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David Merrell

The 2 Big Challenges: How to Run a Business Yet Stay Creative

Event expert David Merrell shares his techniques for succeeding as both a business owner and a creative professional.

David MerrellBeing the creative director and executive-level designer, combined with the fact that I am the owner of the company, keeps me on my toes at all times.

I am in a constantly juggling all the decisions and responsibilities an owner gets involved in administratively, such as our marketing and sales strategy, but then in an instant I may have to turn around and think creatively in order to knock client off their seats with an intangible concept. 

There are two challenges that come with being a right- and left-brain guy with my feet firmly planted in both worlds. The first is that is that I have to be able switch on a dime from my business mind to my creative mind. That is not an easy task--clearing your mind from employee issues, abusive client issues, etc. … and then just “creating.”

The second issue is that half of my career is in the business side and events, so even though I don’t always live in the creative side, I am constantly searching for ways to be creative. 

Addressing the first challenge is easy. I have found that to be truly creative, you must have an uncluttered mind. This can be hard to accomplish when you are in business mode, let alone switch it over on a dime.  I have learned a trick for making that happen.

Finding your "creative hat"

Florence, Italy, is one of many pictures I took when I traveled in Italy. It was from this series of pictures that I saved and catalogued that I re-created the party from and used it to influence lighting and fabrics and flowers.

First, recognizing that you are going into a different segment of your mind is most important.  You have to realize that it is time to “put on the creative hat” and that must be in a certain mind-set.  The easiest way for anyone to be light-hearted (or light-headed) is to go to a place that makes them happy.  For me, it’s sticking on the headset and listening to music.  Right now, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams or “Cake By The Ocean” by DNCE will completely take me there before the songs are over.  Music is my instant trigger.  What is your trigger? Is it talking to your kids?  Walking your dog?  Heading to the beach?  Your mind must be clear and light to create.  Find your trigger.

The second point, where do I find inspiration?  The answer is very simple, and that is everywhere.  But, let me narrow it down as to where I really get my inspiration.

Pop culture really holds all the clues as to what is hip and happening right now. 

  • Movies and TV shows are connected to the pulse of what is happening right now.  From "Mad Men" to Gatsby, movies and TV have constantly been in the forefront of current themed events.
  • For me, interior design, architectural, and travel related magazines are what I pay attention to mostly.  I always have a subscription to Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and Interior Design at all times.  I literally am tearing pages from them like a crazy bride and posting them on a special wall in my office so I constantly have that visual.  Every quarter, I pull all the pictures down and go through them.  I get rid of the ones that don’t “call to me,” and add new ones in.
  • Pinterest is a perfect way to do the exact same thing.  In fact, our DesignDawgs Pinterest board was really born out of need to “tear those pages” out of the magazine and gather them in one place so I have constant inspiration.
  • Catalogues are key to keeping you on the pulse of what is hot and happening now.  They are literally experts as to what the public wants and needs now, and there is ton of inspiration in those catalogues.  My favorites right now are West Elm, CB2 and Frontgate.

The power of architecture

The Palm Springs architecture photo is the building that gave me the inspiration for a stage.

  • Traveling is certainly a way to get inspiration.  I am lucky enough to travel constantly, so I am looking at new ideas all the time.  It’s important that you “catalogue” your ideas.  I have a camera or an iPhone on me at all times and am constantly taking pictures.  I keep those photos organized so that I can “call on them” at a moment's notice.
  • The most important advice I can give on finding your inspiration lies in an age old saying: Take time to smell the roses”.  We move so fast that if you just slow down or take a different path and consciously pay attention to what is around you at that moment, there are tons of ideas that will come to you.

How it all comes together

This photo is of an event where we designed the stage based on the architecture of a building in Palm Springs that I saw one night when I was out (see photo on preceding page).

Creativity must constantly be fed.  Creativity comes from having have an open mind.  Creativity comes from clearing the space and clutter in your mind.  Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is more to life than increasing speed.”  If we slow down and become aware of our surroundings, inspiration will come from every angle.

All photos by David Merrell

David E. Merrell is CEO and creative director of Los Angeles-based AOO Events. David and his team at AOO have been honored by a wide range of professional organizations with more than 25 international awards in a wide range of categories, including the Special Events Gala Award--a testament to the diversity and talent within his company.

He has served on the Advisory Board of Special Events magazine and the ISES board as president of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter. He has led the industry into the age of social media with his award-winning and internationally recognized online magazine and special events industry forum, DesignDawgs.

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