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Swapping Cartridges

Swapping Cartridges

I used to be a Joust freak.

If you don’t immediately know what Joust is, I can only pity either your clearly deprived childhood or inelegant timing in being born.

The premise, while somewhat implausible, was pretty simple – you are a gladiator riding a flying ostrich, and you try to kill the other gladiators on their flying ostriches. Every time you pounce on them they drop an ostrich egg, and you can collect these to get points.

But the best part of Joust was playing with a friend. The two of you could help or hinder each other, both intentionally and accidentally. It was glorious.

The console I had for Joust – the Atari 7800 – had what is probably the worst controller design ever. The joystick was in the center, and then it had two buttons on either side of the body, which you held in your hand.

Joust involved a lot of button mashing, which was basically like squeezing your hand in a vice every time you pressed. But Joust was also so fun that I could while away hours without even noticing. The funny thing was that at the end, I had a hand cramp from pushing the same buttons over and over.

Totally worth it.

Now that I’ve completely invalidated my rather oblique analogy…

Since we are not made of bytes and bits like our ostrich riding friends, we simply cannot do the same thing over and over without paying an awful price. There is a reason we refer to some things as “mind-numbing”, for we are always in need of intellectual engagement.

Sometimes our professional lives can feel like an old Atari 7800 game. It is extraordinarily easy to get caught in a rut of doing the same things over and over again. In many cases, this isn’t necessarily bad; there are systems and styles and processes that work, and any successful venture has to have some measure of stability.

But what happens when stability turns into redundancy? How do we swap the cartridge and play a new game?

What happens when stability turns into redundancy?

Ruts and Big Projects

I have to admit I am fairly bad at trying new things. A lot of it comes down to time, and how I feel like I don’t have enough of it. So when a project comes along, I can start with big dreams about trying something new and pushing myself into different territory, but things usually don’t work out; deadlines get moved up, other things come up, life happens. I then find myself falling back onto the tried and true methods that have worked in the past.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with this. And it’s not to say that everything turns out bad or that clients are unhappy. Rather, it’s more that my hand starts to hurt, no matter how enjoyable the game is.

Over the past year, I have tried to force myself to swap the cartridge and try out new things. For quite some time I became fairly adept at what could probably be termed a ‘collage’ style – in which I took found art and assets and transformed them into something new. I still really like doing that, but I found myself getting bored with it, because that was my go-to style.

I had always wanted to get better at illustration, but didn’t really have much skill at it. So when a project came along that was essentially begging for it, I usually had to pass because I didn’t have enough time to really work on it. I always got frustrated because I wanted to develop that aspect of my skills, but couldn’t.

I finally decided to swap the cartridge little by little. Every time I had a kind of throw-away project (announcements, etc.) I would try my hand at illustration since the risk factor was very low. Nothing amazing, of course, but my confidence grew more and more.

Ultimately, I had the chance to do an entire series artwork (including motion graphics) with just illustrations. I was really nervous, but I made sure to have enough time to get it right. It took a little longer than usual, but I was able to come up with something I was really proud of. This, of course, boosted my confidence even more, and now I find myself opting to illustrate things more and more.

Ruts and Little Tasks

Another one of my many failings is that I tend to only give value to what I consider ‘big’ things. Something like developing a new art style seems big, so I seem to be able to do that. But little day-to-day tasks elude me – both because I find them unimportant, but also because I have yet to develop the discipline to really manage them.

So yeah, I’m not perfect. (You’re shocked, I know!)

But even though I’m not adept at it, I have begun to discover the importance of good task switching. I can do hours on end just working at a design. The time flies by, I forget to eat, I don’t work on housework, emails go unanswered, etc. It all piles up, then I feel stressed out because of everything I have to do.

Even though they seem little, I have found that when I intentionally focus on them I am more productive, less stressed out, and probably even more creative. Even though I am still terrible at this, I have started to block out times to do certain things – times to check email and browse tech news sites, times to create weekly graphics, times to read and work out and spend time with my wife and with God.

I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better.

Every one of us wants to be successful, and part of that is knowing when to swap cartridges. Whether it is learning a new skill or just setting aside time to answer emails, taking time to play a new game will help you grow as a designer.

About The Author

Jason Watson

Jason Watson is a designer, illustrator and animator who lives in the Kansas City area. He is married to the beautiful and amazing Megan and dispenses theology, philosophy and history at deviantmonk.com.

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