Mind at Work: Strategy Director Patti Balbas

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 Director of Strategy Patti Balbas sheds light on the four things that inspire her and help her do what she does.

1. The New Yorker cartoons. I’ve always been blown away by the quality of thinking behind the cartoons in The New Yorker. They’re so clever and witty in the most unassuming ways. Each week, I reach for the back page, which is the “submit your own caption” contest. The power of story becomes wildly apparent when you are faced with a simple drawing that needs a caption. It’s especially powerful when the story must be told in one sentence. I’ve thrown my hat in the ring a few times (pictured above—I don’t think it’s too bad!). But I haven’t won… yet.

2. Podcasts while commuting. For the last eight years, I’ve made my long-ish commutes bearable by downloading podcasts. My favorites are This American Life and 99% Invisible.

For those who haven’t heard of it, This American Life is a weekly documentary-style National Public Radio show that explores a theme through three segments. The stories are varied and always rooted in human experience. Each time I listen to one, it opens my mind to another viewpoint, which in turn challenges my assumptions about the world. I found the “Getting and Spending” episode [http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/298/getting-and-spending], which talks a lot about marketing and branding, particularly interesting.

I started listening to 99% Invisible thanks to fellow VSAer Luise Barnikel (thanks, Luise!) and think it should be required listening to any student of design. The producers unpack a variety of topics—esoteric to mainstream—with a design perspective. The show has deepened my appreciation of designers of all kinds and also helped me view myself as a designer (one of my favorites is about the carpet at the Portland airport).

3. The musings of Carl Sagan. I have always considered myself a scientist to some extent, and I especially love astronomy. It has always been this sort of paradox for me, at once rooted in fundamental truth and mystery. Whenever I need perspective on anything, Carl Sagan’s musing “Pale Blue Dot” is my touchstone. He wrote it about a picture of the earth that was taken from four billion miles away, in which the earth looks like a faint blue spec of dust in a sea of blackness. The following is an excerpt (the full version is here).

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”

I keep a poster of this picture and quote at my desk. It’s profound, terrifying and humbling to remember our place in the universe and it inspires me in two ways. It makes me think that while things may seem so wildly complex at times, in the end, there is beauty in the simplicity of a solution and in the teamwork that is needed to realize that solution— there is no time for overcomplicating or ego. Recalling his wise words also helps me keep my cool in challenging moments.

4. The website Letters of Note. This is my go-to when I am looking for insight from history’s greats. A lot of these letters were written by famous people while they were famous, but some were written before fame was granted. Either way, they give lessons that are varied and consistently relatable (particularly one about the difficulty of copywriting written by David Ogilvy and another amazing one from President Truman, just after he found out he would be president.