Designer Adam J. Kurtz makes lists, collects receipts, compiles ideas, considers daily life, writes notes, "lives on the Internet," and boils it all down into a body of work that is equal parts tongue-in-cheek, self-referential, and totally brilliant. His new book, 1 Page At A Time, consists of 365 handwritten prompts intended to encourage creative output, inspiration, and self-reflection — it's a funny and conversational take on the process of working that is a must for any creative. Inspired by Adam's perspective, we invited ourselves to the Brooklyn studio where he lives and works to take a peek at his creative process.
Photos by Francisco Marin
What do your parents think you do all day?
Hahahaha, oh man. Well, I work full-time in advertising, so they know that. I'm the studio designer at a cool agency; we do really weird, clever stuff. But they also know that I do a lot on the internet - they've seen my Kickstarter campaigns, and I occasionally mail my mom packages of my new products as I make them... still, we had a weird conversation once about how for some reason thousands of people care about my dumb life. It's just a different world from theirs. I live on the internet.
Can you talk about the idea of: taking "non-serious" work seriously.
Everything I make is for fun, for myself, and to share. It's my hobby, my own little art, and really just how I communicate with the world, I guess. There have never been any great big goals. I don't know what I'm doing, it's just what I like to do, so I do a lot of it. It's an interesting balance! I do take a design approach in everything I do, even when it's scribbles on a Post-It note for Instagram. I want things to feel real, but not so shitty that they're indigestible. It can be hard sometimes, to sit yourself down when you would rather go out. There are times it's actually a lot of work. Shipping 500 packages out in a weekend is not the hobby, but it all fits together. Overall, I love that I get to share with people and that makes it all worthwhile.
Tell us more about your new book! How did it come together? What is your favorite page in it? What do you think is the most important page in it?
The book! It's so crazy. I make these weird "Unsolicited Advice" weekly planners on Kickstarter every year, full of tiny nagging notes and stupid activities. After the 2013 edition, someone from Penguin emailed me out of nowhere and asked to meet, to talk about making a real book. It was scary and exciting to let go of some control because I am so used to doing everything from design to distribution alone, but it's a tremendous opportunity to share my little world with strangers everywhere.
I have so many favorite pages and so many pages matter a lot to me, some for obvious reasons and others that are personal little details that will mean more to me personally than others. There's a page that says "sit down in the shower" and that's all you do on that page. There's a page that reblogs itself 32 pages later, Tumblr-style. I like the pages that are "destructive," but with purpose. "Draw a wall then tear it down." "Write caution repeatedly then throw it to the wind!" Those are fun. It's just paper, after all.
A lot of your work centers around developing exercises and concepts for other people to be inspired — how do YOU get inspired?
I don't think I'm all about telling other people to be inspired, actually! This book is obviously an example of that, because I'm providing a framework where people can find daily exercises, but honestly, the advice you figure out for yourself is always more powerful than someone telling you what to do. But with everything I do, more than anything, I am just talking to myself, but letting everyone else in on it. I'm sharing what works for me, and there is usually some overlap with others. But I never want to say to someone THIS IS THE SOLUTION, THIS IS WHAT TO DO, THIS WORKS, because honestly, who's to say? Everyone's answers are different. That's why the book reminds you that it's just paper and you're in charge. You will make it through, your own way. That goes for life too. These aren't subtle metaphors: this is some full-on, real talk, #nofilter shit.
I stay motivated and creative by just trusting myself, following my gut as much as I can. Not being afraid to be stupid or look stupid. New York helps for that, because really, nobody gives a fuck about you here. You can shout in the street, you can wear black head to toe, you can shave your head or not and nobody is paying attention. For some people, that is scary but for me, it's wonderful. You are alone, and it's okay. Be yourself, do whatever you want, try new things and see what sticks. I keep up with friends in different places doing their own thing, being inspired by others and then taking small pieces of that to make something new. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but you can't force it.
What's fun (and what's difficult) about living and working in the same space?
The best part is that when inspiration hits, I can jump right in. I can mail packages as the orders come in. I can sit in my sweatpants if I want to. Plus, my roommates also have passion projects and we all bounce ideas and encourage each other to keep going. But it's very hard to find the line between work and life when you do both in the same small space. Until a few months ago, my computer and desk were in my bedroom, and I worked full-time freelance. That was a disaster. I spent most of my time in an eight-foot square box. It's unhealthy. I'm happy now to have my bedroom be a safe space for relaxing. Working in Manhattan is good too. It forces me to leave Brooklyn every day, get on the train, be outside... then when I come home it's a treat again.
What's the Sad Girl Fan Club?
SAD GIRL FAN CLUB is sort of a lie, because it's not just sad, or female, or a club. I have a friend who identified as a "SAD GIRL" for a long time, and you see a lot of that online. Lots of people being very public with their feelings, and approaching it in a humorous way. Making a joke out of a serious situation. SAD GIRL FAN CLUB was a show of solidarity for her, but also for myself. For anyone who is feeling sad. Some people write songs, I make things. It was a single shirt I made from iron-on letters and I would wear it myself and people asked if they could buy it. I received emails and texts and tweets from friends and strangers. I finally printed a batch, and they sold out right away. So I printed another batch. They sold out too. Now there's a "SAD DUDE FAN CLUB" shirt coming this month through a collaboration with Montreal label STAY HOME CLUB.
I know that some people don't like the shirt, and it's hard for them to look at themselves and their issues in a funny way. But for me, and the people who wear their shirts proudly, it's a coping mechanism, and a show of support. I have other products that accomplish similar goals. Maybe it actually is a club.
Make a list for us about some of the regular lists you keep.
-What the hell is wrong with me
-To-do whenever I can
-Feelings I am feeling
-O-K let's do this thing
-summer fun list
-goals for 2014
-foods to eat
-people I can (actually) call
-What I am trying to say to you
-What we can do when you visit
-How I will be better for you
Tell us about your scrap wall. What are some of your favorite things on it?
It's been hanging in my bedroom through two cities and three apartments now. I string up the things that matter to me, small tokens from people, of moments and places, inspiration from artists and the world around me. Money can buy nice things, but lots of things can't be bought at all. These are some of those things. It helps me remember what matters to me most, and over time it takes on a life of it's own, becoming a colorful story of where I am and where I've been. I'm, uhh, pretty sentimental most of the time.
My favorite things are always the public transportation tickets and transfers from other cities, but I've saved everything from candy wrappers to doctor appointment cards. The spoonful of sugar, and the medicine.
What was the best piece of mail you ever received?
I love being surprised with small treats. Having a public address (P.O. Box 550, Brooklyn, NY 11211) means I never know what's coming. A really lovely woman from Seattle sent me a bag of sour patch kids back when I was obsessed with them, plus a cool postcard. I got a t-shirt from this artist I love, Dustin Williams, and it is so awesome. You never know!
What are some of your favorite blogs, websites, Instagram accounts — places you go to get information or a point-of-view that feels interesting and fresh?
There are so many great people that I've met or follow from afar online... my Tumblr and Instagram feeds are really inspiring. I try to follow people doing good things, not just aspirational and unattainable crap.
Some favorite artists & people: