Smashing Spotlight: Jessica Barnes, Creative Director

Wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Jessica Barnes, Creative Director, to talk shop, why she is SI’s resident expert on all things cute and youth-focused, and how daydreaming, de-focusing and calming your mind can be your greatest source of creative inspiration.

As Creative Director, what are the overarching themes of your job?

I’m a maker of course, but a big part of my making is facilitating other people in that role too. As Creative Director I’m also a mentor, a leader, and partner, so there are a variety of hats I wear.

Ultimately, it’s my job to have answers. Not because I’m smarter than anyone else but because I spend the most time thinking about the end product. It falls to me to be the one with the big picture in mind. I’m the one who has to keep the big picture in my sights, so to some degree I am here to set the course and to navigate, think strategically and have a point of view. I have to be able to see past the roadblocks that are put infront of us at any given moment in order to stay on course and realize our vision.

Being a good listener and asking the right questions at the right times might be one of the most important parts to my job. I practice the habit of active listening, especially when I need to clarify and implement feedback.

And with this job — as with any creative job, really — it’s important to have a sense of humor and lightheartedness, and to stay curious…something I’m quick to remind myself of when I find myself getting overly serious.

Where does your creative inspiration come from?

To be honest, I don’t always know where my inspiration comes from. But I do know the headspace I need to be in for it to strike. My best ideas come to me when I’ve got a calm mind that’s not trying too hard. I have to allow myself time to daydream, to drift off and de-focus now and then.

Taking mindful walks is also a useful method for me. If I’m at work and I’m feeling stuck I’ll leave my desk and go for a 20–30 minute walk. Sometimes I employ this practice regardless, because I’ve learned that ideas come to me when I’m out walking. I carry a little sketchbook with me so I can quickly sketch or write down my thoughts as they occur to me.

Of course I have also learned that it doesn’t always work to go looking for inspiration. Sometimes I need to be patient and wait for it to come to me, or at least to meet it half way. For example, I was recently looking at my dog’s nubby rubber-ball toy and that sparked an idea for a new character design I’m working on. That little spark of inspiration led me down a whole new path to explore. It goes to show how an idea can seemingly come from nowhere, and it doesn’t always have to make sense at first.

Ultimately, good old-fashioned research will trigger good ideas. When I set out looking for inspiration I just do my homework. I look at the market space or the topic at hand and learn everything I can about it.

What piece of technology that you use on a daily basis can’t you live without?

My pet iPhone.

We released one of the first, and quite possibly the cutest, apps for Apple TV via the new tvOS operating system. Flurry, the weather monster that brings you the day’s weather, was in large part your brainchild. How did you go about creating such a lovable character?

First I should point out that Flurry is the brainchild of Jason Medisky and myself. Jason is our resident animator, technical artist, motion designer and often my partner in crime when it comes to making these types of experiences. We are the team known for harnessing the power of cute!

Typically I’ll have a pretty clear construct for who or what I think the character needs to be and I’ll write that up as a first step. But with Furcaster I wanted to dive right into sketching. It felt right to let the sketch exploration shape the story for who the character could be and I wanted the canvas to be as blank as possible for both Jason and I. With ourselves as the client in this case, and because the principle idea of the Furcaster app is pretty basic, there was room to take a looser approach at the outset.

We worked on sketching ideas for the character separately and made a point of not sharing until we met to go over them with the team. This allowed us to loosely develop a lot of ideas. From there we narrowed it down to about three character types that we liked. We ended up kind of Frankenstein-ing parts of our sketches together. That might sound weird but Jason and I have pretty similar tastes, so the critters we came up with all felt like they could come from the same universe. There was some great overlap between our work and that helped us narrow the choices down. The idea of a furry monster friend emerged as our favorite. From there Jason took the lead on finalizing the character design. Also, I took a step back to write up Flurry’s dossier and then Jason brought Flurry to life through his animation.

Creative Directors are known to have incredibly interesting hobbies and side-projects. Care to share any of yours with us?

Photography. I’m always taking pictures. My primary subjects are my two chihuahuas, Pickles and Dee Dee. They are an endless source of amusement for me. I also enjoy creating hand-stitched plush toys in felt. I’ve made a lot of funny animal plushy creations over the years. I like to draw and paint too; subject matter is pretty much the same as my plushy creations — more whimsically cute creatures. If you are familiar with my professional work you will see a theme emerging here. 😛

What is the creative process like when you create original characters? Do you have partners, like illustrators and developers that help bring the character to life and give it a distinct personality?

For the type of work we do it definitely takes a team to develop a character from scratch. In the past I’ve worked with illustrators, 3D modelers, riggers, animators and developers. My contribution in the early phase will be sketches, defining the DNA of the character and story development. These are the things I’m good at, but I know when it’s time to hand things off to the makers that have the skills to really bring a character to life. I continue to work with them throughout the process of development, offering my input and direction until we’ve got the character right.

When we set out to develop a new character it’s always with a specified intention. We’re creating impactful, meaningful experiences that connect with kids on a personal level and we want them to be amazed and motivated by the experience so they can learn from it. An engaging character interaction is one of the best tools for achieving this. A character that can act as the host or guide brings a feeling of friendship and fun that fosters a trusting bond in kids.

In the early stages of development I will explore different story ideas for the character. Once we’ve narrowed the concept down I will write a little bio for the character, defining its traits and personality, and set rules that may be needed for the character design based on the motivational and learning goals of the experience we are making.

When it is clear that we have a winning character and concept we move on to testing iterations of the character design with kids. Kids provide valuable feedback; their input and ideas helps shape and hone our direction. Throughout the process we continue to put the experience through different stages of testing and refinement of what we have until we have it right.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on thus far in your career?

That’s a tough question. I’ve been lucky enough to work on many wonderful projects over the years. The one that stands out the most for me is also the one that I can’t really talk about because we are under a very strict NDA with the client. But I can say it’s pretty amazing even by Smashing Ideas’ standards. We developed an original character and game that connects with a real world product. It uses Motivational UX™ within the experience to teach kids healthy habits that will benefit them for life. So cool! It’s been out in the market for a while now and it is extremely rewarding to see it doing so well.

What is your dream project?

I’d love it to be another original content piece. It would be something that helps kids, something that’s meaningful and makes their lives better. That’s what is important to me. Also, it would be really fun to work with VR (virtual reality). I know that’s the industry buzzword right now, but I’m really excited about the opportunities it presents, especially when it comes to potential learning experiences.

You have an innate talent for creating work that strongly resonates with kids. Are you a kid at heart that lives in a world of whimsy and wonder? Essentially, how do you tap into creating digital experiences that have such success in the kids market?

I’m definitely a kid at heart. I’ve always been good at making things that are imaginative, cute, playful, and silly. That’s what led me to the kids market. I’ve been working in this space for a long time. What’s different now from when I started out is the breadth of knowledge that’s been gained. I’m now better equipped in my understanding of children’s developmental skill levels and I am able to understand how they think and what their motivations are. This helps me build even better experiences for them today.

And last, but certainly not least, if you were to have a movie made of your life, what would the title be and who would play you?

Movie title: Little Miss Sunshine

Actress: Bette Davis (but the older Bette, from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane era)


Originally published at smashingideas.com on February 22, 2016.

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