Monthly Archives: May 2016

On Avoiding Creative Pitfalls

Creative Problem Solving

We were brought up with a romanticized notion of creativity as the personality trait of painters, musicians, and writers. However, Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.” It is merely a state of critical thinking. These ideas come as a result of a problem that needs to be solved, whether it’s tangible, like Uber’s solution to expensive, stinky cabs, or if it’s a little less tangible, like re-approaching a client interaction that didn’t go as well as it could have.

Solving a problem in a creative way (i.e. originally and with a valuable result) requires conscious effort. It requires thought and intention. And like any creative craft (we’re referring to those painters, musicians, and writers again), it is not completely based in talent. A masterpiece doesn’t just fall out of someone’s brain. It is nurtured over a lifetime. It is practiced.

A valuable idea is not just an idea that makes a lot of money (though if it can, that’s cool). It is an idea that solves a problem in the most beneficial and complete way.

Here are some ways to keep yourself thinking about problems in a creative way:

Question Everything

We started asking “why?” when we were toddlers, when the part of our brain that makes logical connections started to develop. Over time, we either had this curiosity beaten out of us, or we simply lost interest. However, we need this curiosity to be truly creative—we need it to look at problems in a three dimensional way.

Noreena Hertz, in her TED talk about our addictive reliance on experts, talks about a study in which volunteers’ brains were monitored in an MRI scan while they were listening to experts speak about different subjects. While they listened, the researchers noticed the independent decision making part of all the volunteers’ brains literally turn off.

(We understand the irony of citing a source that is an expert telling us not to trust experts. We’re running with it, regardless.)

If we are not continually questioning the way we do things, why we do those things in the first place, and what we want out of those things, we will never have solutions that are valuable. We need to be able to understand why things are the way they are before we can change them.

Creativity is a direct result of idea exploration. Do not take what you’ve been taught as gospel. Be the toddler. Exercise your curiosity.

Look Behind the Problem

It is important to consider what the problem really is, where it came from, how it got here.

For example, we’re reassessing our creative brief right now, and while we were discussing user experience, development of the form, and creative ways to engage our incoming clients, it occurred to us to ask, “Wait. Why do we even have a creative brief?” Do we have one because everyone has one, and that’s just how it’s done? What is important about having a creative brief? What questions must be answered? What answers are usually irrelevant?

So, we’re taking a step back. It’s not just about a better user experience, it’s about focusing on what information is pertinent and necessary to the project, and how we can best harness trust for our team.

Often, behind the problem you are trying to solve, there is a larger, more difficult problem looming. Taking on that more complicated one not only allows you to solve the problem you had, but prevent more in the future.


Constructive conflict is a key to true problem solving. You need people that poke holes in your ideas, and you can provide other people a service by poking holes in theirs. Margaret Heffernan describes this “a fantastic model of collaboration: thinking partners that aren’t echo chambers.” She describes this conflict as a form of critical thinking, a cooperative method of problem solving.

Part of killing complacency is not just asking questions, but being a whistleblower when questions need to be asked. It’s about playing devil’s advocate to fully understand a problem. 

Often, people are afraid to take this constructive conflict model seriously because there is a chance they might be wrong. According to Robinson, however, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” This is difficult because only very rarely do companies have a culture of constructive conflict. We live in a society where mistakes are penalized. Where being wrong is embarrassing. This is a completely hindering mindset to have. We need to accept that we are often more wrong than not, and that failures are “early brushes with success.”

It is important to realize that, wrong or not, the thoughts that lead people to these places are what makes constructive conflict effective. These thoughts are the meat of creative problem solving.

Be Aware of Your Blind Spots

Willful blindness is a legal concept that, Heffernan explains, declares you responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” This concept exists outside of a legal context, and is an unfortunate psychological condition of humanity.

“Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.”

Be aware of the fact that you have blind spots, that you will never truly be able to look at things in an unbiased way. Simply the act of knowing your blind spots creates the humility you need to look at problems in a holistic way. Not only should you question the people around you, but you should question yourself. Why do you do things the way you do them? We can no longer do things a certain way simply because it’s how it’s always been done.


Creative problem solving isn’t a method to be followed or a technique for better business. It’s a more complete approach to looking at the world around you. If you can solve problems for people in a way that is valuable to their lives, and you’ve done it in a way that is well-rounded, you are a creative problem solver. It doesn’t have to be Starry Night to be creative, it just has to be a valuable solution to a problem. It isn’t a step by step process, but merely a way of thinking.

An Interview with Tim Brennan

Tim Brennan Interview Illustration

Last week, Tim Brennan let us harass him via email. He talked to us about sign painting, about being an artist in Phoenix, and teased us with the phrase, “super secret project.”

Monomyth Studio: When/How did you know you wanted to be a designer? How did you get here?

Tim Brennan: Long story long: I moved to Phoenix in 2005 with construction experience, an appreciation for unhealthy extracurricular activities, long hair, a 1984 Ford Ranger, and a job offer. The job was working as a superintendent/general contractor. After a single summer and multiple accounts of heat stroke, I decided it was time for a new career path. Soon after, I enrolled at The Art Institute of Phoenix, simply because ‘art’ was in the title — something that has always been a motivating factor in my life. For the next few years I swung a hammer, went to night classes, and started freelancing. Fortunately, there was a pivotal moment during that time when I realized that being a designer wasn’t that far-fetched. I can’t tell you the specifics of that moment, or when the proverbial light bulb lit up, but it did, and I’m thankful for that. 

Phoenix Tim Brennan

Could you tell us about your creative relationship with Phoenix? What’s it like to be an artist here?

It’s safe to say relationships, in any capacity, are tricky and require a lot of work—much like a troubled marriage. At times, she is the best thing a person could ask for. She supports you, shows you affection, sends words of encouragement, embraces you and all of your shortcomings, makes you feel loved and holds you in high regard. At other times, she is the bane of your existence. She nags at your shortcomings, makes you feel inferior, constantly questions your motives, sends nasty texts, doesn’t give you the time of day, she cheats on you and you cheat on her, etc. But the makeup sex is fantastic and well worth the headache. 

All kidding aside, Phoenix is a great place to be an artist. All the pieces are in place: amazing talent, wonderful people, an awesome community, and a penchant for doing great things. We only need to keep doing what we’re doing and continue to support each other. 

What do you think an artist’s responsibility is to their city?

Support it. Love it. Be kind to it. Don’t talk shit about it. Don’t be negative about what it has to offer. Find its positive attributes and nurture them. 

Sunnyside Cafe Tim Brennan

How do you organize your artistic life, between working full time at an agency and working on your personal art?

Let’s just say this is on ongoing process. I have yet to find a work/life balance and don’t expect to anytime soon. But that’s the fun in it, right?! 

We’re really interested in your sign painting. What got you into it? What is challenging about it?

I’ve always had an appreciation for traditional sign painting and have studied it for quite a while. After all, it is the oldest form of advertising. However, I didn’t have the opportunity to really dive in—other than personal projects—until I was laid off last summer. I guess we can consider it a blessing in disguise (not so much), because the opportunity slapped me in face. I purchased my first sign kit and an old tackle box, and started taking jobs with little experience to speak of. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough to fall in love with a girl whose father is also a sign painter of 30+ years. His name is Kurt Schlaefer and he’s taught me a lot—from creating layouts and pounce patterns, to types of paint and different kinds of brushes, to brush strokes and brush styles. You name it, he knows it. And I don’t take the learning lightly. Many people think traditional sign painting is something of the past, but with the influx of hipsters and authentic, hand-crafted brands it is definitely making a comeback. I’m excited to see that and happy to keep the craft alive, no matter the size of the project.  

Newton Tim Brennan

What artists have had the most significant influence on your work? Why?

In no particular order, Bob Case, Jon Arvizu, Kurt Schlaefer, Matt Minjares, Andy Brown, Adam Dumper, Kelsey Dake, Kurt DalenDoug Penick, Victor Vasquez, Paul Dunbar, Gemma O’Brien, Barry McGee, Drew Millward, DKNG, Christian Cantiello, Jon Contino, Jakob Engberg, Nathan Yoder, everyone at Moses Inc., and so, so much more. 

The reason? Can’t specify just one. Whether it be directly or indirectly, they’ve each influenced me in different ways. It could be through personal interactions, mentorships, philosophic perspective, life goals, technical skills, aesthetic, conceptual development and/or aspirational achievements. 

If you weren’t an artist, what other career would you consider?

Digging my own grave.

What mistakes have you made along the way that have led to beneficial discoveries?

Too many to fuck-ups to count. I’ve definitely learned something from each and every one of them. The salient life lesson: keep fucking up and you’ll learn what not to do next time. 

Dry Heat Tim Brennan

Could you tell us a bit about a project you’re working on now?

I have a couple of sign painting projects in negotiations and another collaborative mural in the works, but too soon to tell. Oh yeah! There’s also a super secret project on the docket, but I’m not at liberty to discuss it. Other than that, I have some freelance design projects, commissioned artworks and, as always, personal projects along with my 9-5. Well, really more of a 7-9, but it’s definitely worth it and I love every minute of it. 

In your career, is there anything you’re focusing on at the moment? Why?

Oophta. Everything. I’m obsessive in nature—often times to a fault—in which creating things is a necessity. It’s for the love of the craft and continuing my own journey. A happy byproduct of this is creating something that resonates with someone. Whether it be an illustration, a typographic piece, a reverse glass painting, traditional signage, design or advertising, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my hand and overall process.


With an extensive background in fine art and traditional sign painting, Tim has always been fascinated with the way artwork can evoke the inherent attributes of human emotion. Utilizing emotion is the fundamental means by which a message can be conveyed and remembered; with emotion comes successful communication. Having the capacity to engage a person through a visual dialogue is of the utmost importance. Design is pivotal — whether it be a brand, a product, a service, a movement, or an idea — there is a message. This message must be seen.