Creativity Corner The Creative Process

The Creative Process – Meet Mike Abrahams

March 18, 2013

This is the second instalment in this new category here on colourliving, which I hope will provide some inspiration and insight for many of you.

For new readers:
Much has been written about The Creative Process, which in its purest form is simply a way of solving a problem. That sounds simple, doesn’t it? Creativity and its process, contrary to popular belief, is not just reserved for artists and designers. I believe that everyone can benefit from learning and understanding the numerous ways of the creative process. I will invite people to share their own personal creative processes with us and hope this will help you with identifying your own.

I am thrilled to introduce my second guest contributor, Mike Abrahams, designer, curator and strategic thinker extraordinaire. Mike has done far too many interesting things to list here. Some are mentioned in his piece below. Here are just a few: years ago Mike worked at Negus & Negus where he was part of the team that created the English Heritage, Emirates Airways and Waterford Crystal brand identities. He mainly worked in creating brands – for Wentworth Club (for those that know golf), Ferrari F1 team and Alpha Bank in Greece. He’s had a successful studio since 1996 and now is moving into new territories. He explains: ” I’ve always been concerned with the business models of most creative companies – the 80/20 principle applies – 80% of work pays the bills (that nobody sees) / 20% is what we love and we are proud of. So in recent years I have become more entrepreneurial. I don’t necessarily want to work with clients, I want to be my own client – so now I work with businesses where I have a share of the company, where we are making the new, the different, and design is an attitude rather than my profession.”

I met Mike quite a few years ago and from initially having irregular coffee get-togethers, we are now firm friends and collaborating on some projects. Let him dazzle you with his creative process!

The Creative Process – Mike Abrahams

dock licking

Q. Why do dogs lick their balls?
A. Because they can. (That’s Dougal – if you want to know!)

mike bike

Q. Why do people create things?
A. Because they can.

If I was ever to meet the Duke of Edinburgh, I’d answer his usual question “What do YOU do (as if he’s really interested)?” saying, I’m a maker and curator of brands, business, books and events. I’m also an athlete. I have no idea what he would reply. I’m not sure that either of us cares!

So what has that got to do with my creative process?

I view both our athletic and creative abilities as innate. While we are all born different, we all have a lot in common. If you can hold a pencil, you can draw. If you have legs you can run. How well you could draw or how fast you could run is the issue. We all have potential, and we have the choice to realise it.

OK, so what do I do?

Five years ago, I started running on the track, and I got myself a coach whose job was to get me to be the best I could. What distance? What target? What else? I learned there are three things in running (and I guess it’s true for all sports and I know it’s true for creativity):

1. Talent That is fixed and you can’t change it. So if you are not Usain Bolt, born with the fastest of fast twitch muscles, you will never ever run as quickly as he could.

2. Nutrition This is what you put in – to get your body working efficiently for the tasks you are asking it to perform.

3. Training You can do it on your own or get a coach to help you define a goal and ensure you get there, write a training programme (day-by-day, week-by-week), avoid and manage injuries, encourage you and help you deal with the nerves when you’re standing on the start line.

The great thing and biggest difference between running and creativity, is you can measure the ‘what you put in’ and be pretty certain of ‘what will come out’ in running. Eat healthily, keep the weight down, train well and a PB (personal best) will come. Simple. Satisfying. Measurable. Definite. I went to the masters (over 35s) World Championships and ran for GB in the 1500m. I wasn’t last and ran a massive PB. What more could I want?

Mike running B

That’s me flying at the front at 400m, it was a different picture at the end of the race!

I approach my desire to understand, realise and indulge my creative potential in the same disciplined manner as my athletics.

So what do I do?

1. Talent I have got what I have got and am not hung up on people being better or worse than me. Comparison is futile, painful and a waste of time.

2. Nutrition This is the stuff I put in. I consume everything I can. I am ‘incurably curious’ (thanks Wellcome Trust) or as Michael Woolf says “I’m obsessively interested in everything”.

As I type I’m listening to Late Junction on Radio 3. On my bedside table is stuff that sends me to sleep and greets me when I wake up. I know we all do that. We all go to exhibition, conferences, talks, watch films etc etc.

mike's desk

But I do specific things as well (like my athletic focused nutrition) that feeds me appropriately.

In 2005 I set up two event series, Designer Breakfasts (with the brilliant Amanda Tatham) and at abrahams with Claire Curtice publicists. Designer Breakfasts puts me in touch with my peers and we curate the (almost) monthly events at the Design Museum, around annual themes that interest me – ‘designers tell the truth’, ‘making waves’ and in 2013, ‘collaboration’. I have the chance to fill my head with ideas, generously shared by my peers, specifically for my professional activities.

Designer Breakfasts – learning from my peers



The at abrahams events were a roving series, about three times a year, where a bunch of interesting people from the arts, science and business were invited to respond to things like, ‘what is good?’, ‘back to the future’ and ‘against the grain’…  It is fascinating how people from wildly different disciplines respond – really not what you’d expect. And that ‘eye (mind) opening’ is something we lack in our silo based industries where we share education, heroes, opinions and angst!

at abrahams – Learning from creatives from other disciplines is even better

at abrahams 1

at abrahams 2

at abrahams 3

at abrahams 4

3. Training This is the stuff I do to improve the output. In my studio since 1998 we’ve been making artist books as self directed projects. They are a series of creative exercises done on my own or with my team and invited others within my particular genre (or ‘ism’) that we call alphanumerism (The use of letters or numbers to explore and investigate).

artists books 1

A-Z 2000 – it was part of a group show called ‘Inside Cover’ for the millenium that toured the world for seven years!

artists books 2

A-Z 2003, 2004, 2005

artists books 3

One to One Hundred 2013

artists books 4

Optimist / Pessimist 2007

Twenty Six Alphabets 2010-date


artists books 6

artists books 7



artists books 12

artists books 11

So the theory is really simple.  Talent + nutrition + training = PB

The practice, however, is hard – it requires serious dedication, you have to be selfish-making you unpopular, there will be dark days, but wait until you get there. I am addicted to the pleasure of creating. I’ve gone over to the dark side (though it’s really the multi-coloured side). Moholy Nagy said, “design is not a profession, it’s an attitude”, I completely agree. I say that creativity is a way of lfe.

We have our choices, and I’ve made mine.


Thank you Mike for generously sharing your pearls of wisdom. See you all Thursday!

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  • Reply Michaela March 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Hhhm running…a very interesting analogy. I studied Philosophy at Uni, and we had lots of golf-inspired analogies from dusty old professors resplendent with Einstein hair and gravy-splattered ties – this is a much better choice of sport (and delivery of ideas!)

    I def agree with concept of input; I need to get chomping away on those creative calories, and hopefully I’ll be flexing my artistic muscles in no time 😉 xx

    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Yes, I thought so too… that’s why I like doing this series… everyone is so different, a bit like fingerprints I guess…

      haha. Can just imaging you at Uni having to listen to these antiquated professors and on top of it, ABOUT GOLF (yawn)
      I like : ‘creative calories’.. what a good term!
      Thanks M xx

    • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      If you are interested in flexing your artistic muscles – the time to start is now!
      You might like to have a chat – I’m looking for collaborators to help make our twenty six alphabets which have to be completed for an exhibition in September 2014.

  • Reply Alison Sye March 19, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Thoroughly enjoying this series, Tina. That was a great read. Love the running analogy. I agree with Mike on everything, but the bit that struck me most – “it requires serious dedication, you have to be selfish – making you unpopular”. I know this to be true, but find it pretty difficult to carry out. Like the post-it note photo – I once did this to my son.

    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks Alison. Yes, I think Mike is right to say that ‘it requires serious dedication”. I sometimes think that people don’t get it… I know from myself that when I’m serious about something and put in the effort, I get the result. Doing things half-heartedly has never brought me any success.

      When a project of mine is not working that well I go back to basics and often it’s because I haven’t dedicated enough time and energy to it…

      Did you really? How funny?

      • Reply Alison Sye April 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm

        I totally agree with you.
        Yes, the sticky notes said things like ‘PUT YOUR DIRTY PANTS IN THE WASH BAG’ etc.. Have a good Easter x

    • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      I was given advice once – keep doing what you are doing, but take a day a week for yourself. Call it Alison Time, and you can do whatever you want on that day.
      I suggest making it a fixed day a week, so it becomes a routine.
      It only took me 20 years to get there!

      • Reply Alison Sye April 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm

        Thanks Mike, I’ve got some Alison Time coming up soon!

  • Reply Judith March 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I think it’s part of both training & nutrition: but I also believe that surrounding yourself with creative and motivated peers can move you forward. Great series, Tina!

    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      So, you don’t believe that Talent has something to do with it?

      Yes, agreed, we all feed off each other and it took me a long time to surround myself with the right people or as I like to call them ‘tribe’.
      Thanks Judith, glad you’re enjoying the series… 🙂

  • Reply noreen March 20, 2013 at 12:53 am

    well tina, there you go again – printing something very interesting and applicable to other fields. mike abrahams, hello! i’m too busy just now, but one day soon, i hope you don’t mind if i talk about this. easter break is almost here…

    joy to you, t!

    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Noreen, I know you liked Richard’s post so thought you might like this series…

      Ha. Don’t worry, come back at any time or feel free to take anything from here….
      I hope school life isn’t too hectic and that you will enjoy Easter! I know I will:-)

    • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Call me anytime! Looking forward to it.

  • Reply Catherine March 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    This series is so good Tina I’m learning so much from it. You only get out of it what you put in, serious dedication and lots of hours.
    I like Mike’s comment about being addicted to the pleasure of creating…likewise. Thank you so much Mike for sharing your process with us.

    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      Thanks Catherine, really pleased it’s resonating with some people…
      You know they say that a genius simply puts in the hours… is it 10,000 hours to make you an expert? But surely, it cannot be so easy.
      I do think that talent plays a big role and obviously strength of character, confidence etc etc…

      Ha. I laughed when I read it…. ‘addicted to the pleasure of creating’ Now, there’s an addiction that seems healthy (although some therapists would disagree with me here and they would be right)! Now I;m going off on a tangent and opening a can of worms?

      Thanks Catherine xx

      • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm

        Open it up, we all need a diet of worms!
        M x

  • Reply Gerard @WalnutGrey March 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Hi Mike. I’ve read this post several times and appreciate your candour and directness. I can certainly see the validity of your creative approach: Talent + nutrition + training = PB. Yet it feels a little too logical and quite fixed.

    Creativity, for me, equates more to spontaneity, an openness and little planning. This works both for and against me – I may spend too long with the idea and thus have less time for the actual execution.

    The ‘talent’ and ‘nutrition’ both work for me. The former took some time to really discover, but now I know what it is. The latter I do in all that I observe, read and digest. The ‘training’ bit is the slightly problematic point. Maybe it’s the somewhat negative connotations that I have with the word training. For me it’s more about facilitation and coaching.

    I wholeheartedly agree that creativity is a way of life and that there are dark or bad days and plenty of good days. It’s helpful to read your approach to creativity and whilst I might not agree entirely with your process, it has given me a framework to think about.

    Thanks for your great post & thank you Tina for asking Mike to write it!


    • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      I get what you mean G and I think it’s interesting that you’re adapting M’s process to your own.

      Mike’s training is his running so maybe for you that word would need to change (as you suggested already…facilitation and coaching).
      I’m just curious why you’re ok with the ‘nutrition’. I would have thought that this also might hold negative connotations for you?? I’m obviously wrong but just curious.

      Oh, we do know those dark days well…. happy to report that mine diminish the older I get? Any relevance here? Hmmm, I wonder??

      Thanks Gerard. Always a pleasure!!! x

      • Reply Gerard @WalnutGrey March 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm

        You have me thinking about ‘nutrition’ now Tina. I can see it may have negative connotations, yet I thought about it more in terms of my healthier side… my concern about trying to stay somewhat healthy. Perhaps in terms of creativity ‘nourishment’ is a word that also works well. I find creativity to be very nourishing, stimulating, comforting and encouraging. So that would reframe Mike’s formula as Talent + Nourishment + Facilitation/Coaching = PB.

        Sorry Mike… I’m just playing around with this in my head. It’s very interesting to work through and think about. Gerard 🙂

        • Reply tina March 20, 2013 at 9:45 pm

          Ha, i love that you’ve taken Mike’s formula and adapted it for yourself… I will attempt to do this for myself.
          I’m definitely into nourishment too… interesting exercise… thanks for that G x

      • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

        G & T
        To respond – we all find our own paths… so there’s no right or wrong.
        You interpret what I say as logical and quite fixed – I guess I’m trying to focus my creativity. It’s like one of those little Magnalite torches. You can have a wide dim beam or a bright spotlight – it’s your choice. For me I’d rather focus deeply in one area, but at the same time not exclude others for future investigation.
        The difference between training and coaching (for me) is I train on my own, but a coach sets my programme. Happy to chat more over a coffee if you are interested!

    • Reply Gerard @WalnutGrey April 2, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Would be great to chat some time over coffee Mike. I hope we’ll meet along the way.

      And we do indeed find our own paths… mine has had many twists and turns and no doubt there’ll be more to come. All a part of life & living 🙂

  • Reply Holly March 20, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    This post is definitely food for my brain. Nourishment… check!

    Mike’s formula rings very true to me. I’m amazed when someone can make something as complex as the creative process into something as concise and to the point as a formula. It’s artistic. Of course there’s lots of room for interpretation and individualisation for each element of Mike’s formula, and so I love it even more. I am writing down the formula and keeping it near my workspace. Maybe you guys should turn it into a poster…

    The alphabet books are amazing!! Thanks for giving us a peek inside. I need to get one 🙂

    Thank you both for a fabulous post!


    • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Would you like to join in the alphabet project?
      Get in touch – please!

    • Reply tina March 23, 2013 at 6:32 pm

      Holly, actually that’s a good idea… To join in the alphabet books!

      Since doing the feature on the Creative Process, I’ve been trying to think of my own… it keeps changing so am not quite clear about it. I think it’s really good practice to hone one’s process and even make it into a formula.

      Whichever way, I know that for me it’s a daily routine that is quite intertwined with everything I do, be it of a personal or professional nature. I’m also gearing towards becoming my own client. It’s a dream I’ve had for a long time…xx

  • Reply Nicola March 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    David Hockney’s mother once said to him, “It’s very selfish, this Art, isn’t it?” (“Art” said with emphasis and a Bradford accent)

    And it’s true, it does appear selfish but as a creative it’s difficult to fathom. It’s an urge or talent that needs constant nourishment and an outlet. And the outlet is in everything we do.

    I worked at Wolff Olins where Michael Wolff’s attitude affected everything we did and learned a way of doing, thinking and simply being. I had always been interested in everything and now it became obsessively so.

    Having just left the studio at 9pm for a meeting tomorrow I feel creatively drained and in need of nourishment, you have provided me with food for thought and I thank you. Love all the books and the way each area of your life supports the other x

    • Reply Mike Abrahams March 23, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      I wish I had worked with Michael. He was a speaker at a Designer Breakfast we curated a few years ago and was of course brilliant.
      I have to say it’s taken a very long time to get my life in some sort of order – if you look at my website, my ‘minifesto’ sort of explains how I manage that. In a nutshell, I call everything I do WORK. So it’s not about prioritising work over home – always an impossible choice. But you have to really believe it and stick to it. Money at the end of the day DOES’T rule!

      • Reply Nicola March 25, 2013 at 4:43 pm

        now off to look at the minifesto to get my life in order, many thanks!

    • Reply tina March 23, 2013 at 6:40 pm

      If you look at many artists, ie Picasso etc etc, their Art was very selfish and yet we benefit from it. Take Steve Jobs, we all know he wasn’t the greatest husband or father but more concerned with making our lives better with technology? Selfish, I’m not sure. I think to excel at something it does require a lot of our attention…

      As an adult I often wonder about this. Will Steve Jobs be remembered for the family he created or the legacy he left behind by changing 6 industries?…. we know the answer. It’s impossible to do both well I think!

      I’m sure your time at Wolff Olins was invaluable to being who you are now as a creative. It reminds me of the amazing documentary I saw of The Eames Studio… ‘Eames: The Architect & The Painter’ You must watch it!! xx

  • Reply Anya Jensen March 25, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    I am a huge fan of these posts Tina – I remember you once told me that it was important that a reader learn something (new) from a post – and boy does Mike deliver. I adore everything here – and the way he describes it – just makes sense. Thanks for sharing clever people – look forward to seeing and hearing more. And don’t even get me started on the alphabet books – FAB.

    • Reply tina May 16, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      Sorry, never replied! Thanks. Glad you enjoy them. I’m hoping that people will find inspiration here.

  • Reply leah of sang the bird March 27, 2013 at 2:18 am

    I love this series! Mike’s running analogy is fantastic. “I approach my desire to understand, realise and indulge my creative potential in the same disciplined manner as my athletics.” I have just started studying, I think I will take heed of his words and apply them to my situation.
    Really amazing T xx

    • Reply tina May 16, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      How are the studies going?

      What I’m so fascinated with is how different everyone’s creative process is. Amazeballs!!
      Hope this here helps with your studying lovely xx

  • Reply twenty six alphabets » colourliving colourliving July 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    […] all started when my friend mike abrahams, who also featuered in my creative process series and richard berry decided to do an alphabet book while out in […]

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