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Read the transcript of Scott Adams' chat in which he tells you what's in a Dilberito and how to dig your way out of a cubicle. Click here for the "Dilbert" dialogue.

Drawing 'Dilbert'

Scott Adams: Cubicle refugee

October 6, 2000
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EDT (1854 GMT)

In this story:

The long overnight to success

The dawn of 'Dilbert'

Nice work if you can get it

Strip mining

Empire of the fun


(CNN) -- "This has happened to me many times. It gets to be 1 o'clock and I think to myself, 'God, I'm tired - I'd like a nap.'

It's 1 p.m. and the question is, do you know where your favorite cartoonist is? If he's Scott Adams, creator of the corporate comic strip "Dilbert," try looking on the floor of his home office near San Francisco.

That's right, the floor.

"I can't tell you how many people have written to me to tell me that 'Dilbert' was their idea. Not by name, but that they had an idea of a cartoon about the workplace. If I hadn't done it first, they would have been the one with the huge cartooning empire. It fascinates me that there are people like that, and they're allowed to vote."
— Scott Adams, "Dilbert" creator

"I've literally gotten out of my chair, lain on the floor and fallen sound asleep," Adams says.

"I don't even bother walking to the couch, because there's nobody going to come in and see me. When I wake up I ask myself if I feel like working, and if I do, I get back in the chair and I work. If I don't, I do something else."

It's a work environment far removed from the character Dilbert's world of cynical, conniving, cubicle-dwelling engineers reporting to a dunderhead boss.

Many people think being head of what 43-year-old Adams calls "the 'Dilbert' Empire" is either absurdly easy or unimaginably hard. Both are wrong, he says. Here's his take on the first group.

"They look at it and say, 'Gee, it's crudely drawn, so he's a bad artist, and I'm a bad artist, too. All he's really doing is saying my boss is stupid, and I could do that. His only contribution to the cartooning world is he did it first, and damn it, I thought of it first, except I didn't act.'


"I can't tell you," Adams says, "how many people have written to me to tell me that 'Dilbert' was their idea. Not by name, but that they had an idea of a cartoon about the workplace. If I hadn't done it first, they would have been the one with the huge cartooning empire.

"It fascinates me that there are people like that, and they're allowed to vote."

The other camp can't conceive of producing a cartoon strip seven days a week, Adams says. "If you look at Michael Jordan leaping 48 inches in his prime, that was hard because you can't do it. But it's not hard for him because he can do it.

"Cartooning is the same way in the sense that if you can't do it at all, it looks impossible." But just as Jordan is wired to leap, Adams says he's pre-programmed to draw, "so it's easy to me."


Long overnight to success

Adams was no young phenom in the cartooning world. Growing up in Windham, a town in New York's Catskill Mountains, he applied at age 11 to the Famous Artists School and was rejected faster than a Dilbert plea for a pay raise. The youngster was a year short of the minimum age requirement.

"If you hear a new management buzzword, jump on it like a starving squirrel on the last peanut on Earth."
— Scott Adams, "Dogbert's top Secret Management Handbook" (HarperCollins, 1997)

His cartooning career thus quashed in boyhood, Adams earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, then moved to Northern California, where he worked in offices and among people like those he lampoons in"Dilbert."

For seven years, starting in 1979, Adams was employed by San Francisco's Crocker Bank. He was a teller -- robbed twice at gunpoint -- and a computer programmer, financial analyst, product manager and commercial lender.

As he left the bank in 1986, he earned an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley.


Dawn of 'Dilbert'

Adams worked in technology and financial jobs at Pacific Bell for nine years. All the while, he was doodling, and from those scribbles emerged a composite of his co-workers, a nerdy but well-meaning engineer dubbed Dilbert by a colleague.

"If you're sitting in a business meeting and somebody's doing something that is just comically absurd, it's energizing because you're thinking to yourself, 'Hey, this would make a great cartoon.' "
— Scott Adams, "Dilbert" creator

A couple of years after going to work at Pacific Bell, Adams drew 50 sample "Dilbert" strips and mailed copies to the major cartoon syndicates. United Media offered a contract a few weeks later, and Adams accepted.

Adams says he tinkered and toyed with Dilbert like a plastic surgeon transforming a favorite patient. Finally, "Dilbert" debuted in 1989. But Adams continued to work for PacBell for another six years.

"It was because of a combination of benefits I was receiving," he says. "One was a paycheck. The first several years of the strip, I needed it because 'Dilbert' was not so big that I could have lived in the way I wanted to.

"Second, I had no idea the strip would last, because 19 out of 20 strips don't make it beyond a few years.

Give us this day our daily "Dilbert." Easy for us to say. How long can Scott Adams keep this up? Does humor spring eternal?

"Third, I was getting material from my day job. These were very complementary activities. If you're sitting in a business meeting and somebody's doing something that is just comically absurd, it's energizing because you're thinking to yourself, 'Hey, this would make a great cartoon.' And then when you're doing the cartoon and mocking your workplace, you're feeling good because it's getting it out of your system."


Nice work if you can get it

Dilbert - and Adams - have come a long way since those early years. Adams is hardly exaggerating when he refers to the "Dilbert" Empire. The cartoon strip now appears in about 1,900 newspapers in 57 countries and 19 languages.

"Dilbert" has spawned a television show -- now on hiatus -- and a vast array of merchandise that includes everything from dolls and sweatshirts to coffee mugs and watches adorned with Dilbert and other characters from the strip.

•  Dilbert - "social skills of a mousepad"
•  Dogbert - "his not-so-secret ambition is to conquer the world and enslave all humans"
•  The Boss - "he wasn't born mean and unscrupulous, he worked hard at it"
•  Catbert - "human resources director at Dilbert's company where he teases employees before downsizing them"
— Scott Adams, "Dilbert" creator, at

Adams also has written 15 "Dilbert" books. Some titles: "Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies"; "I'm not Anti-Business, I'm Anti-Idiot"; "Journey to Cubeville"; and "Random Acts of Management."

There also is a "Dilbert" Web site and a newsletter, and Adams has started a food company that makes a burrito called the Dilberito. Now he's talking to an Internet startup company about producing "Dilbert" videos.

Empire, indeed.

"My training is in business and economics, so my mind gravitates toward the business model," Adams says. "If you look at 'Dilbert,' it really was the first cartoon run the way a business would be run.

"When I first put the e-mail address on the strip, it was just a classic business-training kind of move to get feedback from the customers, then change the product to match what they wanted it to be. It was novel and revolutionary for the comics, but in the business world, it was the oldest, stalest, most obvious idea in the world."

With so many spin-off businesses, Adams keeps busy with a lot more than just drawing "Dilbert." Here's how he describes a typical workday.


Strip mining

You've heard of a morning person and a night person. "What I am is a non-afternoon-person," Adams says.

"In the early morning I try to do the bulk of my creative work. That's when my mind is the sharpest."

The address is -- but what's in all that e-mail Scott Adams gets? Well if it just happened in your staff meeting, Adams may be reading about it now.
Scott Adams says "Dilbert" is adapted to the career climate of the moment. Nothing if not au courant, that guy with the turned-up tie. Downsizing was up when 'Dilbert' was originated.

This, he says, is typically is from about 6 to 9 a.m., but it can vary depending on how busy Adams is. "While there was a time that I was religiously getting up at 4 or 4:30 every day to get everything in, I have become a little more relaxed in my perfect job. I just do things when it makes sense to do them."

Adams says he never knows until after he sits at his drawing table what that day's strip will be. If he doesn't get an idea after a few minutes, he'll read his e-mail or otherwise distract himself for a while, then return to the drawing table.

"I don't think I ever really go more than 30 minutes before I've got two or three things in my mind and I'm trying to decide which of them to use," Adams says.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon is devoted to making phone calls, dealing with other "Dilbert" business, reading, and sometimes responding to, readers' e-mail messages.

Since he's no longer part of the angst-ridden work force toiling in a formal work setting, e-mail is Adams' primary source of ideas for the "Dilbert" strip.


By afternoon, Adams says he's brain-dead. Napping isn't his only option.

"I try to do things like occupy myself with lunch and going to the gym or playing some tennis or doing something else that just gets me out of the house," he says. "Then there will be dinner, and after dinner I typically work at night."

From roughly 8 to 11 p.m., Adams says, he does "things that take more motor skills than thinking. So, for example, when I do the cartoon in the morning, I do it just in pencil. Then at night my hand is much steadier and so I can apply the ink and do the artistic stuff, if you can call it that in my case. There is some precision work, just following the pencil lines.

"Then there is scanning it into the computer. There's a lot of touch-up work on the computer and adding the lettering on the computer and cleaning it up and adding the shading and coloring and stuff like that."

Between the strip and all the other "Dilbert"-related businesses, Adams says he typically works seven days, 50 to 60 hours a week.


Empire of the fun

Adams has a good gig and he knows it.

"The sheer variety of it is just wonderful," he says. "On any given day, I'm making a cartoon, writing a book, designing a Web site. Yesterday, I was sitting in on a high-level meeting for an Internet startup company. Today, I'll be looking at three different licensed products that have nothing in common with each other."

Plus there are those flexible hours that allow him to nap if he's inclined to recline. "Fortunately, I have enough internal incentives that stuff gets done," he says.

So is it lonely at the helm of the "Dilbert" dynasty? Are you kidding?

Ruling the "Dilbert" Empire does have one hardship, Adams says. "You can't take a vacation. For 11 years, I've done nothing more than go to a wedding for a day, or something like that."

Well, one recent exception. In August, Adams took an Alaskan cruise. He was so afraid of liking having some time off, he says, that he considered packing "all the wrong clothes."

And returning to work from that trip couldn't have been the post-vacation downer such a moment is for many workers.

"I have no co-workers or employees or a boss, which is the all-time, most important formula for happiness, I think."


Cartoon characters reanimated on the Web
July 25, 2000
CNN's Natalie Allen talks to Scott Adams -- a VXtreme interview
Dilbert's creator has more bad news for hapless workers
July 31, 1997

Dilbert Zone, the official "Dilbert" Web site
The Dilbert Store
Dilbert's desktop games

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