Cut away to find space

I squinted to peer through the gap between the locked doors of the gallery for a glimpse of the serene, apse-like space that held my senior thesis art exhibition two decades earlier.

Although now empty, the grey, windowless room seemed to impossibly glow from within, lit by the sunlight piercing the oculus in the ceiling. It was a cathartic moment after an emotional yet celebratory memorial service for David Schorr, my college senior thesis advisor.

The remnants of the knotted ball of nerves I felt during my final crit with him still faintly twisted in the pit of my stomach. David was a printmaker, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, but also a passionate lover of words— just the right words chosen for maximum emotional, or often comic, effect.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

At first the words stung. But, then they settled and started to make sense. Although my installation had the trappings of fine art with drawings, sculpture, and even a tree suspended over a rectangle of grass, the best part of it was the process and purpose behind it — how I rallied a team of local craftsmen and generous friends to help me make an installation of objects that told my story. In that simple yet profound observation, he both cut away who I was trying to be but wasn’t and found space for a future that could leverage my true talents.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

One of the hardest things to teach a budding, young soccer player is to run away from the ball when your teammate has it. Invariably they run toward the ball like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It seems counter intuitive. Don’t you want to run toward the action to add your two feet to the mix?

No, you want to cut away from the other players to find space, then open up to receive the ball. Only then can you deploy your best foot skills to drive the ball toward the goal. And there lies much of the beauty in the game.

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

My senior thesis project also involved literally cutting away to find space.

The most important elements of the installation were three large drawings suspended from the ceiling. To make them I adopted a drawing technique in which I held the eraser in my left hand and the charcoal in my right. I would draw and erase, erase and draw, until ghostly forms emerged from the background. A light gray shading lingered on the edges of the erased spaces, giving the forms both depth and a vibrating energy that was much more interesting than if I drew them directly.

I’ve found that cutting away to find space is a useful technique for creative thinking overall.

For me, a long walk in the wide expanse of nature results in more aha moments than a shower. But the same principle applies — absorb lots of information, then cut it from your conscious mind as you silently process it in the background. Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

When I’m helping my team evaluate ideas, I sit huddled with them holding a small pad of paper and a pen. I look at all of the comps, hear all of the explanations, and consider all of the cool innovations and clever extensions. But I only write down a keyword or phrase that sums up the core of the idea, stripping away the usually very well thought out, but at best supportive and at worst extraneous detail.

Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

After we cut away to expose the true essence of the idea, the team and I then evaluate it and, if it has promise, open our minds to find its possibilities and build it up again, bringing back some of those great supporting ideas and adding more.

As a kid, the farthest I got in soccer was the first grade town team. I was always lost in the pack, usually behind the ball, chasing it fruitlessly. I wish my coach taught me to cut away from the crowd, find space, and open up so I could unlock the beauty of the game.

But as I peered through the sliver between the doors, blinking from the bright sunlight, I felt tremendous gratitude for the lesson I learned from David. While standing together beneath the oculus in the same luminous room he encouraged me to cut away what wasn’t truly me and find my space in the wide open field of design.

I’m still working on it, David. But I’ve never looked back.


David Schorr, professor of art at Wesleyan University, died on June 16, 2018 at the age of 71.

The art of listening to hear

My husband is the Michelangelo of pet grooming.

To see him wield a clipper and scissor and artfully reveal the true essence of a dog from under a mound of matted, knotted hair is to witness a natural talent. He’s self-taught, having unofficially apprenticed with the resident dog groomer in the kennel where he worked years ago. He watched her carefully and purposefully while sweeping up the bundles that fell to the floor sometimes more delicate than snowflakes and other times all at once like a discarded coat, depending on the degree of neglect from its owner. She gradually taught him what she knew and, one day, quit to move to another state, leaving all of her clients to him, if he wanted them. And he did.

He is a natural craftsman, for like woodworking or stone carving, that’s what grooming most resembles. But, it’s also more than that.

What’s different, for one, is that the dog is a living, breathing thing with its own innate reactions to the appearance of a strange man with a sharp object next to its flesh. But the teeth and claws are mild compared to the demands of some of the owners.  He often gets sketches, photos, and conflicting direction from family members, and specific instruction on what tools to use and not use and how much where. I thought my advertising clients were tough, but his often are bickering, disagreeable spouses; detail-obsessed cheapskates; and/or dotting, obsessive parents to their furry surrogate children.

He’s also the Oprah of pet grooming.

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need. And by that I mean he listens patiently and then filters through his own experience and intuition to create a result that is always better than what the client asked for, while also managing to put both the nervous or difficult owner and his or her dog at ease.

“Make my [bichpoo, schnoodle, cockapoo] look like this picture from the Westminster Dog Show, and by the way, she bites.”

“OK, I’ll try.”

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need.

Then with some comforting words for the dog and its owner, a graceful sweep of the clipper, and a strong grip on back of the neck, the dog is returned both beautiful and calm as the owner exclaims with joy and surprise something like, “wow, how did you do that?” The previously skeptical customer becomes a loyal, repeat client who then always asks him to just do what he thinks is best.

It’s an art.

I draw inspiration from my husband in my own work as a creative director. I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

Although metrics are the true measure, I know we’ve succeeded when we’ve made the client cry.

I remember one pitch presentation in particular. We had to come up with the launch and engagement campaign for a new, innovative product. Like many, but perhaps even more than most, the RFP was a bit convoluted, asking us what talents, methods, tools, and resources we would use to answer various challenging questions about how to find and engage with their core audiences at key moments in their journeys. Their fear of failure was palpable. As was, frankly, their hubris. Our labradoodle is unique and needs a special touch that you probably don’t have, but let’s see what you can do anyway.

I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

We did all that hard work. Figuring out the answers to all of the questions, providing the required backup, and trying to instill confidence that we knew what we were doing. For the creative strategy, we learned the functional benefits of this new product were astounding – it truly was a better mousetrap that could kill an existing product category, alleviate a major burden, and provide peace-of-mind where there previously had been none. Maybe that was all we had to say, but in a clever, memorable way?

If we had just listened, that would have been enough.

But I like to think we did more than that. We heard what lay beyond those impressive benefits. We heard the emotional pain caused by missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams, and frustrating vicious circles of negativity. Convenience and peace-of-mind were great, but not enough to truly capture the transformative power of this product.

So we stopped in our tracks and did another round of research, asking people more about the alternative universe that would open up should this current burden be lifted. We asked them to imagine in detail what life would be like without it. We interviewed carefully screened strangers, but also loved ones and friends and recorded their descriptions of aspirational, imaginary worlds. By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

These stories of unlocking hidden potential became the inspiration for the creative and flowed through the work in content, experiences, and look and feel.

Then, recognizing the power of the stories we heard, we wrote down short excerpts, one per index card, and locked the stack in a jewelry box.

By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

At the end of the presentation, after answering the questions in the RFP and showing dozens of boards and slides of creative work, exhausted yet exhilarated, I took the small jewelry box from the table where it had been sitting silently waiting and handed it to the SVP seated at the head of the table.

Surprised, he opened it, taking out one card, and then another, reading and smiling, and reading another. Finally, the silence was broken as he started to read the stories aloud, punctuated by thoughtful sighs and bursts of laughter from the room.

Perhaps saying he was crying is an exaggeration, but eyes filled with tears and a hitch in his voice made it clear that the stories deeply touched him.

We were in a cab to the airport when he called to tell us we had won the business.

The five ingredients of effective collaboration: What jury duty and creativity have in common

Yesterday my 10 year-old son got a jury summons. I know, ridiculous. And that was my first reaction too. But, my second reaction was wistful nostalgia.

Back in 1996 I got a jury summons too. I was living in Brooklyn, working as a graphic designer, and although well over 10, I wasn’t clever enough to get out of it. I ended up being selected.

There was a lot about jury duty that I didn’t like, especially that someone was badly hurt as a result of the crime and I had to help decide the accused’s fate.

But what I did like was working shoulder to shoulder with people who were very different than me toward a common goal. In spite of not knowing each other, the law, nor any of the information regarding the case beforehand, we had to work together, gently guided by the judge, to figure it all out and come to a consensus.  I know many times juries don’t work as smoothly. But, in this case it did, and we did, and that stuck with me.

I wondered why.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration.

Then, when that aspiring 10 year-old juror was 3, he helped paint a triptych that hangs prominently in our living room.

We had just bought a house (mid-century modern!) with lots of empty white walls. After sinking all of our money into those clean lines and open spaces, we needed some big, impactful art that was not expensive and not crappy.

I decided that by defining the process and the materials plus providing some guidance and encouragement we could make that art ourselves.

A few tubes of white, black, and silver acrylic paint, three canvases, and four family members later, we were awe-struck by our creation. The rules had been simple: squirt the paint on the canvases, use whatever you find in the yard to “paint” including sticks, leaves, berries, and even yourself, and encourage each other along the way. But the paintings came out amazing, with the sweet memory made tangible by my son’s small handprint discretely in the corner. Even now, when we have new friends over, we are often asked where we bought them.

At the time, it seemed like a miracle that they came out so well.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration. They both had a clearly stated problem, a shared understanding of process, a pressing deadline, an encouraging yet focused guide to keep everyone on track, and a safe space to surface, debate, and refine ideas.

Having been a creative director for all the years since the painting project, I am constantly humbled by the power of the collaborative process. And I’m continuously on a quest to even more effectively unleash that collective energy to solve a problem or create an experience. It’s hard enough, and immensely gratifying when it works well, within a well-oiled creative team. But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

I believe it’s one of my most important missions as a creative director to put these ingredients into practice. So I’m always testing techniques, refining the details, and when I have something that seems to work, codifying and evangelizing both within and beyond the creative department. And, when the ingredients come together, the results truly blow my mind — resulting in new product ideas, new campaign ideas, awesome pitches, and, even more importantly, both an individual sense of pride and a collective sense of goodwill leading to a deep, lasting impact on overall organizational culture.

But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

Admittedly, once was enough for me when it comes to jury duty. And I seem to get dismissed usually now anyway. However, I wish I could say that my family has made more collaborative artwork to grace our walls. But, in these tween years, soccer, skateboarding, school and the siren song of the iPhone have taken their toll. I have a few years before they go off to college to pass the tube, promote my kids to guide status, and collaborate with them one more time to capture our hopes and dreams in paint, sticks, and berries.

I will gladly accept that assignment, should I be summoned.

Limit me! Why creatives need limits even in the age of disruption.

I marvel at what my 11 year-old son can do with a sharpie and the letters B.O.E.

You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names.

A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with black sharpie. And almost all on post-it notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?”, the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters”, “paper”, “markers”, “paint”, “fruits”, “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No”, he’d invariably say, without further explanation.

As a creative director, I understood.

When I was in college, I fancied myself an artist. For my senior thesis, I could request the part of the university gallery space I wanted for my exhibit. It was a lottery, but I got my first choice. I learned later, because no one else wanted it. In a way, it was the hardest – a square, spare cement space separate from the regular long, well-lit gallery walls. I literally chose to box myself in.

Oblivious to the extraordinary amount of pre-baccalaureate pretension, I made a shrine to my destiny spirit. It made sense at the time – I had just returned from studying abroad in Nigeria where I learned about how young people on the cusp of adulthood placate their destiny spirit to ensure a successful future. For my materials, I also wanted to limit myself. Charcoal drawings. Grass and hay in plexiglass boxes. Two figurative sculptures from paper pulp and cheesecloth on the boxes. And, a tree hanging from the ceiling. The irony was that I felt the only way to tackle the tremendous scale of the idea was to limit the materials and manner in which I could express it.

“You’re a designer, not at artist,” my professor said at my final review, seemingly knocking me off my plexiglass pedestal.

Today, as a creative director, I know he was right.

I get off on the limitations. And, almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in 2 weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

I definitely can’t speak for fine artists. But, after 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying those limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas.

“I didn’t want to limit you”, says an account director to me at their own peril.

Yes, not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams.

But, most critically, I definitely want to know the edges of the box — all the things we can’t do, and the very few things we can do — so that I can fill that box with awesomeness. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black and white talking banana.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need.

And we will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.


This article originally appeared in MediaPost on September 5, 2017.