Practical Architecture book review: Keep Going by Austin Kleon

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10 ways to stay creative in good times and bad

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design projects being a continuous opportunity for creativity and how it’s dangerous to think that the creative part is all over when the concept is decided: Creativity: it all happens at the concept stage, right?

If we are to maintain the energy and determination to seek out those creative opportunities, then we will probably need some strategies and work-arounds to keep us motivated.

Keep Going - 10 ways to stay creative in good times and bad’ will be big a help, regardless of what you’re working on and regardless of the stage of your project.

I enjoyed Kleon’s previous two books, ‘Steal Like an Artist’ and ‘Show Your Work’. I also subscribe to his weekly newsletter.

I think its fair to say I’ve become a bit of an Austin Kleon fan.

Kleon refers to himself as a writer who draws, and that he makes art with words and books with pictures. He is famous for creating poetry by redacting newspaper articles, which means his poems are part found, part created.

His most recent book, ‘Keep Going’, builds on the themes of his earlier work which concentrated on 'things that nobody told you about creativity’ and ‘ways to share your work and get discovered’. This time the focus is on preparing yourself for the creative endeavour, recognising that there are going to be highs and lows, productive periods and fallow times.

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Keep Going maintains the format of the previous books in that it is small, light on words and well illustrated.  It’s a quick read with plenty of quotes and examples from other masters of their craft. Consequently it should be appealing to both architects and students of architecture.

The purpose of the book is really to outline the things that keep Austin going. But it’s written in such a way that anyone can adapt those ideas, to keep themselves going. It’s primarily written for artists and people who do creative work, but I think it is just as applicable to anyone undertaking challenging work that involves complex problem solving, and anyone who is trying to get better at what they do. Which probably means all of us.

Establishing a daily routine

In the first chapter, Kleon references the well known film Groundhog Day in emphasising that you need to establish a daily routine. He argues that creativity is not linear and even if you’ve been successful on one project, you will still need to return to the beginning before starting the next.

He recognises that ‘truly’ prolific’ artists all have a ‘daily practice’. While most things are outside our control, the one thing that we can rely on is how we spend our days. But 'there is no perfect, universal routine for creative work’ and Kleon advises us to ‘spend some time observing your days and your moods’ in order to arrive at a schedule that works for us.

‘What your daily routine consists of is not that important …stick to it most days, break from it once in a while for fun, and modify it as necessary’.

“Relying on craft and routine is a lot less sexy that being an artistic genius. But it is an excellent strategy for not going insane”.

Christoph Niemann

Somewhere to disconnect

Kleon argues that ‘you must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring fourth something worth sharing with others’. To do this he advises creating a 'bliss station’. Somewhere special ‘to disconnect from the world so that we can connect with ourselves’. This could be a dedicated and familiar space or place but if that isn’t possible, it could also be a special hour.  

And put your phone away.

Do everything you can to avoid the distractions of daily life. At least for a time. ‘Its not sticking your head in the sand. It’s retaining some of your inner balance and sanity so you can be strong and do your work’.

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes - including you”.

Anne Lamott

Giving things extra attention

Kleon reminds us that it’s tempting to think that we’d be able to do better work if we had a better life but in reality ‘you don’t need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work.’

What we need to do is pay special attention to the ordinary world that we have around us, right now. ‘When your job is to see things other people don’t, you have to slow down enough that you can actually look.’ This is not easy in our current culture of speed and Kleon suggests that ‘slow looking’, drawing and photography provide the opportunity for us to focus.

“Pay attention to what you pay attention to”.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

So what does the book mean for early career architects?

Well, its entirely possible that you already do some of the things that Kleon mentions. You will have been doing creative work throughout your education, but now things intensify at work. You have a living to make, as well as designing things, and you have a lot to learn and a career to develop. No doubt things are also happening in your personal life too.

To be able to do what you want is going to require focus, strategy and the maintenance of ambition. What Austin Kleon tells us is not necessarily earth-shattering news, but his recommendations together serve as inspiration and reminders that will help us to keep the faith. 

Even when the good times are with you, Kleon’s book could still help you achieve more. When times are less good, you might just want to pull out ‘Keep Going’ to help you get back on track.

“Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them”.

Austin Kleon

Andy FosterComment