Getting Personal with George

It feels fitting that I find myself writing about BBCC Rule #4: “Expose Yourself,” as it’s a thing I’ve always moderately struggled with in my creative work — but every time I’ve forced myself to face it, it’s paid off.

This is me at 12 years old. You’re only seeing this because I didn’t want Chris to feel like he had the worst mullet in the seventh grade.


A guy in a room

In 2011, I quit the agency job I’d had for 10 years to work as an independent freelance designer. I left the relative comfort of a regular paycheck and built-in creative direction in an open office, opting for a job where I was responsible for everything—from sales to conceptualizing to production to billing. I was also just “a guy in a room” — working alone in a home office for a lot of very long days.

While my tendency toward introversion was satisfied, I knew I was missing out on the benefits of a more collaborative environment.

As my own creative director, I probably wasn’t telling myself “no” as much as I should’ve been, and it’s safe to say that some projects could’ve turned out better if they’d been run by another set of eyes (and opinions). I was in my comfort zone, though — I rarely had to expose any raw ideas (see, there’s the theme), often self-approving the safe ones.

One-man bands, and other safe bets

Bill Foster makes me look cooler onstage than I am.

Outside of my career as a graphic designer, I’m also a multi-instrumentalist who’s been recording music at home since I was 18. That’s right, a guy in a room (full of guitars and keyboards and drums and microphones…). I’d recorded and mixed a few albums, and released them to the world with almost no one hearing my work in progress. I would even hold off from sharing songs with my wife until they were “finished” — she would then proceed to critique the mix, and damned if she wasn’t right every time (usually: vocals are too quiet, bass is too loud). I’ve learned to be more open with my process and invite her to listen as I work. She doesn’t understand technical terms like “100hz” or “compression” but knows those things when she hears them, because she’s approaching the music as a listener / consumer, not the creator. It’s taken me a while to realize that I’m too close to it to think of my assessment as being the only one that counts.

I also opened my process up even further a few years ago by turning my one-man music thing into a real band, inviting a couple of my most trusted friends to work the songs up into live-show-ready arrangements. I immediately had to let go of my precious ideals of what the songs should be, and expose them (There it is again!) to the creative input of my bandmates. The songs quickly became more interesting as results of collaboration. Every time we play together, I get a little more excited about making music.

Sitting in with yet another “band”

Throughout my six years of working as a one-man design shop, I’ve found myself getting significant satisfaction from projects where I’ve collaborated with other designers (for example, every project I’ve done with Best Behavior). And every now and then, I can be convinced to do something really far out of my comfort zone, like wear fake blood and a gaudy holiday sweater or simply talk on camera.

There’s something incredibly valuable about sitting in a room full of tools (be they computers, sketchbooks, Post-Its, or a wall-sized whiteboard) and letting a few different brains work through a design problem in real time. We expose all of our silly/dumb ideas to the room, and occasionally turn them into flashes of brilliance (or at least something more work-able). And then we all retreat to our home offices for a while, and repeat the creative cycle. Just like with being in a band, there’s always woodshedding to do on your own—but to really make it work, you’ve gotta get the stuff out there.

George Middlebrooks