Re-cap: Design as a Lifelong Process


An AutoCAD drawing!


Clockwise: Elizabeth Graeber, All Knitwear by Annie Larson, Zim and Zou

I gave a speech on Friday to students of the One Academy on the topic of Design as a Lifelong Process, and I thought I’d share with you what I shared with them. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did preparing them – I had about 70 slides, so here are the cliff notes instead.


What we see is deceiving. We think we see a picture and an artist just paints and it comes out perfect. Picasso shows otherwise. Art is a process. Creating is a process. Look at Picasso’s painting of the bullfighter – and watch how he blocks out elements and constantly changes things around. Reworking elements and changing his mind, shifting his perspective and elevating it to something entirely different from when he was starting out.

In short, in life and art, everything is a process.

#1: Imagine what your future looks like.

Art resides in the quality of doing.

My name is Amy, and I write, draw and think up new ideas on a daily basis.

Like a lot of you, I was a student in the design field. I was a landscape architect before I jumped ship to the dark side of publishing. So I know about those late nights, client briefs, objectives and goals, SWOT plans and those eyebags under your eyes. I know a thing or two about rushing for deadlines. There was a time where I would stay up for 48 hours to get a project done (although I don’t do it anymore, thank goodness!)

So back in 2007 before I started working on Pikaland, I had a very tight schedule. I woke up at 8, went to work at 9am and came home at 7pm, ate dinner at 8pm and went to work on my website at 9pm. I slept at 3am everyday and the whole cycle repeated itself for almost a year because I wanted to do this so very badly. I was determined to hit a milestone that I had set for myself.

I didn’t watch TV for two whole years.

There is no secret to what I do. I liken it to a drip. Small drips that trickle down to form bigger things. I took small steps everyday.

#2: Identify your patterns.


I love illustrations. But back then in 2004 when I graduated I didn’t know about the field of illustration. I didn’t even know the term or the profession existed until I stepped my foot into publishing.

But something in me clicked. I realized that I got all tingly when I looked at art and illustration works. I would be rapt at bookstores, not just looking at pictures, but reading into how these people get to draw all day and make a living out of it. And when I started a blog, I realized that most of my posts were about the new illustrators that I would find, and putting them all together in one place made a lot of sense. That’s how Pikaland was born.

After four years, I’m still amazed at the patterns and the fun coincidences that I’m uncovering as I go along this journey.

#3: Sketch constantly.

My journals

My journals

Leonard Cohen

Musician Leonard Cohen sketches and draws things he uses in his daily routine as a form of meditative practice.

Is your sketchbook clean and crisp? Every line has that smoothness to it, with eraser dusts all over the place? Then it’s not a sketchbook – it’s just pretending to be one. And you’re just pretending to sketch.

Start with a new one.

Use a pen. A brush. No erasing. You’ll get better at it. You don’t need to be all clean. Be messy, write all over the place. Draw, scrunch it, experiment. Dare to turn the page, and make mistakes.

And when you’re done with one page, start another.

#4: Read voraciously

My books. Some of it!

Just some of the books that I have!

How many of you read?

How many of you really just flip through books looking at pretty pictures?

There is something to be said about reading. It broadens the mind in a way that mindless TV never could. Some of the best ideas I have I got while reading. I love reading books on entrepreneurship, on art, creativity, innovations, on patterns, on psychology, biographies. Anything I could get my hands on.

Think of your mind like a giant well that you can tap upon. The more you fill it, the more resources you can tap on for the future. And as students, there’s always a constant outflow to keep up with projects and class syllabus. Are you making sure that you’re replenishing what you’ve taken out?

When you read and see a lot, you build up that well. You’re building up a huge well where you can access information from. It’s all a process. You may not need it right now, but your brain is an amazing thing once you train it. You’ll be able to recall information, and it’s a giant well to tap from – but only if you remember to fill it.

Also, write things down. Your brain is meant to come up with new ideas. Don’t waste your brain’s precious energy on remembering things!

#5: Cross pollinate ideas

All life

People painted what they saw during the Renaissance era because back then there were no cameras. Now, more than ever, it’s your idea that makes your art different. What can you offer over a digital camera? What can you do better? You process. Sure, a digital camera processes images too – with filters and borders and everything. But that’s thoughtless processing. Automated. Anyone can do that with a touch of a finger. What can you add to the conversation? How can you add value?

Make it a daily habit to train your idea muscle. Write down 10 things that you can do after graduating that can make you money. Or 10 things to do so that you can do what you love without holding a job. Do it everyday. When it hurts to come up with more, you’re doing it right. Push yourself and don’t just stop when you’re comfortable.

Because the more ideas you have, the more it will cross pollinate with other ideas to create new ideas.

I write down ideas daily. Business ideas, a sketch for a product, a topic for a new class – it never ends for me. I read business books, browse design annuals and read lots of articles online about technology, small business, design, products, art and illustration in the hope that some of these might connect and inform a new path in what I’m doing. I go outside, sit down at a mamak stall and that sip some teh tarik – the whole process of thinking of it might jolt some new ideas into me.

Here’s some interesting cross pollination of ideas that I find to be truly inspiring:

Jillian Tamaki

Artist Jillian Tamaki embroidered these book covers for Penguin book by hand – marrying craft and art for a traditional media.

Lego fun

Advertising agency Jung von Matt shows how to manipulate simplicity via pop culture and Lego blocks.

Laura Bifano

Artist Laura Bifano marries the idea of digital pixels with hand-drawn elements – along with a beautiful concept behind her collection ‘Menagerie’

Kate Beaton

I started paying more attention to history, thanks to Kate Beaton, who adds pop culture to history in her comics.

#6: Don’t be afraid to fail


Don’t follow the herd. Don’t look at what your friend is doing. Just do what you want to do. Being in a university is the best time to experiment!

If everyone falls off the cliff, don’t you wish you had turned back and asked instead?

What’s the worst that can happen?

Maybe people will laugh at you. You most certainly won’t fail your class if you show up. You are paying to have people look at your work. You have a captive audience! You won’t ever have that again.

So, fail. cry, then pick yourself back up again.

#7. Be curious.

Newspaper cutting

Newspaper cutting. Source unknown

Ask questions.

Google is an incredible tool. But it is just a tool. It depends a lot on the person to ask the right questions.

Frame your questions, learn how to utilize it to its fullest potential. An illustrator’s value isn’t just about painting pretty pictures. They get to translate words into visuals – and that entails knowing a lot about the subject at hand. So search carefully.

#8. Do whatever you want.

Imagination is more important than knowledge

Because no one knows what will happen in the next 2 years, let alone 10. The landscape for arts and creatives (and everything else!) are moving fast and the only way is to be nimble on your feet.

There is no one way. There isn’t a right way. Change, evolve, experiment – but most of all have fun and just get out there and do it.

Nobody told Laurie Anderson to put a speaker pillow into her mouth and try to sound like a violin, but she did it. Now what’s your excuse?


If you’ve come this far, thanks for reading! I mainly tailored it for students, but the advice in here is suited for everyone and anyone who has ever felt a little lost at some point in their life and career.

Share with me: What other advice or experience would you share for those who are looking to design (or for that matter, re-design) their life?

20 Replies to “Re-cap: Design as a Lifelong Process”

  1. What an inspiring speech, thanks for sharing.

  2. I loved your “Cliff Notes” and believe your presentation was even more insightful. This is great advice and even being an Illustrator so much still holds true now. We most def. need to keep on feeding our creative self and be our own creative self. Thank you!

  3. Cate says:

    This is such a great essay on the topic of creativity. There are a lot of great ideas in there for breaking out of a rut. Thanks for sharing this with your blog readers!

  4. Jesse Lu says:

    Love this…

    What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is slowness and idleness. We live in a time right now when everything and everyone is hurdling towards the future. I’m curious why we all feel like our existence is a race.

    So lately, I’ve been making a real effort to be “here… now.” I’ve changed my lists from ‘Things to do’ to ‘Things I could do.’ I’ve allowed myself time to ‘space out’ and just do what I feel like in the moment. I keep asking myself ‘am I pleased with how I’m spending my time right now.’ I’m letting go of my anxiety about where I should be headed, in a way I’m letting go of some of my ambition and drive… in the hopes that my life will feel more fulfilling and more inspiring, thereby making room for more options and better choices, more opportunities and better stories, more creativity and better art.

    I guess what it boils down to is making a shift in my own life to quality instead of quantity.

  5. Tricia says:

    This is a great post. I’m returning to school for art in my 30s, and these are all fantastic ways to keep generating ideas.

    One piece of advice I have from classes over the past year is to never close your mind to opportunities to learn something new. I took a required 3D design course that I wasn’t that excited about. I was so surprised by how many things I learned or was exposed to that I could translate into ideas for my 2D work.

  6. Amy says:

    That’s an incredible point Jesse, and one that I keep returning to more and more these days. I feel compelled to slow down and concentrate as opposed to rushing around. I’m taking time to read books in the middle of the day, or even just take a nap if I needed to.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Amy says:

    You’re welcome Niche but Nice, Tarsila and Cate – glad you enjoyed the post!

  8. Amy says:

    Thanks for sharing Tricia! I know exactly what you mean – I’ve stumbled on lots of happy accidents and discoveries this way!

  9. Felicia says:

    Thanks for such a great post! I’ll bookmark it, and make sure to get back here and re-read it again. As an architect student this seems very relevant and useful for me!
    I really agree with you on the sketching-part, one thing I’ve learned is to not be afraid to drawing something “ugly”. That’s better than nothing! And sooner or later, you will always get back to that drawing or scribble and see it in another perspective, and find new things that are valueable! Great!

  10. Julie Adore says:

    Merci , Amy, a wonderfull text!
    i share

  11. ella says:

    oh Amy, lucky lucky students. I would’ve loved such an inspiring talk when I was a student and even to one who has long since been one it sounds like an amazing speech anyway. You never fail to put the fire in our bellies!

  12. Amber says:

    Thank you so much for the post…it was inspirational and I especially loved some of the imagery you chose to illustrate your points.

    Something I’ve been trying to do a lot lately is following my imagination and opportunities wherever they lead me – certainly not letting go of intention, but allowing myself the flexibility to really be spontaneous. In the last few days it has led me to help yarn bomb an airplane weather vane and build a dragon sand sculpture, and today I think I’m going to build a cake with fondant sharks in blue jello – because really why not? It gives me lots of energy when I step back into my studio….plus it makes me smile.

  13. Alison says:

    Thanks for an amazing post Amy! This was just what I needed to read on a Monday to help me motivate myself. I love the visual sources you’ve used as well.

  14. Reading these words gave me shivers of recognition, Amy! You worded so many things that we mull, so clearly. Thank you!

    I am sending this to a dear friend who is a burgeoning artist and creative person; she and I will benefit greatly from this wonderful distillation you delivered to those lucky students.

    Thank you for sharing ~


  15. zoe says:

    Amy, I was hoping you’d give us more of an insight into your talk to the kids and voila! You did! Thanks for sharing. It’s given me lots to ponder as I try to figure out what’s next for me. 🙂

  16. Thank you for sharing this Amy! I finally had time to stop and read everything and its great! The only thing I would add is that sometimes you don’t even need to go to an University, you can take your own path too! 😀

  17. Marjorie says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s very inspiring, and comforting. 🙂

  18. Bettina says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s very encouraging!

  19. Amanda says:

    Excited to return to grad school and your blog just kicked it up a notch! Thanks for the guide!

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