Your process isn’t broken

Seems like I saw all kinds of posts last week from bloggers being kind of hang dog about lack of progress on various projects. Saw a lot of “meant to do this” and “didn’t get to that” and “wish I could have” and “decided not to,” with intimations of sloth and distraction and various other character flaws.

I so get that. I’ve written such posts myself.

soldering the pipe

Seemed like it took FOREVER to get the plumbing done on our bathroom renovation.

And I just want to say this to anyone who’s ever felt somehow bad because they didn’t get some project done when or how they wanted to:

A good creative process is messy. 

And, it can take a while.

Even though we know this, we can still get caught in the idea that we need to be doing more, faster. But we do know this.

Back when Cane and I taught together (he was the digital media teacher and I was the English teacher), we developed a creative process model that we used with our students. It looked like this:


Although it looks like a nice, neat line from beginning to end, our students with the best creative process (meaning, the ones who produced the best creative work) did not work in a nice, neat fashion. In fact, if you mapped their process, it was more likely to be a tangled mess of lines.

That’s because–if you’re open to the creative possibilities that present themselves–at almost any stage of the process you might find yourself needing to go back to earlier stages.

We came to believe that the most important part of the process is the the thing that can seem least important (or surely the least serious), and that our most driven students were likely to skip over:  Creative Play.

What’s creative play?

Well, it’s what it sounds like:  playing around with creative possibilities. It’s an important part of the Design stage of our process model. It’s where we noodle around and figure out what we want to do.

All those hours you spend reading blogs and pinning great ideas? Creative play.

dream house pinterest boardprojects to do pinterest boardbathroom pinterest board

The afternoons you get lost in the fabric/craft store, Home Depot, the ReStore, or your favorite thrifty place? Creative play.

rebuilding center drawers

Your messy doodles, designs, mock-ups, and false starts? Creative play.

messy work table

Creative play is all about exploring possibilities, and that kind of thing just takes some time. But we think it’s time well-spent.

Our students who took the time to creatively play before committing to a design usually ended up with better, richer projects. 

We’re finding the same is true for us as we work on our house.

Case in point:  Our bathroom tile project

Back in January when we smashed down the existing tile, I knew the re-tiling project would be challenging and fun.

tile demo rita

I also thought it would be over in about a month or so. I saw it as phase I of the whole-bathroom reno, and I figured we would do the tile and then move on in nice, orderly fashion to the other parts of the larger project (vanity, floors, paint, fixtures, lighting).

Why did I think this?

Who knows?

I know Cane and me to know better than that, but I think I begin every project with the fantasy that it will proceed smoothly and according to plan.

In the case of the bathroom project, this was a more ridiculous fantasy than usual because we began it without a plan. It was born of necessity (a leak), not desire, and when we started smashing things all we really knew is that we were going to put in a tub and replace the tile. We had no pins, no mood boards, no nuthin’.

cane in tub

Perhaps a real plan could have saved us our hard day of tub wrestling. But probably not.

Why did we start demo with no real plan? Because we do know ourselves well enough to know that we need to take action to get ourselves moving. We could get lost forever in the land of Pinterest. With the walls torn down, we had some built-in incentive to play purposefully.

The power of limitations

Tearing down the wall created one kind of limitation:  time. We didn’t want to sit around for months with an unusable shower. As long as we kept that wall up, it would have been easy to get stalled on exploring possibilities.

We imposed another limitation on ourselves fairly quickly, too: We decided that we would use tile we could find at our local sources for salvaged construction goods:  Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and Portland’s ReBuilding Center.

rebuilding center tile

Just look at all this tile! Surely, we thought, we could make something from this.

We don’t believe in the idea that greater freedom = greater creativity.  In fact, we think the opposite:  Our best creative work comes from limitations of some sort. Limitations narrow down the playing field. They give us something concrete to work with and to work within. Too many choices paralyze us.

Without some limitations, our process can get stuck in creative play. So, we smashed the wall to get the clock ticking, and we decided upon salvaged tile because the full range of tile choices was overwhelming and most of them were too expensive. (Budget constraints are a constant limitation for us–but we actually like it that way.)

What does play look like?

The obvious answer is:  Lots of things.

Our play looks different in every project. But we think the playing we’ve done with tile has involved the kinds of activities that are most common (and useful).

Once we decided we’d probably like to use salvaged and seconds tile, we spent time playing around with the tile at our sources. We went and looked and messed around a couple of times before buying anything.

cane with tile at restore

Cane playing around with possibilities on the floor at The ReStore.

We weren’t at all sure of what we might do with a bunch of multi-colored tile, so I began searching to see what others have done with it. I found lots of inspiration online.

bhg bathroom tileapartment therapy shower tilebhg Kitchen tile

(Images via BHG, Apartment Therapy, and BHG. Clicking on them will take you to source.)

During the searching for ideas phase, I allowed myself time to look at stuff that seemed a little crazy. I collected images from lots of projects that weren’t bathrooms, and images of projects unlike anything I knew we’d do. I didn’t want to limit the possibilities at this stage.


I knew we weren't going to do anything like this for our whole shower, but I pinned it anyway because I really liked it. I knew that thinking about why I really liked it might help us make some decisions. (Image from BoligLiv via How About Orange.)

After doing that kind of playing, we narrowed our possibilities further. We committed to salvaged tile and a particular size (4″ tiles). Then we bought a small supply (a drawer-full) so we could take them home and do the kind of experimenting we couldn’t do in the store.

The day we decided to buy a small supply, we were surprised at how long it took us to find the tile we did. After we got it home and began trying out some different design ideas, we realized that it would be hard to find all the tile we’d want and need.

Cue the tangled process line

Telling a friend about our difficulty in getting enough tile, she mentioned a source we didn’t know about, the Pratt & Larson outlet store (located in the back of their main store).

tile at pratt & larson outlet

Doesn't the Pratt & Larson outlet room look like a fun place to play? (It is.)

When we visited there, we realized that we’d seen quite a bit of P & L tile in both the ReStore and the Rebuilding Center. The tiles are thicker than the standard tiles we’d bought. (Because it’s nice, high-end tile.)

What we really liked about the P & L tile was the greater variety of colors. At the outlet they were a little more expensive than the salvaged tile, but we wanted some of those colors. We began to wonder if color should be a more important consideration than using salvaged tiles.

And suddenly we were back at the Define stage of the creative process.

We went to Home Depot and Lowe’s, to look at their standard tile. Their basic, solid-colored tile was about the same price as the P & L outlet tile. And there were lots of colors there. If color was the issue, maybe we should just buy new tile in the colors we wanted?

We had to reconsider our purpose:

What do we want to get out of this bathroom project?

What matters most to us in it? Something we think is really cool, or something future buyers might like? Creativity or ease? Being green or getting something not green that we like better? Saving money on tile or saving money on some other part of the project?

Unsure of what to do, we stopped to give ourselves time to think. We think stopping is a crucial and necessary part of just about any creative process, especially when you’re starting to feel tangled.

In fact, we turned away from the whole tile business and focused on some other things. Cane got absorbed with the plumbing, and I worked on a desk. (Working on a different creative project for a while seems to let some part of your brain germinate ideas for the project you’ve put aside.)

desk after one coat of pain

This desk for Will's room was a much easier project to wrap my head around.

Getting untangled

After a bit of time and a lot of talking, we decided to go with Pratt & Larson tile. We wanted to use tile that would otherwise be discarded, and we liked the creative challenges that came with using them. (As we’ve written about before, the process is as important to us as the finished project.) We decided we cared more about that than about having a conventionally attractive bathroom.

Our decision meant discarding our original drawer of thinner tile, but we were only out about $15.00 for that. We went to both salvage stores and the outlet store, and we bought as much as we could in whatever colors we could find that we liked. We didn’t have any kind of good plan for what we’d do with them, but we figured we knew enough to dive in.

About $80 later, it was time for more play. We started by organizing our materials in different ways, to see if that would give us some design ideas.

stacks of 4-inch tiles sorted by color

We thought about several different ways to group our different colors of tile.

And then, we played around with different schemes for arranging them.

mixed bag of tilestile muted warmHigh intensity mixed tiles

After this, we actually got to the Review stage of our process and asked for input from you readers (in this post).

And then we got stuck again

We didn’t really like any of our ideas. We were struggling with how to use both our neutral tiles (which we had a lot of, but not enough for the whole wall) and our brights (which we didn’t have as much of, and which didn’t all seem to gel together).

We wanted a design that would incorporate all the colors of tile we had, but we couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Getting stuck meant two things:

1. We needed to (again) stop working on the tile and work on some other things. We began moving forward with finding a vanity (as Cane wrote about here) and we did our salvaged door table project and we worked on our living room.

2. We needed to go back to creative play. Although we were working on other projects, I began browsing for multi-colored tile images again. I didn’t see much new, until, suddenly, I did:

plaza tile

Wish I could tell you how I even found this, but I don't remember.

This is pretty far from a bathroom; it’s an outdoor plaza. (Remember, it’s important to look through a wide lens for ideas.) But it got me unstuck because, suddenly, I was thinking outside the random multi-colored design box:

What if we did something with stripes?

So I went back to the Build stage and began playing around with stripes.

two rows of neutral, one of bright tile

one row neutral, one row bright

diagonal stripes tile

We like the diagonal stripe best, which helped us see that we liked having a solid row of the more-intense colors–but we still didn’t really know what to do with all our tile.

Messing around one day (likely procrastinating from some other task), I hit on this:

horizontal stripes

And suddenly, we pretty much knew:  This was it.

We liked keeping the neutrals in their own stripes, and using the brighter colors in rows without any neutrals.

Were we then done playing?

Yeah, pretty much. Once we knew what we wanted, we needed to move to more purposeful Building. We measured our walls carefully and sorted our tile into piles.

And then we decided to lay the whole thing out on our garage floor. In my earlier playing around, I tried come up with some formula to use for organizing and laying out the tile, but it never really worked.  We realized that we could do a rough layout that way, but that we’d need to see the whole thing at once so we could move tiles around until it looked just right.

We started by laying out tape lines on our garage floor.

tape on garage floor

The left box is the faucet wall (with the cut-in shelf marked off), the middle one is the long wall, and the right one is the wall opposite the faucet wall.

And we began filling in the neutral (non-bright) tiles.

neutral stripes

We decided to do 4 rows of bright color, each separated by 3 rows of neutral tile. It took a few tries to settle on this amount of neutral tile, in this pattern.

Finally, we inserted the bright colors.

neutral stripes with colored stripes

You can see that the pink row is higher than the others; there’s a yellow stripe under it. The yellow didn’t look quite right, but neither did the pink. And, we knew that we needed to even out our neutrals–the right side had too many yellows and greens.

At this point, we needed to buy more tile (you can see that the third box is mostly empty), but we had a much better idea of what we needed:  more neutrals (but no more in yellow/green) and more bright yellow. So we did, filled in the third box, and still weren’t sold on the whole thing.

Once again, we left it alone, trusting that the answers would come to us. We haven’t enjoyed this, as our garage has been tied up with this tile for over a month now. (This has meant not parking in it, which we hate.) But this is a big project, so we want to give it the time it needs.

We liked the basic idea of the stripes, but not the colors. Yellow was blending in too much with the neutrals, and I was having trouble getting the neutrals to look uniform. We didn’t take photos of every design iteration, but we tried different colors of stripe, and once we decided upon those (yellow, green, blue, purple) we tried them in different orders (3 different ones). Today, we are happy to announce that we’ve finally settled on what we’re (mostly) going with.  It looks like this:

mostly final tile layout

We decided to put our darker neutrals in the middle rows, and leave the top and bottom two almost entirely white/off-white. We also decided to get rid of any neutral that had a blue, green, or yellow cast to it. Looking at the photo, it's easy to see that we still need to swap a few of these out. We also ran short of our lightest neutrals, so we'll be heading back to our usual tile haunts next weekend.

This is a pretty far cry from that first playing around at the ReStore:

cane with tile at restore

Cane playing around with possibilities on the floor at The ReStore.

Our next step is to fill in the tile we still are missing (arghh…), double-check our measurements, and then stack these up in order. So that we can finally start tiling.

We are declaring our design/creative play stage done!

(For the tiling portion of the project.)

We don’t take this long with play for every project. And that’s another important point we want to make about creative process: How much time you spend in each phase depends upon the project.

In this one, we didn’t want to realize we’d made a mistake after we’d started laying tile on the wall. Because we didn’t want to be doing this all over again:

cane removing broken tile

So, we’re OK with the fact that we’ve taken a good 3 months to play with all our options. Once we start sticking these guys up, we’re not going to be open to changing our design.

But hey, wait a minute…

Writing this post, I had Cane look at the ReStore image again. “You know, I kinda like that,” I said. “Are you sure we’re going the right way with our stripes?”

He kinda liked it too.

And then we stopped ourselves right there.

We like both designs. We decided we could make either approach look good. We are now tired of playing around with design and want to get the dang bathroom done already. It’s time to move on.

The most important part of creative play might be knowing when to stop and move forward. We need to trust that we’ve done enough that our design will meet our goals (and we do).

For us, our ideas about creative process help us when we feel like we’re taking too long or getting stuck. They give us a framework to help us understand where we are, decide if we really need to be somewhere else, and come up with something to try if we’re feeling stuck.

What about you?

How do you know when a project is dragging on too long? What’s your process look like? What are your signs that you’re on the right track or have gone off it?

We’d love to hear from  you–unless you want to tell us to try a completely different approach to our design! ‘Cause we aren’t going there any more…

Rita sorting tile

 Want to see some people who’ve got their creative process going on?

Check out the projects at The Rooster and the Hen’s Remodel-Repurpose-Reveal party (where we’re linking up a little better late than never…)!

 We are also linking to the William Morris Project at Pancakes & French Fries, a blog I really like a lot. As much as I like the idea of  having nothing in our home that we do not believe to be beautiful or useful (or both).

william morris project