An Interview with Hugh MacLeod of

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod of talks about creative sovereignty, the business of art, and the pursuit of blinding moments of clarity.

AC_MacLeod-280For people who haven’t read your book yet, can you share one or two of its key themes?

HM: The book’s called Ignore Everybody. I first published it on the blog under the title How to Be Creative. And it wasn’t really an instruction manual — I wasn’t telling people what to do. I was talking about the landmines I hoped they wouldn’t step on because landmines are expensive to step on.

My main thesis is that when you first have a good idea, there’s no one who can really tell you whether the idea is good or not. For it to be any good, it has to be so out there, there’s no point of reference. Also, really good ideas, once they’re executed, tend to alter the power balance in relationships, and people are very conservative about changing power balances. I think it was chapter 4 where I said that good ideas have lonely childhoods. The initial loneliness of a good idea is to be expected.

That ties into what you called “creative sovereignty” — can you expand on that a little?

HM: The thing about when you make a work of art or when you make anything worthwhile is that the moment you take somebody else’s money is the moment they can tell you what to do: Make it more blue. Make it more red. Make it smaller. Make it better. Make it more commercial.

And part of being an artist or a creative person or an entrepreneur is understanding what you’re willing to do and what you aren’t willing to do. That’s a dialog between you and yourself. And that’s a big part of success as an artist or as an entrepreneur — knowing what suits you and what doesn’t.

I drew cartoons for the long term. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got to get this out today so I can be famous tomorrow.’ It’s more like, ‘Well, I’ve got to keep on drawing, and hopefully, something good will happen.’

Is that part of why you recommend that artists keep their day job?

HM: Well, I think the temptation when one is creative is to go off and live in Bohemia in an underground, flea-infested world and to live on the crumbs. And I think actually you’ll make more progress as an artist if you’re also a functioning human being who has to work like a normal person, whether that’s waiting tables, working in an office, or making and selling your work.

When young people are holding down a day job like waiting tables and they’re writing novels on the side, they imagine a world that’ll one day arrive where they don’t have to wait tables anymore, they don’t have to work for a living, they can just make their art. And that moment never arrives because there’s always going to be stuff you’re going to do for money and stuff you’re going to do for free.

That’s why John Travolta will be in an ultra-hip movie like Pulp Fiction one year, and the next year, he wants to buy a new airplane so he takes the money and stars in a forgettable thriller like Broken Arrow. That kind of compromise never goes away. Artists aren’t immune [to] the vast compromises we all have to make as adults, but again, that’s understanding sovereignty. Steve Martin is willing to star in a shlocky movie to pay for a work of art. Well, he’s a grown-up. He knows he’s making that choice.

You also talked about the importance of creative stamina. Where do you think your stamina comes from?

HM: I never lost the will to keep doing it. I never wanted to say, “Okay, I’m done with cartooning. Let’s go do something else.” I’ve never had that moment, ever. I’ve always wanted to make one more cartoon.

Is that just something about the way you’re wired?

HM: Maybe, yeah. But also, I think Aretha Franklin’s great line was, “Overnight success takes fifteen years.” And I always knew that in my heart. So I drew cartoons for the long term. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, I’ve got to get this out today so I can be famous tomorrow.” It’s more like, “Well, I’ve got to keep on drawing, and hopefully, something good will happen.”

I think it’s easier to keep on cranking stuff out for the long term if you think it’s part of some higher purpose. I don’t mean God or anything. I mean, if you feel like you’re building something. For me, I’m building this art business right now. You try to keep things focused on the big picture and still stay humble. As you get older, you realize that being an artist or a creative is a great privilege, but it’s also a job. You’ve still got to get up every day; you’ve still got to get your work done. As Steve Jobs said, “You still have to ship.”

BIO: Hugh MacLeod is an artist and writer. His site,, features his cartoons drawn on the back of business cards as well as his thoughts on life, love, creativity, and advertising. In 2004 he wrote a post called How to Be Creative, which has been downloaded over a million times. Earlier this year he expanded these thoughts into a book called Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity. He’s currently working on his next book, Evil Plans.

ON THE WEB:  Gaping Void, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, Stormhoek, The New How (for which MacLeod did illustrations)

One of your early trademarks was drawing cartoons on the back of business cards. What attracted you to that format?

HM: Well, I was living in New York and going out all the time and doing all that kinda crazy New York stuff, and I had a very demanding job. So I wanted a format that was as easy to manage as possible. I didn’t have time to rent a studio and mix oil paints. I just wanted to do stuff that was fast. “Here it is. Here it is. Here it is, okay. Here it is. Here’s another one.”

When you’re young and living in New York and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, life is full of these interesting, beautiful, small, random moments. You’re having a meaning-of-life conversation with a random dude at a bar or you’re meeting some crazy chick. You have these little interactions all day long with a Greek waiter or something — all these small, intense, engaged interactions with people every day. I wanted to create work like that — these small, intense New York moments. I was trying to capture that on paper. And by keeping everything small, I avoided making big mistakes.

How did your artistic style evolve?

HM: It didn’t just happen in a blinding-flash moment. When I was drawing cartoons for the paper, back in college, I would doodle first, just to test the pen and warm up. And then I’d get to work, where I’d pencil in the cartoon and ink it, clean up all the mistakes and all that.

The doodles were sometimes visually more interesting than the cartoons, artistically, to me. And I always said to myself, it’s a pity that cartoons aren’t allowed to be more like that. Then one day, I said, “Well, who says?” I just started drawing the way I used to warm up and disregarded the follow-up, the “part two.”

Kicking out the jams turned into the work itself?

HM: Exactly, yeah.

What trends have you been watching and how do you see the life of the artist changing?

HM: That one’s easy. The cost of anybody publishing anything in a global medium is significantly lower than it’s ever been in history, and that’s going to change everything.
Certainly, as an artist, when you write now, when you blog, when you have a website, you’re connecting with people that hopefully will one day want to buy your art. So all of a sudden “being discovered” by a middleman isn’t the big deal it once was. Artists have trained themselves to move to New York and schmooze and network and get discovered by a big gallery so they can have access to that rolodex. And what’s going to happen is, that dream is going to fade, and instead we’re going to dream of building our own rolodexes.

I’m not saying that galleries are all going to go out of business (even though a lot of them are right now), but there’s going to be much more opportunity for artists that doesn’t require publishers, doesn’t require galleries, doesn’t require signing contracts. But just: “I have ten thousand true fans, and they give me money. They’re the ones who pay my bills. They’re the ones who say, ‘I want your work on my walls or your book on my shelf or your songs in my iTunes.'” And that direct connection’s going to get strong and stronger, especially as that kind of marketing becomes second nature to artists….
When I was younger I think the modus operandi was to somehow find a way to get discovered, get a contract, be famous, get on Oprah. Statistically that’s such a crapshoot. I think this idea — building your tribe piece by piece, reader by reader, fan by fan — it’s actually a lot healthier and a lot more achievable.

I read this book about Frank Zappa. He ran his music career like a business — there was a discipline to his business that kept him grounded. And [when] he lost his record deal, he said, “Hey, you know what? We’ve got ten thousand people on a mailing list. Let’s try to sell them a Frank Zappa T-shirt.” Very, very, very 101, down to earth, no-frills business. He ran it like a cottage industry. He didn’t run it like big business. He ran it like me — he and his wife Gail, staying up late, putting those T-shirts in envelopes and shipping them off. That was a big influence on me, learning how Frank Zappa did it.
He was such a massive, creative force with a massive fan base, but at the same time, the record industry didn’t have a business model that could fit him easily. So eventually, he had to go back and build one himself that did work for him and his fan base…. That’s going to be a lot more prevalent.

There’s a certain kind of person in the creative business — what they’re motivated by is the privilege of being in their profession, and what they want more than anything else is approval by their peers. It’s all about getting recognition, getting peer approval. Rather than, “I’m in the business to sell movie tickets” or “I’m in the business to sell my client’s product,” it’s almost like, “I’m in the business of getting more and more recognition from my peers, my fellow advertising creatives, my fellow cameramen, my fellow directors, my fellow whatevers.” Some people are really driven by that. I’ve never been that driven by it because I never thought my peers ever did very much for me in the first place.

What drives you then?

HM: Well, I like making cartoons and I like to make a living. And I try to balance them out.

And what do you get out of making cartoons?

HM: To make a really good cartoon, you need an amazing moment of clarity. Drawing a cartoon’s like a puzzle, right? And when you get it right, you just have this blinding moment of clarity, and — wow! — it just brushes away all the clutter, and you have this shining moment of clarity. That’s the real high there.

So that’s what you’re in pursuit of — those moments?

HM: Yeah. And they’re hard as hell to come up with.

5 comments on “An Interview with Hugh MacLeod of

  1. Great interview!
    Not only are the overall insights great, but I love that he quotes Aretha Franklin and Steve Jobs and Frank Zappa.
    I also like the idea that no one can tell you if your “great idea” is great or not, because inherently your great idea is breaking new ground.

  2. it’s good to be reminded of these things–“people are very conservative about changing power balances” and “good ideas have lonely childhoods”–true but so easily forgotten.
    thanks very much for this interview, Hugh and Dan.

  3. another great interview. very much appreciated hugh’s honesty and conscience about the business model trials and tribulations, and how that balances with one’s inherent desire to make art. the comment on how the artistic world and access (and business model) are changing was very salient. i wonder how hugh thinks this will actually alter creative processes, and the many million acts of creating art.

  4. Some ideas you have for twenty years, and then your micro-culture suddenly catches up to you being “before your time” and “poof” it starts to happen… (This link is one of those babies.)
    Also people will say, about good ideas, “Well, *I* understand what you’re saying, but would other people?” Once the people you’re showing your writing to about your new idea all start pointing to different places they don’t understand in your writing, you’re done. If they all point to the same place in what you’re writing, you need to keep editing because you’re not explaining it well enough.

  5. Loved this mini interview!
    Really enjoyed the tie-in to how Frank Zappa conducted his business. Zappa was so far ahead of his time.
    I keep telling everyone to read IGNORE EVERYBODY and how I wish the book had existed when I was 17-19 years old.
    The Success Secrets

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