Getting Lost & the Creative Process

Illustration by Robert Jarrell

Have you ever been lost? We all have at one point or another and I imagine some have gotten lost more than others. When I was a child I was lost at Disneyland for a whole lifetime of fifteen minutes. I thought I would never see my parents again. It was a terrifying experience. When I was a young adult and first moved to San Francisco I was lost all the time, even with the assistance of a map. This was back in 1990; maps were printed on paper and you folded them and put them in your pocket. One time when I was lost, perhaps my first day alone in the city, I called a friend I was meeting and he told me to take the "N Judah". I thought he was from another planet. The train line was unfamiliar to me and taken out of context "N Judah" might as well have been a martini or the name of a Martian. It's one thing to be lost and then it's another to be lost and confused by directions that are supposed to help you find your way. But this was the kind of lost that was good. It was lost in the way everything was new and I wasn't in a hurry to make it familiar.

I've had the same experiences when I've travelled somewhere for the first time, rather it be Seattle, Vancouver, Rome, or Toyko. That is why traveling is often associated with being good for stimulating one's perception. It makes you present and more aware of your surroundings. You notice everything because it is new and unfamiliar and because you attempt not to get lost, but inevitably do. I once had a writing teacher who suggested that when describing a place, even if it is one you are familiar with, describe it as if you were visiting it for the first time.

Getting lost can be more than about one's self in a physical place. In Rebecca Solnit's enchanting book A Guidebook to Getting Lost she quotes Meno, a pre-Socratic philosopher, who once asked "How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?" This riddle in the form of a question is familiar to any scientist or artist who through their process or methodology must find a way to arrive. This comes via experimentation, trial and error, and hypothesis. And these are all methods synonymous with being lost.

As an artist and designer I've come to accept that part of the process of creating a painting, a new website design, or any other creative project often requires exploration and often I need to get lost before I arrive. Creating art for myself is easier because I understand this process and I'm the only one who needs to make decisions along the way. I understand that the work I just created might not be the final piece, but is rather one step to get to the next one. I may need to create a handful of paintings to get to the final painting. This is why some artists will call some of their works "studies." The same process holds true for the novelist who writes countless drafts that often take years to be molded into the final novel. Those first drafts are usually messy and a lot of it will be edited out. The writer needs to get lost in those early drafts in order to understand characters and develop the plot. It's rarely perfect the first time, unless your Jack Kerouac and are willing to call that first germination a final work. For On the Road this might make sense because its intention is a story of uncertainty; the characters are constantly traveling and searching for experiences and meaning. Jazz music—a character in the novel, is an improvised music. It is created while the musicians are lost in their exploration. It's what gives the music its character and charm and Kerouac's novel is essentially "a Jazz novel".

Sometimes seeing a work of creativity in its lost state is wonderful because it has a raw, unfussy quality about it. Some might call this a beautiful imperfection. The Japanese call it Wabi-sabi. I often like watercolors by artists who are well known for their paintings. Anselm Keifer's watercolor studies are for me as powerful as his massive mixed media paintings. Kerouac's On the Road has that quality as does Franz Kafka's The Castle—a work that was unfinished at the time of his death. But would I want to see an early cut of the first Star Wars film? Probably not. Yet George Lucas did revisit his original film and made what he thought were digital improvements to sections of it he was initially unhappy about, but didn't have the technology to address at the time it was originally made. Most Star Wars fans agree the original is far better with its flaws than the eye-candy perfection of the digitally enhanced, which proves that sometimes great works of art should be left alone even when they are not perfect.


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during the process of creating art or design one feels very close to it; feels the struggle that took place and the process to get past it, the getting lost that occurs and the misconception that you have found the way out.


I accept that getting lost is part of the creative process, but sometimes this is difficult to carry over in design because I'm no longer working alone. I'm designing with others or for others. In either case my acceptance of getting lost and exploration may not be appreciated or understood, or there is simply not enough time to explore. Often projects have deadlines that require quick turn arounds. This is often a sign that the company is unorganized and is incapable of planning ahead. It's also sometimes just ignorance of the design process. I've often said that as a designer time is my worst enemy. Why? Because if I create a design that is needed by the end of the day then tomorrow when I look at it with fresh eyes I will often see where it can be improved or realize it isn't working. The design needs time to be looked at, or not looked at, so that you can look at it again. The German painter Gerhard Richter will often make a painting in a single day and love it, but knows when he looks at it again tomorrow he will no longer feel the same way. The reason for this is that during the process of creating art or design one feels very close to it; feels the struggle that took place and the process to get past it, the getting lost that occurs and the misconception that you have found the way out. The first day of Richter's painting is in fact just beginning to get lost and the question he has to ask is does he want that painting to be On the Road, the original Star Wars, the enhanced Star Wars or something even beyond that, the answer to Meno's question. One way or the other we need separation from the work in order to see it with fresh eyes so we can either leave it alone or move forward.

Design is a different animal because often you are no longer working alone and not everyone on board wants to get lost. When showing "design drafts" I need to remind clients that it is in progress, but sometimes this is hard for them to accept or appreciate. I'm thinking of one experience I had where the client was hostile in his review of a web page I had mocked up for him. It was the first draft and the first review. The design completely missed what he was looking for even though it was in essence what he had asked for, but instead of giving me constructive feedback that steered me in the direction he was envisioning he berated me. This doesn't do anyone any good. He missed the point of the review; that it is an opportunity to point out what is working and what is not so that I can revise the design to make it better. There was no reason to be hostile about it. He could have given me the same exact feedback but in a positive way. The design was lost; it hadn't arrived yet, but he didn't realize that this is part of the design process. He wanted to see the final result. Keeping my poise I thanked him for his feedback and did a second draft and the next review was accepted with no more comments from him.

Every time we learn something new we will be lost (for awhile), make mistakes, and then learn from them. I associate getting lost with learning. Getting lost leads to discovery. Getting lost is a good thing.

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Some Easy Ways to Intentionally Get Lost

Take a different route to work that you have never taken before; have lunch at a place you have never been to (and maybe even ask a coworker to lunch who you have rarely spoken to); brush your teeth with your other hand; learn something new that might seem challenging to you; turn a painting in progress upside down and continue from there; take photographs without using a view finder and instead hold the camera away from you at different angles, high and low, to capture your subject; and how about this, put your smartphone away ("use the force Luke") and don't rely on GPS, unless your really lost of course.