This interview is about designers and not about designers at all. We asked Emmy Award-Winning designer Dave Werner about the power that creativity brings to his work and daily life, how he found himself in a theatre play and why a job title doesn't define a person's creative abilities.
Dave Werner is the Senior Lead Experience Designer for the Emmy Award Winning Character Animator team at Adobe in California. He posts regular cartoons, music videos, and tutorials to his Okay Samurai YouTube channel, and his work has been featured by Wired, The Verge, College Humor, and Sesame Street.
In my mind, creativity is imagination. If you're imagining new worlds, characters, stories, ideas, recipes, or whatever — tangible or intangible — you're being creative.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT CREATIVITY IS ONE OF THE SKILLS THAT CAN BE MASTERED?
Creativity feels too vast and nebulous to master — let's face it, if someone told you, "I've mastered creativity," they would seem a bit egotistical.
That being said, I think mastery can be pursued in specific creative areas. Shigeru Miyamoto from Nintendo is a master game designer. Christina Tossi from Milk Bar is a master pastry chef. Paula Scher from Pentagram is a master of branding. Instead of trying to boil the ocean that is creativity, I think it's smart to focus on the things that you're passionate about (and hopefully good at!).
HOW DO YOU TRAIN/CHALLENGE YOUR CREATIVITY?
Keeping an open mind to trying new things has undoubtedly been the best way to challenge myself creatively and keep things interesting.
I've done a video series called Extraneous Lyrics on YouTube where I take the year's most popular songs and rewrite the lyrics into way more verbose versions of themselves. For the first one, it was me sitting down with an acoustic guitar, but over the years, I kept using it as an excuse to try new things. I hadn't done anything with green screens before. So for one year, I decided to try putting myself inside the actual music videos. I had to learn a lot to make it all look seamless like I was really singing next to Miley Cyrus or Rihanna, but I was really happy with how it turned out.
So for me, it's all about taking on diverse projects and using them as excuses to do something different.
I have tremendous respect for the creative successes of Disney, Pixar and Netflix, and these books gave candid insights into the intersection of creativity and business. I got quite a lot out of them and enjoyed them all.
WHY DO YOU THINK CREATIVITY HAS BECOME SO IMPORTANT IN THE WORKPLACE IN THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS?
Creativity is one of those innate human traits that aren't easily replicated by a computer, you know? I think companies are increasingly putting a higher value on those sorts of skills, especially when we have so many clear business examples of how bold creative risks can pay off. And it doesn't just stop at imagining a new product or revenue stream — it's also the branding and storytelling around how you share something with the rest of the world. So creative thinking is increasingly becoming a critical part of the whole process.
Also, I believe it's rare for a creative person nowadays to simply do the role listed on their business card. You might be the "designer" on paper, but since you're seen as the creative person, you might also get asked to be the video creator, marketer, manager of a live demo, etc. So as I'd imagine it is with many people, creativity permeates its way into all sorts of different things on any given day. And I personally love that; it keeps things fresh and exciting.
THE ADOBE CHARACTER ANIMATOR TEAM THAT YOU’RE WORKING AT, WON AN EMMY IN 2020. CONGRATS! WHAT DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU FOUND OUT ABOUT THE AWARD?
Character Animator won an Emmy in 2020 for creating a Pioneering System for Live Performance-Based Animation Using Facial Recognition. The Emmy included work done on broadcast shows like The Simpsons, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and Our Cartoon President.
It was a pretty awesome and humbling surprise!
I'm really proud of the work we've done on Adobe Character Animator. I think it's been many people's first step into character animation because of how fast and accessible it is.
HOW IMPORTANT IS CREATIVITY FOR POTENTIAL JOB CANDIDATES AT ADOBE?
When I'm interviewing potential job candidates at Adobe now, just about everyone has a portfolio that shows they can make a design look great. But the ones that always impress me the most are the people that show me how they think.
I love when they share their messy sketches, their mistakes, their thought process — it makes me want to hire them right away and start brainstorming together on my own work!
DO YOU HAVE CORPORATE TRAINING TO HELP YOUR TEAM MEMBERS BE MORE CREATIVE?
Adobe has many great internal resources for creativity, especially in how we present and develop our ideas with engineers, managers, and other groups to help bring them into reality.
I'm part of a tight-knit collection of Adobe designers for our video, animation, and audio products. Our group leaders have brought in external speakers and held workshops to help us expand our creative horizons, but I've also gotten a lot out of my fellow designers just sharing what they do. Whether it's an incredible design prototype someone has developed or an insightful user research study, it's not too hard to be consistently inspired.
HOW TO BECOME A CREATIVE PERSON?
There’s no universal answer to that question. We all have an inherent raw, unfiltered creativity when we're young — I see this firsthand with my 7 and 10-year-old kids every day.
I think people who say they're not creative just haven't found the right outlet yet, or lack the tools to translate the messy ideas swirling around in their imaginations into reality.
The bottom line is: just make stuff. You'll learn.
For both work and life, this is where I keep track of everything I’m currently doing and stay organized. I keep all my todo lists here.
A Chrome extension that blocks sites after a certain time limit per day; great for productivity if you don’t have great self-control (like me).
It saved me a ton of time in trying to set up meetings or user tests.
DO YOU THINK NURTURING CREATIVITY IS IMPORTANT ONLY FOR PEOPLE IN THE ARTISTIC SPHERE, OR EVERYONE SHOULD WORK ON THEIR CREATIVE MUSCLES?
I have plenty of friends outside of the artistic sphere who are scientists, doctors, lawyers — and I consider them some of the most creative people I know. Just because we have a certain job title or area of study doesn't mean we can't imagine new ideas.
Einstein said it best here: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."
SHOULD A PERSON HAVE SEVERAL CREATIVE OUTLETS, OR IS IT BETTER TO CHOOSE JUST ONE ACTIVITY?
Creativity isn’t an on/off switch.
I think it's healthy to always have side projects that can serve as raw creative outlets without any constraints you might find at work.
My wife and kids recently got into the world of acting in a local theatre company, and they convinced me to join. It's opened up a completely different side of my creativity that I never knew I even had! Playing an eccentric inventor like Willy Wonka or faking a British accent with Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins have been great creative endeavors outside of work — and it's even better that I get to share the stage with my whole family.
WHAT TYPES OF CREATIVE PROJECTS DO YOU THINK WILL BE POPULAR IN THE 202X?
I'm personally really excited to see how "world-building" evolves. Video games have led the way here, creating imaginative worlds for players to explore, create, and socialize together. Just like video creation has been democratized through more accessible editing tools and distribution platforms like YouTube, I think more immersive interactive experiences are on the edge of having their creation and delivery become more democratized as well.
As 3D tools become more accessible, game engines become more robust, and VR/AR devices strive for more mainstream adoption, it's going to be an interesting decade for sure.
ANY FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE STRUGGLING WITH TRAINING CREATIVE MUSCLES?
There has never been a better time to be a creative person.
The internet is a megaphone that gives us unparalleled access to share our stories with the rest of the world. When you put yourself out there, you're always just one click or tap away from everyone else on the planet.
So make the most of it!