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Big Ideas

Tom Muller: Creative Process

Tom Muller discusses idea minimalism, creative procrastination, and the designer way of life.


Tom Muller is a Belgian-born, London-based graphic designer who is no stranger to multitasking or collaborative projects. After receiving his MA in Graphic and Advertising Design from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he’s held positions at Vir2L Studios Europe and Mam Tor™ Publishing, regularly conspires on web- and print-based projects with artist Ashley Wood and currently serves as Creative Director at Kleber Design Ltd. Behance sat down with Tom to hear his thoughts on organization, his creative process and positive client interactions.

Understanding how to effectively deal with artistic discontent is key for Muller when completing projects. “The greatest frustration for me is getting stuck in a project – you have this ‘perfect idea’ and you’re absolutely sure it’ll work and its appropriate, but somehow when you put all the pieces together the puzzle won’t fit and you spend days fretting about it (losing valuable time in the process because the deadline won’t flex just because you’re hell-bent on your ‘perfect idea’).” Much like it is for many other designers, half his battle is deciding whether to completely desert your hard work and start fresh, or try to breathe life back into something that may seem all but lost. Muller manages to find a fair balance between the two.

“When I reach that point I can either fall back on tried and tested solutions or abandon the idea and start over. And I usually start over, but not disregarding my original intent – just approach it from a different angle, or start doing random experiments which might seem totally inappropriate but doing that triggers new ideas that can open up the problem.”When dealing with clients, he takes a less-is-more approach. “[Y]ou don’t always have to present a client with a barrage of ideas – sometimes just one (good) idea can be enough. Don’t dilute yourself.”

While some designers have little faith in their client’s conceptual abilities, Tom believes that ideas can — and should — come from anywhere. “Usually on any given project I’m the lead creative, so most collaboration comes in the form of a “show and tell” where I’ll discuss my work with my colleagues and clients – and the dialogue that follows informs the design process. I think the key here is listening and learning from feedback and input (a client for example might approach you with an idea he/she has that can fuel the design). Inspiration comes from everywhere, usually from the places you last expect it from, usually when you’re not looking for [it].”

The same goes for his beliefs regarding a designer’s mindset; “If you’re in this field, you have to embrace it warts and all, and work hard. If you can’t find a place to do your own thing, create it yourself. Don’t wait for others to do it for you. I believe being a designer isn’t a job, its a way of life – you don’t stop being a designer after work hours.”

If you have an idea for something, just do it – that’s how all my self-initiated work comes to be… the need to create [and] vent my ideas

Muller also appreciates the importance of starting endeavors without blinders on, but also subscribes to the Nike mindset. “It always involves hard work, lots of thinking and preparation. I do tend to wait before I actually start designing something and usually spend a day or so just milling about, letting ideas gestate, make notes and sketches and look at any source material that might be available.” in the creative process, tenacity plays an equally important role as talent. “Once I feel I have a concrete idea of how to approach the project I’ll open up Photoshop or Illustrator and get going, but there’s no magic button that makes it happen…[o]n the other hand you just do it. If you have an idea for something, just do it – that’s how all my self-initiated work comes to be… the need to create [and] vent my ideas.”

The same “tried and true” method applies to his organization methods and scheduling techniques. “I have a Sticky on my desktop which lists the To Do projects in a chronological order (first in – first out), and heaps of random notes in a variety of sketchbooks. I’m usually working on several projects at any given time and it all kind of blends together. If I get stuck on one thing, I’ll switch to the next and so forth.” Old work provides bursts of inspiration and stimuli when needed. “I never throw anything away. I have a stack of old sketchbooks and files on my computer of designs that for some reason never saw the light of day, but they provide a good (self) referential library of ideas. It’s not necessarily about recycling old stuff, but they provide a good jumping off point in some cases. I switch back and forth between commercial/commissioned work and self-initiated work. Both inform each other, and many times I have found ideas for commercial work in my personal work, and vice-versa.”

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