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Working creatively without losing your mind

23 Sep 2014

This talk was delivered at the Full Stack Engineering Meetup hosted by Greenhouse. It's an iteration of my previous talk.

I. Introduction

Hi, I'm Michael Hansen. I am a game developer at Buzzfeed. I'm also a member of Brooklyn Game Ensemble, where I'm working on an adventure game with Naomi Clark, Josh DeBonis and Eric Zimmerman.

I gave a "How to break into independent game development" talk at the NYC Games Forum at the beginning of the year. I got a lot of positive feedback about the "process of creativity" part of the talk, so that encouraged me to think more about this topic.

I've thought a lot about this because I've spent most of my time as a professional not working on the things I want to work on, and so I want to make the most of the free time I do have.

I also want to talk about this because I feel like we live in a culture that glamorizes the spoils of creativity but nobody ever really talks about how how to get there. A lot of people will say "just make something" or "build a minimum viable product" as if it's easy to carry an idea from start to finish. I don't think it's at all easy or intuitive.

Facebook didn't spring into existence fully formed. It started from a completely different idea, and borrowed a lot of code from that idea too.

I think that people talk about what things are new and cool but that not enough thought is given to the process and practice of creativity. (I know that Facebook isn't new OR cool, but it's a good example of something that's blown up).

So that's what I'm going to talk about. I do game design, but this applies to anything you might do: programming or writing or graphic design.

I want to talk a little bit about what the "creative process" actually is, in order to demystify that a bit. Then I'm going to talk about dealing with frustration, and a little bit about working with constraints, which I'll explain in a bit.

II. What is the creative process

Somebody once told me that they were never more productive than when they were running for exercise. For that thirty minutes, they were doing the task they had set out to do 100% of the time.

I think they felt more productive running than they did puzzling over their computer not because they were fit, or good at running, but because running is an incredibly well defined task, which is basically this

"Convey your body through space via the legs, continuously, at a speed which causes both feet to periodically leave the ground at the same time, for a period of at least twenty minutes."

Now there are plenty of ways in which you can mess this up:

For the most part this is an easy task, and most people can reliably do "running" or their preferred form of exercise for a long enough time that they see benefits. Each of these different rules is a constraint that helps to form the concept of "running."

What does this have to do with creativity? Consider the most radical act of creativity:

"Create something new."

This is a tough task. If I gave you 5 minutes to create something new, you'd probably ask for more time. That's because this statement "create something new" is woefully ineffecient. 5 minutes isn't enough time, but over a period of 5 weeks or 5 years the probability of you creating something "new" would increase, depending on your definition of "new".

But this is still a template for creativity. Creating anything is the process of constraining this task in a new way that gives you direction.

Which brings me my next point. When you work you are doing two things:

This is an iterative process, and you switch between these two modes.

I mentioned that I gave a talk earlier this year and my creation statement for writing that talk was:

"Write the talk you will give at the NYC Games Forum."

This was too hard and it took me forever because it was over constrained from the beginning. There was no cycle between the "Creating" and "Constraining" modes. As I wrote I had to make sure that every word that I wrote was going to be a part of the talk or I was stepping outside of the boundaries of "the talk you will give at the NYC Games Forum."

I learned from this and this time it was easier to write my talk. My creation statement was:

"Write down everything that comes to mind without filtering it."

Then later I re-constrained it to:

"Read, organize, and rewrite your content."

This worked out much better, and I able to create a lot of material that I could then sculpt into this talk, without much frustration.

In order to create, answer these questions:

Be very deliberate about this step. Forcing yourself to answer these questions and think about these constraints is going to save you a lot of time. If you've ever done test-driven development, this is the same thinking.

III. Frustration

Frustration is a normal part of the creative process, and there are many different things that will frustrate you while you are trying to make or do something (represented here).

I would argue that frustration is actually the starting point of creativity. You have an idea for a thing and its absence from the world frustrates you. In order to alleviate that frustration you must create that thing.

First, you come up with your well-constrained creation statement, and then you begin to work. So now you are either working and everything is fine or you are frustrated by something else.

When you are feeling frustrated by something, that's a sign you need to pay attention. Here are the most common frustrations you will encounter.


These are really basic, but everyone has to learn these once.

You must find time to work. The easiest way to do this is to schedule time for yourself to work. Do it, stick to it, it's that easy. Pick one night a week when you have energy and no plans.

However, there's a flip side to this, and it's that before you scheduled time to work, you had a life and it was already using all of your time. There's a finite amount of time in the day, and you've been, eating and sleeping and doing other things for 100% of that time since you were born. In order to schedule "creativity time", something else is going to have to go. This is fine.

If you are a popular or particularly talented person, you will have to learn how to say no to people. Saying "I don't have time to focus on my own things" will make you sound a bit like a diva, but you're an artist now, so don't worry about it.

If you are always exhausted, you need to stop, examine everything you're doing, and cut something out. You can't be on 100% of the time. You need down time: watching movies, going on vacation, reading, eating, hiking--this is what inspires you.


So you've made time to work, and you plod along writing or programming or drawing but time passes and you have nothing to show for it. You are not maximizing your alloted creative time.

It's time to modify the constraints of your creation statement.

IV. Working with constraints

Constraints are the knobs that you can fiddle with in order to dial in a creation statement that's going to be actually useful for you.

The main constraints you might be thinking of are formal constraints, and I mean formal as in "related to the form" of your art. But I think these are relatively uninteresting! I could stand up here and rattle off game mechanics that you could try experimenting with, or tell you to make a game in 48 hours, but that probably won't apply to you if you're writing a story or creating a new dance.

If you're already interested in creating, then you already have ideas what games or dances or stories should be (or shouldn't be).

So, I want to talk about the other concerns hovering around that core idea, because if these are neglected they're the ones most likely to drive you bananas.


You need an environment that's conducive to working. That means a physical environment free of interruptions and distractions, but also a mental environment: you have eaten something and you got enough sleep last night. You also need the block of time to work on your thing, but we already dealt with that.

You also need to get comfortable with showing your work to other people. I encourage you to surround yourself with people who are interested in what you're working on, and to get feedback and direction from them. They're going to see things you don't, and you're going to learn very quickly if your ideas are being communicated through your art.

Here's another thing, because you are doing things outside of your creativity, like commuting to work or sleeping or going to the grocery store, you have access to a wealth of other environments. If you can figure out how to constrain a problem in such a way that these environments are conducive, you have found more time to be creative.

An example of this is that I play most games on my phone on the subway, so I decided to design a game that I could play on my phone on the subway. This is useful because part of the process of game design is playtesting over and over again to work out balance issues and bugs. Because I was able incorporate the subway environment into my process, I can add an hour and a half a day to my creative process.

I also use a ritual to get myself in the right frame of mind for working. Here it is:


The human mind is malleable and very open to suggestion. This may not actually make me more productive--it's literally just "relax for a bit and then get up and eat something"--but because I've practices this behavior, I've trained myself to be motivated and less distracted when I go through the motions. Figure out what your ritual is.


Know and master your tools. Your tools are different programming languages, free writing in a notebook versus on your computer, the round brush and the palette knife, coffee, whiskey, Photoshop, whatever.

Think about what each tool you have is good for. If you don't know, do the same simple task in several tools to get a feel for what each is good at. If you think you only have one tool, learn more.

Learning something new, sharpening the axe, is a good investment in yourself, and is a great use of your time. Don't ever feel bad that you haven't finished something if you've learned something new along the way.

I work a lot in the programming language Processing for graphical sketches, and I use Haxe and Unity for actual game programming. Since I use Processing for quick stuff, it's more like sketching, and I have a body of work to draw upon when I need an idea or some code for a more serious project.

For each of my tools, I have found a niche where they fit in my creative process.

V. Conclusion

So, I hope that, by talking about creation statements and the bigger creative environment that you exist in, that you now have a mental framework and a vocabulary to help you understand what it is you are doing when you bring your idea into the world. Doing your own thing is important, and being deliberate about doing it is going to help you get the most out of your time. That's it! Thanks.