Artist and writer Austin Kleon on stealing, index cards, upright pianos and the obits

Give us a brief summary of what you do/who you are.

I’m a writer and an artist. I’ve written two books: Newspaper Blackout is a collection of poetry made by redacting newspaper articles with a permanent marker (sort of like if the CIA did haikus) and Steal Like An Artist is a list of 10 things I wish somebody had told me when I first started out. I also blog a lot and give talks about creativity in the digital age.

Favorite gadget? Favorite non-gadget object?

I really love gadgets that do one thing and do it well — gadgets that don’t have built-in distractions. That’s why I love my Kindle Touch — reading books is the only thing it’s really good at and the only thing I use it for.

My absolute favorite gadget is my piano. It’s an old upright console from the 70s and it still sounds awesome. I bought it for the same price as my iPad. It will last way longer.

Where do you get your news?

Twitter is my main source for day-to-day news. I also read my Tumblr dashboard and every once in a while I will go on Google Reader. Facebook and I have never really gotten along, although some of my really smart friends use it a lot and I realize I’m missing out on some good stuff. (Oh well!)

No matter where I am on the web, I use Instapaper to save long articles for reading on my iPad later.

The obituary section is the only news I read with any regularity. I have the New York Times and Guardian apps on my phone, and when I read an obit I think is really great, I can tweet it out straight from those apps.

My wife and I subscribe to the New Yorker and the Sunday New York Times, and I try to read those every week.

What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

I think the New York Times does online pretty well. I really subscribe to Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” That percentage might be even higher for news sites. Like everyone else on the internet, I hate sites that are designed for optimizing ad revenue vs. user experience. I detest slideshows, paginated articles, and the absolute worst: the pop-up. Oh, I also hate sites that automatically optimize for mobile now, because half of those templates don’t work.

You’re a big advocate of visual note taking and are always posting note photos on your blog. How can more reporters or visual journalists use visual notes in their daily work?

The visual notes are great, but what’s more fascinating to me is the idea of illustrated journalismm — my friend Wendy MacNaughton is doing some pretty awesome pieces these days where she combines line drawings, watercolor, and handwriting to make these pieces that really make you read them and they stick with you. I like the visual blog series that the New York Times runs with people like Christoph Niemann and Maira Kalman. I’d like to get more into that stuff.

What’s interesting about all those illustrators is that they mostly stay away from the computer to make their work — they draw or write or paint and then they use the computer as a way to edit and distribute their work, and that handmade element is what makes their work stand out. My hero, the cartoonist Lynda Barry, she says, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” In the digital age, using your digits stands out.

From posting short commentary, photos, quotes, book reviews, post-it notes, short videos — you’ve got a lot of content flying around. What tools do you use to stay organized? Evernote? An amazingly-complex folder naming system? Or just a giant flat file?

I use my Tumblr as a kind of public scrapbook, commonplace book, and filing system. I’m an obsessive tagger — almost all the chapters in my last book started as Tumblr tags.

My books usually start as a stack of index cards. For Steal, we actually printed some of the unused cards as “Deleted Scenes” in the back of the book.

For my next book, I started using Evernote — so far it’s just a place where I dump stuff. I haven’t used it enough to figure out how to retrieve stuff. This is something people always forget: the reason to save things is so you can look at them later. You need a filing system, not a junk drawer. (Although, sometimes a junk drawer is more fun to sift through…)

A page from one of Kleon’s sketchbooks.

You’re probably the most honest man in art — letting people know it’s OK to steal like an artist, that they need to be boring to get work done, and demystifying creativity in general. Overall, how has the book’s reception been? Have you gotten much response to your book from other artists?

“The most honest man in art?” That might be like saying, “The cleanest man in the mud pit.” [I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ll take it.] I’ve always looked up to artists who don’t hoard their secrets and are open about their processes, but I also noticed that I always felt closer to those artists as a viewer of their work. So when I first started out posting my work, I figured, hey, if I’m open about my process, maybe it’ll have the same effect on my viewers that those artists I loved had on me.

As for Steal, much to my surprise, the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. The coolest thing is that I hear from all kinds of people — preachers, housewives, guys in the army, art students, janitors, other artists…it’s been really wild.

You can only look at one website for the rest of your life. What would it be?

I think I’d rather never look at the web again than have to look at one website for the rest of my life.

How do you explain what you do to your parents?

Oh, my parents know what I do really well. I usually tell people “I’m a writer who draws,” which is a line I stole from Saul Steinberg.

When are you happiest?

In the morning, before I’ve looked at my phone, left my bed, or had contact with anybody outside of my house.

Larry Buchanan is a designer, illustrator and columnist living in Brooklyn. You can see more of his work here.