Date Published (5.15.23)
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5 tactics to help see your world a little differently

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John Waters, Bare Walls, and Sparking Creativity

My midday work breaks used to consist of a quick walk past bourgeois art galleries to porn-peddling theaters, engulfed in a cacophony of sounds, smells and colors. Breaks like these were prone to create “ah-ha” moments.

Fast-forward to today’s remote work environment. Now, when I leave my 140-square-foot bedroom turned office, I shuffle down the hall to the kitchen in my slippers and grab a quick snack, usually interrupted by my kids.

While watching an Andy Warhol documentary the other night I found myself pining for those walks and blamed that day's frustrating lack of inspiration on my surroundings. In need of a solution to a creative challenge, earlier that day I’d flipped through my books, stared at the art on my walls, scrolled through “best of” sites, and joined a creative workshare. Inspiration still evaded me, and I asked myself the age-old question: How can I turn on the creative faucet? Cartoonist Bill Waterson once said, “You can’t just turn creativity on like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.”

My mind shifted to a recent interview with John Waters in the Bazaar Art Issue. In it, the filmmaker, writer, actor, artist, and art collector described the walls of his three homes as “giant blank spaces” with “dirty nails sticking out from where all the work has been removed.” Walls that previously hung an enviable collection of boundary pushers such as Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Nan Goldin, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. Why the blank spaces? At the end of an argument about sales with the Baltimore Museum in 2020, he suddenly proclaimed he would donate his huge, lifelong art collection to it. Reflecting on his empty walls, he concluded the interview by saying, “I’ll just live with it, I guess. In a way, it’s like an art installation.”

Maybe he was being glib. Or maybe he was reflecting his brilliance and understanding that “those who contemplate art have been forced to reconsider their aesthetic strategies and to practice entirely new ways of seeing.” BBC Culture

Waters’ statement caused me to question the blame I placed for my lack of inspiration on my surroundings. As I imagined John Waters viewing his blank walls as a form of art, I had an “ah-ha” moment: Inspiration from my favorite “best of” sites, creative workshares, etc. is different from contemplation that fosters entirely new ways of seeing. Entirely new ways of seeing will become even more important as we shift into a world of prompts for AI, and our AI design or writing tools continue to recycle the old—even if it’s tried and true and matches the insight.

Here are some tactics I’ve found that help me see my world a little differently in order to spark creativity.

1—Seek diverse perspectives.

Most companies are aware of the benefits of hiring with an eye toward diversity. On a personal level, I’ve found new ways of thinking and seeing by reading a memoir or nonfiction book by a traditionally suppressed voice instead of prioritizing the latest business bestseller. This multiplies my ideas and helps connect me to culture in a more meaningful way.

2— Step Away.

Pursue a creative activity that’s different from your workday, one that creates a state of flow. For me, it could be designing something pro-bono, a graphic piece for a friend, or an art piece for myself. Perfectionism stops rearing its ugly head and allows my mind to wander. Best case scenario, this creative freedom results in a fresh solution to a sticky work challenge.


A recently published Insights report stated that rest is key to creativity. Although it noted rest will likely never be embraced by creatives due to “a tradition of incentivising what is arguably glorified workaholism….Creative people often have to deal with the fact that their work is not taken seriously, because it is considered ‘pleasant’ or ‘fun’.”

4—Stay curious. Kids are weird. My own kids’ curiosity prompts me to look at things in new ways. Like when my 3-year-old asked my bald husband, “Did you go to the doctor and they sawed off your hair and put it on your arm?” Or the time my daughter  asked why Cinderella would wish for her real mother: “Why not [wish for] a piggy?” she asked. Why not indeed? Or there are the serious questions from my older kids like, “Are people racist on purpose?”

5— Psychological safety.

A work culture that encourages open dialogue allows for critical thinking, healthy discussions, taking risks, quick pivots, and safe spaces for the “dumbest” ideas to be said out loud. Spaces where even quieter voices get to be heard.

I’m not giving up on my usual list of inspiration-sparks, but when stuck creatively and confined spatially in my all-too-familiar room, I’m thinking about new ways of seeing.

BTW, the new all-gender restrooms at the Baltimore Art Museum are named after John Waters. This was his request in return for bequeathing his collection. The perspective and meaning from which you see this depends on how well you know him. And that’s also the perfect statement on new ways of seeing.

Photography by: Tiffany Kao

Behind the Byline: Nöelle Newbold

Noëlle has unfailing confidence in the value of creativity to ensure effective communication and design.  She has earned multiple industry awards, including the Cannes Titanium Grand Prix for her work on the Nike+ Fuelband platform and app. Yet she believes that awards are merely a bonus for doing the job right in the first place — that being, to sell a client's products or services. To that end, her creative approach deeply values consumer and category research. Noelle's thought leadership on creativity has been published in Campaign Magazine, and she has served as a judge for The Webby Awards and the Latin American Design Awards.  Her career experience includes work in mass market campaigns, web and product design, branding, e-comm, digital platforms, and ecosystems for clients such as Spotify, Nike, Converse, Got Milk?, Burger King, VW, Old Navy, Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, and MTV. Prior to BASIC/DEPT®, Noëlle worked in various creative department capacities for Spotify, R/GA, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Lowe & Partners/NYC, and Time/Warner.


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