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Creative Conference speakers inspire regular Portlanders with tales of getting things done.



The Portland Creative Conference 2016 hewed closely to the inspirational directive, that of geeing up the audience to be creative, by using examples. It also included some tales of stick-to-itness. Companies send teams of staff (see sidebar) to stimulate their thinking. They come from not just marketing and advertising, the traditional domain of “creative” work, but from all sorts of positions, such as HR, finance and management.

Keynote speaker Robert Brunner of San Francisco-based design studio Ammunition is an industrial designer who once worked at Apple. He joked that when people ask him what it was like working with Apple founder Steve Jobs, he always says “I was between Jobs.” Brunner worked there after Jobs quit and went to work on NeXT and before he returned to stimulate the iPod and iPhone era that changed the world. But there is a lot in Brunner’s signature curvy minimalism that is also found in late era Apple products.

Brunner was a privileged child when it came to social capital. His father Russell was a brilliant engineer who invented the little arms that read the spinning platters in hard drives. He was doing this for IBM in the late 1960s. Brunner had a ringside seat at his father’s workshop, but his mother Elizabeth was also a big influence. She was super crafty, an art lover, a designer of children’s clothes and a model. The son was pushed into engineering because he was good at it, and his love of art was ignored. He was unhappy. But Brunner righted all than when he saw a display of industrial design products and found his calling. The first thing he designed was a hormone gun/syringe for cattle, which he managed to make look cool as well as functional.

Beats by Dre, design by Brunner

PAMPLIN MEDIA GOUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Robert Brunner, who founded Ammunition in 2007 in San Francisco and once ran Apple's design lab, distilled his five rules for design success. Ammunitions clients include Adobe, Beats by Dre, Lyft, Polaroid and UNICEF.

Brunner founded Ammunition in 2007. Key products include Beats by Dre headphones, the Polaroid Cube action camera and the Square lazy Susan, used as a cash register.

From the looks of the photos he showed, all his offices have had meticulously tidy desks and walls of color printouts of projects under design. His goal is a sort of warm minimalism, a sleekness with a bit of character.

While at Apple his team designed the first Apple PowerBook, whose trackball in the center of the horizontal panel created a work surface that is still imitated today. It also allowed for divvying up the inner working of the computer in a new, more efficient way. If there’s a reason Apple always sheds features before everyone else — the CD drive, the headphone jack — it can be traced back to Brunner’s team.

He showed how Beats by Dre became a huge brand by listening to musical perfectionists Dr. Dre, who wanted a fuller range of tones and a cool look. The Beats Mixer headphones for DJ’s allowed them to pivot one earphone off without breaking the device, which was an industry first.

The company’s lowest cost headphone is the EP, at $129. The packaging alone suggests a $500 product, for a reason. Brunner stressed that products are more than objects. They are the whole consumer experience, from lush photography to the unboxing, to the weight and smell of a product — even how you feel when it breaks.

The Polaroid Cube was designed as the opposite of the GoPro camera, not for Black Diamond runs, but for snapping magnetically to your child’s bike as he or she learns to ride. Ammunition likes to take a stake in any company it designs for, and owns parts of 40 companies. “We get revenue from sales. It totally changes the way you work,” he said.

The Pinkstache makeover

There were some eccentric products — the June oven (with cameras on the inside that recognize food and shares photos and recipes to social media) and the Ember coffee cup, which heats and cools itself.

Brunner’s team designed the pink glowing mustache that Lyft drivers earn and place on their dashboard. (It replaced the pink furry ones that clipped to radiator grill and got dirty.) Much of this sounded like solutions to San Francisco problems. However, another innovative product his firm designed for UNICEF is a fitness tracker for kids.

It gamifies exercise by rewarding the kids in a unique way: they earn points to send a nutrition packet to a poor child across the globe. They are $39 at Target, and he says children are more than usually motivated to move around to help their peers in trouble on the other side of the planet.

Writer’s cube

Paul Guyot is the co-executive producer of the show “The Librarians,” which is made in Portland. He came up through “Leverage,” also from Portland. Guyot told a moving tale of how he found his voice.

He was an emotional wreck having been dumped by his girlfriend, and was missing his kids back home in Los Angeles. The Librarians landed in his lap against his will. He would cry in the bathroom at work to get through the day. He was really feeling the pressure, then one day the studio rejected his script and he had only 40 hours to write a new one or the show would possibly end.

He realized he had no choice, and wrote from his heart, pouring his break-up material into the mouths of characters whom he showed walking around Washington Park’s Arboretum. He admitted it wasn’t the best script, but it worked.

It gave him two giant two revelations. One, that he could produce creative work under an intense deadline. “I don’t believe in writer’s block.” And two, that he should be writing scripts for his own ideas. So he took a risk and wrote a pilot called the “The Black 22” about black detectives in St. Louis, Missouri, in the age of segregation. Four studios bid on it and it will come out on NatGeo, National Geographic’s new channel, in 2017.

Guyot also gained his life back by setting his phone to airplane mode at bedtime and not looking at any electronics (because it makes him reactive rather than active) until he has done 90 minutes of writing every day. He made a habit of it.

The audience peppered Guyot with more questions about his process. He said he grew up with no discipline and had to teach himself when he started working.

“My journey is about unbecoming. You have to unbecome who you are not.”

He still dresses properly to work at his computer.

“When I worked on ‘Judging Amy’ some guy came in in shorts one day and was sent home with the words of the show runner in his ears, ‘We are professional writers. We don’t wear shorts.’”

Coping with change — when other people pivot

Beth Harrington talked about her life as a documentarian. Having made one successful film “Welcome to the Club — The Women of Rockabilly” she thought her next one, about the singing family the Carters, into which Johnny Cash married, would be easy.

But digital media had changed filmmaking forever and she was behind the curve. It took 10 years to make “The Winding Stream — The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music.” It has been out since 2014. She likened herself in the music and film business to a boiled frog, one who starts out in tepid water and is cooked before realizing the water was getting hot. A few things Harrington does differently now: movies need a companion book, a soundtrack CD, a social media campaign and a crowdfunding campaign or two (she did two Kickstarters for “Winding Stream.”)

PAMPLIN MEDIA GOUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Brian Michael Bandis, PSU professor and  writer of the best selling INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, SPIDER-MAN and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, talks about how 'the Internet went nuts' at the introduction of the multiracial SPIDER-MAN comic, Miles Morales.

Comics creator Brian Michael Bendis, who teaches the Graphic Novel at Portland State University, gave a moving speech about how he came up with the blatino Spider-Man. Now with a blended family that contains two black kids, the author’s eyes have been opened to how white the superhero world is.

“Spider-Man was a kid in Queens living with his aunt,” he said. “Chances are today he would be Hispanic.”

Bendis heard from many people of color that as kids their friends only allowed them to be Spider-Man when they played superheroes, because he could be any color under his mask. Bendis’s new Iron Man is a girl, an MIT whizz kid who reverse engineers the suit and takes on the role.

Bendis says the new black Spider-Man article in Time magazine got two billion hits, proving there is global interest in American heroes.

“The Internet went nuts, including Glenn Beck, who said I had been brainwashed by Michelle Obama’s nutrition program.” A friend cheered him up by telling him that when Bendis, a Jew, is the lead story in the country’s leading white supremacist webzine, he must be doing something right.

Bendis’s show Powers had two seasons on the PlayStation network and he is the co-creator of Jessica Jones on Netflix from Marvel TV. He also writes the comics Guardians of the Galaxy and Invincible Iron Man for Marvel.

His advice to other comics writers: “Make something you would buy yourself, and don’t wait around for the muse to hit. Creativity is a lifestyle choice.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA GOUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Clothing designer Michelle Lesniak explains her process for creating a collection. Lesniak recently found her ten point How to bear life  guide written in grade school and realized she had hit nearly all the marks.

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