Just published my first essay over at Stemmings! Give it a read and let me know what you think.
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.
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.
Stewart and I chatted about design education recently. Plenty of people succeed without a degree, but plenty of people don’t.
You should go to school, but you should go to a good school. However, there are definitely things you don’t learn until you’re out hustling with the best of ‘em.
Some things I learned in school:
(or, things that I picked up in the pressure cooker of CMU):
It’s possible to live on 3 hours of sleep for up to a week and not lose all functionality (but you will become socially inept).
You can cook a feast for under $10.
Kill your darlings and your real darlings will shine.
If people look at your work and have nothing to say, it means it’s unremarkable. Start over.
The pain of the push is forgotten after the glory.
Failure is forgiven.
People have the power to fulfill your karma.
Look at your process work. It will make you want to keep going.
Things take time.
Good design looks inversely effortless to the toil put into it.
Contrast is king.
Don’t put lipstick on pigs.
There’s a metaphor for everything.
How to kern.
How to pair typefaces.
Sometimes the only way to know is to try it.
Authorities are sometimes wrong.
The computer’s a tool, not a magic box. Don’t rely on it.
Constraints are good.
Don’t date people in your studio.
Some things I learned after school:
(or, things education did not help me with)
Never use pure black (#000) as body text in digital media.
Talent matters, but less than network at first.
Fake it and there’s a good chance you’ll make it.
Success is slow.
401ks, stocks, RSUs, PPO, HSA.
How to work with engineers.
How to work with clients.
Try not to put yourself in a position where you have to please too many people.
Chain of people to please: User > You > Art Director > Client
Things take a long time.
It’s normal to take a few hours a day for your own enjoyment.
It’s hard to do good work when you’re worrying about money.
People will hate you for being brave.
People will love you for being brave.
Assume everyone around you is doing the best they can and you’ll be happier.
In-house designers aren’t designers who gave up—they’re designers who believe in a cause.
Your friends are still your best asset, even professionally.
Photoshop layer effects: drop shadow: set to 90 degrees.
Have other interests besides design.
Famous designers are accessible.
(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.
@Mike_FTW: Let this be a notice: you put together an all-male, all-white conference and I *WILL* go to war with you. And you will lose.
Reading Mike Monteiro’s tweet and subsequent debate made me realize I’ve become one of those people inflamed by the mere mention of racism and gender discrimination. I’m not sure I can be blamed after reading some of these responses, including such gems:
@MatthewDonnely: if there happen to be no good women speakers available then why higher a poor one over a good man? It works the same both ways
@genuinechris: and yet - they are poor negotiators. I have seen world class talent for pennies on the dollar from women.
@JohnONolan: @Mike_FTW Are you retarded? How many black swimmers do you know? How many white 100m sprint runners? How many female fighter pilots?
I believe in human beings. I think the majority of these men genuinely think they live in this bunny-rainbow world where everyone is given a fair shake and no one is judged by skin color, weight, or the ability to hold an erection.
However, being a young female interaction designer, and more freakishly, an Asian-American female interaction designer, I don’t. Let’s get it straight right off the bat that I have a really nice life, one that wouldn’t be possible even two decades ago. People are generally good to me, so this isn’t any kind of woe-is-me post. This is merely to give a curious man insight into why people get so angry when he says that he has never witnessed discrimination and that design hiring must be a strict meritocracy (ie, hiring a team of only men, because there are just more talented men than women).
I think we all can agree on the extreme acts of discrimination. Locking the car door when you see black people on the sidewalk, assuming Jews are trying to swindle you, not interviewing someone because he has a kid at home, yes?
So, here’s the bad news. There’s a whole other brand of discrimination, which is more passive and involves more than your individual choice of letting someone sit in the front of the bus. This is where the statement, “if there happen to be no good women speakers available then why higher a poor one over a good man?” comes in.
There are many great women who shape design. Jessica Hische, Debbie Millman, Kim Goodwin, etc, etc, etc. If one genuinely asked a bunch of women and some cosmic whirlwind made them all suddenly unavailable, fine. I think there are enough female designers that the gap between women and men wouldn’t be ‘poor’ and ‘good’, but maybe we are mincing words, here.
However, I’m betting that the lack of women is due to the fact that women were vastly underconsidered when coming up with a list of the very best designers. Making a conference that is supposed to be about the state of an entire industry all-male is like taking a census of a city and only marking the people who walk past your Starbucks window. It’s as if to say, those other people, they exist over there somewhere…but they’re not walking by the window so who gives?
Ok, so now I’m betting all my manfriends in the audience are pulling out their hair and saying, look at the data, Ash, there just aren’t that many women who do interaction design! It’s a numbers issue! We don’t discriminate!
Yes, my friends, it is a numbers issue. But, don’t you find it boggling that the interactive design industry, one that prides itself on helping people achieve their goals and communicates with normal human beings is dominated by white males? If we’re fighting for the user, why is the interaction design population not representative of the population at whole?
Either the honest answer of, “Ash, I could really give a rat’s ass,” or the more common, “I don’t know, most girls probably just don’t like interaction design if they’re not choosing to go into it.”
Ok, so let’s talk about why men become interactive designers. It’s a marriage between the left and right brains, it moves fast, it’s new and exciting, it’s available to many people, it can pay pretty damn well, it involves working on close teams of smart people…the list goes on.
So, what they’re saying is, because a girl lack a penis, these types of things don’t appeal to her. In which case, I’m calling shenanigans. That sounds like an awesome career. Why else are there so many amateur designers and self-taught who gravitated towards design after they found their other previous callings unsatisfying?
If the reason men went into interaction design was, it feels really good on my penis, I would understand. However, it seems like none of the great things about being an interaction designer touch upon anything gender related.
If not a lack of appeal, then the only other alternative is that women lack the natural ability to keep up with the challenges of being an interactive designer.
Uh oh. Getting into Third Reich territory up in this business.
I know. These men don’t intend to discriminate or hurt anyone, but they continue the tradition of assuming it’s the woman’s fault and the woman’s decision to languish in obscurity. And so, no one is villainizing the industry for hating women. People are villainizing it for being lazy and comfortable in a world where girls in even my young generation were told to sew trinkets and do laundry while boys play with saws and sandpaper.
Don’t hire a woman who is worse than a man strictly because she is a woman. Seek out talented women to add to your organization/conference/whatever as an active choice to try and shift this ridiculous and weird inequality. I promise that even if you seek her out and fail to find her, your initiative will punch a door into the boy’s club of interaction design by creating the prospect of a gender equal future.