Explore and Create Stories #2: Anitra Nottingham

If ever there is a lady that you can meet who makes you sit up and listen, Anitra Nottingham would be this lady. I have known Anitra for a few years now. From the very moment I met her, I  have admired Anitra’s way of seeing the world and her amazing way of articulating just how it is! As you will read, throughout this Explore & Create Series interview, Anitra shares openly and honestly about her approach to creativity from various perspectives, including being a writer, graphic designer, and educator. She is so honest about her approaches and need for self care that you just can’t help but nod your head as you read this interview (my head nearly feel off as I nodded in empathy to the learnings that occur from those we treasure and those who have perhaps not been so kind to us). I think you will all relate. Enjoy this interview with one amazing creative and inspirational woman.

 

Tell us about what you do. I call myself a graphic designer, educator and writer. I am mostly a design educator, as I only do little freebie design jobs for friends and family or for my own side projects. I call myself a writer because at any given time I am writing one to two online classes which are a little bit bigger than your average design textbook, to very tight deadlines. Plus various blog posts and journal articles that never seem to get done... My actual title is Online Director for the School of Graphic Design School at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Meaning I lead a team of four faculty (in California, Ohio and Montana) and 30 or so part-time faculty. I also develop curriculum and teach. What I actually am though is chief problem solver. A vast majority of my day is spent writing emails solving tricky student and administrative problems. Around that I have to fit teaching and writing design, typography, design history and research methods classes. There’s also a large amount of pastoral care for the online only students, including supervising grad students. I like to say I do everything my onsite colleagues do, but backwards and in heels given it’s online, and from here in Australia.

Tell us about what you do.

I call myself a graphic designer, educator and writer.

I am mostly a design educator, as I only do little freebie design jobs for friends and family or for my own side projects.

I call myself a writer because at any given time I am writing one to two online classes which are a little bit bigger than your average design textbook, to very tight deadlines. Plus various blog posts and journal articles that never seem to get done...

My actual title is Online Director for the School of Graphic Design School at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Meaning I lead a team of four faculty (in California, Ohio and Montana) and 30 or so part-time faculty. I also develop curriculum and teach.

What I actually am though is chief problem solver. A vast majority of my day is spent writing emails solving tricky student and administrative problems.

Around that I have to fit teaching and writing design, typography, design history and research methods classes.

There’s also a large amount of pastoral care for the online only students, including supervising grad students.

I like to say I do everything my onsite colleagues do, but backwards and in heels given it’s online, and from here in Australia.

Anitra working with her team virtually.   What are you passionate about? I used to say typography, it still inspires me (and I like to pin the heck out of it on Pinterest) but really I think it’s now design education. I love it. Making curriculum is like making a design project but to me much more interesting than doing something like designing a logo. I don’t think I will ever solve the design problem of how best to get design knowledge into other people’s heads, but it sure is fun working on it!  

Anitra working with her team virtually.

 

What are you passionate about?

I used to say typography, it still inspires me (and I like to pin the heck out of it on Pinterest) but really I think it’s now design education.

I love it.

Making curriculum is like making a design project but to me much more interesting than doing something like designing a logo. I don’t think I will ever solve the design problem of how best to get design knowledge into other people’s heads, but it sure is fun working on it!


 

Anitra and co-creator Jeremy   What are you working on at the moment? Just before I started writing this I sent off a textbook proposal about the design process to a UK publisher. Which was surprisingly easy to write - years of thinking about that problem came pouring out, a lot of it comes from my Master of Philosophy thesis project. I always think if an idea is that easy to write it’s a sign you are onto something good, but we shall see. It’s a long process, which may not go anywhere according to the publisher. I’ve also been working with my colleague, Jeremy, making a teaching/creative methods tool called the “creative connection cards” We wrote designed and sourced them which was fun, now we are testing them and writing a workshop about using them for a design educators conference in Montana.  

Anitra and co-creator Jeremy

 

What are you working on at the moment?

Just before I started writing this I sent off a textbook proposal about the design process to a UK publisher. Which was surprisingly easy to write - years of thinking about that problem came pouring out, a lot of it comes from my Master of Philosophy thesis project. I always think if an idea is that easy to write it’s a sign you are onto something good, but we shall see. It’s a long process, which may not go anywhere according to the publisher.

I’ve also been working with my colleague, Jeremy, making a teaching/creative methods tool called the “creative connection cards” We wrote designed and sourced them which was fun, now we are testing them and writing a workshop about using them for a design educators conference in Montana.

 

Creative connection cards   What led you to your latest project or focus? The book proposal came from years of peer reviewing books for the publisher. They asked me for my book ideas, and we workshopped it from there. I always took the time to be thorough and thoughtful about reviews as I wanted them to be useful, so I guess being conscientious paid off in the end. Which is nice! The creative connection cards were my colleague Jeremy’s idea. He came back from a conference with a thing that was kind of like a deck of cards, but not really, and he read a book about creativity research and got all fired up. I can’t remember which of us said “heck, we can do that!” we were in the middle of working on it before we knew it. It’s really been wonderful to work with someone else. Doing my thesis was a lonely journey, I like having to defend my ideas and argue him around to my point of view.   How do you approach creativity in your life? “Conscientious” was the word most often used in my school reports and I think I am the same about creativity (personal or professional) now I think about it. It’s a process and you have to keep working diligently at it or it won’t happen for you. Ideas, fragments, drafts come together if you just keep hacking away at them. And by that I mean throwing stuff away too. In writing I have come to see that it’s true there is mainly “re-writing”. In design I have become very suspicious of the idea of “inspiration” that happens like a lightning strike. Sure it happens, and it’s great when it does, but there are tools and methods you can use to make creativity happen. Maybe it’s a designer thing where you have to be creative for a living but I don’t think discipline, organisation and work are the enemy of creativity, I think they fuel and support it.    

Creative connection cards

 

What led you to your latest project or focus?

The book proposal came from years of peer reviewing books for the publisher. They asked me for my book ideas, and we workshopped it from there. I always took the time to be thorough and thoughtful about reviews as I wanted them to be useful, so I guess being conscientious paid off in the end. Which is nice!

The creative connection cards were my colleague Jeremy’s idea. He came back from a conference with a thing that was kind of like a deck of cards, but not really, and he read a book about creativity research and got all fired up. I can’t remember which of us said “heck, we can do that!” we were in the middle of working on it before we knew it. It’s really been wonderful to work with someone else. Doing my thesis was a lonely journey, I like having to defend my ideas and argue him around to my point of view.


 

How do you approach creativity in your life?

“Conscientious” was the word most often used in my school reports and I think I am the same about creativity (personal or professional) now I think about it. It’s a process and you have to keep working diligently at it or it won’t happen for you. Ideas, fragments, drafts come together if you just keep hacking away at them. And by that I mean throwing stuff away too. In writing I have come to see that it’s true there is mainly “re-writing”.

In design I have become very suspicious of the idea of “inspiration” that happens like a lightning strike. Sure it happens, and it’s great when it does, but there are tools and methods you can use to make creativity happen. Maybe it’s a designer thing where you have to be creative for a living but I don’t think discipline, organisation and work are the enemy of creativity, I think they fuel and support it.

 


 

We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you? Yes I believe flow state exists, and I have experienced it many times, but it usually happens when I have been working hard, I mean really working, not flipping around on social media channels and reading websites and the like!   What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this? That flow state doesn’t feel like play or fun for me, it’s a kind of state where making is purposeful and engaging not mindless or easy necessarily. To get into that state of mind I have to really want to hash out and make whatever it is that solves the problem. Text, design, whatever.   What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours? Time. And by that I don’t mean I don’t have any spare time, because I know that I do. It’s just that there are other things like watching TV or reading trashy novels that are more appealing ways to spend my time than working.   How do you find your zen? Get a cup of coffee, and put my bum on the seat. Turn the music up, and keep front of mind how good it will feel to get the thing you want to do squared away. Hold onto that feeling and just start. (Plus, turn off Facebook.)   When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell me us about this for you. It is like a wormhole, it jumps ahead whatever you are working on by light years. Only, and maybe this is just me, I usually have to go back and painfully edit and clean up what I made in that state because its usually pretty raw and unfiltered. I tend to experience this state much more in writing than in design I think because the process of typing words is more flow-y than sketching/computer drafting.  

We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?

Yes I believe flow state exists, and I have experienced it many times, but it usually happens when I have been working hard, I mean really working, not flipping around on social media channels and reading websites and the like!

 

What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?

That flow state doesn’t feel like play or fun for me, it’s a kind of state where making is purposeful and engaging not mindless or easy necessarily. To get into that state of mind I have to really want to hash out and make whatever it is that solves the problem. Text, design, whatever.


 

What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours?

Time. And by that I don’t mean I don’t have any spare time, because I know that I do. It’s just that there are other things like watching TV or reading trashy novels that are more appealing ways to spend my time than working.


 

How do you find your zen?

Get a cup of coffee, and put my bum on the seat. Turn the music up, and keep front of mind how good it will feel to get the thing you want to do squared away. Hold onto that feeling and just start.

(Plus, turn off Facebook.)

 

When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell me us about this for you.

It is like a wormhole, it jumps ahead whatever you are working on by light years. Only, and maybe this is just me, I usually have to go back and painfully edit and clean up what I made in that state because its usually pretty raw and unfiltered.

I tend to experience this state much more in writing than in design I think because the process of typing words is more flow-y than sketching/computer drafting.



 

The penguin stack   Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work? My art directors at Penguin and Oxford, Tony and Steve, who taught me everything I know about typography. They also showed me that real designers are not just about the right taste (and wearing the right black-rimmed glasses). That being a designer is all about dedicated diligent exacting detailed work, and that this is what builds creative expertise. My boss Mary who kicks ass as a design school chair, graphic designer and landscape architect at 74. She showed me that being a designer can be all about having the right taste (and black rimmed glasses) too. Amazing taste informs everything she does - it’s like a force of nature her design eye, fierce. She also showed me that you can mother while you have a career and your kids will be ok, and to assert yourself without being mean. I love her to bits. Also two people who did me wrong in the workplace, not naming names but both of them showed me that untrustworthy people often give the best career advice - often unknowingly of course.  

The penguin stack

 

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?

My art directors at Penguin and Oxford, Tony and Steve, who taught me everything I know about typography. They also showed me that real designers are not just about the right taste (and wearing the right black-rimmed glasses). That being a designer is all about dedicated diligent exacting detailed work, and that this is what builds creative expertise.

My boss Mary who kicks ass as a design school chair, graphic designer and landscape architect at 74. She showed me that being a designer can be all about having the right taste (and black rimmed glasses) too. Amazing taste informs everything she does - it’s like a force of nature her design eye, fierce. She also showed me that you can mother while you have a career and your kids will be ok, and to assert yourself without being mean. I love her to bits.

Also two people who did me wrong in the workplace, not naming names but both of them showed me that untrustworthy people often give the best career advice - often unknowingly of course.


 

Anitra and Mary.

Anitra and Mary.

How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)

8. It’s cooking but there’s some things that have been sitting around that need to get out there. Course, if that book deal goes through it will be a 10 ;)

 

Tell me, who are you clicking on at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Great graphic design on Pinterest. Looking and collecting is what feeds the design eye.

American political websites (politico and five thirty eight) because I work in the states, and what’s happening scares me.

 

Tell me, who are you listening to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Taylor Swift, 1989 - still - and I refuse to be embarrassed about it. (She is a genius and if she were a man her success and her songs would be much more celebrated.) I also love all kinds of podcasts, radio lab, invisibilia and hardcore history are my current favourites.


 

Tell me, who are you talking to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Jeremy, we are doing a lot of work together at the moment and as a consequence our talking sessions are epic. It’s one long conversation that threads through video, slack, emails and google docs. When I am in San Francisco we literally have to go to different rooms as we are not able to collaborate when we are in the same physical space, we are fully mediated by the machine.


 

Tell me, who are you are reading at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Honestly? nothing academic. My brain is too full. I’m reading Murder in Chelsea, a tacky Tatler-style British crime novel for fun. I’m in a kind of virtual book group with my sister Inger in Canberra and our friend Nick, in London. We send each other the best bits, and our analysis has a lot of emojis in it.

What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark? or What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative?

I never thought I was creative, I am still not sure I am really, what I like to do is solve problems. I really believe I made myself “creative” because it seemed like a fun thing to be. I was jealous of the kids at school who could draw because I couldn’t, and I wanted to be “creative” like they were. At that time my parents and everyone else at school thought creativity = being able to draw. I’d like to say that I started working at and didn’t let not drawing hold me back, but that’s not true either.

What I think I really did was just decide to adopt the identity, and hang around with creative people and make stuff like they did. It took me years to realise drawing actually isn’t necessarily creativity. It took me years more to realise I will never think the stuff I make is good enough. And maybe that’s what being creative is - just making things and thinking they are a bit shit and you could improve them.

So my advice for people who think they aren’t creative is if you want to be, then just start doing the things creative people do. Cultivate it by hanging around with creative people, read, look, study, and just be curious about whatever it is that creativity represents for you.

If you are struggling - bum to seat. Just make something, even if it is crap, you can edit later and make it better.


 

What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow?

“Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” The late, great, graphic designer, Paul Rand.

 

 

 

You can connect further with Anitra here:


Pinterest/Twitter/Instagram: @anitranot
 

Anitra [at] anitraland.com
 

Creative Connection Cards
 

Guest blog posts on Thesis Whisperer:
Derrida, hate, and stupidity, in the practice of thesis writing
My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon