Stefan Mumaw on Balancing Creative Outputs with Inputs

We recently had an inspiring exchange via e-mail with Stefan Mumaw — he’s a frequent HOW Design Live presenter, and with good reason. Mumaw’s workshops are like three-hour play dates for adults, full of movement and laughter and letting go of hangups and bad habits. He talked about why he’s cheating the system every time he gives a presentation, why he remembers every detail about his first HOW Design Live experience, and why he’s bring his daughter to Chicago.

For starters, give us the lowdown on Callahan Creek — tell me about this creative crew you work with. What are y’all doing out there in the Heartland?

Callahan Creek is a marketing agency focusing on specialty brands, the type of brands that rely on brand advocacy for a large share of their spread. It makes us approach advertising differently — our goal isn’t just to sell more product, but to create more advocates. We’re a full-service shop, everything from strategy to creative to media. We’re in Lawrence, KS, a total college town on the outskirts of Kansas City (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!). Lawrence has a quirk to it that is palpable, and the agency has absolutely inherited that flavor.

Seems like you’re adding more and more teaching and speaking to your to-do list. What do you enjoy about those activities? What do YOU get out of presenting? And is that sort of an outgrowth of your gigs with HOW?

I have been doing more teaching lately, yes. I’m thrilled that people are exploring the idea of creativity more and I’m honored that I get the privilege to explore it with them. I learn more about my own creative process with each session or workshop I’m in. I get far more out of it than it seems on the surface. To get to be in the room with amazing creative minds all solving the same silly, stupid problem I created is ridiculously inspiring. It makes me better. It’s all a big ruse, a sham, a bamboozle: Every opportunity I get to lead a workshop is much more self-serving than anyone knows. [Until now. Crap, I just told you, didn’t I?]

HOW has been the genesis of all of it, and it continues to be each year I’m fortunate enough to be asked to come out and play. Every year, HOW encourages me to keep reinventing and finding new ways to present creativity and ideation, they actually want me to experiment with sessions.

Stefan Mumaw speaking

You’ve written a lot about “feeding the beast” — keeping our creative minds fresh and productive by gathering new ideas and experiences and points of view. Why are those inputs so important to solving any kind of creative problem?

Most of what we do as professional creatives is output. We’re paid to create, we’re compensated to output. When we go home, we have responsibilities that require us to output more. We are output machines. Which would be fine if the source of that output was infinite, but it’s not. We are a well, and that well needs to be refilled in order to produce anything.

Being a professional creative means we understand that input is just as important to the process as output. We understand it in every other aspect of life but fail to get it in our creative processes. Our cars don’t magically keep full tanks, they run out and we have to refill. We get that. Our pantries aren’t perpetually stocked, we have to go to the store and refill it as we take things out. Our creativity is just as finite. It’s where the term “burned out” comes from. When our creative well is dry, we burn.

That’s why we have to feed the beast, we have to value input as much as output. What are we putting back in the pantry? Where is our inspiration coming from? What will drive us to push past the personal doubt we all have in our creative work to create something bright and wonderful? Without that refuel, without paying attention to our levels of input, our work becomes just that. Work. We’re just looking at how we can be done, not how we can create. And none of us want that. Every one of us has something that refills our creative pantry. For me, it’s the movies. I love the theater. When I get ‘too busy’ to go, I feel it in my creative work. I’m grumpy and unhappy. The work hasn’t changed, my view of it has. But when I’m filled up, when I’m inspired, I’m driven to let the little things slide and keep my eye on the bigger picture. Input. Is. Life.

When was your first HOW conference? Can you recall what that experience was like? What were the lingering “side effects” you took away from the conference?

The first time I attended HOW was in San Diego, 2004. I remember everything about it. I remember the pattern on the lobby floor, the smell of the bookstore, the sessions I saw.

But the most lasting feeling I took away was, “I’m not alone.” I went to a small school, worked at a small agency and was part of a small design community. When I walked in to that first main session and saw 3,000 designers there, all just looking for improvement and empowerment, I felt part of a club that I had no idea I was already a member of. I met people who had skills I didn’t have and thought about design in ways I never did. I had never been to a conference before, let alone a design conference. I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed my professional life. I heard Kevin Carroll speak about his red rubber ball and it resonated so much that I immediately began chasing mine. It was that influential. And every year I am asked to be a part of the conference, I see people with the same look in their eyes that I had.

You’re presenting a workshop on the first day of HOW Design Live, right? Plan to stick around for a day or three after that? Looking at the program, are there speakers or sessions that you’re looking forward to? In other words, what’s YOUR HOW Design Live?

I am presenting “Anatomy of a Brainstorm” on the first day of the conference. We’re going to break down how to run an effective brainstorm, including techniques that we can use to get the ideas flowing fast and furious.

After that, I’m sticking around for the whole conference, I wouldn’t miss it. And for the second year in a row, my daughter will be coming with me. She’s a junior in high school and has decided she wants to pursue design, which obviously warms my heart. I brought The Goose to her first HOW Design Live last year and she was floored. So this year, my HOW Design Live is really her HOW Design Live. As she learns more and more about the industry, she’s beginning to have sessions and people she wants to see. She’s a big Jim Krause fan, so she circled his “Sustainable Insanity” session first. I can’t argue, Jim teaches me something every time I hear him speak. She also loves Tobias Frere-Jones’s type designs, so she’s got his session earmarked, too.

Of course, I have a few sessions that I am circling, too. I’ve told her they’re for her but I think she’s on to me. I won’t miss my boys; Von Glitschka, Justin Ahrens, Chris Butler, and Sam Harrison, but I’m just as stoked to see Susan Credle from Leo Burnett, as well as Paula Scher from Pentagram. They are both absolute rock stars and amazing creative role models for my daughter as she starts her journey. I get to see the conference through The Goose’s eyes yet again, and it’s like reliving my youth. It’s going to be a great conference, maybe the best. It all depends on on how good Jim Krause is. C’mon, Jim. Don’t let me down 🙂

Plan YOUR HOW Design Live now: Choose your conference sessions and register for five days of inputs.