For the first interview in the Untapped Creativity Series, I was lucky enough to interview the brilliantly talented Jeni Herberger. If you aren’t familiar with Jeni’s show Talk Story, then you need to be. She hosts a blog talk show where she talks to some of the brightest minds in the graphic design world. Often on her show she has brought up the very idea that creativity is something that is present in all of our careers. She even mentioned that she wants her accountant or surgeon to be the most creative person that she knows. In addition to a wildly successful career in the creative industry, Jeni is a guest writer for HOW Magazine, Communication Arts and Business Journal as well as a veteran speaker for AIGA, AMA, AdClub and HOW. I had the opportunity to meet her last year at the HOW Conference in Denver, and I was immediately struck by her blunt optimism. As she is a person of many words, great ones at that, I’ve split her interview into two parts.
You’ve had an interesting career path and journey to where you are today. Give us a little bit background about yourself.
I grew up in on the beaches of southern California, literally. I was super, über good in science and math and wanted to be a marine biologist. That was absolutely what I wanted to do. I was a cheerleader. I know that is shocking.
Here you go. I’ll give you a little trivia that you can put out to the world that not a lot of people know. I was actually Miss San Clemente in 1984. So, how’s that for funny?
I’m not surprised.
(Laughs) It was hilarious! And I was first runner up in Miss California the following year. So, that was my one claim to “I can’t believe I was that dumb to do this!”
I didn’t end up going into marine biology, because everybody talked me out of it saying, “There was no money in it. You should become a doctor.” So, I got talked into going into a medical school program through UCLA that was for some of the top students in the U.S. which was kind of cool from that standpoint. I lasted about 3 months in that program. I think it was after an organic chem test when everyone was swarming around trying to see what their grades were, and I’m jumping up and down because I got a C- which means I passed. I had a whole bunch of people standing around me crying because they got a 98%. I’m like “Oh my god! I can totally not do this.”
So, I switched my major around to music, but I hated that because it took something that I loved and turned it into something that was far too theoretical. And then from there I actually took photography classes, and I loved it. I took to it. That was the pathway that I started down, and it was also really fun because I had done a small amount of modeling in my past. So for me, it was so fun seeing what was happening on that side of the camera. To me that was where it was all at. That catapulted me into the fashion industry, as far as photography was concerned. I switched my degree one more time and ended up with a degree in theater.
Between my junior and senior year of college, I actually had the privilege of becoming pregnant and having my first kid. So, that kind of accelerated my senior year of college. Made me a mom very early. But you know (laughs), I’ve got a 22 year old daughter. Absolutely, positively, no complaints!
Through photography, I had my own studio. Did a lot of fashion photography, and that led me into sports photography which was really interesting. I did a lot of stuff for the NHL, a lot of stuff for Harley, Marlboro. It was crazy. So, a lot of fun stuff photographically speaking.
Depending on whatever your bent is you’re either going to be somebody who directs people, or you’re going to be somebody who actually does the work. You don’t have to move into directing, but there are some people that will do it. Some do it quicker than others, and some never do it at all. I moved from being a doer to being a director very, very quickly. And I think it’s just because I have a teaching background. So, I started doing a lot of creative directing on the photo shoots, and the next thing you know agencies are hiring me not only to do photography but also to act as creative director on a project. And that’s what catapulted me into the graphic design industry.
Kind of crazy, huh?
You can see all of the skills that you picked up along the way. So it does make sense.
Well, and the fun thing is how those skills breached back. That’s what’s really, really fun, is being in your forties, you know, now I have a chance to look back. And I’m doing things that I haven’t done since my twenties, but it’s so obvious that I had to go through this pathway. Like being on stage. I’m back on stage again, aren’t I? I was a theater major, and I didn’t get on stage for 20 years. Now I’m on stage all the time talking to people. I actually taught high-school biology for two years. I’m back teaching again. So, it’s really, really a beautiful thing when you’re kind of at the height of your career, and you get to look back at that pathway. You can see how everything converged together to make you who it is that you are today.
So, would you say you pretty much live an outwardly creative life?
Absolutely! I think that’s an interesting statement from you. When you say an outwardly creative life, what to you mean by that?
I look at an outwardly creative life as you’re ending with what most people would consider a creative product.
For you, I think that’s a great thing to really build upon is that concept of outwardly creative. And I know with all of the folks that you’re going to be talking to a lot of them are going to be people that might be defined as inwardly creative. It’s like you heard me say on Talk Story all the time, I believe because we were created by God, and God is a creative being, and we are made in his image that means we are innately creative. Whether we want to be or not. And I think that there are some people that literally hold that and stifle it because they’re afraid of it. They just don’t want that. They would rather tap into the more analytical side of life. I think there’s some people that just go hell-bent on the side of creativity, and then I think there’s a whole range of us in the middle, and the levels in our life that we decide to be creative in are really interesting. For instance, some of us have gone down what is considered to be a creative career path where like you’re saying the end result is actually art in some respect or another.
I think a lot of it too, is how you live your life. One of the things I look at in myself is not only am I creative in my career, meaning I chose a creative pathway, but I’m also creative in how I go about everything. If it’s parenting, people ask me all the time “How do you do it? Have three kids and have a business?” And honestly, I’m very creative in how a make sure my kids have what they need, my business has what it needs, and my clients have what they need. It’s a constant process in my head of actually making the life that I want to make. So, I don’t do things the way the book says. Not because I think the book is wrong, but for me it works better if I create it on my own.
I live in Hawaii, and I live in Seattle. People say, “Well, how do you do that?” Well, it’s really, really easy. I wanted to do it, so I found a way to create that for myself. It’s not about money. It’s not about success. It’s about the fact that I created that pathway for myself, because driving fancy cars wasn’t important to me. Traveling all over the world isn’t something that I can do right now. So, one thing that I can do, one thing that I did want to create, was the ability to go back and forth between two places that I really love. So, that to me is the idea of living a creative life.
How would you define creativity for yourself in the most basic terms?
In the most basic terms, it is making whatever it is you want. Whether you’re doing that for someone, or you’re doing that for yourself, it is making something that you want. So, if you’re doing it for a client, you’re making something that they want, but you’re going about it the way that you feel it needs to be done.
So, I think we really get hung up on the word creativity? You could define it a zillion different ways. All being creative is IS creating something. If you want to take a different verb then use making it or doing it. So, for me creativity is really, really that simple.
What do you think is the biggest reason why people don’t view themselves as creative?
I think that humans innately have a need to label, to put a box around it, to make it work. When it comes down to even your faith, and some higher power or something, the biggest obstacle that people have with the idea of God is the fact that they can’t put him in a box. They can’t label it. And if something doesn’t align itself exactly right that must mean that He doesn’t exist. The greatest things that we have are things that you cannot define like love. You can’t define love. Why do I love my husband? Hell, half the time I don’t know, trust me. The other half of the time, I absolutely know. I think that because humans have to define things, innately define things, they end up defining themselves out of things.
Look at the words that we put with creativity. You’re rebellious. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say things like “Well, if you draw outside of the lines, you’re creative.” Why does that make you creative? Isn’t it just as creative to draw inside the lines? I really don’t understand that. “You’re creative if you think outside of the box.” Well, who the hell defined the box in the first place? And can’t I be creative inside of the box, as well as outside of the box?
So, I think that innate need to define things and label things makes human being put boxes around themselves, but then exclude them from being allowed to be other things. For instance, designers do this all the time. Designers think they suck at business. You want to know something? I am awesome at business. And most of the designers that I know out there could be if they’d stop saying they aren’t good at it. Because, honestly we should be the best business people out there, because we are tapped into our creativity. We are comfortable with our creativity. Business is not about numbers. It’s about making things happen. It’s about getting things out to the public. Isn’t that what designers do, hmmm?
Another big part of it is just being able to communicate, which is what we sell on a daily basis.
Exactly! Almost every designer I know says “Oh, I can’t communicate. I can’t really talk to people.” You communicate everyday, so if you can’t talk to people then just draw people’s friggin’ pictures for crying out loud. Yes, you can communicate. You just have opted to do it a different way. And I think what we do is, we then box ourselves in.
My first marriage did not work out, and I got divorced. I had a teacher go, “Oh my god. I had no idea that you’re kids were from a broken home, because they are so well adjusted.” And I looked at her and I said, “Broken home? Are you kidding me? I fixed that home.” And so it was a totally different way of looking at it. But we keep putting labels and all of this junk on top of things. And it’s so stupid, because I think it makes us think of ourselves in one particular way.
If you’d like to find out more about Jeni visit jeniherberger.com, or follow on twitter @jeniherberger.
Check out part two of my interview with Jeni Herberger.
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