Mind at Work: Executive Creative Director Jim Toth

Whenever possible, we like to sit down with one of our creative minds at VSA to find out what inspires them. In a world where there’s constantly pressure to “produce, produce, produce,” it’s important to stop and reflect on the special people, places and things that actually drive our creativity.

Today, VSA’s Chicago-based Partner and Executive Creative Director Jim Toth sheds light on the four things that inspire him and help him do what he does:

1. The Mantra

“At a recent Partner meeting, Curt Schreiber showed a documentary film about Charles and Ray Eames and gave us a small packet of cards containing some of their wisdom. In the film, someone said, “compromise vs. constraint” and, for a moment, my brain was airlifted out of my head.

 ‘This is it,’ I thought.

It is unacceptable to compromise. However, constraining your thoughts—fencing in the parameters to where and how you can succeed—is ultimately the freedom an idea needs. Once everyone understands the parameters, everyone has the freedom to create their own version of the solution inside of those parameters.

‘Never delegate understanding.’ It is this card that Curt gave me that helped me understand that. I keep it on my desk to remind me.”

2. The Brain Food

“My commute everyday is often long. During these epic daily drives (which can sometimes be two hours, depending on traffic and weather), I listen to people talk to me. Smart people, funny people and people who know more than I do.

The Audible platform The Great Courses offers master-level college courses from top universities. The content is rich, well delivered and I’m constantly being bombarded with new words, unique thoughts and unfamiliar ideologies. I love my time in my car and I look forward to this alone time because it helps prepare my brain for a day of more learning with the smart people at VSA.”

3. The Hobby

“Arguably, woodworking mirrors what I do for a living. Woodworking lets me select various things that aren’t things yet and through imagination, patience, time and effort, convert them into things I want them to be.

When I’m at the shop, I’m presented with the ultimate problem/solution. On the one hand, there are many things you can do without plugging in a single tool. You can make and fasten anything to anything with century-old techniques. Or, you can depend on the marvels of technology and power tools to achieve your goal. The main difference is the investment of money for the tool vs. the investment in time that it takes to manually achieve the same outcome. Essentially, this is the same manpower equation we face every day as managers and creatives—hours available vs. solution.”

4. The Tools of the Trade

“For anything I’ve been asked to solve, I have always started my thoughts in a notebook with a #2 Black Warrior pencil.

There is a different kind of intention brought to what is being put on paper vs. a computer screen. There is a physical artifact left behind. The paper in a notebook can hold big ideas, tangential thoughts and rough sketches—all connected to each other. I have every notebook since I began my career in advertising. These notebooks have become literal chapters in my career, where I can find origins and initial thoughts on past projects.

Likewise, there is a very interesting thing that happens when you are composing thoughts with a pencil in your hand vs. pecking your fingers across a keyboard. While you are slamming away at predetermined letter locations, your mind races at a rapid, flustered pace. With my Black Warrior pencil, I shape my letters and there’s a slowing down that happens. It makes my brain focus more intently.”