Mars Dorian's motto in life is, "When you’re not trying to fit in, you’re free to stand out."
Mars is an illustrator, designer, blogger, and consultant focused on helping you and your business stand out. He's edgy and embraces authenticity even to the point where his work can be quite controversial -- but he's also got brilliant insights and excellent artisanship.
To promote his recent GiveGetWin deal where you can get a copy of his illustrated guide to branding and standing out, Mars sat down with Sebastian Marshall and opened up about reaching the highest levels of creative potential, owning where you're at, and becoming truly exceptional at your craft. Enjoy --
"How To Break Through With Your Work" by Mars Dorian, as told to Sebastian Marshall
I start my day with 2-3 hours of learning. After breakfast and before I do any work, I start learning and dissecting something related to my craft.
When I see a drawing that's exciting, I know it's not magically exciting. It's not coincidentally exciting. There are rules of contrast and composition; there are strategies, laws, and mechanics that make a great composition.
Great artists know these. The best are so good they do it unconsciously. Because I want to be improving every day, I do it consciously. I dissect pictures and try to say why they're great. Learn the rules.
Most people don't put in the effort. The just draw or design.
Everyone talks about being in flow. But to get to the next level, you need to break flow and go beyond your comfort zone. You can't just work automatically in a trance -- you have to be conscious of your progress.
Wake up, start and say 'how can i do this more? how can I use this color?' It breaks away me away from flow, but it improves the picture.
The way to start improving is to pick a mental model in your area of someone very good. Learn from the master. Pick a few masters of the field.
Understand their process. Get their process. Read their biography, check out websites about them, learn everything they can about how they do their work. Then ask someone else more knowledgeable than you about your field. "Why did that take that action? How do they start work on a new piece or project?" Keep asking those questions. Ask more experienced people, and dissect and analyze with them, to learn the mechanics, and apply them for yourself.
That's how I do it with designing, writing, and illustrating. I have some mentors that are like twice my age. I send them the pictures I really like, but sometimes I don't know why I like the picture, why it's really awesome. So I ask, "How come I like this one so much? Why can't I get it off my head?" Then I can use similar effects once I hear the answer.
Some people say "just trust your intuition." But I'm a huge fan of creating systems and breaking things down. There's a formula for everything, and once you know the formulas and know them in your sleep, you can do everything.
If you know the formula and how it's supposed to work, then you can create something that stands out. Once you know all the rules of storytelling, how to create tension, how to create compelling characters, how to create a style, how to make a page-turner… it's like being in the Matrix and being able to see the code. Then you can manipulate the code to make it work in your favor. You can then make something that applies some of the rules so it doesn't scare people off, but is also innovative.
I want to know what most people do in illustrating, and I can start there. I can see, "Everyone tends to use this kind of picture and this kind of color to get this mood." So I can use something near that color to get that effect, but because I know the rule I can also do it somewhat differently so I can stand out."
In the past, I was the complete opposite. I believed everything should come magically almost. Wishful thinking -- if you believe in it, it should happen. Law of attraction y'know? I wasn't very successful, nothing was happening for me. I used to think, shit, why isn't this working? But once I started learning about systems, my life did a complete 180-degree U-turn.
There's four levels of competency -- you start clueless and don't even know you're clueless. If you want to drive a car, level 1 is not even knowing what you don't know. Level 2 is having a clue about what you don't know. Level 3 is having a clue, you can drive, but you have to concentrate intensely to drive. Level 4 is knowing it perfectly, it just flows effortlessly from their consciousness.
Most people are stuck in the first level. They kind of suck in a way, and don't even know it. Take illustrators. They don't have a great idea of composition, color, and anatomy, but they don't even know why. So I always tell them, "maybe you should ramp up your skills."
Before I was clueless, but I didn't know I was clueless. Then I saw people half my age doing better work than me, work that blew me away. That moved me from level 1 to level 2, I started working harder to be more realistic and learn.
Doing the mastery thing is hard, it takes time and can be scary to do. But it is simple. You do it, apply it, and you get the results.
In Germany, Western countries, the USA, maybe everywhere…. when you want to do a creative career, you ask your friends and family about your work and they say, "Oh, it's great!" They don't say, "Oh, it's shit!" So you get a bubble where you get stuck. You think everyone likes your work and you're doing fine. But really you're not. You think you're good, but you don't realize your skill on a global level is weak. There's thousands of people half your age who are working day and night, and who have skill that blows yours away.
For me, I ran into a kid who was 12 or 13 while I was in my 20's who had knowledge and skills who could blow me away. When I saw his work, I went home and cried my eyes out. He smoked me out of the water. I realized I didn't have the skill. Everyone told me I was good, but I realized I wasn't -- and that's when I started creating those systems.
When I say systems, I mean knowing how something works to get an effect over and over again. You could call it systems, formulas, or "a program"…
Here's the the formula I use to learn: find the best images and artwork in the world, dissect it, run all the rules of design through it, and have the best people dissect it and understand it with you, get feedback… and rinse and repeat over and over again.
Right now, when I look pictures, I know why the color and shapes and composition create a particular effect. If something doesn't work, I know why -- they go against the unwritten laws of good composition.
It's not about talent -- it's about human beings creating structures to make sense of the world. Mathematicians can calculate range and traction to know when a meteor will hit, they can almost know the future because of creating structures.
I think this is how people are actually successful in the creative realm. Whether by nature or by experience, they learn all the rules and then break them at the right parts. Tarantino watched old movies over and over again, learned the scripts and storytelling, and learned all the rules before breaking them deliberately to give you that special Tarantino effect.
Nothing he created is entirely new -- Tarantino stole from everywhere and mashed it all together from different sources. Kill Bill is based on 'Lady Vengeance' which is a South Korean movie, and he has Uma Thurman dress like Bruce Lee, and similar inspirations… he knows all the rules, puts them all together, then breaks just a few, and BAM, you have Tarantino.
When a rule gets used so often it becomes a cliche and people talk about it, that's a good time to think about breaking that rule.
Visual example -- in a movie, near the end you know "here comes the twist" because Hollywood uses the 3-act structure. You can wow the audience by doing something completely different. They anticipate the cliche, then if you do something completely different to wow people, they can't anticipate what's coming next.
Another -- when you have that moment in the beginning of a movie when there's a special stare between a man and a woman in a movie where they hate each other early, eventually they come together later. That's a cliche -- they hate each other, then fall in love. What if you break that entirely, start it that way but have the girl not really want the guy later? Maybe she wants to kill him? That's a way different ending.
I do this with my work. For some book covers I make, I ask "How do futuristic covers look?" Usually they're black and dark, because people often think the future is going to be bleak and dark and whatever. But I try to do futuristic design, but also very colorful. Other people use mechanical design and a futuristic city with a few lights and a gloomy look… I might make it look futuristic, but colorful like a Disney candy store on acid.
If everyone uses a Big Ass Title on their book, I'll go no title on the cover -- just a thumbnail. And with a thumbnail online, you can do that because the title will always be displayed next to it always, so you don't need to have a title.
I still follow harmony, tension, and the various rules of graphic design. But the way people use them, they use them in a predictable way. If you think about how the "chick lit" genre is illustrated, usually they have a woman drawn with a sparkly shine, like a fashion illustration. When you look at fiction, you often have a boring shot of an empty road, a willow, some natural landscape, with some slant on top of it. That's what people expect in the genre -- but if you do it, people think that's more of the same. But you can do it in a way that is completely different way, follow the core rules, and get the same and more emotion than normal.
People are afraid of being different. Of being obscure and avoided.
Everyone has creative kick-ass ideas for anything. The only reason they don't act on them is fear. I'd call it fear of death, I think everything comes from a deep fear of death.
If you ask often enough, it trickles down to that one question. You ask people, "Why didn't you do it the kick ass idea you thought up, that would have stood out?" The reply goes -- What if things go worse? What if I make less sales? What if I waste too much time and it wasn't creative? Then I don't have money?
It comes back to not surviving… that fear of death, of not surviving.
In the Western world, if you do a blog post that flubs… people are afraid to do that, they think it leads them to being neglected by other people. In the past, if you pissed people off you'd be rejected and kicked out of the tribe, and you died. Seth Godin talks about this. You can't survive in a ferocious jungle with animals by yourself. You've still got those feelings, the fight or flight responses.
If you do a blog post, you're not going to DIE if you create a post that no one likes. But you're still wired to feel like this.
To do kick-ass work, you need to get past this. And I wish I came up with this line, but Seth Godin came up with it before -- "Listen to your fear. Whenever you're really scared, do it."
The thing that shows you you're scared, you should do that. Whenever you feel satisfied with something you made and you're launching, whenever you feel safe with something you put out, then you're probably not doing something remarkable.
The safe zone, you don't want to be there.
Whenever I create a design and think to myself "that's awesome, it's perfect," then I know it's too safe. But if I don't put a title on the cover, then would people ignore me? Almost no-one does that. The fear tells me I should do it.
I want to feel some fear when I'm doing creative work.
And there's no guarantee. Maybe it does fail. Maybe it's crazy, and it does fail, and people ignore it. But I think it's the only way to create something remarkable and lasting in the future. You have to be willing to fail, to take risks, to get derided or made fun of, but I think that's the only way you can find that unique line that only you can walk upon.
Use the fear as a compass. We humans are unique that we can go against our natural instincts. You can go against your urges. You can force yourself not to act on your instincts -- just like you don't have to jump on everyone you want to have sex with and you don't go to the bathroom the moment you want to.
So you can feel fear, you can shiver -- these are instincts, but you can force yourself to do it because it's the right thing to do.
I always try to do cool things that are a bit different, but I fail at this very often. I stifle myself often, feel fear, and don't do something cool that I could do. Scarily, more often than I act on my creative ideas. You expect to get used to it, but you never fully do. It's always a struggle to do things different.
But if you work online, what's the worst thing that can happen? Someone will kill you? No. Maybe someone will dislike you, but so what? What's the worst that can happen? Yet the fear looms in that reptile brain.
I don't try to dissipate the fear. I do it in spite of the fear.
Acknowledge it. It's a Zenlike feeling. You pretend it's just your body, and you're viewing your body, and the fear is just a sensation in your body. You don't deny it, and you don't try to replace it. You know it's a feeling, a hormone, and you accept doing it anyway. It's not about forcing yourself. You accept it, accept it's part of you, and do it anyways.
Karl Lagerfeld, the famous fashion designer of Chanel in France, he always says that his body is a puppet and his soul is the puppeteer controlling his body. When someone makes fun of him, or he gets into a fight, he knows that his body is just a meat puppet and his soul is safe and far away. I find that very interesting.
That guy really changed things -- Chanel was almost bankrupt when he started. Everyone knows him in that area. Now he owns castles and owns his 10 libraries, has hundreds of millions of euros, and has a unique way of talking you can learn a lot from.
When you see him talk in an interview, you know immediately the way he talks and behaves that there's something different about this guy. Weird about this guy. He makes unique statements. People ask him, "Why do you wear gloves all the time?" He says back, "Because I hate touching human meat all the time" and he smiles and it's coming natural to him.
When asked, "How do you come up with those crazy ideas all the time?" He's got these unique philosophies. He's not afraid to fail. The meat puppet feels afraid. There's like a thick layer of fog between him and the outer world. He's so funny the way he talks. I'm not really into fashion, but I love following him and the way he thinks and acts.
If you want to do better work, the first thing is doing a reality check. Check your meta-skills against the best competitors in the space. Ask, "Compared to them, are you REALLY good? REALLY? Or do you suck?"
If you think you suck, CONGRATULATIONS. That's the dark night of the soul. Now you can start consciously creating a way to learn as much as you can, to create as many rules as you can, to learn all the rules and systems your competitors use to be great, and then to go past them and beat them.
And obviously become obsessed with your work -- in order to grow it, to become remarkably good at it, you have to be hungry. Never give yourself a pat on the shoulder. Always ask how you can make better work all the time. In a few years, you'll blow yourself away -- and others, hopefully, too.
How's that quote go? "Life is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself." I believe in that quote fully. Finding implies there's something there already is, and you just have to find it. Creating means you're always changing, building yourself up like a masterpiece that's always in progress.
You can find Mars Dorian's blog, views, insights, and consulting (note: it can be quite controversial) at marsdorian.com
Mars has graciously donated 100 copies of his "Outstander" branding guide to GiveGetWin, where we're able to offer them at only 1/3rd of their regular price, with all the proceeds going to charity. This guide is bright, detailed, actionable, illustrated, and entertaining, and this is a rare and great opportunity to explore some great work. You can find out Mars' branding guide being offered through GGW deal by clicking here.