Posted by: Liz Massey | May 22, 2008

Building Your Grid: Commuter Creativity (Mobile Workstations)

As I said in my last post about using one’s commute time to work on creative projects, utilizing this usually aggravating block of time can be very beneficial for an artist. Using your bus or train ride to write, draw, compose, or otherwise fill the well of originality can improve creative consistency, teach one how to “chunk” large projects into bite-size pieces and create an environment where “fishing” for ideas is easy.

Once you’re sold on the idea of commuter creativity, the next step is to design your perfect “mobile workstation”–a kit of tools and toys that carries easily in the hustle and bustle of mass transit, yet makes catching ideas and practicing your craft on the run fun and easy to do.

I wrote an article last year for the Creativity Coaching Association e-newsletter about devising a creativity kit for vacations, and the parallels between creativity on vacation and creativity on the way to work are strong. At the minimum, you will want to consider placing the following items on your mobile workstation check-list.

A lap desk. I use my backpack or lunch box to rest my journal on, but more ergonomic solutions do exist. An ideal lap desk is big enough on which to spread out your work, but small enough to fit in your briefcase, backpack or travel bag.

A laptop computer.
If you live in or travel to a metro area with ubiquitous Wi-Fi, you may want to consider writing or designing online. Writing notebooks are fine as far as idea creation is concerned, but I find myself wishing I already had my drafts in electronic form by the time I get home and want to send them out into the world.

Notebooks and sketchbooks. Honestly, this is the area for me where practicality breaks down and aesthetics and emotional attachments tend to dominate.

I can use just about any lined notebook to write in, but I have a preference for hard-bound notebooks produced by Pooch & Sweetheart, that I end up picking up at Ross for about $1.99 each. I’ve had less luck with spiral bound books, mainly because if I buy them at Ross, they tend to have “issues” with the spiral turning cleanly once I’ve written on more than half the pages.

Many writers and artists prefer Moleskine notebooks, and I do have to admit I love their look. I gravitate to 5 x 8.25 inch notebooks, because they slip in the hand so nicely when I’m pulling them out of my backpack.

I’ve noticed that Running Press sells softcover books of musical staff paper for composers and songwriters, so that musicians can compose on the road without going through the hell of trying to find a loose-leaf draft tucked somewhere in one’s effects.

Comfort, function and price are my watchwords. I want a cheap, long-lasting ballpoint that doesn’t hurt my hand if I write with it for an hour.

Artists will no doubt want more specific types of drawing instruments, but it’s best to bring along nothing so precious that it can’t be replaced if mislaid on the bus or light rail.

Digital Voice Recorder.
A little harder to use politely on the bus or train, but worth throwing in your kit if you dislike writing down random creative ideas, or work in sound (voice, music, audio engineering) and want to record raw materials for later reworking. Plus, most units are so small, it’s hard to excuse leaving it at home.

An iPod/MP3 player with headphones. Listen strategically instead of just blocking out the dialogue of the bus melodrama. Find music that inspires you, download spoken-word files relevant to your work, or create files from your digital voice recorder to be reviewed while you ride along.

Small digital camera or your cell phone’s camera. Always useful for snapping quick shots of unforgettable images, documenting your day, or recording short movies that can be used in YouTube uploads, video podcasts, and more.

A sack or satchel to carry all this in. How you carry your kit’s contents will probably depend on the realities of your mode of travel (security, how long the trip is, whether you always get a seat or might have to stand part of the trip, etc.) I favor sturdy backpacks (without luggage wheels) such as those made by Wenger, but messenger bags and cloth shopping bags work well for many (and have new eco-chic, since you’re using them over and over.)

I have a gimpy shoulder right now, so I have to watch how much I load down the backpack right now. But my current pack has multiple compartments (great for separating books/art materials from clothes or grooming gear), tough zippers, multiple handles and an internal fold-out bottom (which keeps it upright if I set in down on the ground or floor of the bus).

The questions to you: If you use commute time to create, what are the essentials you must take along? Any tools work particularly well or badly in the field for you?



  1. […] Building your grid: Commuter Creativity (Companions) (This is the third in a series of posts on creating on the go; the first two focused on using commute time effectively and constructing a mobile workstation.) […]

  2. Our bus service in Raleigh isn’t the best, so most of the time I walk or bike to my destination. So, it’s been very important to keep my “stuff” to a minimum!

    I have a small pink bookbag with a big sturdy strap; it crosses from my right shoulder to under my left ribs, and doesn’t budge when I’m on a bike. In this I carry my phone/camera, small digital recorder to sing into, a notebook (usually with a cat or some other silly pic on the front!), and colorful gel pens. This stuff often turns into a recording of lyrics accompanied by some wildly-colored chord changes. My equipment is minimal, but it’s perfect for what I do.

    Thanks for the cool post!

  3. @ Christina: Great! Compact is good for biking or walking! I have had to limit myself to my writing notebook and one or two books for inspiration or research when I walk with my backpack to avoid turning a pleasant walk into a death march! 🙂

  4. […] blog, and edit video there more productively; an example of #2 would be packing my laptop in my commuter creativity kit so that I can work on the road and make the most of that […]

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