Creative Flow’s Dark Side

by | • Life

Let’s shape a new creative class for the future by re-directing Creative Flow from addiction to purpose by redefining the meaning of a creative life. Let’s flow 2.0.

“I just want to get paid to draw”. I start nearly every conversation that I have with my students by asking what their dream job is. Not their career goal, their plan B, their entry-level target or their realistic expectation. I want to know, why they are here, at Kendall College of Art and Design, or any art college, burning through four or five years of their life, juggling academics, part-time jobs, family, social life and racking up enough debt to buy a new car, or worse, a new house. “I just want to get paid to draw” or “paint” or” “sculpt” or “design on my computer”. For, too many, this is all they can muster. It would be easy to point at a lack of art and design career counseling all through K-12 and early college education. And, that would be accurate. But at the very core of this response is an addiction to something known in the art and design crafts as well as cognitive science circles, as “Flow”.

Do you know Flow? In the professional world, it is sometimes referred to as “deep work”.  When you look up from your work, your hobby, your monologue, your brainstorming, your constructing, your crafting, your sport and you think to yourself; “where did the time go… that three hours felt like three minutes”. You’ve experienced Flow. It can be largely explained through a basic principle of cognitive science called “intermittent variable rewards”[1], which occurs naturally in the human experience and is also served up in man-made systems like social media, computer coding, sports, and gambling. It is defined as a near continuous repetition of micro-risks and rewards. Dare to draw a line then see it define a face… or not… then try again… and then it does! Scroll down in your phone’s news feed.. not interested… don’t care… yes, I like that! Pull the slot machine lever… lose. Pull the slot machine lever… lose. Pull the slot machine lever… win!

Flow manifests itself in the brain as a naturally occurring, addictive behavior caused by the release of dopamine from the mesolimbic pathway into the nucleus accumbens, which regulates desire, and is triggered by the drumbeat of intermittent variable rewards[1]. It is the same brain processes that lead to many forms of addiction, and for many artists, it is a very real aspect of their physical make-up. I have a decades-long, personal story to tell regarding Flow and its addictive dark side.

For much of my life, I have been an art addict, producing hundreds of small and large artworks that serve little purpose other than to provide me with a continuous stream of dopamine, induced by intermittent variable rewards and offering a euphoric escape from the vagaries of life. In my youth, this addiction was enabled by the common understanding in the K-12 education system that as long as I’m making art, I’m an artist, and artists and the art they make is unquestionably valuable. In my youth, this circle of micro-production and micro-adulation from the school, family, and friends was at odds with the grown-up, world-building-through-car-making culture in the working class city of Flint, Michigan. In that era, the 1960s and 70s, the automotive industry was re-shaping the American landscape and one could draw a short line from our city’s creative, inventive and physical selves to that history-in-the-making. In this place, in my high school years, I found a balance between self-serving Flow and productive citizenship in the drafting field. I landed a couple of part-time jobs designing auto parts, cheap toys, and church camp buildings among other things, spending hours hunched over a huge drafting table… getting paid to draw… well draft… but it was close enough! But later, at university, while studying design, in the art classes, I was given the OK to create art for myself again. It was called Fine Art and it was certified. And, it felt really good. It provided maximum Flow. The kind of Flow I experienced as a child when there were no expectations. When I was the “art kid”. And, my inner tug-of-war between the disparate worlds of art and design began.

After graduating college and finding work as an automotive interior designer, I visited an exhibition at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids Michigan called “Obsession”. It featured works that fit firmly in the category of Flow-addicted-artist’s-creations. And, indeed, I related very strongly to those works. The show said to me “you have permission to allow Flow to envelop a substantial portion of your existence because we are certifying its physical manifestation as being important enough to display here. And, we are calling it… Art. It was a validation of those thousands of hours I spent nearly every evening, after working my design job, enveloped in a beautiful rhythm of mark-making with pencils, paint and digital software earning my MFA that would, hopefully, someday, allow me to escape the drudgeries and stresses of… well…work and life. I would get a teaching job where my students and I could all jump together into the glorious rabbit hole of Flow.

hyper-detailed abstract art

Complicata Rosette: an obsessive digital painting I created while on sabbatical from my teaching job at KCAD. Art by Bill Fischer

Eventually, having earned my MFA, I quit my “day job” as an automotive designer at LEAR Corporation to start a university teaching position. But, due to last minute, unforeseen budget cuts, the position fell through, and, thus started my new life as a professional freelancer. I worked initially, with very small start-ups and medium-sized companies looking to grow their businesses. In the process of creating illustration, product design and advertising for these places, I became a partner in their enterprises. I grew with them on a personal level that was impossible working for a large corporation. This visceral connection between my creative life and the growth of these companies; improving lives with better products and services, adding employees, upping pay and benefits, having picnics, sponsoring little league and robotics, forever removed any expectations I had harbored that making art for myself was a worthwhile endeavor. Flow as an end game, I concluded, is a dead end. And, that is my story… so far.

Flow as an end game, I concluded, is a dead end.

Now, I want to explore flow as a means to a very different end.

I want to explore Flow, as a means to a very different end. One that can be a powerful productivity and motivational tool. Research performed by cognitive scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester formulated a behaviorist model they named “Self-Determination Theory”[2]. They found that when the innate psychological human needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness were met, we humans are motivated, productive and happy. And, Flow is at the center of competence. It is where we hear the drumbeat of accomplishment most directly and consistently. It is the series of interconnected micro-successes that provide immediate, visceral cognitive feedback over extended periods of time that manifests itself in creative output. When Flow is understood as an important piece of the trifecta that drives self-determination, it suddenly becomes indispensable.

In Art’s education today there is strong, though not exclusive, focus on craft. The mastery of one’s craft is unquestionably a critical component in the mastery of one’s profession and there is plenty of advice to be found to reinforce that notion; Practice makes perfect, the 10,000-hour rule of mastery, draw every day. But, draw what? A question that addresses the “why” of art and design. It is incumbent upon arts education to lead students down a variety of creative paths that span not only the introspective and sense-making world of fine arts but also the outward-looking, world building, design practices. Education should resist promoting the goal of a self-fulfilling life, based exclusively on the process of art-making and extend it to making art and design that will impact the world in a measurable, positive way. That is; Flow with purpose.

Unfortunately, the ship of purposelessness for our youth has already sailed and is pitching and yawing aimlessly in a sea of disconnection. Stanford University’s professor of education, William Damon, has performed extensive research regarding an epidemic of disengaged youth today[3]. Disengaged in an understanding of the realities of the hard work and dedication required to achieve lofty goals. Disengaged in the connectedness between their happiness and the happiness of the society in which they live. Disengaged in the future, living existentially, day to day, moment to moment, Flow to Flow. Indeed, his 2006 research found eighty percent of twelve hundred, diverse, young people aged twelve through twenty-six, fit into non-purposeful states he calls the dreamers, dabblers and disengaged. And the constant drumbeat that promotes the self-fulfilling life in K-12 and higher education today has done little to improve that condition between then and now.

Two artists. One is speaking to an audience and the other is bent over their desk drawing

The void left by a purposeless life will be filled by something. In the arts, this is too often the illusion of a productive existence afforded by directionless Flow. Illustration by Bill Fischer

The void left by a purposeless life will be filled by something. In the arts, this is too often the illusion of a productive existence afforded by directionless Flow. It is incumbent upon educators to understand when Flow has morphed beyond purpose and into addiction. When a student practices and excels at a very limited range of art and design forms and genres, resisting challenges that require venturing beyond the confines of their comfort zone, it is tempting to reward their persistence and accomplishment. But persistence is not perseverance. These students may be circling the wormhole of Flow addiction. Simply forcing them out of their comfort zone without explanation will often create animosity and resentment. Redirection from this mindset requires a compelling value proposition that is founded upon a sense of duty to the broader society coupled with peer pressure and expectations from entities well outside of their clique. The education system can position itself to define Flow as a productivity tool that provides a means to an outward-looking end, not an end in itself. Art making, reflection and making-meaning as a path towards understanding the self and its relationship with the external world are important goals and it is a focus in K-12 arts education. If we extend that student experience to taking an active role, through design curriculum, in shaping the infrastructure and processes in which we exist, our students will be empowered to act upon the understanding gained through their fine art experiences. This will require the hard work of empathy, understanding, caring and moving creatively outside of their comfort zone. It will demand a balance between outward looking purposeful goals, the uncomfortable work of tackling new methods and turning them into Flow driven production processes. I believe at least half of a student’s art experience should be focused on making the world around them. On the design arts.

We are also going to need to rethink the role of Flow in career satisfaction. Defining a rewarding job as one that involves a blissful state of continuous Flow is going to become less of an option. The simple problems that are solved in the intermittent variable rewards system of Flow are low-hanging fruit for artificial intelligence. Many of us are already interacting with AI systems daily. These include: virtual personal assistants like Siri, Google Now and Cortana; intelligent enemies in video games like Call of Duty, targeted advertising driven by Amazon’s predictive analytics, Visa’s fraud protection, AI-generated financial, sports and weather reports put out by AP, Fox, and Yahoo. And, an early winner in the visual arts: the Prisma photo filter app [5] that can turn any mundane photo into a fairly impressive illustration in about 10 seconds… on your phone. In the works is DeepMind’s collaboration with Google that creates photo-real images from written sentences [6][7]. These were recently thought to be the kind of creative processes that would weather the A.I. infused automation storm; creative work that requires human empathy and an understanding of the complex systems of contextual meaning in the human experience.

four portraits with different filters applied

Illustrations by Bill Fischer

eFeatureCreative production processes will see dramatic increases in productivity with the integration of A.I. coupled with automation, and that means far fewer creative production workers will be needed. In the future, writers, artists, and designers will be freed from much of the slow labor required to create and be positioned to affect the world in a profound way. That will require a dramatic shifting of focus on the craft of art and design towards the meta-principles of world-making art and design. And we will need to leave Flow as we now know it to the machines and become smart enough to find flow in solving ever more complex problems. Though this automation of creative production seems unlikely to become the norm in the immediate future, it is time to react now. A child entering kindergarten will be part of the workforce in thirteen to twenty years, depending on the level of education they pursue. Arts education can prepare young creatives for the automated future by teaching the kind of world-making critical thinking and problem-solving that will allow them to find Flow in higher order creative endeavors. We need to redefine the concept of craft and create a Flow 2.0.

Here is what we are doing at Kendall College of Art and Design, where I am a professor of Digital Art and Design, I introduced an ongoing project called EPIC ([4]. Students work collaboratively to explore what it means to help teachers create meaningful experiences that foster deep learning in K-12 curriculum with the aid of digital media. We partner with K-12 schools and design professionals to create a variety of media that explore a variety of approaches. Though students rarely choose philanthropic projects on their own, most immediately find value in them when they are assigned to them. They bond during the sit-around-with sticky-notes-and-whiteboard collaboration. They experience joint frustration with not having solutions at their fingertips. They discover the value of getting out of their comfort zone and learning a new thinking or crafting method. They tap into their existing skill-set and apply it to a new problem. And, they eventually find Flow in the rotating and repeating rhythm of victories, failures and the application of their comfortable craft. They become outward looking, world-making, automation-proof, art and design citizens… for a semester.

But, It’s only temporary. The next semester, the next class, the next project…. is all about the self full-filling immersion into the intermittent variable rewards system of inward-looking Flow. It’s what we call in education; the “one and done” experience. Clearly, there needs to be a drumbeat of these kinds of project-based learning experiences all through K-12 and higher education. Only then will the idea of purpose-driven flow become the norm instead of the exception. Let’s teach industrial design, interaction design, graphic design and architecture to our 3rd graders, to middle schoolers, to high schoolers. Let’s really do STEAM education by going beyond the personal sense-making of technology, a worthy but narrow theme, and practice world building design arts. Call in professionals to help develop design lessons. Visit the art and design section of to find lessons that the students and professionals at KCAD have created. Embrace the challenge of becoming a teacher of art AND design. Let’s shape a new creative class for the future by re-imagining Flow through the addition of outward-looking design curriculum in K-12 arts education. Let’s envision a future where incoming freshmen at art school answer that career goals question with “I want to change the world”.

 Let’s flow 2.0. Who’s with me? 

Author: Bill Fischer
Feature illustration: Bill Fischer



[1] Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). “Chapter 10: Neural and Neuroendocrine Control of the Internal Milieu”. In Sydor A, Brown RY. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 266. Dopamine acts in the nucleus accumbens to attach motivational significance to stimuli associated with reward.

[2] Ryan, Richard M.; Deci, Edward L., (2000, Jan.). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, Vol 55(1), Jan 2000, 68-78.

[3] William Damon, (2008). The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling In Life. New York, NY: Free Press, A division of Simon & Schuster.

[4] EPIC Project. (extrnal link).

[5] Prima Photo Filter App. (external link)

[6] Scott Reed 1 Aaron van den Oord, Nal Kalchbrenner, Sergio Gomez Colmenarejo, Ziyu Wang, Dan Belov, Nando de Freitas (2017, March 10). Parallel Multiscale Autoregressive Density Estimation. Retrieved June 27, 2017, from link)

[7] Károly Zsolnai-Fehér (2017, June). DeepMind’s AI Creates Images From Your Sentences | Two Minute Papers #163 – video. Retrieved June 27, 2017, from (external link)