The Better Way to Pull the Plug on a Creative Project
In college, I started a department blog where a group of students and I would interview faculty, alumni, and our peers about their work and practice. We covered critiques and openings adventured off campus to offer readers a peek at post-collegiate life. A few months into it, I couldn’t help but be proud of what we had created. The blog had taken off, albeit within our small department. I was thrilled.
So, when I received a Twitter DM to meet with John Maeda, the prolific designer who was then president of our school, I proudly marched into his office, prepared to tout the successes of our fledgling publication.
John listened gratuitously as I patted myself on the back. He offered kudos for getting stories from our school out into the world, but also gave me a piece of unexpected advice: “When it’s time for it to die, let it die.” Sure, things were good now, but eventually our blog would serve its purpose and become irrelevant. The worst thing I could do, he said, was to try to keep it alive once its time had come.
I was hurt, then angry. I had created this new platform that was having a positive impact on our community and connecting our department to a larger dialogue happening online. Of all people, I thought this alleged technocrat would be our largest supporter. We were just now hitting our stride—why should I begin bracing myself for its decline?
But he was right. Eventually, the project lost steam, students lost interest, and it became a struggle to get the site updated on a regular basis. I stretched myself too thin trying to fill each gap left by someone who dropped out of the project, which led to compounding resentment until I, too, quit. The blog sat atrophying online, a digital tombstone where lay the ambitions of a group of overzealous students who eventually found other ways to fill their time.
Recognize the warning signs
If I had been in the right headspace to not take John’s words personally, I might have been able to recognize the early hints of necrosis before I, too, started to suffer its effects. Perhaps our team could have ended the blog gracefully rather than over bitter emails to contributors, frustrated that no one had the bandwidth or will to keep it going.
Over time, I’ve gotten better at recognizing the signs of death and, with it, when it becomes time to euthanize a particular project or endeavor. On a team, it can manifest in the form of people coming in later, leaving earlier, caring less. Perhaps it’s a spike in bickering or conflicts that arise out of seemingly nothing, alluding to a larger conversation that’s not taking place. Optional calendar invites become expected no-shows. The question becomes less of how to go above and beyond, rather how to just keep going.
I’ve seen it reveal itself in a slew of side projects and well-intended but overly ambitious New Year resolutions, in laborious newsletters, and various relationships. Despite recognizing the signals, most of them suffered explosive, graceless endings, which had the inadvertent benefit of making it easier to walk away.
Make the call
I found myself back in that same predicament at the end of last year with a studio I had founded with a few partners back in 2016. I had noticed the telltale traces a few months prior but had hoped that winning more projects, sending more invoices, and buying more snacks would keep that unavoidable end at bay.
This time, however, I had a partner willing to pull the ripcord. Andrew, a partner and co-founder in the studio, recognized that the end, while not nigh, was inescapable. Maybe not this year, but next year or the year after that. We wanted different things for ourselves, had different goals and ambitions, which would eventually lead to us going our separate ways. We valued our relationships, the work we had done together, and the lessons we had learned along the way. In choosing to end things before that imminent demise, we were hoping to salvage our relationships, along with any other potential collateral that would’ve come with a slower, less controllable, inevitable end.
Rather than delay the inescapable, confront issues head on. At the first signs of cessation, talk about them and work to get at the root cause. There might even be a cure that can slow down or stave off death entirely. If not, work to maintain open communication as you develop a plan for ending things as gracefully as possible.
Take time to reflect
Be sure to carve out time for yourself to contemplate everything you’ve experienced through this undertaking. You can do this on your own, or you can invite friends and collaborators to participate in this process. In the case of the studio, we hosted a facilitated retro with our team where we did a year in review, discussed our highs and lows, exchanged critical feedback, and wrote thank you letters. It served the dual purpose of helping surface up insights from the experience to take with us moving forward, as well as offered a bit of closure—a rarity when it comes to endings.
Celebrate your wins
Although it might be tempting to wallow in the sadness that comes with many endings, be sure to take time to celebrate the successes you’ve accomplished, too. Chances are you’ve learned something new through this experience, and that’s worth acknowledging. Perhaps that’s by embarking on nationwide tour in the form of a “full-fledged, joy-filled celebration” or sharing a heartfelt letter on growing up. We chose to release a public Drive folder to share the tools and processes we developed along the way in hopes that they might help someone else just starting out.
Lay it to rest
When it’s time for it to die, let it die. Perhaps your project has fulfilled its purpose, which then—congratulations! Thank it for its service, then lay it to rest to make room for another endeavor.
But maybe it hasn’t fulfilled its purpose, and in that case, thank it for the lessons you’ll take with you into the future. Giving yourself agency over that decision lets you choose what that end looks like.
More about Carly Ayres
Carly Ayres is a writer and creative director.