthens the reasoning behind the design. Our CCO has said many times, “You rule the grid. The grid doesn’t rule you.”
“I have never expected anything from my work but the satisfaction I could get from it by the very fact of painting and saying what I couldn’t say otherwise.”
– Frida Kahlo
Learning to Listen
It can be challenging to know exactly what kids want to communicate visually and verbally. When reviewing my daughter's portraits from school, she says, “This is Mommy and Daddy, and this is Remy,” but both look like scribbled lines. I know there’s a vision behind them, but we have to work together to tease it out.
As a designer, I also have to be a good listener. I have to discern what needs to be communicated for the client and do it as straightforwardly as possible. We speak different languages: they know the language of their business, and I know visual language. Listening to their ideas helps me translate between the two. For example, they might want to change the logo, but when we hear more about why we realize there’s a bigger opportunity. The different perspectives end up helping the greater process.
The Potential of Boxes
And now, some thoughts on boxes. A box is forever shape-shifting – it can be whatever my kids imagine – a car, spaceship, a superhero team fighting bad guy spiders (monster spider with bad guy spider meter). Sometimes I feel like I’m in an improv troupe. Most of the stories are crazy, and not all stories are good. Sometimes the box props don’t work. The point is to keep going and see where you get to…and if it's not going anywhere, you turn into a cat and start over again.
What I learn from this is how to see a simple shape in different ways and create meaning through position and movement. In many projects I’ve been on, we use simple shapes to tell complicated stories (a company's UI functionality, an explainer on consumer data resell market, a lecture about your online identity). These are some of the hardest jobs. What has worked well for me is to see these shapes like the delivery boxes – as characters – which allows the story to progress. For example, a circle can move from point a to point b in a very basic fashion, or it can “fly,” “zoom,” or “reluctantly trudge over.” Each type of movement tells a different story with a different character. A circle is always more than just a circle in motion design.
“Your eye is a muscle, you have to keep it in shape and the more you draw, the more you see.”
– Richard Serra
Consistent creation has made my work better. You only improve through practice. The hardest part of any project is getting started, and my kids inspire me to create, not from a place of fear but instead with curiosity. They show me to first create, and then decide what’s working. They push me to listen carefully. And most importantly, they show me how to enjoy doing it.
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