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99U Conference 2018

Adam J. Kurtz: Perfect Isn’t Better


About this talk

The often humorous, sometimes dark work of the artist known as ‘adamjk’ can be seen everywhere from tote bags to enamel pins to his books on creativity. Yet the prolific Kurtz doesn’t claim to be an expert: in this uproarious talk, he offers some useful panaceas to the pressures of creative perfection:

  • Why execution should be only half of your design focus
  • How honesty and kindness have propelled his career
  • What factors (besides talent) contribute to creative success

Full Transcript

Hello. As you can see I am white at the design conference, I’m a white man at the design conference. So, probably should talk to you about embracing failure. Right? That’s like, it’s my role here. Eight years ago I was 21, I was a recent design school grad. I’m scrolling Tumblr and I saw this image that was like, “Blah, blah, blah. W. Gates. Blah, blah, blah. Free trip to Portland.” Now, I had my septum piercing so I was like, “Free trip to Portland. That sounds great.” And there was an application process that involved some creative prompts.

And I did it and actually won this trip. And the trip was really an interview process at Wieden & Kennedy’s offices in Portland. And I met all these advertising professionals. Again, I knew nothing about advertising. I Googled how to pronounce Wieden & Kennedy while standing at the front door. That is true.

And it was really…So, I didn’t end up doing this program, but it was my first introduction to failure culture. The way that failure is sort of celebrated in professional creative spaces. And I left that experience and I got back home and I remember being like, “What? What? Failure, what?” And I sort of understood it, but I was also just like, “What?”

Like I really could not wrap my head around this. So, I made this gif eight years ago. And again, this is my thought processes. Feel something, make a gif. But let me back all the way up. I know that you don’t know who I am. That’s because I’m literally fucking irrelevant. That’s fine. But I’m going to catch you up because it will just make this thing easier for everybody.

So, I was a kid once. Then I was a teen. That’s actually me and Michelle Branch, so we’ve both really come a long way. No shade, I love Michelle Branch. I’m Canadian. I believe that women are people, this is like a weirdly controversial opinion. I just, I think that women are people. I don’t know. Didn’t know that was weird. I was on SNL once, by mistake. I was walking to work. I put this slide in here so you know at one point I held a job.

I love bread. I love bread so much. And I’m the author of several illustrative books on creativity and mental health. So real talk, I probably should be here to talk about failure. Now, we’ve heard this thing over and over before and no disrespect to anyone who loves failing. Like, good for you. But we’re told “Fail harder, fail better, fail stronger, embrace failure, failure is amazing, I love to fail.”

So I’m just thinking like, “So failure’s amazing. And perfection’s a myth.” You guys, should we be bad? Because that’s…Is that what…Again, failure is great, perfect is a myth. Should we be bad? This is what my work looks like. It’s—how can I say this generously—simple, illustrative work.

And most of the time it is all about what I’m saying. What I’m saying is the focus. The message is the focus, the execution takes about three fucking seconds. And for some reason, this is the foundation of a sustainable, creative career. So, I made this journal called One Page At A Time. It’s been translated into 17 languages and I sort of stumbled onto this deeply, human, common thing.

Somehow, this work is the foundation of an entire career and a creative life. I’m not very good. I’m kind of like the poster child for not being good. But I’m real. This is who I am. And if this were an affectation, can you imagine? I sit down to do a workshop like The Thing That Will Bring Me Success and I’m like, “Okay, yes. Overweight gay Jew. Oh, and be moody? No, depressive. Yes, that’ll work.” No, this is who I am and if I had chosen a persona, I would’ve aimed a little bit higher. So let’s be bad together.

I’m going to go into what I mean here and maybe by the end of this talk, I’ll have brought you over to the dark side. So you all be Olivia Newton John, right, at the end of Grease? And I’ll be John…I don’t like this anymore.

Moving on. Part one. Be honest. Be honest, right? The message is the focus. My work looks bad, but I have a lot to say. The intention and the message is the core of what I do and so I’m making these childish looking, interactive journals and gift products and stationary. And I personally think that my visual voice—the handwriting that I use—is immediately disarming. It’s emotive and it allows me to tackle difficult topics. Or make tools for other to communicate difficult sentiments.

But listen, it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t really like it. I’m dying to tell you who said this, because he’s like an industry professional. Facebook is not private. Next slide. I say what I mean. This is who I am, simple and direct often works the best. This is one of my first popular projects. These balloons literally blew up. Thank you for laughing at that joke. Thank you, I know, I know.

Again, I say what I mean. This is a coffee mug I made. It says, “I love you like I love my coffee: First in the morning or last at night, dark or sweet or both, right now and later, and always and constantly.” I’m not subtle. I fell in love, I fell in love so fucking hard five years, five months, three weeks ago. Right, Babe? And it changed my whole life because I’d heard of love. I knew what love was supposed to be, but all of a sudden I was like, “Oh my god. Love is actually real?”

And then I was like, “What else is real?” All of a sudden, there were all these possibilities and I realized, “Oh my god. Love is real. Okay, that means every pop song is real. Oh my god. Arianna Grande is a genius.” And it was this huge moment for me. As you can tell, I don’t know how to be cool.

We are told to hide our feelings. I don’t know how to do that. This is the first Zine I ever made. We know what Zines are, right?

I remember the day that Kanye tweeted about Zines and he was like, “Zine. Short for magazine.” And I was like, “Thank god. I can stop explaining it.” Although, it is a weird time to bring up Kanye tweets. That’s not in my notes, I shouldn’t say this. This is actually streaming live on the internet right now, so my career is fucked.

Shitty, self-published Zine, an edition of 25. It was me writing feelings on paper or on objects and I’m photographing them. Almost nobody has this, because it barely exists. Last month, I wrote a bunch of feelings on rocks for the NewYorker.com. I haven’t come a long way.

And finally, again, being honest, embracing reality, embracing the message. I’m not an expert. Not just for this reason, but I’m not an expert because we don’t all respond best when we’re being preached to. Right? If I just stood here and said a bunch of truths at you, again, at you, not with you, you would be like, “Fuck this dude.”

I’m just processing my existence in the way I know how to. I’m a tool or a weapon and completely free, which is literally terrifying. I discovered my power and I was like, “Oh god. Better make a novelty gift product about it.” And now, despite writing a book of literal advice for careers, I wrote this book called Things Are What You Make Of Them. Dot com.

I can’t believe it’s only $14 at major booksellers. Despite writing a book of advice for creative people, I’m still not an expert. And the entire book is as if we were having a conversation. And then, again, I mentioned I’m Jewish, right, the last page of the book, the acknowledgement section, is not thank yous. It’s just me acknowledging things.

Like, I acknowledge this book might not be good. I acknowledge that I’m not an expert, even though I wrote this book. I acknowledge that all advice is subjective and may not work for you. This is just, this is who I am.

Part two, good does not equal better. What is this? What is this? It looks so familiar. For anyone who doesn’t know, it is the album from Joy Divisions, Unknown Pleasures. The image itself was lifted from a 1960’s textbook. So this t-shirt idea was a commentary on the nature of appropriation on the internet. This t-shirt should not exist and was not supposed to.

I was going to bed one night, it was like 11:30 and I was like, “Idea.” So, I used Photoshop, it’s part of the Adobe Creative Suite of products. I quickly put this on Tumblr and I wrote, “Now accepting pre-orders.” Hyperlinked to the Google search result for the word No. It’s funnier with the link, but I was not selling this shirt. I go to bed. I wake up the next morning, 5000 re-blogs and like 20 straight dudes in my inbox like, “Hey, man. Your link’s broken and I really want to buy that awesome shirt, man.”

I apologize to any straight men in the audience, I just, I respect you less than everyone else. And then the original designer of the album art in an interview with The Guardian called it profoundly clever. And I was like, “Damn, I guess nothing matters.” Bad design works. Good does not equal better because bad design works. Hello, what is a meme? This is design at its most fundamental. This is it. Damn, what a perfect fucking image on this big screen. It’s a combination of text and image that quickly communicate a wide range of thought. Yeah. This was a tough one for me too guys, but I’m part of the fucking problem. And it is completely changed, not just language, but our industry. It has changed design. This is already happening. So if you’re sitting here and you’re like, “I don’t really like that.” Too fucking bad, dude. Probably is a dude, right? Hesitant to change. I’m never getting hired again. Good does not equal… What was it? How does my slide go? Babe, do you remember? Hmm.

Overworking your stuff can undermine trust. People, especially on the internet, love weird and we don’t trust things that are too polished. That’s why major brands are pretending to be teenagers on Twitter. The feel when I love the new Wendy’s square burger. I’ve never been to Wendy’s. I grew up kosher. This is like, this is a bad joke for me to be making.

So be quick, be honest, be accessible. Make work that is self-referential, direct and funny, a little bit loose. So the tote bag, it says, “10 productive uses for this tote bag.” Cute project. This is client work for a Microsoft event. What? What? What?

Good is not better because success is about more than talent. Success is about timing, resources, context. Also, success doesn’t exist. It’s not a single, tangible goal. Whoo. That’s a lot for one slide.

Case in point, this is a thing that I made. This did not take any talent or special skills. First, I dissed Wieden & Kennedy, now I dissed Nike. It’s like I can never go back to Portland. Banned. This got me some of my first mainstream press and it wasn’t just that Adweek picked it up. Adweek interviewed me about that thing I just showed you. Hashtag “sadvertising”. That’s fucked up.

Again, talent is not the only component in being successful. And a few years ago, I was named 15 Under 30. I put this slide in here just so you know I am still under 30. But only barely. Last night someone who I sleep with every single night was like, “You really need to stop mentioning that you’re under 30.” And I swear I pitched more involved executions for this, but they were like, “No. Great. Do this.” Part three. Nobody cares. Nobody is waiting for you to fuck up. Just make work. This is a tattoo that I made for myself because I was like, “All right. I’m gay. I should make some gay art. Like, I wanna contribute to, like, the historical cannon of queer art in America. Like, let me do this thing.” And it was just a tattoo for myself. And then people were like, “I want to buy that.” And I was like, “It’s my arm.” So we made a pen and all of you get a free pen. That’s right. You get a pen, you get a pen, I have been dying to fucking make this joke. For those of you watching at home on Behance Live, you can visit shop.adamjk.com.

Nobody cares, so the pressure is off. The average American scrolls through five miles of content per year. Real talk. We’re in New York and it’s a room of media professionals. We are probably scrolling like 20 miles. Someone out there is living their best life and we are pulling them into the average. The pressure is officially off. There’s a lot of shit on the internet and you can just put some stuff on social media. They let you do that. And just put it up. And if people like it, they like it. And if they don’t like it, they keep on scrolling. It’s doesn’t fucking matter.

People are like, “How are you so honest on the internet all the time?” And I’m like, “Uh, nobody cares. Nobody’s listening to me. It’s really easy to talk when no one’s listening.” I’m actually finding it very easy to talk with all of you listening. They gave me a countdown clock and I was like, “Can I just have, like, five more minutes?”

If people really like something, they’ll be like, “Hey man, can I buy that? Make that a pen.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And I’m still laughing at it. That’s fucking funny. And here’s the most fucked up part, and, again, I mentioned success is about more than talent, my personal Instagram account was a Webby Award honoree.

Let me quickly clarify that it goes winner, nominee, honoree. So I’m basically like a not loser. But I’ll take it. It’s the first time I haven’t been a loser in my entire fucking life. Again, my Instagram is like a scrapbook. There’s no pressure, nothing matters. But if it’s good, people will like it. And again, if it’s bad, people will keep scrolling.

Nobody cares because you’re not special. We think people are paying attention to us. They’re probably not. This is not the Grammy’s. When I leave this stage, I’m fucking nobody. I ate lunch by myself in that building over there. I just told you that I ate lunch by myself and a thousand people laughed at me. You are all part of the problem. That was fucked up, you guys are… All right. New York crowd.

Oh, did I mention that I live here? I live in Williamsburg? I didn’t really need to say I live in Williamsburg. You know, right? You’re like, “He loves Portland but he can’t go there. What’s left?” Here are some nice little gifs that I made. You can add these to your Instagram stories if you search for @AdamJK and that sparkle heart has over 82 million loops. The longer I pause, the more loops it gets.

People enjoy this and they have no idea who I am. And that’s totally fine. Again, we’re not special. We’re here making the work. Who we are is, largely, irrelevant. I actually think that a lot of people believe that I’m just like an Urban Outfitters dude. There’s like 10 white dudes in lab coats and they’re like, “All right. We’re going to add a dash of that overweight Jew. Hmm. Mood stabilizers. Let’s see what we get.”

And I don’t really care. That’s okay, because if you walk into an accessible store and purchase an interactive journal that encourages you to embrace your feelings and maybe get through a difficult year, if I can sneak attack you with art therapy, then my job is done. You can’t really see it, but under my name, on the book, it says “Some Guy”. It literally does. We have sold like, whatever, a number. I don’t know why I’m being modest now. A number of books that say that, basically, I’m largely irrelevant.

A lot of my work. Hello? Oh, I’m pressing the laser button. You guys want to see my laser? It’s dangerous. A lot of the work exists so far beyond who I am. I made this five years ago to text to a friend who was in a car accident. She’s made a full recovery, so obviously the Post It note was correct. But now, this pops up all over the place. On like, “Yoga Inspiration” account. Lena Dunham’s Instagram, and it’s hilarious because obviously I, personally, am a deeply unhealthy person.

Nobody cares because nobody cares how talented you are. Everyone in this room has access to the brilliant Adobe Suite of creative tools. Can you believe how easy and accessible those tools are? If I don’t get booked to speak at this every year from now on, something’s wrong. We all have the tools and skills. Being yourself is the difference. And real talk, if you are super talented and also an asshole, nobody wants to work with you.

A lot of my favorite projects are the product of just being nice to people. Not networking. Not showing up with a business card. Just talking to people and then something happens. I do not remember meeting the person who works at the Brooklyn Public Library, but two years later she was in a position to hire an illustrator to design their fleet of bookmobiles and she picked me. And I was like, “Amazing.” That’s pretty cool. I don’t know how to drive. This is a big deal for me.

This is a collection I did with the housewares giant, Fishs Eddy. I love them. A nice conversation led to this. In fact, I am speaking here today because I met a woman at a party and she was really nice and I enjoyed talking to her and the next day she was like, “Do you want to speak at 99U Conference?” And I was like, “Are you sure?” I was like, “Last chance to get out of this very generous offer. I will understand.”

To review: be honest, good does not equal better, and nobody fucking cares. I embrace not knowing and I let myself create and share as I grow. I am working on my own definitions of success. Get out of your fucking head. Just make something. Just figure out what you want to say and fucking say it. That’s allowed. The only constant is that everyone is this room is going to die. I told Tiffany, I was like, “Thank you for bringing up death because I’m going to take it one step further.”

Everyone here and everyone watching at home—gotcha—you’re all going to die. So have some fun. Why else do we do the thing that we do? And maybe, at the end of all of this, being bad might actually be pretty good. Creepy wink. Thank you so much. My name’s Adam J. Kurtz.

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