Is There An Overarching Theme To Your Work?

Is There An Overarching Theme To Your Work?

Welcome to the next question! Last time we talked about daily routines with a handful of creatives. (I also released the first Thought Mixing Bowl podcast episode recently and I’ll be releasing the next episode soon so be sure to check those out!)

This week’s question:

Is there an overarching theme to your work? Is there a message you’re trying to share with the world?

This is a question I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about, especially considering my time is being spread across so many different areas (music composition, teaching, ecommerce consulting, data analysis, coaching, and whatever you call Thought Mixing Bowl). I still don’t know for sure what my answer is, but I think it’s important to ask the question.

For awhile I settled on a handful of values that I thought best described what I was striving for: Happiness, Beauty, Uniqueness, Passion, and Good. This gets the general idea, but it doesn’t capture everything and can be a little too vague to drive some decisions if I’m looking for guidance. More recently I found it helpful to look at my approach or process to projects/life which boiled down to: Ask Questions – Listen/Analyze – Create – Connect.

This process might be the closest thing to a theme I have and the message I want to get across to others. Being endlessly curious and constantly asking questions I think is one of the greatest things a person can do. Then listening to all the different possibilities, understanding them, and honestly analyzing them is equally important. I want to hear the other side and things in between to find a proper perspective for all the answers. People that don’t try to understand views different from their own and see multiple perspectives to a situation tend to rub me the wrong way. Next I create my decision, solution, art, etc. And then I connect with other people and share my ideas. I hope the interaction starts the whole process again for myself and the people I connect with.

Matt Hanna
Musician/Composer/Teacher/Coach/Consultant/Lover of Thinking and Learning
Boston, MA

I’ve started to notice that people who are passionate about what they do, say the same thing. Since I started noticing this a few years ago, I have heard a version of “I’m saving the world” come out of the mouths of creative passionate people. It seems to be the overarching theme of all of us. We are striving to be good humans, contribute something positive to the world and make the world a better place. “I’m putting a smile on someone’s face through making movies” or “I try to get people to think through art” or “I give people music so they can dance free and be happy.” It all seems so similar.

For me, years ago, I started saying to store clerks “I’m saving the world one bag at a time” after rejecting their offer for a plastic bag. I continue a more broadened approach of that message today. My overarching theme is encouraging people to think about our impact on our environment and make simple changes in their everyday life to conserve energy. Scientists have shown in study after study that our human activities are increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere faster than a natural phenomenon. It’s time for us to reconnect with nature, understand how actions in our life add pollution to our environment, and make change happen. Most of my written work is tied to sustainability and conservation but the topics range from fashion to architecture. I love bringing the science of sustainability to my local community and beyond in a way people can understand and act upon.

Naima Montacer
Environmental Adventurer
Dallas, TX

One of my favorite musicians is Jack White. I remember watching a documentary about The White Stripes (Jack’s former band) where he talked about the boundaries he created for the band. For example, The White Stripes could only use the colors: red, black, and white. He forced the group to work in those confines and create art. When Jack decided to fly solo, his work was shown in shades of blue.

I have a special respect for artists who make sure each creation is extremely unique. I try my best to make each personal project feel very independent visually. I try to make constraints just like Jack does. However, I also like inserting a bit of intertextuality or calling card into each project, so if you look at everything that I’ve created throughout my life… you’ll see kind of rainbow effect from start to finish.

Chandler Johnson
Designer of Kalimizzou
Founder & Director of Loudspeaker

The images I produce do not have an overarching long term theme, as far as I know. I’m in a darker period right now and the photographs tend to reflect that, though not in a cohesive “theme” sort of way. As a current body of work comes together for an upcoming exhibition it could be called a theme just from the nature of the period that the work is being produced in.

I think it’s a good thing when a viewer gets a message while viewing my work. I rarely intend a specific message, however having a hand in producing a reaction or sending even an unintended message, just from viewing an image, makes me feel good.

Chuck Baker
Flickr Photostream
Chuck Baker Photography

A theme that persists throughout all of my work is play; whether it is manifest in approaching the topic with a playful nature, trying to manipulate a set series to be outside the lines of what is expected, or stretching one’s associations of a concept, I am always playing when I start to design or make something.

For the most part, everything that we experience on a daily basis has already been designed, rethought, and redesigned again. At that point it kind of makes sense that the only way to make something new or fresh is to have fun with it, right? Break away from the rules to try to find something new. Design is not always fun and not everything I do can fit into the realm of play, but I always try to approach my work with a certain whimsy or find places where I can put that personality into it.

I guess the hidden message in my work is to have fun and enjoy doing what you’re doing. If you can’t enjoy creating your work then it is hard to think that others will enjoy it when they experience it. The process itself is (usually) the way to create a great experience. For me, the bottom line is to create something that is great, that you think is great, and is able to defy your own expectations to make you say “wow, that is really cool.”

Connor Ebbinghouse

Simple answer: not really! Although my primary focus is graphic design, I am still at a stage in my artistic career in which I am trying to explore as many creative avenues as possible. Right now, for me, this means a lot of stepping out of that cozy comfort zone and visiting new and old media that I’m not as experienced with, but also working to evoke a range of emotions through differing styles with the work I’m pumping out. Because of this, I haven’t committed to any particular themes, and I admittedly don’t have a strong message to convey through my work; everything is pretty all over the place as I’m still working to define my artistic voice.

However, I do like to think that when someone views my portfolio as a whole, they are truly witnessing the aggregate of my diverse, every-changing interests and my playful, yet slightly dark personality. A lot of my work gives a nod to my favorite musicians and hip-hop lyrics, while my collection of portraits represents my love for the human form and exposing the personalities that dwell beneath the surface. I like to create work that honors the things and people and places that I love so that I can share them with the world, while simultaneously claiming a piece of them as part of myself. My work is simply a collection of puzzle pieces that make up who I am; the next step is seeing how those pieces fit together to tell a story that is bigger than myself.

Lily Patterson
Graphic Designer
Seattle, WA

My grandmother is also an artist, and at an early age she encouraged me to try my hand at pottery when I visited her. Living in New Mexico, she explained to me that I was going to collaborate with, “The Kiln Gods,” and that they would change the colors I had painted into new ones in the firing. In college, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I found similarities in my grandmother’s thinking with the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi: the perfect mistake.

Across mediums, the link that binds my work together is the sense of collaboration with my materials. The pen, and paper, and makers of those items, and the weather, and the sounds in my studio, all together, we make a drawing. When quilting, I piece the fabric together ‘improvisationally,’ without a set plan or rigid structure by following the jazz aesthetic as developed by African American quilters. Then, I sew the layers of my quilts together with wide, thick Japanese sashiko stitches, so that they can be seen. These stitches are not planned or painstaking organized. I like to imagine them like the pencil lines in an Egon Schiele drawing- bold, unapologetic.

In this work I am blending techniques from many cultures and traditions, but the overarching theme is the same: I am inviting chance and the unknown into my process. I am allowing things to happen as I work, and in so doing, acknowledging that I am one in a world of many, and we are interconnected. The message I’m sharing with the world may well be the screen saver on my phone, a quote from Margaret Kilgallen, “My hand will always be imperfect, that’s where the beauty is.” The unique, ambiguous, and imperfect may be the root of beauty in us all.

Heidi Parkes
Milwaukee, WI
Instagram: heidi.parkes

Minimalism is a concept that I was not fully supportive of when I started designing. I thought that great design called for sweat, time, and layers. Lots of layers.

However, as I mature in my design career, I welcome the concept that you (and the end-user) can get more output with less input. Minimalism is a theme I aspire to apply to all of my creative work, whether it is calligraphy, design, or decorating my home.

When trying to illustrate an image, I ask myself, “If this image were stripped down to the most basic curves and lines, where would they fall?” Approaching design from this minimalistic standpoint helps me find new uses for basic shapes and lines.

This method is also useful when applied to other creative outlets, such as writing. Find what you want to say, outline the simplest way to say it, and then create. I could not sell minimalism to fifteen-year-old-me but I hope my work can inspire someone out there to make more with less.

Maureen Chunta
Graphic Designer
Austin, Texas

Since I am a lifestyle photographer, every photo shoot has its own theme. The photo shoot’s theme is based on the client’s concept. So I would say no, there is not an overarching theme to my work.

Sitting down and looking at my body of my work, the message would be: enjoy life. It’s that simple. REALLY.

For me, trying to follow an overarching theme or creating a specific message for all of my work screws with my outcome. I would call it overthinking. As a lifestyle photographer, overthinking a theme, message or a concept, creates images that look unnatural and very posed. Lifestyle photography is about capturing people in “real-life” situations and events.

To get great work, you have to turn off that overthinking mechanism and just create.

Phillinda Roy
Lifestyle Photographer

I wouldn’t say I have a recurring theme in my work. Maybe I would say is overall what I produce has a theme of passion, enthusiasm, and meticulousness for what I do. Each piece I create has its own theme depending on what I want to convey at that time.

Working in the advertising industry, specifically in the newspaper business, each ad I create has its own message it is trying to convey to a particular audience. From a bakery promoting its wedding cakes for newly engaged couples to an exterminator telling what they offer in pest control to those in the area who have a pest problem. Each ad has its own message and it’s my responsibility to convey that message, whatever that is, in a creative and simple way that immediately connects the audience to them.

Desiree Zielinski
Graphic Designer
Scranton, Pennsylvania

Honestly I have no idea what my theme is. My daughter says I am bright dark, but not dark as in evil or goth, but just dark, like a good dark comedy. So I am going to go with what she says. I usually do things that come into my head, or what’s going on around me and that can be very random. Either I am drawing flowers, action figures, portraits, dreams, Hello Kitty in scenarios that are funny, surreal and slightly disturbing, or whatever I think would be cool to draw at the moment. I have tons of messages, I try to keep it positive mostly.

Paula B.

The big idea we want to convey at Feed My Starving Children is that with your own two hands, you can turn hunger into hope. It is possible to make a difference. It is possible to do something about extreme poverty. Hope is real and compassion needs action. We try to tell stories that illustrate this.

Drew Gneiser
Social Media Specialist at Feed My Starving Children
Social Media Strategist at CreativeMornings/Minneapolis

What do you think?


Photo by Matt Hanna