Tea-drawing-inspiration

Lessons from 30 Days of Tea Drawing

Full disclosure – I’ve been drawing since a very young age. I love it. So, this exercise might be harder for those who do not. When I was little, my parents used to give me a stack of printer paper and pens and sit me down at the coffee table. I could doodle for hours. The time I devote to drawing is far less now with adulthood creeping in. As a designer, the pressure for productivity at all hours of the day means that I have to sneak time between calendar events to sit down and sketch.

Making Drawing at Work the Norm

This past month I started a 30 day experiment. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s tea drawings, I asked, “How can I doodle at work and not look like a slacker?” The answer is if you use all easily accessible office equipment (i.e. note cards, Lipton Tea bags, and felt tip markers) you can totally get away with it.

So, for one month I forged ahead with drinking more tea, placing the discarded bags on note cards, letting them dry and drawing an image from whatever I saw from the tea stains. It was a sloppy process that often resulted in tea all over my desk. I did come out of the experiment with three lessons.

Hard Work trumps Talent

Drawing is often associated with talent. Talent is a tricky word to define. Is it something you are born with or do you have to work at it? Derek Sivers discussed in his book, Anything You Want, how he wanted to be a great singer, but fell short of people’s expectations. After 15 years of persistent lessons and practice, people finally started to say that he had a ‘natural’ talent for singing.

If you can make something, great! If not, try again. Tea and note cards are cheap.

When people say that you are talented, the expectation is that you are good. You have to always be good. What happens when you produce something that does not reach expectations? From my experience, I found it harder to show my work. In time, I became less motivated to even try.

Discipline and hard work > motivation and talent

Creativity comes from Constraints

If you take away the fancy paper and expensive pens, you open up the environment for experimentation. A small tea stain and a note card outline the boundaries to work in. Spend a little time to craft an image from an abstract shape. If you can make something, great! If not, try again. Tea and note cards are cheap.

If you have ALL the tools at your disposal, you will not be forced to think. You might even be afraid to try anything out of fear of waste.

Great Ideas come from many bad ideas

My art teacher in high school said to us in a grand motivational speech, “You are going to make a lot of crap. Not everything is a work of art and that’s ok. You are here to learn the techniques.” You can make a lot of tea drawings in a day. I have boxes of them that I probably should not bother to keep. Out of 100, there are maybe 5 that I would consider amusing. I am not too sure any of these would be labeled “art.” Nonetheless, after hundreds of these drawings, I feel more free to pick up a pen to sketch out an idea.

The expectations for designers is to come up with ideas to solve the toughest problems in elegant ways. We are measured by our ability to create “beautiful” solutions. The great ideas come after many bad ideas. We have to train ourselves to get our work in front of people early. Sketch a lot, try different things, learn to be ok with throwing things away.

This is my first in a series of 30 day experiments. My hope is to do one a month and write about lessons learned. If you have ideas or suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comment below.

Some of the drawings I think are interesting

Some that I felt contributed to the learning process

Tea Drawings Failed Drawings

Tea Drawings Failed Drawings



Matt Eng

UX Research Team Lead at IBM Design. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.

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