Why You Need To Love Your Tools

A colleague recently switched from the PC to the Mac, from Windows and Android to OS X and iOS. There’s always a learning curve when you’re on a new system. But my colleague seemed to have an extraordinarily difficult time of it in learning the Apple operating system.

He would call me for help (since I use Apple tools) and consistently complain about how things were not working, or he couldn’t find things, or things were not the way he was used to, and he was ready to toss the machine into the trash bin.

I have always been an ardent proponent of the Mac for creative and business work. I consider it the best machine for design, writing and other creative pursuits. In my opinion the best software is written for the Mac. Integration with devices is seamless. Given my experience, I would get irritated with my friend for being so irritated with this amazing tool. His frustration had spread to me. Uh oh!

To learn something new, you need to let go of existing assumptions and methods.

Listening to his complaints during the most recent incident, it dawned on me that he really needed to change his attitude toward his tools. It seems like his complaining was exacerbating the problems he was having. I pointed this out and suggested that he should to accept this machine instead of fighting it. This machine was his ally. All his business and livelihood endeavors were made possible with this machine:  software, email, Internet access, video chatting, social media, webinars… Everything about his business and much of his outreach was facilitated by this machine and he was ready to throw it away.

So it occurred to me that we makers, creators and writers need tools in order to engage in our craft, whether it is for enjoyment or to make a profit. If we hate our tools we will have trouble succeeding.

Your tools are your allies in your creative work.

Having taught design, drawing and color theory for over 27 years, I address a common myth is that the tool is all that matters (just learn the tools, software, shortcuts, get the best printer and you don’t need to work any harder). Designers have been around for centuries, and the computer less than 50 years. How did all that amazing design get created prior to 1984 when the Apple Macintosh came on the scene?

The tool does not make you a designer. But you can’t design without the tool. Just having a tool does not mean you’re good at what you do. A tool gives you physical or technological ability that you don’t have naturally. But it cannot do your work for you. When we fight our tools, we contradict our efforts and spend more time in the battle than in the creative process.

In a recent classroom session, one of my students informed me she was terrible at precision and at drawing — both necessary skills for any designer to master. When I inquired how she was going to handle this problem as a professional, she said she would hire someone else to do the cutting and drawing. I wondered, if she is unwilling to do the work of becoming skilled with rulers and pencils, what was she going to do when she came face to face with AutoCad, Illustrator and Photoshop?

Any piece of technology can be expected to glitch at times, and we have to stop and troubleshoot. And there is a learning curve for every tool we use. The attitude that we put on in the process of troubleshooting will dictate how the problem resolves. Will the problem persist or will we have victory over it and then get back to our work and move forward?

As creators we need to master our tools. When we complain about our tools we give them mastery over us. Our tools exist to serve us, but we need to take care of them in turn. For instance, you can’t cut illustration board with a dull blade. And you can’t cut illustration board easily with a No. 11 X-Acto®. A utility knife is a better tool for that. Allowing frustration to build because you can’t cut a board correctly or solve a particular technical problem in Illustrator hinders the creative spirit. Get help. Call support or, as in the case of my colleague, phone a friend.

Your love or loathing of your tools will show up in your work.

If you are not getting along with your computer time and time again, or you’re hating having to work with gouache project after project in your color theory class, keep in mind that the tool you use is your helper and not your enemy. You will stay calm if you regard the frustration as a challenge to overcome. If it’s a battle in which the tool is against you rather than an opportunity to learn something, you will be defeated because of your attitude.

So when your computer acts up or your blades seem uncoordinated, take a deep breath and a new approach to troubleshooting. Learn to master your tools and they will serve you well for the rest of your creative live.