According to creativity researchers, there are four sides to creativity. Person (personality, habits, thoughts), product (the thing that results from creative activity), process (how you work), and press (environment factors, education and other external factors) all play a part. So, we figured, let’s follow the science to understand the art of creativity. Creativity Squared is a brand new LBB feature that aims to build a more well-rounded profile of creative people.
Up today is Lizzy Sonenfeld, partner and creative director at Two Things in Portland. She's spent her career at the intersection of brand and product design, and uses her expertise to help clients design more thoughtful ways to meet the world. Prior to Two Things, she spent a decade at Nike, most recently as global concept director where she led a multidisciplinary team on the company's product vision and creative direction. This work not only drove a vision across a 1,000+ designer org, but aligned design with product and marketing teams on Nike's global creative initiatives. Lizzy also teaches Communication Design & Art Direction to undergrads at Portland State University.
Get a deep dive into her approach to creativity below.
I’d describe my personality in dualities and contrasts - shy and bold, methodical and weird (my husband probably sees this side the most), open-minded and opinionated. I’m innately cautious, but I love taking risks and making myself uncomfortable. (I don’t follow astrology, but I’m a Libra, so maybe this all makes sense!)
I strongly believe creativity can be innate or learned - there are some tangible skills that can come naturally like an innate ability to draw or paint or play an instrument. But also innate emotional skills - to capture a feeling, express something in an incredibly unique way, or see patterns in things. The beauty of creativity is you can choose to develop a skill - by practicing and repetition, or even studying a movement and the beliefs / structure behind it.
I am definitely an introvert by nature - I’ve always dreaded any attention on myself, which is why I ended up in the arts in a funny way. I’ve always been a director by nature - curating, setting a tone, iterating, exploring. I played music for ages, and loved recording in-studio but dreaded live shows. My career has pushed me out of that comfort zone though - I thrive on interactions with people - I love collaboration, and I’m social - I need connections and partnerships to do my best work.
My brain is driven by order - routines ground me for sure. But if I get too into a routine, I start to lose my creativity. I actually do better in modes that are a bit chaotic, where things happen unexpectedly.
I love exploring - I think the most interesting things come out of connections you didn’t expect to be there. Music and ceramics are the two creative hobbies I make room for in my life. They’re such different mediums - using totally different muscles (sometimes literally) keeps my brain flexible. I see a direct parallel when I run out of space for this stuff in my life and my work getting less creative.
Intent and process are huge - what informed the work? Whether it’s tangible strategy, a fictional backstory - the why is the biggest thing for me. I love hearing from designers what their process was. This doesn’t always have to be academic - it could be super analogue exploration where something totally unexpected emerged. But my hands-down pet peeve is a Pinterest board of other people’s work - ‘inspiration’ is drawing unseen parallels, not re-creation of everything everyone else is doing.
I started my career as a graphic designer, so the artistic / aesthetic quality of the work was my criteria - proportion, nuance of shape, colour, etc. - design principles. I’m more interested in conceptual creativity, and work that’s holistic - where story meets visuals meets words meets motion and emotion. And the less obviously those dots connect on the surface, but as a viewer/user/etc. you feel the creative intent, the better the work in my opinion.
At the moment, I’m proudest of the VECTIV campaign for The North Face that’s in market now. Two Things is small and relatively new, and there was a moment last year when the team was working on this and it hit me - that we had hit our stride as a team (in the middle of the pandemic, even!). The North Face was a brand-new client, and we had about three months to set product and creative strategy for the product and campaign in tandem, and launch a campaign creative directive. The insights that drove the creative were so rich and so human, and the visual direction was just beautiful.
I don’t really get down on what’s happening - in our industry, there’s always an element of everyone jumping on the same thing. But, there is a lot happening along the edge that’s super interesting. AR/VR creation is getting so close to consumers’ hands - I think we’ll see a lot of new forms of expression, and new definitions of design and creativity which excites me.
Immersion (this goes for my team as well) - whatever I/we can do to wrap our heads around an assignment fully. Going deep on research and/or interviews; going for a hike in the product we’re launching; visiting a location we’re focusing on; workshopping a certain topic with the creative team.
I use all the essentials as far as digital tools go, but I always need to gather and iterate in analogue - digging through books and magazines - I stumble on something seemingly random that connects the dots in a super interesting way. If I skip this step, I get a bit claustrophobic - like I’ve made assumptions ahead about how to solve a creative problem. Just touching paper and getting out of the screen gets my senses going in a different way. Printing, cutting out images and materials, sketching, and physically pinning to a cork board. Grouping ideas, moving things around - it triggers thinking in a way I haven’t been able to translate into digital.
A lot of creatives talk about journaling and how important it is - I’ve tried so many times, and it’s just not my thing. I can’t really write unless it’s serving a purpose. I always have a sketchbook though.
I’m always collecting inspiration - traveling is a huge source of discovering new inspiration - going to exhibits and concerts, meeting new people, collecting interesting things and ideas along the way. I have to say, this past year-and-a-half has been really hard in this respect - being on lockdown. I haven’t seen new things (in physical form) in ages, and it’s so fatiguing creatively. My husband and I are driving from Portland, OR to Atlanta in a couple of weeks - we decided to drive rather than fly just so we can see / hear / eat new things along the way and wake up our brains.
Generally, I prefer to work collaboratively. I love having a partner who sees things differently than me - a writer, strategist, coder, etc. I find the whole creative process more interesting when I’m challenged along the way. I love seeing how different brains connect dots in different ways - I’ll see something so clearly, then someone will share another path they see, and it opens up a dozen new ideas.
I’m a bit compulsive, so I can get on a track that’s hard to escape - pushing and pushing until it’s done. Literally getting up and doing something else usually helps - if it’s something outdoors like a hike or a walk, even better. It’s amazing how much a breather can do - I always see things differently when I come back.
Helping people with their process is probably 50% of my job - we have some incredibly talented people on our team, and really conceptual. I’m naturally an editor, so I think I tend to hire super prolific creatives, maybe even wanderers. Our creative teams generate so much incredible thinking and conceptual work, I’m usually coming in to help edit, curate, connect-the-dots. Which by the way are usually there, it’s just helping creatives to see where the fluff is that’s not helping verses patterns that are super rich.
I grew up in LA, and for the first seven years of my life, my mom was a single parent. I tagged along with the adults a lot. But, my mom was an artist - she had studied fashion at Otis. She sowed more seeds than I can count. When we went out to dinner, we essentially did design exercises together - exquisite corpse was a huge one (although we just called it ‘half picture’). My mom had a line of children’s clothing and later designed window displays - she always gave me a job to do, and explained her designs and thinking. We’d go to the fabric district and flea markets on the weekends. And everything was resourceful - we didn’t have YouTube videos to watch. We’d get inspired at LACMA, and then talk about how we could make something ourselves.
I also grew up in condos - there’s something about growing up in a building that forces your brain to expand your environment - I definitely had a sense of a whole world in our unit / complex. And I was always busy in my room from as young as I can remember - I always had a project going that felt very important with some made-up deadline. Making movies on the family camcorder, laying out magazines.
I honed my craft essentially by doing. As a kid, I took every art class available at our community centre. My mom and I took oil painting classes together from high school on, which was actually super fundamental for me as a graphic designer later - I learned so much about composition and light/shadow. In college, again, I took every class imaginable. I studied audio engineering and graphic design - I think mixing media early on helped me see design as more than 2D. And as an adult, I just threw myself in. My first job at an agency, I started as a receptionist and left as an art director. I stepped into Nike as a production artist and left as global concept director. I was never afraid to try new things and learn by doing.
Stress definitely spurs me on - I think I thrive on deadline adrenaline. Clutter kills my soul - I get so much anxiety when my environment is a mess and/or I can’t find things. Staying in the same place/space does the same - I need to move around. Work from home one day, maybe in the backyard. In the office another. I go from the couch to a conference room to a coffee shop.
Find trust however makes you comfortable - feeling aligned, knowing you’re on the same page, you can allow a team to take risks on your behalf. This is the real benefit of working with an agency. We have perspective, and we don’t have the internal pressures and politics. When you trust a creative team, you let them push you out of your comfort zone, and then you know you’re driving real change.
Again, I actually think it’s trust that facilitates creativity - knowing the people who work for you and what makes them thrive as individuals, creatively. Burnout is real for creatives - help employees make space for the things they need to recharge - whether that’s a flexible schedule, budget for inspiration, a new creative challenge. And give them permission to advocate for themselves.