You’re a designer, or developer, or entrepreneur. You make stuff. You create. You make it happen on the daily. Etc.
You’re getting pretty good at it, too. So good that sometimes you produce amazing, potentially world-shaking solutions. Clever, original, inventive stuff. The stuff you’re proud of. Ingenious answers to difficult questions. Stuff that wasn’t there, but then it was. Because of you.
But here’s the thing about ingenious solutions:
Don’t expect the work to speak for itself. Even the most ingenious solutions must be sold.
“Why!?” you lament, “It’s clear that this solution is amazing and wonderful and does everything it needs to do and more—everyone should be able to see that.”
And then they don’t. Because everyone isn’t you. If they were, you’d likely be out of a job. In fact, it wouldn’t be a job—it would just be one of the things that everyone on Earth just does in the course of a normal day. But what you do isn’t normal. And so it requires an abnormal way of operating if you want to do your job well.
New Things are Strange Things
The unfortunate truth about ingenuity is because of its originality, not many people have a framework for what to do with it. Sometimes people aren’t rejecting your ideas in spite of their apparent (at least to you) genius, they’re rejecting them because of it*. Your solutions are new, and this new thing isn’t proven, it isn’t trustworthy, it isn’t what we know, or what we can neatly fit into the cognitive confines of our worldview. It’s risky to even entertain.
So what do we do with things we don’t understand? “We burn them!”
Most of us outright reject unproven, untrustworthy, unknown things. It’s pure instinct, buried under layers of experience, bias, anecdote, and preference, an unconscious, lizard brain-like reaction to meet new things head on with skepticism, as if our survival depended on expelling what we don’t understand.
We’re predictable like that. The more ingenious the solution(s), the harsher and quicker the rejection. So don’t fight it, use it.
Armed with the knowledge that your ingenuity will likely be rejected if presented unadorned allows you to control the steps leading up to the rejection. You can frame the story. You can tailor your pitch to the people in the room. You’re free to lead the person you’re trying to convince on a journey, so that you can all arrive at your ingenious solution as if it was an inevitability, not an unwelcome intruder.
Make a Better Introduction
You can’t expect people to welcome a strange guest into their personal space without some explanation and backstory, especially if it’s a guest they’re likely going to live with for a long time. Part of our job is to come up with the solution, but part of it is to manage the introduction, to play a matchmaker role of sorts.
“I’ve taken some time to get to know you, and I think you two would be perfect for each other. I know you’re a little wary of things you don’t know, but let me tell you a little about this one to set your mind at ease…” Everyone can see it, because you led everyone there. Everyone can believe in it, because you convinced them of it.
If possible, create ingenious solutions. Wow the world. Please your clients. Make them yacht-loads of money. But always pitch and sell your solutions from an empathetic standpoint, knowing your listeners and taking into account their biases, instincts, and potential barriers to acceptance.
Be a genius, but also be an empathetic matchmaker. That way your genius can attract more admirers than just you.
*Sometimes they’re rejecting your ideas because your ideas suck. Or don’t solve the problem. Or create new problems you didn’t foresee. Or maybe you’re just a jerk. Your mileage may vary.
We have a lot of art. Art from friends. Art from strangers. Art we made when we were kids. Art we made last week. Objects we’ve lugged from one city to another. Things we love and want to display as art.
You get the drift.
The problem with our art hoarding is that actually framing said art, getting all our treasured pieces into an appropriate form for display and enjoyment, unfortunately isn’t an inexpensive endeavor. In response to the looming thought of Framing All The Things Ever (or more so paying to frame all the things ever), I simply said, “no.” For years. Much to my wife’s dismay, and to the detriment of how we enjoy and live in our home, too.
When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
In the last few months, we’ve had two large pieces framed. Because you know what? I was right; we can’t afford to frame all the things. But maybe we can figure out how to frame one thing. And then the next thing. And over time, we can have a home full of beautiful framed art.
It’s a funny thing when you build things one step at a time—if you pay attention, you appreciate each step more. I can’t imagine a financial scenario where I could just go out and buy All The Things, All At Once, but I’m not sure I’d really want to anyway.
I like pacing. I like savoring. I like building.
Vance Havner said, “The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps—we must step up the stairs.” Whatever the scenario is, whatever seems looming and unattainable, whatever you constantly push into some idealized future where you can finally make it happen, all at once—you don’t need to do everything right now. But you can do something. One thing.
And I promise it’s better.
Do you like to be praised for what you do? Sure, we all do. But if your goal is persistent praise, I fear staying in the same place for very long will be antithetical to that goal.
A fairly exceptional dude with a unique skill set once said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” That’s a lot of ‘and,’ each getting a little closer to home. And if he couldn’t get perma-props from the people he spent the 9–5 with, you likely won’t either.
Do you want to be a part of a big mission with lots of moving parts, with a daily goal of massive group accomplishment? Then you need to actually stick around for more than a few minutes to see it through and contribute (sometimes without many folks telling you how great you are.) Mission work is done by missionaries in the mission field. Because you need to actually be there to make an impact there.
Maybe the problem isn’t that you don’t have enough people telling you how awesome you are. Maybe the problem is you don’t stay around the same people long enough to actually be awesome alongside them. I wonder how many folks jump from job to job looking for that initial feeling of being wanted and important, chasing an unsustainable high, kudos junkies, slaves to affirmation?
By all means, please spend your working hours somewhere you’re appreciated, with like-minded, amazing people. Work in a healthy environment where you can contribute and be appreciated for your contributions. But don’t think just because no one patted you on the back today that it’s time to go.
The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s just different grass. Which lawn are you supposed to be on? Great. Now, get to work.
Part of my job as a professional designer is doing good work. Excellent, appropriate, on budget, in time design and web solutions for clients who are trying to accomplish something in the marketplace or non-profit space. Clients who, with great aspiration, are trading their dollars for my knowledge and skill, hopefully to the betterment of their endeavor.
But that’s only part of my job.
No matter how good and appropriate pitched work may be, there’s still the matter of convincing the client that it’s good and appropriate. Often good, appropriate work doesn’t stand on its own as obvious because the people with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to it don’t have the skills to know what they’re voting on. After all, if they possessed those skills, maybe they wouldn’t need you in the first place.
Image credit: Drew Dernavich
The oft-quoted saying “graveyards are full of indispensable men” comes to mind. The world is littered with the discarded bones of great designs that never made it out of a conference room to live and move and interact with people. Sometimes good work just dies.
In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a good salesman.
Ogilvy was a consumate salesman (I highly recommend his 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising—I keep a copy on my desk). He helped create the modern art and industry of advertising, and clearly knew a thing or two about selling products and services to people. But he also understood the other part of our job—selling our work to the people who are paying for it first, before we get the chance to sell it to the public.
So How Do You Do That?
If you do good work that constantly gets shut down before people interact with it, let me (humbly) recommend a few options:
90% of the stuff made for public consumption is terrible. As designers (developers, business folks, what have you) we have a chance to contribute and grow the 10% of things that are good, useful, beneficial, well-designed and well-intentioned.
But doing the work is only part of the work.
1. Some great books to help you learn how to pitch better (and give me an Affiliate kickback if you’re so inclined to buy): Design is a Job, The Art of Woo, All Marketers Are Liars, and It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. ↩
I won’t get between you and your dreams. If you have a dream, I need to know what it is so we can figure out if this job gets you closer.
—How to Hire Good People Instead of Nice People
Imagine the freedom that comes from acknowledging what you dream about with potential employers up front. When you know what you want and you let everyone else know it, it helps potential bosses/supervisors/leaders lead you in the best way possible, even if that way is not into the job you’re applying for.
If your dream is going to become a reality, you need all the help you can get, not just to make it happen, but not to waste time doing things that don’t get you closer to your dream. Any hiring manager that wants to partner with you in that endeavor is an ally, job offer or not.
Why are you doing what you’re doing? What do you want to accomplish? What is the win?
Why are you moving forward if you can’t answer those questions?
There’s nothing more inefficient than doing something more efficiently that shouldn’t be done at all.—Michael Mullikin
You are limited. Time. Skill. Attention. Momentum. Money. All limited. But within your limits, you can choose to move forward with intention and vision.
Alternately, you can choose to waste your already limited life and work. That’s the thing about stewardship—the principle is relevant at every stage, every limit. It’s entirely in your hands how you steward the resources entrusted to you, whether they be limited or abundant.
Ask why. Always. Or wake up ten years from now when it’s too late to answer.
Peter Mendelsund is the Associate Art Director of Alfred A. Knopf Books, Art Director of Pantheon Books, and the designer of some of the my favorite book covers of the last few years like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire.
Anyone who puts out that variety of excellent, thoughtful work likely has an excellent, thoughtful process and approach to that work. To wit:
My job as book designer and art director is predicated on the idea that I will help sell a book, and to the extent that I do that, successfully position a book in the marketplace by making the appropriate jacket for it, I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the publisher.
—Excerpted from this excellent interview
But he goes further than the business goals of the project:
In terms of my responsibility to the author and the book…representing the text is not (at least not patently) something I’m paid to do, but I see this act as a moral imperative. Characterizing, explicating, interpreting a text visually is the most interesting and gratifying aspect of what I do. When I fail at this task of signifying what a book is (or I am urged or directed in some way to betray what I see as a book’s essential nature) there’s a palpable sense of loss and guilt.
It feels important to me that a book’s cover should not be dissonant with, or oblivious to, the text within. A book cover should be a book’s true face; which is to say, optimally, a jacket or cover will be a kind of visual translation of the book in question. So—to the extent that I successfully describe or epitomize a book—its plot, its themes, its affect…I am fulfilling my responsibilities to the book and to its author.
—Ibid., emphasis mine
A moral imperative. Palpable loss. Guilt. Questions of dissonance and appropriateness.
This is an articulation of something I’ve felt for as long as I’ve been a professional designer (going on 11 years now). I have a responsibility to represent—graphically, textually, gesturally, experientially—the core concepts and message of the content, the product or service. Without that sense of responsibility, I don’t know how to best serve the content or the client because I simply don’t care enough to take some measure of ownership or stewardship. A lack of care of my part ensures I’m not delivering the best results and solutions to my clients.
Naturally, this means I’ll fight (metaphorically, occasionally literally) for what I see as best, given the constraints and culture I’m operating in. Why? Because it’s a moral imperative. Because it’s a “Mission from God” as Elwood Blues would say. Because good content deserves good packaging and appropriate, honoring, harmonious design. Because if I don’t, we all lose something, something great or useful that might have been if we had only cared more, fought harder, or simply kept our eyes on [the thing].
It’s all about [the thing], whatever the thing is in your context. The typical U.S. oath of office comes to mind…
[I do solemnly swear/affirm] that I will support and defend [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…So help me God.
Supporting and defending [the thing]. Bearing true faith and allegiance to [the thing]. That’s what I do. That’s what all designers should do. No matter what. Cut through the cruft and personal preferences and the possibilities and the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to defend the core of [the thing] against all enemies, foreign and domestic*. If we’re not doing that, we’re admitting a kind of defeat. We’re valuing something else with our actions, at the expense of what we say we care about.
Image credit: Bill Watterson
The strangest part of the design process is how little your enemies look like enemies. Most of the time our nemesis is apathy. Indifference. Laziness. The easy mantra of “So What?!”
“Should this widget do this action?” “It doesn’t matter.” “What kind of language should we use here?” “Just comp something in.” “It seems weird to use this font here…” “It’ll be easier if we do. Go with it.” Every one of those exchanges, killing [the thing] bit by bit. Who need competitors when we do such an amazing job of sniping ourselves?
“But this isn’t us!” “So What?!”
When the core of [the thing] is sacrificed, even in small ways, I feel a loss—a grieving over what could and should be, a fully perceived sense that we are wandering away from what we should hold holy and sacrosanct.
As Saul Williams says of modern Hip Hop in Telegraph:
Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones
For they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency
When we lose our way, wandering too far from the source, what we make becomes less potent, less important, and less likely to stand out in an increasingly noisy world. In short, our work is less likely to work.
If design isn’t a moral imperative, we sacrifice [the thing] for convenience, fashion, trends, opportunities, or just something shiny and new. We abandon the truth of it. It becomes something else, losing its soul in the process.
Design is the forever fight against entropy, apathy, and confusion. These are the enemies that cumulatively make it difficult for our work to communicate, or to accomplish goals. But when I care, when I craft, and when I fight, I can go to war against dissonance and, hopefully at least, design things good and true.
And at least if I fail doing that, I can sleep guilt-free at night.
*I assure you, domestic enemies will kill [the thing] long before foreign ones will. Most branding campaigns, product designs, experiences, etc. are destroyed from within, one off-mission decision at a time, through laziness, apathy, or indifference.
“Nature abhors a paradox,” they say.
I abhor a bad system. Or worse, a lack of system. But as a designer who frequently (or at least hopefully) veers into the artful, I’m working in the midst of a paradox. My desires and my roles produce—and sustain—inconsistencies. Artists and systems go to war with one another. I’m my own worst enemy, unable to escape self-inflicted tension.
I don’t like to design things in a vacuum; I believe everything affects everything. So I’m not designing one sign, I’m designing all of the signs, or it’s not a brand package. I’m not fixing the space between that 1 and 3, I’m fixing all the kerning pairs, or it’s not a usable typeface. Nothing stands on its own. No task is an island. There is always groundwork to lay before the journey can begin, because without a system, chaos and dissonance will form and inform the culture. Maybe you can relate. Or maybe you know a guy…
Processes are important, but processes without spirit are fundamentally useless.
There is a way in which we systems-minded folk systematically become no fun to work with. We’re so rigid, so dedicated, so passionate to erase outliers and metaphorical (or literal) squiggly lines, we let the system itself become our purpose, not the purpose we began building the system for.
In ancient Rome, the civic magistrate’s authority was visually represented by the Fasces1, a bundle of wooden rods tied around an axe, symbolizing “strength through unity.” A single rod is easily broken, but the bundle is difficult to overcome. The Fasces were carried by the magistrate’s bodyguards, and often used for dealing out punishment on command.
The Fasces are where we get the word “fascism.” Fascism is tricky to pin down and define, but it is foremost an authoritarian form of government. An indoctrination. An unforgiving discipline. And systems-minded people tend toward fascism in their respective mediums whenever we make the system more important than the mission.
I’m a systems fascist, and that’s not always a good thing.
I sometimes choose process over people. But normal people don’t notice design-centric subtleties like bad kerning or mismatched corner radiuses or off-brand fonts. They just live and move and have their interactions with what we help make. They want things that work. That make life more enjoyable. Or easier.
And they’re waiting on us, the makers of things, to make things. Not to talk about making things. Not to plan about making things. Not to create the perfect little world where our creations can exist, untarnished and under control. But to release them into a messy, complicated, rule-breaking world for people to use, and abuse. Henry Ford said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” So it is with us.
The world is waiting. We are planning. And planning isn’t bad, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of actually doing…
Image credit: xkcd
Perfect systems are pretty graveyards if we let our perfectionist tendencies rule with an authoritarian fist. Goethe rightly believed “[The] things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” If the system doesn’t serve the project, why bother? If it causes more work now than it will ever save you then, it’s a waste of time.
Your system, however perfect, isn’t precious—your time is. Your system is just a tool. But the tool isn’t the thing you’re building. The map is not the territory. If it doesn’t help accomplish the mission, it’s a distraction from the mission. And all your work to bring efficiency to a process is spent on the wrong stuff, at the expense of the right stuff.
Perfection ruins things. Perfection will stop you from starting projects. Perfection will stop you from finishing projects. Perfection is not interesting.
Be a human. Risk. Make some art. Open yourself up to the possibility of being surprised and delighted. Because you know what’s worse than a lack of good systems? A lack of finished projects. Or finished projects that no one cares about.
Soulless systems will strangle you, the people around you, and the people you want to reach. So have some spirit. Or don’t bother building a system at all.
1. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Fasces have come to symbolize power and authority in a more general cultural sense. Mussolini, Napoleon, the Nazis, Harvard, countries, currencies, fraternities—they’ve all co-opted the symbol on uniforms, hiding them in insignia, and decorating architecture. In fact, the next time you’re in Washington D.C., be sure to note the arms of the chair where Lincoln makes his home. ↩
I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).
These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.
But Plans Change…
Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.
I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.
Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome
Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.
This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.
[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…
Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.
There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.
If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.
But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.
And, it turns out, much victory.
In the words of Gandalf The Grey, “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.”
Don’t show them. Don’t ship them.
Any other strategy will fail.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from the NewSpring leadership during my tenure it’s this: People Respond to Vision, Not Need.
Dispensing information is a tactic that can help you build a strategy to accomplish a goal. But simply dispensing information will not lead to accomplished goals.
The world clamors for our attention. Your audience already hears too much information everyday. And they don’t have enough time or inclination to act on it. But vision, great big vision, vision that shakes us out of our collective fog and inspires us to move, change, act, go—that’s rare. It’s special. And so it’s worth listening to.
Great visions cut through the clutter. They demand to be considered.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Teach people to long, and they’ll make it their mission to fulfill that longing. The tasks simply become the logical next steps toward fulfillment.
Tasks are finished and forgotten. Longings define lifetimes.
A vision quest* is a Native American rite of passage, an ancient means to find spiritual guidance and purpose in the seclusion of the wilderness. The Lakota Sioux called it “Crying for a Dream,” which, while maybe melodramatic, gets straight to the point. They climbed up the mountain, hunting for revelation, and didn’t come down until they found it.
Photo credit: Mount Triglav in Slovenia by ivanmarn
Vision Quest is also what I’m doing right now. Mandy and I are staying in a quaint little $75/night Airbnb back house in the misty mountains of Western North Carolina, hammering away at spreadsheets, calendars, dreams, and practicalities, setting a course for 2013.
While I’m sure it’s entirely possible, I’ve never stumbled on a deep desire by accident.
Direction, not intention, determines destination.
And so we meet, we talk, we pray, we plan, we imagine, because we want our life to be intentional, not accidental. We want to steward well the limited time we have.
One of my Christmas presents for Mandy was a 100+ page book of Instagram photos, in chronological order, as a year-in-review of 2012. It’s sad, but ultimately understandable, how many things we almost forgot happened to us and around us in the last year. Those photos, collected, curated, bound, and gifted, help us remember milestones and markers of a difficult, wonderful, adventurous, tumultuous year. Without those touchpoints, I fear much of our experience would simply cease to be, and thus cease to inform our future. Without remembering, we naturally forget, and eventually entire seasons fade from memory.
January 2012 was the first time we drove up the mountain to quest for vision in an official capacity, and so it was a fascinating exercise to begin this year’s quest with a review of last year’s notes. All of the questions. All of the conclusions. Decisions made, desires voiced.
If you don’t measure something, you can’t truly make informed decisions about the thing. Having a list of the decisions we made at the beginning of last year, seeing what we actually followed through on and accomplished, what we were naive/uninformed about, what were just plain dumb things to even think about, it’s truly an amazing gift of retrospection. It’s just like the photo book, really. A different medium, maybe, but a similar message. Milestones and markers. Proof of forward momentum. Aspirations. Fulfillment. Longing. Growth.
You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren’t you ready?
—Bobby Scott, Spartan
This weekend we’ll cover hundreds of decisions under larger categories like rest, finances, our business, my business, our side projects, our fitness, gardening, community, home, health, etc. And we’ll make a roadmap. Budgets, constraints, goals, to-do lists, stuff to craft, stuff to code, bureaucracies to war with, partners to build with, new skills to acquire, dreams to pray into existence—these are the visions we go up the mountain in search of.
And we won’t come down until we have revelation.
*Vision Quest was also an 1985 coming of age Matthew Modine movie about wrestling, a worn VHS copy of which was passed from team captain to team captain on my high school wrestling team since, I presume, the 80s. But that is a story for another time…
As nearly as I can tell, the only things I can control are:
’Tis the season to shut up and ship.
Last week Mandy and I got the keys to 1243 Pendleton Street, a ~1600sqft commercial building in the Greenville Arts District where we’ll be partnering with our friend Bill to make, manufacture, craft, and collect Bill’s jeans and our homegoods in a sort of hybrid retail shop/studio/sweatshop thing.
This is Mandy and Bill’s full-time gig. This is a startup side-business for me (I’m a big fan of not quitting your day job, as I’m a big fan of my day job). This is exciting and scary and awesome and full of ermahgerd. We’re crazy people.
I have no idea if we can run a retail/studio space. I definitely have no idea if we can run a successful retail/studio space. I think we can. I hope. And I know we’d regret it if we didn’t try it—something about nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And so we venture. And we hope we gain.
There are many things that three individuals with limited income and lots of ideas can’t do—we can’t go out and buy a bunch of inventory, we can’t hire a team of people, and we can’t buy* commercial property outright (yet). But we can control our hard work, effort, and willingness to risk. Risk is the key here. Big things are naturally risk averse because there’s more at stake (and typically more stakeholders); small things inherently must risk in order to begin. No risk, no growth. No growth, no business.
And so we risk. And we hope to grow.
It’s about ‘How much can we get away with?’
Our flavor of risk is different than, say, an investment banker’s risk. Their risk is more akin to a financial calculation, balanced against potential return. ROI ’til the day they die. Our entrepreneurial risk certainly has a financial component to it, but it’s more about ideas and execution. Will this thing succeed? Is there room in the local marketplace for us? Will we be willing to recognize opportunities, follow that momentum and build our respective businesses to take advantage of them? What can we get away with and still pay the rent? Still grow the business? Because if we can’t get away with things, if we can’t shape these businesses into what we envision, why bother?
If you’re willing to do something that might not work, you’re closer to being an artist.
And so we try something that might not work, and we hope to get away with it. Onward and upward.
*On the topic of buying commercial space, it is a sad state of affairs that the people with the property tend to lack vision for it, and the people with the vision tend to lack the funds to buy it. I look forward to flipping that scenario on its head in the next few years.
I am seeking a sort of relentless commitment to the task at hand.
I’m aiming for discipline.
Discipline is remembering what you want.
In the past few months I’ve intentionally scuttled many of my own side projects and shunned outside opportunities in an effort to—quite simply—do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, and, as my dear friend Lee so eloquently put it, to do the same thing every day even when I don’t feel like it.
Many of this generation cling at all costs to the belief that there is another way, one which satisfies their love of a quick fix. There is not.
—John Kellogg, How I Became A Guide
Disciplining my body not to get Coca-Cola Classic at every meal is not all that different than disciplining my mind not to visit Twitter at every mental break. And the outcome of not denying those desires is not all that different either—giving in makes me gain weight. After all, calories are just a measure of energy. How much energy can I obtain from the things that I’m taking in? Do I have enough fuel for the task(s) at hand?
The toll of empty calories, be they physical or pixel, limits what I can do, and for how long I can do it. Everything consumed is burned up or added on. There is no third option.
[People] at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Gladwell was talking about musicians. The idea travels freely between areas of expertise…
Photo credit: Pumping Iron, by Charles Gaines and George Butler, 1974
The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron
I’ve been in a season at work for the past few months where—because of my failures in discipline and leading myself—I’ve had less responsibility. More time to think. More time to do the kind of design task(s) that come relatively easily to me after ten years of designing. Maybe you’re in a season where less responsibility sounds pleasant. If so, we are in different seasons, and we are likely very different people.
I don’t like less. It hurts. It is painful not to be able to make certain calls. Painful not to be trusted with leadership. But even more painful to be bent in such an analytical way that I know precisely why things are as they are, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a good and right and wise decision for me to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I am (and am not) doing.
I like pain for a particular reason… [I like] the pain that is necessary to be a champion.
And so, it is here, in the “area of pain” as Arnold called it—that seemingly endless, unnavigable chasm between the bad fruit of your past actions and the future things you want with such vehement immediacy—where decisions are to be made, the only decisions I can actually control. The decisions of the daily. The decisions of discipline.
Plato said, “The first and the best victory is to conquer self.” Will I press through the pain? Do I want the thing bad enough to walk/climb/crawl the entirety of the chasm, with no guarantee I can make it, or that what I want is waiting on the other side? Can I escape the gravitational pull of entitlement and instant gratification that’s so engrained in my bones it often feels inescapable?
Because that’s the rub of discipline—there are no shortcuts. I can’t bend the calendar to skip the next however many weeks, months, years any more than I can wake up 30lbs lighter tomorrow. I can’t make anything happen, except to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it, every time something hits my desk. I’ll do that tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until my actions produce different fruit than they have in the past.
One painful duty fulfilled makes the next plainer and easier.
—Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
I am tired of words. And I say that with the knowledge that they are integral to my daily life, not just for communicating but quite literally forming the foundation of my livelihood. But words are easy, and they come easy. And while sometimes they are true, words are just tools, means to ends. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they cower in the gray in-between. And sometimes they die, full of intention and promise.
What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m aiming for discipline. And aim is at least both word and action.
At its most simple, a wayfinding system helps guests find their way in your environment and makes the information they need accessible. That system might include signage, icons, text, environmental art, and architectural cues (like the dominance of entrances or a clear deliniation of public and private spaces). The system helps direct, identify, inform, and restrict/permit guests.
Why Should You Care?
We all need to get places, to do things, and we need help navigating the world. Most of us interact with wayfinding systems in large scale ways, like the US highway system or an international airport, and in smaller ways, like the handful of signs that direct you through the drive-thru of your local In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A. Wayfinding is such a normal part of our daily visual landscape that it typically fades into the background and, like so many design decisions that are made, we don’t even notice it. At least until it fails us.
I’m currently up to my eyeballs in wayfinding system planning and implementation for two campuses we’re building, and these are the main things I try to keep in mind:
1. Good wayfinding loves people
Love might seem like an odd attribute for a system, but good wayfinding proves you love people and want them to enjoy your environment.
One of the most basic human needs is a good place to pee. If you don’t tell a guest where they can do that in your environment, you’re not serving them in their time of need. (And yes, confused peepee dancing definitely counts as a time of need.)
If you show a guest the way to their destination with minimal effort on their part, they’re much more inclined to enjoy your environment and stick around, and maybe, just maybe, listen to what you have to say. Wayfinding is just like any other relational exchange—if you help me, I like you.
2. Good wayfinding is intuitive and self-navigable
A clever font or stylized icons may look interesting in the vacuum of your computer screen, but when a guest is making their way through your environment, do your indicators make sense? Is the text readable? Is it readable from a distance? Does a guest have to repeatedly ask your staff where to find certain things? Are there clear, logical hierarchies to rooms, naming schemes, etc.?
Give your guests a clear path to follow, and don’t force them to be dependent on informational/cultural gatekeepers or too-clever visual metaphors to find their way.
3. Good wayfinding is consistent, always
If you implement a wayfinding signage system that begins in a parking lot, carry it through every nook and cranny of your environment. Don’t leave a guest marooned somewhere in the depths of a building. If you’re not willing to be consistent, everywhere—with all the effort, maintenance, and budget it will take—don’t start. An inconsistent environment is not a loving or intuitive environment.
4. Good wayfinding enables a decision everywhere a decision can be made
People have to make too many decisions everyday. The universe fights against them. Entropy. Thorns and thistles. Difficult to navigate environments. Peepee dances. When a guest has more than one directional option in front of them, enable them to make that decision through a familiar signage system or a clear visual sightline. Repeat anywhere there’s more than one directional option.
5. Good wayfinding is designed with the first time in mind
It might feel like overkill to implement a wayfinding system, but never forget you’re not the guest—you know your own environment. You’ve spent time there. You know all the intricacies, oddities and inconsistencies. And once a guest has visited your environment a few times, they’ll likely get comfortable, too. But during their first visit, in their first impression, never assume they know where anything is. Design and plan for fresh eyes.
Bonus: Arrows should never point to text
This is less a core value and more a personal preference, and you can fight me on it, but I think you’re 100% wrong. Yes, in the aforementioned vacuum of your computer screen, putting all your arrows/icons down the left (or right) side of your signs might seem preferable. It’s certainly easier to implement. But it just makes your job easier, not the guest’s.
If an arrow sits on the left side of text and points to the text, you’re forcing the guest to read the text left to right, then scan back to the left to know which way to go. If you have multiple destinations on one sign, you’re forcing them to do it repeatedly. Stop it. It’s poor hierarchy and usability. Physical things have UI/UX, too.
I’ve had to learn this stuff through years of repetitive trial and failure, so I hope this helps you save some time, should you ever need to help people find their way, at whatever scale you find yourself designing for.
I got the pleasure of flying to Dallas this past week to speak alongside friends and peers at the first Circles Conference (more on that later, but it was exceptional).
I lived in Dallas in 2006/07, and it’s amazing to visit and watch the city continue to transform its downtown Arts District into an architectural and cultural center. Here are a few of my favorite shots from a Saturday spent exploring:
Clockwise from top: The Dallas Opera House, Lights in the Dallas Theater Center, A Lion in the Nasher Sculpture Center gift shop, One Arts Plaza and the Pegasus statue at Booker T. Washington High School,
This was originally part of an internal email string between teams at work, but I thought it would be relevant for others here.
Content doesn’t just get created in a vacuum. For it to be useful and a helper/catalyst for change, it needs underlying vision, structure and strategy. In other words, we need to be careful about throwing dozens of different, disparate ideas at the web (no matter how interesting they are by themselves), expecting them to be successful.
Everything we do on the web is a part of a whole, and if the whole doesn’t sing in harmony, that dissonance will confuse and turn off people.
If we were only presenting a small amount of content/information, we could just put it out there and let people make sense of it. But we’re not doing that anymore. We’re pushing an increasingly large amount of content out into the world for consumption/use, built on a growing existing pile of discoverable content.
We have to have some guardrails for it so it doesn’t get out of hand. We don’t want diminishing returns on new content because it’s too difficult to find or understand or sort through, or because there are literally too many choices being presented to people. Decision fatigue is real talk when it comes to the web.
We can be complex (we are) but we want to be clear in that complexity, and that will require design decisions that naturally push certain content types/sections off center stage for specific, strategic reasons.
I’m easily frustrated by apps, sites, and services that have thousands of hours of my behavior history, but don’t serve me well with it.
Why Won’t You TripThis?
I’ve recently started using TripIt to help manage my travel. Last night I booked flights to New York for October’s Brooklyn Beta conference, and so TripIt gets my itinerary and makes everything all tidy in one place. Then I got a follow-up email from TripIt touting that they’ve found “a great hotel for [my] trip”. Great! This is the perfect opportunity to serve up contextual suggestions based on any number of factors they have at their disposal from my (admittedly short, but still detailed) purchase and travel history.
So how does TripIt capitalize on this opportunity to go above and beyond? They suggest a hotel that costs more per night than the two roundtrip flights to NYC I just booked. Is that pricey hotel a possible sales conversion? Sure, anything’s possible. But I know enough about myself and my baseline behavior to know I’m not booking a hotel for a week at that rate. Why doesn’t TripIt?
Maybe they just need more time to learn my behavior. I like their service, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they know me better.
Words With Well You’re No Fun
The ugliest app I use on a regular basis is Words With Friends. But sometimes my friends have real lives and I play a game of Words With Strangers. That experience should be just as enjoyable as a game with a friend, if not potentially more enjoyable because of the element of surprise and mystery.
If time is the determining factor, Words With Friends has the keys to my metaphorical kingdom. They have (or at least have had the ability to have) a detailed record of every opponent, word, game, and score for almost four years of my gameplay. Hundreds of games. Thousands of words. Millions of points (ok, maybe not the last one…). So why does the game consistently match me up with randoms who I outpace three moves in? It isn’t about high scores or my abilities; it’s about finding good competition. It’s about having fun playing a game. And it’s actually not fun to beat someone I don’t know by 200 points.
How difficult is it to query a hypothetical database and match my request for a new game with a stranger who, at minimum, has an average score somewhere in the same neighborhood of my average score? I don’t know the technical answer to that question, but I do know that act would endear me to the app in a major way because it would create a more valuable experience for me.
So Why Does This Matter?
User Experience isn’t just about flows and human/computer interactions; it’s about feel and connections. The “how” of that database query is beyond my knowledge and skill, but the “why” seems like a natural extension of the app because it drastically improves my experience as a user and keeps me coming back for more games.
Nobody gets this perfect, because humans don’t make sense. Our tastes are not neatly defined. I legitimately enjoy listening to D’Angelo, Nickelback and Huey Lewis so… good luck with music suggestions for me, Rdio. Lo, I Am Become Enigma, Destroyer of Algorithms. Netflix or Amazon regularly suggest the most ridiculous things to me. But they’re trying. Tweaking. Spending millions of man hours and dollars to improve those algorithms by 1%, because 1% more relevant is a massive improvement.
But when I get a $500 hotel email or start a game with someone who STOP GIVING ME ALL THE TRIPLE LETTERS AND HAVE SOME SELF RESPECT, I just think these services aren’t trying. They’re abdicating the user experience to automated processes that don’t care (or at least weren’t built with care). Yes, serving up contextual, relevant content based on user behavior obviously isn’t an easy job, but if you try, it can help win hearts and minds in a way your competitors can’t or won’t.
More work, more reward, happier users. Why wouldn’t you build that?
On Friday, February 10 I got into an unexpected conversation with a friend while making our “goodbye” rounds at a going away party for another friend (the best things in life typically come from community, but that’s a blog post for another day). The conversation began with some simple, “Hey, how are you—what are you up to these days?” and ended with me [Friday Night Lights spoiler alert] pulling a Coach Taylor and verbally processing that maybe it was my turn to start sacrificing some for the work pursuits of my wife because maybe it was her turn. So on Friday, April 20, ten weeks later, we moved to Greenville, SC.
Let me back up a few steps…
When we relocated to South Carolina from Boston at the end of 2007, Mandy was openly a bit terrified of moving to a small town (the NewSpring offices where I’d be working are in Anderson—population 35,000). She had only lived in Not Small Towns (Dallas, Seattle, Madrid and Boston), so we moved to downtown Greenville, an up and coming city with a metro population of 600,000+ and a thriving downtown.
Unfortunately, I was a personal finances idiot then, and while we were technically living within our means, we were doing so barely, with no margin for saving or really seriously tackling our student loan debt. “You can keep doing what you’re doing, but it will take you at least eight years to get out of debt,” said a financial counselor friend. So we made the difficult decision to break our lease on our brand new downtown apartment in Greenville and we moved into a tiny 50’s duplex in Anderson. It was a hard move, emotionally, not even a year into a marriage that had already included two cross country relocations, a found and lost job, chronic sickness and the implosion of some close relationships around us. It probably took a solid two years to even begin to feel “at home”.
I grew up in an even smaller town near here—population 3000—and I have a sort of locals only love/hate relationship with small, Southern towns, but four years after leaving Boston for South Carolina, we loved Anderson. Mandy learned the wise ways of shopping online, we tried to travel a good bit (mainly back and forth to Texas to visit family), found lots of local places, restaurants and rituals, discovered the best thrift shopping loop in existence, I started to get my act together with our personal finances and we managed to pay off somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 of debt. And we still drove to Greenville frequently to eat with friends, see shows, walk downtown and lounge in the park.
What we didn’t have, despite our efforts, was a vibrant artistic community for Mandy.
I work with an amazing team everyday—the immediate staff I serve with at NewSpring, as well as the interns, volunteers and other 200+ staff spread across eight campuses (and growing) in South Carolina. The work we do matters, the vision and mission are clear, the leadership is world class. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked. I don’t want to be anywhere else (nor will I be for the foreseeable future). But to be perfectly honest, while I am immensely thankful for it and never want to take any of this for granted, my personality is driven enough to not “need” a team to get things done and be encouraged I’m on the right path. But Mandy isn’t designed the same way; she thrives in community, she loves collaboration and essentially misses the community-based environment of higher education. She loved school. She longs for constraints.
So we moved. To Greenville (again). But this time to West Greenville instead of downtown.
I can’t think of a worse environment for creating and new ideas than one where you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it, all on your terms (then again, I always label myself a designer, not an artist, so there’s that). Sparks come from many sources; it stands to reason that the more you expose yourself to, the greater chance for creating something new and good. Fortune favors the people metaphorically (and physically) rubbing up against other people. Cities are great for this. The suburbs, for all their comfort, are simply not.
West Greenville has a storied history, and quite a reputation. It, like many neighborhoods in South Carolina, trudges along quietly in the shadow of a long since abandoned textile mill, its remaining residents stuck in a perpetual reliving of previous era, sitting on porches, walking for transportation, living in houses they grew up in. People are cash poor—the median household income here is something like $28,000—we’re in the bottom 10% nationally for professionals and college degrees (FYI, I’m not helping that degree stat), and in the top 10% of Black residents, so you can likely extrapolate what a wealthier, bustling, young downtown Greenville perceives this neighborhood as.
But it’s also been identified as the Greenville Arts District. In and around a block of storefronts on Pendleton Street, the previous heart of the old Mill village, a loose collection of painters, sculptors, and other artists creating unique jewelry and furniture have been forging a new community of art studios. And a trio of young photographer friends opened up a shared shop last month. And so will we.
We rented the biggest house we’ve ever lived in for less cash than I’ve paid since I lived in a 200 sq ft studio in Dallas. It’s a block from the Arts District. It’s temporary, a way to get used to the neighborhood, to be here, to be in the midst of it all. And it is not without its share of quirks. One bathroom. Weird driveway. Miniblinds. Beige walls. No central air. (I grew up with window units and attic fans, but the South Carolina Summer can be brutal. Today’s high is 102° with 66% humidity. And mostly window units are just annoying—loud, spotty coverage, insufficient, ugly.) But again, this isn’t about me, this is about my wife. This is about community. This is about what do we want our life to look like?
We want it to be about community, about creating things, about risking. We’ll be splitting storefront space, the former Amazin’ Kreations Salon (you can’t make this stuff up) with our good friends at Billiam Jeans, and we’ll hopefully be open for business at the end of the summer, taking Shop-Keep from an occasional Etsy hobby to a brick and mortar collection of homegoods, furniture, vintage finds, unique items and clothing. You can follow along on Instagram with the shop progress, just search for #shopdashkeep or #billiamjeans (floors were being sanded today).
We don’t know what we’re doing, apart from risking alongside people we like and trust. But will I regret living in a house with window units on the shady side of town more than I’ll regret not trying to launch a business with my wife?
I think no. And thus we go, onward and upward, into the unknown.