Creativity was on full display at the 22nd edition of OFFF Barcelona. Over 4,500 visitors and 78 speakers gathered at the Disseny Hub in Poblenou to celebrate all things art and design. One of them was multidisciplinary creative director Carl Addy, who held a celebrated talk, inspiring the audience to foster their curiosity, embrace flux and never stop learning. Addy has worked for many years at acclaimed visual effects and content creation studio The Mill and is now executive creative director and partner at Mayda, a collective and studio with a diverse team at the intersection of film, game development, and technology.
The Overview caught up with Carl Addy after his talk at OFFF Barcelona to get his insights on the psychology of storytelling, the role of AI, and how he approaches creative leadership.
Can you describe a time when you had to navigate a tricky situation early in your career?
Carl Addy: At the beginning of my career in Durban, South Africa, I was an anxious 16-year-old kid struggling and hustling to get into design school. I eventually got in, dropped out again, and then started as an intern in an advertising agency working with software.
I would get familiar with the technology and spend the evenings creating a fake portfolio. I sent it to advertisers, which got me a bursary that opened many doors.
So you start with an intention and work within the medium currently available to you and it pushes you towards your goal.
So early in your career, you followed a very proactive approach.
Carl Addy: Yes, I think so many people within the industry are incredibly talented, but unfortunately, it’s easy to get caught up in the dilemma of comparing yourself to others. You need to realize that your talent is the key.
Being a creative means making stuff from nothing, which is your biggest asset. You shouldn’t take that for granted. To stand out as a creative, you need to focus on your individual journey, know who you are and what you stand for.
So if you ever feel stuck in your career, try and make your way out of it. I know that’s easier said than done. You’re so affected by a situation and the context you find yourself in. There are also a lot of valid reasons to feel stuck. Maybe your job is crap, or you don’t have the time.
It’s not easy to create your world, but it’s possible. And even if it’s not possible, the act of trying is therapeutic. So if you have lost the joy in your work, take one aspect you like. Play with it, and experiment with new tools as if you were still at design school. Enjoy the process without having any expectations, and leave your ego at the door. Be as enthusiastic as a kid again.
My work practice is always about learning new things and growing with a fan-first attitude. That’s what I love about creative work. It’s never going to stop. I will always learn something new. It’s an endless journey, and that’s wonderful.
These insights you share come from a creative career that spans over 20 years. How do you approach your role as a creative leader conveying your experiences to your team?
Carl Addy: I think a creative leader’s real job is to be a coach. You stand back and observe. And with empathy, you try to figure out how to support a person’s creative journey.
That also involves helping them to get out of their way. If they’re stuck with a problem and can’t find a solution, you try to steer them towards it, but you can’t just give them the answer because they need to figure out their own wayfinding systems to solve problems.
Working as a creative in the industry can be tricky and lonely sometimes, and there are expectations and pressures. So as a creative leader it’s also important to bring enthusiasm to other people’s work.
Your team also doesn’t want to let you down, so they fear that if their work doesn’t look like yours, you might judge them, but that is not the case.
So a creative mentor needs to get them out of this human situation with all that social pressure so they can recognize that they are exactly where they need to be at the right time, doing the right thing they’re supposed to be doing.
That’s all you need to do as a creative leader because they already have it in them. They have the desire, ambition, and drive to do great things. But they’re pretty often just limiting themselves.
How did you deal with these limitations yourself, and what were your most significant learnings along the way?
Carl Addy: Every time I started second-guessing myself, I took a step back and reminded myself why I was doing things a certain way. And you have to be kind to yourself and realize that you didn’t follow a particular path simply because you didn’t want to.
For example, right at the beginning of my career, I could have focused on only one discipline and perfected it. So I probably would have become successful much earlier with a specific stylistic approach. But that wouldn’t have made me happy.
If I’m defined by one thing only, and I can never learn, change, and adapt to multiple things, that would be hell. That’s not who I am. It’s also no longer a contemporary approach. We live in the age of the mutating creative, constantly adapting to new changes, constantly learning and growing.
Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but I believe you first have to please yourself and meet your needs. You can also choose to satisfy other people’s needs and do what you need to do to become famous, but ultimately you have to live with yourself. You’re stuck with yourself. So find a work process and goals that you know will make you happy because they align with your personality and values.
How did you manage to create that work process for yourself?
Carl Addy: I figured out early on that, for me, it’s not all about the result. I use my work to process information and make sense of the world.
For example, as a kid, I loved listening to music. I would turn on a song I really like and repeat it again and again, trying to figure out why at that one moment, my heart went up.
Why did I get excited? So I separated and analyzed all the instruments in my head, trying to understand why I emotionally responded that way. That obsession made me become a musician. I then realized that a psychological effect was happening, consisting of tension and release.
You are teasing a thought and then letting it go in the chorus. In my work as a director and designer, I’m interested in that dynamic too. As a human being, I’m fascinated by the power of stories and the connection of emotion to visual, or audio. It’s like alchemy; it’s about mixing different elements.
So I’m constantly trying to take it apart, figure out how to learn the magic and find the spell. I ask myself: How can I share what moved me about a song or a piece of art with others so that this feeling or experience becomes universal? That’s the lifelong journey that has everything to do with exploring the human condition.
And what have you learned about the psychology of a story?
Carl Addy: That you don’t have to spoon-feed stories to people, it’s better to say less and let them fill in the blanks themselves. In my work, I’m trying to be visceral and emotive without being obvious, so it’s sometimes intentionally obscure. If you want people to care about what you care about, you must involve them. For the audience, that’s much more rewarding.
It’s how jokes work. All the best jokes fool you into believing one thing, and when you hear the punchline, you realize you were tricked. Jokes work because you set up a premise of illogical tension when you hear the punchline, but it’s so wonderfully irrational it makes sense, although it shouldn’t make sense. And that tickles the brain.
That’s because we, as humans, constantly try to create stories to understand the world. We are story magnets, always making meaning. So if we’re these great story machines, there is no need to be that obvious. Giving less information is more rewarding, so people can make it their own story.
Is there a resource that you can share that helps you when it comes to storytelling?
Carl Addy: There is this great podcast called Scriptnotes by Hollywood screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August. They are incredibly generous with their knowledge and freely tell people everything they know about the craft. It’s like going to a screenwriting university. And even if you’re not into writing, listen to it anyway because it tells you about how to construct ideas and stories that are nuanced to people.
You are experimenting a lot with AI. Can you share some tools you like working with?
Carl Addy: I’m fascinated by all the AI stuff that’s happening. I know, it’s a topic that people are uncomfortable with, but I find it hugely useful. So there is Stable Diffusion, an AI you can train yourself with data.
Then there is another tool called Runway.ml, a great editing program that helps you be much more efficient. You are still in control of the creative outcome, but it supports you in doing what you want better and faster.
You just mentioned AI making people uncomfortable and it’s indeed scary. How could creatives approach this disruptive technology?
Carl Addy: It’s scary but I think we need to accept that it’s not going anywhere, it’s just becoming more prevalent. So I would try to approach it with an open mind and curiosity, play with it and try to make it your own.
If you think about it, AI is trained on specifics. Let’s look at the visual style of pharmaceutical companies, which pretty much all look the same. So for an AI, this is very easy to figure out. So it makes sense for creatives to try and make something more interesting that doesn’t look that obvious.
So AI has the potential to raise the bar for creativity?
Carl Addy: It can raise the bar and also teaches specificity to people. AI forces you to articulate your desires into words and language is so fundamental. Being able to convey a story idea clearly or communicate a visual concept with words is our industry’s base level of communication.
How often have we received feedback like: “Make it more exciting.” But what does that actually mean? My definition of exciting might be very different from your idea of exciting. So with a text prompt, you have to feed the AI more specific instructions, which helps communicate and visualize ideas much more effectively.
What final advice can you give young creatives just breaking into the industry?
Carl Addy: Approach your work with the attitude of a “minimum viable maker,” meaning you don’t have to make things perfectly to make them your own. Know enough to get started; braver people can do more with less. Find your power and do work you are proud of.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.