Illustrator, educator, and design evangelist Kyle T. Webster is just like the rest of us: glued to screens and media throughout the day. But he’s recognized that his best creative ideas emerge when he’s relaxed, focused, and … bored. In his 99U talk, Kyle argues that we’ve lost the art of boredom, and thus the levels of creativity that it can nurture.
Read more thoughts from Kyle on how to stand out in a tech-obsessed world in this 99U interview.
About Kyle Webster: Kyle T. Webster is an illustrator, designer, and author who has drawn for The New Yorker, TIME, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Scholastic, NPR, Nike, IDEO, and many other distinguished clients. His illustration work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, Communications Arts, and American Illustration.
He is perhaps best known as the founder of KyleBrush.com, the brand behind the world’s best-selling, and now industry-standard, Photoshop brushes for professionals, used by artists at Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, MTV Networks, and Weta Digital. These brushes were the first of their kind to be officially licensed by Adobe for inclusion in the Adobe Creative Cloud. Kyle also currently teaches Life Drawing, Portraiture, and Digital Painting at the UNC School of the Arts.
Hello. My time up here is very short, so I’d like to start by wasting some of it. Just, just. Just, very different view. Nah. Okay.
Okay, so, thank you. Now, some of you in the audience were probably, during that little intermission there, you were probably thinking about stuff you have to do or about maybe the past two amazing talks about by these geniuses we have to follow or maybe you’re thinking about Game of Thrones or something like that. But maybe some of you, maybe, and this is probably fewer than most, just spaced out a little bit and got a little bored and for those of you who did that, I say, well done, because that’s what I’m gonna talk about and I think it’s a skill we all need to develop and get a little better at.
So this is a family photo from 1979. I’m the guy on the far right there. And it was just a thing to do. We did this kinda stuff all the, I’m just kidding. This is Halloween. And my mom, my mom she sewed these costumes by hand for all four of us, and I asked her about this photo when I was looking at it recently. I say, “Gosh, it must have taken a lot of time.” And she said, “Yeah, but I had plenty of time to do it.” Despite the fact that she was running a preschool and had twin boys to raise, okay. These were my parents on a typical day just hanging out at the house. No, of course, this is them at a party, one of the parties that they hosted and they hosted a ton of parties. I remember this when I was really young and their friends hosted a ton of parties too. They all made time to do this stuff. There were themes and there were costumes and it was really a big to-do, right?
And I was wondering, I was talking to my wife, I’m like, “Why don’t we do this kinda stuff?” Maybe my parents were just better at time management or maybe they didn’t have Netflix. You know, according to a recent Nielsen study, the average American adult today spends 11 hours a day interacting with media, mostly screen-time. So if you even just think about the fact that probably six to eight hours of that is work-related, you’re still putting in, you’re building in three to five hours a day of screen time. So think, in a week, just a week, how many of those hours we could spend planning a kick-ass Game of Thrones party. I like Game of Thrones, okay? Sir, settle down. So I asked my parents, why did you have so many parties? And they simply said, because there really wasn’t that much else to do. It was 1979, 80s, it was the early 80s. And most middle class Americans got home around five, 5:30. There were three TV channels to watch. No email, no calls, no Slack. Slack’s great, but come on. Slackin’ all day long. You know, you read the latest Stephen King book and you’ve already seen Jaws in the theater. There’s always the bedroom, but not everybody’s into the tantric thing, so, Sting can give that a rest. I’m tired of hearing about it. So you threw a party because you got well and truly bored. Right?
And so, think about it, boredom is actually a blessing. Right? It gives you brain time to just cook stuff up. To wander and to cook. So what does this mean for all of us in this room? We’re creative folks, right? What does it mean for creative work? Well, look at my parents. We’re looking at them a lot, sorry. This slide’s up here a long time. But look at them. They got creative because that’s what humans do when they have the time and the space to do it, right? So here’s a fact. The more important work that pushed my career forward, the majority of it, for me, happened in the time I spent in between meetings and calls and reports and deadlines and things like that.
I know all those words mean something and it’s real work and it’s important, right? But these kinds of things don’t often directly lead me to the bigger ideas. Yeah, this is definitely not gonna be on my tombstone. But I will say, it’s true, though. I do meet my deadlines. If anybody wants to work with me on something. Because those kinds of things, right, the meetings and so on, they force our brains to work in a different mode. We’re working on organization rather than improvisation.
So my best creative ideas are born when I have time and space between the busywork to just kind of let me medial pre-frontal cortex wake up and Dr. Ming’s gonna check me on my wording there. But anyway, this is a part of the brain that is more active when you’re pleasantly distracted, quietly distracted, not doing this, when you’re relaxed or otherwise doing some kind of, you know, activity that isn’t managing a task and in a published scientific study entitled ‘Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation’, they studied, scientists discovered that, this part of the brain also fired up when rappers had to do freestyle rapping versus doing over-rehearsed raps that they’ve done a million times. And you know that feeling when you stare off into the distance when maybe someone sticks in your car and there’s the noises all in the background like the hoses and the lifts and everythnig and it kinda blurs into this white noise and you sorta get into this fog. And suddenly, you’re like, oh, 20 minutes went by, right? Pay attention to that feeling because a part of your brain there is waking up that usually isn’t that active.
So maybe downtime doesn’t mean what we have to think it means, at least in creative terms because with downtime, your imaginations wake up, right? We’re not bogged down with busywork so other stuff bubbles up to the surface. If you wanna take full advantage of the creative potential of downtime, you have to allow yourself the space and time to get bored, but the problem is that boredom is something that is disappearing from our lives, day by day by day, and when boredom first sets in, you might feel restless or kind of unproductive and you run through the list in your head like you might have been doing earlier today, work stuff, groceries, kid stuff, mistakes you made, who to frame for those mistakes, but if you’re just patient and you move past that phase and settle in, then your brain switches gears and it starts to wander and tell stories and paint pictures and suddenly, you might have an idea. I’m not making this up. Science has shown that our subconscious can be busy solving problems in the background while we sleep. You probably all read that somewhere.
The great comedian, John Cleese, gave a talk about this at Cannes not too long ago and it was about creativity and he recalled the time he realized that his subconscious mind was busy improving a comedy sketch he had written earlier and had set aside, and when he came back to it suddenly, he was writing it better. And in his talk, he said, “We can’t control our unconscious, but we can look to how we can create the circumstance in which it becomes easier for us to work WITH our unconscious.” So what does that mean for us? Well, for one thing, if you wanna have more creative ideas, you need to put yourselves in situations where you can well and truly space out. We need to give our brains time and space to play, essentially. I mentioned relaxation because it makes it easier for our brains to release dopamine, I’m sure you’ve heard of dopamine before, which has been shown to increase creativity in tests conducted on subjects at the Medical University of Vienna. So kids have this advantage. They immediately can access this state of mind, unless you plop them in front of an iPad. And my wife and I are really strict about screen time. Some friends actually call us the Screen Nazis. I know Nazi is a terrible word to say. I just mean, that’s what they call us. I’m just being honest. Like any parents, we’re mostly just winging it, so this could be a terrible thing. Maybe we’re not preparing them for the world but we just don’t let them have any screen time and this is them. They can make a game or story out of literally anything for hours and it looks like they’re just sitting here, but what they’re actually doing is playing a game called ‘Grandma’, and, they have canes, which are the badminton rackets, and they have recliners, which are these deck chairs, and they move the chairs all around the backyard and the patio and they make funny voices and they have a cast of even supporting characters, like they are the Shuckers, which live in all the bushes and they’ll pinch your fingers if you get too close and they have the Nennies, which are these tree creatures that only eat cheddar cheese. I’m not making this up.
And a while ago, I was on a walk out in the woods, and my daughter, she found this small, dried-up vine, and she put it on her finger and she said to me, “I’m Dr. Wizz Fizz, the pinky scientist, and I work at the Fingerling Institute and I’m gonna teach you all about animal languages.” And I’m like, “What? That just came outta nowhere.” And then we got home after the walk and she said down at the kitchen table and immediately started drawing this character, Dr. Wizz Fizz, that she had created during this walk.
So, she went from a vine to a character with a backstory and a whole world, you know, without skipping a beat. Now if we had come home and plopped her down in front of a TV show or an iPad or whatever, do you think that would have happened? I think it’s unlikely.
So what if we train ourselves to see what we perceive to be boredom as a blank canvas for our minds? There’s tons of potential there. Maybe then we’ll have more of our own Dr. Wizz Fizz kinda moments. But most of us avoid boredom, and even what I call pre-boredom, like the plague. If we have to wait one minute, and you know this is true, one minute, for a coffee at a Starbucks, out come the phones. We’re so bad at being bored.
One of my favorite artists Roman Muradov recently wrote this excellent book related to all this and it’s called ‘On Doing Nothing: Finding Inspiration in Idleness’. And I recommend everybody here pick it up and read it. It’s a really short read and it’s very enlightening. All right, so I wanna prove that this talk isn’t all just hype. Let me share some personal stories. These are three things, three boring things, that have led to some of my best ideas and it really pushed my career forward, believe it or not. So my toothbrush, beet juice, and Goldfish snacks. I’ll start with my toothbrush. Just so you know, brushing your teeth ranks just way up there with taking a shower for generating great ideas and for spacing out and just having some me time. Anyway, on a regular morning in late 2009, I was brushing my teeth and I had my eyes closed. So when you close your eyes, things get dark. And when I was brushing my teeth and I heard that swish, scratch kinda sound of the toothbrush on my teeth, I was picturing little lines of white toothpaste just kinda floating around. And then eventually, they started making simple patterns. You know, a diagonal here, vertical here, and so on. And I just stopped and realized I had created an iPhone game. Okay, this is weird but that’s what I imagined and I called it White Lines. And it’s ironic that I’m talking about wasting time with our devices while also celebrating and bragging about my invention of my time-wasting iPhone game. I realize this. But as a creative exercise, this was really, really exciting for me because one, I didn’t own an iPhone. I’d never played an iPhone game before so I actually had to run out to Best Buy and get an iPod, ’cause they’re cheaper, so I could test what I was building. And in the game, white lines appear quickly on the screen in a certain pattern, and then you have to echo it back with your fingers. It’s like that 80s game, Simon, but in a different form. Here’s an old video of me testing the game before submitting it to Apple. I apologize for the low resolution. See how it works here. Very simple, not that complicated. I used Photoshop to make the graphics and then I found the developer on Twitter just by searching for ‘iPhone developer’, and I literally did that. He lives in Ireland. His name is Denis Hennessy. And so what we did is we just collaborated over Skype and in about three weeks, we had a finished game and we submitted it to Apple and I thought, that was a really cool exercise, but White Lines became a top 50 iPhone game at the time and sold over 20,000 units in two months and it was featured on the AppStore homepage for three weeks so very exciting. A surprising twist, too, was that professors at Wake Forest University actually wanted to use the game in a fun experiment that measured people’s ability to recall visual patterns and potentially even improve short-term memory, so I’m a scientist, too. So thank you, dental hygiene. But most importantly, thank you to my brain, for just, for a moment, spacing out. That was the main ingredient.
In 2016, I was sitting around having some lunch, and I had just finished, and I looked at my plate, and there was beet juice on my plate that had mixed with olive oil, and it made this really beautiful pattern, and so I just kinda stared at it and spaced out. I’m very good at spacing out. And this is at a time when my Photoshop brush business, there’s such a thing, by the way, it was called kylebrush.com. It was doing really, really well, but I had run out of ideas, I had nothing left. And I needed to keep making stuff, but I just felt like, I’ve got nothing. And the beets and the oil are what saved me because I had spent so long trying to emulate natural media oils and watercolors and charcoal and whatever, that I hadn’t fully explored or even really thought about the potential for making brushes that do special effects, like things you can’t do in the natural world when you’re painting and drawing. So I took a photo of this beet juice pattern. This is the actual photo I took and then I just softened the edges in Photoshop and I sent it to myself via email and I wanted to try and create some kinda brush out of it and it became later the oil and vinegar brush and this was the first brush I made out of about 150 that became later my Concept Brush art set and here’s a look at the brush in action and artists use it for textures, starscape, backgrounds and bubbly patterns and all kinds of things.
All right, so the Concept Brush set far exceeded my expectations and it sold over 9,000 units in the first month and earned over $100,000 in sales. Yeah, so you can make money making Photoshop brushes. But that was an absolute mind-blowing experience for me and it all happened because I was staring at some beets on a plate. It also led me to then be able to really explore a whole range of brushes that were no longer tied to this natural media emulation thing which at been my sort of schtick for a long time. So thank you, beet juice, and thanks again to my brain for spacing out.
So Goldfish snacks. So when you have young children, you sit a picnic table, some of you are gonna be familiar with this, you sit at a picnic table with other parents you mostly don’t wanna talk to, while your kids are playing in the playground and you’re watching your kids and you’re admiring them while you’re judging the other parents’ kids, right? Sir, you know it’s true, settle down. So anyway, at such a playground, one time I was sitting there, I was just kinda, you know, it’s not that fun, let’s all be, you’re just kinda sitting there you don’t really wanna be there, but I was having a nice kind of a spacey moment and then suddenly was interrupted behind me, this voice shouted out, “I want a fish!” “I want a fish!” And I turned to look and I saw a mom hand one of these Goldfish snacks to this little girl, no words were exchanged, she just handed to her, she gobbled it up, then she ran back to the swings. Now, I didn’t like this. I was appalled by this interaction. Because I’m a lifelong fan of manners and ‘please’ is a one-syllable word, you teach it to a one and 1/2 year old, okay? My kids are running around saying, “Ball, please”, “This, please”, anything please, close enough, okay. And adults needs to learn it too. I cannot stand being in a coffee shop, standing in line and somebody is in front of me and I hear them say, “Yeah, I’m gonna do the…”, “I’m gonna get the…”, or “Yeah, let me…”. Talk to people with some respect. Say please, okay? It’s not a big thing to ask, alright? Just wanna ask everybody to do this. So anyway, I was going to bed that night and it was just in my head, I want a fish, I want a fish, was driving me nuts. And you know how when you wake up in the morning, you’re in that really, just fantastic half-asleep, half-awake thing? The only way to get there, by the way, is do not do the whole alarm and then snooze, snooze, snooze thing, I just kills it all, because all you’re doing, then, is anticipating the snooze. So don’t do that. But if you just wake up and then just sit there and you’re kinda like, sorta starting to fall back asleep, this is a good moment to be in this special state of mind. So I’m there and I hear I want a fish, I want a fish. It comes bubbling up to the surface again and in my mind I say, “Please say ‘please’, and I’ll grant your wish.” And I just had done a little kind of call and response, right? And then suddenly, I jumped up and I started writing little rhymes, okay? And then I took those rhymes and I went to my Wacom tablet and I start drawing and within about a week, I had my first book dummy for a children’s book idea.
So, ‘Please Say Please’ was sold to Scholastic in 2015 in a two-book deal. Thank you. With my agent, Laurie Abkemeier. So if you’re all looking for a picture book agent, she’s great. And the book was published in 2016 and this was my proudest achievement of my professional life and the reason is because this book has given me the opportunity to visit Title I schools in North Carolina, all over the state, and give the gift of reading and storytelling to hundreds of kids who sometimes don’t have a single book at home much less even a pencil, or, the kids I’ve met, it’s really opened my eyes to a lot of things. And thanks to my partnership with Bookmarks, which is a non-profit literacy organization, the book was also donated to all the local libraries in the area but also to 500, thanks to a grant we got, 500 low-income first grade students were given a signed copy of the book to take home and there were also, I went to visit these schools and we gave them this idea that they, too, could become authors some day and it was so cool at the end to see, when I would do a reading, so many kids say to me, “I wanna be an author.” You know? And this is something that hadn’t crossed their minds. So this has been the best experience so far of my professional life. So, thank you, Goldfish, thank you, annoying toddler, and thank you, for the third time, to my brain, for just completely spacing out and making something happen.
So these meaningful projects moved me forward in my career and were born out of moments of spacey boredom. Right? So I think that original ideas live inside us all but they swim in deeper waters and most of us spend most of the time just skimming the surface and that’s the problem because our world looks like this to us all the time.
So there’s an expression about knowing something like the back of your hand, so I wanna try something. How many of you have actually ever even bothered to look at the back of your hand, honestly? So just if you could, oh, good for you! All right, so, I’d like us all to try something. I just want you to turn your attention to the back of your hand, okay? Just look at that, don’t look at anything else, and just study it for a second. Now, if you’re a writer, imagine describing it as a landscape. You have some terrain there and it’s comprised of peaks and valleys and the lines in the skin are branching off from one another like so many dried-up rivulets. What else do you see? Just think about it and just let it take all of your attention, get lost in all the details. Maybe you’re a painter or a visual artist of some kind, so you can trade all the contours with your eyes and connect the landmarks, organize what you see by value, shape, proportion, color, and temperature. Do it as slowly as you can and then strive to do it even more slowly than that. You haven’t even gotten to the fingernails. They’re different from your neighbor’s. There’s a faint blue-gray, green, excuse me, in the veins for some folks that’s kinda peeking through here and there, appearing and disappearing, and now if you move just one finger, the whole thing changes. And when you think you’ve seen all of it and now you’re really ready to move on to the next thing, which I’m sure many of you are, that’s exactly the time that you actually need to rest with it much longer.
Okay, because this is now where you’re getting to that moment that you might call boredom but it’s really only the beginning, I believe, of deeper observation and true creative exploration. This is where a new idea could be lying in wait for those who are open to discovering it and it’s the space between, it’s just that beautiful blank, unexplored space we will probably lose altogether, if we’re not careful. We need to seek it out, nede to bask in it now and then, because I think it’s a very important place to be. So thank you for your time and enjoy the rest of this wonderful conference.