Croissants, Coffee, and Creativity
Inside Seattle CreativeMornings with Microsoft Design’s David Conrad
After a recent CreativeMornings event I met David Conrad who has organized CreativeMornings in Seattle since the chapter launched in 2011. We caught up later in Building 17 on the Microsoft campus where he leads a UX design team. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
David Betz: How did you first get involved in CreativeMornings?
David Conrad: CreativeMornings was started about 10 years ago in New York by a woman named Tina Roth-Eisenberg, who was a friend of mine. I was having dinner at her house one night way before there were CreativeMornings anywhere outside of New York. I mentioned that I would love to host CreativeMornings in Seattle if she ever wanted to expand. At that time she was getting tons of requests for just that kind of thing. Anyway, maybe four years later, they got around to expanding to Seattle, so she gave me a call and asked if I would do it. I jumped at the chance.
DB: There was a lot happening just one decade ago: Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone; the first Startup Weekend; Ignite talks turned one; CreativeMornings was just launching. What was going on at that time that yielded so many of these enduring creative developments?
CONRAD: In retrospect CreativeMornings started to happen at a very serendipitous time. There was a lot of growth in the creative professions, along with mobile computing and apps and all those internet startup kinds of things. The timing was really good because (this was still pre-econmic meltdown) there was a flood of people coming into the space looking for community or a way to connect with one another. CreativeMornings was started with that concept in mind; it was about connecting people and facilitating that community for anybody that wanted to come — no membership required, no costs associated with it, you just came and enjoyed it — in the hope that the community would start to take hold.
For our part here in Seattle we’ve really focused on being consistent with it. It’s the second Friday of every month — without fail. The key ingredients are the same every time in that there’s a breakfast, some coffee, a speaker, and some Q&A. We believe we have to be consistent in order for the community to really engage with us, and for us to be able to really grow and facilitate that community.
We think about programming in a specific way as well, by trying to find speakers that reside in the space somewhere between a TEDTalk and an AIGA talk.
Our talks don’t get too specialized partly because that’s being covered by industry groups, and because we don’t want to exclude people by going deep on certain kinds of things. At the same time we don’t want to be too general, recognizing that this is a chunk of time we’re taking out of people’s lives; we want to make sure it’s relevant for them. Trying to find speakers that reside in that in-between space has been helpful for us in finding a good base in the community.
DB: Can you describe the community both locally and globally?
CONRAD: We’re now at 175 chapters worldwide. The timing and format of the events tends to draw people who are freelance entrepreneurs and independent types, partly because it’s happening during the day. An interesting unintended by-product is that we attract a lot of people— organizers, volunteers, attendees— who are entrepreneurial in spirit. They’re hustlers. They love ideas and projects, so there are a lot of really interesting things that come out of that that we see in the community. That’s been a pretty common thread around the world. If you look at photos or videos of chapters in Spain or in Brazil, regardless of where you are, you see those kinds of themes popping up with similar types of people.
DB: What’s your favorite CreativeMornings talk?
CONRAD: There are two that have really jump out at me. Marc Barros, who was the co-founder of a company that was an early competitor to GoPro called Contour, gave a talk on finding success through failure. There’s this thing in culture where we try to celebrate failure. In reality we want to be celebrating learning—not failure. He was talking about this failure that he had in his business, that was very public, that was happening at a time when there was all this pressure to celebrate failure; it was all just very crippling. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel like it was a learning experience. It was painful like failure is supposed to be. He had to work really hard to come out of that, but he was able to do it, and it informed that direction in his life. There was a lot of vulnerability in the way he told his story.
Last fall, Amelia Bonow spoke on her organization called #ShoutYourAbortion got started, and what it’s like to try to be at the forefront of such a controversial subject now. This is the only event that I’ve hosted where I cried. It was a very sincere and thoughtful talk.
At neither of those talks did the speakers use slides or do a formal presentation. They just got up and told their story. I think that’s probably one of the key ingredients for a good talk, the ability and the willingness to get up and tell your story in a way that’s transparent enough that people can connect with it, but not so transparent that it gets awkward.
DB: What have you learned personally about creativity through your involvement with CreativeMornings?
CONRAD: At one of our early events one of our volunteers got to talking to an attendee who turned out to be an EMT. He drove an ambulance and he loved coming to CreativeMornings because it was a way that he could expose himself to how creativity gets used in lots of different ways, and how he tries to take that back to his day job. Obviously you don’t want an EMT getting too creative, but the point is that we have these labels around the “creative” profession and “creative professionals” and “You work in the creative arts.” There’s this notion that you’re either in, or you’re out. We see this time and time again. Every month we see attendees and speakers coming in that may or may not fit that mold and I think it’s good to have those boundaries challenged.
DB: On the “you’re either in or your out” notion, is there an opportunity to be more inclusive because you believe everybody has the capacity to be creative?
CONRAD: Yes, absolutely. That’s written into the mission statement for CreativeMornings. Everybody is creative and everybody is welcome to come and be a part of that. It’s easy for us to put that out there but the mechanics of what it takes to make everybody feel welcome in that space can be a real challenge — not only reaching those people and getting them to show up, but making sure that the experience is good for them. We all have our own unique things that preoccupy our minds and we want the events to be able to speak to people in a way that they can connect with.
I mention that not just because being fully inclusive is important, and it’s fundamental to CreativeMornings, but because we have a lot to learn about how we go about achieving that.
Now is probably the most important time ever to work on inclusion and community.
DB: So “This person is in a creative profession and therefore is creative and this person isn’t,” is a myth. Are there any other creative myths you have been able to bust?
CONRAD: Yes, I believe everybody has the capacity for creativity but nobody gets that for free. All these people that you see getting up on stage every month, telling their stories, they’re all putting in work, right? Creativity requires that of you. It’s not something that comes without effort.
I think that there’s this notion that you’re either creative, or you’re not, and those that are creative can just do it at any moment, on a whim, with no effort. In reality, everybody has put in work to get to that point where they can use that creativity and apply in practical ways, or they have developed ways to summon that creative focused response when the time comes.
If you look at anybody who has been able to find some level of success and recognition — whether that’s design or photography or literature or whatever — there’s a common thread in that they are invested in doing the work and being able to think about problems in a creative way.
DB: Are there any tips that you can share about how to transfer creativity or what you’ve learned from CreativeMornings into your day job— into your work life?
CONRAD: It’s important to be able to listen for the deeper meanings at a CreativeMornings event. When a speaker gets up and starts to talk about some specific event or moment in time, there’s something else going on there, and that “something else that’s going on” is what you can take away and do something with. It’s important to be able to extrapolate a bit and figure out how that translates into something that you can use in your day-to-day life. There’s a chance that you’re going to find somebody that’s coming and giving a talk who happens to be in your industry, but most of the time that’s not the case.
DB: What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever done in your life?
CONRAD: Well, I fished a model rocket out of a tree with a fishing pole the other day and I thought that was pretty creative!
My experience with creativity is one that’s been many small moments and very few large epiphanies. A sustainable creative life is probably one that achives and celebrates lots of little wins as opposed to a few large ones. I think it’s difficult to be creative in too grand of a manner. There are just so many facets that affect any kind of decision or action. I think it’s important that you temper your sense of exploration and wonder with a small dose of reality.
DB: Six years is a good run for any outside-of-work volunteer endeavor. Why have you stayed with CreativeMornings for so long?
CONRAD: Like most people that are attracted to CreativeMornings it has a lot to do with an interest in community. When I saw what Tina Roth-Eisenberg was building and the community that had come together; I felt I wanted to be a part of that phenomenon. I know that it’s difficult for communities to get built, especially when there are barriers to getting into that community. That was one of the things about CreativeMornings that gave me hope about it—that there were no barriers. As long as you knew when it was and where it was—and you showed up—you could be a part of that community.
DB: Like all CreativeMornings there’s time for reader Q&A: Please post them in the comments!