There is no creative process

Keeping your work fresh, finding new inspiration, and raising your standards (without defying your brand standards)

Where does the best creative work come from? Nobody knows. Most of us know that it doesn’t come from a strict set of rules, structures, and templates. But everybody knows that strong brands are consistent. And consistency comes from strong brand standards. From rules.

And rules are the opposite of creativity.

I hope you like bold statements that shake you to your very core, because I have something to tell you. I also hope you’re unsatisfied with the color of your hair, because what I have to tell you will turn it bone white.

There. Is. No. Creative. Process.

None! It doesn’t exist. Those two words don’t even go together. Processes are how we get . . . things. There’s a process for making Crest Whitestrips and Nissan Pathfinders and Glade candles. There’s a process for making Coca-Cola. You take some water, add some high-fructose corn syrup and poison and sadness, and boom: Every single can of Coke in the world is exactly the same. Thanks, processes!

But creativity doesn’t have a process because it doesn’t make things. It dreams up ideas. It tells stories. It builds worlds. And it starts with a blank white page.

So I’d like to propose some new standards for your brand. Just four simple provisions that will ensure that you’re building worlds and crafting dreams and telling stories, while also looking and sounding like you.

  1. Be interesting. People don’t want to hear what you have to say. So above all, you must give them a reason to listen to you. Be clever, be useful, be funny if you can (this one’s dangerous because you’re probably not as funny as you think you are), be sexy if you can pull it off (same). Be interesting, so that people listen to what you have to say.
  2. Make an emotional connection. We make the biggest decisions in life with our hearts, not our stupid brains. We feel close to brands because we fall in love with them, not because we try them all and choose the best one. Appeal to your audience’s emotions, so they care about what you have to say.
  3. Say something real. What I mean here is not “Don’t lie.” (Although don’t.) I mean that you should say something about what it means to be human. Speak to the very human needs we all have: the need to accomplish something, or to feel like a part of a community, or to grow and improve. If you do that, what you say will resonate better with your audience.
  4. A bunch of stuff about typefaces and colors and whatever. This stuff’s important too, and you need to be consistent in your messaging, but there’s a reason this one’s fourth.

Brand standards are important, but nothing’s more important than connecting with the human beings that compose your audience. So bang around inside your brand standards and see what you can get away with. Try this:

Create a framework, then get messy inside it. Make a list of all the elements of your brand you can’t mess with. Then figure out where you can push things in new directions.

Go out of jurisdiction. Maybe you can’t alter your color palette or your typeface, but your brand standards probably don’t say much about format. A brochure doesn’t have to be a brochure, and nothing has to fit in a standard business envelope.

Embrace limitations. Hell, create limitations. Don’t have a great photo library? Do a piece that’s all words. Are you super known for your writing program? Do a piece that’s all images. Use a lot of verbs? How about something without any?

Lead with your most interesting point, not your most important one. Think less about what you want your audience to know, and more about what they’ll want to discover. Don’t give them information, give them a story.

Find out-of-category inspiration. Sure, it’s fun to see what your competitors are up to, but your out-of-category pals are probably doing something cool too. Look at consumer packaged goods, or film, or publishing. Get inspired.

Create a community. Post cool stuff you see. We can’t be too precious about our inspiration. The best ideas come when we all bring a small piece. And the greatest ideas come when we all steal a bunch of them.

Let yourself run wild. Your brand standards are like the porch light your mom turned on while you were out playing at night. They allow you to run out as far as you like into the untamed darkness, knowing you can always turn around and see the light of home.

A version of this article first appeared in AMA.