"A Scud missile to send at your boss"

Dilbert's creator talks about his strip

Published June 3, 1996 8:16AM (EDT)

How has "Dilbert" changed over its run since 1989?

The biggest change came after 1993 when I started running my e-mail address, and people wrote in and said that they wanted to see more strips about business and technology. Being the capitalist pig that I am, I took that to heart and in fact changed the emphasis from what had been more like 20 percent business and technology to more like 80 percent. That's when the popularity took off. That's when "Dilbert" really found a reason and a voice and an audience. People could clearly identify what it was and how it fit into their life. Before that it was just something they either liked or they didn't -- it didn't have any deeper meaning.

It didn't stand for anything.

Now it operates on several levels for a lot of people. One is, did you laugh today? But another is, what can I do with this? Can I use it for a secondary purpose, such as a Scud missile to send at my boss, flare to wake up people at a meeting? I actually write consciously now with the thought, what will people think when they read it, and then what will they want to do with it after they read it? I think of the message and whether or not it's one that some significant number of people would want to identify with.

And the impetus behind this was just e-mail feedback? What a novel concept -- a good business practice like, listen to your customer.

Well, most successful businesses do that. That's one thing I would say you can't terribly fault business for. So lesson discovered, lesson learned, lesson implemented. It was unique in the cartooning world. No one had even tried, as far as I know, to solve that problem. For example, there's no market research in cartoons -- not by the syndicates, not by the cartoonists, and not by the editors. All of my MBA training said, this is the first thing that's gotta be fixed -- just open the channel. And it just happened to be the right part of history where that was technically possible.

At the San Francisco Examiner, where I used to work, every now and then we tried to do reader polls on comics.

Which is the opposite of a good survey. In fact, that was worse than no survey at all, because they were guaranteed to be skewed toward over-50 readers, and those people would say, "Keep 'Beetle Bailey'! Get rid of this 'Calvin and Hobbes' thing, we don't like it!" So you get absurd results.

How was writing "The Dilbert Principle" different from working on the daily strip?

Drawing the comic strip is fun -- it can actually increase my energy. I feel good when I'm doing it, and I feel good when it's done. But writing just sucks the energy right out of me. I find that after about an hour of writing sometimes I have to jump on the floor and fall asleep, right now. It's so much harder than it looks. An hour of writing is a whole lot more thinking than an hour of cartooning, which turns out to be, you know, three lines and a couple of drawings. I'm definitely not in the power lifting category when it comes to writing.

In part, the book parodies business bestsellers that tell you how to reengineer your company and conquer the world. Did you have any specific books in mind?

I hate to admit it but I don't read. It's pretty rare for me to finish a book. I did pick up a lot of the most famous ones; I looked for the bestsellers and I skip through 'em, because those are the ones that people are thinking about. So I did read the "Seven Habits," the re-engineering book, Guy Kawasaki's book on competition. I usually try to pick up all the Tom Peters books, to see what he's up to. But to be honest I pick around in them. Most of them have a handful of good ideas, but they gotta fill up a book, and sometimes you get what they're up to fairly quickly.

You finally left your cubicle at Pac Bell almost a year ago now. Do you ever miss it?

Heh. Not yet. Does O.J. miss his cell? I don't think so.

Do you feel at all like you're cut off from your material? Is it harder to plug in to what that life is like now?

No -- thanks to my 300 e-mail messages a day, which are this constant reminder of the inanities of business, I'm probably more plugged in than I've ever been. If I just went to work, I would spend my own little day, and I might see one or two of these kinds of absurdities. Now I see a hundred a day. The hardest thing about doing what I do, it turns out, is thinking about what you're thinking about. If I took 100 people at any company who love the strip and think I'm talking exactly about their experience, and said to them, all right, write down topics for me to write cartoons about based on the absurd things going on in your life, 95 of them will say something about coffee -- you know, somebody forgot to make the coffee, and that's inconsiderate! They'll all say that, and nobody will think about the fact that they're doing ISO-9000 quality or empowerment or all the bosses are giving them absurd commitments. Somehow that stuff all became so normal to people that if you ask them what their job is about, they wouldn't even think of those things.

The absurdity has become invisible.

So the whole concept of thinking about what you're thinking about is the most important thing I do. Fortunately, I get lots of help from other people.

That sounds like your line in one of the Dilbert newsletters, that "the job of a humorist is to notice and report the obvious."

If you're digging for something deep, you're missing the good stuff.

The statement on your Dilbert Zone web site about your departure from Pac Bell ended with the line, "Now I don't have to be Mr. Nice Guy. This is gonna be fun." Is "The Dilbert Principle" what you were talking about?

Not just the book but the strip itself got a little bit more of an edge, I think, after I left Pac Bell. It's not something I think about every day when I sit down to draw, but I know that when I had the day job I would occasionally think of something and say, nah, hold back on that one. Now I don't have that restriction. A cartoon might be just a little too close to home, or people might interpret it as being my personal experience, even if it wasn't. You always have to think, what do I mean? and then you have to think, what are people going to think I mean?

Do you hear about people getting in trouble for hanging up your cartoons in their offices?

Every day. Usually it's somebody writing to tell me that they've been disciplined by their boss for putting them up, or it was mentioned in their performance review as a reason for demonstrating they're not team players. Or there's a memo that says all "Dilbert" cartoons must be removed before the vice president comes through on his annual tour. Or they simply disappear at night, so the managers don't have it said that they have no sense of humor. In fact, that's the inspiration for my next book title, "Fugitive from the Cubicle Police" -- the cover has got the cartoon-sniffing dog inside the cubicle, and Dilbert's going over the wall.

Do you feel like you're part of any kind of movement of other popular artists taking on the working world?

There are half a dozen that I hear about now and then. There's some things on the Web that are pointing in the direction of the disgruntled worker. In fact, "Disgruntled" is the name of a Web site that I think they're planning to turn into a magazine -- stories and funny things about disgruntled workers. There's a few new cartoons coming along that are gonna be workplace-oriented. And if you look at television it's really moved into the cubicle world -- from "NewsRadio" to "The Drew Carey Show" to half a dozen other shows.

You're now working with syndicates and reasonably big publishing companies like HarperCollins and Andrews and McMeel. Does that ever cause complications -- do you find yourself in "Dilbert"-like situations with them?

First of all, none of the companies that you mention are big companies from my perspective. They may have a big impact, but I worked at a huge bank and then the phone company, so they don't look or smell or act like big companies to me. And they're all specifically geared to supporting creative people. When your entire success depends on how well you work with creative people, there are two options: either you're good at it, or you're out of business. So there was a Darwinian thing that happened well before I got here that made sure that these folks all knew how to do this. If they have those problems -- and I'm sure they do, internally -- I don't ever get to see them.

You say you hear from a lot of people who think you work at their company.

It's like an urban legend. The comment I hear most frequently from people who write to me is, "What you're writing about is so true you must have a spy here " or "You must be working here." And I think that if people say that enough, somebody's gonna be sitting nearby who says, "Yeah, he works here, I heard that." I don't think it's anything more insidious than bad communication. But at some point, if people say it enough, it starts sounding real. And people are saying it a lot, so it's sounding real in a lot of different places.

At the end of "The Dilbert Principle" you sketch a more humane way of running a business called "OA5" for "out at five." Was that based on anything you've ever actually seen?

It wasn't specifically modeled after any company. I have known of individual departments where they tried that -- at least the part about getting out on time. But I've never heard of it as a company rule. I have since then heard from a number of managers who say, you know, that's just the way I run my company! And immediately my sensors go up, and I'm thinking, I don't think so! Let's send the auditors up here, let's get a third opinion.

That's the way they like to think they run the company.

I'm sure there are places that do in fact let people get out at a decent hour. But you know that's only part of the story. They may well be in an industry where it's normal and comfortable and everybody does it and it's just no big deal. They may also be in an industry where they have to pay overtime!

What does Dilbert's company actually produce?

You never know, except by inference in specific strips. And I always imagine that it's a company involved with a variety of things, and so his task and the project he's on changes, but it's always some high-tech hardware-software-telecommunications kind of thing that's hard to define. And it shall remain that way.

Will Dilbert ever quit his job?

Yeah, I think it'll happen at some point. I don't know when. But he'll probably strike out on his own, become an entrepreneur or a contract employee or something. I don't know if it'll last, but I think you can count on it happening.

Neither Dilbert nor Dogbert have mouths.

Not visible mouths...

Is that ever frustrating to you? Are there times when you want to add those expressions?

It used to be frustrating, when I first started, a little bit. But now I really don't think about it anymore. There's a full range of expressions I can get with eyebrows, hair, necktie and ears flapping up.

What other cartoons or humorists inspired you?

"Peanuts." And -- who wrote "Lil Abner"? -- Al Capp. And later, in my teenage years, Mad magazine.

What plans do you have for the Web site?

The immediate direction is just more of the same: finding a variety of interesting content that doesn't take a whole lot of work. There doesn't seem to be a big correlation between how much somebody wants to look at something and how much work you put into creating it. The sock puppet pages are a perfect example of that. They're wildly popular -- people love the sock puppets.

You have to figure out what to tap into. I think the big problem with the Internet is that people have been looking in the wrong direction. If you believe the Internet is a place where people want to go and get information, you've missed its main dynamic. In fact, it's a place where people will go to publish information, whether anybody wants to look at it or not! So if you say, 'If you send me a picture with your hand in a sock, I'll put it on my Web page,' you'll get flooded.

Are you working on bringing "Dilbert" to other media like movies or TV?

Only in the conversation stage. There have been a number of folks who are in a position to make that happen who are very interested, but if you know anything at all about Hollywood you know that a lot of talk leads to, often, a lot of nothing. It's not always easy to reach the right deal that makes sense for everybody, and we just haven't found the combination.

If your basic premise in the book, that we're all idiots, is true, and you include yourself, and it probably includes your readers if they're accepting your point, then what hope is there?

I think maybe that is the hope. Once you start realizing that 90 percent of what we do is driven by irrational impulses, I think you can be a lot less frustrated about it. You're free to just let things happen and say, "This is one I can let go -- it won't affect me that much tomorrow." I think it's a freeing kind of a thought, frankly.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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