20 creativity secrets from the world's best designers & illustrators

20 pieces of advice from best of the best on what helps them do their best work, sparks ideas, or keeps them creative.


Editor's note: I was digging through our archives the other day looking for a quote from Noma Bar, when I found a piece we'd published in 2009 full of creative secrets. "This'll be funny," I thought. "Semi-transparent geometry. MySpace. Adobe CS4 and CSS on the Web. Lots of references to Shephard Fairey's Barack Obama poster."

But in fact, most of this advice is just as important now as it was then. Some things might have changed - Rian's probably still searching Dropbox for files rather than his desk for a DVD-R - but the principles have stayed the same.

So let's get started.

“When stuck for material, think back to some terrible childhood trauma and draw it. Works every time.”

Gemma Correll, illustrator and fan of “drawing, pugs and coffee”


“Developing, building and stubbornly maintaining a successful visual style will ultimately kill your creativity – and your career. Change constantly or die.”

Bob Staake, illustrator, winner: Time Best Magazine Cover 2008

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“Think before you start to work. Something should be in your head or your sketchbook before you switch on your Mac. I never let my Mac control me – he knows his place; he is only a tool that helps me execute my thoughts.”

Noma Bar, illustrator, creator of the new book Negative Space


“Brainstorm and rapidly prototype – force yourself to come up with as many ideas as you can, but spend no more than five minutes on each one. It’s surprising how quickly this can expose ideas that work and those that don’t. Often, ideas you least expect work best.”

Simon Crab, co-founder, digital agency Lateral


“For video, storyboards and animatics are crucial, but they needn’t look beautiful – mostly, they’re just a guide. Carry a notebook and pencil for sketching out ideas, and use basic storyboards to test out ideas as a sequence, and to make important storytelling, timing and editing decisions.”

Chris Sayer, animation director at Wyld Stallyons

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“Create seminal pieces that tell the world about what you love, where you draw inspiration from and where your enthusiasm peaks. This could attract a dream client or collaborators you share a common bond with. I love nature, so I create pieces to attract clients needing something nature-themed, to work together promoting, recreating or enthusing over nature.”

Ben O’Brien, illustrator and creator of the Speakerdog line of paper toys


“Keep your desk tidy – not like mine. I spent an hour this morning looking for a DVD of images for a book cover, and finally had to ask the client to upload them again to our FTP. It turned out they’d mistakenly sent the DVD to a ‘Ryan Hughes’ in California, but with all that mess, I assumed it was under there somewhere.”

Rian Hughes, font designer, illustrator and occasional comic-book artist


“Take photos of anything that tickles your fancy to use as inspiration later on. Don’t worry about quality or reflections - the pictures are just reminders. I love a badly stuffed weasel at the Bristol Museum. Its unnaturally arched spine and placid face are beautiful. I never got a good picture, but found something on my camera recently, and turned it into a character illustration.”

Phil Corbett, illustrator and creator of the Kitten Parasites clothing label and book

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“Take advantage of software integration. I create artwork in Illustrator and develop it in Photoshop. Vector elements pasted into Photoshop become Smart Objects, that can be subjected to treatments like adjustment layers, masks and smart filters – great for creating subtleties of texture and colour that are lacking in designs made purely in Illustrator.”

Matt Lyon, designer and artworker


“Work without distractions such as ‘new email’ alerts, and play your favourite music – that which affects you – to do your best work.”

David Carson, designer, and author of bestselling book The End of Print


“Aim to spend a day entirely focused on creating one particularly special piece of work. Do everything you can to make this possible – avoid distractions in your schedule, and ensure you’ve had a good night’s rest and have a clear desk.”

Alex Mathers, illustrator and admirer of bold, simple, smooth forms

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“Breaking your routine encourages your powers of observation and critical judgment, enabling you to view work from a wider perspective. Tunnel vision is the enemy of the single-minded worker, so take a side-step and look at something you don’t expect. Go for a walk, head in a new direction, to a place you’ve never been.”

Holly Wales, art director, illustrator and lecturer


“I got this Twinings tea multipack recently. It’s made up of Assam, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Breakfast and Ceylon, and I find dipping into it perfect to spark that bit of creativity.”

Matt Dent, D&AD Black Pencil winner for UK coinage redesign


“To work as an illustrator, don’t think you need to be ‘born talented’ – it’s not about holding the best cards, but playing the ones you have well. Know yourself, work hard, and understand your weaknesses but also what you’re good at.”

Murilo Maciel, illustrator and designer for clients including Pizza Hut and Sony

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“Paste flat shapes from Illustrator to Photoshop as Shape Layers. Smart Vector Objects are great to maintain vector information in complex art, for choosing spot colours, and for rescaling. When working on murals or billboards, you can start at a third of the finished size and later upsize without losing quality.”

Radim Malinic, art director and designer, for clients including Mini and MTV


“When creating complex layered compositions, stroke thickness needs a lot of attention. Use a smaller stroke thickness in a lighter colour to make background items subtler, and a thicker, slightly darker stroke for foreground items, so they appear more clearly. For the focal point, use the thickest stroke and darkest fill colour.”

Stephen Chan, vector designer and illustrator


“Save time creating digital artwork by learning keyboard shortcuts. In Photoshop, use Actions to record specific tasks, such as changing the resolution of a batch of images rather than amending each one manually.”

Yee Ting Kuit, pattern-obsessed illustrator

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“Interesting compositions help retain interest in a drawing when there are many details – for example, mathematically dividing a page and balancing black and white equally. Working with rules like this keeps your brain creative – because you always want to break them, and when you do break them it makes sense.”

McBess, illustrator, director and Dead Pirates noise-maker


“If I’ve hit a creative wall playing with colour, and pushed hues in a direction that appeals, but not created a cohesive image, I’ll make duplicates of the image, add a layer of colour and go through blending modes to see what more is possible. I’ll then pull colour ideas from these variations.”

Autumn Whitehurst, Brooklyn-based illustrator of streamlined figures


“To get inspired and think of fun new ideas, half an hour hula-hooping in the garden usually does the trick.”

Alex Godwin, illustrator and owner of Tikki Tembo greeting cards company

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“When starting a project, I grab visual reference. With a blobby, blocky sketch as a background, I layer reference images in Photoshop, with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer topmost that knocks back the colour to a low-contrast greyish look. I assign a layer mask to each layer image and invert the mask, turning the image invisible. Using a radial gradient, I work into the mask, exposing parts of hidden images, moving through the layers until something takes shape.

“The vagueness and lack of precision allows for happy accidents, where bits of exposed image work on other exposed images. From that foundation, you can refine masks, resize or reposition images or start the illustration proper.”

Mark Harrison, concept artist for TV and videogames, and comic-book artist


“Every few years, a creative group or individual affects the immediate culture of artistic individuals and their peers. It’s then up to those people that find it inspiring to go off and make their own innovative solutions, not just copy what inspired them."

Stan Zienka, associate creative director at Attik


“You need to work on being original and make work you’re passionate about – don’t let people tell you what’s cool.”

Noah Conopask, associate creative director at Emmy-winning VFX and animation studio Shilo

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“Don’t spend much time looking at other people’s work. Know what’s going on and be aware of it, but do what you want, how you want to do it, and worry about who else is doing it later.”

Sean Freeman, illustrator, published in Wired, VH1 and the Guardian


“We keep a library of 3D models we’ve built or purchased. This enables us to quickly mock up 3D scenes for style frames, preliminary composition or a rough pre-viz. Also, a ‘dirt’ pass – otherwise known as ambient occlusion – enables clients to get an idea of form without getting into texturing and lighting, which may complicate the approval process.”

Scott Sindorf, principal and co-founder, UVPHACTORY, designers of Lady Gaga’s MTV Video Music Awards set


“The capacity to endlessly experiment with Illustrator is fantastic. You can start with an outlined letter and apply all manner of functions to see what happens. Duplicate combinations of tools to create unusual patterns, scatters and vortexes. Have no expectations or plan – just slice, dice, duplicate, stretch and repeat, and the results may surprise.”

Seldon Hunt, designer, and cover artist for ISIS and Kid 606

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“I sometimes walk the streets for hours, sketching and taking photographs. Getting lost in the city can be a great thing. I often get off the Tube at a random station to see what I can find. I stumbled across a fair in south London one day and took a picture, returned to the studio the same day and was inspired to create the accompanying illustration.”

Jimmy Turrell, graphic artist, art director for the Guardian at Glastonbury 2009


“Loosen up with the oldest exercise in the world: drawing a nude model. Make it new by doing it on a tablet in Photoshop. If the legs look too short, try ‘perspective’ to make them longer; if the colour is too drab, bump it up in layers. No mess, no mistakes! And if you’re timid, try it first with a mirror, in the privacy of your own home!”

Jan Pienkowski, artist, pop-up book pioneer and creator of Meg & Mog