Category Archives: Work & Creativity

Whatever in Buenos Aires

Travel poem

I’ve wrote about the art of Buenos on my Johnston & Alves blog. Here, I’d like to complain just a bit. Due to a neighborhood power outage, the Airbnb place I had booked three months prior had to cancel on us three days prior to our departure. This was horrible news because I had thoroughly studied our first place. I had researched the neighborhood and knew exactly where to go to rent bikes, book a restaurant for Christmas dinner, etc. The place would have also come with a local cell phone. All that disappeared when the night before we left, I booked something that seemed halfway decent in a neighborhood I knew nothing about. This new place didn’t come with a phone. It didn’t even come with water at first. We arrived after 24 hours of traveling and really wanted to use the facilities, but discovered the water had been turned off because of construction in the building. I could go on, but I’ll stop here and share some good news. The Airbnb host, an attractive Buenos Aires woman in a flowing dress with that lovely Argentine accent, greeted us all with kisses on the cheek. Then my daughter’s Argentine friend arrived and greeted us with kisses on the cheek. My husband was glowing.

Another difficulty throughout the trip was the amount of closed doors we experienced. I’m not talking about the “Closed Door” restaurant experience, which was fantastic. I highly recommend Casa Felix. I’m talking about the closed doors due to the holidays. In the United States, businesses take advantage of Christmas for making a buck, but not so in Buenos Areas. On the up side, I was surprised to discover that locals celebrate with firecrackers on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve The rooftop of our place turned out to be a great place for watching them.

Toward the end of our trip, I wrote the poem I call “Whatever Travel.” Maybe I should have called it “No Problem” because I noticed people in Buenos Aires said that a lot.

Now back at home at my computer, I put the words to type. My intention with the typography is to communicate the unpredictability of travel and to slow down your reading, just like a trip might slow you down and help you see things in a new way. ¡Chau!

Graphic Design Then and Now

While cleaning out an old file cabinet, I discovered a note Seymour Chwast wrote me after I visited his studio the year he was inducted into the Art Director’s Hall of Fame. If you want to know who’s who in my field, take a look at Chwast’s archives. I had forgotten about visiting Chwast and the famous studio he cofounded (Push Pin Studios), but judging by the wear and tear and holes in the left corner, I must have had the note posted and packed numerous times while moving from apartment to apartment in New York.

Those were the days before the internet messed up job hunting. To find new work, rather than sending an email that got lost among hundreds, you would just show up. Actually, I still do that on occasion, the nonconformist that I am. I encourage new grads to do the same, but I don’t think they listen to me.

Letters-drawn-by-handMy cleaning spree also revealed lots of hand-drawn logo studies, such as this one for Legendary Foods. Everything started with drawing back then. Seymour Chwast has faithfully maintained the drawing discipline, but sadly most of us designers have gotten lazy, due to digital tools at our disposal. Don’t get me wrong, I love Adobe applications and I’ve made a lot of money thanks to Steve Jobs, but I want to stop shortchanging the step of conceptualizing on paper first. Different things happen with a real pencil, sketchpad, and kneaded eraser. What, you don’t know what a kneaded eraser is!? If that’s the case, do get yourself one and have fun. While you’re at it, maybe you can write a real note to someone, rather than an email. A real note that someone can post on their wall, then store in a drawer for twenty years, then take out and post again—digitally, if not literally.

Courage, Creativity and Kickstarter

Have Courage Image from VISION


This is one of my favorite images in Creative Cues From The Cat, a book I coauthored and designed. The image is a composite and manipulation of three stock images. It goes with the quote: “Courage is the capacity to confront what can be imagined” by Leo Rosten.

Working on this book has been an exercise in courage, as well as creativity. Every creative effort, even a small one, causes us to take a step into the unknown because we’re creating something that isn’t there yet. The unknown can be as exciting and as dangerous as a jungle, and there’s no guarantee we won’t come out with a few scratches. The scratches could be small, say a few hurt feelings by someone who doesn’t like our poem, idea, desert, or whatever it is we’ve come up with, but feelings tend to be a bit raw when it comes to creativity.

I decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the printing of Creative Cues From the Cat. Doing this campaign took a lot of courage for me because it requires a video (something I hadn’t done before) and because of numerous unknowns, the main one being the question as to whether or not I’ll meet my “funding goal.” I have ten more days left in the campaign and it’s a tad nervewracking.

But still worth it. I’m grateful for the whole crazy creative experience of putting together the book and Kickstarter campaign. The book is about creativity after all. Yes, it’s also about cats, but cats are utilized to make analogies about the vision and courage needed to take innovative steps. As I worked on this book, page by page, I became even more convinced of its value. We are all creative beings. When we engage our creative selves, we enrich and energize our lives so much. I hope you get a copy of our book and step into the jungle.

Forgive Me Baby

Both my kids are leaving for college soon, so I’m reminiscing about my first year as a parent. I was a brilliant multitasker. That is, until I realized that multitasking was not necessarily in my baby’s best interest. I wrote this poem when my son was one to solidify a lesson learned.

Forgive me baby

Forgive me baby.
You want to be held
so I hold you while
typing on the keyboard.

You want to be fed
so I feed you while
speaking on the phone.

You want me to play;
I sit among toys
while reading the paper.

You want to be soothed;
I drive you and let
the motor and motion
do my job.

I am commended
for taking care of you
while taking care of business.

Yet work was before
and surely is ahead.
Your face in the making
demands I live in the moment.

I have paid my dues
for such a time as this.
Baby, it’s you
I don’t want to miss.

By Gail Perry Johnston

Art up close and personal


I love zooming in on art. Going way back, before the computer, the xerox machine was my super cool tool. As a graphic designer and illustrator, I would use it to enlarge my own little sketches, various scraps of paper, or small found objects that could be squashed relatively flat on the glass. The copier would only enlarge up to 147%, if I remember correctly, so I would enlarge the enlargements and enlarge them some more. Every step yielded something more interesting.

The closeup above is part of an illustration by Masako Dunn for the new children’s book I published, A Gift for Little Tree by Colleen Marquez. When you zoom into art like this, you get a different kind of beauty and energy than when you are looking at the whole piece. You see richer textures and colors and wild, expressive strokes. You see areas of painting that you thought were precise, but, on such close inspection, are actually quite messy.

Getting close to people brings similar results. Working on this children’s book over the past year, the author and I—good friends to begin with—got up close and personal with each other, revealing more of ourselves than we probably wanted to, as we negotiated and navigated through the fits and starts of birthing a book. But what is friendship if it’s just reserved for pleasantries and never tested?

I like the expression, “To know me is to love me.” What I think this expression means is that your love for a person deepens as your knowledge of them deepens. At least if you are open to the love. If you get close to someone and decide you don’t like the wild, sometimes messy areas that you are sure to discover, then you’ll take a step back. That’s okay, it’s your choice, it’s good to have personal boundaries, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, if you choose to zoom in and stay awhile, people and art get a lot more interesting.

One white shirt

T-shirtMy first college roommate wore a man’s plain, white T-shirt every single day during the warm months in North Carolina where we attended ECU. In the winter, she wore a long-sleeved, button-down white shirt. She told me that she wore something different for church, but I never saw her on Sundays. She spent weekends at her family’s pig farm. Going to college was the furthest she had ever ventured from home and she was the first in her family to do so. It became clear that her family was financially poor, but I never heard her complain about it. If I found her unusual, she found me more so, as she intently watched me curl my hair and put on makeup. We had no interest in changing each other, merely a kind curiosity about our different ways. I was glad the college had placed us together.

Four years later, I was again in a situation where my roommate was chosen for me. I had won a competition, granting me an internship in a big New York City advertising agency. The agency set me up in a dorm room with a student from NYU. Interestingly, my new roommate wore a white shirt every day too. But it wasn’t a T-shirt; it was a beautiful, feminine linen shirt from Italy, as she was from Italy herself. Every night, she would wash the shirt in our little sink, let it air dry and iron it first thing in the morning. She never stopped looking stunning in that crisp, white shirt. It had a few collar accents and maybe a subtle ruffle alongside the buttons. I think it was her only shirt for a two-month stay in Manhattan. And it was all she needed.

When I shop at our sprawling mall, I see a lot of people haphazardly dressed while buying more clothes, shoes, and accessories to further confuse their wardrobes. Maybe if our closets were less packed, we’d be able to see what works nicely together and be better dressed. This is just a theory; my closet is pretty messy! But I can say that I am not ashamed to wear the same outfit more than once in the same week. Why do we, women in particular, have to look different every day? Let’s find what works—with our budget and our tastes—and wear it well, as often as we like.

Inventory to invention

I am excited to share what I read last night in the Jobs section of the New York Times. Peggy Klaus states: “Contrary to popular lore that innovative ideas spring only from fresh, young minds in dorm rooms, a Northwestern University study found that people who are 55 and even 65 have more innovation potential than 25-year-olds.” Thank you, dear Ms. Klaus and Northwestern University. I am not surprised, as I’ve crossed over 50 and feel no shortage of creativity.

In fact, I have more creative tops spinning than ever. This must be due to my extensive inventory. A person’s ability to invent, you see, is linked to his or her inventory. Joshua Foer explains this in his bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein. The Latin root inventio is the basis of both words: inventory and invention, pointing to the notion that an inventive idea is derived from a person’s inventory. In order to invent, Foer suggests, a person first needs “a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on.” Naturally, the older one is, the bigger the inventory and potential for inventing!

Inspiring examples of elderly creativity include an 80-year-old who just invented the “Safety Bubble” to prevent texting when driving and an 84-year-old who came up with “Dabble,” which won the 2011 Game of the Year Award from Creative Child Magazine. And so on.

Last month my husband, portrait artist Scott Johnston, visited the amazing John Howard Sanden who has been, for over thirty years, one of America’s best known portrait artists. Mr. Sanden referred my husband as a young man. He wasn’t just being nice; he knows how many productive years my husband is likely to have ahead of him, and that makes him young, relatively speaking.

ClassicAge doesn’t mean much when it comes to technology, either. My son, a sophomore at Cornell whose student job is computer science consulting, tells me that those who grew up with the development of the personal computer may have a deeper knowledge of technology than the generation that followed. Speaking for myself, when I first bought a Macintosh in 1991, I studied everything about it. I had a basic understanding of every single file and application on there. I had no patience for mysterious files; how could I fix my computer if I didn’t know what the general purpose of each file was? Today, however, many files are actually hidden on the Mac and people don’t even know they are there! This is shocking to me. But it does make sense since technology has increased at such a pace, no normal person can know everything that lurks on their computer. Over the years, I have had to relinquish control.

But I do not have to relinquish creativity. Never. That is the part of us that only gets better with age.

The bigger the desk…

I have found that the bigger the desk, the more clutter on top of it. In the end, you’re left with the same little area within which to work. So, I cut my desk in half. To be truthful, my desk broke in half and I figured, after trying to repair it for six hours, that it was all for the best. The broken half, which is still a fine piece of wood—or fake wood, I suppose—is now outside by the road with a “FREE” sign on it. People have stopped and relieved me of lesser things.

My desk trauma occurred due to our recent move. The movers didn’t break a thing, but in an effort to figure out where to run my business in our new home, I did the damage myself. The night before moving day, I lost a little of my mind and started dragging my desk through our present house. We were moving, you see, to the place right next door and I thought I would get a head start. “What are you doing?” my husband asked, “Your desk won’t fit through the door like that; you have to take it apart.” He was right, of course, but I reacted, “Sure I can! I just have to collapse the legs,” and I proceeded to pound on them, forcing each leg to collapse, thereby breaking half of them.

With a downsized desk, after a long moving day with no further incidents, I thought my “office” might fit in the living room; that is, the shared living space for our family of four. But problems ensued. For starters, the big window caused an intolerable glare on my computer. I tried closing the luxurious curtains, but within two hours of working in a completely dark room, I wandered off and took a nap. In addition, there’s a Steinway piano in the living room. (Did I mention this house came partially furnished?) I love it, but not when I have a deadline to meet and my daughter is having a piano lesson. To top it off, we have a cantankerous cockatiel who squawks loudly during my conference calls.

Thanks to the suggestion of a friend from Jazzercise who stopped by for a drink (a drink of water being the jazzercise buddy that she is), I decided to move my office to the tiny “bonus room” off of the master bedroom. It’s about the size of a walk-in closet, but I am so happy here! The window is kindly above and behind my computer so I can let light in and look outside without any glare on my screen. I also have a door to shut when my daughter plays the Steinway.

About working at home, I used to say, “Just don’t hide me away in a boring room in the far corner of the house.” But now, having had my fill of noise and distraction, that’s exactly what I want. And about the broken half of my desk, looking out the window, I see it has been nabbed.

I’m blogging

I’m blogging are you listening
I’m blogging have you read
My post on raising toddlers
My post on baking bread?

I want to be discovered
I want to have a chance
The world will surely love me
Oh the internet romance!


Ten zillion blogs are active
They are vying for your time
You have too many favorites
And they don’t include mine.

I hate to be obnoxious
But I’m getting on my knees
Do stay and read a while
And leave a comment…please?

By Gail Perry Johnston

My big hands

GailPhotoViewFromBayI have big hands. They show their age. The thumbs curl back. Someone once told me they look like Italian hands and I had a flashback to being with Grandma Genetti, who wasn’t Italian, but Tyrolean, which is close. I do not hide my hands. They are faithful, typing at the speed of my active mind or drawing a near perfect circle in the days before the computer did that kind of thing for us. But most importantly, my hands are expressive. They help me speak. I am, after all, a communicator, whether it’s through graphic design, books, or speaking engagements.