Stewart Smith


I composed this short essay while living in London during the summer of 2012 for the UK’s Creative Circle publication. Strange to stumble upon it again two years later, having replanted myself in New York and feeling ten years older. Thought I’d share it now.

So I was asked what makes me click. Here we go: I'm motivated by playfulness—and playfulness comes in many forms. Sometimes it's the simplicity of Atari's Pong. Sometimes it's the intellectual gymnastics of Frank Drake's Arecibo message. A blinking computer cursor. Ten measures of a steady beat followed by one low-slung accidental. Curiosity. Exploration. Creating and solving puzzles can be satisfying but creating puzzles with a beautiful reveal is even better. I'm also motivated by learning—projects can be a valuable opportunity for paid learning. At university one must purchase new skills. Meanwhile, clients will pay you as you learn new things. I value teaching. Some of the projects I'm happiest with have a way of revealing how they were made—a hint at the grid or the process behind it. I learned to make things by taking apart and decoding the artifacts of others, it seems good karma to return the favor.

What doesn't motivate me may be just as revealing. Money doesn't motivate me. It's important, certainly, but I've discovered—painfully—that a client dangling a fat paycheck in front of a boring project doesn't inspire any additional creative spark no matter how many digits are in the number. Landing a big name client doesn't motivate me. There's an initial thrill because it looks prestigious on a CV and perhaps it sounds impressive to friends outside the business, but that's as far as the thrill carries. Awards don't do it for me either. Award show parties can be a great way to meet people and to survey the field but it's not something to tie one's self worth to. I've won some. I haven't won some. Occasionally I'm invited to judge awards competitions and that inside-view is priceless. Snark doesn't motivate me. I used to think snark was really clever; casually tearing down others with a sharpened shiv of insight. Whole campaigns can be built around snark. But being earnest and constructive is much more meaningful and holds its value far longer. I don't want snark anymore.
There's beauty in cohesion and consistency This makes having control over all aspects of a project very important. If I can't orchestrate a process it becomes less interesting to me. My favorite clients are either collaborators who share a knowledge and fascination for whatever puzzle we happen to be solving, or detached customers who are happy to leave the decisions to those they've hired. For me play, learning, and directing all go hand in hand. I chafe at the term "creative" as a noun or pronoun; the notion that there are and ought to be aspects to a project that are not creative or team players who are not creative. For me creativity is a prerequisite for engagement.
Lastly, I'm always making things. I can't stop. When I can fit that compulsion into the context of a project that's when everything pays off. That's when motivation sings.