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Crochet, Clichés and Divine Intervention: Four Ways to Improve your Design Skills

I don’t think it’s possible to reverse engineer a design process – but I do think it’s possible to become a better designer by the things that you do and the things that you expose yourself to.

Art School’s like being plunged into a sheep dip that inoculates you against clichés” Grayson Perry.

I spent 3 decades studying and teaching textiles and art and design and I’ve also spent the last 12 years growing a business where my audience isn’t paid to critique my work. They just do it for fun.

“It is extremely arrogant and very foolish to think that you can ever outwit your audience. ”                            Twyla Tharp

So here are some of the things I’ve learnt through trial and error, listening to the wrong people, listening to the right people, listening to my heart and trusting my instinct.

  1. “Art is theft” Pablo Picasso

Unlike Grayson Perry, I actually quite like clichés. I like clichés and hackneyed metaphors. They’re like helpful and familiar bits of rhetorical flotsam and jetsam you can resort to when you’ve run out of your own words.

It’s a bit like using other people’s quotes in your writing. It’s material that can be gathered and pieced together like making a patchwork quilt using any recycled bits and bobs that you can beg, borrow or steal to repurpose into something new.

This is how ideas evolve; a creative idea is simply a new thing made up of lots of old things and presented as authentic and original. The key is to identify and avoid the clichés if you want to be taken seriously. Metaphors, on the other hand, are generally acceptable in a new pieced together idea as long as they’re not dead.  Metaphors that are over used and over worked to the point that they’ve lost their original visual imagery are basically dead as a Dodo.

 And so it is with design.

If you’ve ever tried to design anything you’ll know that not much happens by staring at a blank page. Design requires one or more reference points, something that already exists. This could be a single point of departure – a place that’s familiar and known; you can call it your inspiration, your muse, your starting point.

Or there may be several reference points that just need connecting in a different way to create a new shape, or a constellation that maybe always existed but was hiding in plain sight.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while” Steve Jobs.

So if creativity is just about connecting already existing things and referencing the familiar how do you avoid jumping on the bandwagon and using clichés in your own creative work? And how can you possibly generate anything original, new, or even vaguely interesting when any AI worth its salt can spit out a blog post in the blink of an eye on any topic under the sun.

Well, in a nut shell, it’s about finding your own voice, or your own visual language.

That sounds straight forward enough, but it’s easier said than done.

 OK. Bored with the clichés now.

That’s the point. The cliches will only get you so far. They’ll get you started, like feeding an idea into a chat bot, but they’re like dead ends – they don’t really go anywhere, they just stop

2.  Look for inspiration in the right places.

It’s unlikely that your phone or laptop screen is the place where you’ll find the most meaningful inspiration. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth seeing there – in fact, it’s the opposite, there’s too much to see.

Developing your own visual language requires a certain kind of perception. If you bombard your creative soul with hundreds of other people’s images and ideas they’ll most likely suffer artistic paralysis, and I’m definitely speaking from experience here.

Like most breathing humans I’m easily seduced by a pretty picture in Instaland and I’ve been conditioned to keep scrolling and consuming more and more until I’m absolutely saturated with little squares of loveliness. This has the reverse effect of making me feel rubbish. I start questioning my own work, imposter syndrome kicks in and I use the little squares of loveliness as ammunition against myself and my work.

Too much scrolling and swiping results in internal dissatisfaction but also the blandification of everything. The mediocre, the toe curlingly dreadful and the extraordinarily fabulous are all fed into the same grinder and presented on the same plate with no context.

Looking for inspiration online is like looking through a magic telescope. It directs your attention in such a way that you’re so busy being seduced by the illusion you can’t see what’s actually right in front of you. Everything you’ve ever experienced, in your real life, is inside you waiting to be recycled, repurposed and revealed, you just need to give yourself permission to use it

 “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” Ansel Adams

  1. Go deep.

What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”  Eugene Delacroix

You don’t need to be ‘a genius’ to keep prodding at an idea.

I remember being an art student in the pre digital age; this was the age of the slide projector.

Lectures tended to be illustrated with hundreds of slides and after just a few minutes of trying really hard to concentrate the hypnotic double click of the slide projector would lull me away into daydream land. The projected images gradually became as meaningful as the wallpaper in the college canteen.

I loved these lectures. I loved the passivity of them. I didn’t have to do anything except let the images wash over me as I tuned in and out of the narration listening to the projector clicks.

By the end of the lecture I’d maybe remember one or two images (without names, dates or context) and I could describe in forensic detail the pattern on the blouse of the lecturer.

Years later when I found myself in a lecture theatre delivering my own lessons I chose a different approach and reduced the images down to the absolute essential. I once delivered a 3 hour seminar around one image and it was a really animated discussion (at least that’s how I remember it) that went off in all kinds of interesting, and still relevant, directions. More images doesn’t mean more, or better, ideas.

The image is not the THING, it’s the ideas that it provokes that matter.

So, if you want to go deep put some limitations on your work, your creative soul will LOVE it and rise to the challenge.

Here are some ideas.

  • Use one colour
  • Use one stitch or technique
  • Give yourself a time limit (a deadline never fails to get my adrenalin pumping)
  • Spend no money – use your existing resources.
  1. Stop trying to control everything!

You don’t need to be religious to believe that you can surrender yourself to the process and have faith that the path will reveal itself to you. Call it God, The Universe, your Higher Power, Angels, Manifestation, Fate, Spiritual Energy, Flow; call it whatever you like just stop thinking that you can micro manage your way through a creative project.

Creativity is an energy and if you’re feeling frustrated, stressed, overwhelmed or stuck you’re definitely giving out the wrong vibes.

If you’re fretting and fussing over the fine details you’re preventing The Flow. And if you find yourself judging other people’s work, or comparing it to your own – or even feeling a hint of jealousy and resentment these are signs that you really need to change your approach.

When you surrender control of a creative act it can be liberating and empowering. You know that something’s going to take shape – but you don’t know exactly what.

When you stop analysing, judging, controlling and micro managing and let the playful energy of creative flow take charge you’ll enjoy the process so much more and most likely be surprised and delighted by the results.

When you let go and simply enjoy the process the end product will take care of itself.

In Europe, from the Ancients Greeks until the mid 18th century, the convention was that exceptional work wasn’t the result of an individual’s innate talent  – it was attributed to divine intervention; it was literally an act of God.

In our secular modern world, with our Culture of the Individual it’s been rather unfashionable in art circles to talk of spiritual or divine intervention. The artist as intellectual has nothing to gain by attributing their work to outside forces, to ideas other than their own. But there is a marginal movement that embraces the role of spirituality in creativity; the writer Elizabeth Gilbert articulates this beautifully;

“Sometimes – rarely, but magnificently – there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defences might slacken and your anxieties might ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path, to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you towards the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?” At this point, you have two options for how to respond.” Elizabeth Gilbert

What would you do?

So, to summarise:

4 things you can do to improve your design skills:

  • Borrow, reference, repurpose and avoid clichés like the plague.
  • Look around you, and inside you, for inspiration.
  • Go deep, there’s always more to say.
  • Stop micromanaging the process.

I write design led crochet courses for people who are inquisitive, curious and looking for a challenge. My courses aren’t  ‘crochet alongs’, they’re not a collection of downloadable PDF’s and they’re not a race to the end.

Homage to the Granny Square is a playful exploration of colour juxtaposition. (that’s how colours perform when they’re next to each other) I’ll teach you some colour basics then send you on your colour journey with a vague road map and lots of encouragement.

Wallflowers is all about dramatic contrasts and understanding the significance of tonal value – it’s an epic project that requires a particular mindset; make informed colour choices, trust the process then watch the drama unfold.

My latest project Tessellation Nation is a deep dive into design principles allowing you to immerse yourself fully in colour, composition and pattern. It’s a problem solving exercise that builds on the previous two courses and challenges you to take ownership of  your work.

If you’re ready to accept a challenge and want to take your crochet work to the next level I’d love you to join me on one of my courses.

Bookings for this years ‘Homage’ and Wallflowers courses close at the end of March and we’ve just opened a waitlist for the next launch of Tessellation Nation, with a start date TBC.

So…..“Do you want to work with me?” 

Featured images are from Module 1: Design in Tessellation Nation.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Wonderfully said, in an eagerly awaited post.
    After years of studying, art teaching, playing and exhibiting I’d been feeling that I didn’t have an “individual style”.
    I’m always referencing and trying new things perhaps not mastering existing skills.
    I’ve been interested in colour and colour theory. Teaching and researching colour using colour in drawings and hand dyed yarn.
    Recently I started making my 4th #HTTGS for my niece she asked for greens and neutrals. Colours I often avoid! Green was my school uniform colour but that was 50 years ago! I need to get over that association no longer useful .
    I consulted with #the Mercerie community to for some ideas for approaches to this palette and made some colour sketches, then made a start on the crochet blanket. As I crocheted though something else started to happen- I noticed that my greens were tending towards yellow olives ochres and khaki and blues kept appearing alongside the grey neutrals.
    Blue and yellows are colours I have always been drawn to emotionally and are colours I go to a lot!
    I’m now fully immersed in Tessellation Nation and halfway through exploring the drama l of orange / blues, coral reefs and sparking fish it occurred to me that these colour associations don’t interest me as much working from dark to light and yellow to blue there is just a bit more green and grey in there than usual

  2. This article was a little gem to receive this morning. Have read, will trial your guidance and come back for further insight as a consequence. Thank you so much.

  3. Lovely, thoughtful piece offering ideas to explore . . . or steep . . . or mull . . . depending on whether I want wine or tea. ❤️

  4. Your work, is so inspiring!
    Your creative process seems to be wrought out of you at times-it’s real and raw! I love that you share the process. It’s so liberating for all of us who struggle to even start or continue on a creative path.
    Thank you for all that you share with us. I look forward to the day when I have the time and resources to do any one of your courses. In mean time, I cheer from the side – lines and lap up each bit of wisdom and knowledge that you impart.

  5. I may never make your blanket but your emails bring me pleasure so please don’t take me off your mailing list. I have nine grandchildren and they always have something for me to knit a sweater a sock a blanket for the college they’re going to I always have something to do, but I love your blankets and just maybe …..

    1. Thank you Nancy – I’m pleased you enjoy my newsletters! I really hope you can join me on a course one day – thank you for taking the time to leave me a comment, it means a lot!

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