Moving projects forward

By way of explanation: I thought I lost this entry, which is why it’s appearing so long after the events it describes. But I think it has some important lessons to teach, and so I’m revising it for publication today… Although I haven’t changed the context of preparing for a talk at all. The talk, by the way, went swimmingly well, and I hope to have video up in a few more weeks.

Heptagram: alchemical symbolism I’ve been working on this heptagram for the last few days, getting ready for a speech I’m giving on Monday, 26 September, on alchemy. Which is part of the reason I made this heptagram. I think it’s coming along pretty nicely. On the left, here, is the pre-color version of the design, sitting out on the deck of some friends of mine. All that line work in the points of the skip-3 star (the star of Venus, in one traditional reckoning) eventually got colored in over the course of the day.

And this is sort of the point I’m getting to. This work isn’t done yet. I wish it were. It’s more done than it was, but it’s not done-done. It’s not completed. There’s a lot more that could be added, especially if I’m using the Azoth diagram from 18th century alchemy as a jumping-off place.

But more than that, as I make this piece of artwork, I’m organizing my speech. I’m planning what I’m going to say at least in part based on what is in the diagram here. And that’s kind of the way of my projects these days: that I want the work that I do on one project to be of service to other projects. Like my efforts to install more creativity and more hands-on projects into middle school. This diagram, this artwork, is part of that effort to make something amazing and new.

In that post I just referenced, I suggest that maybe we need to teach creativity differently, by what I call Model, Language and Value.

Model represents the idea that teachers need time to be creative. The other day, a teacher brought me a worksheet that she couldn’t use (too damaged to photocopy) that contained a number of concepts and content areas that she wanted to touch on. I rebuilt the worksheet for her; I used my graphic design and research skills that I’ve acquired from this art work I’ve been doing, in order to replicate and improve the worksheet that she couldn’t use — so that now it’s better for her classroom and for her students and their age group. It’s not the SAME worksheet, but it’s similar enough that she doesn’t care about the differences.

When I handed it to her finished, though, she was astounded. “How did you do that? It looks JUST like the original!!” It didn’t, by the way. My worksheet wasn’t nearly as well laid out, and the illustrations didn’t match one another, and the lines to write on weren’t exactly straight, and the dotted lines connecting the various steps were too think, etc. But my colleague didn’t care about any of that. It was done enough.

But how does one answer a question like that? We come upon the problem of Language. The professional teacher can’t say, as the magician can: “I went to my astral temple, and I called up my Holy Guardian Angel, and with his help I completed the work in ten minutes.” Likewise, the professional teacher in the present day can’t say, as the alchemist can, “I macerated the niter from the worksheet, calcined the residue to extract the salts, cohobated them for ten minutes, and out popped your worksheet.”

The professional teacher, or teacher-as-graphic-designer in this case says, “well, I did a dozen searches for free clip art on google, and I used my experience looking at fonts to find fonts that were similar to these on the original, and I drew a lot of lines and arrows, and copy-pasted them all over the place, and I fussed with these things until they looked about right, and …”

That’s right, you guessed it. Her eyes glazed over. She just wasn’t interested. I can’t blame her. She’d spent 15 minutes poking through filing cabinets looking for this piece of paper, and found it so old and crumpled that she couldn’t use it. And fifteen minutes later I handed her a new one that serve her purpose almost as well. She wasn’t going to stand there for fifteen minutes of explanation. You wouldn’t either. And we wind up hitting the challenge of Value.

My friend Chris has a standard he calls “the least I could do.” Whenever he’s asked to do something, he identifies first if he’s willing to do it at all. If he is, he defines the minimum amount of time it will take to do that task, and he does that much. He finds, as I often do in my work, that the minimum amount of work at his level of creative capacity is often enough for his clients, as it is for mine.

And that’s because our clients, at the level we both work at, don’t really expect that we can create Madison-Avenue-quality work, or that they’re worthy of that level of work, or that they can be critics of our work. They have a standard of “good enough” just as we do. If its good enough to use, they use it; if it’s not, they don’t. And that’s the standard they hold to. In a sense, it’s the same standard we apply to magical or alchemical work: if it works, without too many negative side effects, use it.

Which brings me to the point of this post, the idea of moving projects forward. by and large, you and Chris and I — we all care about the quality and consistency of our work. We care about its beauty and elegance, its energy and aesthetics… The right typeface, the right illustrations, the right color balance, and more.

But we learn more from finished projects than we do from unfinished ones, and we learn more from multi-revision projects than we do from one-offs, and we learn more from multi-revision finished work than we do from unfinished multi-stage works.

So keep moving projects forward. Even if your client is done, take ten minutes to think about what you would do to improve on it. Let the alchemist ask, what would one more pass through fire or water do for this work? Let the magician call her holy guardian angel, and ask, what more can I do to make this nearer the work of divine perfection? Let the teachers ask one another, how will I teach this unit differently next year?

We are, in a sense, the projects we choose to do in the world, and the finished work we leave behind. Keep moving those projects forward.

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