It’s okay to be dumb.
Creativity happens most when you’re not trying to look smart.
This article is an odd format, as it contains slides and text from a talk I gave on the creative process while I was the Creative Director of Digital Kitchen in 2014.
This talk was presented to an audience of creative professionals, makers, artists and students. And focused less on how to make something and more on why original thought is important — in the clouds, not on the ground. “Creative process” is a very vague topic, but it’s often more important than the work that’s produced.
The response was incredible, humbling. I received tons of thank you notes, including one from a guy who asked a girl out and blamed me for his boldness. Awesome, right? Way to go Nathan!
So, instead of tucking this lecture into the archive… here we go. xo
I’m David Mikula. I’m into visual metaphors, so if you see a giant hellmouth swallowing someone later in this presentation… don’t be alarmed. Play it cool. There’s no time for laughing.
I am the Creative Director of Digital Kitchen. We’re the crew responsible for making interactive pianos, angsty teenage puppets, talking artichokes, animated GIF photobooths, and some of the best title sequences on TV.
We come from tons of unique disciplines from different pockets of the creative industry. Our work is as diverse as our team, but we get briefed just like everyone else. Generally, when it comes to commercial creativity there’s only one thing that’s ever asked of us—
Brands and entertainment properties come to us to solve a problem. Sometimes they consider what we do to be a science and they want us to use the same ingredients to repeat success. As a creative industry, we’re put into this position and what do we do? Well, some of us go look for examples of success. To see how others did it.
You surf. You tumbl. You pin. You FFFFound. You “curate” popular, proven work. You find hundreds of niche, beautiful examples of success. Dozens of formulas that look like they can be applied to your project. You show your team and clients work that other people have created.
When you’re learning to think for yourself, this is fantastic. But when you’re producing creative work, it’s not. That is not the creative process.
The more you look for inspiration: the less you make. When you put that much energy into watching other people make: you begin to think it’s impossible to do great work of your own.
You’ll share inspiration, you’ll have meetings about it, you’ll use it as reference and you may even consider remixing it and putting it back into the world. Because that’s what’s being asked of you. Clients want successful creative work, but wanting somebody else’s creative success is toxic. You’ll get used to “curating” and clients will get used to seeing others’ success.
Watching people do brilliant things hurts. It’s awful. It’s the worst feeling in the entire world to want what others have.
We’re overwhelmed with it everyday. Everything that everyone is doing or has done is at your thumbs. But you can only watch, and dream, and admire, and seethe with jealousy for so long.
Until it fucking eats you alive. Until you get sucked into the giant demon mouth vagina of complacency and can’t escape. Until you take so much pride in your illusion of creativity, that it what defines you as a person.
The shitty thing is: it’s easy to “curate.” It’s easy to do your job and escape into other people’s creativity. It’s comfortable being a fan. It’s why making something without a blueprint is so scary.
You have to dive in. You have to make yourself uncomfortable.
Your brain is going to tell you that you’re a fucking idiot at first, but you’ll learn so much about yourself when you see how you respond in situations you’ve never been in.
Making anything is a risk. You become vulnerable to failure and compromise. You might give up because you’re afraid to see what you’ll do. There’s never a guarantee that it’ll go right, even if you follow in the footsteps of someone else. So why work from examples? Why not make the first example of something?
Where do you start? Start by sharing your point of view. Talk to your friends, your team. Whomever. The moment your idea is in the world, it’s going to get pushed around a lot. If it continues to make sense, then you have an opportunity. And you made it—you made your own opportunity.
Commit to the impossible. Put yourself and your team in a position to not give up. Sometimes committing is enough of a push. When there’s not enough time to make something, everything gets made.
We put together a hype video for Stanley, the interactive piano before he could even take requests. Millions of people saw it and we had a week to make good on our promise. Risky, but worth every ounce of sweat.
Enjoy the process of getting lost. You’re learning. You’re exploring. You’re asking questions and collaborating with people that have different points of view. It doesn’t matter how little your team knows, you’ll make it work. You’ll always come out on the other side knowing how to make it better. It might not be the best, but it’s real.
Sometimes shit gets real. As a leader: you have to make sure your team doesn’t fear a horrible outcome. There has to be a light at the end, even if their hare-brained scheme doesn’t work. Make course corrections. Work together. Try new things if it’s not working. Fail fast and fail hard.
Make sure your team feel empowered to experiment. To fuck up. Because they will. It’s going to happen and that’s okay. We just made two really big fuck ups and that’s not going to stop us from making more. Just get through it quick, soak up all the learnings you can, and move on. Stronger work is always ahead.
“I am tired of knowing nothing and being reminded of it all the time.” When I read this quote from F Scott Fitzgerald, I can help but hear the pomp in his voice. But it’s true. You’re going to be reminded of how little you know every step of the way. And that’s a good thing. You can’t expect to have all of the right answers. You have so much experience, you have no idea how it’ll be applied.
Be humble, ask questions. It’s okay to not know. You’re doing something for the first time and that means something. It’s a step away from the crowd—you’re getting closer to becoming an inspiration, rather than a spectator.
The best parts of the creative process are the moments when you can feel rather than think. When your team’s ideas feel so natural and obvious. When creativity comes from intuition.
As a creative individual: the epiphany that an idea came from your experience and not from the latest article about some an artist’s use of new technology is the most satisfying proof that your personal journey means something.
Inspiration comes from ridiculous places. Like the time you went to Magic Castle. Or when your friend remembered that his old bandmate made a robot that printed messages in chalk. Or how every movie you watched as a lil’ kid had an old school photobooths that seemed magical and cute.
You have no idea how anything will turn out. When the world sees your work, they won’t know how you got there and you don’t have to tell them. Don’t be embarrassed or apologetic.
It’s okay to be dumb. It’s hard to be smart all the time.