A situation that probably many of us are familiar with: The pencils are sharpened, the white sheet of paper has an expectant, beckoning glow, and you’re ready to get started – but you can’t think of anything. The deadline for the next draft designs is approaching fast, the building contractor is waiting for first creative ideas for a family house, the university thesis is due soon, or you simply want to write a romantic poem for your girlfriend. The pressure is rising – but your mind is a complete blank..
Many creative talents around the world regularly find themselves facing such a situation, whether in their private or professional lives. At adidas, too, there are numerous designers whose job it is to come up with new and creative products every season. Be it the World Cup jersey for the Argentine national football team, the new CrazyLight Boost basketball shoe or the next NEO collection – the designers’ task is to regularly excite consumers worldwide with fresh ideas and new trends. But how do you do it? How do you stay constantly creative at the highest level? Where do you get the necessary inspiration from, and how do you deal with pressure? We spoke with someone who has a lot of experience and knows how it’s done. Martin Tibabuzo, born in Buenos Aires, has been working at adidas as a football apparel designer for many years. In his spare time, he is busy in a small atelier in Fürth where he lets his creativity run free.
Martin, when did you realise that you wanted to become a designer?
I think this was in high school when I studied to become an electromechanical technician, which obviously has nothing to do with design or art or anything like that. Back then I realised that I didn’t want to be an engineer like all my other school mates. I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to be but I knew that I really liked advertising, art and drawing. My granddad was an artist and also worked in advertising so I grew up surrounded by a lot of creativity, which was a big influence for me when I was a kid.
So does that mean that already as a child you were creative in some way? Did you draw a lot in school for example?
Last summer, I went home for my holidays, I cleaned up my cellar and found a lot of old stuff like a schoolbook from first grade. Apparently I was already drawing some football jerseys back then. I don’t even remember doing that. I also found some weird drawings of our house. It was more an architectural drawing, a plan of my house. I was only six years old back then and I assume that my friends probably didn’t understand what I was doing and, to be honest, I can’t even remember how I did it, or why even.
'I've always been drawing a lot.'
The melting pot theory
When you think of famous designers, do you right away connect them to big cities like New York, London, Tokyo, Paris or Berlin … why is that so? Does the location really play such a big role?
My theory is that designers like or even need cities with big harbours.I come from Buenos Aires, so a city with a big harbour, and I think that the harbours have something special. It’s like a melting pot that mixes a lot of people coming from different places. Some of them are just coming and leaving, others are staying. I think this melting pot theory really applies to cities like New York, Buenos Aires, London, Hamburg or Napoli. It can be various cities. And it doesn’t mean that this city necessarily is super-artistic or more elevated in an artistic way, it’s more in a cultural way. For a designer, it is really important to have connections to other cities in the world.
If you were totally free to choose where to work from – where would that be? What would be the most inspiring place on earth?
It wouldn’t be one place, but different places. Of course, you need a base, a place to stay most of the time or at least during the technical part of work. But for me the rotating atmosphere is really necessary. I could be living three months in Berlin, in summer, some other months in Buenos Aires or somewhere else. I think that would be really inspiring. The best thing is just to get a little bit of all the different sources and combine it in a new place.
How to conquer a blank page
Here is a common situation: You are sitting in front of a piece of white paper or an empty screen and you have to design, draw or write something … but in your head is just emptiness – do you know this too?
I think it’s really a common situation for every designer. We all face it very often because we are supposed to regularly create new stuff and need to try to make it very different from anything we did in the past. But a blank page is actually the least limiting thing that we can have at the very beginning of a design process. For most of us, a blank page is not a big pressure but more a nice challenge. There are lots of different ways of facing a white page. For me the nicest one is with a pen, a black pen always. I actually always prefer ink. Another way of facing that, and this is what I usually do, is to start working before I have to. When the design season officially starts in May, my team and I already start to scratch in February. Just without the pressure of having a brief or having any limitations, colours or directions. So when we actually have to start designing, the white page is already filled with ten scratches. Usually nine of these ten scratches are not going to be used, but the page is not as white anymore.
'There are lots of different ways of facing a blank page'
Where do you draw your creativity from, what inspires you?
Inspiration can come from anything. Today we have a lot of internet influence and many websites that provide input. Every designer is using different kinds of inspiration but for me travelling is key. I love travelling. I have travelled a lot since I moved here to Germany. I always try to discover new places, cities, new countries. Every time I go to a city, even though it’s just a business trip, me and my team try to go to museums – art museums, historical museums – and that provides lots of inspiration which is relevant to what we have to design. But also architecture or simply the people on the street can be helpful.
Are you more the type of person that needs some calm and peace to get ideas or do you rather get outside where it is loud and crowded?
When I am looking for inspiration and ideas, then quiet is not good, I prefer to be surrounded by madness or mess. But when I have to put my ideas down, I prefer it to be calm, that´s when I put my headphones on and listen to music. That can be radio or anything. When I really need it to be calm and really relaxed it also can be classic music.
The importance of craftsmanship
Can you actually learn to be creative? Or is there some sort of technique to become creative?
I don´t know whether you can learn to be creative, but I think it is something that you can train. It´s like any other discipline. To be a professional football player, you need to have some born skills. To be creative is more or less the same. Some are meant to be more creative than others. But just having some talent shouldn´t make you think that you are the most creative person in the world – you can always get better, be a little more creative and push a little bit harder.
How important is craftsmanship for your job or your work in your atelier?
Craftsmanship is very important. Creativity is an important factor but not the whole thing. It’s just half of the cake. The other half is when you have to take it out of your head and actually visualise your thoughts. If you don’t have the needed skills to do that, you’re crap. You can explain it with words but then it might get misunderstood. You need to put your ideas down on paper, in print, on a computer or whatever. It’s important that people know how to work fast and to improve. Even if you’re fast you can always improve a little bit.
‘Creativity is an important factor but not the whole thing.‘
Do you think it is necessary to attend a design school or something similar or can you also learn these techniques yourself?
There are different opinions about this. University for me is really important. But I don’t know whether all the good things I learned were really so academic. I learned how to share, how to communicate, how to talk, how to work and I learned from other people. Learning from others is the best, because you’re all in the same situation where no one knows anything. Everybody starts from zero and then we start to share with the others. They all know something different. That’s the best moment ever and when you’re young it is always good to get knowledge from others. However, I have colleagues who never studied design. One came out of secondary school, he didn’t go to university and started as a developer at adidas. He worked in various different departments – now he is a designer and he is doing a fantastic job. Another colleague is a fashion designer, one is a fine arts designer, I am a graphic designer. Somehow we all learned the needed abilities; the most important thing is just to be willing to learn.
When the pressure is on
Especially in big companies like adidas for example there is also a lot of pressure. How do you deal with this? Does that even motivate you?
We are a special department. We love football. I would never be designing with the same passion for tennis for example. I don’t play tennis, I don’t watch tennis, I don’t go to a tennis match. When I design a football shirt, I know that I have to wait two years until I see it on the pitch but even after two years I still get very emotional when I go to a football stadium and see my work. What you provoke in people, it can be love, it can be hate, is unbelievable. The best way of dealing with the pressure is to love what you do. So actually, yes, I like to get some pressure.
You not only design football shirts for adidas but also in your private life you create a lot of art. What do you do?
I have a fantastic job at adidas so fortunately I don’t need to create art in order to survive. So I have the freedom to be really open to do different things. That’s also why I am probably pushing the boundaries of being creative a lot. I’ve been painting, I’ve been drawing, I’ve done mini sculptures and video art. I always get interested in or inspired by something and then I just try to do it. Some things I do better than others, sometimes I don’t know how to use a certain technique. That is when I start to explore and then it takes me from one level to the next until I have reached a certain level that I feel is ok.
What is the difference between designing and being creative for your job versus privately?
Well, with what I do for my job I don’t need to please just myself, I mainly need to please others. I have a big responsibility, especially when it comes to football fans. Football fans are so passionate. They really look at what you’re doing and can get really proud or really offended by your work. So for me, work is also really contemplating what other people want or expect. My personal art for me is just my pleasure, my hobby. I do it just to please myself.
The secret behind the notebooks
I have noticed that a lot of designers or artists always carry a notebook and a pen with them. What is the secret behind this – is this some sort of a ritual?
I don’t know whether it’s contagious or not. I started using notebooks back in school when I was studying. I think one of the studies I enjoyed most was technical drawing. Anyway, in school we of course had to take lots of notes, not only written notes but also in a graphic way. After some time I started to develop my own style of taking notes and I realised that graphics made it much easier to understand afterwards than just writing, writing, writing. A nice layout just makes it easier. Every designer has his own style, whether they use colours or not, vertical or landscape. Each of us has a different style.
Do you have any tips for young designers or people who maybe want to become a designer?
The best thing is just to travel and to see other people and to learn from them. It is nothing that you can just learn from books. Of course you can study and learn how to use programs, but the best way of learning is travelling, sharing with other people, seeing exhibitions, museums…
And what is important is the “mixing”. Going to a nice exhibition and then going back and just copying is no good. Try to see different things, and the more you see, the more influences you get. Then at the end you’ll mix it. Sooner or later you will develop your own style and create your own stuff.
Thank you very much, Martin!