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 second conversation in the Creativity Case Study with Naomi Niles, explorer and creative partner at ShiftFWD, a studio she shares with her husband, Koldo Barroso. Miss our first conversation together? Here it is. I'll check in with her one more time 6 to 8 months from now for a follow-up conversation that will complete her case study.
Download the full conversation to listen to at your leisure (mp3 format, run time 33:47), or continue reading for the spiffy-fied transcript (with links). Also, Naomi shares a fantastic list of her inspiration sources at the end of the transcript!
AVL: Hello, everyone! This is the second conversation in the Creativity Case Study with Naomi Niles. Good morning, Naomi!
NN: Good morning! [Naomi's side of the conversation is indicated by NN]
AVL: It’s been a long time. Our last conversation was in August of 2014. I can’t believe it’s been that long.
NN: I know! It seems like forever.
AVL: I want to jump right into it because we have some good stuff to talk about. We talked about your creative awakening in our first conversation, and the idea of permission came up a couple of times. One of the quotes that I highlighted last time we talked was in reference to Epokka (a notebook Naomi and her husband Koldo designed as a tool for the creative mind, offered through a crowdfunding campaign). I’m just going to share it here. “There’s something about having objects or having tools that help give yourself permission. If you have a notebook there, you have space for all these things. It’s like saying, now you have a space for it. You have freedom.” I was reviewing our transcript from last time, and permission and freedom are definitely themes. I really like that. I think you’ve been continuing along these lines just based on what I know of Nova Donna. Starting there, why don’t you tell me about that and how that project came along, and what it’s about.
NN: Yeah, so we started Nova Donna at the beginning of the year, so that must have been about six months ago. It was originally a project based on empowering women. It’s basically something we feel is super important in the world that we live in right now, making sure that women have the power to do what they need to do, and kind of going against the grain about how things are always done. One thing that we realized is that permission is a really big part of that. I know for my part, and my education, growing up, that type of thing — a lot of women are used to getting permission from others to do the things that we want to do. Or even if we do what we want to do, we think we need to do it a certain way and get it validated by others. Basically I started a project where I would give myself permission every day to do one thing that I wanted to do, that I didn’t have to ask of anyone else, just giving permission to myself. If I wanted to go outside and have a walk — that’s one of the things that’s surprisingly difficult for me to do because I tend to put other people ahead. I have tons of work to do and I have tons of stuff to do in the day, so I’m like, I need to finish this before I give myself permission to go for a walk. Sometimes it’s like, actually, I need to go for a walk now. I need fresh air. I need exercise. I go out for a walk and take some photos along the way, and then I share it on the website and say, “Today I give myself permission to go for a walk.” Basic things like that. It’s all the little things like we were talking about before — having a container. These little things, they build up. They kind of build your confidence and bring you an amount of self efficiency where you get used to saying, “I can do this. I give myself permission. Nobody has to tell me it’s ok.” (laughing) I think that’s really important, especially for people — not just for women — but people who are doing creative work. I think creative work itself can feel like something…a little bit…what’s the word for it? Something for fun rather than for work, right?
NN: I think it’s important for creative people to give themselves permission to create and not have to worry about fulfilling other obligations with it. That’s part of the whole thing, too.
AVL: You know I love that. I like the idea of sometimes just creating for the sake of creating, not because there is some deadline or obligation to meet. Just for pure joy. Sometimes it’s kind of liberating to think about how something as simple as a walk could be a very personally creative walk. Like you said, you’re taking pictures and you’re looking. You’re looking through creative eyes to absorb the experience. Just taking that time to give yourself permission to relax a little bit and not be so, “I must get this done, I must be a task master.” Very cool.
NN: I remember, for a while, especially when we first started Epokka, it was when I started thinking about it more seriously — about doing something creative every day. You would think because of my profession, which is in design, that I do creative stuff — well, I do creative stuff more than the average person, but not as much as you might think because I’m doing a lot of tasks doing the day, fixing things, problem solving, strategic types of stuff. When I do do creative stuff, it’s typically for clients which is rewarding in its own way, but it’s not the same as when you’re doing something personally fulfilling for you. I started with Epokka doing something every morning, as simple as taking a photo or drawing a quick sketch for myself, that kind of thing. It was honestly very therapeutic. When you do for yourself and you don’t do for other people, the approach is different. You have a little bit more freedom. It ended up being extremely rewarding.
AVL: You can take more risks. I think it’s very healthy to have some kind of outlet where you can do that. You know that I’ve been — I was sharing with Naomi before the call all of my house drama because we’re moving and looking for somewhere to live, and this has taken up a lot of this year. I haven’t had the chance to do some of the creative work I’ve wanted to do. But I was working on #The100DayProject from The Great Discontent and artist Elle Luna, and it’s a 100 days of whatever. My project is 100 Days of Lowercase Art, a simple drawing every day. I’m a couple of weeks behind right now (laughter), but having just that one piece of paper and that’s just for me for the day…no matter what else is going on, I could turn to that piece of paper and do something loose and fast. It wasn’t a big deal if it didn’t work out. It wasn’t a big deal if I got done with it and actually didn’t like it. It’s ok not to like it. To be able to take that risk and experiment and play and see what happens — that was always very helpful for me, even if it was just five minutes of my day.
NN: Mmmm, definitely. Going back to the thing about permission, you know, projects like #The100DayProject and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, held every November), it’s really about helping people give themselves permission, too, if you think about it. [8:22]
AVL: It is, it is. I used to kind of shun art challenges and any of those types of challenges in the past — 30 days of this, or even NaNoWriMo — because showing up got tedious for me. So part of the challenge with #The100DayProject was coming up with something loose enough and flexible enough that it felt different every day.
NN: Right. I think for me personally, the hardest part would be trying not to be too perfect with it. I think for me, when I share stuff publicly, I have a hard time letting go and putting things out that are not in their final form, maybe because I’m used to spending so many years working with clients. I don’t typically send clients very rough sketches. They’re not final versions, but they’re pretty far along (laughing), so the idea of sending something undone or a rough sketch or something that’s not well done, it would be hard for me.
AVL: I think sometimes we worry about scaring the people who are not familiar with the wilder parts of the creative process, saying, “It will come together, even if it looks rough right now.” (laughing)
NN: That’s hard to communicate with people. If you’re working with clients, for example, it’s not something we typically do just because…I think it’s how your brain focuses on it. If you’re looking at something and evaluating it with a critical eye which is how it comes to the clients, then the natural inclination is to look for errors. It’s hard to say, “Don’t look at the errors, look at the concept.” They’re like, “No, this little thing is off over here, and same thing over there.” It’s a natural reaction. It takes away the possibility of doing things that way, at least in my experience. (laughing)
AVL: I think it does. It does. In our first conversation, we talked about giving yourself permission to be fluid and make mistakes without getting too deep into details, and how we stay oriented in that mindset. The client isn’t necessarily interested in that mindset. They here to solve a problem and not in that kind of freedom.
AVL: You talked about how giving yourself that freedom, how you work on paper for that and get away from the computer so you don’t get too bogged down in the details too early. I really like that you brought it up last time, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and about how it’s maybe more effective to let things be wild first rather than too structured. I feel like a lot of the work I’m doing lately is about rediscovering the wildness that all the rules and structure stamped out, learning what good design is and how to use contrast and line and color and all that stuff — maybe it all goes back to permission again and switching our mindset to remembering freedom instead of the rules and the containers. I don’t know. What do you think about that?
NN: Well, when I first started designing, I wasn’t well trained enough in the rules and I would put things in willy-nilly (laughter), and my design work wasn’t good. It really wasn’t, obviously. Anyone starting out…if you come out with great artwork or design work right off the bat, you’re kind of a prodigy or something (laughing). My philosophy about it is that rules are super important. They’re there for a reason. Especially for me. If I do design work, I need certain constraints to work. Absolute freedom for me would be chaos. I wouldn’t know where to start so I need some kind of constraints. But I think that there’s a certain point when you’re like, I’m aware of the rules and I’m going to break it. This rule? I’m going to break it. Breaking it with intention is kind of the route that I take. I think maybe other people might like more freedom or less. It might just be my personality and how I like to work that I don’t like so much freedom, but I do like to intentionally break rules. That’s fun (laughing).
AVL: I think we’re sharing a brain right now. I feel like you’re in my brain (laughter). You’re stealing my thoughts, its’ so awesome! (laughter). I do think there’s no creative value in unlimited freedom. We have to have a starting point. We have to have some kind of constraint in order to make sense of the empty space.
NN: Right, right. I think art might be a little different because art still has constraints, but design is more about communication. That makes a really be constraint just by itself. If you’re trying to communicate a certain thing and you get to the point where it’s so chaotic or so busy, or you haven’t put enough constraints on it that your message is getting lost, then there’s a problem. If you’re doing something artistic and you’re making a point of just doing something very creative, or you’re not specifically trying to communicate one special message — working on more of a feeling — then I think you have a little more freedom with it.
AVL: Right, because design is fundamentally solving one type of problem and art is more of expression. I think that art sometimes causes a problem instead of solving it, which I think is why I like it so much (laughing).
NN: Yeah, I actually heard a quote that’s very similar to that. I don’t know if it was Charles Eames. It might have been Charles Eames, or someone like that, that said art is asking a question, and design is solving a question. I thought that was a pretty good explanation.
AVL: Yeah! I went to see Ann Hamilton speak earlier this year through the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ann Hamilton’s work, but she does these amazing installations. What was wonderful in her talk...she talked about how, for her, when she is engaged with the art and it’s more of a sense and respond cycle — you’re observing what’s going on, you’re sensing it, and deciding how you’re going to respond next — she’s not looking for answers, she’s looking for more questions. She looks at the next step saying, “Where are the next questions? How do I find the next set of questions?” I really like that. It keeps you curious and inquisitive.
NN: It’s really more of an exploratory approach, right?
NN: That’s interesting.
AVL: I kind of get that from what you were saying in taking the time for yourself, and giving yourself permission to do one thing a day even if that’s taking a walk. I think maybe part of that is giving yourself permission to be exploratory, and inquisitive, and just notice.
NN: It’s like what you were saying before. If you get stuck on tasks and being a task master and getting all your stuff done, you can lose sight of all the small things that are beautiful and interesting. Speaking of that, that’s one thing I really enjoy about photography. You can go out and you’re looking for things that are interesting. It kind of forces you to have a different perspective because you’re actively focusing on the small and interesting things. I think that’s something really fun about photography itself, taking that different eye and giving yourself permission to do that. If you don’t, you’ll be like, “I’m going for a walk,” and you’re on a mission to go for a walk (laughter). You’re not looking at anything. I’ve been there. I’ve thought, I have to get exercise. It turns into another task. I have to walk for at least thirty minutes and I have to walk fast so I get enough exercise (laughing), you know? [17:48]
AVL: It’s funny that you mention that. We both live in the Pacific Northwest, relatively close to each other. It’s very scenic here and there’s lots of outdoor activities and places to walk, so it’s excellent for photography. I realized I wasn’t getting enough exercise a couple of years ago so I joined a walking group that walked 10Ks two or three times a week. Actually, they walked every day, but I would only join them a couple of times a week. I would always get left behind because their thing, their mission, was to walk. They were going to walk their 10Ks and they had a certain pace they were going to maintain. I was like, “Oh, look at this beautiful tree, look at the flower and this mushroom.” (laughter) I kept stopping to take pictures and I realized I was not a match for that walking group. (laughter)
NN: It sounds like what I would do, too. I don’t know if you’re the same way, but I don’t like trails very much. Well, I take that back. I like trails, but not the the ones that are overly paved and super nice. I like to go off trail and go explore and look at other things. It’s not so much about the exercise. It’s about exploration. I can see (laughing) that if I was in the walking group, I’d be like you.
AVL: We need the art walkers group where it’s perfectly find to stop and take pictures and just admire everything and catch up.
NN: Yeah, we’d be there moseying along for like an hour just looking at stuff (laughing).
AVL: Definitely. But, you know you can catch your breath then, so there’s some benefit to that.
NN: Yeah. (laughter)
AVL: So what’s on your horizon right now? Last time we talked I talked to you, I don’t think that Nova Donna was even on your horizon yet.
NN: Yeah, Nova Donna really came up spontaneously. We get some downtime every year around Christmas and we were talking about projects for the next year. We started talking about the idea of helping women empower themselves. We thought, why don’t we just do this? It started out like a publication. We had it up in a matter of, I don’t know, three weeks.
AVL: That’s fast!
NN: (laughing) The benefit of being a web designer — one of my many hats is web designer — is I can just build my own things. We can plan it out and just put it up there. We started out writing quite a few articles about it and different aspects of empowerment. Eventually, we started shifting the focus into personal branding. We realized that the topic of empowering women was just too big. It was really too big for us and we needed to narrow it down a little bit. It was a little bit overly ambitious in that aspect (laughing) because when you start getting into that subject, you can just go all different places. Originally, we were talking about how to empower women in third world countries, different types of societal problems, and we thought, you know what, something we can control and know it’s a very narrow niche we have a lot of experience in is branding. We’ve been helping people brand for over a decade. Why don’t we just focus on the aspect of personal empowerment, which is branding? Really, branding is a type of personal empowerment. It’s basically about taking your strongest points and building some self-reflection and some autonomy, and putting it out there. And giving yourself permission to put it out there, too, which is another thing about personal branding. A lot of people think it’s being inauthentic or being fake or whatever, but I think for us, at least in our experience and with clients that we’ve worked with, it’s all about permission. Absolutely about permission. It’s like a formal way of saying, ok you have permission to put yourself out there. (laughing)
AVL: What I really love about the designs you do for this — and it’s a pre-packaged type thing, people can come to you for ready-to-go designs and templates — what I really like about what I’ve seen so far is that they’re bold. There are no subtle, neutral, let-me-blend-into-the-field-of-everybody-else…it’s very bold like here I am and I want to be seen.
NN: Exactly. That’s exactly the line of thinking we have with it. It’s like you say with Nova Donna itself — we have pre-made themes and business cards. In the future we’re going to add courses and that kind of thing. It’s about being bold. It’s about saying here I am, this is me, ta-da! (laughter)
AVL: You know, this year I’m focusing a lot on what it means to say, “I choose to be unquiet.” In fact, I’m about to do a lot more work on my site about creative voice and choosing to be unquiet. I think we have some similar energy there, but I do want to ask, where does that land for you? If you were to say to yourself that you choose to be unquiet, what comes to mind for you personally?
NN: I think unquiet…well, in the first place, I’m an introvert. I have a tendency to keep things in my head like most, if not all, people who swing toward introversion. But I think for me, being unquiet would be saying I’m going to put this out and not keep it in my head, like consciously making an effort to say, “Instead of just keeping this in my head, I’m going to share it.” For me, that’s being unquiet, really. Just making a spring effort to share things with the world. And I think that’s hard for introverts. It’s not our typical way of doing things. (laughing)
AVL: We don’t think out loud. (laughing)
NN: No, exactly.
AVL: Is there a specific area where you would like to be unquiet?
NN: I’ve actually be writing more. I’ve been doing some guest posts for a marketing agency that has a similar type of vibe as me when it comes to writing. I especially like to write quirky things. I’m a little bit silly, I don’t know why. (laughter) I think in terms of writing, it’s always been a vulnerable point of mine. I feel vulnerable when I write so for me, one of my goals this year is to write more often and put it out there, not just keep everything. I think that’s probably my main goal for being unquiet.
AVL: I like that. And I do think that there’s this getting acquainted period that we have when we start putting any part of our voice out into the world, when we choose to be unquiet. Whether it’s hearing the sound of your recorded voice, for example, or seeing your words, or getting used to seeing them being published — there’s a period of time we go through where we say, yeah, that’s my voice, that’s what I sound like. It takes some getting used to for a while to get through that.
NN: Yeah, it really does. I remember when I used to hear myself and I would just cringe. I would be like, oh my gosh, I sound so young. I would go in this loop of, “Nobody is going to take me seriously because I sound so young.” You know how you start overanalyzing it? And I’d get people who’d say, “Hey, I really loved the interview you did. It was really interesting.” Nobody else is worried about my voice. (laughter)
AVL: We’re far more critical of ourselves.
NN: Yeah, definitely. It’s hard to get over, though. I think you have to get desensitized and get used to yourself, I don’t know (laughing).
AVL: I think so, and again, going back to permission (laughing), I think you have to always go back to, it’s ok to put this out there. It’s ok to sound like I sound. It’s ok for my voice to be the way it is. Whether it’s your literal voice or it’s your creative voice in some way...
NN: Right. I love that. Creative voice (laughing).
AVL: So is there anything you would like to share about things you are working on or things that are coming up for you?
NN: I’d love to share the link for Nova Donna if anyone is interested in fun and really creative branding materials (visit Nova Donna). “Nova” in Portuguese is “new,” and “donna” in Italian is “woman,” so “new woman,” in case anyone is curious about the name. We try to keep that updated. We just added new business card templates two days ago and we’re pretty regular about that. Like I mentioned before, we’re going to start doing courses and probably mini-courses about personal branding. They’ll be really fun. I think people will enjoy them.
AVL: Awesome! I know you told me the story before about why you chose the domain .me instead of .com. That was a very intentional decision, wasn’t it?
NN: It was. Well, in the first place, the .com was taken, so…(laughter). In the second place we chose .me because of the whole idea of personal branding. The .me is a statement in itself — this is about me, this is my personal brand. It’s a reinforcement of that.
AVL: Yeah, very cool. Well thank you so much for the time today, and for us being able to revisit some of the things we talked about — I don’t want to say almost a year ago, but it was almost a year ago (laughter).
NN: Thank you. I’m excited, too. I’m excited to see when you get this up. I really enjoy these conversations with you, so thank you, too.
AVL: I can’t wait to see what we’re talking about the next time when we come back. We’ll have one more follow up call in the case study. It will be awesome to see what’s be percolating for you.
NN: Awesome! Maybe we can make it a yearly tradition? (laughing)
AVL: Maybe so, maybe we can. (laughter) It’s interesting because the whole point of these conversations is to look at creativity over time. It’s really easy to get a snapshot and say that’s what it is, that’s what defines a person’s creativity, when really it’s much more fluid and malleable. There are cycles and things like that, so this gives us an opportunity to explore the more dynamic nature of persona creativity.
NN: That’s true. When you were bring up things we talked about the last time — I haven’t looked at the last one we did in quite a while — it was reminding me of where I was last August. I was thinking that was interesting. In that moment you were talking about this or that (laughter), and the reflection’s been kind of interesting. It’s like you say — its fluid. In that moment, you think you’ll be doing that for quite a while, and things just change suddenly and you’re onto something else. Kind of the nature of being creative, right? (laughing)
AVL: Right. I think everyone is creative in some way, but I think people who are not necessarily dominant in creativity and are maybe more task-oriented than us — I think when they talk to people like us, they say, oh, you’re always doing something different. Are you ever going to settle on something? No, not really (laughter).
NN: Yeah, it looks like…I’m a little bit more consistent than Koldo is at keeping at one thing. He finishes everything he starts, too, but he is such an idea machine. He has a million ideas all at once. Every day it’s something else, and he’ll just start spouting idea ideas, lalalalala. We’ll be in bed and it’s like two in morning, my head’s about ready to blow up, and I’m like, oh my gosh (laughter). Wow! It’s like you say, the nature of being creative. We just have tons of ideas and we’re curious. We like to explore and so that can go pretty much anywhere at any moment.
AVL: That’s true, it doesn’t take much to get us started, right? (laughing)
NN: Exactly. (laughing)
AVL: Thank you so much, Naomi, and I look forward to talking with you again, and hopefully it won’t be quite so long.
NN: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you.
AVL: You’re welcome. Me, too.
Naomi's list of inspiration sources, with her commentary:
Koldo and I can't get enough of these guys. Not only are the music and their videos absolutely mesmerizing, we really like the collaborative approach of the group. There's no one front-man (or woman!) and all of the musicians blend together as one voice. It's amazing and magical and powerful.
Bonus: "Julia" is the perfect singing in the shower song (sorry, Koldo!).
Despite having my own Tumblr blog, I never really got into Tumblr for some reason. Lately though, I'm appreciating the diversity of different types of creative media there. It has a modern, younger, and more provocative-slant than other visual social media like Pinterest.
Some of the pages I'm loving:
Graphic Porn (cheeky, cheeky!): http://graphic-porn.com/
Design Clever: http://designclever.tumblr.com/
Design is Fine: http://www.design-is-fine.org/ - If you're interested in different styles in history in design and art, this is the place to check out.
Women of Graphic Design: http://womenofgraphicdesign.org/ - It's about time!
Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More by Linda O'Keeffe
This book is the ultimate shoe reference. I'm reading it again now for the the umpteenth time. Even though it was published in 1996, it's amazing how many styles and concepts are the same. Total eye candy with a small bit of history included.
Amazing food, beautiful colors, sun year round, friendly people, diversity, and a more relaxed lifestyle. I just want to soak in the culture all the time. Besides having a small bit of the Mediterranean at home (Koldo is from Spain), we are heavily influenced by the culture when it comes to visual styles, art, music, food, history, and culture.
If I'm out on vacation, you ban bet I'm at a cafe on the beach somewhere with a wide-brimmed hat, sipping on Sangria, and eating grilled shrimp.
Some of our Mediterranean-centric boards on Pinterest:
Mediterranean Love: https://www.pinterest.com/novadonna/mediterranean-love/
Amazing Spain: https://www.pinterest.com/novadonna/amazing-spain/