No Room For Polymaths 🎨

A common challenge I see for creative types in the working world is that they tend to be pushed in one direction, despite having skills in many realms. Too bad, because I like design.

(Andres Perez/Unsplash)

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I found myself doing things that I hadn’t done in quite a while. I went to a concert, and saw friends who I hadn’t seen in quite a while (all vaccinated, of course).

But I also found myself pulled into design for the first time in a bit, taking a couple of formative shots at a redesign of the Tedium website, which is starting to feel “heavy” to me. At this point in my life, design is something I tend to get pulled into in phases—while much of my time is spent writing, I love getting my hands dirty in code and with design. And by messing with design, I find that I solve new kinds of problems and am able to approach things in new directions.

Screen Shot 2021 05 30 at 7 37 09 PM

An early stab at a design refresh. (It may not end up looking like this in the end.) I like showing off my early work.

I think the challenge is that people who are creators are often asked to stay in a single lane and think about creating things in a certain way. People who can write are encouraged to write; people who can do video are encouraged to do video; people who design are encouraged to design. In some settings, creativity is like a plate of foods that are carefully organized to ensure that nothing is touching—and people skilled in one thing don’t get training in other realms where they may have natural skills.

But honestly, I kind of just like blending everything together, and I’ve found over the years that this polymath-style expectation is not necessarily common. In my view, that multi-format creativity is simply not taken advantage of enough, and as a result, when it is, it feels incredibly refreshing.

Last fall, I had the chance to work on a project with my editors at Motherboard, who were testing the waters of a physical zine. I offered to design my own page, and when I submitted that page, they realized that I actually had a print design background—and that led to me doing the inside layout for the next two issues. 

I came up with a general visual aesthetic for these inside pages, including a design that took advantage of the limited color palette that they were using for each issue. And honestly, the result hung together pretty well.

And it wasn’t just design, either; when there was a gap on one of the pages, I suggested throwing together a quick alt-story-form thing, and we were able to fill the space with actual interesting editorial content rather than dead space.

It was a lot of extra work, nights and weekends, a rush of late-night energy on top of the six other things I regularly have to do, but it was the most exhilarating work that I had done in years. And this was for Motherboard, an outlet where I had previously done nothing but write.

But opportunities like that don’t always show up. Maybe at work there are concerns about territory that naturally arise; maybe some people are just naturally talented at one specific aspect, rather than many. I don’t begrudge the people that want to stay in one lane, but I worry that people who have skills or interests in many lanes are often discouraged from following multiple paths.

I don’t know what the solution to this problem is, but I feel like it’s too easy to silo one kind of creativity over another, and that to me feels really unfortunate.

Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes

Time left on clock ⏲: 1 minute, 59 seconds

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

Find me on: Website Twitter

Related Reads