Chasing Down Creativity with Sam Harrison

I remember sitting in Starbucks one Thursday afternoon sipping a grande whatever while writing a post for the In-house Designer Blog. At 5:54 p.m. my iPhone alerted me that I received an invitation to join someone’s LinkedIn network. When I picked up the phone, that someone was Sam Harrison. THE Sam Harrison. The same Sam Harrison who authored Zing!, one of many great books he has written for creatives, as well as being a perennial favorite speaker at the HOW Design Live Conference. I respected Sam’s work so much and had become a real fan long before receiving his invitation. I thought, “How in the world does Sam Harrison know me?”

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When I read his kind and encouraging InMail, I felt like all the late nights writing blog posts from my experiences as an in-house manager (in the deepest of corporate trenches) were validated. My mind was blown. It took me almost a full day to figure out how to respond to Sam because I didn’t want to come off like a country bumpkin, even though I lived around a bunch of small towns including Lizard Lick, N.C.

What I like most about Sam is that he doesn’t put on airs. He is a genuinely good guy who immediately sets you at ease, drawing you in with his keen creative insights, unique brand of southern charm, and an accent that could only be dipped in warm molasses. A wildly talented giver, Sam wants all designers to learn how to spot the very best ideas to develop and share while making their careers truly zing throughout the process.

If you’ve got a few minutes, I suggest you kick back, grab a bite, and learn a few things you never knew about Sam Harrison. When you’re finished, register for HOW Design Live in Chicago by midnight tonight/Feb. 1 and get the lowest price for the whole conference—including his session Slay Your Zombies, Slash Your Zigzags, Show Your Zing! Enjoy my chat with author and speaker Sam Harrison.

Ed Roberts: Hey Sam, what’s for lunch?

Sam Harrison: I’m working at home today, so I’ll slap together a quick grilled cheese and arugula sandwich. I learned about this sandwich several years ago from our mutual friend Bryn Mooth and her writes4food blog. Bryn’s version is two kinds of cheeses and arugula—and I also add sliced pickled beets to mine and press it in our George Foreman grill, so it’s like a panini.

Ed: That sounds delicious! I’m having a boring protein shake. LOL! I’ve been wondering… what’s your earliest creative memory?

Sam: My mother had a theater and dancing background, so she made sure her children got heavy doses of creativity. When I was about three years old, she started a class called “Expression” for kids in our neighborhood. I have vivid memories of us in her music room reciting poetry, singing songs, learning dance steps, putting on skits, and writing stories—expressing ourselves in creative ways.

Of course, at the time, we boys would have preferred to be outside playing in the mud, but now I wouldn’t take anything for those memories—and the experience’s creative foundation.

Ed: Was there any opposition to your creative spirit?

Sam: No, as the Expression class demonstrates, our parents encouraged us to be creative. Saying  “I’m bored” was pretty much a cardinal sin in our household. My mother would reply, “Great—being bored means you get to invent something to do!” And she would expect me to perk up and get busy being creative—drawing, writing, making up a game, whatever.

That stuck with me. I think for most creative people, boredom becomes a motivator for action. Some people can just lounge around being bored, but I believe creative people abhor that condition and employ their imagination to seek relief.


Ed: You’ve worked in-house and then became an author—why?

Sam: I’ve worked in all arenas of creative communications—freelance, agency, consultant and, as you mentioned, for many years I directed a large in-house creative team for an S&P 500 firm.

Several years ago, I reached that satisfying career point where I could step back from being totally focused on “making a living” and look at ways to offer out what I learned along the way. Some of that is in areas of speaking and coaching, some in areas of teaching and writing, and some in areas of service work.

Ed: Your books and other writings focus mostly on generating ideas and presenting ideas, right?

Sam: Yes, having ideas and expressing ideas are two key elements of a creative life. But from childhood on, forces are often at work to inhibit our creativity. When we’re growing up, the suppressors might be parents or teachers, in adulthood, they may be bosses or clients—or rigid structures, meaningless paperwork, never-ending deadlines or even the morning headlines.

Creativity can’t be taught, but what I try to do is help people overcome creative inhibitors by reminding them of creative resources that already exist inside them—and help them discover or rediscover ways to tap into their well of imagination. After all, you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to chase it down with a rope and net.

That’s why I wrote ZING!, IdeaSpotting as well as speak and coach on creativity-related topics—to help people search out inspiration to keep their creative energy alive and flowing, even when facing deadlines, criticism and doldrums.

Ed: And then you wrote IdeaSelling to help people present their ideas?

Sam: Exactly. When I would give talks or workshops on creativity, people would often come up afterwards to say, “I have lots of ideas, but my boss and clients won’t approve them.” Those comments put me on the additional path of writing and talking about presentation skills and selling techniques for creative people.

It’s useless to be a creative thinker and have great ideas if we’re unable to express those ideas in ways that get them accepted by others.

Ed: What are three things you would recommend designers do to improve their ability to present their work?

Sam: When I coach people on presentation skills, one of the first things I say is be yourself—but be the best version of yourself. Be at the top of your game. Too often people say they want to “be natural,” so they give presentations in the same way they talk to friends in a bar or at a restaurant. And consequently they come across as disorganized, rambling and unprofessional. Rise up—when you present, people want you to be yourself, but they also expect a professional performance.

Next, practice what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. For God’s sake, don’t wing it. Top performers in sports, music and other endeavors have a saying: You play like your practice. And that’s also true with presentations. If you want to present effectively, practice effectively. Practice to get it right, and practice not to get it wrong.

And third, when presenting your idea, talk about the “so what” more than the “what.” Rather than “here’s what I’ve got,” veer toward “so what this idea means to you and your customers is…” Don’t try to sell the idea—instead, explain and sell the value that the idea has for decision makers and their customers.

Ed: Since you directed an in-house team during part of your career, how do you suggest in-house managers and their teams keep their motivations and passions alive and well while working in-house?

Sam: This can be an issue wherever we work, but I agree it is often more difficult in-house—maybe because of bureaucracy or maybe because clients are in the same organization and probably in the same building. This close proximity sometimes cramps creativity.

Clearly there are dozens of ways to stay motivated and passionate, but a one-word formula is curiosity. Curiosity is jet fuel for creativity and passion, so it’s important for in-house people to push themselves to be intensely curious about the organization and its products, employees, customers, shareholders, systems, facilities—everything.

John Cage used to say, “I’m trying to become unfamiliar with what I’m doing.” Getting past the familiar to become a beginner again re-inspired him. It’s similar with in-house creatives—it’s easy to become uninspired when surrounded by familiar systems, familiar people, familiar products, familiar customers. Deliberate curiosity can help team members discover ways to become unfamiliar with those surroundings—and rediscover the awe of a beginner.

Encourage curiosity by bringing in people from different areas of the organizations to talk about what they do and how they do it. Send team members out to ask questions to employees or customers, then have them develop talk boards or videos for the team meetings. Go into the marketplace on a regular basis and notice small details. Dig in.

Encourage curiosity in life. Creativity isn’t a 9-to-5 job, so challenge team members to get out and pay acute attention to shops and restaurants, streets and parks, young kids and old people, anything and everything. Seeking outside inspiration is an obvious tactic, but it can be forgotten if in-house creatives are totally focused on their in-house world.

And when one team member gets inspired, urge them to inspire others. As Plato talked about in the Ion, the muse inspires a person, then that person shares their inspiration and a chain is formed.

Ed: Really great insights, Sam! Who are some of your creative heroes and how have they influenced your creative sensibilities, aesthetics and work?

Sam: I have so many and my list keeps growing. Take people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was browsing in an airport store, picked up a thick book about Alexander Hamilton and turned it into a blockbuster, hip hop musical.

This morning I was admiring the creativity of two young women, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, who started The Skimm—a punchy, inviting online news update. It’s really targeted to young urban women, but it’s so well done that I go to it almost every morning.

But let me quickly talk about three creative people I’ve gotten to know from some recent readings: David Plowden, Mariam Rothschild and Louis Agassiz. I see them as creative heroes because all three have helped people learn to see and observe life in inspiring ways.

David Plowden, as you know, is a photographer who uses a large format camera to take incredible black-and-white photos of abandoned buildings, farm machinery, gas stations, freight yards and railroad stations. While Plowden’s subjects are mundane, his photographs are mesmerizing. You’re compelled to stop and really look and study every detail.

Mariam Rothschild was a British natural scientist and author with broad knowledge. For example, one thing she was an expert on was fleas, if you can imagine that. “If you were a flea,” she would tell people, “you could jump to the height of Rockefeller Center about 30,000 times without stopping.” And she would say, “My microscope is my marijuana,” because looking at tiny things gave her such a huge high.

Even though she lived to the ripe old age of 96, Rothschild often said her life could never be long enough, with all there was to see and learn. To me, that’s a creative life at its finest.

And do you know of Louis Agassiz? He was a Harvard biology professor long ago. He was a major creative figure at the time and a friend to other creative giants like Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow and Hawthorne.

He earns my ballot as a creative leader because of the way he taught his biology students to observe. He would make students stare at a dead fish in a tin pan for days at a time, then have them write and draw about what they saw. “Look at your fish!” was his constant mantra, emphasizing that discoveries are frequently right in front of those who pay attention.

Ed: If you could grab a bite with anyone in our industry alive or dead, who would it be and why?

Sam: My list could fill a banquet hall, but if I could pick dining partners on this particular day, I would invite Ray and Charles Eames. I’m inspired by the Eames’ furniture designs, of course, but also by the ways they sparked creativity in others, with things like Create-It-All Cards and Thinking in Powers of Ten.

And I love the story of the Eames escorting their employees to the circus to teach the value of creative teamwork. They would take employees behind the scenes and tell them to pay close attention to how all circus employees work as a team to make sure the show is creative and exciting. “Don’t let the blood show,” Charles Eames would say, emphasizing that circus performances look effortless, but everybody is actually working together like crazy in the arena and in the background for a creative, professional show.

Ed: Tell me what attendees can expect, and learn, from your “Slay Your Zombies, Slash Your Zigzags, Show your Zing” session at HOW Design Live this coming May?

Sam: It’ll be a fun and inspiring session with lots of tips on ways to zing through work and life with passion, creativity and confidence.

The session will look at how to break out of those zombie slumps where we’re walking dead, void of passion and ideas. We’ll target those mind-boggling zigzags where we stretch ourselves too far in multiple directions and are filled with self-doubt. We’ll touch on a few ways to present with clarity and confidence.

That’s a ton to stuff into 45 minutes, so it’ll be a fast-moving, info-packed session with suggestions that people can start using the minute they walk out of the room.

Ed: This is going to be another one of those can’t miss HOW Design Live Conference sessions. Count me in, Sam!