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Secret sauce bottles for logo, branding and website design with a Big MacYears ago McDonald’s launched a product that defined their brand, the Big Mac. At it’s core, the new burger wasn’t anything new, since it is basically a double cheeseburger. It’s the special sauce that sets it apart from the competition. After all, we can all recite the jingle from memory years after the fact. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” The food industry has been using “family recipes,” “secret ingredients,” and “special sauces” to differentiate their products in an over-saturated market for decades with great success. Why not take that same model and define your own secret sauce for your industry?

The Family Recipe

A secret sauce by nature should be something that only a few know, while many people have experienced it. Consumers love a good mystery, and they will continue to buy your products or services to try and reveal the magic behind your secret sauce. In the case of McDonald’s we’ve all mixed ketchup and mayonnaise together to recreate their special sauce yet the Big Mac is still just as popular as when it was introduced nationally in 1967. A secret family recipe adds a level of comfort to a brand. There’s a sense of love and trust embedded in the idea that’s been passed from generation to generation, and it shows a commitment to the quality of your product or service. You’re brand is defined by the feeling that your end-user gets from interacting with your product or services, and a secret sauce puts them on the inside of the circle of trust.

The Key Ingredients

To define your secret sauce you need to examine 3 key factors — your customers/partners, your competitors and your processes. Begin by talking to your end-users and any partners who interact with your brand. How do they view your products or services? Why do they come back to you? Often you’ll find that it isn’t your core service that keeps customers from coming back, especially since most industries have multiple choices for purchasing products and services. In the case of Walmart, you might immediately assume that low prices are the reason for customer loyalty when in fact it is the convenience of grocery, pharmacy, household and even a doctor under 1 roof that keeps many consumers coming back. If they add apartments into the mix, customers would never have to leave the Walmart compound.

You’ll also want to take a close look at your direct competitors. What are they doing that’s similar to you? How are they different? And most importantly, how do they view you? It’s okay to do what your competition does, but find a way to dress it up with your own secret sauce. Target has taken the same approach to the one-stop shop just like Walmart, however Target features top fashion and furniture designers that you would see at high-end department stores. Target’s secret sauce is “life-style within budget.” Consumers view Target as a higher-end big box retailer despite the fact that they sell much of the same products as Walmart for the same price. Often the consumers perception of your brand can be greatly influenced by your secret sauce.

Next you’ll want to take a look at you’re internal processes in respect to your target market and your competition. Do you have a unique way of presenting your products? Is their a process that you consistently go through that is unique to your business? For example, Google developed an algorithm to rank websites based on content as well as popularity which has made them the #1 search engine on the web. Google openly talks about the results that their algorithm gets, and the fact that it is an algorithm, however, they don’t reveal what the algorithm is. If they did, then they would probably not be on top. Your secret sauce can be anything related to your business, but it should become the core of how you differentiate yourself from your competition.

Add to taste

So, now you’ve found your secret sauce, but how do you use it? Take your idea and boil it down to the simplest terms. If you’ve come up with a revolutionary new sandwich, what makes it so different? It’s the sauce made by mixing ketchup and mayonnaise together rather than two separate spreads. In the simplest of terms “special sauce.” Less complex is better.

The next step is to figure out how your process solves your target market’s pains. For example, color strategy is an area that’s confusing and full of misinformation, and most decisions unfortunately are based on personal opinion. My secret sauce involves a process that reveals the strategy behind brand color in simple visual terms, which eliminates any preconceived notions of what colors mean and more importantly eliminates the urge to make a decision based on personal opinion. In simplest terms, we create “color harmony.” If you can relate your secret sauce to solving a problem for your client then you’ll immediately begin building trust and showing your expertise.

Remember you’re taking your process, and making it marketable. Don’t reveal what your secret sauce is, only what it does. Think of it like a magic trick. We know it’s a trick, what it involves and we often try to figure it out. If someone shows us how to do the trick then it loses its power. It’s the mystery of trick itself that we’re attracted to. Likewise, your secret sauce should sell the results of your unique process as well as the mystery of how it works.

Every company has a secret sauce. Discover it, and make it a key ingredient in your recipe to success.

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Dinosaur toy eating a business man toy figureElizabeth Lalli-Reese, or Lalli as she prefers to be called, was the first person that I met during a series of interviews with Starr Tincup in early 2009. She was easily one of the best interviewers I ever had the privilege of meeting. So, I thought that it would only be appropriate to flip the tables and make her the subject of my latest interviews on creativity. She is passionate about the human resources space that she works in, an area that’s not necessarily recognized for it’s creativity. So, prepare to change your mind about HR.

I know you have a lot of unique interests and have had an interesting journey getting to where you are. Give us a little bit of background about how you got to where you are today.

When I was in high school, I was a debater. I did Lincoln-Douglas debate. So everybody was always saying, “Oh, you should go to college, and go to law school.” Coming from a kind of strict Indian family, I had a choice of being a lawyer or a doctor, and I’m really, really squeamish. So being a lawyer sounded like a really good idea.

I went to college at TCU on an academic scholarship, and I also played softball. My major was Political Science, and I totally fell in love with it. I was able to play the devil’s advocate as someone who was politically liberal at a school that’s pretty conservative. So, I had a lot of fun with that.

I ended up starting law school right out of undergrad, so I was pretty naïve and didn’t really know what a graduate program like law school would be like or whether it was the field that was right for me. I was 22 years old, and I was going to school with people that were on average eight years older than I was. So I quickly learned that my life at TCU wasn’t indicative of what the real world was like. Starting law school wasn’t really what I thought it would be, and I figured that I might like it more as I delve into other aspects of the law. By the third and final year, I realized that the only aspect I enjoyed about law school was the labor and employment law classes that I had taken.

I decided to try to go into practice. I started with family law because there’s a pretty low barrier to entry if you can follow a step-by-step divorce, wills or things like that. I discovered I really didn’t like it at all. It was very adversarial, and it was very depressing. So from there, I decided that I was going to start working as a legal recruiter because I had been recruiting for a financial firm while I was in college. I was able to leverage the connections I made in law school, and I did that for a while. Then, I guess, I kind of went more into a generalist role in HR recruitment. So, it was kind of a strange way to get there, but I think I made a much better decision not to continue with law.

I understand that you’ve got your own business, and you’ve recently made a job switch.

Yes. I am currently the head of HR for Ace Cash Express. We are an alternative financial services firm based in Irving, Texas. I think our total number of employees is somewhere around 7500 to 8000. We’re located in the US and Canada, and we’ve got 1800 retail locations plus our corporate headquarters. So, I do that, and I also do HR consulting. I write for a blog that was featured on the Austin American Statesman for people who have been laid off, and I also help companies do reductions in force, and organizational development and planning in my free time.

Wow, do you actually have any free time?  It sounds like you work all over the board.

(Laughs) You know, I think that it’s one of those things that when you do something you love, you find yourself, even on the weekends or when you’re sitting around with your laptop, kind of poking around and taking some time to maybe flush out ideas that you’ve had during the week. So honestly, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work except when I’m doing more administrative tasks. I really enjoy what I do, and I’m really lucky to be in an organization that helps me grow and allows me to be really creative in the way that we work with our employees.

You’ve touched on an interesting subject that I’ve talked about before, and that’s a work identity versus your home. Do you find that you are always in work mode? Is there even a work mode?

I think I certainly have a separation when I’m at work. I am the face of the human resources department so my language tends to be quite censored compared to like when I’m in the car driving and  get angry; when I’m at home and I  burn something; or when the dogs tear up two pairs of shoes. I certainly put on a professional demeanor and I watch my p’s and q’s  more. But, I think that people that know me well here, or worked with me previously, understand that I have some sense of humor. I’m not all “by the books,” not all business, and what I think is the most important thing is to be a good business partner. Sometimes being a good business partner is not always being the “by the book” HR practitioner.

I know when most people think about HR, creativity is not the first thing that comes to mind. Do you feel that’s a fair judgment? Do you see creativity in what you do within the HR industry?

I think it was a fair judgment 30 years ago when the HR department was still called personnel and their function was much more administrative — basically hiring and firing. I think that new HR professionals are able to be a lot more creative in approaches that we take not only in employee relations, but also towards employment branding and in building relationships with employees. I think with the advent of social media and email, I’m able to convey ideas and concepts that get employees engaged in creative ways rather than just send out a memo. We are able to do some cool things with surveys to see how our employees are reacting to different policy changes, and we are able to connect with our employees online in a social atmosphere. If they leave or they decide not to work for us anymore, they can become a member of our alumni group. And, it’s a creative way for them to stay in touch — not just professionally, but also personally. So, I agree that things are changing. I think HR still has the reputation of not being the most creative group. I would probably agree with that to a point, but I think the HR professionals that get it are using creative means to get messages and policies across to their employees.

Do you feel like the industry has grown in particular in the last 30 years because of people switching fields and bringing what they’ve learned in other disciplines much like yourself?

You know I think that my experience in the legal profession certainly brought a very strong compliant streak. I really think  the fact that I’ve done recruiting and worked for a marketing firm has really helped me to be more creative, and to — and I hate the term, but — “look outside the box” (laughs) to find solutions. I hate it when people say that, but it’s the only way I can put it. There are ways to look outside of traditional means for employee communications and to really get people excited and engaged. You know sometimes we’re really not dealing with the most exciting topics — like 401K. That’s not very exciting, but if we put it in context and make it something that is eye-catching, interesting and humorous, people are much more likely to read and absorb the information. I think working within marketing I’ve been able to take a lot of the really cool things that I’ve seen other companies do and bring it into what I do on a daily basis.

How would you define creativity in its most basic terms?

Creativity is the drive for innovationI think I would define it as… the drive to innovate would be the way I would try to put it in the simplest terms that I can think of. Because when I see something that is really creative and really catches my interest, it changes the way that I may look at a subject or an item. And, I think the people that are the most creative are also usually the most innovative in their space. You know, I can think of top leaders within HR that are considered to be the innovators and spot leaders, and they are all very creative in the way they engage with their employees and also with other HR professionals. So, I guess I would say creativity to me is the drive for innovation and to truly be able to differentiate yourself or your message to the outside world.

Do you think that creativity by its definition has to be a tangible product at the end?

I don’t think so, because I think in a lot of the conversations that I have, especially in resolving employee relations issues, we have to be very creative. And, of course, the solutions aren’t a tangible item, but I have to be very creative in making sure that I’m able to address all the different needs of the parties that are involved. And, you know, sometimes it’s not the book standard “policy number 405 says x, y, z” so I think some of the best HR professionals are creative in solutions that they provide for employee relations issues. For their company, it’s creative ways to save money or bring more candidates into the fold. So, I think creativity is a huge part of what makes HR professionals successful.

What was the impetus behind starting your own HR consultancy? Did you want to be a business owner, or did you just feel you had something to say within the industry?

I’ve always had kind of an entrepreneurial plan. My first job out of law school was basically me putting a signal out there and offering legal recruiting services. I had this fear of failure, but I also had the rush of creating something new. And so, I thought that a lot of small companies needed HR assistance. They weren’t following either compliance laws or standard procedures, and a lot of times, it was operators who were really good at driving the business but didn’t know how to work on the HR side. I saw a gap for low cost solutions, because many of the solutions that small companies are given for HR is either hiring a HR professional full time which is very expensive, or working with an outsource group that asks for a large retainer every month. By doing projects either on a small retainer or “as needed” basis, I think I’ve been able to fill some of the gaps for HR within these small companies, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. Working in HR in a small company is certainly different than working in HR in a company with 8000 employees. I found it to be very interesting to see what people think is acceptable (laughs) behavior at small companies with family members all working there. It’s been eye opening.

Do you find that it’s a bit of a creative outlet in the sense that you’re still within the field, but it’s on your own terms?

Most definitely. I think that working with the smaller companies, because a lot of times there’s not a handbook or there’s not a way to do things in HR yet, I’m able to create and put things on paper, create policies and procedures, and help people understand why we are doing things a certain way. The company that I currently work for has been around since 1968, so there’s kind of a legacy of this in the way we do things. I can change those things, but I’m not creating as much as I can with a small company where they may say, “We’ve never done profession planning. Can you help us learn how to do it? Can you put together organizational charts?” It has allowed me to build more and maybe not sustain as much. Also, here at Ace, I’m lucky enough to have a team that handles different pieces of HR. In my consulting, I’m touching every piece of HR. I’m touching the HR part — benefits, employer relations, recruitment — so I’m able to do more things in different areas than I do here on a day-to-day basis.

Are you a person that thrives on being able to wear different hats, assume different roles and constantly challenged with something new?

I think that there’s a reason why I work a fulltime job and then consult on the side. And, I think for me not having something to do or not being challenged, it’s kind of a kiss-of-death for the interest in a job. If I don’t feel like every day I’m coming in and I’m really making a difference or really changing things for the better, then that’s when I start to look around and say, “Why am I here? Am I collecting a paycheck for the right reason?” I really like to feel that if you’re paying me, you’re getting what you’re paying for. So, I think that’s probably why I’ve thrown myself into the industry so completely.

Be sure to check out the exciting conclusion of my interview with Lalli, and follow her on twitter @TXStrategicHR, LinkedIn and like her on facebook. You can also find out more about her at Talentculture.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

2011 HOW Live Recap ChicagoI have to admit that I was a little concerned that I’d be disappointed going to the 2011 HOW Design Conference since it was my third consecutive year to go. I hadn’t planned my schedule of sessions ahead of time as I did for Denver and Austin. I wasn’t sure if that was due to the overwhelming amount of sessions offered at the four conferences, or if I had burnt myself out by going too often. The day before the conference I finally decided to nail down my schedule, which I never really stuck to. It forced me to experience the conference in a fresh way.

Get out of your comfort zone. Way out.

Several of the sessions that I attended involved a lot of interactivity from the audience. As uncomfortable as some of those sessions may have been, they proved to be the most memorable and rewarding. The opening keynote with Kristina Robbins and Jo McGinley had the audience doing design yoga, and being aware of how we interact with others. Sam Harrison, one of my favorite speakers from Denver, followed up with teaching us to play, explore and act silly to find inspiration the following morning. What’s not to love about throwing paper planes, pointing and screaming at complete strangers and sniffing Kool-Aid. Peleg Top began his session later that day, by not only forcing you to interact with a total stranger, but to actually brainstorm about your business with them. His session was terrifying and invigorating at the same time particular since it started with everyone laughing for a full minute while looking strangers in the eyes.

I would have loved to see less designers walking out of those sessions when forced to connect with a stranger, but sadly it happened at these three sessions more than any of the others that I attended. I completely understand how intimidating it is to have a conversation with someone you’ve never met, but every time I do it I’m amazed at how awesome most people are. Designers are shy, and I’m no exception. When you’re at HOW shyness doesn’t count. I’ve met some amazing people just from having the courage to be the first person on the dance floor, and you have to learn to take that chance.

Panning for water in a river of gold.

I didn’t have to look hard to find nuggets of inspiration with almost every session having brilliant insight, practical application and “I want to do that” inspiration. Here’s a list of the biggest nuggets I took from all of the sessions that I attended.

  1. “Decoding the Meaning of Design” Michael Cotton & Rob Swan — Break down brand traits to a molecular level and rebuild.
  2. “Color Strategy, Forecasting & Expressions” Jack Bredenfoerder — Color psychology is bullshit. Context gives meaning to color.
  3. “Designing for Icons” Moira Cullen — Iconic brands have the confidence to be simple, honest, and in tune with current trends.
  4. “To Plan or Not to Plan” Luke Mysse — Make big juicy goals that convince others that you’re crazy.
  5. “Being a 24/7 Creative Pro” Steve Gordon — Always be curious and earn your sleep.
  6. “Intro to Marketing for Freelancers” Ilise Benun — Simplify your marketing approach with daily, weekly and monthly tasks.
  7. “I Want to Make a Million Dollars” Monique Elwell — Define your sales funnel.
  8. “Becoming a Hired Gun” Von Glitschka — Show the work you want to do, and most importantly don’t suck.
  9. “Being Available in the Moment” Kristina Robbins and Jo McGinley — Understand how you influence others and situations with your body language.
  10. “Galumphing, Goats on Roofs and Other Revelations to Spark Inspiration” Sam Harrison — Learn to play and be a kid again through your work.
  11. “Creativity” Peleg Top — Infuse your business with what’s important to you, and take chances everyday.
  12. “Fee + Equity: How to Charge Less and Make More” Kevin McConkey — We don’t sell solutions. We minimize the risk for the solution.
  13. “Who Died and Made You Boss?” James Victore — Design doesn’t happen in the studio, production does. Find your muse.
  14. “Lead Generation 101: How to Make Your Site Into a Business-Generating Machine” Mark O’Brien — Develop personas instead of defining a general target market.
  15. “Letter for a Living” Jessica Hische — Learn your type designers not just the foundries that sell their creations.
  16. “Fascinate: How to Persuade and Captivate” Sally Hogshead — Use the right triggers to attract the ideal client. Be the orange ticket.

Put a bird on it.

Twitter BirdSocial media is an important part of any conference experience, but you should use it as a means to make those face-to-face connections. Twitter is perfect for finding out where groups of HOWies are spending time after the sessions close, or for letting people know that you want to meet them in person. This year I sent a tweet a few weeks prior to the event with a list of people I wanted to meet that I’d been following and, more importantly, interacting with on twitter over the past year or two. I met everyone that I intended to meet, and even a few people I didn’t expect to meet. People like David Ashcraft, Kelli Langdon, Jon Sandruck and Cami Travis-Groves are just a handful of the awesome friends that I’ll continue to stay in touch with over the following year. I’ve already begun setting up a list of people that I need to hangout with in Boston next year like Maria Singleton, Jasmine Wabbington and Crystal Reynolds.

Sometimes you have to get pancakes at 2 am.

A big group of old and new HOW friends decided to get pancakes after the Neenah Paper party, and I was fortunate enought to be invited. I could have easily said, “No, I need to go back to my room and salvage the little sleep that I can get before the final morning panels,” but that’s not what the conference is about. The biggest inspiration of the HOW Conference is meeting and connecting with a passionate group of creatives that have the same drive, frustrations and sense of humor. Von Glitschka told me, “This is what the conference is really about.” Getting together with your colleagues, pushing each other to be better and make our industry better is the true spirit of the conference.Where else can you learn that Emeril Lagasse agrees that corned beef hash always slays chicken fried steak?

The new connections that I made, and the old connections that I revisited help me remember why you can never burn out on HOW Live. I decided to take Luke up on his double dog dare, and I’ve set my big juicy goal to speak at HOW Live. In addition to coming to terms with my fear of revolving doors that I developed in 9 days in Chicago, I’ll be developing my presentation skills to engage and inspire in the same way all of the great HOW Live speakers did this year. I hope to meet you next year in Boston if not sooner.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to follow on Twitter or stalk me on Facebook.

Previously on Untapped Creativity…

I sat down to talk with my wife Nicole Dobbs, about creativity in the science field. The second part of the interview shows exactly how nerdy research scientists can get. You can check out part 1 here.

Getting back to you not thinking that you’re smart enough. Smartness is relative depending on what you’re talking about. I look at that as more of an inner critic. If you had to characterize your inner critic as being a character from a movie, novel or famous person who would it be?

I go back to, especially girls, you have body image issues. I think in that case, it’s probably the stupid valley girl that everybody wants to punch in the face. “Like, oh my gawd! Look at yer big butt!” (laughs) It’s stuff like that.

And there’s always going to be days like yesterday. I was doing an experiment, and the spazzy little critic started freaking out. “There’s never going to be enough time! There’s never going to be enough time!” I started freaking out, because I’m not sure if I did this experiment right. I don’t know that I did the best design for this, and I could have screwed up the whole thing. I had to tell myself, “You need to shut up.” (laughs) And this is probably the same one that when I was going on my interviews for post-doc positions made me start freaking out. “You don’t know anything. The simplest question will get you much further.You don’t anything.” You saw me that morning before I went to that interview, and I had to realize that I’m my own worst enemy. I need to just stop, take a deep breath, and remember that I listen. I listen a lot, and I retain a lot of information. I know a lot of basic stuff. A lot of times when you’re solving problems you start with the simplest solution. Because the simplest question you can ask will get you much further.

I think I have a lot of critics. I think they all look different. I think the most descriptive one is the self-image one who’s the valley girl that I just want to punch in the face.

So that’s the one that you’re most familiar with, but I imagine that one has been there a long time.

Yeah, but you know what? I will agree with you, and this is going on record. The older that I’ve gotten, you’re going to get uglier as you get older…

I don’t think that’s what I said, but we’ll go with it.

(laughs hard) but one of the things that I’ve realized is that I don’t care as much. It’s not as important. We’re all at different stages of our life. I’m never going to be perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make me ME. If I looked perfect, or I looked like I was in a magazine, I would be Barbie. And Barbie is pretty plastic. I’m me. I have a lot of imperfections. I’m not afraid of getting a scar. Those will define me. If I do get a really cool scar, I’m going to come up with a really cool story about how I got it. It’s probably going to involve zombies and robots.

Zombies have come up twice now.

I said Resident Evil. I didn’t say zombies!

We all now what you meant. You clearly have this obsession with zombies. Knowing that you feel so strongly about zombies, do you think zombies should be allowed to vote?

Okay, to answer your question, because I don’t know if I’ve answered any of your questions. (laughs hard) I would say no, because their vote is probably easily swayed with some brains. Then I really do think that everybody deserves the right to vote, but then I went totally the other way with it. They do deserve the right to vote, because you never know the zombies may actually elect a good zombie senator that may actually do better than the ones we have now.

So you would back a zombie-based platform.

I might back a zombie-based platform. I might be a part of a zombie platform, oh, unless project Alice is going to come kill me. But then I’d get to meet one of my heroes.

What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a PhD?

My first piece of advice for people getting a PhD would be, don’t have a fulltime job. Don’t work fulltime. It’s easier said than done, especially if you live on your own. You can’t do science and a fulltime job. It’s just too much, because then you’re never home. You might as well just live in the lab.

Your going to have days where you feel like everything you touch turns to shitDon’t give up. If you really love it, you’re going to have bad days. Everybody knows that if you love something that you do there’s always a downside. I think that the careers we end up in have more of an upside than a downside. The upsides are so much better that we can get through the downside of it. You’re going to have days where you feel like everything you touch turns to shit. (laughs) You need to step away from it, and go for a walk. Take the dog for a walk. You’re going to have hard times, but it’s worth it if you really want to do this. You’re going to have to be able to get through those hard things. You going to have to learn things that you don’t want to learn.

The best advice that I ever received was from Dr. Simecka. “What is the question your trying to answer?” Take that and make it into a story that you can follow. You can explain to people what it is that you’re trying to study.

Just remember if you’re going to do this, it’s not easy. It’s going to take a chunk of your life. Most people will not understand why it’s taken you seven years to get through this, and you can’t really describe it to them because they don’t know unless they’ve been there. Just stick with it, because in the end it will be worth it.

So do you find that getting out of your normal routine or going outside rejuvenates your creativity?

I think so. I have several friends that were freaking out about taking their medical boards, and I understand because I am SO not a test taker. They were doing the same thing that everybody does — locking themselves in the house and studying. I told them, “Okay, you need to go outside, and you need to take a thirty minute walk. I know you’re freaking out, because you’re thinking oh my god, oh my god. You’re brain will thank you.” Exercise I think is probably the best thing in the world. I think it’s almost the cure-all for a lot of diseases. You know if people actually got out and exercised more their body would thank them, but your brain I think really resets. There’s something about it. I don’t know if it’s getting away from what you were doing, but you’re outside, you’re walking, you’re exercising and for me, if you can’t already tell, I talk 15 miles an hour. I’m a little bit of a spaz.

You’re a little calm this morning.

That’s a five mile run, baby!

I am a spaz. My brain goes a million miles an hour. I think we’ve joked about this, that I’m probably a little ADD. What I’ve noticed is that when I get out there my brain is all over the place. It’s thinking about everything. It’s playing back scenarios. It’s playing back conversations. It’s thinking about what I watched on TV. It’s thinking about what I’m going to do next week, in a year, in 12 years. And it’s going all over the place, which I think is kind of good, but then at some point it starts to slow down. And then it reorders itself.

If you have a problem that’s on your mind that you’re going around 50 million ways, sometimes when you comeback from that walk you have that solution. Or you have a place to start, or new way of looking at it.

My previous guest Jeni Herberger has a question for you. Was there ever a moment during your PhD that you wanted to throw in the towel? How did you end up overcoming it?

Yes! (laughs) There’s been a number of occasions where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel. Every step of the way was scary. You were there with me going up in the elevator when I was going to my oral exam. It felt like going to the guillotine.

For those of you that don’t know, I have a 45 minute commute to get to the school. Tad had to drive me on that day, because I was so freaked out. I was going up in the elevator, and I’m pretty sure I was having a panic attack. I ran into the chair of my committee, and he looked at me, which I’m sure I looked horrible. I said, “Dr. Easom, I don’t think I can do this.” He said, “Take a deep breath. All we want to know is what you know. That’s it.” So, that helped me get past it.

Then for my grant writing exam, I was able to drive myself. But it once again felt like I was going to the guillotine. It was weird though. I don’t what happened, but I relaxed more. I gave my presentation, and I guess I realized that I was really doing it, that I actually am a scientist.

I think during grant writing there was a point where I thought I was having a panic attack, too.

That’s the one that I most vividly remember. You were just so upset on my office floor, and you couldn’t put together a sentence. You were just hysterical. I’ve never seen you that stressed out.

It’s because when you go for many days without sleep, or with only little bits of sleep you really can’t focus.

Sleep is really important everyone.

I’m really good at not getting sleep, but you really should make sure that you get sleep. That’s probably where a lot of that came from, and the stress of everything. It was crazy. Me and Sheetal, my good friend, talk about grant writing as if it was the Vietnam War. Like we’re veterans. (laughs) It was a really important step in our career, and we got past it. I really feel like once you get past it you should get some kind of girl scout badge or boy scout badge for that.

It was even worse towards the end. Not so much writing my thesis as much as doing the experiments, because I think we were still going in one direction in March, and I couldn’t prove what I thought I was trying to prove. I was so unhappy. “Why is this not working?” I even made Dr. Simecka miss his poker game, because I was like “This is not working!” He said, “We can try this.” And I was like, “THAT’S GOING TO TAKE ME ANOTHER MONTH!” That was the day that I walked to my car and I put on one of my anthems — Broken Social Scene’s “It’s All Gonna Break.” I cried walking all the way to my car. I cried all the way in my car on the drive home. I think I got home at 8 o’clock that night. When I came in, you looked at me, and I had big puffy eyes. You were like, “It’s gonna be okay.” I guess it looks like a funeral when I come in like that.

Sometimes you’re going to get to the point where you just have to let it out. You can’t be tough all the time. When you’re in the car and nobody else is around, you can cry all the way home. And go to sleep, because the next day is going to be another day. Today is the day you’re going to figure it out. The story still came out good.

How did I overcome it? I think it’s a life lesson that my parents taught me a long time ago. You’re going to get knocked down, and you have to get yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going. Ultimately, at the end of it, just like with Frodo’s journey, although it did result in Frodo’s death… STOP LAUGHING!

I’m just laughing at how much of a nerd you are, because you brought up The Lord of the Rings and Resident Evil in the same interview.

Oh, my god. That was a long journey. I was like, “Oh my god. Are you going to get to Mordor? Would you just throw the damn ring!” (LAUGHS)

The longest journeys, the stuff that is the hardest to do is the stuff that’s worth doing. That’s really what I believe. That’s probably what’s kept me going. I think I’m going to get to the end, and at the end I’m going to figure it out. I hope that when I die that I get to go to heaven, and they’re going to tell me all the reasons why those experiments didn’t work like they were supposed to. (LAUGHS) They’re going to go, “Okay. Here it is, and here’s the book.” Or as my mom always tells me, it’ll be all the things that you’ve ever done wrong. (LAUGHS) It’s going to be the library of black books. And I told her one day when she told me that, that there are volumes on me. (LAUGHS)

Be sure to check back soon from Creative Exercise 2.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty hard to schedule time to sit down and interview your spouse. My wife, Nicole Dobbs, has been one of the biggest influences behind the topic of this blog series. When people first meet us and discover what we do for a living, they often assume since Nicole is a scientist, more specifically an immunologist, that she isn’t the creative one. We almost always respond by explaining how similar the thought process is for designing experiments and designing brands. I know that she’s just as passionate about the creativity in everyone as I am, so I’m thrilled that she gets to talk about her own approach to science in my next couple of posts. If you know her, it’ll come as no surprise that Nicole had a lot to say. It’s all great stuff, so I’ve split the interview into 2 posts.

Tell us a little bit about your background and your journey to get to where you are today.

I think I was always a weird kid. It goes back to what you talked about, you exhibit certain signs at an early age. And I think that I was always a great observer of small things like realizing that plants are actually living, and they move. But I think what really tipped my parents off more than anything else was in 6thgrade when we learned about the cell. You’re a mosaic of different kinds of cells. So your heart cells, your liver cells, your skin cells, they all work together. Within each one of those cells there are components that keep them running. We had to do a model of a cell, and it had to have all of the components that make a cell work. I was really into music, so I made mine like a little punk rocker cell. I ended up making a 98 or a 100 on that test just because I just found it so interesting.

I think my parents always knew I liked science, and before I went off to the University of North Texas they made me pick a major. (laughs) So, they sat down — actually it was just my mom that sat down — and started reading majors to me. It was so funny, because she got to Biology and said, “You’ve always been good at science.” So, she read the description for biology. “It’s the study of life, but it’s also classifying things in their kingdom, phylum, class, order, blah, blah, blah.” And I found that really boring, but when she got to biochemistry, which talked about the components of the cell, RNA and DNA, I was like “Okay, that sounds cool!” And then I just started down that path. The further I went down the path the more interesting it got. At UNT there were a lot of people working with micro-organisms — manipulating their DNA, which I thought was just the coolest thing on the planet.

So, I got into that, but ultimately I arrived at where I am now which is studying cellular immunology. Micro-organisms are awesome, but pathogens are even cooler! If you get infected by a few pathogens, they can make you sick and kill you. That’s pretty crazy! On the other side, your body has these awesome mechanisms to fight them off.

That’s how I got to where I am. I love immunology, and I love pathogens. And I love them both equally.

Recently you finished graduate school. What was your degree in specifically?

Well, on my actual GIGANTIC diploma, I believe, it’s a PhD in Bio-Medical Sciences which sounds SO generic. But it’s actually the study of immunology, particularly micro-biology and immunology. That’s what I study.

What are you planning to do now that you’ve got your PhD?

Well, I find that I’m most interested in staying in academia. You pretty much get to a point, at least as a scientist, in your career where you have to decide, “Do I want to go into industry, where I work for a company? Or do I want to stay in academia?”

I decided I wanted to stay in academia, and I came to that conclusion, most importantly, because to me, it is actually more creative. You may be doing your studies, but then you come across a weird idea, and maybe you can follow that for a little while. You never know where that’s going to lead. So, that’s the route I’m going.

You’ve touched on an interesting idea that academia is a little more creative. People generally are not going to think of science as creative. What is it specifically that you find creative in science?

It’s so funny, because I just had a conversation with one of my colleagues who was insistent that she wasn’t creative even though she’s a bio-physicist. She insisted that creativity is like a Van Gogh or a Francis Bacon where you physically look at the products they come up with, and you have a strong emotional reaction. I was telling her “No, you don’t understand. We’re just as creative.” It’s just we’re creative in more of a “Hey! Here’s a bunch of Legos, why don’t you start putting them together and see what you can make out of it or see what comes out of it.” We’re creative, just differently. (laughs)

How would you define creativity in its most basic terms? What to you is creativity?

I’ve thought about it, and that’s a really interesting question. It’s difficult to answer, because everybody thinks creativity is like a Jackson Pollock painting. You look at it and you’re like “Wow! That guy really knew what he was doing, but I could never come up with that. Or I could never paint that.” I think in the science field, it’s more about… So this is how I described it to the lady I was talking to. I said, “Haven’t you ever been in the Creativity is figuring out what you can do to answer your question.middle of an experiment and something goes terribly wrong?” because you weren’t paying attention or because you just didn’t expect it. So, literally, you’re jogging down the path, and BOOM something goes wrong. What are you going to do? You can’t scrap this entire experiment that you spent 2 months working on. All you can do is come up with some solution on the fly to figure out how to salvage whatever kind of data you can salvage. That’s on immediate terms, but in the long-term it’s, “We’re thinking about our problem, and we’re thinking about what kind of question we want to ask about this problem that could lead us down a path to the answer for something.” The problem is we don’t know how to answer it, so we have to design experiments to answer a question. I mean there are some basic experiments that have already been designed, or have been put through the mill. Everybody does those. Flo-cytometry. Oh yeah, that’s great! Everybody believes it. But sometimes you have to be more creative than that. You have to figure out what you can do to answer your question. That involves a lot of design of the experiment and creativity in and of itself.

Do you think creativity defines you, or do you define your creativity?

I think that you define your own version of creativity. I think it fits whatever solution. You use it how you use it. You just don’t realize you’re doing it. And when you realize you’re doing it you’re like “Oh!”

Would you say it’s a trait that has to be taught or is it a talent you’re born with?

I think it’s a little bit of both. Some people are more gifted. Thelonius Monk was clearly musically gifted. Now, we can also say that maybe some of that was enhanced by drugs just like Coltrain, but some people are just naturally talented. Some people can draw better than others. You can learn to draw, but some people don’t have to sit down and think about it. They can just do it. I think that everybody to a certain degree is born with it, but I think you learn to use it. In other cases, like the person I was talking to, when you point out to them “You know you’re being creative.” They kind of freak out “No, I’m not!” and then the magic’s gone. The magic that they used to answer whatever the question is gone.

Were you born with creativity or did it develop? Do you think hard about what you do or does it come naturally?

It’s both. I think where I’m probably most creative, and I think a lot of people would agree with this, is probably where I’m not trying. I LOVE to make people laugh, especially in awkward situations or when weird stuff happens. I love to tell stories. I might embellish my stories a little bit and do people’s voices. The wit comes to me. It just kind of happens, but it’s because I LOVE to make people laugh. I get on a roll, and I start telling stories.

When I use what I consider my creativity for my experiments, I spend a lot of time thinking about them. I think about them on paper, and I write them out. A lot of times I find when I sleep at night that I probably spent most of the night thinking about whatever problem that I’ve been focusing on. It almost overwhelms me to where I stop paying attention to conversations, because I’m thinking so hard about this one problem.

So it’s kind of both. I think when I’m relaxed and making people laugh, it just kind of rolls out of me. But when I’m applying it to science, it’s actually something that I’m using, and I have to think really hard about.

Do you consider yourself to be living an outwardly creative life?

No, I don’t think I necessarily live an outwardly creative life, because I think in general if you put you and I side by side everyone will go “Oh yeah! He’s the creative one.” Especially with my mom. My whole family thinks that you’re Jackson Pollock and you throw paint at a canvas. (laughs)

And we both know that’s not true at all.

NO! I do find it really nice, because a lot of times when we’re decorating I get so overwhelmed. Even when I shop for clothes, because there are too many choices and too many colors. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to do and where to go. A lot of times I have to rely on you to go “Okay, well what do you think about this.” You can find something that I think sticks out, or that you know I’ll like. Then we can start there. When we start there, it’s like “Okay! Now I understand.” So, that kind of stuff I like doing, and I don’t like doing.

I guess most people wouldn’t say that I live an outwardly creative life. But I think living with a graphic designer has made my life much easier and much more interesting.

How does it feel to have recently completed your PhD?

It feels like I climbed Mt. Everest. (chuckles) It’s so weird, because this is really only the beginning of my career. I’ve been in school for seven years, but about ten years ago was when I was seriously thinking about going back to get a PhD.  When you get an undergraduate degree in something like BioChemistry, and you’re like “All right! Now I’m going to go and get a job!” You get paid very little to be a technician. Though that was probably the smartest thing that I ever did, because the two years being a technician allowed me to understand how to work in a lab which is really important. But I have to be honest with you, and maybe you know this, I really didn’t think that I was ever going to be able to do it.


I didn’t think that I was smart enough. I thought to be a scientist that you had to be a super-genius, maybe a mad scientist. That you had to understand what a flux capacitor was. (chuckles)

Why would you pursue something that you didn’t think you could accomplish? Are you that glutton for punishment or is that just what you told yourself?

Yes! (laughs)

There was that little glint that was like “You don’t know if you don’t try.” I still love it. It’s kind of hard to describe.

90% of the time our experiments are going to fail. It’s not the failure of the experiment. You shouldn’t be upset by that. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the experiment and the data telling you that is NOT the answer. You need to try something else. I did a bunch of experiments. I got a bunch of data. But the day that you do the simplest experiment, and then everything you’ve ever done comes together that feeling will top no other feeling in the world. When you do little accomplishments, little experiments that work, it’s like solving a mystery. It’s very much like when we were in college, and we had the Salvador Dali poster on the wall. I don’t even remember what it was, but it was the craziest picture in the world. It had the elephants with the stretched out legs. It had the melted clocks. It had the baseball player with the baseball for a face. It used to aggrevate me. Every morning I’d wake up, and I’d sit up and look at that poster. And I would think, “Today is the day I’m going to figure out what this poster means.” By the way, I have never figured out what that poster means. One day I came up with a good theory (chuckles) as to what it was.

I remember you had several “theories” which you explained quite often, but I don’t know that there is an explanation.

There probably isn’t, but I was going to make sense of it. (laughs) Because it AGGREVATED me, and I think that’s what drives me. Somewhere there’s a little voice in my head that everyday says, “Today is the day I’m going to figure it out.” For me, life is one giant detective mystery, and today is the day that I’m going to figure it out. I hope that I never lose that, because I think that’s what keeps me going.

Be sure to check out the exciting conclusion of my interview with Nicole Dobbs.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

Cultivate Your Creativity

My first interview with Jeni Herberger brought up the idea that creativity is making something, and that we have to give people the room to be creative in the way that they want. Jeni and her husband have made creativity a part of their life through organic avocado farming. I’ve noticed with all of the interviews that I’ve done so far, that everyone has a point that they light up. It’s finding that passion that gets their energy going. Often that passion reveals their secret creativity, or the thing that brings them the most joy. For Jeni, the excitement and energy level went through the roof when she spoke about her avocado farm. Considering how energetic she is “through the roof” may be an understatement.

The first of the creativity exercises captures that very spirit of hidden passion through the use of an idea tree.

Step 1: Draw a line in the middle of a sheet of paper.

Step 2: Write a single or two word topic that means a lot to you centered under the line. (This is the idea seed)

Step 3: Write a word that you immediately associate with the idea seed. (This is the trunk)

Step 4: Write a word that you associate with the trunk. (These are the branches)

Step 5: Write a word that you associate with the branches.

Step 6: Continue writing associations and creating branches.

The key to the exercise is to not think too hard about the words, and to jump around to different branches. You don’t want to think too linearly. Here’s what I did for this exercise.

Idea Tree Example for Music

A lot of times I’ll use an exercise similar to this to get my brain juiced up at the start of a new project. In the case of logo design, I’ll do a visual idea tree or mind map of around 100 ideas before I begin refining. Be sure to read part 1 and part 2 of my interview with Jeni Herberger, and check back soon for my next interview with immunologist Nicole Dobbs for Untapped Creativity.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

For part 2 of my interview with Jeni Herberger we talk about creativity, public speaking, and we even talk a little shit. Don’t forget to check out part one.

What was the impetus behind you becoming a more prominent public speaker particular with HOW and AIGA?

It was quite accidental. I get a high or rise out of feeling other people’s energy shift from being negative to being positive, or to see them overcome fears. Fears that I don’t really have. Or to see them be hopeful about something maybe they weren’t ever hopeful about. I can literally feel the charge in a room change when I’m talking about something.

I’ve done it in different arenas throughout my life. When I was a very young adult it was for my family. Making a difference for my family. In front of people that I worked with as a photographer and creative director. And then when my company got big, as far as employees are concerned, it was about making differences in their lives. About feeling that charge, that energy for my clients, too. I’ve always enjoyed it.

And then, somebody said, “Why don’t you talk about it?”

What would you say is the hardest presentation you’ve had to get through and why?

The very first time that I had to give a client presentation, not a speaking presentation, but a client presentation. My partner couldn’t make it, so I just went and did it by myself. I walked in to this very, very corporate office. You’ve seen how I dress. I dress pretty stylishly and not very much like a designer. (laughs) I walk into this corporate office. I’m like “Okay, this is going to go great! This is going to go great!” I look into the room, and it is a boardroom of about I’d say 18-20 men all wearing blue suits, red ties and white shirts. And they’re all at least 45, 50 years old and up. And I literally thought to myself “Oh shit! This is going to be horrible. They are going to slaughter me.” I’m this little girl, all by myself going to give this presentation. So, I walk into the room, and nobody stood up. So, I just stood there. And finally, the CEO goes, “Well, why don’t you have a seat.”

I said, “Well, a lady just entered the room, and not one gentleman stood up. So, I’ll wait until ya’ll decide to do that.”

That’s awesome!

And so at that moment, everything broke and I put myself on equal footing with them. (laughs) I figured if I could tackle that one I could pretty much tackle anything, right?

So, did the presentation end up going well after that?

Oh yeah. We totally won it, and it was awesome. It was great, but I knew that those guys were going to eat me alive. I knew that they were instantly going to take off on a very chauvinistic approach, and I was like “Yeah, this isn’t going to happen.” So, instead of balking and rebelling against being a woman I just totally played into it. (laughs) It was a lot of fun. It’s one of my favorite stories I think to this day.

Tell me a little bit about you’re companies.

I actually own five companies. Because you’re required to box all of these into separate entities, right? But what’s really, really funny about it is the only one that I would consider to be a business in the traditional sense of the word is Big Fish Staffing.

And you know, that was an amazing adventure. An adventure that really brought me to the place that I am today both financially and just in how it is that I go about doing what it is that I do. It was tremendously successful, which is awesome, because it’s afforded me the opportunity to do what I’m doing right now. It’s become a bit of a ministry for me for lack of another word. To where I don’t have to worry about whether I’m making a zillion dollars when I’m out talking to people. I truly get to be a human advocate. You know, a minister, call it whatever it is that you want to call it.

Jeni Herberger Logo

And then, the whole branding yourself is always a very interesting thing. I’m not branding a design firm. I am literally branding me, and that’s a trip and a half to brand yourself. Because it can have a tendency to be a bit on the egotistical side, and you’re like “Whoa, whoa, whoa! I am not quite that egotistical. We gotta humble this thing out a bit.” So, that’s [Jeni Herberger Creative Concepts] another business venture if you will.

And then, we have an avocado farm in Hawaii which is just weird.

That’s not weird.

Well, how many people do you know that have avocado farms? (laughs)

Apparently just one, but I love avocados. So I wouldn’t consider that weird at all. I could see myself having an avocado farm just to be able to eat my product.

(laughs) There you go! We actually yield about 6000 pounds of avocados a year, and it’s so bizarre to literally have the luxury, if you will, to throw avocados away. When you buy them over here on the mainland you spend two and half to three bucks for an avocado, and it tastes like crap in comparison to what comes off of our farm. It’s an organic farm. It’s just so amazing. So, that’s just another business, crazy side venture that we have. We make like $3000 off of it a year. It’s awesome!

Have you had to learn a lot about farming or did you know a lot ahead of time?

I had to learn a lot of it, although what was so funny about it was, the first house that we looked at over there was a coffee farm. And we decided that that wasn’t for us. We didn’t like the location as much. So, then when we started looking around, and we actually found this avocado farm. I started laughing my ass off when we seriously considered doing that, because my dad and his dad were the first people to ever put an avocado on an airplane.

So, back in the day, in San Bernardino County my dad and his dad and my dad’s brother owned Herberger & Sons which was an avocado processing business where they transported them. And they had a crazy idea of putting gourmet avocados on a plane, and sending them to the east coast. Nobody had ever done that before. And so, avocados are in the blood. So hilarious when I bought this farm. I called my dad and I’m like “Oh my god, dad. I’m going back to our roots.” And I never even grew up on an avocado farm.

Give people the space to be creative in the way that they wantThere’s nothing better than seeing your husband who grew up in Spokane, Washington and had never done anything like that with a pickup truck full of chicken shit. And he’s spreading it around 80 trees. (laughs)

But see that’s when you get back to what you’re talking about and creativity. That’s a creative life. And I think that’s something that we can all pull into. What we have to be able to do, is we have to be able to give people the space to be creative in the way that they want to be creative.

Who’s been the biggest influence in your life, particularly who influenced you to go the route that you did?

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my dad, and right next to him my mom, because they’re so connected as a couple. I grew up in an all male family, meaning I have all brothers. And my parents were pretty traditional, but they had one of the first marriages I’ve ever seen that was truly a partnership where it wasn’t about roles. It was about getting it done. And my dad realized very early on that I had a pretty good head on my shoulders, and not only that (laughs) he called me a hustler. I’d go after things. And so simply because I didn’t have a penis that did not matter to my father. He pushed me in the most loving and wonderful ways, yet always expected me to act like a lady. He didn’t ever want me to change that aspect, but he wanted me to be able to conquer the world however I saw fit.

And right next to him was always, always my mom with that big smile on her face going “Yep! You can do it. You can do anything you want to do.”

Do you find that you have that same influence on your kids?

I hope so! I think so. It’s always hard when you’re in the moment when you’re with you’re kids, because you sit there and you go “Oh my god, do they really love me? Do they really know everything that I’m doing for them and how hard I’m trying.” You know, being in it is very, very difficult. I think the joy comes once you’re outside of it, and you get to look back. And you get to go “Oh thank god they are well-adjusted!” (laughs)

If you’d like to find out more about Jeni visit, or follow on twitter @jeniherberger. And be sure to tune in to Talk Story to hear her do the interviewing!

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

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 JournalJeni Herberger Logo 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.Creativity is making whatever it is you want.

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, or follow on twitter @jeniherberger.

Check out part two of my interview with Jeni Herberger.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

Beakers with a pencil

Starting next week, I’ll launch the first of many posts about creativity in non-creative industries. It’s a topic that has continued to come up my whole life, and most specifically when people are first introduced to my wife. She’s a scientist, an immunologist to be more specific, and I’m a graphic designer, or creative to be less specific. More often than not people immediately ask what our conversations are like with her being left brain and me being right brain. The assumption is based on the misconception that science involves math, theory and reasoning (non-creativity), and that graphic design involves drawing, painting and brainstorming (creativity). Honestly, we’re a little of both. Designing an experiment follows the same process as designing a logo, we just use different tools and have different outcomes. In other words, we both use facts and strategy to define the problem, and we use imagination to test a solution.

I’ve had a long-standing hypothesis that everyone is creative, and we all use that creativity everyday to solve the problems in our life whether that be at work, home or anywhere in-between. To test my theory, I’ve interviewed people mainly outside the traditionally creative industries to see how they define their creativity. I’ve also interviewed a few people in creative industries as a control. An interesting trend started coming out as I conducted the interviews. People either asked, “Why would you interview me? I’m not creative. I’m just a ________,” or they would ask, “Did you pick me, because you know that I like to paint, draw or play music?”Creativity is being able to imagine while having the courage to act.

One of the main questions that I’ve asked in all of my interviews is “How do you personally define creativity?” The answers are truly amazing and more varied than I ever expected. So, I’d like to start this new series off with how I define creativity.

From day to day, I use my imagination to think of ideas and solutions for clients and myself, but if I didn’t use analytical thinking, processes and a touch of obsessive compulsive behavior then the solutions would never come to life. While I don’t deny my job is creative, I also understand that it isn’t always so. Just as my job and life are sometimes creative, I’m convinced that the same is true for all of us.

Over the course of the next year, I’ll be posting these interviews, and I encourage you to ask myself and the interviewees questions. Check back soon for the first in a series of interviews. My first guest is the wonderfully, brilliant Jeni Herberger.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

Part 6 of The Paper Cuts SeriesThe Standard 4 and A Field Guide to Folding

Though the design industry has changed in many ways just since the 90’s, printing is still a thriving and vibrant source for connecting with consumers, and paper is the key. For this series, I’ve interviewed some of the best printers, paper reps, and designers to give their insights into how paper can strengthen your brand.

If you attended the HOW Conference in Denver last year then you may be familiar with Trish Witkowski from her packed session which launched “The Standard 4” from Sappi. In case you aren’t familiar, she’s all about folding. Prepare to have your mind folded in ways that you never thought possible.

Tell us a little bit about your background

I did my undergraduate work in graphic design, and worked full-time as a designer while I went for my master’s degree in printing from RIT. In studying design and print, I started to see the gaps in the resources available to the industry — resources that help the communication process between designers and printers. At the time, I had to come up with a thesis project, and one of the most nagging problems I was dealing with in my day job was the inconsistency of answers from printers with regard to what different folds were called (ex: accordion, z-fold, zig-zag, back and forth) and also how to set them up properly. So, I decided to research the topic. I defended an early version of what was to become my book FOLD: The Professional’s Guide to Folding to complete my degree, but spent another 5 years or so after that completing the research. That research in the book became the FOLDRite System, which is now a patented folding system that we use as a foundation for software that builds dynamic custom templates for folded materials. We launched foldfactory in 2002, but it was more of a proof of concept/demo site at the time. It has really been in the last 2-3 years that we have worked very hard to build the community and the video library and resources.

What first drew you to paper and specifically folding?

It’s amazing how a problem or minor interest can turn into passion. I really just wanted some definitive answers about nomenclature and file setup, and it’s become my full-time job, and something I really enjoy. I decided that if there was no resource for folding, I would build it myself. I’ve always seen the value in it, and I think others have started to see it, too.

How has the use of paper and folding changed over the course of your career, and what’s affected that role the most?

I think the technology of folding has improved, so we can do more, and produce it more efficiently. But I also think digital print and direct mail has had a huge impact on what people are doing — but these technologies provide an opportunity to do more and to get greater response from it. Variable data, PURLs, QR codes, all offer ways to enhance print and to create a two-way communication with an audience. Folding is a part of the process, but should be seen as a tool in the toolbox. A cool fold means nothing if the recipient doesn’t get the message and act on it. There should be careful thought and consideration for how the content is revealed and presented, and the fold can help or hinder that process.

Can paper define a brand? Can folding?

Hmmm… I’m going to say no. I think independently they would be limiting. If you decided that one fold was yours and all you’d ever do for any of your materials as your “signature” fold, I think that would be missing the point. Your information changes, and the folding style may need to change to best present that content. Paper might be a characteristic that would be part of a brand — if you always used a certain paper that is distinguishable, but I would say that if you always chose a quality paper, that would help define your brand, rather than a specific sheet. Paper colors and finishes can also come and go with trends, so I wouldn’t want to commit to one sheet and date myself. There’s also a necessary element of surprise in marketing — keep doing the same things and presenting them in the same way and your audience gets bored. Change the fold and the paper to keep things fresh.

Tell us a bit about the FOLDRite™ Template Master Software plug-in for InDesign.

FOLDRite™ Template Master is a plug-in for Adobe InDesign CS3 and CS4 (CS5 coming soon). It provides users with a quick and easy way to choose a folding style, customize it to their specific needs, and build production-ready InDesign folding templates instantly. Gate folds, roll folds, tri-folds, you name it. Template Master is the only dynamic, custom digital folding template creator for graphic arts professionals. With 85 folding styles to choose from, FOLDRite™ templates are mathematically adjusted for the folding process using industry-approved settings, and come complete with fold marks and panel cues in the slug area. Flash animated folding illustrations, the option to save presets, and useful educational information about each folding style helps designers to visualize, to stay on schedule, and on budget. You can get it at

How soon should you talk to your printer and paper rep during a project cycle? What are the advantages to collaborating with both?

Talk to them early. They are part of the team — and should be considered as such. Remember that you have to rely on the expertise of others to truly get the best result. A paper rep can help recommend a sheet that will perform well, or price well and perform well, and can give you weight recommendations, paper dummies, and possibly introduce a few sheets you haven’t considered. Your printer and bindery can guide you into proper file setup, sizing and production issues, and can save you from design decisions that could make the job more difficult or expensive to produce, or on the flip side, they can help you push the limits of the medium and do something really exciting. They’ve done a lot of projects and techniques you haven’t seen, and they may have some ideas that could make your design even better.

What are some the latest folding trends designers/agencies are using?

I’m seeing a surge in interest in proprietary solutions. There’s some amazing patented and branded solutions that are available — Zcard, Popout Branding, solutions from Structural Graphics, SmartMail, there are too many to list. These types of companies can offer high impact solutions in a tidy package for direct mail. I’m also finding that there is a world of folding solutions that no one has seen before, but once they see them, they want to use them the potential is there. For the Sappi road show I’ve been on recently, Sappi chose to do a Twist Fold (see photo), and the response has been amazing. All sorts of requests and inquiries about that fold. So, I see a trend coming where people are starting to explore new things.

Sappi Road Tour Twist Fold

What’s one of the most innovative folds you’ve seen?

I love all my folds, they’re my babies, but if I have to call out an innovative solution, I’ll pick the Book Cube from Structural Graphics. It’s a direct mail solution that offers an exploding dimensional cube that flies in the air when you open it. Whenever I pass that around, it gets a huge response. Direct mail is all about response, memorability, and making a connection with the recipient.

Where do you get the samples for your “60-Second Super Cool Fold of the Week.” and how many different shirts do you have? (My favorite is “Are You Going To Fold That?”)

I’ve been collecting for a long time, so I have a huge sample library, but people send me folds from all over the world, which is really fun. Everyone thinks I’m going to run out of cool stuff to show, but I’m really just getting started. I just did my 77th Fold of the Week segment, and I create a new shirt for each episode. I keep thinking I’ll run out of ideas, but those keep coming, too.

By the way, we just launched a Folded Inspiration design competition — we’re looking for the best in folded solutions for print. 11 categories, prizes, and a chance to get into the Folded Inspiration book at the end. It’s cheap to enter, and it’s all for a good cause. To learn more and to enter:

In what ways does paper choice effect you’re folding options?

Paper choice is everything when it comes to folding. Some folds are more sculptural, requiring a stiff sheet, and if a sheet that is too light is chosen, it becomes a floppy mess. You can choose a weight that is too heavy and get wrinkles in the corner joints of the folds and other stress-related issues. I could actually write a pretty long response about this, because there are so many reasons why paper affects the quality of the fold — weight, paper grain direction, the overall experience, etc. There’s a lot to consider.

Which paper stock would you be and why?

I think I’d be Curious Papers — for two reasons. The name — I’m always asking questions and doing research to try to get to the bottom of things and provide resources for myself and for the industry. Secondly, because they’re tactile and colorful and a little bit showy. Unconventional. I’m a strange bird — bookwormish much of the time, but I also like an audience.

If print is dead, why was your session at The HOW Conference in June, so packed? Did I attend the session with zombie designers?

haha! I know — it was a great crowd. When I first entered that huge room I was a little bit worried — we had no idea if anyone was going to show up, and then they started coming, and they didn’t stop. We were almost at standing room. I think the other thing to note that night was that out of almost 700 people, nobody left. Somebody ALWAYS leaves. They were engaged and it felt magical. I find that the content is really fresh for people. There’s a lot of talk about branding, logo design, web design, etc., but folding is a new topic for people, and once they realize that they have options, it’s like a new world of creativity opens up. They’re bringing me back for 2011, so I hope to see you there!

foldfactory logoIf you’d like to find out more about Trish or Fold Factory visit Signup to receive “The 60 Second Supercool Fold of the Week,” for a weekly dose of folding inspiration. Be sure to follow Trish on twitter @foldingfanatic, and become fans on facebook of Fold Factory. Finally, don’t forget to pick up a copy of “The Standard 4” from Sappi to learn the real names of the folds you love to use.

Like what you see feel free to email me at and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve helped clients add a touchy, feely side to their brands with paper.

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