Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Design Lessons From Vinegar: 3 Reasons Creative Experimentation Is Good

Here’s a random question for you. Who here knows how vinegar is made? Any guesses? When you take wine (or alcoholic cider), add in a substance called “mother of vinegar,” and wait a few weeks, you will, hopefully, have vinegar. Because you’re basically doing chemistry, and chemistry is notoriously unpredictable, you could end up with a disaster instead. Try it at your own risk!

What exactly is mother of vinegar? Well, an accurate description is kind of difficult, but basically, it’s a slimy substance that provides the necessary chemical reaction in your alcohol to turn it into acetic acid, one of the main components of vinegar and the thing that gives it its characteristic flavor (and odor). Mother of vinegar is kind of repulsive to look at, but according to vinegar makers, it’s completely harmless, and if you see globs of it floating around in that bottle of apple cider vinegar you have hanging around in your pantry, you shouldn’t worry. Vinegar making enthusiasts keep their mother of vinegar to create new batches of vinegar; some people even keep the same mother for generations.

Giving Your Creativity Room To Breathe


During the vinegar making process, if you fail to store the vinegar properly, the chemical reactions could cause the mother to become volatile. If there’s too much pressure and too little oxygen for the mother to “breathe,” the bottle will explode and you’ll have vinegar everywhere. Designers are constantly hassled by mundane jobs and crappy clients, and the realities of everyday life and paying the bills on time often trumps any desire to experiment and explore your creativity. But that creative spark that once had you on fire to create fantastic designs from the heart doesn’t actually go away. It just sinks to the bottom of your subconscious, waiting for the day when you can’t take another minute of revising that drop-down menu for your least favorite, nitpicky client and you “explode,” so to speak. You pack your bags and skip town to the nearest tropical island (or, more likely, head down to the nearest bar) and attempt to figure out where you went wrong.

Thinking For Yourself

Most designers don’t think about the idea generation or experimentation phase until they’ve received the proper information from the client and/or the design brief. They review what they know, ask about what the don’t know, get themselves oriented around the art direction, and established a working mental vocabulary for exactly what’s expected from them. This is a good approach to design, and I support it wholeheartedly. At no point should you accept a design project from a client who refuses to give you even the barest minimum of creative direction or who won’t provide you with essential details to complete the project. However, as effective and necessary as that process is when working with clients, it can kill the enthusiasm you have for design as a creative pursuit pretty quickly. Think about it: day after day of reporting to someone else for a directive on how to think or how to be creative. How can you not burn out at some point?

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When a client hands you bland, uninspiring art direction, make vinegar! Okay, that analogy doesn’t exactly work, but it’s super important as a creative professional to make time for personal work that explores the depths of your creativity and challenges you to pursue new heights. Yes, oftentimes you can surprise yourself with what you can accomplish within a strict set of client-initiated guidelines; as they teach you in school, restrictions promote more creativity. But it’s still someone else’s money for your time; someone else’s limits on your imagination. An art director I know tells me she loves to see portfolios that contain personal, unpublished work, as that’s the only way she can gauge a designer’s true, unadulterated thought process. In other words, personal work is the only thing that will truly distinguish you as someone who can think well on your own, rather than just for money. So start something fun and interesting on the side. Your creative juices will thank you.

Rusty Bucket

You can make mother of vinegar from wine, provided you let it sit somewhere cool and dark with plenty of oxygen. It won’t be pretty, but it will eventually provide you with vinegar that beats anything you can buy in the store. If you’ve ever tasted artisanal, homemade vinegar, you know what I mean. There’s definitely a difference in taste, texture, color, and even smell. The first batch of vinegar, if you can get past the experimental stage without the bottle exploding, will only hint at the wonderful future vinegars you can make with your mother months or even years down the line. If you’ve been working professionally for awhile and have relied completely on clients for your creative direction, your first few personal projects might suffer from a rusty imagination. They’ll show promise, since you’re already technically good, but you’ll need to “grow” your creativity like a mother of vinegar for awhile first, having confidence in the fact that, eventually, you’ll be producing kick-ass personal work that will allow your true personality and imagination to shine.


A mature mother of vinegar will spawn vinegars that taste nothing like that astringent, clear stuff you get at the store. They are rich, full-bodied, and flavorful, with multiple layers of taste and texture that will make you think ‘wait, this is vinegar?’ Similarly, you will surprise yourself with your own creativity if you foster it and allow it to strengthen. You’ve probably heard it said that creativity is a muscle - people say that a lot because it’s true. If you’re not devoting time each day to being creative on your own, your creativity will atrophy, and you will have to spend time building it back up again. However, here’s something about muscles that people also say a lot: they have memory. If you exercise every day for months, stop for whatever reason, and return to it several months or even years later, it won’t take you nearly as long to get back into shape. Why? Because your muscles remember what they were trained to do before. It’s the exact same way with your imagination. If you get into the habit of being creative on your own every day, that’s something your brain will remember, and it will come back to you that much easier.

What Do You Think?

How do you spend time nurturing your natural creativity, apart from client work? Do personal projects help you retain your sanity? And most importantly, have you tried homemade vinegar? Seriously, you need to try it.