Beautiful Cities (While Nice) Are Not A Requirement For Creativity

I couldn't work here. Seriously.

Advertising is an itinerant business. I tell students when you step out of school and into the river of commerce, let the current take you where it may. Yes, you can have your target cities, your preferred agencies, but the creative process and the creative life are unpredictable and full of unexpected left turns.

I was lucky and grew up in an area that had five or six great agencies already going strong. I’ve also been lucky not having to move too many times over the course of my career. I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Richmond, Atlanta, Austin, and now I am here – in the incredible city that’s home to the Savannah College of Art & Design.

I’ve found something to love in each of these five cities but this Savannah gig is a bell ringer. See, the thing is, for the last 20 years this is where I’ve come for our family vacations. (To the Savannah airport and then onto a 90-minute drive through the Low Country to a small paradise known as Fripp Island.)

Today I find myself driving into work down streets that, had the gods been art directors in my class, I might’ve said, “Hey guys, don’t ya think you oughta pull it back a bit? I mean, it looks kinda fake. Sorta over-done?” Filtered through a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss, the sunlight lands in playful patterns on the dashboard as I pass antebellum homes from the pages of Architectural Digest and Forrest Gump.

The beauty of this city has inspired many artists to create marvelous work, the most visible perhaps being that great book Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil.  But for my money, I don’t need a beautiful place in order to be creative. And neither do you.

Yes, it’s fun to live in creative communities like Savannah or Austin. But if fortune carries you to some little Midwestern town known more for its giant ball of twine than its agencies, remember this: when it comes time to actually sit down and be creative I’ve always found the fewer distractions the better.

Creativity, at least the kind I’ve been practicing in advertising over the years is an inward pursuit. I’ve spent years in my head running up and down hallways, rattling doorknobs to see where things go, rotating visuals in my head, arranging and rearranging just the right words. The last thing I need while I’m trying to do all this internal heavy-lifting is a distraction from the real world.

In an interview author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) said he keeps a small office with nothing in it but a table and a chair that both face a white wall.  Furthermore, he can’t screw around on line as the wireless connection of his laptop is disabled. He’s not the first writer this finicky. Marcel Proust worked in a cork-lined room.

When I work, I may not require cork but I do want a small room with no stuff in it; just a coupla chairs and a desk. No windows, please; I’d just end up staring out of them wondering stupid stuff like, “I wonder where Spanish moss comes from?” Adler Hall, where we SCAD ad geeks do our stuff, has very few windows and that’s a good thing.

Ah, but even when we don’t have external distractions like windows, we creative types will make distractions — we’ll text, we’ll flirt, we’ll browse.  We do all this because of what’s called “creative resistance.” It’s a sort of self-imposed writer’s block that creative people practice when faced with a creative challenge. Oh, we’ll sit down to work but we’ll leave the TV on, or keep our email open nearby as a sort of trapdoor we can sneak through when the ideas aren’t coming and the anxiety grows.

It may help you to acknowledge you probably employ this defense mechanism from time to time; and to promise yourself when you sit down to work, to commit to it completely. Unplug your landline, turn off your smart phone, turn off the email, find a pen and paper, turn away from the window, put your feet up, and give it your whole mind.

So whether you live in a sterile suburb of Cleveland or the most heavily-mimed area of San Francisco, remember, creativity is an internal act. You can be extraordinarily creative no matter where the river takes you.


  1. Luke,
    This is great advice for ALL of us, not just those pursuing the next great creative idea. As you’re describing the importance of minimizing distractions, I’m realizing just how many barriers I put in front of myself that keep me from accomplishing my daily tasks, whether writing a blog post or preparing budgets spread sheets.

    • To study just how devious we are about setting up distractions for ourselves, I recommend a marvelous, very short, little book called “The War of Art.”

  2. Hey Luke, Another one of your many well written pieces, Thank You.
    QUESTION, I noticed you have written several books. and want to know something about your quest for publishers. Have you done mostly print pubs or both print and e-book, Kindle, etc. ? I have written a book, quite different about my tour in Vietnam and its finished and read by literate types who have moved things around and corrected my english etc. Having been an Art Director I cant spell or punctuate.
    If you could shed some light on the Publisher process I would appreciate it ..Thanks John Worden cell 612 267 0455 or [email protected]

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece on creativity and what we need to develop projects. Here’s a lovely little video on people and their desks.

    • Hey Diane: Thanks for the link. I love it.

  4. Ironic that I’m using this piece as creative resistance. Ha!
    From Melbourne (apparently now the world’s most livable city).

  5. I love little sneaky peeks of other people’s creative process. I always wanted to work in a creative environment, with funky settings and a team bouncing ideas off other people. Then I discovered wearing earplugs and staring at nothing is how I work best. And in a group that tends to make things a little uncomfortable…

  6. After making it all the way to CD in Melbourne, Australia I decided to try my luck in London. It was, after all, the capital city of advertising. Once I got settled and working I soon discovered it was pretty much the same old stuff as happened down under, only on a much bigger scale.

  7. If you wrote an article about life we’d all reach einlghetmnent.

  8. You define Savannah gig is well done. Its like a dreamy place. Everyone who knows that place want to go there.


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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.