Never run out of good content ideas with Janis Ozolins

Tune in on:
Apple podcast iconSpotify iconGoogle podcast icon

People can't receive advice until they've acknowledged that there's a problem. After visual artist Janis Ozolins incorporated this essential truth and began creating simple visuals that acknowledged people's feelings, his channels blew up.

In this week's episode, Janis shares how he developed his style, how his note-taking practice prevents creative block and the power of visuals to amplify an idea.

Follow Janis:

🐦 Twitter

📸 Instagram

👥 Linkedin

📰 Newsletter

🧠 Explain Ideas Visually Course

Episode Transcript

00:00 Janis: I believe 90% of the people who follow me are there for the ideas. And I could illustrate those ideas in way different style and some, some super basic, but if the idea is delivered, I think it'll do pretty much the same.

00:23 Akta: Janis Ozolins has been creating visuals on the internet for about one and a half years and is now a full-time creator.

Hey, everyone. I'm Akta. And in today's episode of Creators on Air, we get to hear how Janis comes up with ideas and how he explains them visually in a way that people can resonate with them.

00:40 Janis: Previously, like I had the aspiration to be like a content creator or do things online for around four years. And I just tried a bit of YouTube, a bit of blogging, and loads of different things, which, like, felt like an uphill battle. And I mostly gave up, and it was just kinda experiments and learning lessons.

And, uh, then one day I discovered—probably you have, and a lot of people have read the blog from, uh, James Clear. And if you notice the guy who wrote the Atomic Habits. Uh, and if you have noticed like often, he adds little illustrations in his blog post just to amplify some of his concepts. And that was the first time I kind of got in—got this feeling, this idea.

“Huh, you can actually like communicate an interesting, full-on idea with one visual.” That was the first, first point that kind of got me a bit curious about this. And then I just started to experiment and play around, and it was just good fun.

Uh, after a couple of months, I think I discovered Jack Butcher, uh, which probably some people know as well. And, and he was kind of the guy who. who proved me just by doing his work. He proved me that there is market for this. Like, this can be a full-on thing, not like just complimentary visuals in a blog post, you know, something that you do on a side. But this can be a full-on your main thing. So yeah, he kind of gave me this belief that, “Okay, there is a market behind this I just need to continue to push and try to improve, and it should work out.”

Uh, so yeah, I kind of just continued after that. And then I discovered work by Liz and Molly, which are like amazing artists online. They mostly create, uh, visuals around feelings at work. Uh, and, and they kind of gave me this nudged—this interesting feeling because mostly like all the visuals was around like, like very value-based, you know, this is how you do this, and this is how growth works. And this is how leverage work. Everything is like very value-based, very advice-based. And what Liz and Molly did: they do a lot of this, this thing, which I read a lot in like, uh, reading, uh, parenting books that you need to acknowledge kids’ feelings in order for them to listen to you. And that was something that Liz and Molly did a lot. They did a lot of this feeling acknowledgment, which is I call—which just people see that visual, and they make, “oh yeah, that's me. Oh, man. I struggle with that as well.” And you'll get these feelings from those visuals.

And that was kind of the switch when I thought, “Hmm. Okay. That's very interesting. I really love this format. And I kind of brought that type of, uh, idea to talk about these feelings and try to acknowledge creator feelings like, uh, because I had a four-year background kind of trying to be creator. So I had a lot of struggles I have gone through. So I had some, some ideas I could create, uh, like about in terms, uh, targeting creators.

So that's kind of how it started. And then after that—after the third moment when I really tapped into these emotions and readability. And that sort of stuff, really, some change started to happen. It was really like consistent growth. And people really like loved my work and shared my work and so on. And it's been, yeah, blessed ever since.

03:47 Akta: That’s amazing. And what I love about your work, Liz and Molly’s, and even Jack Butcher’s is—It's mostly about the idea itself, as opposed to the visual. You come up with such strong ideas, and that's what comes through in your work. How do you actually come up with your ideas?

04:04 Janis: Well, the coming up with ideas is—it's—they're kind of, well, one thing is—I'm full on to like Apple ecosystem. So I use this Bear notes app, which just synchronizes wonderfully from like my iPhone to iPad, the Mac, and whatever. And I just take loads of notes, you know, whatever, listen to podcast, “Huh. Very interesting idea. Note down this idea.” “Huh, this idea made me feel this weird emotion or whatever, you know, note that as well.” Go about your day. See something weird. Like I don't know, ice cream is like crashed on the ground on the other side. “Huh, that could be an interesting metaphor. I could probably apply that somewhere somehow.” Just snap a picture and add to your notes.

Just one of the things you really need to, like, tune up a bit your awareness, and really pay attention to what is going on, you know. You know, my—I sit at my laptop, and I have maybe some feeling of like, “Oh, don't wanna work today.” You know. “What's going on here?” Note that down, kinda. You can maybe work with that later on.

Um, like even to extent, like I had one visual, which was pretty, pretty appreciated, but there was like months, months ago where I was just arranging some folders in my computer. And I was thinking like, “Damn, there's so much files, which are just unused and some weird ideas and pictures here.” And I was thinking like, “Oh, why, why is that? You know, I bet a lot of people have this.” So I kind of note that down is my notes. And later on, I created this—this image were just bunch of folders. And I called it like the “graveyard of ideas,” you know, and that kind of went pretty viral as well, ‘cause people, “oh yeah,” like “folders full of ideas and whatnot.”

So it's really about paying attention and just add to the notes. And later on, which is like the stage two, you know, when I try to pretty much create a visual a day. Uh, and, and when I sit down, I just go through those notes and see what, you know, what, what I feel today, what sticks to me. And I just try to kind of work with that idea.

And then, then it's really about going deeper and trying to figure out, “Okay, how I could represent this. What is the thing I'm trying to communicate here from this? And then, then just try to create that visual. And it's a very laidback and forward process, a lot of brainstorming.

And there is some themes you can use. Like for example, one of the—one of the elements, which I like to call is like “paint the scene,” you know. Because probably one of the visuals you have seen is where you put some sort of things on the calendar event. Uh, where you can just kind of write, you know, that, that—I dunno, you know, we're distracted and the end of the—the day you do a quick work or something like that, you know. That is something very relatable. And when you “paint these scenes” that are very familiar to us. It gives that, uh, that kind of snappiness for that—for that image to resonate with you rather quickly, you know. Because those are elements, which you understand, and it's just very, very quickly to digest it. And then I think visuals in that sense are very powerful.

You know, of course, you can't write biographies with visuals, you know. But in order to communicate very specific, very particular ideas, it has—you were able to do it way faster in video or in writing. Of course, it's like specific ideas, and there is this initial boost, but visuals have this—this kind of novelty and snappiness to them, uh, if you do it right.

So that's—I dunno, it was a very longwinded answer, but, uh, I hope it was helpful. Let me know if you have follow-up questions.

07:30 Akta: It was very helpful. And it's made me really intrigued about your process because I'm actually quite surprised that you do one visual a day because it's quite a lot.

So when you're capturing your ideas, are you already at that stage, thinking about how that will translate into a visual, or is it when you sit down to think about your visuals that's when you start brainstorming around the ideas that you've already captured?

07:53 Janis: It's both because there are sometimes these moments when you see something, or you have an idea, and you instantly have this concept in mind, “Oh, this will be, you know, maybe a bar chart with this. And there is this funnel or whatever,” you have this instant epiphany. Sometimes that happens. And then you kind of very clearly write that idea down. And when you need to create it, just bring again to design software and just quickly make it or whatever.

Uh, but sometimes it's just noting down very random thoughts. I don't have any like, uh—don't necessarily plan or think that it'll be a visual. It's just interesting. It kind of catch my attention, and I wrote it down. There's really, I like to—Don't judge your ideas before you put them in the Notes app, you know. Just note it down and move on with your day. And you don't need to, like—I definitely don't organize anything that is there. It's a complete mess, complete, complete wild, wild notes that I have. But, but yeah, it's, it's very helpful.

And then some ideas are more crisp, more like crystallized, and ready for visuals. But some are just very vague randomness, which, uh, later on, like—becomes some sort of visual as well. Because when you sit down a day later, it might trigger you some, I dunno, different feeling or just remind you of something that, uh, that will end up in a visual.

So it's very—there's no clear structure, you know, what I'm trying to say. Sometimes it comes, sometimes there's just random—this main thing is to note down these ideas and understand that it takes time to brainstorm and figure out these concepts. You know, I think Jack Butcher once said in some sort of interview, you know, that “visual looks like freaking simple, but it takes me like three-hour walk to figure out that one concept,” you know?

So it's maybe not three hours, you know, maybe for some particular—maybe when you work with freelance clients, that's a bit harder. Because when I work with my visuals, you know, it's—I can do anything, you know. I have loads of notes. I can take it whatever direction I want. But when, when I have like, uh, freelance gigs, when I'm working for some book illustrations or something, you have specific concepts that you are trying to amplify or illustrate, and then it's harder because you're very constrained into some specific model, and you wanna make it really good.

So, yeah.

10:05 Akta: Yeah, that actually relates to a question that I was going to ask you because you've worked with some amazing people like Matt D'Avella, Steven Bartlett, Naval. And so when you're collaborating on projects, or you're doing freelance, your clients obviously want to get a message across. And they've probably given you some kind of prompt for what they want to kind of tell their audience.

So how do you kind of collaborate, but in a way that still maintains the simplicity of your visuals? Because, like I said, you—you do actually spend a lot of time on your visuals so that they are simple rather than just, you know, being quite literal.

10:40 Janis: Yeah, it's a—it's a good question. And I don't think I have like a clear, good answer for this because, like the first thought: it's not easy. It's definitely hard, you know? And the gigs are very, you know, different. They can be where people just kind of use my concepts with maybe very small twist, you know. Or if I need to come up with something completely unique for their ideas, for their content. It's definitely difficult.

And, uh, there is a lot of like back and forward. What's good, what's bad? But I always kind of try to—before working on these projects, I'm very careful with what I pick on, you know. So I have this kind of creative control. So it's not like, you know, “Janis, you will do this and that and that, and that.” Because that—that's not what I really wanna do. I don't want to create something that you think is best.

I'm not claiming that I know what is best, but I want to have this some sort of “stick to my values”—Let's say it like that.

And when I work with these clients, I usually try to kind of explain a bit what I'm doing. Because I'm—like often what people expect, you know, “I have this single idea; now illustrate that idea.” And it's like, it's not necessarily what I wanna do here.

One of the things which visuals, I think, can bring is like—because if you can consume that idea with written text, you know, what I wanna do? I wanna amplify that idea. Maybe we can, like—I will read that idea, and then I will think, “Okay, what type of emotions happens around this idea? What type of situations this idea can be like put in or something?” And then I kind of try to think around this idea. So when I create my visual and when I give it to client, they're like, “Oh, this really like amplifies the concept.” You know, sometimes it doesn't work. They're just like, “Ah, no, I don't like it. You know, it's, it's not the way I want this to go.”

But that's how I approach it and how I try to sell this—this stuff, because I'm not trying just to illustrate specifically your ideas. It's more about amplifying and attacking those ideas from different perspectives. Um, but yeah, it's definitely harder than creating for yourself because you have these constraints.

12:47 Akta: Yeah, definitely. And I think, you've—you've said it really well because you keep mentioning kind of the feelings and the emotional side of what your visuals produce in somebody else. And that's kind of the whole heart of storytelling is kind of creating that emotion. So when you're creating these visuals, how do you know that that idea will resonate with an audience?

13:11 Janis: Well, of course, you can't predict, like, always everything, but I guess over time, you train a bit of your gut feeling, I would say. But there are some certain principles that you can follow.You know, one of the principles is just, you know, I show—I show this idea to my wife and like, “Do you get this?” And if I get like instant “yes.” You know, “Okay. That's one—one checkbox done.” Because it clearly, you know, I might bounce that with two more friends if they instantly get it. “Okay. It's, uh—at least, the snappiness part is done,” you know. If I see people go like, “Huh? Um, um, um,” and start to do like, things like that, and they are not really understanding it, I know I need to do some work.

So if I would say—I would probably say there are two core things, which I try to aim when I make my visuals and always try to do them, which is one of them is like being very clear. What are you trying to say? You know, being very clear about what type of emotion are you trying to evoke? What type of idea are you communicating? Often when you try to communicate too much in one visual, it will like reduce the clarity. Because, um—I really like this line. There is a guy, a big marketing guy, uh, guy, I think his name is Donald Miller, and he have this quote—not quote, but his idea is that “when you create ads for companies, what you need to imagine is that people when they read your ad, they're kind of burning calories while they are doing. And what you wanna—you wanna get your point across like as fast as possible. So they burn at the least amount of calories while, while they do it.” And I really like this idea that something I always try to keep in mind.

So one thing is just speed. And the second thing is clarity, you know, and that clarity can work in various different formats. But it's usually you might try to communicate too much. And then you need to like break it down into more simplicity or just you are being maybe—like common thing, which happens “I'm trying to be too clever,” you know—being just like, you are really in the zone, and you're doing your thing. And then you just come, come across too clever because, because I dunno you have thought about it, the idea too much. So it's very important to use like simple words and very understandable phrases.

Um, so yeah, uh, that's a like ramble on this, but those are two key elements I try always to aim. If you fail at clarity, then it's bad. If you fail at speed, you know—speed is not always essential, you know, because there are examples, for example, like, uh, weight, but why, which probably most people know. And he often have these very elaborate and complicated messages, but most people tune in because they are very interesting ideas.

So, so the speed is like—that's kind of my style, my thing, you know, uh, but, um, but clarity is very important as well. And then I would say speed is very important, especially if you are a young newbie creator and your credibility is quite low. Like, if you want to stand out, if you want to get engagement, and so on. And if you want people to pay attention, you need to be like super fast with your ideas. Because then like, whatever, even if you have low credibility, people will pay attention because you can deliver something then wasting like two seconds from their day, so it's fine.

16:29 Akta: Yeah. That's very true. And I think those are two really good aspects to focus on. Um, moving on from the idea aspect into your actual process when you're creating, how long does it take you to create a visual versus coming up the idea for it? What's kind of your ratio?

16:45 Janis: I guess it's very—I would say an average about an hour, you know, to think about the idea to, to illustrate it and so on.

And it really depends, you know, whereas now I've created like, I think more than four or 500 visuals, like a lot of them. And then what I do now, you know, if I—if I'm super busy, I might iterate on something on some old idea, you know? So I pick it up, I just mix things up, or I deliver the same concept with a very slight twist, and that takes like 10, 15 minutes, uh, these days.But if I come up with something very like new and unique, it's—I would say on average about an hour, but yeah.

When I work with freelance clients, that can be longer. That can be a lot of wrestling. Like you can take one day, one idea for several walks and kind of wrestle with it and try to figure it out.But yeah, I would say around an hour, that would be my average estimate. And I think a lot of like people who goes into my course and kind of start these things out. It's usually about an hour or two hours as well, what people have reported. So yeah, I would say that's an average.

17:50 Akta: And you have a really distinctive style with your visuals. And even the creators who come out of your course, they come out with really distinctive styles for their visuals as well. What advice would you have for someone who's trying to find their voice within visual storytelling?

18:05 Janis: Yeah. This is a—I think this—It's a very important question, especially for new aspiring creators who think—who would like to do something like this. I think most people really obsess about this. They go crazy, and often they think it's the most important thing, and they don't do anything because they just feel like, “Oh, I can't come up with my own style or whatever.”And I—one thing is like, I believe 90% of the people who follow me are there for the ideas. And I could illustrate those ideas in way different style and some, some super basic, but if the idea is delivered—clarity, speed, if I check those two checkboxes, I think it'll do pretty much the same.Uh, so I always try to emphasize like, “Focus on the ideas, deliver the ideas fast effectively,” you know, and “be clear.” That's the main thing you need to think about. And you don't need some crazy-ass style to communicate as you start simple. You know, even if you're a non-designer. There are loads of tutorials, grab free tool like Figma, go watch a tutorial in 30 minutes, you'll be up to speed to use pen tool or whatever. And you'll be able to create something, you know. Don't use this excuse “I'm not a designer or whatever,” start there.

And what I usually like—In the end, how you figure out your own style, you know, there are several things you can go, “Okay, do I wanna go, you know, vector graphic or roster graphic? What's the pros of this? What's the pros of that?” Um, then you kind of try to figure out that, and there are certain things we can talk about. But I don't wanna go into like super deep details.And I think one thing is very like, like observe a lot of your like inspiration. See, “Okay, I really like this thing, what they do. I like them, this thing.” “Okay. I like these colors. I like, you know how this person uses that.” And, uh, just try to make something up together, which ends up like—which is something unique too, you know.

So, uh, and yeah, another point which I wanna mention here, which how I filtered kind of my style is that you need to think about your values—your values and what's really important to you.So, for example, for my style, it's very—nothing is straight, nothing is perfect, you know. Like Jack Butcher have everything, all the lines are perfect, perfect, like everything is perfect. All—it's like straight lines, squares, and so on. My style is different that it's like squiggly lines. Font is like very hand drawn and whatnot.

And one of the reasons I created this style, in the end, was because one of my struggles is perfectionism. I thought if I'm trying to make something like, you know, Jack Butcher or which is something very pitch perfect, then it's for perfectionist. It's very hard to publish this work because the style in general is, you know, “perfect in some sense.” But if I have this imperfect style, it's very easy to calm down my perfectionist—perfectionist monster inside me, and say, you know, this is imperfect style. So it's in a sense, it's perfect.

And, uh, that's like one of my hacks, how I started early on kind of to publish this. And then yeah, I kind of, yeah, mixed as well a lot of like my inspirations, so early on. Like, uh, at the beginning, I used characters, which I took like, kind of from Tim Urban, I had this character perfectionist monster, which I'm not using right now.

And yet there was like one thing I picked from like Liz and Molly was this like drawing outside my, uh, like, outside my visual. So the painting is kind of just all over the place. And that's another aspect for this perfectionist thing, you know. That it helps with perfectionist.

Again, super long answer, but that's how I kind of go about this.

21:56 Akta: No, it's fine. I like the long answers, and I think people listening will really be interested to know how you've developed your style. So that's really good.

Um, and you have your course as well. Um, tell me about your course. What is it that you want to achieve with your course? What are you trying to teach your students?

22:13 Janis: Well, I dunno. One of the things that I'm kind, you know—of course, I wanna be a full-time creator, so I somehow need to make money in general. And then that's, of course, one of the ways how creators leverage—leverage their knowledge.

Uh, and I always had the desire to create a course, but actually the reason-- because it's running from, I think, end of November, end of December last year. And the reason why I made it so fast was just a lot of people were asking me—Okay, “a lot of” meaning, like, 10, 15, maybe requests. There was “But be honest, can you teach this to me?” “Can you teach?”

And that was like kind of trigger, “Okay. People are asking,” you know, this is—if you read all the marketing books or product books, that is when you make your products, when people are just asking you and begging for it. And that was the reason I kind of created it.

And, uh, yeah, I tried to kept it very, like—I don't like super long courses and boring courses. I tried to make it super short, kind of cover all the fundamentals you really need to get started. And one thing which I added to the course as well was, um, a community where I share feedback actually to people. Because I think one of the minuses for self-paced courses is the lack of feedback. You kind of get your content. Okay. You binge the content, you kind of understand, but it's still very hard to get going. And kind of the community in that sense was how I tried to solve that. So when people actually start, I'm able to give them as well, like loom feedbacks, and just take it from there.

And it's been a blast of like, Yeah. A lot of people are completely crushing it online, and it's been good.

23:45 Akta: Your course is definitely one of the courses that I want to be doing. So you'll see me as a student on that soon. Um, I'm going to move on to a rapid-fire round, so I'm just gonna ask you some questions, and you just have to answer the first thing that comes to your mind. Don't have to overthink it.

23:58 Janis: Okay. Sounds fun. Sounds fun.

24:00 Akta: Okay, great. What's the best thing about being a creator?

24:03 Janis: Freedom.

24:04 Akta: Nice. And what's your favorite productivity tool?

24:07 Janis: Productivity tool? Oh my God. I wanted to say like, almost like nothing, because like, if I can elaborate on this question, I was obsessed about like various productivity tools systems. GTD this, GTD that.

And now I have only my to-do list. I don't—not to-do list, but I have only my Notes app. I don't even have a to-do list. It's like Notes app and Calendar, and I'm completely free bird and following my gut feeling and just trying to get up to the appointments in time.

Not best practice, but yeah, I feel very happy by following this.

24:39 Akta: No, I think that's good. I like how you really value simplicity because I do too. Um, what gives you the most inspiration?

24:48 Janis: Everything. There's—I can't point a specific thing. It's like, yeah, other creators, just everything, family, whatnot. Like, I dunno, everything's an inspiration if you try to look for it.

25:02 Akta: I like that perspective. What's one thing that helps with a creator work-life balance

25:07 Janis: I would say family and kids because they just force you not to work all the time. Because if, I dunno, if I can imagine if I would not have kids and if I would be alone, I would be freaking working all the time. So so starting a family could be pretty, pretty good, uh, pretty—Well, it's—I wanna be very careful with answer here.

But it's definitely the case. Uh, it's definitely my case because, yeah, family kind of just forces you not to work all the time because it's very easy to work all the time if you love what you do.

25:39 Akta: I love that. What a unique answer. And what's one piece of advice that you would give to other creators?

25:46 Janis: I would say like, I would really share my—I think one of my most used quotes, which I use like in my own life, which comes from Brandon Richard. He's like a Tony Robbins type of guy, very motivational, and then like “he walks, he talks.” And one of his quotes, which he says a lot is “believe in your abilities to figure things out.”

And what I really love about this is that you kind of don't lie to yourself. You know, you might say, “Oh, I'm not a designer. I'm not a creator. I'm not a YouTuber.” And that might be true, you know. But what you really need to believe is that believe in your abilities to figure that out. Because I'm sure, there are things in your life which you have figured out that you haven't before.

If you really adapt this mindset, this quote, I think it's very powerful. You just keep going, believe in your abilities to figure things out, iterate, continue, and you'll come out the other side, sooner or later, I hope so.

26:44 Akta: Amazing quote. Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. This is honestly been such an amazing conversation.

Thank you so much for giving me a behind-the-scenes look into your visual storytelling and for inspiring us with your visuals. I really appreciate having you.

27:00 Janis: yeah, it was very cool to be here. And I think one, one thing, if I can mention, I think, uh, a lot of this conversation was around visuals. And if, if somebody's curious about this, I'm like almost done with my like five-day email course on visuals, which basically will explain quite a lot of my process and give you kind of step-by-step guide and prove you that you don't need to be a designer to do this.

So, if you're curious to that, you just find my links, and I'm sure you'll be able to dug it up, and it could be very helpful. You'll definitely like it. You don't need my course. You don't need any course to do this. I was able to figure out on my own. Jack Butcher was able to figure this out on his own.So you can do that too, but that might be something very, very, uh, helpful for people. It was kind of the intent to make that because there are some people who can't afford it or whatever.So, uh, check it out. It should be good and very helpful if you are into this type of stuff.

27:52 Akta: Amazing. I'm sure that will be filled with so much value. So I think I will be subscribing to that as well. Thank you so much.

27:59 Janis: Thank you.

28:01 Akta: It's incredible that a powerful idea can be shared through a simple visual, and this is what Janis does so well. You can find Janis on Twitter and Instagram, and check out his website if you're interested in learning more about visual storytelling.

Thanks so much for listening to our conversation, and join us on Twitter at @GetPassionfroot if you are a creator who wants to move your business forward. Stay passionate, and I'll see you in the next one.