Industry News

Q&A with Stefan Mumaw: HOW Design TODAY December 2022

If you’ve ever been to HOW Design Live, there’s one speaker who likely looms large in your memory—and not because he’s 6’8”.

Stefan Mumaw has long been a mainstay at the event for his sheer energy, positivity, humor, and the inspirational joy he brings year after year.

Whether he’s emceeing the show, fostering creative collaboration and conversation through the annual HOW Connection meetup, or sharing his wisdom in an original talk to a packed house, the Director of Narrative Strategy at First Person consistently ranks as an attendee favorite.

And from a simple conversation with him, it’s easy to see why.

As for what he thinks is the key to it all:

“I just remind people of what they already know,” he says. “We can all benefit from being reminded why we got into this industry in the first place, to remember the feeling of creation we had or the excitement of generating an idea we couldn’t wait to share. We could have chosen a career where our work was predictable and planned, but we chose to be creatives, to sometimes make art and solve hard things and other times punch the wall and scream at the sky. I don’t tell anyone anything they don’t already know—I’m more like a giant, oversized Post-It note where you wrote ‘Don’t forget you love this’ a long time ago.”

Read on for Mumaw’s thoughts on what makes for the best creative director, the power of story and strategy … and even what Ferris Buehler can teach any designer working today.

How did your creativity manifest at an early age?

Like a lot of folks, creativity for me was born out of necessity. I grew up fairly poor; it was just me and my mom, and she worked two jobs to get us by. I had a lot of alone time growing up, so I made things. I invented games and wrote stories, created holiday decorations. I made up things to do. I learned to be resourceful very early, but back then I didn’t see it as being resourceful. I was just being a kid. Looking back, I can see the adult that I am from the kid that I was. If you knew me then, what I do now makes complete sense. My entire career path would make sense. I was one of the lucky ones in that way—I always knew what I wanted to do, I just never knew what it was called.

You majored in Communication Arts at Chapman. What drew you to the field to begin with?

I wanted to solve problems by making things, so when you get into high school and adults start saying, “It’s time to decide what you’re going to be for the rest of your life …” I translated “solve problems by making things” into architecture. It was the only field I knew of that did that. So I took four years of architecture classes in high school even though it was only offered as a one-year course. The instructor kept letting me come back and progress on my own. But something didn’t quite feel right. My senior year of high school, I took an art class to fill an elective. I wasn’t particularly artistic, I was very structured. I’m assuming that came from a combination of problem solving and architecture influences. My teacher, however, introduced me to graphic design. Until that point, I had no idea the field even existed. It was everything I loved about architecture without the consequence of impending death and destruction should I be wrong in my calculations. I fell in love immediately.

After graduating, you got a job as an art director at Coloredge in 1996, and you quickly ascended into creative director roles. Having banked so many years as a CD, what do you feel makes for the most effective creative directors?

There’s a disconnect in our industry with how designers progress corporately. If you’re a great designer, and you put in your time and make your effort, your reward is that they take everything you do well away from you and make you a manager of people. I always found that strange. Being a CD is very, very different than being an AD. Very different skillsets. I had to learn that quickly. I had to learn how to communicate verbally, how to give solid direction without solving the problem for them, how to trust others. My first instinct as a CD was to solve it myself. To design it myself. But those instincts do nothing for the people you’re leading. It does not help them get better, it does not help you communicate better. I had to learn my role, as a CD, is to first establish what creative excellence means to our team or our organization, then second to be the voice of both the client and the client’s audience for our designers, and lastly to be “encouragement incarnate.” Designing for a living is a tough position. To pour yourself into your work, then hang that work on a wall and let people tear it to shreds, then be expected to take the tattered pieces down and pour yourself into it again is very difficult. If I can remind them that they are not their work, that the work is impacted by so many variables before it ever sees the light of day, and remind them that they rock, that might be a good CD’s most important responsibility.

You’ve spent a career in a field that demands relentless creativity. What’s the best way to stay motivated to be able to execute on it?

Perspective. When I’m asked about how to stay motivated in our industry, I always start by asking the same question: “Why did you get into this industry? Why did you want to be a designer, or a writer, or a photographer?” I’m paraphrasing, but the answer is almost always some form of “love” trigger—they loved seeing an idea come to life, or perfecting a design, or manifesting a concept in artistic or copy form. It usually comes down to loving to make something. The motivation is right there in the answer. Usually when we struggle with motivation, it’s because we’ve become too focused on the outcome of our work. We get frustrated by too much CD or client meddling, we never have our designs selected, we’re working with templates or pre-solved problems, we don’t get the time or resources we need to perform at the level we want. We’re frustrated by the periphery of design, the things we can’t control. But even in that circumstance, there are parts of our process we DO control. Parts that are uniquely ours, we own them. If we fall in love with the making and not the things we make, we’ll rarely struggle for motivation. If a client sends me back to the drawing board because they don’t like any of my solutions, they are asking me to do the part of the process I love the most again. That’s fantastic! Love the process, not the outcome, and you’ll rarely find yourself without the motivation to do it.

Tell us about how your career evolved in the direction of story—and why story is such an utterly powerful thing.

Wow, that’s a big question. Not to bore the audience to death but as I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time in my younger years alone, so one of the ways I would pass time was the movies. Back then, I had made friends with the folks running the local theater down the street, and they’d let me watch movies all day. I’d just sit in the theater and watch the same films back to back to back. I loved it. So story was always part of how I solved problems, even in design. I was always looking to express the story behind the problem I was solving. I wanted every solution to have a narrative. As I continued to work in the agency world, there were more story mediums that became available. It used to be just TV spots, but as content exploded, there were so many different ways to express a story. I could always write a little, so as a designer who could write, I found myself in smaller agencies that needed me to do both. That allowed me to write stories as well as design them. Advertising is a great medium for that type of collaborative expression.

As for why story is “an utterly powerful thing,” as you put it, story does two things that I found difficult to accomplish in any other form: It provides context and it manifests emotion. When someone is explaining a difficult concept to you and you are having a hard time understanding, what do you ask for? You ask for an example. You’re asking for a story, because in that form, you have a greater chance of understanding because you can find threads of personal experience in the story. You may not understand physics but you’ve turned a corner going really fast before. The story gives you a shared experience to hold onto. And because experience is lived, there is always natural emotional resonance that goes with it. You felt something during that experience. Story gives information feelings. That’s why it’s so powerful. Because it can be felt.

Do you have anything akin to a “process” when taking on new projects?

Absolutely. I start everything with discovery, whether I’m designing a deck or building a strategy. It’s at the core of how we approach everything at First Person, it’s built into the deliverables and our time and effort are compensated during this stage. Discovery is where we learn. For me personally, what I’m most interested in learning about at the beginning of a project is people. In marketing circles, this is usually represented as an audience. I want to know more than just how they behave relationally to a product or service—I want to know what they believe in, what they are afraid of, what makes them happy. This means going beyond personas, this means getting into interviews and observations and conversations. In my opinion, this is foundational to any resonant story development. The rest of the process is pretty common to most creative ecosystems, but that upfront discovery is vital for me. I never assume I know anything about anything—it’s where we get in trouble as creatives. When we assume our experience is everyone’s experience, that our worldview is everyone’s worldview, that’s when our work misses the mark and becomes shortsighted. Empathy truly, truly is everything.

Tell us about the role of strategy, and what it means to you.

I think designers can get weirded out by the word “strategy,” and think it’s something that happens before they get involved. But really, all strategy is is another word for focus. If a client comes to a designer to design a website, that website could literally look and act like anything. There are millions of examples of what a website should or could be. How do you decide? Most designers start by asking some questions about the brand, the market, the audience, the industry, the personal preferences of the decision makers … all in an effort to reduce the variables and decide how to solve the problem. All of that is strategy.

For me, strategy is pretty simple: We have someone who wants to communicate a message (a brand, a company, a product, etc.) and we have an audience that is intended to hear that message. The message giver has something they want the audience to know or do. The audience has things they like to know or do. Strategy is the thing that both of those entities share. Whether it’s a message, or an emotion, or an experience, or a value, it becomes a strategy for design to follow when they solve the problem. Whether it’s a design or a story, there are always two characters. Strategy is simply finding where they meet.

What’s the key to balance in work and life for you?

I know I’m relatively alone in this, but I don’t really believe in work/life balance. My work intersects with my life pretty tightly, it’s an intertwined world for me. I like it that way. I could offer up the usual platitudes that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, but that’s not true. Work takes work. Life takes work. There’s nothing wrong with work. Work provides money to do other things, but it also provides purpose and joy. I think work gets a bad wrap a lot of the time. When I’m reading about a new industry, I’m working by absorbing information and contextualizing data. When I’m watching a movie at night, I’m working by taking in examples of story and being inspired by creative choices. In my life, I don’t really turn work off. It drives my wife crazy, but I find joy in solving problems, and as humans, we don’t really turn that part of our brains off anyway. Anyone who has laid awake at night thinking of ideas to solve a problem knows what I’m talking about.

What’s your best piece of career advice, or the best that you’ve ever received?

Everyone says “don’t chase money” here but that’s simply not practical. Sometimes, chase money because we need money to survive. I would say “don’t chase names,” meaning, we get this idea that we want to do high-profile work for big brands where everyone can see it. There’s some vanity in that—and there’s nothing wrong with a little pride in the work and a desired recognition for it. But big brands rarely equal creative freedom. Quite the opposite, in my experience. Not all the time, but I can say in my career, almost every project I would hold up in my personal top 10 would come from smaller brand clients. There’s a time for vanity, I get it. But it’s fleeting, and it can be limiting.

You seem to have such a penchant for fostering creative connections, as any HOW Design Live attendee would attest. What drives you?

The great Von Glitchska once said that creativity is putting two disparate ideas together. The key here is disparate. When two things that are different come together, they form something new. People are the same way. When you put together two designers from completely different geographies and life experiences and talents and worldviews, you get something new. All invention creates energy, and there’s something about the energy that comes from the casual collisions of creatives that is intoxicating. I’m driven by watching that happen because it gives me energy. It’s all very self-serving, when you boil it down.

As a bit of an aside, you mentioned films earlier. How do they feed back into your creative output?

As much as I love movies, I love seeing movies in the theater. It’s the sequestered, shared experience of seeing a story with other people. It’s the popcorn and soda. It’s the screen that takes up your entire peripheral vision. It’s the immersion, I suppose. For those couple of hours, I’m only doing one thing, only thinking about one thing. Outside of my typical story filter, I think that’s the part that has had the greatest impact on my creative process. Technology and responsibility have made us really good at multitasking, at jumping from thing to thing. There used to be this badge we would wear if we were really good multitaskers, but I think that’s no longer the badge of honor it used to be. We become proficient at what we practice, even if we’re not consciously practicing it. I have found that when I’ve been my creative best, it’s because I’ve intentionally crafted single-tasking scenarios. I’ve focused just on one thing. I’ve blocked off my calendar for the time I need to think and experiment and fail and try. I can watch movies here at home anytime. Super convenient. But it’s not the same because I haven’t crafted the same single-tasking scenario that I have when I’m in a theater. Like anything, when I give myself fully to something, even something as small as a movie or a design project, I not only produce better results, I enjoy the process more.

What’s your favorite movie—and what can it teach designers?

I am convinced that everyone, if they are being honest, is slightly ashamed of their favorite movie. I am no different. I’ve seen tens of thousands of movies, some of the greatest and most influential films ever created, and my favorite all-time movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s the movie that made me fall in love with the movies; it was the first time I ever saw myself in a character. Or better said, I saw who I wanted to be in a character. I was 16 years old in ’86 when it came out, so the life he led was the life I wanted, and that was the first time I really related to a character on screen.

You’re putting me on the spot a little with the question of what it can teach designers. I’ll improv it a little: It’s easy to focus on Ferris, on his creativity, but for the sake of the argument and not wanting to be cliche, let’s focus on Cameron. He’s been in Ferris’ shadow his entire life; he’s been in the background, but not because he necessarily wanted to be. He wanted to have his courage, he wanted to have his moxie. He just … didn’t. And that would be OK if that made him happy, but he wasn’t. He was miserable. He wanted change but his circumstances (read: dad) were a heavy weight, and in his mind, kept him from being who and what he wanted. It wasn’t until change was thrust upon him (very literally, and in reverse) that he decided to walk headfirst into the conflict he knew he needed to have to be who he wanted to be.

So, as a creative, what is the circumstance that is keeping you from being who, or where, you want to be? Who or what is your version of Cameron’s dad? What change is needed for you to walk headfirst into the conflict needed to make that change? What is your ’61 Ferrari 250 GT California? If you can identify both, then you can wait for your Ferris to challenge you or you can put a brick on the accelerator, put it in reverse, and force that change to come. Is it easy? Nope. Not even a little. But no change is. If you know you want it, then put the wheels in motion so you can’t back out.

What projects are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a vision/mission and future-casting story for one of our technology clients, and I’ve got some stories to build for another client around their partnership with a Formula 1 constructor, so both of those should be super fun. On the side, I’m putting together a LinkedIn Learning course around my HOW Design Live talk from last year, “Rapid Ideation.” In it, I’ll teach the principles of rapid ideation, how to generate more ideas faster, and use some creative exercises to lighten the mood and teach through action.

Plus, my daughter is getting married in 2023, so I’m preparing my speech. I’m thinking Princess Bride. Or Father of the Bride. Can’t decide which.

Get More of Stefan Mumaw

For more from Stefan Mumaw, check out his website and follow him everywhere on social media: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.