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Birth of a Creative Director

March 12th, 2012 by

When I was about four years old, my parents gave me a toy piano.  Up until that moment, I had been able to figure out just about anything, but it soon became quite clear to me that I had no aptitude for music.  The piano was put aside – way aside – for crayons, building blocks, and comic books.  I hated that piano.

Years later in Junior High School, it was announced that children of my academic level were to have music as their mandatory elective.  I asked my mother, “How can it be an elective if it’s mandatory?” She insisted that it would be good for me.

In the first day scramble to select an instrument, I grabbed a trombone.  I figured it would be the easiest, and though I was probably right, it was still not easy enough for me.

Over the years I built a system of ‘faking it.’  Sitting next to the tuba player, playing quietly if at all, and marking all my music books with the correct positions of the trombone slider, to avoid reading music.

Further into my teenage years, my parents had the bright idea of enrolling me in guitar lessons.  They imagined that I would play for my friends at parties, or even form a band someday.  But my guitar instructor could see what I already knew within a few minutes: I was no Eddie Van Halen.

Finally High School arrived and I got to choose my own elective.  I chose Art.  No more trombone, no more marking up music books, no more draining spit valves, no more faking it.  Finally I’d get to do something I liked.


The school registrar informed me that all the Art classes were full – but Music was still accepting.  With the enthusiasm of a deflated balloon, I reported to music class, picked up a trombone, and took my place in the back row.  The teacher arrived, a rather stern little man with a German accent, and told us to turn to page 33 of our music books.

Page 33, like every other page in the book, was unmarked with my shorthand to tell me how to slide the trombone.  The little dots and lines were only a pattern to me, not sound.  With no time to interpret, I would be forced to fake it like never before.

The class began to play – but not me.  I didn’t follow the notes on the page, or even blow into my instrument.  My attention was to either side, trying to match the movements of the other trombone players.  Song after song, I tuned my reflexes to match what my classmates were doing – usually a half note behind, until it was over.

It was one of the most stressful hours of my life.  And I lamented that it was going to be a very long year unless I could get ahold of one of the music books to mark up.  As the class filed out of the room, the teacher pulled me aside, “Can I speak to you for a moment?”

Apparently, I had not fooled him.

I was expecting to get a pep talk on how I’d have to apply myself, practice more, and maybe stay after class for one-on-one coaching.  But once everyone had left the room, he closed the door, looked at me, and then he said:

“What are you doing here?

I explained that all the other electives were full, and that since I took music in Junior High School, I though this was the place to be.

He asked, “Is there anything else you like to do?”

“I like to draw.”

He took out a little slip of paper, scribbled something on it, and told me to take it to the Art teacher.  I was being kicked out of Music class, and I couldn’t be happier, if only the Art teacher would accept the note and make room for me.

I excused myself into the Art class, and gave the teacher the note as instructed.  She looked at it for a few moments, then told me to get an extra chair from the back room.  I was in.

I wondered what the note said, and from my new seat, I could see it on the Art teacher’s desk – there was no writing on either side of it.  The Music teacher had given me more than a dose of tough love – he had given me a blank check.

He didn’t coddle me, or tolerate me, or even encourage me, instead he taught me what I needed to know – that I should be true to myself, that following orders is not an excuse to do the wrong thing, and that the future is unwritten, until we write it (or draw it as the case may be).

I wouldn’t know it until years later, but that blank note has made all the difference in my life.   I never had the opportunity to thank its author, I don’t even know his name, but I can’t help but think of him every time I see a blank Post-It.

4 videos that make me laugh, everytime…

February 29th, 2012 by

All work and no play makes creative people dull ponies – or something like that. When I want to get pumped, and move into the right brain powerhouse mode of creativity, here are some of my go-to inspirations.  Free your mind, and the creativity will follow…

The Phony Translator

Japanese Crowd Control

Formula 1 Driver takes his Wife for a Drive

Kenny Rogers Does Jackass

Think Why to Get the Click

November 2nd, 2011 by

No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to navigate a website and click a button.” People have more important things to do in their lives, like helping their kids, or going on a hot date, or impressing their boss.

Sometimes in the pursuit of real world goals, people need to navigate a website and click a button, but we should never forget that they are doing so for some other reason – and before they make that click – that they must believe their real world goals will be aided.

People click a “buy now” button not because of how easy it was to navigate to find that button, not because the button was so cool looking, but because they believe something.

Sometimes these beliefs happen by reputation, sometimes by a feeling of affinity, sometimes by a feeling of validation, or any number of other impulses. And the way things look is a factor. But different people think and react in different ways.

If we limit ourselves to optimizing navigation, restructuring existing information, and reskinning interfaces – then we limit ourselves to being optimizers only. Just polishing stones. That’s not design, but merely decoration.

But if we dig deeper and define the “why” people take an action, instead of just allowing it, then we become the creators of reality. That’s design.


January 28th, 2011 by

When you were a kid, chances are good you went through a period when your favorite word was “why?”   It’s this questioning period of life when most of us are at our creative peak.  This is the era when a cardboard box is a better toy than whatever was in it, the boogie-man is in the closet, and we color outside the lines with wild abandon.

You probably drove certain adults crazy asking them “why”, and at some point you were told to cut it out – or else.  This may have been necessary for your survival, but a little piece of your creativity died that day. R.I.P.

Some people just couldn’t let it go, and if they had an artistic inclination, there’s a good chance they became a designer of some kind. The ability to question the obvious is one of the key traits of being an effective designer.

Q. How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Why do you want a light bulb?

It takes guts to ask the questions no one else wants to ask.  Most people don’t want to appear silly, or un-informed, or perhaps even insane.  Experts get paid to ask serious questions and provide serious answers.

But it’s a designer’s duty as an “anti-expert” to probe as a child would, with curiosity and playfulness.  This is how big ideas are born.  So the next time that “creative person” disturbs your meeting with an inane comment or un-informed query, pay attention, play along, and embrace your inner “anti-expert.”

Something big just might happen…