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A Fulfilling Way To Get Yourself Out Of A Creative Rut

With pro bono projects, everyone wins.

A Fulfilling Way To Get Yourself Out Of A Creative Rut
[Photo: Flickr user ccbarr]

I love our clients. But sometimes, our clients aren’t enough.

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Our production cycle fluctuates. Bursts of creative beginnings lead to spells of monotonous production. It may keep the lights on, but it does little for the soul. I imagine all, save the luckiest in our industry, run on a version of this treadmill. As founder and creative director of an upstart full-service agency, I know it all too well.

Those creative bursts aren’t without their own downsides. We’re blessed with repeat business, but a dozen consecutive projects for the same client wrings out my brain like a juicer. It may be kale and dragon fruit, but three months in, it tastes like plain old orange juice to me, again and again.

That’s a fancy way of saying I burn out. It’s not the same as running out of ideas. It’s ceasing to enjoy the process and no longer being able to appreciate the result. The start of the year is typically a lackluster time at our studio. Low budget, low-imagination jobs, combined with low temperatures and the low light of a New York winter, all threaten to push me down the chute of professional melancholy. And, for years, that’s precisely where I’d tumble.

My solution to this creative depression was to do my own thing. But, identifying that elusive thing required a lot of inspired thinking.

My reality was a catch-22. When I enjoyed my projects, I spent my downtime on much-needed leisurely pursuits–the perfect fuel for maintaining inspiration. But, once I became desperate for a creative challenge, I was in the wrong frame of mind to get inspired, and—Inevitably—got stuck. Once it set in, my personal rut always led me questioning my career for its lack of real social value.

This year, though, things were different. The moment I sensed the onset of our seasonal downtime and my inkling for fun at the desk, I logged into Taproot+ and connected with FoodFight, a nonprofit that develops in-school food and nutrition literacy programs for students, teachers, and communities. Within a week, we were on a call with their director, and within two, our script for an awareness video was ready.

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I had a clear purpose into which I could channel my creativity. Not to mention, I could bask in the sunny vibes that spring up from supporting a cause I stand behind.

This concept was hatched as I prepared to teach an undergrad motion graphics class in 2010. We were in the dawn of the now-ubiquitous brand explainer videos, and for the course thesis, each of my students could work with a nonprofit. The results were mixed, but the idea evolved once I saw how giving a little something back to the world put me on the path to getting back my inspiration.

Refining 10 student projects was impossible, but bringing one project, done under my close supervision, to a professionally completed result was certainly achievable. A focus on pro bono would have clear educational value, while removing for me the discomfort of benefiting from free student labor. I could also engage and mentor without a teaching commitment.

Food Fight is Undefined Creative’s 10th pro bono project since that epiphany in 2010. Some, like event animations for UNDP’s Equator Prize Awards, I did solo. Others, like Road Recovery’s program intro, were a collaborative effort within the studio. Four were completed during our summer internship program, when we “double up” on giving back by mentoring young designers and powering up a nonprofit.

Ten projects in, I see tangible benefits:

  • I’m less creatively stifled when my daily workload turns into a daily grind. I know that when I’m ready, there’s a cause needing support.
  • Working with young designers is exceptionally rewarding. While they benefit from my experience, I revel in their enthusiasm, their yet untamed excitement, and the depths of their still largely untapped creativity.
  • Ideas flow easily. I attribute this to not feeling the intense, suffocating pressure of having to find them. Curiously, I make time for these ideas, despite pro bono commitments. I attribute THAT to not succumbing to inertia from my creative depression.
  • We can trace paid work to our pro-bono jobs. And likely, the variety added to our portfolio generates new clients in ways that are harder to measure.
  • I am able to enjoy my own incubator for learning, experimenting, and designing in directions that wouldn’t have been possible in the framework of our commercial clientele.

My greatest reward, however, is steady social contribution. I’m paying it forward, for my professional success and the support I got from others. This generates gratitude and selflessness, mental states proven to bring more happiness to one’s life. So, in choosing to create for others, I’m creating a better “me.”

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What could be better than that?

Maria Rapetskaya is creative director and founder of Undefined Creative, a creative agency she has differentiated from its competition through flexibility, low overheads, and a general emphasis on good, old-fashioned customer service.