8 lessons on creativity I learned from Virgil Abloh

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Here are 8 lessons, and accompanying quotes, from Virgil Abloh to offer a different perspective in how you approach your creative work:

1. Don’t wait to get chosen; start where you are, and do it yourself

When Virgil and Kanye interned at Fendi in 2009, the fashion world wasn’t ready to give them a real chance yet…

Both of them knew better than to wait around, and got busy creating their own opportunities.

Virgil independently started his brand, Off-White, to demonstrate what he was capable of as a designer. 

While Off-White was incredibly successful independently, Virgil saw it as a case study to helm a luxury fashion brand. He says, “I want to prove this new iteration of fashion and use Off-White as a case study for these new ideas that relate to current consumers, because at the end of the day it’s an industry I believe in.”

His plan worked, and Off White helped position Virgil to join LVMH as its Men’s Artistic Director in 2018.

Reminds me of this tweet:

2. Say yes more

“It might be different for you guys, but my immediate reaction to anyone asking me anything is yes,” he says in a lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“And then I’ll think about it and usually I won’t say no. But 9 times out of 10, I should probably be like, “Oh, I’m busy,” or whatever. But I just say yes.”

I see a lot of advice on doing less, and focusing, and how strategy is all about saying no. Virgil’s approach is completely different; he says yes first, then figures out how to make it happen.

This approach has a cost: There’s likely a lot of incomplete work that’ll never be released. 

3. Forget titles, focus on the work

Many of us get too obsessed with titles, status, and prestige, as @gokulr has written. 

“I don’t believe in titles, I believe in work,” Virgil said.

When IKEA first approached Virgil, it wasn’t for his design work; it was for him to DJ an event. 

Feasibly, Virgil said yes (see #2), started building a relationship, and kept showing his work to them. Eventually, he started working with them in a design capacity.

You get in where you fit in.

4. Develop your signature

“Everyone’s homework before next class is to make their own design language,” he says.

This is an Ivy league homework assignment. Don’t say no.

Here’s Virgil’s signature, as of 2017:

As a starting point, look at your body of work. 

Virgil says, “​​Your brain will tell you when something’s finished. And then post-rationalize. Make up something afterwards, or whatever.”

Virgil’s homework, and a convo with Rachel Jepsen, recently inspired me to articulate my own signature.

5. Even WhatsApp can be a project management tool

One of my favorite descriptions of Virgil’s work is how much he relied on WhatsApp to get things done on the go. His office was in his iPhone. He says, “My iPhone is my office. As long as my phone has battery power, I can continue to work and produce whatever I want and need.” 

It’s like Hugh Macleod writes in Ignore Everybody, “If you’re arranging your life in such a way that you need to make a lot of fuss between feeling the itch and getting to work, you’re putting the cart before the horse.”

6. Send cold emails

In 2013, Virgil reached out to the former owners of Rimowa to work on one of Off White’s first collaborations; they declined. 

LVMH acquired Rimowa in 2016, and he reached out to Alexandre Arnault that day it was announced asking to collaborate.

2 years later, Virgil and Rimowa launched its See Through collaboration.

Similarly, in 2008, Virgil reached out to Sarah Andelman, who ran Colette, and emailed her a design for a T-shirt. 

She responded, they got it printed, and that was the start of a long and productive working relationship

Off White and Virgil would work with Colette on many projects together.

7. Imitate and remix

Virgil’s design for Colette was derivative of the V.A.A.L.L.C. Medal design, one he worked on with Chicago retailer Leaders 1354 as part of an artist series consisting of friends of the store. 

(The brief: “Come up with their own version of a great Leaders t-shirt.”)

In turn, the V.A.A.L.L.C. design was a riff on UNDFTD’s Gold Medal tee. 

Creativity is a multiplayer game; the details you reference or implement are an appeal to the audience you’re trying to reach.

The reason Virgil could work on so many projects simultaneously was because he didn’t start from scratch on each one. 

Instead, he would often make incisive changes, editing an object by no more than 3%. 

It might sound simple enough, though this form of combinatorial creativity has a specific challenge: 

When you’re choosing to keep practically everything the same, what do you choose to modify? Why?

It’s all about taste, perspective, and context. It enables you to largely preserve what makes an object great, and to put your own little twist on it.

Trung Phan dives deep into Virgil Abloh’s 3% approach here, explaining it through a recent Nike x Tiffany collaboration.

8. Bad work is the start of good work

“It’s easier to be a critic than to produce work. So the only way to get to the end means is like, start your domino effect, which is basically put out bad work. So I for one, I’m not a perfectionist, and it’s such a gratifying concept,” Virgil Abloh says.

From this perspective, bad work isn’t the enemy of good work; it’s the first step leading to good work.

Virgil sees his own journey as emblematic of this domino effect. 

“If I hadn’t sat on Illustrator and gone to the screen printers to make it a reality, then it wouldn’t have happened – everything else is a domino effect. Pyrex, OFF-WHITE, LVMH Prize nomination, my spring/summer 16 womenswear show, it all comes from a moment that happened four years earlier in which I took an idea and got it made,” he says.

So if you’re reading this blog post, close this tab and complete a piece of work—no matter how badly or how simple. 

Virgil would say, “If you really want to do what you say you do, leave this conversation and do it.”

“Go and print that T-shirt today, and by today I mean in the next 30 minutes. If you don’t do it, that’s your problem. It might be obvious, but for anyone reading this, finish it and then make shit happen, give it to your friends and then boom, you’ve entered the domino effect phase.”

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