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Permission to be horrible and other ways to generate creativity

Denise R. Jacobs advocates for new approaches to work and community.

I met Denise R. Jacobs (@denisejacobs) the old fashioned way, not through Twitter or LinkedIn: a mutual acquaintance introduced us. We corresponded via email and actually got together in person a few months later at Web 2.0 Expo, where Denise was speaking. I was impressed both by her passion for giving people the knowledge, tools and resources to feel more empowered in their work as well as the breadth of her experience. Denise wrote “The CSS Detective Guide” and co-authored “InterAct with Web Standards.” She also develops curricula for the Web Standards Project Education Task Force and was nominated for .Net Magazine’s 2010 Best of the Web “Standards Champion” award.

I spoke with Denise recently about her experiences writing her book, how that led her to new ways of thinking, how she got started the web design, and other projects.

You’re known for your web design work. What motivated you to explore the more non-technical topics of creative inspiration?

Denise JacobsDenise R. Jacobs: During the writing process “The CSS Detective Guide” I had a huge epiphany about myself and my ideas of creativity. I had to do battle on a daily basis with my inner critic and figure out ways to silence it, so that I could just get the work done.

In an industry where people are constantly producing wonderful things, it’s really hard not to compare yourself to others. In terms of the creativity and the inspiration, it’s easy to have panicky moments when you feel as though you can’t come up with another idea, a new design, more content. I wanted to formulate ways to access creativity and channel that amazing feeling that you can take on the world, both for myself to help other people. So I wrote an article as a way to solidify my own techniques and to help anybody else who may need to silence a mean voice in their head as well.

Creativity isn’t always associated with the technical community. Why is that?

Denise R. Jacobs: It’s because there’s such a limited definition of creativity in our culture. People treat artists as if they’re off in their own world or put them on a pedestal. But it’s a misconception that technical people aren’t creative. Developers and coders and database architects are extremely creative, just as scientists are. They have to come up with solutions and code that have never been written before. If that’s not creativity, I don’t know what is.

I’m reading “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel H. Pink, which explores how right-brain is the new wave. We’re entering a new conceptual, high-touch era whereas before we were in a very analytical era. Our industry, the technical industry, is actually a perfect in-between point of left brain and right brain. You have to have both, a whole-brain approach, to be successful in our industry.

What steps can people take to bring creativity into their professional and personal lives?

Denise R. Jacobs: One of my favorite techniques for being creative, and productive in general, is to give yourself permission to be as horrible at something as you possibly can, to even mess it up. That permission actually lowers inhibition filters and allows you to take chances that you would normally not take. Often that ends up making it good because you’re not as invested in it and therefore not as self-conscious about the process.

Another important technique is to set aside time where your brain is resting, where you’re not actually trying to produce something. Give it space to be able to make connections that it wouldn’t necessarily have made before. Insights come when you’re taking a walk, sitting on the beach or the park bench, playing with your dog. Because your brain is relaxing, it can go places that it doesn’t usually go when you’re concentrating or you’re thinking hard.

In this industry, there’s a subculture that is always on — on the computer, on social networks, connecting with people. There is never a time to not be on. When you’re at dinner with a friend, you’re checking in on Foursquare. You’re tweeting. You’re taking a picture to upload to your Facebook profile. Texting friends. To just be off is huge and can make all of the difference in the world.

With social media and other tools for people to come together, both in real life and virtually, what do you think about the state of communities today?

Denise R. Jacobs: I could be biased, but one thing I do see is that despite all of our virtual connections, in real life, it’s kind of awkward. People are so used to communicating with each other digitally, texting for instance, that they’re starting to lose the capacity to have genuine in-person connections to some degree. People aren’t engaging with each other. Yet they try to depict it as such to keep themselves entertained.

A trend I’d like to see is for communities and people who make connections virtually to solidify that with an in-person connection. And if you make an in-person connection, then further solidify that with a virtual connection. Let there be a constant ebb and flow, a circuit going back and forth between both real life and virtual connections so that you can’t really rely completely on either one. That’s why we have these tools — we crave connection. We don’t really have enough of it, but we can’t depend solely on tools to create all of the connection that we need and vice versa.

What trends and people are you following?

Denise R. Jacobs: Location and self-publishing are trends I watch popping up all over the place. There are so many things going on that it’s kind of overwhelming. I rely on serendipity and I focus more on concepts, ideas, and people because they are what underlie the trends. I am inspired by unapologetic creativity and unapologetic cleverness. I admire the younger people coming into the industry who are developing and innovating like crazy.

I admire the work Jane McGonigal is doing, her “Reality Is Broken” book and her whole gaming productivity movement. She takes ownership for being a woman in an industry where that’s not typical and doesn’t tone herself down at all. She’s very feminine and a badass, has a PhD and awesome ideas and that’s just the way it is with her.

I also admire Kathy Sierra because she’s been around for a while and she’s also an incredibly intelligent and clever person, a great speaker, and also someone with a lot of really wonderful ideas.

Tell us about your Rawk the Web project.

Denise R. Jacobs: There are a lot of diverse experts in the tech industry, women and people of color, but they’re not very visible in terms of speaking at conferences or writing articles or books or whatever. It’s not that conferences or publishers don’t want a more diverse lineup, but often they just don’t know who to get or how to go about it.

I was at a conference last year and the organizer asked me to fill in for a speaker who had to cancel. Afterwards, I ended up talking to a woman who really wanted to become a speaker but didn’t know where to start. This was a perfect example of what people are probably saying to themselves. “I don’t know enough. How do I get started? It seems really imposing. There’s no room for anybody new.”

I started Rawk the Web to give people actual information and have experts share their story about how they got started so that other people can see that they can do it, too. I also want to provide resources to people who may be inclined to give women and people of color more visibility, a network of people they can talk to and get inspiration from to take that first step. This is a really good time for it because people see me at conferences and notice I’m often the only brown person there — they’re very conscious of it and glad to see me on stage. I’m hoping to launch it in June and that there will eventually be a Rawk the Web Conference. I know I’m not the only person working on this issue, but I’d like it to be more of a concentrated effort.

How did you get started with CSS and what do you see in its near future?

Denise R. Jacobs: Back in late 1996, nobody was updating the website at the place I was working so I volunteered to take care of it. During that process, I taught myself HTML — it was actually before CSS had really been widely embraced. Over the course of the next few years, I worked in localization for a Microsoft product, then I was a web group product manager at another software company, then later an instructor at Seattle Central Community College in their web design and development programs. Around 2002, web standards started becoming more popular. It was so much better and so much easier. One file to control the whole website — brilliant! It was an amazing, exciting time, to see the changing of the guard, what the web was moving from and what it was moving toward.

I couldn’t call myself a web design instructor in good conscience without knowing CSS and I couldn’t send students out into the world with outdated and inefficient skills. So I keep up with the trends, particularly by reading articles on A List Apart, and blogs by Dave Shea, Andy Budd and Doug Bowman.

As for the future of CSS, there’s going to be a lot more reliance and trust of browsers. Browser vendors know what an important role they play and that browser wars don’t do much good. More browser companies are working together with the W3C to establish and embrace standards.

Because of that, changes are happening faster. There’s a big push for people to get up to speed with current best practices and develop new ones. For things like page layouts and CSS3, there are some really neat properties that are going to change the way people think about their approach to web layouts and the craft of building websites. It’s going to be interesting to see how long those properties take to be adopted and what people come up with for them.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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