Wait, you can do that?

Author’s note! This post comes to you by way of Adobe, who invited me to attend their 99U conference this year with a complimentary ticket.

I hate erasing. I’ve hated it since I can remember.

Erasing something never really erases it. There’s always the ghost of where it was, telling the viewer that this thing they’re looking at wasn’t always this good, this perfect. If you try too hard to erase something, the paper gets damaged, which is even worse. Over-erased, rubbed-out paper, that’s the evidence of the shame you hold for your imperfection. Your mistakes.

Not that I had this kind of consciousness about erasing when I was a kid or anything. I just hated it. My mom found a letter I wrote to my grandmother, in pencil, when I was 7 years old. There’s a PS at the end:

I needed my grandmother to know that I knew that she knew that I had made mistakes. I needed to preempt in my head the imaginary conversation she would have with my grandfather. “What a nice letter from Deanna,” I pictured her saying. “Too bad she made seven mistakes. Such a shame, she showed such promise.” One of my therapists and I agreed that this was the earliest evidence of my coming OCD; also, for the record, my grandmother would have never even noticed, let alone said that, of course. She had bigger things to worry about with me, like when I wanted to get my ears pierced.

I loved to draw and write. We had reams of old dot matrix computer paper, mint-green striped on one side, that our neighbor gave us from her bookkeeping job. I filled those reams with comics, signs, stories and doodles. When I discovered Ed Emberley’s drawing books for kids, I felt like my proto-OCD prayers were answered: Here was someone teaching me how to draw without having to erase. You just kept on adding shapes to the drawing and filling things in. And Ed assured us with notes like this:

Which led me to draw the battleship in his Big Purple Drawing Book, and send it to my grandmother, with this note:

(Didn’t you know grandmothers dig battleships? And annoying instructions from grandchildren?)

Eventually my love of drawing collided so deeply with my hatred of mistakes and erasing that I gave up drawing altogether. It seems like many people I’ve talked to have this arc with art: something or someone determines that they aren’t talented, or aren’t talented enough, and they stop. I’ve never heard someone say, “Oh God, I loved drawing as a kid, but I just found it so boring that I stopped and became an accountant.” There’s almost always an event or theme that attempts to erase whatever creative expression we’re born with.

My love of creating never disappeared, of course. It got channeled into different media: writing, mostly; then web design and HTML. I learned quickly that my technical brain would get me paid, and my creative brain could augment when necessary. I didn’t understand, for a long time, that the hyperfocus on the technical and pragmatic would create resentment inside me, and cause my neglected creative self to feel shriveled and small. And many times, The Universe™ decided to offer me what felt like were Major Challenges, asking me to choose who I was. I could take the safe, easy, route of being a professional nerd, or I could risk becoming an artist. I always chose the safer route.

I’ve also attempted a few times to get back to my first creative love: comics. I tried my hand at drawing some in the late ’90s, and ended up beyond frustrated. I couldn’t figure out how to cram everything I wanted to into 2" x 2" boxes on the page. I felt like I was exploding with ideas and had zero talent to implement them. Paper haunted me. Everything looked horrible.

At a Big Apple Comic Con (pre-ginormous NY Comicon) in 1999 or so, I met a comics artist who was using a Wacom Intuos tablet and Adobe Photoshop to draw on his computer. I’d never seen such a setup! I’d tried to draw in Photoshop with a mouse, and that was just plain ridiculous. He said to me, “That’s like trying to draw with a bar of soap!” I saved up some money and bought a tablet.

I started drawing again. And I found the most delightful keystroke of all time: Undo. This saved me from ever having to have the shame and frustration of erasing something ever again. Undo was a giant do-over. You didn’t have to show that you tried and failed. You just undid. This allowed me to go on and create a few Flash-based comics which delighted me and my friends. I wasn’t drawing regularly though, because I hated hauling my giant, heavy laptop and my giant Intuos everywhere. (I still draw extensively with what Flash became — Adobe Animate — because the tools feel so much more natural to my nerd brain.) I fell in with a bunch of poets and performers, and went back to telling stories with just words instead of pictures and words. I also became a strategy and technology consultant, and when I did, a terrible mentor gave me some terrible advice, which I followed to the letter: You have to separate your creative, artist life from your professional life. No one will take you seriously otherwise. (Read: No one wants to hire a dippy weird girl.)

Still, comics ached on inside me, and in 2008 I started studying with Tom Hart. That jerk made me draw on paper occasionally, and while I loved the feeling in my hand (especially the sound of a pen nib scratching paper, ooooooo yes), I was firmly planted in my digital world. My public presence as a technologist was starting to take off by then; I snuck a few drawings into my technology work, like the illustrations in my book about social technologies and saving the world, but otherwise still submerged art below the More Important Surface. Then that jerk Tom, who annoyingly never gave up faith in my drawing, started a school in Gainesville, Florida for comics and cartooning: Sequential Artists Workshop. I started going down there for their weeklong workshops.

Spending quality time with people all over the spectrum of experience with and talent for drawing was revolutionary. I still hauled a laptop with Flash and my Wacom tablet to every class, but some assignments we had to do on paper. And while I was getting exposed to the most brilliant of the brilliant when it came to comics art, I was also secretly noting that other people made mistakes. And they erased them. Or they scanned their work into Photoshop and touched things up. Or they used gouache to white them out.

I saw that artists I loved and deeply admired took ugly little thumbnails on old notebook paper and slowly — slowly!— transformed them into whole stories. I watched as people tried out ideas and abandoned ones that didn’t work for them. I listened to them doubt their talent and stamina, get advice from others, take a break, and then give it all another whirl. You can do that?, I thought.

I just like this moment from “Airplane!” and wanted to break up all the heavy text.

No matter how many times someone tells you that creating is not a magical solitary act, it’s still hard to believe. All the image memes in the world will never entirely convince your brain that it’s OK to make something ugly. As a recovering-but-relapses-regularly-overachiever — again, one who has OCD — I still expect myself to just poop out rainbows whenever I sit down to create. Ask the editors of my book what it was like to work with me during the editing phase. There’s a reason I thanked Patron tequila in the credits.

But the more time I spend with people who create as their main activity, the more I ache to do the same, and get frustrated more deeply when I can’t. Then this happened: About 13 hours after I cried to my therapist that I wanted to be seen primarily as an artist in the world, and how dumb that felt, I received an invitation to attend Adobe’s 99U conference. It’s an entire conference dedicated to creativity and inspiration. The Universe™ was hard at work, in its usual fashion, of offering me a Major Choice on those two days in June: I could attend the gathering I’d attended for the last 13 years, Personal Democracy Forum, which focuses on civic engagement, technology and generally making the world better, or I could go to a conference focused on creating and making and I could see what happened. I chose 99U.

First of all, I’ve got to attend corporate conferences more. The swag! We got all kinds of pretty things in our conference bags, a free admission ticket to MoMA, plus colored pencils. I’m a sucker for colored pencils. I was tempted to make an unboxing video of the swag bag, but I digress.

I felt like good things were in store the moment I saw Ruth Ann Harnisch in attendance as well — I’ve called her the punk rock fairy godmother of feminists everywhere for almost ten years now for a reason. She’s guided me (and many people) through both perilous and celebratory times, so seeing her magically appear at the event I’d chosen helped let me know I was on the right path.

What Adobe wants to do with 99U is showcase creative leaders across multiple industries, and show how they’re mastering their craft. Yep, that sounds like a theater I could sit in for a few hours. All the speakers had delightful bits of insights; there were even some naughty animations that made me giggle. Many of the speakers shared their step-by-steps on how they get their work done; much of it sounded familiar to how we approach our work at LUX. We find that it’s easy for our clients to get caught up in the “but what’s going to happen at the end of this?!”, and it’s our job to hold their hands and help them focus on the moment, and ultimately their bigger goals — not on narrow outcomes, especially when things in the social justice landscape shift so quickly. Julia Kaganskiy of New Inc (part of the New Museum) shared that interdisciplinary collaboration is key for her work; Scott Belsky (co-founder of Behance) gave us his mantra: “Mission centric, medium agnostic.” My friend Farai Chideya reminded us that creative folks must be translators for the different worlds we walk through, and yeah, that feels like what I’ve spent my career thus far doing. Amen.

But the speakers that blew me away all shared a quality that I’ve yet been unable to name. It’s not the buzzword-y kind of “vulnerability” or “authenticity,” it was something more real. I want to say “raw,” but that word alludes to some sort of confession or loss of control, and that’s not what happened. The two people I’m thinking of were in total command of their work and passion, and just spoke their genius in what felt like an unfiltered way, while also being able to connect their adventures to ours. They saw some kind of magical Venn diagram of emotional needs in that giant theater, set themselves in the middle, and invited us to come along with them.

Liz Jackson advocates for what she calls “inclusive retail,” and the implications of her influence are about to be a tidal wave swooshing around all kinds of design. We have this concept that if we design products for people with disabilities, there will be a limited market (read: no money) for them. Liz broke through that myth: We’re starting from the wrong place. “Disability is a social construct. We are not disabled by our bodies, but by the world around us,” she said. If we overhaul how we think about those constructs, we blow the doors open to amazing, functional, beautiful work. Take public bathroom signs, even — Liz suggests signs that they describe what facilities are inside, not describe who, with which abilities, should use them. How many problems would that solve across how many social boundaries? (Sidebar: I learned quickly at an organization who had such signs what the icon for “urinal” is. I learned the hard way.) Liz’s mic drop: “If you design something with intent, you won’t need to adapt it.”

Natasha Jen of Pentagram had me at her talk title: “Design Thinking Is Bullshit.”

I loved how she took this buzzword and broke down, showing how it can go horribly wrong. I thought often of my friend and favorite designer, Sarah Brooks, who is the Design & Government Program Director at IBM Design. (I have the urge to list to you all the many things she’s done with herself, but seriously, just click on the link.) Sarah was the person who brought serious, systems-oriented, effective design thinking about social change into my consciousness when I met her, and I felt like what Natasha was pulling apart and calling bullshit on, calls us back to the kind of design Sarah has been working on and advocating for: a focus on service, producing pragmatic and effective solutions that are also gorgeous and emotionally resonant. What Natasha called out is the fetishizing of the process that’s used for design thinking (hello, Post-it notes!) and the loss of that emotional component. I have felt this in many rooms as a social change strategist. I have been blinded by the flurry of every color of Post-it that can has come into this world and wondered at the end what the point of the whole exercise was.

There was also Bryan Lamkin from Adobe, who went ollllld school, much to many of our delights. “I was the product manager for Photoshop before it had layers,” he said. DAMN, bruh. Then he asked the audience who still used the Paste-Into command, and I, expecting a loud rush of folks to join me, I whoop-whooped pretty loud. I was the only whooper in the room. C’mon, people, Paste-Into is genius and I will never give it up. Anyhoo, one major thing stuck with me here — a major tension we all face as creators navigating the digital and the analog. Bryan mentioned that one of their focuses in Adobe products right now is to streamline the workflows for creators. We all nodded, we like simplified workflows.

But then he added, “We want to take out the drudgery of creating.” And that’s where I paused — that’s where the tension is. Some of my best ideas come out of the drudgery, those huge meditations while I’m sitting there in Photoshop endlessly clone-tooling and fixing minutiae in my work. I kind of love those opportunities to tune out and drift into other parts of my brain. My comics guru Tom, when I mentioned this to him, quoted Lewis Hyde to me. “There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor.” Those rhythms feel deeply necessary to our brains.

Which brings me to one of the 99U Studio Sessions I had chosen to attend. It was called: “Creative Lab: Fusing Analog and Digital Design.” Could this be more perfect for me right now? A better metaphor for my life? Former Adobe Creative Resident Christine Herrin led us through making an utterly delightful project — the covers for a mini-zine for us to note our conference experiences. Indie comics and zines go hand-in-hand, so I was extra jazzed for her choice. And, I’m about to nerd out on drawing apps here, so be warned.

Christine introduced us to a mobile app, Adobe Capture CC. I hadn’t used this particular Adobe app before (I hadn’t actually heard of it), but I was already a big fan of Adobe Draw and Photoshop Mix for my iPhone. And honestly, it was those two apps that were partially the gateway drug for me to finally start paying for Adobe Creative Cloud and update all my desktop apps. (Secret: I use Photoshop Mix primarily to blend group photos together and make everyone look amazing.)

But Capture is a whole new world. It does what it says on the tin — you point it at stuff, it captures it. Most excitingly for me, as a comics person, is the ability to take a photo of say, a pencil sketch, and instantly turn it into vector art that I can easily manipulate. (This was so exciting to me that I texted it to several cartoonist friends, who responded with, “OMG NO WAY.”)

Remember how I told you way back at the beginning that I hate people seeing my imperfect work? Comment not on this sketch of Toni Morrison, thankyouverymuch.

This is where I think Adobe has nailed that tension I mentioned between easing my creative pain without robbing me of mental downtime. The app seems to offer enough options to let me adjust my work, but has removed some of the later tediousness of deleting every single anchor point I don’t want, one at a time. Also, the Adobe Sketch app Christine demo’ed was surprisingly lovely — I am picky and needy about digital bitmap sketching, but again, Adobe has smoothed things out without being too slick. I think!

A sample set of Adobe workflows Christine shared with us. Love.

The Adobe 99U conference came to me at the exact moment I needed it. It didn’t answer all my questions about how I’ll continue to integrate my artist self with my other passions and work (and the need to pay, how do you say, “rent” and “bills”), but I felt myself being guided gently along, visiting other lands of creative worlds and people. It reminded me that my community (many of whom appear frequently here) are my best tools as I move forward. I’m working on losing the shame to show them things I’m making, to test ideas, to process out loud, to ask for criticism of my work, because one question did get answered for me: Yes, you can do that.


PS — the fact that I later found a giant eraser, well after I started writing this, in the bottom of the aforementioned killer swag bag was just brilliant.

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