Stefan is currently the Director of Creative Strategy at Hint, a creative content & experience design shop located in Kansas City, where he has been since May 2015. Prior to Hint, Stefan was Creative Director at Callahan Creek for three years, Creative Director at Reign for three years, and Creative Director at The Brainyard for over six years, among other places. Over the years, he has written six books with his most successful being Caffeine for the Creative Mind, which contains 250 creative exercises. Mumaw speaks regularly about creativity and the creative process at design industry gatherings. Many people think that creativity is a talent that can not be learned, but Stefan thinks differently. He believes that creativity can be learned and strengthens with practice. Stefan grew up in Southern California. He studied Communication Design at Chapman University, a small Liberal Arts school in Orange, California, where he graduated in 1996. In 2008, Stefan and his wife, Niqua, and daughter, Caitlyn, moved to Overland Park, Kansas.
How did you become interested in Graphic Design?
You know, growing up I was always into art of some form. I was a crafty kid. I grew up as an only child and we didn’t have a lot of money so I got fairly good at just making things out of anything I could find. When I went to college I thought I wanted to be an architect, someone who designs buildings, because it was the only type of design that I thought existed. So, I started to study architecture, but there was so much math involved. There is also this weird phenomenon in architecture. They have a tendency to want you to be right or else buildings fall on people. So, about a year into the program I realized it was not for me, but I didn't know what else I could study. That’s when a counselor told me that I might want to look at Graphic Design. So, I started taking classes in Graphic Design. I was like yes, this is my world, this is the world I want to live in!
What was your first job out of college?
My first job out of college was at Coloredge, where I interned. I happened to play basketball with a bunch of guys, friends of friends, in a city league. And they just happened to own a design firm, so I interned there. And then, coming out of school they let me stay there until something else came along. So, I ended up staying there for three years. And then I struck out on my own.
So,where did you go after?
So I started my own little shop with a partner of mine. This was like 1998 or 1999, and we were building a lot of websites. Just these little websites for music artists, bands and stuff. Not making a lot of money, but at the beginning of this I was one of the few people that could design and write and build. So, the two of us, he went out and brought in the business and I was just pumping out hundreds of websites every year, little three and four page websites back when it was really hard to make a website. We had a good little run, three or four years, and I ended up selling my half to my partner because the guys that I had interned with were starting an ad agency and wanted me to come on board as partner and creative director.
Where did you work next?
So I came out to Kansas City and I worked for the small firm, Kelly Russell, and then I left to do my own thing for about three years, called Reign. We ended up closing the doors, right around 2008 during the downturn of the economy, and we could just not keep it going. So, we ended up closing shop and moving on.
Obviously the advertising community is a pretty close knit community here in Kansas City, and there was a creative director friend of mine named Tug McTighe, who was Executive Creative Director at Callahan Creek. He asked me to join Callahan Creek. So, I came on board as his number two, creative director, and I ran half and he ran half. I did that for about four years. All the while, I’ve had this philosophy about story, about the impact of story, and how story can be used in greater forms in advertising and marketing. So, I finally convinced Teri Rogers, who owned Take Two (T2) which is now called Hint, to sort of pursue this idea of story as a marketing vehicle. So she brought me on to lead it.
Do you enjoy being at Hint?
It is something different everyday. I really get to pursue story and it is an unusual environment. We are small, we don’t have all the pieces that we need. And because we don’t have all the pieces we need we wear a lot of hats. So we get to do a lot of different things. Which is good and bad. You are always overwhelmed, but at least you’re working on really interesting things every single day.
What has been your favorite project you have worked on?
The one that comes to mind from a Hint standpoint is one for the KU School of Business. They have a brand new building for the school of business that has a giant monitor in the atrium of the building. They were going to show the games and put announcements up on it. So, they came to us and asked us what we would do to that monitor if we could do whatever we wanted. So I got to get in the minds of business school students and figure out what it is that they love, what they fear, how they feel about school, and how it changes them.
For this project, we developed a thing called Al. It was originally called Oz. It was this idea of the great and powerful Oz. You ask the building questions and the building answers. So you have the Kansas School of Business app, and you can go onto Al and say ‘when should I get an internship? Is the coffee shop open today? How many trees are on campus? Where is the bathroom? Where is Econ101?' And the screen basically acts as the mouthpiece of the building and it will answer questions. We have about 3000 questions that are programmed into Al that make it look like he is responding. Then if Al doesn’t know the answer we have about 300 or 400 different ways for him to say "I don’t know the answer.” They are all funny and really interesting ways of saying that he doesn’t know. He will say things like "what do I look like siri?” and just little clever things to entertain you about the fact that he doesn’t know the answer. So he has an attitude, he has a personality, and a character. It was really fun to build and really fun to test. I get to put new things I come up with into it everyday because I still have access to the database. This was just a really fun project to work on at Hint.
What made you decide to start writing books?
Oh yeah, *laughs* the books. It was all sort of happenstance as is everything. I am a designer, I am not really a writer. I say that six books later. Part of it was ego. I had an idea and I wanted to see if I could sell the idea. And then I sold the idea and went crap I have to write it. So the very first idea I had for a book was called 72 dpi, this was back in 1998. There was no books out there for website design because it was all still brand new. I had been collecting sites that I thought were really good designs. So I thought this would be a great resource for people and a really great book. I designed the entire book and then I took that design around to different publishers and I asked if they were interested. Everyone said no because that was not how it works. They said you don’t design it, and then give it to us, you tell us your idea and then we work with you to make sure that the way that it is printed and the size is appropriate. It was a little bit of a learning curve, but I found a publisher who was kind enough to say no, but would say no with a little bit of response. So I would ask them questions and they would say “Well, this is how this industry works.” So we would go back and forth and eventually they said that there was another book that I may be the right author for. So they offered me the book, Simple Websites. It was about simplicity in web design. That was the first book I ever wrote. They designed it and I just had to write it. And so in the middle of that, I had pitched them another idea, a follow up book, called Redesigning Websites and they had taken that and published it as well.
And what I found was, once you get a book published it is a lot easier to get things published. Eventually I got another one through, my third book, called Caffeine for the Creative Mind. And that one was a really big success. There is a hurdle you overcome when you write a book for the first time and get it published. You are no longer an unknown entity to people, you are an author. There is also another hurdle you overcome when you have been successful. If a book has been successful you can write just about anything because you have built up an audience. So, I wrote three more books on the co-tails of Caffeine for the Creative Mind simply because it had success, but none of them were nearly as successful. Overall, I’ve had one good success and a bunch of blah, from a sales standpoint. But I look back and I’ve written six books. It was a very odd experience. I have no more talent than anybody else, I just had an opportunity and took it.
Where do you see your Design Career future taking you?
My daughter graduated high school this year and went off to college. And the irony of the whole thing is that she chose my Alma Mater, back where we are from. Studying where I studied, with teachers that I taught with, and studying graphic design. So I would image that at some point we will probably move back to be closer to her. I don’t know when that will be. I have nothing but joy when it comes to what I do for a living and who I do it for, but the opportunity to see my daughter follow in my footsteps is probably going to be too great of an opportunity to pass up.
What kind of creative process do you go through?
I am a very inflective designer. I really separate beauty from purpose and I am far more interested in how humans interact with things then with just creating something that looks good. So my process always starts with people. I want to know who the audience for the design is going to be. So, I have to dig into who they are as people. I have to know what their loves are, what their fears are, what motivates them, and what their behaviors. This way, the design I create doesn’t try to change their behavior, but more importantly fits into the behavior that they already have in a way that adds value and meaning to whatever they are doing. So I always start with people. It is a very research heavy beginning of a process because I don’t start with art, I end with art. So I start with what my purpose is, what it is I am trying to get them to understand and do, what they already understand and how that fits in. And then I’ll start thinking about story. What is the story that is going to impact them in the way they want to be impacted? So it is a very responsive way to go through a process. It a process that starts with people and then moves on and on.
Do you have any tips for working with clients?
Realize that in most cases, clients are within a political system inside of their cooperation. They are not always going to make the choice that is best for the project, sometimes they make the choice that is best for their own political gain or to get approval from somebody above them. If we take the time to learn what is impacting or influencing a client’s decision on the work that we do, we can recognize what it is we are supposed to be accomplishing in the work and what is best for the client. And when you can do those things more work will get approved and added to the world and have the effect that it is suppose to have. It’s just recognizing that the client is a person as well, has strengths and weaknesses, has pressures that they have at work. And this project isn’t always intended to simply accomplish the goal in the real world, sometimes it is meant to alleviate the pressure that they feel inside of their corporate systems too. So in the same way that we understand people through audience standpoint, we have to understand the client as well. So take the time to know who they are.
What Design mistakes have you learned from?
I have learned from every single mistake I have made. Most of the mistakes that I have made in my design career have been mistakes of arrogance. It’s believing that I know more than the audience, that I know more than the client, that I know more than the people who are taking in the work that I do. While some of that may have been actually true, most of it wasn’t. I don’t know more than they do. I don’t know enough. And I think that I do.
Mistaking talent for knowledge is a terrible mistake in the design studio. Simply being talented is not enough to be good at what we do. But recognizing that our talents are combined with an understanding of human behavior, an understanding of our client’s political system, an understanding that as good as we may be at any particular moment or as good as work we have done on a particular project, we are never good enough. Remembering that we are never good enough, that we can always be better. That we can always go back to the drawing board and always come up with another idea. I have a tendency to barrel over my clients, because I have a tendency to research. So I think that I know and I will go into projects thinking I have all of the answers when the proper way for me to go into any project is to understand that I do not have nearly enough information and any effectiveness that I am as a designer is hard work.
Do you have any advice for designers just starting out?
School is not the end of education. It is simply the trampoline. I believe the designers that have the greatest effect on the world are the ones that constantly learn.
You know, a good example of that in my own life, was my coauthor on Caffeine for the Creative Mind and Caffeine for the Creative Team, her name is Wendy Lee Oldfield. I was teaching at Chapman University and Wendy was a student there. She came from South Africa and I have never seen anyone who has viewed the world with bigger eyes than she has. She has soaked in every single thing that she learned at school. But then what ended up happening was after she left school she didn’t stop. Everything was education to her. She kept learning. She always wants to pick up new techniques. She has a humble spirit. And she always goes into projects with this base understanding that she doesn’t know. It has treated her very well and she has become twice the designer I ever will be.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
Two pieces. They are sort of sayings that go on t-shirts. ‘Fake it till you make it’ was the first one. If you are going to be given opportunities that you don’t know the answers to pretend like you do and then just learn them as you go. I believe I have fully invested in this idea of fake it till you make it.
Then, I got piece of advice I got early on in my career from my first creative director. He would say “don’t make this your life’s work.” So, I would be working on a project, like a banner, brochure or a logo, and I would be mulling and mulling all of the details and he would put his hand on my shoulder and would say “don’t make this your life’s work.” What he was basically saying was don’t fall in love with the result of our work. Don’t fall in love with the things we make, fall in love with the act of making. If you fall in love with the act of making you will never be disappointed, but if you fall in love with the things you make you will come to very quick realizations that you are not good enough, clients get in the way, and you don’t control the projects that you work on. So, if you fall in love with the things that you make you are going to be disappointed. But if you love going to work everyday and making something, it doesn’t matter what the result is. That is what he was saying when he would say “don’t make this your life’s work.” This was really good advice that I always keep in mind.