Reel Back: Finding Creativity in Constraints

In the past five or so years, Brooklyn-based designer Damien Correll has seen his playful, ruggedly old school design sensibility attract an impressive number of heavy hitters—Nike, The New York Times Magazine, Nickelodeon, and Urban Outfitters have all enlisted his aesthetic expertise.

While he can list his innate talent first in the recipe for those achievements, it’s certainly not the only active ingredient. Second is a highly action-oriented work ethic best described by the phrase “hit the ground running.” It’s this ingredient, which solidifies ideas, that Correll met with us in his DUMBO studio to discuss.The first piece in any design puzzle, of course, is the idea. However, it’s nothing—Correll realizes—unless it’s remembered. He explains, “Whenever I feel a thought or lightning strikes, I try to capitalize on that as soon as possible because I know an idea can be fleeting, and also your will to see it through isn’t always the most reliable.” To keep the idea present and capitalize on it, Correll will, “jot down a note or do a quick sketch.”

Constraints usually make me think in a different way than I would maybe naturally think.

Often, he’ll take the idea even further, “If I’m at home, I will do it. Or if I’m [at the studio], I will do it… the idea process and the making process usually come hand in hand or immediately following.” It’s no surprise then that Correll sees the passing of too much time between the idea phase and the final, tangible phase as a detriment to his work. Accordingly, he prefers short deadlines, which ward off second-guessing in favor of “relying on your gut feeling.”

Though Correll’s work may happen quickly, it doesn’t happen magically; instead self-imposed constraints guide him along the route from intangible to tangible. He says, “I think if you’re given a clean, fresh palette , and you do whatever you want, it’s almost too much freedom, at least for me. And the way to combat that is to reel back.” His methods for “reeling back” include limiting a particular project’s color palette or imposing it with his own deadlines. “Constraints usually make me think in a different way than I would maybe naturally think,” he says. “I find they make the process a little more enjoyable and the final output is usually something I’m more proud of.”

If he could impart any of his knowledge to younger creatives, it would be this— “Know your heroes; know your references; know your inspiration.” Correll, for instance, is not only able to pinpoint his influences—early Sesame Street, modern Dutch furniture and ornamentation, 50s product logos, and folk art—he is able to rattle off a brief history lesson on each, if called upon. “I think it’s really, really important to know some design history. You don’t have to know the whole thing, but know what you’re interested in and know where it comes from and the context, and know that everyone working now is derivative of something else that’s come before it.”

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Interviews
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