A few years ago, I hurt myself knitting. I knitted four baby sweaters in 10 days — including during some very extended international flights — which resulted in searing pain from tendonitis. I had to wear a wrist brace, and everyone assumed I had carpal tunnel from typing.
What drove me to knit my way to injury?
Like many designers I know, I’m a maker at my core. I’m most relaxed when making things with my hands: kneading dough, cutting fabric, transforming a skein of wool into a sock. I love the alchemy of it, and it’s the closest thing I have to a meditation practice. I’ve been a compulsive maker since I was a kid, and deep down, that kid lives on.
All humans, especially creative professionals, have a deep, spiritual need to make things. Life doesn’t often afford us time to do so, but we owe it to ourselves to carve out opportunities for hands-on creativity at work and at home. This is how we stay engaged, inspired, and energized by our work.
And as design leaders, we can inspire our teams to do the same and respect the makers within us all.
Design leaders at creative companies work with amazing engineers, PMs, and designers every day, making products that can reach millions of people and make their lives better. It can be enormously satisfying to create software products that matter to the world. But as leaded and managers, the demands on our time can block out hands-on maker time. What keeps us from creating as if we were still playful kids?
As a leader of a 300-person design team, my primary job is to create the conditions for other people to do great creative work. Being a manager means giving up your own maker time for others. I often say to my team, “I attend meetings so you don’t have to,” and I really believe that’s true. Leaders add a lot more value when we coordinate the overall team than when we get in the weeds.
But, of course, the maker in us still craves creative time.
Getting that hands-on maker rush is difficult when your job is to make software. It can be magical to transform 1s and 0s into useful, beautiful things. But you can’t hold, feel, or smell software. After 20 plus years of design work, most of what I have made is gone, and I have to rely on screenshots or the Wayback Machine.
In addition, physical media more often results in a finished project. If you fire a ceramic bowl, you can’t really iterate on it: you just move on and make the next bowl. But you rarely get to do that in software because there’s always the opportunity to change, tweak, and improve it. That’s a strength of software, but it can also feel like a treadmill you can’t escape.
Bless you if you can easily take the time for creative pursuits for your growth and enjoyment. For the rest of us, schedules seriously inhibit maker time. I’m a leader, a wife, a mom of three, and a concerned citizen, so there are many legitimate demands on my time. If I paint or knit instead of spend time with my husband or kids, it can feel silly or even selfish.
But it’s a big mistake to neglect the maker. We can be more effective, creative, and happy if we find regular outlets to inspire and energize us. And as leaders, we should help our teams do the same. Here’s why.
These are just a few of the gifts and benefits of hands-on creative time…
To do good work as designers, we must embrace the constraints of the problem and materials we’re working with. It’s a critical part of a designer’s job.
“Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.” — Charles Eames
In the digital design world, for example, we design around connection speeds or the limitations of operating systems.
But it’s important for the creative soul to occasionally be relieved of constraints or to trade them in for new ones; to create spaces where you can practice creativity without constraints; to not worry whether your output will be useful to someone else; to focus on the process and not give two figs about the outcome.
Learning a new hands-on creative craft is a great opportunity to be a novice. Earlier this year, I started taking a watercolor class for three hours every Saturday. No one in the class knows I’m a professional designer, and there are no expectations but to show up on Saturday and to try and try and try, fail, and learn along the way.
I’m still a very mediocre watercolor painter. This new hobby has been a fierce and stormy collaboration between me and the water. I started by thinking my job was to control the water; how wrong I was. I’m learning how to respect and understand the water, and how to think about color and transparency in new ways. It helps me check my tendency to try to make things perfect, and it’s teaching me when to consider the painting done. In class, I can let go of the “burden of expertise” for a couple of hours each week before I get back to the office on Monday.
Many of the designers I work with have deep expertise and have worked hard to achieve their status. It’s scary to drop back to the bottom of the learning curve. But it keeps us growing, reminding us that we can learn new skills. It keeps us open to feedback, reminding us that we can do better. And it also keeps us humble, reminding us what it’s like to struggle, making us more empathetic colleagues.
Reconnecting with our creativity can produce eureka moments. Working with our hands helps us get “in the zone,” a magical place where we lose track of time and forget where we are. Years ago during art school, I’d slip into this state as I printed photographs in the darkroom; I’d stay in there for hours, missing meals and relishing complete focus on the task at hand.
We can’t always solve problems sitting at the computer. Ever wonder why that famous story of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” was set in a bathtub? Or why there’s a subreddit dedicated to insightful revelations called “Showerthoughts?”
When we step away from problems and go for a walk, take a shower, or go for a drive, sometimes the solution pops up when we least expect it. Immersive creative activities can serve this purpose as well. Our mind can release its focus on a specific design problem and go search for existing information in our memories, then combine it or connect it with other things we know. When our hands are at work, our subconscious goes to work on our behalf.
I may be painting or printing or knitting, but my brain is processing, synthesizing, and ruminating in the background, cracking that tough challenge I couldn’t seem to figure out when I was racking my brain sitting in front of my computer.
These benefits are some of the reasons I dabble in watercolor, knit to the point of physical injury, and bake through an average of 10 pounds of butter each holiday season. I’m not an expert at any of them, but they all bring me a sense of joy and satisfaction. I’m fortunate to have the means to take a weekend watercolor class, along with a supportive partner who will cover for me.
But creativity doesn’t need to take a lot of time or cost a lot of money. Here are four things we can all do to make creative space for ourselves and our organizations.
You have to carve out maker time. No one will do it for you.
Maker time doesn’t have to be long, complicated to schedule, or pricey. Get a small sketchbook to draw people on the subway, or pick up an instrument you used to play. One reason I chose watercolors is that they’re the most portable painting medium. I can paint when I take long flights for work trips, introducing a bit of low-stakes creativity to a cross-country or international commute. For your team, you could set up a weekly drawing club with drawing prompts or take a photowalk near your office.
The designer Eva Zeisel, one of my personal heroes, once said, “It always looks like I’m playing, but I’m not; this is serious.” It absolutely is. Set aside time for yourself and your team. Start small and see where it goes.
Research shows that making things with your hands can decrease stress, relieve anxiety, and improve your mental health overall. Making a physical cake or scarf or drawing gives you a feeling of satisfaction when you step back to look at your finished project. Even if it’s far from perfect, it can feel very good, and best of all, it’s done! I urge you to find an opportunity to re-engage with physical media. You’ll employ all your senses and return to your digital work with new perspectives and insights.
I believe Facebook’s Analog Research Lab and the Wood Shop are some of the best investments we’ve made in the well-being of our employees. But you don’t need a company lab to give your team hands-on creative opportunities. Colored pencils, Play-Doh, and Legos all work. What’s important is that you put down your mouse and phone and pick up a brush or some clay.
Designers on your team also crave unconstrained creative outlets, and they often need your encouragement, modeling, and permission to take maker time. This is also true for people who don’t consider themselves “creative.” It’s a shame to limit creative experiences to those who do it full time for a living, because the value of creativity isn’t just the objective quality of the outcome, but the benefits of engaging in the process. The engineers and PMs you work with will be just as excited to try creative experiences.
For example, I host a valentine-making party at Facebook every year, where people can come and craft their own valentines with the supplies we provide. It’s an annual tradition that the whole cross-functional team looks forward to. The materials are simple: glitter glue, construction paper, and doilies. As a bonus, I am pretty sure I’ve made and saved a number of relationships over the years with this event.
I want you to make something here and now: a commitment.
Start an ongoing practice of offering creative breaks to yourself and your team. And if you already have a creative habit, take this opportunity to recommit or try something new. You’ll be happier, healthier, and more effective for it. Here’s a little card you can use to record a maker goal for yourself and/or your team. Writing it down will improve the chances that you make it happen.
Need inspiration? A few of my fellow design leaders have creative side outlets. Wealthfront’s Kate Aronowitz bakes, design leadership coach Mia Blume makes jewelry, Designer Fund’s Enrique Allen makes public art, and Instagram’s Ian Spalter makes kinetic marble runs.
I guess the moral of the story is this: you can either lose your marbles or make kinetic sculptures with them. Our creativity is a precious thing that’s not to be taken for granted. I hope I’ve convinced you to invest in it. And if you make something and want to share it with our community, please tag it with #respectthemaker. I can’t wait to see all the things you make!
Margaret first shared these ideas in February 2017 at Source, Designer Fund’s annual summit for design leaders. To stay in touch regarding future events, sign up for the Designer Fund mailing list. If you’re a design manager considering new job opportunities or looking for professional development, consider applying for our Design Management Bridge Program.