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Straight? Edge?

Pretty much anyone who is creative, and especially those of us who are paid to be so, wonders at one time or another�just where creativity comes from and where they can get some more of it, and absolutely everyone who is creative has experienced a time when they just couldn’t do the job without some kind of inspiration to get them through. When such a time comes, some people work on something else instead, some people surf the Internet, some people just go outside for awhile, and some people get high.

I don’t smoke pot. I don’t drop acid. I don’t do coke or Ecstasy. I constantly listen to music (right this very second it’s Nikki Sudden—ironically an infamous junkie himself) and I have the occasional beer, but that’s me and that’s it. I have met, though, in the course of the last few years, designers who get high while they work. “It helps keep me focused.” “I get ideas when I’m high that I know for a fact I couldn’t get if I weren’t.” This fascinates me. I have a somewhat conflicted view of drugs. I stay away from them, I disdain the drug culture, and yet some of my favorite art is inexorably linked with that culture—however peripherally (The Velvet Underground/Factory-era Andy Warhol, Robert Williams, R. Crumb, the original CBGB’s scene, the Mod/Pop Art scene in Britain in the early ’60s, etc.). I certainly can’t write off drugs as creativity killers, but I don’t get it either.

So I put the question to you. What are your opinions of drugs and design? Are they two great tastes that taste great together or does one simply need to visit a Peter Max boutique to see how dead that dead-end truly is? Maybe it’s just the circles in which I run, but I don’t know that I’ve ever really heard this discussed all that openly and I look forward to what—if anything—comes out of it.

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Armin’s comment is:

This is such an interesting topic. First of all, I have never done drugs, never even tried, I have smoked maybe two cigarettes in my life. I used to drink like crazy in my college years, but not anymore. So that paints a picture.

I have always been surprised by the amount of people that smoke pot in the US, not only designers and creative folk, just about everybody. I play basketball on weekends, two blocks from my house, and all the guys ask if you smoke pot, if you wanna smoke pot or if you have any pot. And these are all sorts of people, old, young, white, black, whatever.

When I was at marchFIRST, right when I moved from Mexico to Atlanta, we had to work a weekend, and a couple of the designers just flat out decided to go home so they could smoke pot and work better. Don't get me wrong, I'm not any saint or anything and I don't believe that they are going to rot in hell for eternity. But I thought it was funny how they just couldn't work without smoking.

Is it an advantage? is it like steroids for athletes? what happens when you smoke? are you more creative, does the mouse move smoother, fonts look better? I would really like to know too.

On Sep.24.2002 at 08:56 AM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Yes, interesting topic. It's something I've been close to and seen from a few different perspectives. I'm not sure if I've ever seen it adequately and honestly addressed either Bossman, so I'll make a full disclosure and hope it's useful for you. It will require some background:

I just turned 40 years old. I run a small design studio in Southern California. I've been in and around the music and design industries for over 20 years, having been in bands, made albums, gone on tour, and having been a creative exec at a major label for ten years. Over these years I've seen 'substances' (drugs & alcohol) uses and abused in just about every way possible. I have personal experience as well, with just about every substance out there (except the ones that have come around in the last decade --- like ecstasy).

Bottom line: Yes ... a drug-induced intoxication will stimulate associations and thought (or lack of thought) avenues in your brain that are different than a sober brain. Alcohol is perhaps (for me anyway) the worst substance to be productive in this manner, as it's overall intoxication seems to dull things, both mentally and physically. Other drugs work differently, and their highs are effect the brain in very different ways. Of course many of these highs are wonderous and pleasurable, or these drugs wouldn't have cut such a path through society. As you mention (or quote the smokers) rather than accentuating some unseen creative positive, substances help some people block out the noise of everyday concerns. We'd all probably agree that creative work is almost impossible when you're feeling distracted by little things, and that these little things are everywhere in our lives. It requires a serious discipline to supress these distractions and work, and for many people a drug is a huge help.

There's a physiological and a psychological component to substance use/abuse. Physiologically, mind-altering substances release chemicals in your brain, often larger quantities than ever released normally. For instance, cocaine use provokes a huge release of dopamine, the brain chemical that your brain uses to communicate pleasure to itself. The coke induced "dopamine storm" in your brain is many times the chemical level of the most intense natural pleasure like orgasm. Different drugs produce different highs, and certainly induce brain experiences that are (most probably) impossible to replicate without them. The physiological brain problem is that when your brain is exposed to prolonged, unnaturally large releases of substances like dopamine, the brain tries to heal itself. The 'receptors' for such brain chemicals start adjusting and closing down to adjust to the increased levels of dopamine. This means the brain's ability to feel pleasure and well-being with normal, non-drug induced levels of dopamine starts to go away with chronic usage. Chronic users/abusers run the great risk of permanently impairing their ability to feel pleasure normally. This is why chronic users need to get high. Sober experience isn't provoking enough brain activity, because receptors have closed.

The psychological dependence is just as real and damaging. We all know the terror of the blank canvas and the empty page. We all know how hard it can be to find that place to start, that inner well where good ideas are. Perhaps drugs do help people get there. I think what's certain is drugs help people think they've gotten there, and that they help silence the nagging doubts and self-critical voices in your head.

I consider myself very lucky. I've always viewed my experimentation with different drugs as trips to an amusement park, not something I want to do everyday. I don't have a problem with discipline or distraction. I've always been able to back away, and I'm able to still socially drink or have the very rare toke (I work with some reggae artists and you're going to get high just entering the recording studio with those boys). I see nothing morally wrong with any of it.

That said, I've seen dozens of lives destroyed. I've had a first row seat watching best friends descend into a hell that no one could help them out of. I've seen different drugs sweep through the creative community in the last 20 years: cocaine, speed, heroin, x ... I've personally lost 3 friends to heroin and have another half dozen who have gone through long and painful recovery programs. Some have come through the darkest places possible and are now okay. Some haven't done so well. I just think these friends have different brain chemistry than I do, and for some reason they became dependent on the substance more easily than me. I think this has very little to do with discipline or decision-making. I behaved just as they did. I was lucky. My experience has taught me that I'm also rare, and most people are not so lucky.

My conclusion? It's just a dangerous thing. I'm glad I've seen and experienced the things I have, and that I had the courage to push my brain into different places. I believe that I was extremely lucky to have the genetics and the mental health to not become a victim. The one truth that comes from establishment demonization of drugs is that the slope from use to abuse to life-threatening problem can be incredibly steep and swift. Some are able to traverse this landscape and come out on the other side unscathed, but not a lot.

I also believe strongly that chronic use of any substance is a bad thing. It's a long term bad for your brain (not to mention your body) thing. Call me conservative, but I'd actually like to live to be an old man and retain as much use of my mind as I can --- it seems hard enough already without fucking with it too much.

Anyway, peace. Out.

On Sep.24.2002 at 10:27 AM
Steven Lyons’s comment is:

If you have to get it artificially, It's not the truth.

On Sep.24.2002 at 12:58 PM
Armin’s comment is:

There is nothing scarier than an "Untitled Document" and having absolutely no clue what to do. But I think I would rather do one of those 3d/photoshop things than do drugs.

On Sep.24.2002 at 01:21 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

A word about pot: anyone who believes they can smoke pot everyday without long term brain frazzle are kidding themselves. People who've been around can spot a smoker by the end of any 15-minute conversation. People who smoke like to believe they're being sly and no one can tell. They're wrong.

Anyone who thinks getting high can really assist their work is in denial. It can help you forget all the shit you should be worrying about, and maybe that helps you concentrate on work, but that's it. You can't learn how to feel fucked up, but you can learn how to focus. Devote yourself to it, it's worth it.

On Sep.24.2002 at 01:59 PM
Steven Lyons’s comment is:

Amen Tom Dolan.

I used to have a creative director that would smoke pot almost on a daily basis (at least during work hours). Anyway, we used to have to wait on him to get his shit together afterwards so he could give us some kind of screwed up direction. Then we would be there for hours on end changing the design to be something useful. My wife hated him for all the hours I had to be at work just because of him.

Used to crack me up that he thought no one knew. He always went out for a "drive." He always put on that pot smoker's hippie scent that covers up the smell, but is so foul that everyone knows what it is covering up.

On Sep.24.2002 at 02:17 PM
A Different Tom (A.K.A. Bossman)’s comment is:

It's funny, when I wrote that original post, I figured that there would be at least one or two people who would come forward and talk about how juicy their brains get when they're high (or at least about how...maybe...the universe is like in some guy's fingernail, man). Maybe those people are either intimidated by the other posts or too high to bother--or maybe we're just a collection of squares. It's hard to say.

On Sep.24.2002 at 02:33 PM
Kiran’s comment is:

Interesting topic, I agree with Tom and Steven. I was straight-edge between 1996 and 2001 which included my years at college. If spent my time getting drunk and getting high, I would not have been as successful. I'm sure of it.

Perhaps it does make some people more creative at times or provides a different perspective on a subject, but if one has to rely on drugs and alcohol to create all the time (like an athlete that relies on steroids to win a competition), then I think one has a serious problem.

I don't really know the answer I guess what works for some people does not work for others. I just think relying on stimulants too heavily dilutes the creative process and in turn the outcome will be synthetic and untruthful.

On Sep.24.2002 at 03:12 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

On two topics: 1) I'll be honest enough to say I've had some incredible experiences when in an altered state. Certain drugs don't dull the senses but heighten them. It can be (obviously) very exciting and pleasurable to remove the barriers between parts of your mind in a waking state. It's like looking through an amazing lens or going swimming. It's different. It's fairly impossible to imagine what it's like without having done it. I enjoy experiences. I've done a lot of fairly dangerous things and there's been something positive for me about [almost] all of them. 2) But I've never related it to creativity or work. I think those who do are largely experiencing a placebo effect. They think the substance will allow them to be more creative, so they get more creative. If you get high for work do you get sober for fun? Just wondering ....

On Sep.24.2002 at 05:23 PM
Corey’s comment is:

I have a very good friend from college who was a music major specializing in percussion. He smoked every day and while I can't say it "helped" him in his music, it seemed to put him in a mood where he could concentrate more fully and practice practice practice. And he did practice like crazy. Fortunately he seems to be able to perform his music equally well high or not, and now ten years on from college he's equally well able to perform in a financial capacity for Merrill Lynch without the pot. But I would say he's one of the lucky few who can make this transition so smoothly. Of course, the way the market is, he might want the pot back . . .

On the other hand, I had a principal and creative director for a few years who treated pot like a lifestyle device. He thought it added to his credibility as a creative maverick and proudly had a bong on his desk for a few years until we started accumulating clients from Chicago business institutions that wouldn't look so fondly on that practice. But I always found the drugs=creativity attitude pretty transparent.

On Sep.25.2002 at 11:06 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

I enjoy drinking, I have the occasional cigar, and I've had 1-and-a-half cigarettes, but the only drug I've really ever done -and will continue to do to the end- is chocolate. That said, I stand firmly by the Ancient Greek adage: "Everything, in moderation".

BTW, a must-read here is "Les Paradis Artificiels" by Charles Baudelaire.


On Sep.28.2002 at 04:18 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Great blog piece: Addiction Is

On Oct.04.2002 at 09:15 AM
Armin’s comment is:

damn. That's tough. I wonder if he was high when he wrote that?


Addiction is ordering "Dancing With Cats". I've seen the book and it's hilarious.

On Oct.04.2002 at 09:28 AM
kris’s comment is:

hmmm. It is rather interesting to see these responses from the creative camp. I understand the need for alcohol, pot, e and all the rest, but one does tire from it all. I lived with a guy who smoked a lot. His design was utter rubbish, because he would always be getting high for "inspiration". I admit that I find it helpful sometimes to get high and brainstorm.(I am still a student, so I suppose I can get away with it!) It is useful to explore tangents and avenues that I probably wouldn't otherwise.

But, when it comes to production or any stage past development I stay right away from it. Personally, my motor skills go tits up, my right hand acts as a left. I have to disagree with the notion of drug induced creation as being "artificial". There are many artists that make fantastic work whilst completely star-spangled, and it is full of meaning.

On Oct.05.2002 at 06:01 AM
Martin’s comment is:

I never do drugs, but I do drink.

Sometimes rather too much (it�s said to be a nationality trait among Norwegians, but that�s really just a handy excuse).

I have however never felt the need of stimulants to get ideas.

Oh sure, sometimes I get some idea while sitting half-pissed in a pub but nine times out of ten the idea sucks and even more often it�s forgotten the next morning.

I guess my point is that I see the reasoning about drugs and/or alcohol broadening your mind or helping creativity as a petty excuse.

People get high/drunk because they find the world easier to cope with from a certain distance.

I don�t think the newfound creativity in a joint is anything that one wouldn�t be able to access by other means than getting high if one so did desire. The drug becomes the focus for channeling the creativity just like music or even just sitting with a sketchpad could have become the focus.

The problem starts when the drug is no longer a means to channel creativity but becomes a goal in itself. That is when you really start talking about "abuse".

I�ve been politically active concerning drugs for some time, and in my opinion there is nothing drugs can help you do that you�re not able of doing without drugs.


On Oct.05.2002 at 09:01 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

> there is nothing drugs can help you do

> that you�re not able of doing without drugs.

That's very hard to believe. Everything matters.


On Oct.05.2002 at 03:12 PM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Keith Richards on herion in the current Rolling Stone:

Q: What did heroin do for you in the Seventies? What did you get out of it -- calm, poise, a sense of power?

A: You could talk to every junkie in the world and get a different answer. Because they don't know -- nor do I. [Long pause] It was a damn good feeling, for starters. And we were going through a lot of stuff. I could operate behind that. It gave me a distance from everything that was going on around me. I could see things happening -- fast time, slow time. It was Stones business, Allen Klein stuff, and then Brian dying. There was a lot of stuff happening, and it gave me a sense of space. Eventually, I was so far in space, I was almost in the atmosphere.

On Oct.05.2002 at 07:34 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>It gave me a distance from everything that was going on around me

It seems like this is the main reason for drug use, instead of the "drugs make you see Pantone colors the rest of us will never see" reasons.

Sad, because the things that "go on" around you is what life's all about. Shit, if life were supposed to be easy where would the fun be?

On Oct.07.2002 at 03:23 PM
Martin’s comment is:


On Oct.07.2002 at 03:29 PM