How to set up your art-world-domination command center

My favorite spots to make big plans aren’t just places. They’re a combination of space, time, and mindset. And also – let’s be honest – caffeine.

Café culture is a long established tradition of having intellectual discussion in meetings with like-minded friends. And when no like-minded friends are available, just looking like someone with interesting things to say works just fine.

It's easy to complain about the proliferation of instagram shots of a latte on a distressed surface. Who needs to see your coffee? But I don’t think it’s just about food, or coffee. The photo is proof that at that time, that place, you sat down at a cool spot, looking just like the bohemians of Paris, Barcelona, and everywhere else.

I set up the scene for myself so I can look and feel like a cool thought leader, a designer steeped in art and culture, making connections between these things and leading the way in all kinds of clever ways. That’s what I aspire to be, so if looking the part helps me along the way - than I’ll do my best to comply.

Because, when things are going my way - it’s much easier to make ideas happen, by making the connections I need to make.

What type of work would you do in a coffee shop?

A writer (whose name I’ll remember, but not right now) living in Paris said that the image of writers doing any kind of sustained work - actual writing - in coffee shops is a fake. Real (long-form) work happens in the isolation and calm of one’s home.

I found this to be somewhat true. I rarely complete significant pieces of writing in coffee shops. Part of the reason is, I am rarely comfortable enough to complete a long chunk of work. But small work-sessions happen quite readily against the distraction of a coffee shop. Quick (about one hour) sessions are great for making plans, lists, sketches, and outlines. They’re great for reviewing and consolidating old ideas, and finding the ones worth acting upon. And finally, the short chunks of time are good for a rough but honest illustration from real life. For example, the drawing above is - wait for it - my sketch from a cafe in Montmartre, the very artistic hill in Paris.

Here’s my design-art-coffee setup

Distance: the coffee must not be at home. My house is great for organized long chunks of work, especially when I need tools and space to be available. But I get distracted easily at home, and start pacing - and before I know it, laundry is done but writing is not. Making even a short trip away from home is a sign of commitment to do something for my creative practice.

A walk: in addition to just distance, a rigorous walk helps get me thinking. Even if you don;t believe in the creative benefits of walking described by Maira Kalman and many others, an exercised oxygenated brain is better at having ideas than a relaxed lazy one.

Scheduled time: I found that I need to schedule time for this stuff. Even if it’s a 20-minute chunk, I need to set aside the thinking-time and not try to go on to the next activity I had planned. Scheduled me-time just for thinking can seem like a luxury until you consider the cost of not-thinking (working on stale, un-exciting ideas) or not-planning (which can mean a missed opportunity).

Peer pressure: seeing other people busy, talking or writing, puts me in the right mindset to do the same.

Writing tools: I rarely leave home without my preferred notebook and a couple of pens and pencils. Bringing just a couple is key, because limited tools help focus. The compact set of tools and notebook fit well on small coffee shop tables, too - leaving little room for distraction. I usually rest something on top of my phone till I actually need to use it, for example, to take a photo of the coffee :)

Weather: this one’s optional, but sunny weather totally charges me with 20% extra energy on top of the coffee shop atmosphere. Working on a large display for most of my design projects, it’s a welcome change to be roasting in bright natural light for a while.

Architecture: I read (find it true) that tall ceilings and comfortably open spaces help us think big and come up with ideas. Smaller, protected spaces with lower ceilings can help focus but can also oppress. So I prefer tall ceilings, bright light, and cool modern architecture in my coffee shops when I can have it.

Coffee and a snack: Finally, I admit - coffee can make me think better and type faster. I try to deploy it strategically when I need to get a lot done quickly. A fancy coffee and a snack (not the 99¢ coffee and a cup for water) help support the coffee shop, and offset the cost of me occupying their table.

That’s it!

My favorite set-up feels like a world domination command center about halfway through the coffee cup, and every idea feels cool on the wave of this enthusiasm. I know that not all of them will be great or useful, but I separate the ideation from evaluation and keep them going.

Maria Matveevasixth-9