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3 Ways to Innovate Like an Artist

It takes creativity to stay ahead of the crowd.
3 Ways to Innovate Like an Artist

Wax figure of the famous Picasso from Madame Tussauds, Siam Discovery, Bangkok.

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At 28 years old, I’m the author of two books and an international speaker, and I work closely with some of the biggest names in my industry. None of that was an accident. I attribute my accomplishments to a skillful combination of entrepreneurship and artistry. 

Let me begin by noting that I never intended to become an artist, or more specifically, a photographer. My ambitions were more geared to climbing the ranks of corporate America. By the age of 22, I was regional sales manager for an educational firm based in New York City. Two years later, our firm's primary source of income plummeted. I was now 24 and unemployed. 

Around that same time, I met a great mentor, also a photographer who introduced me to what I call “creative entrepreneurship.”

Creativity re-imagined.

I work in a very saturated and competitive market. Just like any other industry, as new technologies and platforms emerge, staying profitable becomes increasingly difficult, as potential clients are swayed by what is “new and shiny.” Learning how to consistently remain up-to-date and innovative therefore becomes less an option and more about survival. As an artist, you still have to adapt to emerging markets.

I believe that innovation and a creative process that leads you there isn’t just an inherited trait, it’s an acquirable skill set. By definition creativity is a broad term used to describe the use of your imagination. People assume that creativity is limited to artistic work, but it’s grander than that. Your creativity allows you to form new ideas, methods, and alternatives in any aspect of your life, including business. Just because you’re an amazing artist, doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to success. In fact, the most financially successful artists that I know aren’t what most of society would define as creative, they’re better entrepreneurs.

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Learning how to be creative.

I will admit that I envy and admire those unique individuals who are inherently creative, and who can pull ideas from what I presume to be a bottomless well of ingenuity. I am not one of those individuals. If you’re like me, you may quickly deduce problems, but coming up with solutions speedily isn’t as easy. This is why adopting a creative process is invaluable. Regardless of the situation, be it innovating a new product, competing with a competitor or resolving unforeseen events promptly, having a solid creative process will mean that you have the necessary means to adapt to any situation.

1. Define your target and focus on what must change.

Most individuals would assume that having unlimited options is a great thing. I would argue that is not always the case. Having unlimited options means that you have unlimited solutions, and therefore determining which one of those solutions is the best option can quickly become overwhelming. As Austin Kleon points out in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The way to get over a creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.”

Focus on defining your target outcome and what variables you can directly influence to guarantee that outcome. For instance, if your goal is to change quality, focus on the variables that directly influence the quality of your product or service. If your outcome is speed, focus on variables that you can influence that directly impact speed.

For example, producing video content is time consuming. Between producing content, filming content and editing content, a four-minute video can take hours, if not days to produce. If my goal was to shorten the amount of time that it takes to create video content so that I can produce more, I’d focus on the elements that are the most time consuming and find what I can do to shorten that workflow. It’s counterproductive to start thinking about how I can improve the quality of the video content if my goal is to shorten my workflow. While that may sound obvious in my example, there are plenty of times when you should have that same targeted rationality when coming up with new ideas.

Related: A Secret to Creative Problem Solving

2. Lay out all the tools you have at your disposal.

Sometimes things don’t always go as planned, and you’ll have to think quickly on your feet to get the job done. That basically sums up my career as a photographer. Every day, I’m introduced to new unforeseen events that I’ll have to focus on resolving on the fly. There are times when I won’t have the opportunity to see a set I’ll be working on until the day of a photo shoot, and while I’d like to say that I’m prepared for any situation, there’s always the risk that I don’t have the equipment necessary to get the job done and have to improvise a creative solution to do it.

Great artists are always fluid in their execution. They’re able to adapt to a situation by instantly assessing a situation and the tools that they have available. After you’ve defined your desired outcome, you need to think about the tools that you have to do it. Are the tools you have enough to achieve the outcome that you defined in step one? If not, can the tools you have at your disposal be repurposed to achieve that outcome?

Related: 5 Steps to Building a Career That Aligns With Your Passions

3. Build on solutions that already exist.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every single time. In the same manner that Henry Ford didn’t invent the car or the assembly line but improved upon both, artists draw inspiration from other artists all the time. That’s true in acting, directing, photography, and all visual media. For example, you’ll find that many of today’s horror films can be traced back to Alfred Hitchcock, as a source of inspiration.

Every artist has progressively “borrowed” and built upon the work of others. As Salvador Dali said “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” The same can be said of today’s most recognizable businesses.