Staying Creative While Staying In Place

By Joe Violante. Joe is Executive Creative Director at CBX, has more than 25 years of design knowledge and experience in branding, packaging and corporate identity.


Contrast is a key concept for any artist or designer. But now contrast – the massive gulf between what life is like today versus the way it was just weeks ago – looms for all of us.

As head of our creative studio in New York, I’m accustomed to spending my days in our “brand rooms” riding the energy of in-person collaboration. I’ll dive into animated debates, hang sketches and designs on the walls and exhort everyone to push the limits of their creativity. Maybe it’s a young designer working on branding for a CBD gummy startup, or a team of brand strategists charged with re-envisioning one of America’s CPG icons.

After 25 years in the business, I have come to cherish such collaboration every bit as much as the sight of one of my own ideas brought to life on a package or in a logo.

What to do now that I’m home an hour north of our Manhattan office amid the isolation of social-distancing and the difficult news coming out of New York and just about everywhere else in the world?

The first thing is to be grateful: The Hudson Valley is beautiful, and my wife and I live five minutes from the peaceful Hudson River. We’re thankful for every day spent in safety and health.

We also know to look for the unexpected opportunities that can emerge in times like this.

For creatives in marketing and branding, the solitude of quarantine may present such opportunities. When Zoom is your only way to commune with your colleagues, what choice do you have but to look within?

Here are three tips for reconnecting with the joy of your creativity during this time.

No. 1: Recognize Resistance – And Fight Back

Blank Canvas (Deadline), the 1938 Saturday Evening Post cover by the American artist Norman Rockwell, captures that moment prior to putting paint to canvas, pen to paper or stylus to iPad. It’s a self-portrait of the artist scratching his head, staring at the blank canvas and confronting what you could think of as “the void” – the absence of a creative idea.

Rockwell turned that moment into one of his most iconic works. But as a wry commentary on 21st-century America, you could easily paint a different picture—one in which the artist dodges that challenge by staring into a glowing smartphone as the blank canvas, willfully ignored, looms in the background.

One consequence of shelter-in-place is that artists and designers now have more time and space to themselves. That could mean going for a quiet neighborhood walk or contemplatively sipping a craft beer. On the other hand, habit could drive you to fill the space with Pinterest, Instagram or YouTube.

The will to distraction is a form of resistance to “blank canvas” moments. When you put down your phone or TV remote and embrace what’s happening within yourself, you reconnect with your creative wellspring. It’s the first step to bringing fresh ideas to your personal and professional work.

No. 2: Connect With The Classics

Before the pandemic, I routinely encouraged young creatives in our studio to get out there and study the world: “Hey, you ought to go down to the organic co-op and scope out some local, natural brands,” I might say, or “Have you checked out the ‘Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll’ exhibition at the Met? It rocks!” Having new aesthetic experiences, or even just gathering to talk, laugh and drink coffee, can kickstart your creativity.

Unfortunately, gathering for social and aesthetic adventures is not an option right now. However, creatives can find inspiration by plunging into aesthetic experiences of a different sort. In my case, that could mean dusting off an Andy Warhol art tome or putting on Bob Dylan’s 1975 classic “Blood on the Tracks.”

It’s a good time to revisit classical works of art and design – everything from the Bauhaus to Pablo Picasso to Calder. Or you could turn to some of those feature films and documentaries that speak directly to what you love about the creative process. For me, that could be something like “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” (2012), about author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, or “To Inform and Delight” (2009), about the American graphic designer Milton Glaser.

You’re bound to stimulate your own creative impulses. If you’re a talented illustrator, that could make you more likely to skip the stock images and create something truly original for your client.

No. 3: Pay Attention To The Changes

Lastly, pay attention to how the pandemic is affecting you emotionally, because this will inevitably show up in your work. I’ve been thinking much more about humanity writ large—the beauty and challenge of our lives. Sustainability, too, figures more prominently for me as I contemplate the future of our troubled planet. Others I have spoken with describe being more cognizant of history and of the struggles our ancestors overcame.

The culture in which many of us grew up was filled with Volkswagen Bugs, G.I. Joe action figures and powdered Tang. But unbridled optimism about industrialized production may be giving way to something more realistic. My sense is that when all of this is over consumers will be looking for brands that are altruistic, beneficial and truthful.

Artists and designers should be thinking about how to tell the stories of those companies and brands that aim to help. Fortunately, we know where to find the inspiration for that effort: It’s there waiting for us in the blank canvas.