Are You Doing Serious Work?

While ploughing through some to-do list items on my laptop, my five-year old came by to complain about being bored. I asked her to help me by drawing out her day on some graph paper. She happily framed out storyboards and began the process of putting her life to pictures.

Rough and childlike, her illustrations were exactly what you are imagining right now. Interestingly though, her drawings reminded me of Paula Scher, a renowned graphic designer and visual artist. You know her work , even if you’ve never heard her name before. She created the Citigroup logo, the original Windows logo and the incredible typographical artwork for the Bloomberg Building in NYC. Her work is multidimensional and profoundly unique but when she begins a project, her work is wonderfully rough and decidedly childlike.

This is the original concept for the Citigroup logo.

Russell Baker serious work mineral interactive

Maybe you can see why my daughter’s sketches reminded me of her work. The first time I saw her rough work, I was impressed by the lack of sophistication. There is a strong element of play when doing creative work that she, rather obviously, embraces.

Play can be a hard concept for us to understand as adults, but it boils down to the idea of creating without regard for strict practicality. Play might not seem like a thing you do much at work. While it’s true that you might not be creating your own logo (we highly suggest you don’t), you are doing creative work every day. Every time you sit down to solve a problem, offer a solution, or build out a plan for a client, you’re using creativity. To be clear, play doesn’t mean whimsy and it doesn’t mean this element of your work isn’t serious.

In her 2008 TEDtalk, Ms. Scher explained a truth about how play and work intersect that has a broad application . She quotes an article from Russell Baker that sets up a dichotomy between serious work and solemn work. Here’s an excerpt for you to see both his humor about it and the point he is making:

Being solemn is easy. Being serious is hard…Children almost always begin by being serious, which is what makes them so entertaining when compared to adults as a class. Adults, on the whole are solemn.

Jogging is solemn. Poker is serious.

Humphrey Bogart movies about private eyes and Randolph Scott movies about gunslingers are serious. Modern movies that are sophisticated jokes about Humphrey Bogart movies and Randolph Scott movies are solemn.

Solemnity is taking yourself too seriously – it’s producing work separate from your own emotion, or focusing only on a desired outcome instead of opening yourself to the possibility of all that could be. Solemn work is rote, draining, and stale, albeit reliable.

Serious work is focused and exciting. It requires a freshness and vitality that solemn work cannot stand. Serious work can be funny and uniquely you.

Your clients and potential clients need you to be serious but not solemn. They need you to see them as individuals who need your personality and expertise. When you give them your serious work, they get to build a relationship with you. If you merely give them solemn work, they may receive the same portfolio and outcomes, but they won’t get the part that will keep them there for years to come.

What do you need in order to do serious work? In large part, the answer is downtime. You need space and margin enough to conjure up fresh ideas, to take all of the important things swimming in your brain and dial them into fresh solutions. You need a mental break from the demands of media. To do this serious work, you’re going to need to schedule breaks small and large so that you can come back free of solemnity.

How are you freeing yourself from solemn work this summer?

  • Time at the lake?
  • A big trip out of town?
  • Evening walks through your neighborhood?