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The Mr. Smith office is open, relaxed, and for the most part, pretty productive. The layout makes it easy to walk over to anyone’s desk, ask questions, and bounce ideas off one another. This collaborative environment is essential to the work we do, however, we each take our private time seriously.
So what’s going on when the office is quiet and everyone’s plugged in, tapping away on their keyboards? How do we turn our ideas into realities, and better yet, where the hell do these ideas even come from?
If you’re interested in knowing how the 11 minds at Mr. Smith find creative inspiration, keep reading.
Rob thinks AirPods look ridiculous, but you’ll never see him without them. He’s an avid podcast listener, so the functionality of those little white buds are too good for him not to use. From morning workouts to laundry sessions in his basement, he’s got a different episode playing – sometimes about finance, or how to make it as a freelance creative, or even knowing the best time to hire someone new.
“Running a business and coming up with new ideas is all about seeing what other people are doing, knowing what you like, and then creating your own identity.”
“I’m always consuming content, so at the end of the day, I can’t wait to get down what’s all in my head.” He’s also absurdly organized and has a place for his million notes, folders, and Slacked messages to himself. But this system is pretty important since at any time, he can step into any project with some creative direction.
Rob also believes in creating an open work environment where everyone feels comfortable coming up with new ideas, whether they’re big picture schemes or the most granular details. “Workshopping is most important, so you’ve got to have a dedicated space for it.”
When most people drive through a new city, they’re mindlessly absorbing the unfamiliar scenery. But for Chrissy, everything she looks at is an opportunity to be made into a new design. After college, she traveled a lot while visiting friends and everything she looked at felt fresh, especially restaurants she’d never been to. And it wasn’t because of the food. It was the menu designs, the positioning of the furniture, and even the colors on the walls.
“When you travel, your focus is constantly shifting. New layouts, new signage, and new streets. I love taking it all in.”
Chrissy believes a ton of color, or even a lack thereof, tells an important story and plays a critical role in client work. “Brands have to attract you emotionally because every industry is so saturated. So their first attempt to grab you is with color.”
She’s so attached to color that at one point in her career, a blank white canvas was intimidating. But with constant flashes of inspo now coming from all directions, she gets excited any time she can start a new design from scratch. “Give me the green light to explore something new and I’m all there.”
Collin’s role at Mr. Smith has taken on a few different shapes over the years. Even though he has a background in writing, most of his current projects focus on analytics and strategy, which means he has to search for inspiration from pretty much everything around him.
“My best ideas often come about when I’m presented with a problem and I get to use the part of my brain that’s been turned off for a bit.”
“I don’t know what I don’t know.”
That’s what gets him going – the idea that true inspiration is unpredictable. Instead of looking at a problem as a setback, he sees it as an opportunity to learn something that might even spark fresh ideas for other clients. “Once you get going and really tackle what’s in front of you, everything starts to flow.”
And by “get going,” he also means physically getting up and going. To the kitchen, ping pong table, bathroom. Collin and his starred playlist of 70 songs – featuring everyone from Gloria Estefan to Blink-182 – are always moving around the office.
Renee’s been an artist her entire life, but she also has other, unexpected sources of inspo: math and science. The Fibonacci sequence, or a sequence of numbers, lays down the foundation of design and helps her understand aesthetics, like why our computer screens or pieces of paper are certain dimensions.
“Tattoo artists’ work really gives me an idea of how design can be applied to other mediums.”
Other flashes of inspiration, however, come when she leasts expects them. If she feels stuck at home or in the office, she physically moves to a different place. It can be a grocery store, a coffee shop, or driving in the car.
“It’s not so much about needing a visual change, but just needing a change of environment if I’m feeling too comfortable or tied down where I am.” At night, she takes in everything that happened that day and turns it all into a collage in her mind. She’ll then reinvent this collection of images, colors, textures, and patterns to turn into the awesome designs you’ll see in her work.
As a user experience and interface designer, Devin’s primary goal is to make sure a website gives every viewer the best possible experience. That means making sure information is easily digestible and every link on every page flows properly. And while the majority of his time is spent reworking the digital landscape, he gets a ton of inspiration looking at graphics the old fashion way: on paper.
“When you keep the user in mind, you get a better idea of what works best and looks best on your website.”
Printed magazines have become Devin’s go-to when trying to find an innovative design that grabs attention. “The sole purpose of a printed magazine is to grab your attention when you’re flipping through the pages, so it’s forced me to find other ways to keep a viewer intrigued while getting away from the digital trends that are always in our face.”
Devin also looks at other websites to get a feel for their digital functionality – like the menu positions, scroll features, and any other tiny details that can derail users and prevent them from finding the information they’re searching for. “A good design with obvious features always wins.”
Andy’s job is to look at something cool and ask himself, “Okay, how do I actually make this work?” He’s a self-taught developer who’s still teaching himself how to code – both in the office and at home.
“I’ll look at something I really like, and then go home and try to recreate it.”
Andy also consumes a ton of media, like podcasts and long-form interviews with other creators – from photographers to fashion designers. These people have often experienced major career changes, similar to Andy since he slowly left hands-on marketing a few years ago and got into development. These interviews give him a little boost of motivation.
While listening to podcasts, he’s also scrolling through award-winning web designs at night, trying to find a way to recreate certain animations and visual concepts. “My creative process is like a puzzle – all trial and error until I find the perfect code.”
Jared has a unique role since he’s involved in every project at Mr. Smith. He’s in contact with all of our clients, which means he has to have an understanding of everyone’s needs and capabilities. And while he doesn’t have the title of a designer or developer, he still has to dip his toes in all the waters.
“Clients’ confusion about their brand or their messaging forces me to think of a few examples to show as options.”
Jared’s creativity is at its peak when everyone in the room is a bit confused. “Clients sometimes have a hard time expressing what they like, so I have to keep asking questions to get a feel for what they’re into.” He feeds off those moments when other people are stuck and fills in the holes.
This strategy is similar to what he does as a bartender when customers don’t know what they want to drink. “You kind of let them taste test – sweet, bitter, citrus, fruity – because once they show a liking to one, you can start making recommendations.”
Once a website design is planned out, Tom is behind the scenes bringing it to life. His job is to make sure each page flows together effortlessly, so he believes the best-made websites are the ones you can scroll through without running into a single problem.
“It’s cool to look at sites that work really well, but I’ve also gotten ideas from the ones that don’t.”
That’s why Tom finds inspiration from sites that work well and sites that don’t work at all. He likes to make sure all the information a user enters into a website, and the information shown on the website flow back and forth. For example, when building an e-commerce website, he looks at input forms, shopping carts, and any other software that communicates with APIs (Application Programming Interfaces.)
Tom says the smallest inconveniences can feel like a chore to users and his goal is to fix those bugs. “The best-made websites are the ones where you don’t even think about what you’re doing.”
Ryan’s done a ton of product photography that falls in line with more corporate advertising. And while he loves these shots, his favorite work is when he takes photos of families – feeling the emotion behind each shoot and seeing people happy.
“I love taking pictures of my friends’ kids and giving them memories to hold onto.”
But at work, Ryan likes structure and having a plan of attack before starting a project. He loves still placement shots and knolling photography. He watches YouTube videos of his favorite photographers and follows curated Instagram accounts of different genres.
Like Chrissy, Ryan’s ideas for shoots also come from travelling. He loves old cities, especially the historic, cultural landmarks found in Toronto, New York, and D.C. “Old places have a lot of old visual history, and there’s something about knowing that each place has a story that makes me want to capture it in a photo.”
Every other week, Caleb enters into The New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest. And he doesn’t just write new ideas, but also votes on other contestants’ work. He loves reading print and digital publications, and always finds himself asking the same question: Is this engaging?
“Before I die, I need to win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.”
Since Caleb’s job is to create marketable content, he’s always looking for new ways to cut through useless clickbait and give readers something truly valuable.
But he admits that wading through the constant stream of digital content can quickly become a barrier for him. “Who doesn’t sometimes feel overwhelmed by the constant barrage of alerts and notifications coming at you all day?”
That’s why when he needs to find a creative solution to a particular problem or challenge, he does one of two things. And both involve a brief screen-hiatus. “I go somewhere with a notebook and pen, leaving my computer at my desk, and my phone on silent. Or I go for a walk and try to think about anything other than the challenge that’s working me. As soon as I do that, the solution typically comes.”
Caleb believes “successful advertising is all about examining what’s in front of you, and asking yourself, ‘Is this objectively good?’ ” He says the answer to that question is almost always no if the solution was formulated quickly while hunched over his chair surrounded by screens.
While I wrapped this up, I decided to put myself last on the list so I don’t have to write in the third person. Because that’s kind of weird.
“I can’t write a single word without visualizing what it looks like.”
This post forced me to think back to when the whole writing thing started.
I was about eight years old. But with my mom being an artist my entire life, I grew up a visual thinker and learner. I drew pictures to go with my short stories and cut up photos from magazines to glue on paper.
In the age of digital media, it’s become even harder to separate artwork from written words. Every photo has a caption, and every caption has a photo. They go hand in hand – or even more so operate as extensions of each other.
Seeing them merge together also helps me get out of a writer’s block. When I’m stuck, I think about what my subject looks like and write down everything I see. A strawberry isn’t just a strawberry – it’s a soft, sweet, bright-red, heart-shaped garden fruit with seeds the size of a freckle.
Using my senses, taking in the smallest details, and making note of any and everything that evokes some sort of emotion can open my mind to the freshest ideas. And the same goes for pretty much everyone on the Mr. Smith team.