Be Creative Every Day: Tips From the Non-Creative

Be Creative Every Day: Tips From the Non-Creative


Creative: Having the quality or power of creating. Resulting from originality of thought, expression. (

As you can imagine, a creative agency like Shift Collaborative is full of creative professionals. I am not one of them. Not in the traditional sense. I can’t draw a stick figure. I don’t sketch or doodle during conference calls. I make lists.

I’m a people person, a project manager. I work with colleagues to keep projects on task and to translate the work to the client. I love to brainstorm ideas and work as a team.

But I spend a lot of time working on spreadsheets and documents. I’m not complaining, but last year I felt like I needed my own creative outlet. So I started taking a photography class in October 2015. I already owned a “good” camera but didn’t know how to use all the features, and a 101 class was the perfect place to start.

At that same time, the Adult Coloring Book phenomenon was growing, and I added a coloring book and pencils to my Christmas wish list.

The Art Before Breakfast book opens with the following:

You are about to discover that

  1. Making art will make you saner and happier
  2. You don’t need to think you have “talent” to make beautiful art
  3. Art making can fit into the craziest, busiest, most hectic and out-of-control lives – even yours.

Cover of Art Before Breakfast

And then, Shift partner Cynthia Closkey gave me the book Art Before Breakfast.

Was this all a coincidence? Were the stars aligning? I was definitely getting the message: Be creative every day.

I kicked off 2016 with a resolution to be creative every day! Some days that meant taking photos, and other days – especially those cold, gray days when the sun goes down at 4pm – it meant coloring.

I started with my new coloring book and the first few times I sat down and put Crayola Colored Pencil to paper, I wanted to hurry through the image and get it done as fast as I can. But that’s not how it works. I learned to turn on some music and take my time, selecting colors and working through the image.

I then turned to a Page-A-Day calendar. On most days I spend 10-20 minutes coloring a picture. Mine are very symmetrical. (I can’t help myself.) Some days, I don’t finish the image. And I’ve learned, that’s okay.

Crayola colored pencils and coloring paperIn a December 2015, Huffington Post shared a blog post from James Clear, who writes about the health benefits of creativity writing.

In our always-on, always-connected world of television, social media, and on-demand everything, it can be stupidly easy to spend your entire day consuming information and simply responding to all of the inputs that bombard your life. Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that. Take a minute to ignore all of the incoming signals and create an outgoing one instead. Produce something. Express yourself in some way. As long as you contribute rather than consume, anything you do can be a work of art.

At Shift, we encourage all our clients to be creative. In our exerciseSHIFT kickoff meetings, drawing and doodling provide a physical and mental break from whatever everyone has been doing prior to the start of the meeting.

You have certainly heard of left brain versus right brain thinking. It has long been thought that left brain thinkers have strong math and analytical skills, and the right brain thinkers have more creative characteristics.

I say use your whole brain!

I’ve continued my photography education, and I was excited to hear my instructor tell me that she can see my personal style evolving and emerging.

Some of the instruction given in the latest photography class, which focused on composing an image, reminds me of how we can be creative every day. Maybe you’ll find it helps you too.

  • Be mindful of the background
  • Avoid distractions
  • Add some depth
  • Keep the clutter out
  • Simplify
  • Change your perspective


How to start your awesome blog (for the absolute beginner)

How to start your awesome blog (for the absolute beginner)


A few weekends ago, I presented a couple of sessions at PodCamp Pittsburgh 9. The first was Blogging 101, a novice-level session.

Session Description

You’re thinking of starting a blog. Hooray! Clearly, you’re one smart cookie, someone who has a point of view to share with the world. Fortunately, it’s very easy to launch a blog, and in this session, we’ll show you how to do so quickly and (relatively) painlessly.

  • Planning your blog and and your focus
  • Naming your blog and getting a domain name
  • Setting up your blog — what to include and what to leave out
  • Choosing a design to fit your content
  • Writing your first post and adding photos and video
  • Getting the word out and tracking traffic
  • Key pitfalls to avoid

This session is for beginners who are thinking of starting a blog or website and want to start on the right foot. We’ll cover the basics, enough to get you up and running with the least amount of frustration. More advanced topics will be covered in the Blogging 201 session.

By the end of this session, you will know how to launch your blog and how to start connecting with readers.

Here’s a video of the session, plus the written notes I prepared ahead of time. The notes don’t exactly match what I said, but they’re the general gist. In the talk itself, because we had a small turnout, I had the chance to answer lots of questions from the audience, so check out the video for that extra material.

Blogging 101

Why mural by Mike Gifford

Why blog? I’m not going to tell you all the possible reasons why one might want to blog, because there’s already some reason that has brought you here to this room today. You have an idea that you want to blog. So great! Let’s figure out how to make that happen.

Setting up a blog for yourself or for a work situation is easy enough that you can follow a few steps and be on the right track. So it doesn’t require a whole bunch of planning and prep.

And in fact, if you start into planning and prep, you might get bogged down by questions that don’t have answers, or by the possibilities of new things that sometimes make things scary. So I believe it’s often best not to overplan or overprepare.

But there is a minimal, least bit of planning that is good to do, to help you avoid a few big problems. So, Here’s the littlest, least bit of planning that you should do.

Answer for yourself:

  • What is inspiring you or causing you to blog?
  • Who is your blog for?
  • Where might your blog take you?

Answering these questions will make a few decisions easier down the road, so it’s worth thinking them out. And writing the answers down — actually taking up pencil and paper, or pen and paper, or chalk and chalkboard, whatever, and writing your answers down.

The answers might be super obvious. Or they might be less obvious, or maybe you feel you have multiple answers to one or more questions. All of that is OK. Write it down.

If there are answers, push yourself a little bit after the first easy answers, in case there are harder answers hiding behind them. Sometimes the real answer is harder to articulate. But remember, this planning is just for you, and no one else really needs to know. Go ahead and write down the true and little known reasons and ideas, so you can use them more later.

As a general thing, I believe it is OK to blog for no reason at all, or for only a little reason, or for some reason you can’t articulate. Push yourself a little, see if you can get something down. and if you can’t, just lunge ahead without that. It will come to you later. You will find out as you go.

Hello my name is anonymous: by Quinn DombrowskiThe next thing you need for your blog is a name. The name is both very important and not important. For first impressions, names are useful. They can set a tone. And for helping people remember you, names are also helpful. But over time, names become less important that the meaning the the identity of the thing that is named.

For example, think of the name Google. When Google was new, the name was a little helpful because it was fun to say and different, and because it was kind of like googol, which is a real thing that is the very large number 10 to the 100th (1 with 100 zeroes). But now, google is a big company and a search engine, and a verb meaning to search the internet. So the name eventually means whatever it means.

Still, you need to pick a name. This is where the answers to our least little planning questions earlier come in. If you know what you’ll be doing and writing about on your site, and who you’ll be creating it for, then that can help you narrow down your name choices. So be guided by that information.

It’s OK to use your own name as the name of the site. If you think it might evolve over time to be a site for you to use to do work-type stuff, like publishing books or selling items, then that is an even better reason to use your own name.

Domain name extensions: TristanWhatever the name is, you will also need a domain name for the site. A domain name is the .com or .me or .org or .info name that your site will be known by on the web. You will choose a domain name that no one else has, and you’ll register it. That means, you’ll open an account with a registrar, which is one of the companies that maintains a list of some of the domain names that exist, and you’ll pay them a fee every year to keep your domain name on their master list, and to connect it up with the rest of the internet.

Once you register a domain name, you renew that name every year. So you’ll pay maybe $15 to register the name, and then $15 every year on the same date to continue using it. Be very careful not to let it lapse! Someone might take it, and then charge you more to let you have it back.

GoDaddy is one registrar. There are many others. They are pretty easy to use and not overly expensive, so try them.

You’ll go to GoDaddy and search for the name you want, and they will let you know if it’s available. If it’s not, think up a second name and try again.

Stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Rich AndersonSome notes on domain names:

.com is a fine extension to use (actually called a top level domain) but others are also good. The more professionally you’ll be using your blog, the more you should try to get a .com or .org. But If this is more of a personal adventure for you, .info is good too, or .us.

Some top level domains are expensive, like .tv. So choose those only if you have a clear idea in your mind. Don’t pick one because someone else has the .com because people might confuse you.

Avoid choosing a domain name that’s easy to get wrong. Avoid punctuation like dashes or underscores, or funny spellings. You want people to find your site and not end up somewhere else.

Office to rent, needs floor: by Michael CannonThe domain name is how people find the site, but the site still has to exist somewhere. The site will have files, and data, and that needs to be stored. You need storage. We call that storage HOSTING.

You can host your blog yourself, or you can use a service that handles the hosting for you. And the difference is very like the difference between building a house or renting an apartment: How much control do you want, and how much maintenance can you handle? Do you want to be responsible for building the place and taking care of the plumbing and heater? Or do you want someone else to worry about all that?

But on the other hand, do you want do be able to add on later, tear down a wall and build a killer hot tub? Or are you OK with having only a few choices of layout and no choice about the built-in appliances?

It’s the same with hosting. If you host your blog yourself, you need to work mroe to maintain it and keep out malware and spammers, and make regular backups and upgrades. But you have more flexibility with which designs and plugins you can use. You can do whatever you please.

If you use a hosted solution, you don’t have to worry about security or backups, but you have fewer choices on design and on how much you can extend your site.

Either way, there will be some recurring costs. Basically, the more you want to do, the more it costs. The simpler you need things to be, the less it costs.

This will help: Know that you can move your site later without too much trouble. It’s ok to start with a hosted solution that’s nearly free, and later once you have a little traction and know what you want, you can move your existing posts and domain name and everything to a different hosting setup for more flexibility.

Can I assume that most people here are just trying out this blogging thing and want to have a simple solution, so they can get up and running?

Here’s what I want to suggest: home pageI suggest you use WordPress is the most widely used blogging service, and the most widely used web software even, not only for blogs. And is how you can use that without having to learn anything about setting up hosting. If you use that, you can be up and running very quickly indeed.

You will create it as something like, but you can right away switch to calling it or whatever you register. And then later, if you move your site anywhere else, you will take your domain name with you, so you’ll take all your readers and traffic with you. So everything will be golden.

Sound OK?

If you’d like to try something else, we’ll talk more at the end of this session, or you can catch me over lunch or tonight, or email me. My business cards are up here for you to take.

What’s nice about a hosted solution is you can start your account, and you right away have a site for your blog, and you can just start blogging. That’s what I recommend you do.

You will not want to do that though. You will want to pick a design. This is not your optimal choice, but it is natural, because that is what the site will lead you to want to do. And because you will not like the default layout.

This is the default layout when you start a new blog on

Are you ready?

This is it.

Default site design on

It is … less than inspiring.

And what we always want to do when we start something creative and interesting and hard, and something we care about… what we want to do is stop and do anything else. So you will want to spend some time looking at fonts, and picking color schemes, and maybe rearranging the books on your shelf or filing your nails, or watching a few inspiring TED Talk videos…

What you will want to do is anything but write.

What you should do is write.

So let’s compromise.

Saturated writing: by Tnarik InnaelYou write one blog post. Your first blog post.

Write it on paper or whatever. Write it anywhere. It does not need to be long, and it does not need to be awesome. It doesn’t need to explain why you are starting a blog. In fact, don’t explain. Write as if this is your second blog post, or third or sometime far in the future. Write as if you’re writing to an old friend, someone who knows you so well you barely need to explain anything at all. You’re just letting them know what’s on your mind, what happened today, or this new interesting thing you found.

Go to write a new post.

Write that down, wherever. A napkin or the back of an envelope.

Once you have that, we can go back to the computer.

Links to start a post on WordPress.comOK, back at and your new blog.

You click either at the Get started link or the New Post link. There are other ways to get at this, don’t worry. Just try and get back to the dashboard and find something that says New Post. And click that, and you’ll be starting your new first post.

So then you’ll be here.

This is the post editor. editor

Skip the title for now, and put your post in. If you wrote it on paper, type it in here. If you typed it into Word or whatever, copy it from there and paste it here. It’s fine.

Once you’ve finished typing or pasting it, think about the title. What is this about? What would help people want to read it? Don’t worry to much about it, just write a title that’s short and interesting.

Then click this button at the bottom, and publish it.

Hooray! You’ve written your first blog post!

OK, now that there’s something on your site, you can think about how you want that thing to look. You’ll get to the theme chooser by going to Appearance, then Themes.

How to get to the list of themes in WordPress  Themes in

There are lots of designs you can choose from.

Here’s where the least bit of planning comes in handy again. Think about what design will work best with the post you just wrote and the kinds of posts you’re expecting to write. Think about what design will appeal to your readers. There are many designs, and it’s hard to pick. Just sort through, grab one, find another in a few days. It’s ok. It’s like dating. There’s no commitment. Just try one.

WordPress theme customizer  Customize WordPress themes

WordPress will guide you through setting it up. You can usually customize them a little with colors and fonts.

Be aware, the more you play with design, the less time you have to write new blog posts.

Eventually, you will settle on a design. Maybe give your self a time limit. Then stop. Now you can launch.

Shuttle launch: Austin


Launching is no more or less complicated than deciding that your site is ready for the world.

But is the world ready for you?

OK, now you have a website. Ta-da!

You next need to let people know it exists. Do this. Talk about it. Send the link to Facebook and wherever. Be bold in sharing it.

Know that not everyone will immediately read it. People will not often read it. This is very normal.

But still keep writing it. Writing about what interests you, what you’re excited about. Just write.

Don’t worry be happy: Emergency brakeWhat not to worry about (too much)

  • a logo
  • copyright and trademark (except don’t violate others’)
  • being perfect


  • How often should I post?
  • How much should I write?
  • What should I do if someone comments?
  • What should I do if no one comments?
  • How do I make an anonymous blog?

Photo credits

Pre-dawn: Ed Yourdon

Why photo: Mike Gifford

Hello my name is anonymous: Quinn Dombrowski

Stop He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Rich Anderson

Domain name extensions: Tristan

Office to rent, needs floor: Michael Cannon

Saturated writing: Tnarik Innael

Shuttle launch: Austin

Don’t worry be happy: Emergency brake

Question everything: Duncan Hull

Any questions?: Michael Janssen

“Find your niche”: Thoughts from the Pittsburgh Women Bloggers panel


Back in June, I spoke on a panel of Pittsburgh-based women bloggers put together by NAWBO of Greater Pittsburgh (National Association of Women Business Owners). The panel included a great mix of savvy women:

and me, representing Pittsburgh Bloggers and My Brilliant Mistakes, as well as this blog.

We had a lively discussion, with great questions from our moderator, Terina J. Hicks, and from the audience. A few points seemed to come up again and again, and have stuck with me since the event.

  1. Pursue your passion, and find your niche. Each blogger has a focus area or set of recurring topics and themes that she is passionate about, and this helps in a couple of ways. It acts as a hook that readers can latch onto in understanding the blog; it allows the blogger to stand out as an expert; and it allows the blogger to explore things that are interesting to her, that she cares about. It’s no fun to focus on a topic that you’re not deeply engaged with, so don’t bother trying. Choose as your focus the thing that matters to you, then cover it as well as you can, and your passion will show.
  2. Success comes from connecting with others. As Heather Hopson put it, “If content is king, collaboration is queen.” Traditional media works to find and connect with an audience; social media, including blogging, is about finding and supporting a community, who have the same tools you do for publishing and connecting. The more you can support others and help them succeed, the more they’ll support you, and the stronger the community becomes. Collaborate with those who are excited about the same things you are.
  3. Share your story: No one else has your unique perspective. With all the blogs, tweets, updates, videos, and other content on the web, we can get the sense that everything worth saying has been said already. But each of us has a story to tell and a personal perspective that’s worth sharing. Be your authentic self, and you’ll be unique.
  4. You are as ready as you need to be. Several people in the audience had questions about the right tools, equipment, and preparation for starting a blog, podcast, or series. While we all acknowledged that some tools can make things easier, we also agreed that the way to become an excellent blogger (or podcaster or web star or what-have-you) is through experience, and the only way to gain is to start. Start now, accept that the first results might not be perfect, and work to improve with each mistake and misstep you make. The first lousy video you post is still infinitely better than the idea for a video that’s trapped in your head. Be bold and start, now.


Thanks very much to NAWBO Pittsburgh for putting together this empowering event and inviting me to participate.

Watch a video review of the NAWBO Women Bloggers panel event.

Related: check out this post, “How to craft the best blog post ever.”

What to do now that Facebook won’t let you force people to like your page


The folks at ShortStack — a service that helps you create apps and interesting things on Facebook Pages — have some excellent thoughts on what Facebook’s decision to ban fan-gating on Pages, and tips for how to adjust your Page.

At ShortStack we have over 350,000 customers, all of whom are Facebook Page Admins. I’m always analyzing the data from our platform, and in recent months I’ve seen (and supported) a shift away from like-gating. In May we released an eBook  titled Why Every Business Should Stop Obsessing Over Facebook Likes that has been well-received. We’ve also redesigned the entire ShortStack platform to allow marketers to build Campaigns that can achieve their goals independent from like-gating.  Our recommended best practice is that businesses should be collecting actionable and valuable data such as emails, customer feedback…anything that is critical to their goals. If the customer wants to like your Page as well, that’s great, just don’t force them to.

Read the full post: “Facebook Bans Like-Gating: Here’s What Marketers Can Do.”

Photo credit: Denis Dervisevic on Flickr

Cynthia on AwesomeCast 212: “Commercial Weeds”


Please enjoy another fast-paced and super-informative episode of AwesomeCast with Cynthia joining the panel:

Topics include:

  • An app that can help you with your to-do list; Timeful. – 2:40
  • A roku built right into a TV. – 5:15
  • The WWE Supercard app. – 10:20
  • The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS. – 15:15
  • A replacement for…! – 26:30
  • HP building a $199 Windows laptop. – 31:20
  • A discussion on the usefulness of a laptop like that.
  • Google releasing another app for iOS; the Photo Sphere Camera. – 37:15
  • The role of social media in the situation in Ferguson. – 45:40
  • Changes to Facebook Likes and what information gets filtered on social media. – 57:00

No doubt I could list way more than seven elements from perfect blog posts, but these seven seem to cover all the most important bases.

  1. Headline: the 6 words that count most
  2. Storytelling hook
  3. Fewer characters per line at first
  4. Featured image
  5. Subheads for scanning
  6. Content and the 1,500-word sweet spot
  7. Soundbites for sharing

Interesting research that validates the trends we all see on the web. Read the full post here:

Pictures + words = better social sharing


You’ve seen them: pictures with words embedded in them, and words presented as images. They’re everywhere across the web. Some are memes, but more are quotes, advice, and inspirational sayings.

People identify with quotes and jokes and insights, and then they share them, both to help others and to say what they themselves are about.

They’re also a great way to spread the word about an upcoming event:

You don’t always need to have a photo or image in the background. The words themselves can be the image.

For more ideas of how images and words can complement each other (and for a little inspiration to go with), check out the images in this Huffington Post article listing wise quotes by Bill Murray.

And it’s not all decoration: There’s research to show that tweets and posts using images with embedded text get more shares and interaction. See for example “Stop Trying to Get Your Blog Posts Shared and Do This Instead” and “A/B Test: Why You Need to Include Photos in Your Tweets.”

Now that you’re sold on the plan to add thoughts and quotes in this form to your content mix, in a way that fits with your overall message, how can you create these images?

  • If you have an image editor, like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Elements, that’s more than up to the task. You could even create a layered template to make it simpler to make consistent images quickly. If you work with a graphic designer, have her or him create some layouts for you.
  • Online photo editors like Picmonkey, Pixlr, and iPiccy usually include the ability to add text to an image, with a small selection of fonts.
  • Free sites like Picfont and Piclits are made specifically for creating images with embedded words. They generally have fewer design options, but they’re also hard to mess up.
  • Noteography is a web and mobile app for making images of just words — excellent for quotations.
  • Meme generators like Meme Generator help you build meme images, using the normal meme-standard fonts and frequently used images. Memes are a world and style unto themselves. If you want an image that fits that style, it’s easier to use a generator than to try copying from scratch.

Some tips for making a great, shareable text image:

Make sure you have the right to use the background image. You can’t easily credit the image source once you’ve posted the image to Twitter and elsewhere, so Flickr and other sources of Creative Commons images aren’t your best bet for choosing an image for the background. Instead, take your own photo, buy a photo, use one that comes with your photo editing tool, or use a plain background. Using someone else’s image without proper permission or rights is stealing, and a very bad choice.

Keep the text readable. If the image is busy — has a lot of detail throughout, with no blank or open space — put a translucent background box behind the text, or use drop shadows or outlining on the text, so it stands out. Use a simpler, bolder font face to enhance readability.

Go easy on the number of fonts and sizes of letters. Using one or two at most allows the text to stay readable. (Yes, you can find marvelous examples of text images that use lots of font faces. These are created by people who studied design and know how far to push the boundaries. If that’s not you, stick to what’s sure to work.)

If the text is very long and it’s hard to find an image on which it fits, you can skip the background photograph and use a solid or paper-effect background.

Embed your URL, name, or other identifier in the image, so people can trace it back to you. Once an image is re-shared, any links in your original post can be lost or disconnected from the image. Including a visual link back to yourself gives people a chance to find out who created the image in the first place.

Embed a hashtag too if the image is part of a campaign. For example, this post from the White House promotes a twitter campaign.

Track what happens, and notice which images and text get shared more. Also keep an eye out for others to reshare. And note which resonate the most for you.

“Ms. Closkey, president of Downtown Web design firm Big Big Design, noted that over the past five to seven years, Pittsburgh’s tweeters and bloggers have tapped into a deeply philanthropic vein and produced some remarkable charitable efforts as a result.

“‘It’s interesting because people talk about Twitter being like a water cooler or a cocktail party,’ Ms. Closkey said. ‘I think social media offers technological tools to allow people do to more of what they do in real life. We see tweetups that happen around a charity or a group of people who have a cause.'” Continue reading