Cheryl Overton on Ditching the Whiteboard: Finding Creative Inspiration in New Places

light bulb, idea, lit

I find inspiration everywhere,” says Cheryl Overton. 

You might assume, based on the quote, that Overton is a painter, a poet, or a playwright. While there are shades of each of those in her work, Overton has built a career in corporate America as a marketing and communications executive. 

“When I’m working with a client, I’m not thinking about just the typical creative brief,” she says. “I’m sourcing ideas that are improvisational, three-dimensional, and experimental.” Ditching the traditional “whiteboard” approach, she tries to ground her discovery in the client’s own streams of inspiration, which may include textiles, spices, a music playlist, or TikTok.

Executives and even some entrepreneurs aren’t always given permission to be creative, Overton says, and because of that, the world may be missing out on a fresh perspective that can deliver value. “We should allow ourselves to lean into that muscle,” she says.

All too often, we get relegated to tracks: good at math, analytical thinker, artistic, a natural with languages. Those labels can turn into swim lanes and eventually siloes, preventing us from tapping the breadth of our interests, inspirations, and skills. Growing up, Overton was a strong writer and was often the first to speak up in class or volunteer to speak publicly. Expressing herself out loud made her feel seen and heard, literally, in a world where few looked like her. But she also had a passion for the fine arts. She drew, painted in oils, designed jewelry, and even tried her hand at photography. 

Eventually, she was made to choose—business or the life of an artist. She often wonders what would’ve happened if she’d taken the other road. For now, she fills that need through cooking, taking trips, seeing art exhibits, and even sometimes making jewelry. Those pursuits often get her thinking about her business and client work in fresh ways.

Overton is the Founder and Chief Experience Officer of Cheryl Overton Communications, where she uses her extensive corporate experience—along with artistic talents—to help brands navigate their relationships with stakeholders through creative storytelling and disruptive business solutions. 

Her unique approach to working with clients and brands has helped her win a number of awards, including an Emmy, the Cannes Lion, and “New Yorker of the Year.” It has also brought her personal meaning and joy.

For instance, during a trip to Morocco, Overton was struck by the colorful and elaborate tile work that existed everywhere, from inside palaces to bathrooms. “Almost every deck I created for clients that year had a tile motif, whether it was the angles, a color mosaic in the background, or the placement of words.” 

Recent trips to Santa Fe and the Utah-Arizona border strengthened her appreciation for the many shades among and within earth tones. She recently pulled this through her holiday gift wrap strategy using plain brown craft paper bags and wrapping paper but adding texture via raffia bows, using fabric instead of tissue paper, and incorporating greeting cards designed by a Brooklyn artist. 

While Overton taps traditional areas of art, music, and architecture, she also finds ideas in other realms, like the way food is cooked and prepared. “I’m a huge fan of the culinary arts,” says Overton. “I’m inspired by how chefs use the creative process to solve problems and then create something beautiful for others to enjoy.”  

Finding inspiration “everywhere” isn’t always about an external prompt; it can be changing up your daily routine, curating a weekly “inspo board,” or seeking out thought partnership from an unlikely source. 

Here are three ways Overton gets “unstuck” and avoids creative blocks: 

  1. Wear a uniform. While she’s a lover of fashion and accessories, on days she wants to channel creative energy, she does the counterintuitive thing and wears black and white. By limiting her wardrobe options, she can repurpose that energy into other creative pursuits. 
  1. Brainstorm with an 11-year-old. She’s not a parent but she’s an unofficial “auntie” to many. It never fails: When she asks a young person their opinion on a brand tactic she’s exploring, she gets back something unexpected, fresh, or funny—and it may yield the germ of an idea she can build upon. An “atypical” thought partner is sometimes a great foil.  
  2. Cheat on your barista (or bartender). Disrupt your routine by visiting a new café. Taste a new pour. People watch from a different location to literally change their perspective on things. 

We can all use inspiration to fill our lives with greater meaning and success—professional, personal, or both. As the poet Rilke wrote in Letter to a Young Poet, we should “live the questions.” For Overton, the questions are: “How are you engaging with the people and world around you? Are you curious about them? How and why do you care? How is that expressed?” By living these questions, she finds inspiration in the everyday.   

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