Each Creativity Case Study is an intimate look into a personal, creative world. These longitudinal conversations explore lowercase art -- the ways individuals create private meaning -- and the way lowercase art weaves threads through our lives.
This is the first conversation in the Creativity Case Study with Naomi Niles. I'll check in with her again in a couple of times at 6 to 8 month intervals for follow-up conversations.
Download the full conversation to listen to at your leisure (mp3 format, run time 1:17:28), or continue reading for the spiffy-fied transcript with links and photos.
Hello, everyone! This conversation is part of the Creativity Case Study series. These conversations are intimate looks into personal creative worlds. Today I'm talking with Naomi Niles, Explorer and Creative Partner at ShiftFWD, a studio she shares with Koldo Barroso who is the Creative Director and also Naomi's husband. Hi, Naomi!
NN: Naomi: Hi, Andrea! (laughter) [Noted: Naomi's side of the conversation is shown throughout the transcript with NN]
I am so glad you're here today.
NN: I am, too. I am so excited. Thank you.
Jumping right in, I just want to orient our listeners a little bit. One of the things we're going to be talking about, and the point of these case studies, is really a focus on lowercase art. The way I describe lowercase art is that it's very personal. Uppercase art is probably what we do when we do creative work for a living. There's somebody on the other side of it; it's external. Lowercase art is more personal, where the audience doesn't necessarily matter. It's a little more playful. You do creative work for a living, so it's probably safe to assume that you identify as a creative person, right?
NN: I would say so. It's hard to say I'm a creative person without feeling a little awkward about it, but, I do creative work for a living so I guess I would be a creative person, yes.
It is common that people who self-identify as creative people to be reluctant to express that for whatever reason. I think that there's some pressure, like, you must be super creative then, not just: this is how I see the world. Has it always been the case that you identify as a creative person, even just to yourself?
NN: No, not at all. I would say when I was growing up I didn't think I had an artistic bone in my body at all. In school, I excelled mostly in science and psychology and subjects like that. I was in band for several years but that was pretty much the extent of what I would do. And I think I had this idea that a lot of people have, that to be creative you have to be born with that. My husband, Koldo, is creative by vocation. He started doing artwork when he was 4 years old. As soon as he could hold crayons in his hand he would be there, at it (laughter). He would be doing drawings and making things. He is a creative machine. And, I think I eased into it more later. A lot of it had to do with knowing him.
NN: When we got together, he use to work for a creative agency, graphic design, when he was a teenager. He kind of exposed me to that world and it's not something that I really considered. I mean, I had considered maybe the possibility of doing interior design or window merchandising, that kind of thing. But you know when you're still trying to figure out what to do with your life, you think, oh, that sounds fun, just thinking about different ideas? I didn't really think about it all that seriously. And then when I started working with him, we started working on a different business together which was a site that he started in 1999. It was a huge entertainment music portal. I joined him to do editorial things and to do marketing, and little by little I started working more on the site and I had to learn HTML and that type of thing. Through him, I started thinking that maybe there was a possibility that I could work on creative things myself, that I could give myself permission to do that. I remember that there was one day when he was doing something else in the other room and I was like, I'm going to try and do a design and see how it goes, sneaky and secret (laughter). You know when you first get into that, you're so scared to show anyone because what if they say it's just awful, go do something else because you don't have any kind of talent at all. I spent a few hours on that and he came back and said, you know, this isn't bad. You have a natural talent for this. Why don't you work on it more. He wasn't like, this is wonderful and this is so good, because he told me, you need to work on this obviously but now that you have it, you can start with it. I think for me, everything lit up. I finally had the permission I was looking for. For a long time, I would get up every morning just so excited to work on that and get good at it, and study. For me, I think it wasn't natural, but I came into it. And when I came into it, I dived in (laughing).
So your creative awakening was more of a gradual thing?
NN: Yeah, I think it was gradual because I always had it in the back of my mind. I had propensity for it, I just needed a spark to light it if that makes sense.
It totally does. I'm always very interested in creative awakening stories because for me, personally, it was very late. Well, it wasn't very late, but I was an adult before I really thought, hey, I could actually do something creative on my own that's not just crafts.
NN: Right. I think when you're young, also, and you don't have that kind of support from your parents...I think that a lot of times doing something creative is a lot about exposure, and if you don't have exposure to certain things it's hard to know if you like it or if you have a propensity for it. I grew up in a really small town and there was no way...I don't even know if they know what graphic design is or what web design is (laughter). I was always lucky that I had a multimedia class when I was 17 and they taught us things like Photoshop and how to do business cards and things like that, but it was more from the point of view if you wanted to do secretarial work rather than doing graphic design. It just never occurred to me that people made a living that way.
I also grew up in a small town, and I didn't know anybody who did visual creative work for a living, but I did know a lot of people who worked with their hands. So for me there's always been that connection between seeing creativity and art as a sort of resourcefulness and being engaged with your hands and eyes. I didn't really make that connection until I was an adult.
NN: I think that kind of goes back to the idea of permission and identifying as a creative person, and having a hard time describing yourself that way because I think we have in our minds the idea of a creative person has to be a fine artist, someone who does paintings or sculptures. I think a lot of people don't realize that creativity comes in so many different formats. You can be creative working with your hands. You can be creative even in science or in math, there's so many different ways to be creative. I think that's the main struggle I have with calling myself creative because the term is so loaded, right?
Right. Yes! And you can even be creative in your kitchen. Sometimes, the whole process of preparing a meal and putting it together, that might be the most creative thing you do in a day.
NN: Oh, yeah. My husband Koldo is from the Basque country in Spain and they have a really big culture of cooking there. They have some top chefs, and now they're doing all these experimental, new types of cuisine. They have a big culture where the men do a lot of the cooking, and they have these things called txokos (pronounced cho-kos) where they have little clubs of men where they rent a kitchen and all cook things together. He grew up with that tradition. He didn't grow up with the tradition that the mother is the only one that cooks. He grew up in the tradition where it's the man that cooks. Not that the woman doesn't cook, also, but it's more open. He loves cooking, he adores cooking. He's so creative. It's astonishing what he comes up with. His cooking is amazing, just amazing. I'm not saying so because I'm married to him (laughter), but people are always saying, you need to open a restaurant, or, you're like a chef. He doesn't want to do that. He says just wants to cook for people he loves. But it's as you say, another form of being creative, figuring out how to mix things, how to do things with love. There's lots of different ways to do that.
One of the reasons I really wanted to do this series, especially with the focus on lowercase art and this is why so much of my work focuses on lowercase art, is that whole loaded perception of the word artist, or creative, where we sometimes intimidate ourselves into thinking it's not art unless it's hanging in a museum somewhere, in this clean quiet space where somebody has to pay, or there's a barrier to entry. I'm inspired by that, but I'm also not interested in that type of work for my everyday inspiration.
NN: I think it can be really off-putting. I understand why a lot of people think it's... pretentious, maybe, is the word for it. But I also think it's important to have that as a reference, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to do that, too, right?
Right. So, you and Koldo have been creative partners for how many years?
NN: We have been...let's see...I'm doing calculations...I think we're coming up on almost 13 years.
And a couple for just as long or longer?
NN: Just as long, more or less (laughing). We actually met on the internet, through the website I was telling you about earlier, his music entertainment site. We met through that because I was a big fan of his website and we just started talking and talking. We got to the point where we just identified with each other so much that we would talk with each other 9 hours a day. I don't know how we managed to do it because he was working like crazy and I was in the university so I think we both slept maybe 3 hours a night, something like that. It was just this necessity to talk to each other because we just clicked so much. And then I decided to move to Spain to work with him and to give it a go, and I ended up staying, and here we are (laughter).
I am so glad that the Internet came along. I think people in small towns everywhere...I mean I think we're all grateful, but I think people in small towns are especially grateful for the Internet because it connects us to people and ideas that otherwise, we would have never discovered.
NN: Oh, definitely And I think it's so much easier to connect with people who share the same values you do, or have similar personalities or have the same kind of beliefs. I'm not the type of person where I try to be exclusive of others, but on the other hand, I like to be inclusive (laughter).
We were talking before the call about how we're both introverted. Even when we try to be inclusive, there's the group of people where our energies are just super compatible and we can feel really, really comfortable. We have to cultivate that group as well.
NN: Definitely, definitely. I think for introverts, it's so important that we support each other because it's harder for us to put ourselves out into the world, especially when you're getting into the subject of creativity and sharing what we do with the world. That can be so hard for an introvert. It can just be terrifying.
NN: (laughing) So I think it's really important that we stay tight and support each other, too.
When I realized lowercase art was really important to me, it was because, in part, of the self-intimidation ... I don't want to say sabotage because I think that's too harsh... but the ways we intimidate ourselves. One of the ways is we compare our in-process work to somebody else's finished work. And even if it's creative play, even if it's just something we're playing around with, someone takes an Instagram picture or posts a picture that's, oh, I did this beautiful thing, and you're like, well shit, now I suck (laughter)...
NN: Yeah, comparisonitis (laughing).
I definitely make an effort myself to try and share more in-process things, or share more experiments that didn't work out and really try to embrace that in my whole lowercase art concept.
NN: I love that because I think it's a way to desensitize. When you allow yourself to put stuff out that's unfinished or share something that you haven't refined or you're not totally happy with, I think you can use that to build up courage. Later when you have something that's really important to you, it doesn't seem so scary, right? I know that if you're hidden in a room somewhere and you're working for 6 months and haven't told anyone anything -- it's a big secret -- and then, you're like, I'm going to unleash it. I'm excited. And when you have everything built up and you put it out there, you set yourself up for a really big chance of being disappointed because you might not get the reaction that you hoped for. You haven't really prepared yourself for how to deal with different reactions, and I think that is really, really, really scary. That kind of thing can make people just not do it again. I think that's not good. [17:09]
I agree. One of the topics I have bookmarked that I really want to explore more is the idea of creative introversion and creative extroversion, and when we share things and when we don't. Especially with lowercase art, it's much more personal and private so you don't have to share it, but you also have to do it. You can't talk yourself out it, saying it's not even worth sitting down to doodle when it is.
NN: I think it can be hard to do that, too, because you can think, oh, this is a waste of time, I have more important things to do. I know for myself, I would pretty much save the best of myself for my client work and focus all of my energy there, 100% of my energy. At the end of the day, I would be totally spent. I wouldn't have any space left for me at all. I think probably in the last year and a half, or the last 2 years, I've really be making an effort to make things for me. I try to do something in the morning if I can, even if it's just shooting a photo or making a doodle, or writing a little bit some introspective thoughts in my notebook. I'm starting to realize the value of doing that because I think if you focus everything at work, it's really easy to get burned out.
NN: And that's bad (laughing).
I don't think anybody says, I wish I was more burned out (laughing).
NN: No, no one said that. Ever. (laughter)
One of my favorite books that has really helped me frame my idea of lowercase art, a book that's completely earmarked and annotated -- no one should ever borrow this book from me because it's practically destroyed -- it's The Everyday Work of Art by Eric Booth.
NN: Hmmm, I've haven't heard of that.
He talks about, and other people talk about this as well, but he talks about art as a dialogue in a couple of places in the book. It really got me to to thinking more about sharing the work and engaging in the work more often because if we don't, if we keep it all to ourselves, or even if we just keep it all in our head and never express it, it ends up being this inner monologue instead of a dialogue. We miss that feedback function in getting it out there and saying, ooh, this is what it looks like when I say it out loud, for example.
NN: I think also, for me personally, and it's the same thing for Koldo, we both have a hard time doing things in a vacuum. We're both the same way in that we don't like making things just for ourselves. We both see the value of not having to share everything, and sketching and doing little pieces of things, but we also see the value in connecting with other people and expression....I'm not religious, but other people have called it connecting with God or connecting with the universe, and we both kind of think that getting that energy from wherever it comes from, from the muse or the universe, and then keeping it inside...we don't feel happy with that. We need to connect with people and express something. I think that's a big thing for us. I know personally it's something I struggle with when I do stuff for myself. I need to have another person there for some reason.
I think that it helps. There's a momentum that comes from having another person involved, and I think also if it's someone you trust...and obviously Koldo would be someone you trust...there's also that vulnerability cushion.
NN: think we make a pretty good team, Koldo and I, because we kind of help guide each other. I wouldn't say we're critical at all, but we demand a lot from each other. If I have something that's not quite there, he tells me. He's like, that's not ready to share yet, you need to work on that more. Or sometimes he'll be like, you need to trash that, it's not saying what you want to say. He'll say, explain to me what you're trying to say here. I'll try to explain it, and he'll be like, no, that's not the impression you're giving, try something else. I think it helps a lot that we kind of help each other with that, but also that we're not too permissive. I think that's actually good. I know a lot of people who are sensitive and vulnerable with the stuff they do and if someone says anything small, it really makes them feel unmotivated. I think it's a skill you have to build to try to be able to get outside perspective and integrate it well and not take it badly.
Right, I think there's releasing the attachment after you make the piece or put it out there. It's done. I've released it from me now. Not, I've made this thing for you and this is the experience you're supposed to have, and this is how you're supposed to receive it, and this is the feedback I want you to give me. It's I just made it, I put it out there, and that's ok.
NN: That's how we are. When I'm making it, I'm connecting...when he starts drawing I don't even know how he does it so quickly. He says, I don't even know how it comes to me, it just comes from who knows where (laughing). He tells me sometimes he doesn't even feel like he's drawing, it's someone else drawing which is weird to me (laughter), but it's getting in the flow I guess. He's like, at this point, I'm putting it down. After that, it's not mine anymore. It's for other people. As soon as he puts it out, it's for other people. It's not for him anymore. I feel the same way about doing design work or things for clients. I'm not really working for myself. I'm trying to do the best job that I can, and it's very important to me that the work is good, but I let go at a certain point. It's not mine, it's theirs.
I like that you touched on the the aspect of creativity and spirituality, and how for some people, that's a very strong connection. There's something to that, there's something powerful about creative instinct, the muse, and whatever is going on there. I personally see it as an expression of truth. It's just another form of expression, so when it's personal, not necessarily work you do for a client where it's mediated by a structure -- you and the client have talked, this is the problem they're trying to solve -- when it's very personal work, it's a very personal truth, and I think sometimes it's hard to put it out there. And you don't always have to. Sometimes it's just for you. [25:37]
NN: I think that goes back to the vulnerability thing because if you have been working on something that's so personal, and your truth, it's hard to disengage from that or un-attach from that. It's like putting your soul to other people, you're putting yourself out there, and if they reject it, it's like they're rejecting you personally. That's really hard to do.
Yeah, it is. I've become more comfortable lately with keeping more work to myself and doing some of my more wild creative work just for me. Eventually it will make it's way into something that I share down the road. But right now I'm keeping it, just keeping it to myself for a bit.
NN: I think that's good (laughter). Sometimes you know when it's a time or place to share and that doesn't mean you ever have to share it. Did you see the story about the maid that was taking photographs for 40 years and she never shared them with anyone?
I have not read the whole thing, but I've heard about it. She took phenomenal photographs.
NN: Oh my god, what an amazing story. I heard about how they found all these boxes of all her undeveloped film. How did she take all these photographs for so many years and never share it with anyone? It's fascinating. I don't think I could do that. I'd be dying because when I get excited about something (laughter) I have to share (laughing). But it's fascinating. I was amazed when I read that. Her photographs are amazing, too. They're beautiful. Wow.
I think some of us treat our creative outlet, especially when we don't identify with being creative -- when it's this facet of ourselves that's kind of small, maybe, it's not a priority because we don't do creative work or the the people who know us don't see us as creative because they don't know us in that way -- I think maybe that was the case with her. I'm just projecting, but it could be that that was her special sanctuary. But I'm with you, I'm more enthusiastic, like, oh my gosh, look at this! (laughter)
NN: (laughing) Yeah, I've put out things I shouldn't because I'm so excited. They're not really ready yet, kind of half-baked still (laughter). I'm getting better about that though. Ok, give it a day, if you still feel the same way tomorrow then you can share it (laughter).
I wanted to talk about creative outlets. (pause) I get the feeling...I'm going to backtrack a little bit about how you popped on my radar...I knew of you online through various mutual connections, but you really popped onto my radar when you did the Kickstarter for Epokka.
NN: Ah, yeah.
It caught my attention because it was so accepting of the multi-creative personality, accepting of people who have a variety of creative outlets. It was this lovely way to indulge them without having to compromise or compartmentalize it too much. Tell us a little bit about the Epokka project.
NN: Basically, Koldo and I are both multi-creative. He likes to do different things. I do, too. He does artwork. He does the cooking. He's really good at planning things. He's good with events, doing montages. When we did the Kickstarter campaign for Epokka, he did the music for that, too. He's just the type of person where there's a hand in a lot of different things. I'm kind of the same way. I do design work. I also do some strategy work and user experience. I like shoes as a hobby. I do some bookbinding, I like to do a little photography. I think a lot of creative people are that way, and the main reason we really wanted to reinforce the concept of multi-creativity is because of the permission issue. It's really easy, in the world in the way it is today, we all think we have to specialize and we have to be top experts, we have to be the best in one thing. There are some of us, we just don't fit into that. I think in the case of both Koldo and I, we're both just really curious, and we both get bored easily. I wouldn't call either of us flaky because when we get on something we finish it. We start and we finish whatever we set out to do, but we're not the type of people where we can just have a profession and do the same thing every day. We need more stimulation than that.
NN: When we started to get this idea running and we started thinking about our own personalities and how important it was to us to have that kind of permission, and to help other people realize the permission they could have. We started thinking about the idea of working with notebooks, and we both use notebooks pretty extensively. Koldo uses a lot of the sketchpads, and I use different kinds of templates. I use dotted paper, I use lined paper, depending on the the type of work I'm doing. One day I could be doing a wireframe for a website, and I could be doing a layout for a book, and I could also be making my own personal notes. We started realizing it was a mess because we just had notebooks everywhere (laughter). When you normally have a notebook, you have lined paper and the whole notebook is lined paper. And you have dotted paper which is a little bit more versatile, but we started thinking about ways you could put everything together. It was a way to give yourself permission. We created a product where you could put the lined paper, the dotted paper, and blank paper all together so you could carry that with you. No matter what you were working on, you'd always have a space for it. If you're out in the grocery store and you get an idea for a blog post, you have a place to write that. Or, if in Koldo's case, he gets an idea for something he wants to draw, he can do a quick sketch. It was a was a way to reinforce that concept and give permission. There's something about having objects or having tools that helps give yourself permission. If you have a notebook there and you have space for all these things, it's like saying, ok, now you have a space for it. You have freedom. I'm giving you freedom, right? So that was the main concept with that.
I like that it also creates a system for your creativity. We have to set ourselves up for it, the same way if you want to run everyday, they say the best thing you can do is put your running shoes by the door and be prepared to go running every day. I think creativity is the same way. This helps you be prepared to indulge and not make it such a hassle, to not have the friction of having to get the stuff out, or I need to this, or I need to do that, and now that I have myself all set up I don't have the energy anymore. Or the muse has gone back to sleep (laughing).
NN: (laughing) Definitely. If you get into the habit of looking for things that inspire you, or keeping your mind open to ideas, I think they come more easily. It's like this thing with the muse. She sees you and she's like, this person is ready, I'm going to give my goods to them (laughter). If you have to go through all the work to set up all the things...lots of people are like, I have to have to have my space just right so I can work...and I think rituals are good. But for me, they don't work so well because I need spontaneity. If I have an idea in the shower, I need a place to put it. It doesn't necessarily mean that I have to use that idea right at the moment, but I just think that writing it down on paper helps make it more real and helps solidify it in my brain.
NN: I used to use the computer for everything, for making to do lists, for sketching, for doing all the wireframes for websites. I would pretty much use the computer for everything. In the past few years I've been moving more to paper, and it's mainly for that reason. It just solidifies things for me and it's more fluid. It's easier for me to go through the creative process if I do the first part of it on paper. You have more permission to make mistakes. You have an eraser. You can do a quick sketch and it doesn't have to be beautiful. It can be awful (laughter).
And it's ok because you can just start another one.
NN: Right. I don't know if it happens to you, but if I'm in Photoshop or some other program like that, I start getting too much into details. Like, I need to shift everything over by one pixel, or this has to be here (laughter), and this has to be over there. It's a big waste of time and it short circuits the creativity, because I'm not letting myself have a little bit more freedom with it. If I'm on paper and I'm doing the same thing...when I do wireframe for websites, I'm super sloppy. It's such a mess. It's awful.
I love that!
NN: It's the type of thing I don't show anybody. I've had some photos where I redo the original. I don't show clients the very first one (laughter) because it's awful, it's so bad. I take photos of what I've redone, or lots of times, I'll redo the wireframes in a computer program. Gosh, they're awful. But it's mainly because I'm trying to get it out of my head and onto paper as quick as possible. That goes back into the idea of having a notebook around and give yourself permission to accept the ideas when they come.
That's exactly one of the things I like to talk about, and I'll share that whenever I'm laying out a page or doing something new on my website, or I decide I want to change the design, I have the ugly legal pads of yellow marker and a Sharpie marker all the time. That's the place where I work it out and then I go to Photoshop to change the colors or play around with it. Everything I do starts with a legal pad and a Sharpie marker (laughing).
NN: Perfect! (laughing) I think that's perfect, actually. That's great.
I wanted to dive into this whole idea of on paper versus on the computer a little bit more. What percent of your creative activities, would you say, are digital versus...let's call it handcraft?
NN: osh. Well, since the majority of my day is for clients, I would say I spend more time on the computer than I do on paper, mainly because I have to (laughing). If I'm doing some sort of design for a client, that's the format it has to be in. But I will say that I do use paper a lot more than I used to. If I had to break it up into percentages, I would say 15% paper, 85% computer. If I had a way to use the computer less, I would do it. If it was possible, I'd be for it.
I gave up my laptop a few years ago in exchange for a desktop computer, so it means I do a lot more work on paper. Sometimes I miss it. I miss the convenience of being able to sit in front of the TV like a couch potato with my laptop, but it does force me to get much more efficient for the time I'm sitting at my desk, maybe not goofing around so much. And I think I get to play more because I'm on paper.
NN: Yeah, definitely. I know for me personally, basically since Koldo and I started working together, even when we started working on the entertainment site he had, we were 14 to 16 hours a day glued to the chairs for years and years. Probably, I didn't spend less than 12 hours on the computer for at least 10 years. Last year, I started getting a lot of problems with my back and I got a pinched nerve. I think it was my body telling me no. No more. We're just not going to do this anymore even if you want to, no. I would be in a lot of pain especially whenever I was on the computer. It started hurting me after we started Epokka which is kind of odd. I don't know, maybe it was a confirmation, my body telling me, you need to do more stuff off of the computer. You need to get out. You need to go around. I started thinking, what could I do so I'm not just sitting there all day? It's like what you were saying about how you're more conscious about how you're spending your time, now I'm into how fast I can get this stuff done and I'm not spending all day on Facebook or messing around. I'm there to work. I have the laptop and other things I like to do instead so I'm not there glued to the desktop all day.
I think that creativity in it's most fundamental form is this way of connecting what we feel with what we know, it kind of bridges that gap. One of the things I've really noticed in the last couple of years is the difference in my writing when I write by hand versus typing words at my computer. I did a lot of handwritten letters in the past year, and I would notice that I would pour these very emotional or personal things out onto paper that I would never type in an email to the same person.
NN: Mmmm, yes.
By hand, it's more intimate, more emotionally expressive. I think you also notice that as well.
NN: Oh, definitely. I think it goes back to the connecting with the universe or the muse or whatever. I don't if this is going to sound kind of woo woo (laughter), but I think when you work with your hands directly onto paper, for some reason the connection is a lot stronger and more forceful. I think something gets lost when you're on the computer. It just doesn't flow through the same way. I don't know exactly why or what the reason is. I know there's lots of theories about it in neuroscience about how your mind recalls things when you're on paper, or maybe it's that way for us because when we grew up...I don't think you probably worked on the computer all the time when you were a kid, did you?
NN: I don't know, maybe when we were growing up we were used to paper, and that way is just more fluid for us.
I wonder about that, and I actually worry a little bit about the generations of people who have grown up completely in a digital world, where everything is mediated by some form of technology. When the power goes out, it's like, what do we do? I have no idea. I think that's also part of the reason why I'm doing the Art Improv workshops -- come get paint on your hands and make a mess.
NN: I think there's some kind of primitive aspect there, too. As humans, we've worked with tools for thousands and thousands of years. Koldo told me the other day that he had heard that a lot of the cave paintings were actually drawn by women, that they've discovered recently that they were done by women, so you see these ancient cave paintings where we've been taught they were all men were actually women. I think it's fascinating because it kind of changes the concept of the women just being the gatherer and tending to the home. The women also had the need for creative expression. I think there's something primitive about it, in using our hands. There's something in our genes that tells us that's how we express things.
I noticed on the materials you sent in preparation for this conversation, that for for your honeymoon, you and Koldo went on a tour of prehistoric cave paintings.
NN: We did! (laughter) We did, yeah. It was amazing because we got married in February, and it was snowing that day. We were in Spain and it's so rare for it to be snowing. It was kind of magical between the snow and then going to look at cave paintings (laughter). It's the type of thing where it's something we'll always remember. We didn't have a big party, we didn't spend lots of money or do lots of planning. It was kind of spontaneous decision and something we remember as being special for us.
I have to imagine that there's something, I'm not sure of the right word to use so I'm going to say spiritual because I think it's the most appropriate, of going in and seeing these prehistoric cave paintings, and seeing handprints or whatever from people from so long ago, and identifying with them and how they expressed themselves, and now I'm here and now I get to see it.
NN: Oh yeah. Definitely. It's kind of surreal. It's so hard to even imagine that someone created that so long ago. But it is spiritual because you have a connection with them, and it's like a connection with them and it's a connection with your ancestors, with the past, and that's amazing. I think also it's a little bit different between the US and Europe. In Europe we're used to things being a little more ancient, and of course we have the Native Americans and they have their ancient traditions, but I think we miss a lot of that kind of thing here in the US. I remember there's an ancient Egyptian temple in the middle of Madrid in Spain. They carried it over there. It never occurred to me that unless I go to Egypt, that I could be there and see all the hieroglyphics -
NN: - yeah, and imagine those people in there, creating that. It's insane. I don't know how else to explain it. We see stuff here and it's a few hundred years and we're like, wow that's old. And then you see something that's thousands and thousands of years old, you're like, whoa.
In some case cases that the geography and the land is different than what it is now.
NN: eah, Definitely.
I want to go back to the notebooks just a little bit. I really love the value for that kind of handwritten, unstructured, multilayered creativity. If I were to ask you if it would be ok to show a recent page from your notebook, what would we be seeing? What's in your notebook right now? [48:37]
NN: I can tell you because I'm going to open it (laughter). Sketches of, let's see what I have here, sketches of our idea for our studio that we're working on, restructuring and redecorating. To do lists. Lots of ideas for blog posts, for things I want to talk about different kinds of subjects, random thoughts. Wireframes for clients. Book layouts. (laughter). It's a major mix. I have different tabs for different things. We have our Epokka planners, too, but you can find pretty much everything, I think.
All in one spot.
You talked about, in some of the materials you shared before the talk, Epokka was described as a side project to focus on creativity and introspection. Tell more more about the introspection aspect and why that became important.
NN: Oh yeah. It was what you were talking about, how you're kind of worried about the new generations and how they're just so connected digitally. That concerns me, too. I think with all the multitasking and all of the information, we don't take enough time for ourselves. We don't take enough time to figure out what our values our, what our goals are and what we really want. I know for introverts it's easier to do that because we kind of live in our heads a little bit more naturally. But, I know for me if I get overwhelmed...I have a big propensity getting too much information and getting overwhelmed because I'm very curious (laughter). I'll be there going through stuff like crazy and my head will be huge, filled with information. It's important for me to take time for that introspection, just to check in with myself and make sure that things are going in the direction I want. I think what happens if you don't take that time for yourself to really figure out what you need and what your values are, it's easy to just get pulled in a different direction by external forces. Then, 10 years from now, you're like, how did I get here? That happens to a lot of people. Going back to the thing with the notebook, I think working on paper, with notebooks, the reason why we worked on them and we created them is because it's a way to reconnect with yourself and create a small ritual where you're like, this space is for me; this is my time, and this is what I'm doing at this moment. You're not opening tabs on your computer. You're not distracted by one thing or another. We've been developing a process for the last few years to work with clients...we're calling it branding although it's a lot deeper than that. It has a lot to do with the culture of their business, also visual things, and their story, and how everything ties together. We have discovery cards and there are questions we've been developing for a few years. Basically with the discovery card, it's the same thing. We actually print them out and send them by mail because we actually want them to have that introspective time. We have them fill them out with a pen. Sometimes for a lot of people they're not used that because they're so used to being on the computer, and they have the urge to just type it out in Google docs. We're like, no, no, you have to (laughter) write on the card just because it changes your answers. It's like you were saying before when you write letters. What we're looking for with that is the feeling, what they're feeling, because that's what we want to bring out. We want to bring out more emotional aspects and dive in as deeply as possible. Digitally it just doesn't work so well. I don't know why, but it just doesn't work so well. [53:41]
Every time we open a Google doc, or even an email, it’s hard to turn off the brain, the editing part of the brain. You see the sentence, and its like, no, that doesn’t sound polished enough, or it doesn’t sound whatever enough. At least for me, personally, if I’m writing by hand on a piece of paper, I can write two words to bookmark this great big thought and I’ll get it. I can’t really do that in a digital medium.
NN: I think that’s a good point, too. That’s happened to me, too. You start editing before giving yourself permission to express what it is you want to express in a messy form. It’s like what we’re doing with the cards: we’re trying to help people and give them that permission. They’re like, my handwriting isn’t good. They have to send it back to us so we can analyze it and take in all the information, so it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry. It’s fine. We just want the truth. We just want what comes to you, right?
Right. Handwriting is such a fascinating topic for me. I noticed for myself, for many many years, I would print in all caps. I think that was partially driven by my engineering training. Everything was written in all caps. It was just efficient, and everything had to be efficient and readable. When I started really embracing my more creative side, and getting more fluid I guess, my handwriting came back. It just felt more natural to write longhand, to write in cursive. Now I can’t go back.
NN: That’s fascinating because it’s hard to change your handwriting style. That’s something that’s hard to change from when you were a kid. I’m kind of fascinated that that happened for you.
I am, too. I think I always wanted to, and I just maybe denied that impulse. I don’t know.
NN: Wow. I think I’ve always done cursive. I think I’m the opposite. I can write in print but I’m so slow, and I make a lot of mistakes. So I just do everything in cursive and my handwriting is just really, really awful (laughter). Well, I can make it better if someone else has to read it, but sometimes I see it and I can’t even read it. What was I writing here?
It does make us slow down, and I think that’s one of the things I love about handwritten letters. The handwriting does make you slow down — is that an ‘l’ or a ‘w’, what’s going on there? And you start tracing the word. If I was writing this word, what would that letter be? You get more engaged. Maybe it’s the little imperfections or the things that trip you up that say hey, notice, look what’s going on (laughing).
NN: I don’t think that handwriting analysis is 100% accurate. I don’t know how accurate it is or not, but I do think that looking at someone’s handwriting, you can see certain things about them. If you have someone that’s really, really orderly and doesn’t have any mistakes anywhere, then ok, this is a methodical person (laughter).
I love getting to know somebody on the Internet or wherever, where we’ve talked by email or we’ve connected somewhere online and then at some point, because this is what I do, we exchange handwritten letters. When I first open their envelope and I get to see their handwriting for the first time, it is like the most wonderful thing. It’s one more thing I know about this person.
NN: I miss having pen pals and writing letters. We send out letters pretty often to clients and to family, but I really do miss that. I miss getting more letters in person. Getting a nice email from someone that you care about isn’t a bad thing at all, of course, but seeing the person’s handwriting makes you feel more connected with them.
Definitely. So, talking about connection and noticing...there’s a quote...and I’m not going to share the quote because I didn’t put it in my notes and I would give the wrong quote. I don’t want to do that. But there’s something about how our creative outlets give us a prepared mind for certain observations. We kind of touched on this at the beginning of our conversation, about how you start noticing things, you get tuned in, and then you notice more. How would you say your creative activities, your outlets or whatever you’re playing with right now, influence your noticing? What’s something that you notice that other people don’t?
NN: Oh gosh (laughter). I can tell you, when I started doing design work, I looked at a lot of design. Like, a lot. Like crazy. Studying the masters and looking at a lot of websites and that kind of thing. There was a point when Koldo was like, you know, you should start looking at better things. I started kind of feeling that everything was the same. He said, why don’t look at other types of media and more magazines, and not look for design; look for other things that are interesting. I think that there’s a moment when you train your brain for accepting ideas and to look for things. You just see them everywhere. I don’t know if for me personally if I notice things that other people don’t notice, but I do know that lots of times I’ll be out for a walk and I’ll notice the particular color on a flower. I’ll say to Koldo, whoa, look at that flower. It’s so saturated. And then we laugh about how it’s impossible to do that on a computer because you can’t recreate that same kind of color on a computer, and it’s so amazing that this flower is so bright and beautiful. I know a lot of people joke about looking at menu designs and typography everywhere...it’s just the kind of thing where you start seeing the bits and pieces everywhere, or you see contrast between different colors, you see different ways things are put together, you start looking at the design of things. You start questioning, this coffee mug that I have where, why is it designed this way. Everything that you use that's made by man was designed by somebody, and that fascinates me. I start thinking, what was the thought process that this person had, or these specific people had when they made this thing? Then you start thinking, what could be better about this? You start thinking these kinds of things, thinking this way. I don’t think it’s just problem solving. I don’t know how to explain it. I think you start training your mind and you see things everywhere. Like, everywhere. (laughter) I probably drive people crazy because I’m commenting all the time on everything. That over there, that’s a bad design (laughter), and the are like, gosh Naomi, stop, stop! And Koldo is the same way with ideas. He’s an idea machine generator. It will be two o’clock in the morning and he’ll have an idea. I’ll be like, oh my goodness...(laughter). At least for us, once you start you just can’t turn it off (laughing).
Are there observations, particular types of observations about the world that you collect? Even if just mentally?
NN: I don’t know a good way to answer that. When you say collect, do you mean like inspiration?
It could be inspiration. There are people who just notice typography, for example. Their mind is trained, it’s always primed. They catalog it somehow in their mind. Or, there are writers who see interesting people out in public and so they write descriptions of these people and keep files and files of that. Or people who notice colors. Or is it just a general openness?
NN: I think for me it’s a general openness, although I have to say if I’m working on a particular thing, I see it more often. I think it’s like what you look for, you find. So if I'm working on a project for a client, or we’re working on something for ourselves where we’re redecorating...we’re redecorating our studio and we’re thinking about designing some fabrics for the windows...and there’ll be a period where I’ll see fabric everywhere, and patterns, because my mind is a little more open for that. So that definitely happens, although I don’t think it’s one particular thing all the time. I think it’s just what we’re focused on at the moment. [1:04:48]
I had allocated maybe about 40ish or 50is minutes and we’re running right up against that, but there are a couple more things I want to cover if you’re ok with that.
NN: Great! Cool! (laughter) I’m ok with that. I’m enjoying this!
I am, too! I don’t want to stop, I want to keep going (laughter). What’s something you’ve discovered so far through your creativity, or something you’ve been surprised by that’s come out on the page or in a work?
NN: osh, it sounds crazy to say this because I’ve been doing design work for 12 years, but I still get surprised when things come out well. (laughter) When I make something good, every time it amazes me, like, wow, how did I do this? You know a lot of people are very hard on their work and I don’t think I’m really so much that way, but maybe later I’ll see something I did a few years ago and think, that’s awful. But when I create something and it comes out and comes together, and it’s good, I’m amazed by that. (laughter) Where did it come from? I don’t know how to explain it, but I still don’t have the idea that...I don’t want to say I’m not a professional because I am, and this is what I do for a living, but something about the process of creation is just magical to me. It always is. The things that come together, even collaborating with other people. When Koldo and I discuss together or when we do stuff with clients, and the journey sometimes really hard or there’s lots of obstacles...it’s not like it has to be hard but lots of times it is...and then you see the result. It always feels like magic to me. Always.
I love that! (laughing) And because you do creative work, and you not only live with someone else who does creative work but that person is also your creative partner, in this saturated environment of creativity, would you say that it’s hard to carve out time for personal lowercase art, or something for you to explore on your own? Or do you let that be more integrated? Does that make any sense?
NN: Yeah, that makes sense. I think it is hard for me. I’ll personally say that it is hard because we’re doing so much the rest of the day, either a project for us or for clients. There are certain things I work on every once in a while for myself. I don’t know if I would call them hobbies but they’re kind of an outlet for me. Like, bookbinding. I really enjoy that because I like the space it creates so I can work with my hands. A little bit photography. I’m not very good about photography but I’m working on it. I feel that’s kind of a personal space for me, too.
I like that you can admit...I may not be very good at it but I’m still working on it. Or, I’m still trying. There’s that willingness to show up, to say, I’m going to play a little bit more in this area.
NN: There’s always a gap, and you have to be conscious about the fact that you’re not there yet, that you’re not where you want to be yet and you have to work to get there. I feel that way with photography. I look at it quite a bit from other people and I’m like, that’s amazing. How did they do that? And then you can start getting into...maybe it’s because they have better equipment, or maybe this or that. It really has nothing to do with that. It just means you need more time to be a bit further along in your journey. I’ve had people say to me, you’re such a better designer than I am and I’ll never be as good as you. Do you know how my work was when I started? Are you kidding me? (laughter) We’re all in different parts of the journey. You’re probably much better than I am at something else. We don’t all have to be at the same level. That would be boring.
It would. I don’t think we’d have a creative muse if that were the case. Why bother?
You had talked about how much time you spend, or how you became conscious about the amount of time you spent sitting at the computer and the back problems, and oh, I can relate to that. But I also notice, because I stalk you on Instagram (laughing), you have this fantastic outdoor office...
NN: Oh, yeah! We call it our magic gazebo.
That’s so awesome!
NN: Yeah. Basically, what we did is we got a pop-up gazebo. We have a little space in our backyard. We wanted to have a space where we could get away because a lot of people who work from home, they have this type of thing where they can’t escape their work or they end up taking it everywhere. It kind of creates an area where we feel a little bit more open. We go out there and we do our work, and we actually spend a good part of our weekend out there. We have lights, and we’re going to get the little windows covered, and we’re going to do a little bit of decoration. It’s a joyful place. It’s for play. It’s for fun. It’s for ideation, coming up with plans. It’s not for formal, final work. It’s for creation I guess you could say. It’s just for that. We take out our laptops, our tablets, and we have internet connection and all that, but something about it being disconnected from the house opens up a new space. We see the squirrels running by and we give them peanuts, and every once in a while we have a deer that comes to visit us.
It’s amazing how much environment can influence our...I don’t know...our thinking, our creativity, our approach.
NN: It is. It really is. What I was saying before about rituals, I don’t have to have rituals in order to be able to work. I think I can do work in a lot of different circumstances, but definitely, I’m understanding the last few years that there’s a big, big value in having a space that’s more open and less formal. I think having your little place for that kind of thing, and it doesn’t have to be in your house if you have a cafe you go to, or you like to go sit by the ocean or go for a walk, I think there’s lots of ways to create that kind of space.
Yeah. The magic gazebo. I love it. I really do. (laughter) One of the things I do in my Art Improv workshops is at the end of the workshop, I sit with the participants and ask them to craft a Creative Promise, which is really just a reminder or a mantra to yourself. It’s something you would look at, or a phrase you could look at, that reminds you of the importance of your lowercase art, or your personal creativity, or that type of explorative play. If you were going to write yourself a reminder to have that space for yourself, what would it be?
NN: That’s a good question. Actually, it’s pretty easy for me to answer because I kind of have one (laughter). I would say it is...find the love. It sounds gushy and all that kind of thing, but I think no matter what you do, if you look for the love, and you look for the joy behind it, it helps to guide you. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing your lowercase art, if you’re doing something informally for yourself or you’re doing something for others, if you look for the love and you look for the joy in everything, I think you find your way.
Yeah. I really like that. Another thing we do is I do these introductions, and I like to do something different than the tell-me-who-you-are-and-where-you’re-from introduction. I ask people to start out, by example, saying, I am Andrea and I am like a blank canvas. Or whatever. So if you were to day, I am Naomi and I am like, blank, what would that be? It doesn’t have to make any sense. It could be whatever.
NN: It’s kind of repetitive but I would go back to love. I think love is the foundation for everything. It’s what roots everything together, and I think we all are.
So you are like love?
So if we take the distance out of it and instant of saying I am like this, I am this, would that change your answer?
NN: Actually, instead of saying I am like love, I would just say, I am love. It’s like saying I am God if you’re religious, or I’m part of the universe. I’m me, whatever me is.
Very nice. Is there anything you’d like to share about something you’re working on that we should know about?
NN: Yeah! I think I mentioned before, we’re in the process of developing this brand discovery service, and we’re hoping to launch that within the next month. I don’t have a good place to send people for information but I’d like to mention that. We’re working on it and it will be up soon, and it’s something that people will really get a lot of value from. We’re so excited to get that out and start sharing it very soon with everyone.
And this would be through ShiftFWD?
Alright. It has been lovely talking to you today. Is there anything else before we wrap up that you would want to say, or anything you would want to ask that we didn’t get to?
NN: Gosh, I don’t think so. It’s just been so much fun. Thank you. It’s been a real joy. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you, and I hope other people enjoy it, too.
It has been a pleasure for me, and I like how these conversations end up being more fluid and we can just cover whatever ground comes up, and just go with it.
NN: Yeah, I love it!
Me, too. Enjoy the rest of your day and thank you for being part of the case studies.
NN: Thank you!