Stay fresh

How do you develop your own style without becoming stale? Top designers give us their tips on how to stay on top of your creative game.

If someone asked what you felt the source of your creativity to be, would you have a ready answer, or be left scratching your head?

Now try this one. How do you manage to keep the creative juices flowing from project to project, week to week, year to year? Chances are, you’re able to trot off at least a few thoughts on this. And you don’t need an answer for the first question to tackle the second.

Staying creatively fresh and hungry is crucial: it’s the difference between doing a job and having a vocation, between standing still and evolving.

For Neal Ashby, founder of US-based multi-disciplinary agency Ashby Design (, the key to staying fresh lies in understanding a fundamental truth about design.

“It’s really a matter of doing what a designer should be doing: solving projects with a smart, objectively-based approach.” Svein Haakon, a senior designer with Oslo design agency Bleed, agrees.

“At Bleed, we are dedicated to giving each client the edge in their market, so we don’t have a style, because our design solutions are always different.” Ashby admits, though, that it’s easier for agencies to be creatively fluid than it is for solo designers, such as illustrators.

“Illustrators are selected primarily because of their style,” he argues. “They have to be very proactive in forcing themselves to be fresh, because an art director hires them expecting the same style. It takes discipline to stay fresh, and it takes an approach that values ideas and conceptual strength over style.”

“As Bruce Lee said, ‘The best style is not to have a style’,” says Luis Torres (, a Mexico City-based former ad agency art director turned motion-graphics specialist.

“All creative people deal with this [style] issue now and then. Ideas come from life experience, and creativity is constantly in motion. If you let yourself flow with it, you’ll never get bored.”

Not everybody agrees with Torres and Bruce Lee. Cologne-based Mario Wagner (, one of Germany’s most in-demand illustrators, has carved a career out of having an instantly recognizable style.

His analog collages, composed of cutup magazines and acrylics, regularly feature in Playboy and The New York Times, and in exhibitions worldwide. “Everybody should get a unique signature style,” says Wagner. “This can take years, but for an artist the most important thing is to be recognized.”

Torres believes that creatives have “a huge responsibility to be informed, to feed our creative urges and have our eyes and mind open to whatever new things come our way”. Staying current and level-headed is the key to this, he argues. “Don’t fall in with trends – and leave your ego at the door.”

Wagner wholly agrees. “The most important thing is to be true and honest in what you’re doing, and not run after trends. I’ve been doing collages now for over six years but if I had run after every trend I’d have done pixel graphics, vector graphics, drawn with ball-pens and pencils – and wouldn’t be very good at doing collages.”

Lucas Krull (, is a German-born, London-based Web designer and developer. He believes that, whatever the design discipline, time and experience are essential for nurturing one’s creative voice.

He adds that creative collaboration can help this process along. something that’s my own creation, and not just a product of my software skills. I’ll learn a new technique in Illustrator, do a design, print it out, do a lino-print, and scan that back. The way in which I work is just a means of keeping me interested.”

For Web designer Lucas Krull, learning new applications and methods of working is essential. “All this means extra stress, but it also keeps it interesting,” he says.

Meanwhile, on a recent project, Neal Ashby and his colleagues at Ashby Design decided that what they wanted most of all was to draw again. “I mean really draw, like a ballpoint pen and paper,” he says,

“And that’s what we did. While the project also included a lot of computer work, at its heart was the idea of seeking the pure joy of drawing again – the kind of joy you had when you were eight, and drawing stuff you thought was cool.”

But crossing disciplines is not for everybody, as illustrator Mario Wagner is quick to point out: “For me, it’s important to have my way of work like a ritual, I know how to act, so I can focus on the idea. Learning new mediums might show me new ways to make artworks, but it would also take a lot of time. I want to be perfect in just one medium, and that’s hard enough.”

Designer talk

Just as designers’ creative voices are unique (or should be), so the approach to staying creatively fresh differs from person to person. Neal Ashby believes that just changing styles for the sake of reinvention isn’t enough.

“To reinvent yourself as a creative successfully, you must also keep your solutions smart and conceptually strong.” For illustrator Ian Dodds, it comes down to a fundamental question: why you need to reinvent yourself at all?

“The answers to this,” he says, “will make it easier to make the right decisions about your work.” Others advocate taking small, practical measures to refresh and revive your style on an everyday basis.

“Get out,” advises Web developer Lucas Krull. “Just going to a park or getting out of the city can steer your head out of the box and recharge the creative batteries. I also find I have the best ideas just before I fall asleep. So keep a notebook next to the bed.”

Multi-disciplinary designer John Leigh agrees that taking in the wider world can help freshen one creatively. “Computer screens make you short-sighted in all ways. Look up, and you’re likelier to know where to go and how to get there.”

And when Krull finds himself swamped by code, standards, structures, timelines, layers and tools he turns to old-school skills for respite. “Basically, I really need to get my head out of the computer, so I paint, draw, do origami or some printing.”


According to the designers we spoke to, nothing is better at keeping a portfolio on track than engaging in personal projects. “Commercial work always limits you one way or another,” explains Luis Torres. “You need to sell, say, or show something specific. Personal work gives you the freedom you need to find your own voice, and use it with your clients.”

Because of this, Torres believes that commercial work is influenced by trends, but that personal work can help set trends. Lucas Krull reveals that private projects help inform his commercial work.

“I do a skateboard company Web site ( more or less for free, make Web sites for friends, contribute illustrations to magazines, stickers to books, and take part in exhibitions. All this is essential because it gives me the freedom to explore, and a chance to try things like new software or revisit old skills.”

Neal Ashby explains that ‘off-piste’ work is an established part of his business plan. “During slow times I always take on something pro bono,” he says. “Projects we do for AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), or the local Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington give us the creative freedom to do something new, something maybe a little more edgy than what a client would let us do. It’s a win-win situation.”

Svein Haakon feels that there needn’t be a distinction between commercial and non-commercial projects. “If you feel the need to do a lot of free work to express yourself you probably don’t have the right clients,” he says.

But he adds that Bleed – the Oslo agency he works at – always has art-related exhibitions running alongside client work. “We have done exhibitions in Stockholm, London, Berlin, Tokyo, LA and Oslo. These kinds of events, of course, make us able to think differently and are great inspiration.”

Ashby Design

Virginia-based Ashby Design works across music packaging, corporate identity, magazine design and interactive media. Why such diverse output?

Neal Ashby, its principal, feels that diversity holds the secret to creative evolution. “Targetting new markets that will require a different style of work is an outstanding strategy for keeping work fresh. We’re a graphic design firm, but right now we are doing exhibit design. It’s a real stretch for us, but the challenge keeps us motivated – and it’s also a new type of revenue stream.

“We did some movie titles this year – another stretch for our skill set that made us improve our motion-type skills, so that we were then able to incorporate this into other projects, such as interactive DVD design and Web sites.”

Ashby believes that agencies that fail to push themselves like this simply can’t expect to flourish in today’s design world. “The biggest pro to being multi-faceted is you are open to new ways of making money. A company may be looking for a single design firm to do their branding, Web site, and their advertising. Being able to do basic print and digital media work is now almost essential if you want to be a top-tier firm.”

The downside, Ashby says, is that there is a danger of such an agency being jack of-all-trades, but master of none. He points outs that recruitment also plays a key role in the creative evolution for any agency, but that it comes at a price.

“You now have to hire people that can be developers, Internet specialists, animators, so your business model just got a lot more complex.”

Ian Dodds

Change is not always seismic – stylistic development is sometimes a matter of small, incremental steps, rather than lurching strides. For illustrator Ian Dodds, whose clients include The Economist and The Guardian, his early career was blighted by an enforced, radical change of style, and it was a process that left him cold.

“When I was represented by an agency they asked me to change my style to target other markets, such as advertising. They asked me to tone down my textures, take the ideas out and generalize my portfolio to appeal to a broader audience, which at the time I started to do – but I ended up producing some terrible work.

“I now know that changing my style wasn’t what I needed, but to be able to adapt it. It can be difficult at times to get away from styles and approaches that you are known for, but in the long run, if you can’t evolve your style, you need have to ask where is the creative input coming from – you or the client?“

He adds: “Naturally, my style keeps adapting, but I now feel I can target specific markets with something that is my own.” It’s an approach he feels gives him long-term marketability.

“When you look at my work there isn’t a sudden change in style, but a more organic one. Developing your style gradually, rather than having to suddenly change what you do, ultimately allows you adapt to trends more easily.”

Lucas Krull

Dusseldorf-born Lucas Krull is a Web design and development specialist. It might seem that this is a field that lends itself to creative evolution working mainly in Flash and ActionScript. less readily than, say, illustration or graphic design, but Krull believes that creativity knows no boundaries, whatever the discipline.

While true that keeping abreast with ever-changing Web standards underpins a lot of what he does, Krull says this does not stop him “enjoying the realization of ideas and exploring possibilities”.

He still takes on a small amount of illustration work, as well as logo and print design, and also draws and paints, and this feeds into his Web work.

“Fishing in different ponds is hard work, but also rewarding,” he explains. “If you work that way, you can see many things that can inspire you in other ways than the ‘same old, same old’.

“For example, working in print keeps your eyes open for typography, which on the Web has a lesser position creatively. And working with animation can make you see what pose of a character is strongest, so when you draw one you can feed on that knowledge.”

Allied to this knowledge is experience, and these are the twin forces that feed Krull’s creativity. “Any style needs time to get good, and experience to be better,” he says. “Often a style like this is more complex and flexible than one that is planned or based on a certain set of elements.”

He adds: “A developed style is more about a method of working and how to do what is needed in a certain way. I guess that is where ‘working from the gut’ comes in. If you always just try to work from the head, things get rigid and the work becomes slow and cumbersome.”

John Leigh
Designer, artist and motion graphics specialist John Leigh is unlikely to be pigeon holed creatively in a way that perhaps single-discipline designers such as illustrators often are.

His portfolio includes projects as diverse as an explorative interactive Web site for NikeLab, designing his own line of clothing and creating visuals for an ambient DVD project called Cathedral Oceans, by electronica pioneer John Foxx. He is also involved in live audio and VJ projects.

“I collaborate with musicians, get involved in exhibitions, fashion, event organisation and performance, and sell canvases. You have got to be a multi-discipline designer if you want anything more than a desk job. Such an approach has got only pros.”

Across all of his work, Leigh says there is a process of creative change and evolution – but what of reinvention? To pull this off, believes Leigh, you need to be the design equivalent of David Bowie. Better, he says, to be known “for being adaptive”.

“If your [discipline] is something very specific, a quick change from shallow to deep waters might drown you. People are often looking for a quick change, but this is a myth. Change is something you move into bit by bit, and if it works it will suck you in and take you away on it’s own accord.”

Neal Ashby tries to keep his company’s style fresh by taking on design challenges in new fields, to stretch and test them.

Ian Dodds has developed a distinctive style that he continues to evolve and adapt, rather than self-consciously revolutionizing it or creating carbon copies of past works to keep clients happy.

Illustration Eelco Van Den Burg


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