5 things Project Runway taught me about creative work

Red and white warning sign at Beaumaris Castle

I started watching Project Runway years ago as a guilty pleasure.  My wife had watched it for a while and slowly drew me in because, unlike other reality/survivor shows, it minimized the People Behaving Badly aspect of competition.

As I watched more and more – the show has run more than 17 seasons – I realized that Project Runway is really a show about how to do creative work and live the creative life.  It even won a Peabody Award for using the Reality genre to inform and enlighten.

I encourage you to watch the show with an eye toward these and other lessons about the creative life:

Win by Helping Your Competitors

I started becoming a fan of the show when I saw the contestants helping each other rather than being cutthroats. One contestant put this approach something like this: “I don’t want to win because you tripped.  I want to win because we both did our best work… and mine was better

Your Work Will Tell the Truth…Bad or Good

It’s almost a cliche’ that an artist must tell the truth. Project Runway has shown that your work will always tell the truth whether you want it to or not.

On the one hand, this is a fearful reality of creative work: contestants that resisted the challenge topic (“I don’t do swimwear”), contestants that felt conflicted about their designs, and contestants that distanced their personal lives from the work produced dresses that screamed those hidden truths to the judges.

On the other hand, this is a wonderful opportunity: winning contestants threw themselves into the challenge topic, moved forward with confidence, exposed their innermost selves, and produced work that was exquisite and personal.  For example Mondo Guerra initially struggled then, when he embraced the truth-telling of his work, he began to soar and create amazing work.

Take Every Opportunity to Practice Your Art

In season 14 Swapnil admitted that his strategy was to slack the first few rounds, then throw himself into it for the win.  That didn’t work out.

Swapnil was a more experienced designer than at least 4 contestants, so he felt he could coast through a few rounds. Meanwhile the other contestants – who were also better than those 4 – used those first rounds to practice putting themselves into the work, and became better designers for it, surpassing Swapnil.

Listen to the Critique

I am stunned at the few contestants who have heard the critique from the judges, then immediately defended their work, saying “I hear what you’re saying, but I have to disagree”.  In other words “I’m not listening.”

Critique isn’t an argument; it’s a chance to learn others’ perspectives on your work.  In Project Runway, it’s an opportunity to hear perspectives from the best in the field.

Embrace the Challenge

So many contestants have gone home because they tried to slip by without fully engaging the challenge topic.  For example, one Unconventional Materials challenge was to create a dress from greeting cards. One contestant created a muslin (not card) dress decorated with accents from cards – not in the spirit of the challenge – and he went home in that round.

…and Much More

Project runway illustrates many more lessons with each season: drop the attitude, admit your insecurities, you are your only competition, and remember to breathe, to name a few. I look forward to each season of this free Design Course.