Just published my first essay over at Stemmings! Give it a read and let me know what you think.
The personal nature of this post isn’t much like the typical design rants and rambles I’ve made. But, it seems against the spirit of the piece to leave it molding in my Day One app. So, for better or worse, here it is.
When I was seventeen, I wanted to be an opera singer. I can’t say if I would have been any good at it. But when you are on a stage, you have a special relationship with the universe. Everything you have suddenly becomes multiplicative. You take this little truth from inside yourself and turn into a human magnifying glass. Every heartbreak and triumph, each personal history you’ve ever seen is shared for the length of a song and the cost of air.
If you want to experience real magic, this is it. The freedom to live an unsubdued life, publicly.
I had fears at seventeen. I was afraid of college applications and boys not liking me. But I was not afraid to express myself.
I made a choice when I was seventeen. After an intensive six week course at Carnegie Mellon, I decided I would apply to and hopefully attend design school.
I didn’t realize until today how much that decision changed me.
I’m extremely fortunate. I am a well-employed professional, have a fun and challenging career that’s just beginning and a wonderful life at home.
But I have become subdued. I have lost the hard work from my teenage years. I’ve lost the edge of working to accept myself with hope for the future. I have revoked the permission I gave myself to live a brave expressive life.
I don’t really know what this means. I don’t know if freedom’s the broken promise all privileged children are given when they have too few years to bear the world on their backs. But I know behaving with demur and silence is not the world I built inside of myself. This is not a person I would have admired.
I’m giving myself permission to examine what I tolerate. I’m giving myself permission to live with the annoying zest of spontaneous singing and crying when people do nice things for me. To cry for any reason, really, and to laugh so disruptively that it comes out sounding like a branded donkey.
I don’t regret the decision I made when I was just seventeen, but it’s time to take back that piece of me. I’m sitting here laughing to myself because the only thing more mad than making this rapidly tapped out soliloquy is the non-directionality of this decision.
You might see me do it, and you might see me get away with it. You might not. But I’m going back there.
I typically end up not writing a year end retrospective because there is so much to say. This year, I wrote down two thoughts that feel important to me right now. They’re a little random and probably best read as separate tiny pieces.
Happiness is an exercise in endurance
Unhappiness is difficult for me because I suffer from a mental version of “ants in your pants” syndrome. I traditionally haven’t given much thought to the virtues of patience—it seemed I was getting along just fine rushing around and climbing towards contentment.
This year I had two periods of unhappiness. The first stretch had an end date I had pasted on it. The way it worked out, I was freed from the situation earlier than I’d anticipated. It did get me thinking: knowing that there was a stop ahead helped me make it through the days. I was still grumpy and anxious, but the wait became just a wait.
This changed the way I approached my second period of unhappiness. I ended up putting together a solution that I hoped would lead to happiness, but I had obligations I’d already agreed to. I told myself I just had to outlast the circumstances. Surely I could endure a little bit of discomfort on the way to the new world.
I’m very happy today. Sometimes you can’t thrash your way out of unhappiness. Sometimes you have to wait it out.
Absolutes shrink your brain
We’re encouraged to be sure of things, to speak in absolutes. Never. Always. Do it.
It’s false bravery. There’s a sense of power in being able to define your world, and to have rules to follow. It feels good to take a side. Never use black text on a site. Always be nice to everybody.
Rules are meant as guidelines so that in different situations, you’ll have a way to understand consequences. Rules should not be confused for absolutes. Part of being a modern human being is measuring unique circumstances and reacting in a righteous way.
Never steal. What if you live in a society where your government produces intentional food shortages to keep people from rising up? Would you report your neighbor for stealing a pound of rice? This is an melodramatic example, but it is an example nonetheless on the complexities of situation trumping rules.
Absolutes are an attempt at a free pass, a way to shut your brain off.
Brand and identity are pretty easy to conflate, as they both answer the question, “who are you?” To understand the difference, we can take the metaphor a little further.
Identity is your social security number. It’s the token to play. if you were strictly speaking in identity terms, when asked ‘who are you?’ you’d reply with your name.
But, to answer ‘who are you’ with your credentials is a shallow dip into the pool. This is where brand comes in: what makes you inherently you? It’s the swagger and the voice that make up a brand and ultimately speak to your essence.
There are plenty of companies that do both, one or neither of brand and identity well (some more intentionally than others).
Examples of companies with strong identities and strong brands:
Nike, Levi’s, Penguin books, New York Times, Virgin America, Coca cola, Nintendo, Apple, PBS, Gatorade
Examples of companies with strong brands and weak identities:
Urban outfitters, Wikipedia, Many fashion design companies, Ray and Charles Eames, The Smithsonian
Examples of companies with strong identities and weak brands:
CBS, FedEx, most car brands, public transit systems
Companies with strong identities are immediately recognizable, and companies with strong brands are easy to relate to. When a company has a strong identity and a weak brand, it seems like a utility. It’s easy to find when you need it and different from its competitors, but you don’t expect it to have much personality.
Companies with weak identities and strong brands feel extremely democratic and mercurial. They can be rooted strongly in trend or the flow of the people. For Urban Outfitters, for instance, a lack of identity actually strengthens their brand. They appeal to irreverent, young renegades, and their damn-the-man attitude is amplified by their ever-changing logo.
The reason a strong identity and strong brand is the holy grail of companies is because only when utility and ethos are combined can a place really portray itself as a service. However, it is an interesting thought experiment: what would happen to your company if you leaned one way or another? Is one side more appropriate?
If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been blogging much lately…about to send this novel to my dear friend to edit (Taken with Instagram)