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?
Silicon Valley doesn’t know what to do with people like us. They call us graphic designers, visual designers, marketing designers—as if we are stylists who trim the windows and top the cakes.
No. We are makers, pixel poets, paper-molesting war mongers, stitching the standards of international revolutions. We play in a universe where everyone is a genius, everyone is a hacker, everyone has the tools to take dominion over their own fate. We prime the masses for the better world ahead.
The ink, shapes, type, color and copy—it’s all a vessel for crackling ideas and so are we. We are not deceivers. We are not charlatans who sell cardboard cutouts. Our gift is dangerous if abused and so we are serious in our work. We help Peter Parkers ache to become superheroes. And let me tell you, we all have a Peter Parker growling within us.
So, sound the bugles. Build the ramparts of a product and start the whispers, the low hum of a beautiful cause. We will paint it on the walls. We will tell the story. And with a strong story, a narrative to perk their senses, they will start to believe. You will start to believe. We can all occupy the same town square, the same inch of grass. It might be for an instant, but it will change us all. They, with excitement on your app’s load screen and you, benevolent and economical with a blueprint in your hand.
Call us communication designers. Call us to the fight with you.
I’m twenty-four. I live in a city. I buy real furniture. I can keep plants and animals alive. I vacuum. I scrub the toilet. I frame my artwork.
I travel. I don’t worry about all the places I’ll never see.
Poverty concerns me. I don’t know what to do about it. I may understand the basics of politics. I doubt I really do. I vote anyway.
I use words like frenemy. I apologize for being late. I go out to brunch. I eat dinner at 10pm. I dance all night—occasionally. On weekends I sleep til 11. I go to concerts. I take disco naps. I check myself out in window reflections. I wear skyscraper tall high heels. I laugh loudly. I work out. I get manicures. I try to watch what I eat. I go back for seconds. I can host a dinner party.
My parents are mortal. I worry about their health. I get along with my siblings. I don’t call as often as I should.
I’ve fallen in love. I’ve fallen out of love. My older friends are tying the knot and having babies. The thought of a child makes me nauseous. The thought of love does not.
I cry for silly reasons. I have a streak of arrogance. I still believe in justice and meritocracy. I go on rants with other arrogant young people. They are my best friends. I make things with them. I want to change the world. I believe someday I will.
I’d rather learn from the internet than from a person. I try to do it myself before I ask for help. I pull out my phone to settle debates and confirm wild stories. I digitally catalog my life. I photograph everything. I overshare. I live by metrics.
I learn fast. I can’t sit still. I’m not concerned with balance. I want to work. I’ll stay up all night. I can do anything. I can’t do everything. I understand my limits. I’m realizing my potential.
I’m almost twenty-five. I’m ready.
All good things come to an end. Or, they would if we ever stopped evolving.
There are two kinds of reinvention. A company that’s settled into a comfortable and wan pattern will shake up its brand to fly under a steadier standard. Take the Current TV redesign, which does this quite literally:
(image from Brand New)
The idea of an army-sized movement, of the immutable power of the tide, of a billowing flag in the dark—that’s got a lot more heft than techy crowds wielding pixels. And, it’s what Current has always been about.
There’s a different genius in the second kind of reinvention, the reinvention of conviction.
Sunglasses are built to shield us. They block out the sun, they anonymize movie stars to the flash of the paparazzi. I have always loved Ray-ban for its complete opposition of this idea. Let the other sunglasses keep out the world. Never Hide in Ray-bans.
Jeans are built for hard, gritty work. But, in Levi’s, there’s work to be undone. In the nostalgia for our forefathers, we don’t find factory drudgery. We find the love of careful craft and the freedom of razing the past to start anew.
When your brand’s heart runs dry, find a new north. Run in the opposite direction. Free yourself from the metropolis we’ve built and head for the frontier. Breathe the country air. At the very least you will come home changed.
Let’s shoo the clients, bosses and managers out of the room for a second and talk about process.
Process is the bugle call of our design generation. It propagated with the IDEOs, frogs, Zurbs and Smarts of our industry and infiltrated every company. Finally, the heady coven of creation, distilled into phases and checkpoints—this was something the most empirical CEO’s could understand and salespeople could sell.
That’s wonderful. My parents don’t call me every night worrying I’m dumpster diving, and human beings have access to better designed objects as a whole.
Backstage, though, I pray to the design gods that we ourselves aren’t drinking this simplistic koolaid. Problem-solving and brainstorms are vital, but simply following the process we outline for non-designers would yield (and has yielded) unremarkable work.
Ouch! But, really, the ‘design process’ is bland, mechanical and easy. A problem comes in. You arrive at solutions, pick the winner and push that baby out into the world. It isn’t the interesting part of design at all. What really makes a brilliant designer is the white space between the outlined gospel. What creates the visual metaphors, the right questions to ask or the right shade of pink? That designer’s particular experience, whether it be school, work or play. There are hidden wells inside of us that don’t surface in explicit ways.
Even if you’ve known me for years, you might not know I watched nature documentaries every day for five or six years. Mental space for reminders and algorithms is filled up instead by seemingly useless animal facts. Besides helping me remember the names of conference rooms at Twitter, this experience gave me respect for systems and symbiosis, a sense of scale, and an eye for movement and detail, among other things. I didn’t know it then, but this antisocial TV habit was inherent to my personal design development, and vital to my career.
We create in the context of ourselves, and that’s not something easily quantified. I could never tell a client, here’s a charge for the hour I spent watching that Discovery documentary about salmon migration fifteen years ago. I couldn’t have found this solution without it. There’s no proof and no deliverables for that time. To the rest of the world, that’s nerve-wracking, but to us, it should be comfort that the best method of interesting work is to seek out experiences and learn how to let them change you.
Sell, and sell well. But never forget—each day is part of your process, and that you’re preparing for a project that may be years in your future.
Smithsonian NMNH bird collection, photo by Chip Clark
There’s a beautiful yet unpalatable quality to this photo. The human mind craves vast and organized displays, yet the idea of dead animals sorted into boxes unsettles the heart.
For scientific categorization, a room like this is perfect—I want to see a macaw, and I want to see it right now. In fact, show me ten macaws, show me any bird I want to see. However, the cold sort of birds by species isn’t a great way to sort everything—relationships with people, for example.
Defining relationships is difficult, but not impossible: Friend, foe, family. The problem is that relationships themselves aren’t easy categorical buckets.
One facet of this issue is that relationships change over time (see Kevin’s great post on this issue). A macaw isn’t going to morph into a canary, but a friend may turn into a girlfriend.
However, the other large failure of such an organization schema: it’s not a natural compartmentalization of the people in our lives.
If there’s one human behavior social networks feed off of, it’s our obsessive need to share. We revel in each others’ success, fall with each others’ failures and get to know each other through common interests. We ultimately love Facebook, Twitter and Google+ because they help us connect with the people we want to have a relationship with.
When you have a relationship with another human, sure, you can put labels on it. My mom, sister, brother and cousin are my family. My boyfriend is my boyfriend. My professor, manager and coworker are my professional network. However, when I come to a nugget of content I want to share, I simply don’t stop to think of people in that way.
I don’t know if this is an effect of our fractured age, but we have different kinds of friends. There is that friend you ask for recipes, that friend you go to bars with, and that very special friend you’d tell if you got cancer. I’d never want my entire family to know I cheated on a test, but I might tell my sister and my roommate—just like if I discovered Trololo Man, I might want to share mostly with my cousin and a couple buddies from my old a cappella group.
We don’t generally find content expressly to cater to a group. We typically find gold in our travels and then want to share. So isn’t it artificial to lump people into categories rather than sort by the content itself?
Show me a social network that easily differentiates between “people I’d tell my address to” and “people who care I met Paula Scher”. That will be the rub.
(As a pre-emptive disclaimer, this has nothing to do with my first two weeks at Twitter. I have an in-depth update coming up about my job and my coworkers, who are wonderful human beings. I believe with all my heart that they would never say such a bile-inducing phrase).
There are many bad terms for people we don’t like. Here are a few. Hussy. Dick. Douche.
What do all these insults have in common? In a single word, they not only tell you that the person they are referring to is a jerk, but also illuminates gender.
The glory of artful language is that if you pick the right word, you can efficiently describe a situation. Instead of, “male jerk who likes to sleep with anything with legs,” you can say, “manwhore.” When you tell a story, this effect can be powerful. Crassness and judgments aside, it replaces the slashes of verbal parrying with a Zorro-esque Z.
Let me run another word by you. Pretty.
This word makes me want to burn down the crit room. When you call something ‘beautiful,’ it’s overwhelmingly positive. There is never room to mistake ‘beautiful’ as a derisive comment. ‘Pretty,’ however, is a backhanded compliment that people feel obligated to counter. Some proof: here’s a comparison of the first four results for, “designers just make pretty pictures” and “designers just make beautiful pictures”.
None of the results for ‘beautiful’ are actually related to that statement, while all of the ‘pretty’ results are articles or comments appealing people to respect designers.
While ‘it’s pretty!’ is a synonym for ‘it’s beautiful’ to most innocent wielders, in critique it often has the efficiency of ‘manwhore.’ When someone says, ‘it’s pretty…’, they typically mean, ‘eh, it’s beautiful, but thoughtless.’
First off, let’s address the fact that snarkiness and cynicism don’t have a place in a productive critique. If our intent is to improve each other and do good work, veiling your feedback with sarcasm is harmful.
Secondly, why bring the issue of beauty into the matter at all? While beauty is subjective, one of the goals of design -is- ultimately to create beauty through evocative contrasts, gruesome or golden. No one approaches any interface saying, “I’m going to make this thing all busted and ugly,” and people don’t fault a good interface for being beautiful.
Should we really despise a work more so for being visually considered and thoughtless than for being ugly and thoughtless? Should we hate a physically beautiful person for owning a symmetrical face, or because they ask why poor people can’t keep their yards clean like the rest of us?
Perhaps the scornful ‘pretty’ is a disgust for deception. Perhaps the outward beauty leads us on, and that’s what we really hate when we say, ‘pretty’. The promise of a delightful experience, dashed by the reality of flippant thinking.
Regardless, to give specific and actionable critique, let’s be transparent. If a piece has a harmonious composition but inappropriate typefaces and colors, be specific and state both sides. It’s okay for a thoughtless design to get a couple things right. It’s still thoughtless regardless of good kerning, and would be thoughtless with bad kerning as well. Leave ‘manwhore’ and ‘douche’ for storytelling.