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Keeping creativity flowing when times are tough

Building a culture where everyone feels safe and encouraged to contribute is no small task. We are always interested in the ways teams use Figma to do just that—brainstorm, ideate, team-build—and it’s one of the many reasons we launched FigJam. Here, Senior Illustrator Alek Mackie shares how he stays creative and productive.

These are tough times. Though we’ve all been suffering in our own ways, some of us, like me, have been luckier and less affected than others. I’ve had the good fortune and privilege of being able to keep my job as an illustrator at Shopify, and continue working remotely. I’m grateful for that every day.

Through the pandemic, the rest of Shopify’s illustrators and I have been developing and launching a completely redesigned illustration style for Shopify’s product, and a bunch of other things. It has required a heck of a lot of creative energy during a time when energy is harder to come by. With so much disturbance happening both in our global community, and in our personal lives, how are we supposed to still be as creative and productive as ever?

I definitely don’t have all the answers, and different people are going to have different strategies. But here are a few things I’ve found to be helpful for me and my peers to keep that creativity and productivity flowing.

Have some fun

Making commerce better for everyone is a tall task. There are over a million business owners relying on us to design solutions to the problems that may deeply impact their lives. Big business is serious business.

Despite how seriously I take my work and responsibilities, having a little fun every once in a while has been an essential part of keeping me happy, engaged, and creative.

Highly effective hijinks

Figma has been a great way to let loose a little. We spend so much of our time in it, exploring designs, polishing final assets, building flows. To many of us, it’s a tool for doing serious design work.

But you know what else Figma is great for? Leaving a full screen image of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s face on your coworkers’ working files after hours for them to log into tomorrow morning.

Can you smell what The Rock is designing? Timeless style and elegance

Or when your colleagues aren’t looking, sneaking into their working files and placing a graphic that looks like the boss’s Figma cursor.

Figma is not liable for increased blood pressure that may occur as a result of this recommendation

The real-time collaborative environment that Figma offers is a fantastic tool for lighthearted deviancy. Maybe momentarily disrupting the monotony of the serious design process is the kickstart your project needs to make that next creative breakthrough.

Step away from the work

Taking time as a team to step away from the work and build connections with each other through something fun and creative isn’t revolutionary stuff. Visions of beige boardrooms, quick-erase markers and paper cups of tepid, watered-down Kool-Aid might come to mind when you hear “team building activity.” But it’s easy to forget just how beneficial that time can be.

What makes a good team activity, for me, is something that’s:

  • Fast and easy. Less than an hour at most. People have stuff to do.
  • Without serious goals or outcomes. I’ve got enough of that already, thank you.
  • Optional, and casual. If someone doesn’t want to join, you have to accept that. If somebody just wants to watch, or has to leave early, great! They’re honoring their boundaries. Respect.
  • Consensual. Tell your team that you’ve got an idea to do something fun together. Ask them if that’s of interest to them. Make it clear that it’s optional.
  • Inclusive. Everyone on the team is invited. Work together as a group to find what works for everyone who wants to join. Consider the accessibility challenges for different people and ensure everyone has equal opportunity to participate.

For example, we’ve done a biweekly asynchronous, Creative Brain Time drop-in activity where we’re given a creative design prompt, and we set aside a small amount of time to do it on a Friday afternoon. Or a little while ago, my team and I played a game where we used KastApp to stream an episode of Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting together, and followed along with an online MS Paint simulator. It was a hoot. Maybe FigJam next time?

Behold, my life’s work

Talk as people

Intentionally making the time and space for human connection is more important than ever. Without it, our connection with each other becomes limited to meetings with a specific business purpose or time-boxed outcome.

Personally, I’m here to do my job well, and I need some level of genuine, human, not-about-work connection from 9-5. These things can coexist, and even support each other.

Have jam sessions

Jumping into an unplanned multiplayer jam session in Figma has been a great way for us to both connect with someone in a conversational way, and get the work done.

We might be working on the same thing together, simultaneously. Or we could be working on our own individual projects and having a chat at the same time, just as a bunch of folks sitting beside each other in a physical office space might.

There is no right or wrong here—it’s about what works best for you, your boundaries, your work, and energy levels. It doesn’t even need to be a video chat, it could be audio only. Or you could talk with written comments. Or heck don’t talk at all and just have a cursor buddy floating around the same space as you. The point is to know what you need to feel well, and make the space for it in your workflow.

Plan casual meetings

I can often experience some feelings of shame or guilt associated with spending company time on something that doesn’t have deliverables. But booking in an hour every Friday to gather as a team, catch up, share a refreshing beverage, and do some weekly rituals isn’t a corporate cardinal sin—it's an important part of building a healthy, connected group of people.

Especially nowadays, with many of us in distributed digital workplaces where “water cooler talk” in the break room doesn’t just happen anymore, intentionally making the space for small talk is all the more important. These are the spaces where we can connect on the common plane of day to day existence (and what we watched on Netflix last night).

Embrace the mess

Sitting at my frosted aluminum-bodied laptop, trying to build beautiful and functional digital experiences, sometimes it can start to feel like I, too, must be as polished and organized as the things I make. Or that the quality of the things I make reflects on my own value as a person.

I so often forget that I’m basically just a fleshy tube a few short rungs up the evolutionary chain from the mighty sea cucumber.

Show the rough stuff

Embracing the rough work—and getting feedback on my work earlier in the process—frees me from the burden of impossible standards I set for myself. It leaves me with more energy to dedicate to feeling good, and doing good work.

In practice, this involves not spending time polishing some work before a feedback session. If I understand the work well enough to explain it, and I know what kind of feedback I need relative to where I’m at in the process, it doesn’t need to look pretty.

Or I might welcome real-time collaboration from a trusted colleague in my chaotic Figma working files. The product design equivalent of inviting a friend to hang out in your filthy teenage bedroom. The more I embrace work in progress as work in progress, the more I’m free to spend my energy where it can be really useful.

It’s a thing of beauty

That said, it’s important to recognize some of my privilege here. As a cis-gendered white man, I have so much more power and safety in these spaces than so many other people. I can be vulnerable, show rough work, and have much less at stake than most people different than me would. Someone who chooses to not show their rough work might need to do that to keep themselves safe. Challenging ourselves to grow is important, and so is recognizing and respecting people for who they are and what they experience.

Wrapping it up

You’ve probably noticed a theme here around human connection and productivity. I believe humans are fundamentally interdependent, communicative, group-oriented creatures. Our wellness and our connection to each other are deeply intertwined. Even in these high tech, high performance, highly fabricated workplaces.

For people to be creative and productive at their greatest potential, they need to feel good. If doing something helps someone feel safer and more supported, they will do better work. Spending time in that way is a good use of company resources because nourishing genuine human connection is solving a high-impact business problem. We’ll make better things, and all be better off for it.

Take care!

For more activities to do with your team, check out FigJam templates on the Figma Community.

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