UX Week Keynote Speaker Denise Jacobs on Making Creativity Happen

Denise Jacobs calls herself a “creativity evangelist”, helping people cultivate the tools and skills necessary for leading a creative life. These skills are important for everyone, but especially for creative professionals such as designers and developers, for whom the creative challenges never really stop. In this interview, I talk with Denise about how her own life inspired her take on creativity, and what it takes to keep creativity flowing.

Jesse James Garrett: Denise, you’ve taken an interesting path to get to where you are.

Denise Jacobs: Yes. And it’s actually funny because I find that people are really fascinated by it.

JJG: I was when I first heard about it. Tell us a little bit about it.

DJ: I’ve been working in the web industry since around 1997. I started off teaching myself HTML and making websites, and then got into doing project management at Microsoft. But I really didn’t enjoy project management. But in the course of that I ended up stumbling into teaching soapmaking classes, of all things.

JJG: Soapmaking?

DJ: Yes, I started making soap because I was so frustrated with project management that I started doing something creative. I just felt so creatively stifled by working in spreadsheets all day and I just felt like this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. So I learned how to make soap and then I started making soap. And then people asked, “Do you sell this? and I said, “Sure.”

JJG: I will sell it if you will buy it.

DJ: But then people were asking me how to make it, and so I started teaching soap making classes in my house. Then I started teaching them through a university extension program, and discovered that I really loved teaching. I was still doing project management and really not enjoying that, but I did love the web, so then I thought if I could teach web stuff, that would be amazing. So I started teaching web design and web development.

But sometimes it’s hard to keep teaching technical stuff. I moved from Seattle to Miami and I did another project manager job and hated that. When that job ended, I thought “This is my chance; I’m going to do what I want to do. I want to speak and I want to write, but I don’t know how to make all these things work.”

DJ: But then I ran into an editor from Peachpit at South by Southwest. We got to chatting and she said, “I’m always looking for new authors,” and I said, “I could write something for you.” She had an idea for this troubleshooting guide for CSS, and I felt like I could totally write that, and so I ended up getting a book contract.

Now while I was writing the book, I really, really struggled with impostor syndrome. I struggled with perfectionism and procrastination. I really was questioning the whole time whether I was creative or not. Can I write? At the end of that whole process I finally definitively said I just spent nine months writing a book. If that doesn’t make me creative, I honestly don’t know what would, and so I really felt like I finally took ownership of my creativity. And I felt this real sense of power, this kind of physical energy that I got from it, a strong sense of well-being and empowerment. And I thought, if I could share this with other people, if I could get other people to feel like this, that’s what I would want my life’s work to be.

So I had a transition plan: first I was going to establish myself as a speaker in the web industry, and then I’ll start to introduce this new content. Finally I got to a point where I felt like I just couldn’t do another web project. So I developed a workshop focused on creativity and now it feels like I’m like an endless fountain of presentations. So that’s just kept going and it’s been really amazing.

JJG: Tell me a little bit about the things that you talk about and the things that really resonate with your audiences.

DJ: I talk a lot about impostor syndrome. So many people suffer from this and I feel like it is a huge barrier between being able to be creatively expressive and therefore solve problems and come up with really strong solutions. If you’re in this place where you’re criticizing yourself and you’re second guessing yourself, it’s going to be painful. Whatever you come up with probably won’t be as high-quality as something that comes when your creativity is flowing and you’re feeling good about it.

The talk that I’m going to be doing for UX Week in September is a call to action in some ways, really encouraging people to nurture their own creativity. People think it’s not important, but it actually is important and it’s more important than just you. Social contagion theory basically says that what you do affects people three degrees of separation out. So the more you take care of your creativity, the more you nurture it and feed it and express it in everything, the more that can ripple out around you.

JJG: It’s like the social relationships create the medium within which creativity can flourish through a community.

DJ: That is exactly true. I think that if more people were aware of that, then they would behave differently, because they would know that it’s not like you have to be creative just to satisfy yourself. It’s for you and everybody else.

JJG: What are some of the other ways in which people get stuck, limited in being able to really access their creativity?

DJ: One of the ways it can show up is comparing yourself to other people. Molly Holzschlag has written like 40 books on web design. Nobody has written 40 books on web design except for Molly, she’s just so prolific. It would be easy for me to think, “I’ve been in the industry since the ‘90s, why don’t I have 40 books under me.” I only have the one, which right there is amazing, you published a book. But then if you start comparing yourself to other people, that can be a block, because then you’re not comparing yourself to yourself at all.

Perfectionism and procrastination also stand in the way of creativity, because if you’ve ever been in a state of flow, you know you don’t have any of that stuff going on; you’re just in it. You’re just in the flow of doing whatever task or whatever that project requires and the thinking is happening and everything, you don’t have that voice inside saying it’s a stupid idea. It’s just idea, idea, idea, bam, bam, bam, execute, execute, execute. It’s this beautiful, wonderful place.

But as soon as you get into thoughts like “I’m not sure if I know enough, is this okay, is this stupid, it’s not perfect, I’m just going to do it tomorrow,” you cut off the flow. I feel like that flow is actually normal. The flow is the normal state. The cutoff blocks is the not-normal state. Kids are running around all the time. They’ve got so much energy and so much joy that they can’t contain it, they have to go and run it out of themselves. But then we become adults and we’re just like, “I’m so tired.”

I feel like our normal state is to be in this kind of joyful energy, but we get all these blocks and they start weighing down on us. When you start to remove the blocks, then you start to have more of a flow, just like a river that’s been dammed.

JJG: We’ve talked about some of the things that work against creative flow. What are some of the things that support and help people maximize their creative flow?

DJ: You know, the funny thing about it is that a lot of the things that enhance creative flow are things that our brains actually do already and most of the time we are working at odds against them. There are things that actually enhance creativity from a neurological perspective that are just normal everyday things. Taking walks helps tremendously, because that helps your brain get into alpha brain wave mode — it’s kind of that associative mode, that place where you get before you’re falling asleep or when you’re waking up, when you’re taking a shower, when you walk, when you meditate.

The way I like to think about it is that creativity is very much like a muscle. It’s something that you need to exercise regularly. So doing something that stimulates you creatively is often really important. In marketing, whenever they see a neat advertising snippet or something like that, they’ll keep that, and they’ll put it in their “swipe file,” to use later as a stimulus for coming up with great marketing copy. I like the idea that whenever you see something that will stimulate ideas, you add it to your swipe file.

JJG: There seems to be this common theme that in order to do better work, you have to step away from the work — that doing better work is not about optimizing for the moment of creation, but it’s about turning yourself into the optimal tool for that moment.

DJ: Exactly. The knife isn’t always cutting. The knife needs to be sharpened. And played with: Sometimes you use a knife better when you figure out different ways to use the knife, and then that’ll help you use it in general.

JJG: A lot of the work that designers do is inherently collaborative. How is collaborative creativity similar to or different from individual creativity?

DJ: One of the things with individual creativity is that doing something new and playing at it is really important, being playful, not serious, just open to learning and discovering and figuring things out much like children do. With collaborative creativity, it’s important to have this same kind of playful, interactive give and take, to stay open to discovery.

JJG: Thanks, Denise, and we look forward to your keynote at UX Week in September!

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