May 28, 2013

Designer Mig Reyes on Being Backwards at CreativeMornings #18 in Chicago

May 2013: The fifth Chicago CreativeMornings gathering of the year featured Mig Reyes, a designer at 37signals(1), who spoke in the auditorium of Morningstar, a provider of independent investment research. Mig also founded and runs a Web-based project called Humble Pied, dedicated to collecting and showcasing “great bits of advice”.

May’s CreativeMornings theme was “Backwards”. With a no-frills style, Mig gave advice that was both refreshing and practical beyond its counterintuitive sheen.


Mig advised his audience to let go of labels, especially the job title you use on your business card. This may define the big picture of one’s career, but it’s not the complete picture. An individual’s work keeps moving, evolving, and (hopefully) progressing. In Mig’s case, he practices graphic design, from which he applied himself to other areas where he flexes his creativity: Web development, video storytelling, meet-up finding (regarding his establishing of CreativeMornings in Chicago), and writing.

Morningstar’s space was charged with humility when Mig separated himself from the title of “Expert” (above). This is a super-sticky label. It’s easy to identify oneself as an expert or its variations. I’m reminded of author and speaker Scott Berkun who tweeted, “Putting ‘strategist’ in a job title makes me think you’re afraid to get your hands dirty. Titles should be a verb, not a thing.” I think Mig would agree: Do the work. Keep at it. And be open to opportunities of possibility.

Also aligned to Mig’s defiance of labels is design writer Alissa Walker’s emphasis to “Ignore all job titles, including your own.” This advice was part of Mig’s project Humbled Pied.

At face value, the advice to “break” sounds like the novel and movie “World War Z”. But Mig urged creative practitioners to not be paralyzed by mistakes, since they’re an essential part of both learning and doing. “Breaking” creative muscles leads to stronger muscle tissue. This means iterate. It means taking things apart(2). Discard one direction and replace it with another. Remix. The process of making—whether it’s books, furniture, movies, pizza, software, wines—is ultimately messy. At times, it’s a mildly crooked path. At other times, it’s a hair nest. To borrow economist Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase, “creative destruction” is necessary to break toward a result. Breaking, as in trying things.

Supporting his advice of making by breaking, Mig highlighted the backwards-sounding advice of Jim Coudal (above), of Coudal Partners, who also participated in Humbled Pied: “Rip something off.” Take an object you admire and recreate it. Recreate to learn how something was made, to encounter the decision-making behind something. I was reminded of those times at an art museum where I noticed art students carefully copying a masterpiece. They were going through the aesthetic and technical motions of how a particular painting was achieved.

Mig’s feature of Jim Coudal was also a delightful reference to the fact that he was the first speaker at the debut gathering of CreativeMornings in Chicago.

Making-without-breaking is playing it safe, creatively. This is working in a straitjacket. Working without breaking is to carelessly dismiss what could be seen in order to believe.


Positively speaking, burn and break.

(1) Read my write-up of Jason Fried’s appearance at Chicago CreativeMornings #2.

(2) Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, likes the taking-it-apart approach: “We have a structure so they [filmmakers] get their feedback from their peers… every two or three months they present the film to the other filmmakers… and they will go through, and they will tear the film apart.” Read the context of this quote in Scott Berkun’s blog post “Inside Pixar’s Leadership.”

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Big thanks to: Morningstar, a provider of independent investment research, for sponsoring and hosting Chicago CreativeMornings #18; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7, and all of the Chicago CreativeMornings crew for their great work on making CreativeMornings happen in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

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Typeface of quotes is Nexa designed by Fontfabric in 2012.

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Photos by Nate Burgos. View more.

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Read more Chicago CreativeMornings coverage.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of insights.