I’ve fallen into this trap so many times and for so many years that it’s simply embarrassing.

I call it the theory trap.

When reading anything relating to your craft, it’s easy to assume that your skills are developing. You know how to balance two elements or how to highlight an item, so you must be getting better, right?

When you first start reading up on these things, you apply them pretty quickly, and see quick results. You’re new to the game, so the leaps you make seem legendary.

So you read more theory. Or at least that’s what I did. I saw improvements from a little theory, so I thought a lot of reading would mean a lot of improvements.


But Theory Doesn’t Get the Work Done

Theory doesn’t get the work done.

The reading about something new part is only a fraction of the work. The theory holds no value until it’s been understood, and it won’t be understood until it’s been used.

A description of a shape might say “it has three points”, but we can’t know for sure it’s a triangle until we draw it and hold what we’ve drawn up against the idea that we read.

What if the description said “it has 36 lines, three points, four arcs, nine lines that run parallel, and looks the same when it’s turned 180 degrees”.

Even if the theory gave us names of both shapes, that still wouldn’t help us much. Append “it’s called a triangle” to the first and “it’s called a heisyburg” to the second, and you still don’t really know what each looks like. Just definitions.

Theory simply doesn’t get the work done. Reading as many articles and books as I can sure as hell makes me feel smarter, but it doesn’t make me any more knowledgeable when it comes to getting work done.

Putting “I read a heap of books and articles” into my folio without work isn’t going to win me any new clients. Or at least any worth working with. (The opposite to all this seems to be true in the sector I’m working in these days – education. All theory, no practice. #snark)

Be Informed by the Theory and Everything Beautiful

Rather than contemplate every theoretical notion that you’ve put through your head, just make a start.

When you’re stuck, finding a reasoning behind elements that don’t yet exist is meaningless. It doesn’t start drawing shapes and setting type and taking photos for you.

It can seem scary, I know, I’ve been there. A lot. For years. I’m still there most days.

We build up this mental resource of facts and tidbits, and putting it to use means giving ourselves and our work armour.

But if we don’t touch it, if we don’t forge it and give it shape through use, then we end up with a giant wall we can’t budge.

And for some reason the idea of turning around and ignoring the all behind us is very hard. We know it’s important, there has to be something important within it, the perfect description of the perfect shape for this job. Then the job will be perfect and I’ll finally have something I’m happy with, something that justifies and gives shape to my awesomeness, an awesomeness built up because of all this theory!

Blurgh, ugly.

The work still isn’t done.

It’s better to just move.

Move your hands, move your eyes, move your mind, your mindset and your head and your body. Just move and start working.

All that theory, that giant ass wall that you’ve been building up is still there, it ain’t going no where.

So work. All that stuff you’ve build up, all those ideas, will come out in your work.

Working on something, moving your hands and really working, makes your brain start to churn and move. Without meaning to you will begin to pull from your wall of knowledge and start applying it. You mightn’t notice at first, it might not become clear until after you’ve started to make marks, but theory will just naturally come through.

Every piece of theory, every book you’ve read, every song you’ve heard, every movie you’ve watched. It’ll all come through if you let it.

Best of all, the work will be done.

Don’t use Contemplation as an Excuse

Contemplation is still needed. Sitting still and stopping your hands from moving and thinking about the work is a must if you want a sensible outcome.

But that can’t happen much while you’re in the making stage, the working stage.

It should happen early in the process and maybe every few hours or few days, where you can hold up the work you’ve actually done to the theory and see what works.

It’s a firing squad if you do it for every mark you make. The bullets might miss you a few times, but you’re gonna get shot eventually.

Changing Direction

To be definitive about every mark you make, to know it is a perfect mark that sits perfectly within a perfect whole before you’ve even scratched the paper is a wonderful idea.

It kinda sounds like the perfect mix of professionalism and craftsmanship.

But nothing gets done that way.

To not be sure of what you’re going to do before you start sounds scary. What if you stuff it up? What if it all goes wrong and you waste time?

What if you’re right? What if your instinct, the one honed by all that knowledge, but more importantly, honed by you actually getting down to work, nails it on the first attempt?

And what if you don’t? What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t arrive at a design you’re happy with?

Then correct the ship. Change direction. It’s far easier to alter your course once you’re moving than it is to start.

Just start moving your hands around and your mind and its wall of theory will follow. Soon enough you’ll realise (read that as “soon enough I hope I’ll realise”) that theory might help build you armour, but action builds an army.