2 September 2010

Making Ideas Happen bookcoverLast time, I wrote about the idea of making ideas happen in reference to an art project I was working on — rather, am still working on. I stole the phrase from the title of Scott Belskey’s book that was, at the time, sitting in my bathroom, as yet unread. I’ve since read it, so, let me speak a little more knowledgeably.

Book report time!

This is one of those books that, I think, is going to come as a revelation to those who’ve not yet accepted the impending creative economy into their hearts as their one true saviour. It will come as a revelation to those who haven’t yet figured out that you actually have to be organized and creative to get anything done. (And I’m not saying the latter lesson isn’t a hard-won and life-long battle for many of us.) However, for many of us modern creative entrepreneur types Making Ideas Happen is preaching to the choir to some degree.

It’s got some good ideas, and some good stories, and distills a lot of the important nuggets from productivity gurus while eschewing the fussy details that make their methods too difficult in practice (David Allen, I am looking at you).

The two most memorable and, I think, lastingly useful things I take from this book are:

1 » You need a community to help make your ideas happen. The creative genius in isolation is a rarity or a myth. Community helps you refine your ideas, edit yourself, find partners and collaborators when appropriate and aids in launching your ideas when they’re ready to meet the world.

This is something I need to be reminded of constantly. So many of my ideas die on the vine, or on my whiteboard, because I don’t tell anyone about them. I don’t have any accountability and I don’t have any cheerleaders. Like many people, I avoid critiques for fear of hearing something less than glowing — when, in fact, it’s exactly that kind of “constructive criticism” that could make my ideas better and make me stronger as a creator. It’s a catch-22 in fact. We avoid community involvement with our ideas from lack of confidence, but we could gain so much more confidence by sharing our ideas with the community and reaping the benefits of support and collaboration.

Once Mr. Belsky pointed out this need for community in the ideas > happening process, it became so obvious, but I’d never thought about it in such a simple yet meaningful way before. When you stop and think about the people you know who are successful and productive, those genius people, you start to realize, they’re not working alone! They tend to have charisma, have people around them, have support and enthusiasm. They also have their critics — but they’re confident and supported enough to be ok with that. Ah. People. Networking. Community. It’s all becoming clear. Get out of the house more!

2 » Taking notes of everything said at meetings is stupid. You should just write down your action items, and do it with a sexy pen on sexy paper.

This, well, I was already doing that, and thinking there was something wrong with me. People around me seem to be always scribbling furiously while I just sit and make eye contact and listen carefully. I feel so much better about the whole thing now. (Though, as we all know, and have been taught by Mr. Fried, most meetings are a waste of time anyway.) If I may slip into regional dialect for a moment, the wicked cool thing about idea number two, is that Mr. Belsky’s company/organization Behance sells really designy notebooks for taking notes in his perscribed format, and you order by Pantone color.

So, yes, in summary, I do recommend Making Ideas Happen. A lot of it will seem old hat to a lot of people, but in a reinforcing and perhaps even inspiring way. Yes! Down with reactionary workflow! Yes! Down with worrying about things beyond one’s control! Yes! Down with interruptions! Yes to “just ship”! Yes to “respect-based self-marketing”! Pick it up when you’re feeling at a loss for what to do next, or how to prioritize or why nothing’s getting done. And do try to look past the poor cover design.

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26 May 2010

I was talking to someone at lunch at An Event Apart yesterday. She, like most of the people there, is a web designer (and not a print designer). She was talking about the size of her apartment and how the living room sofa is her office. She said she has one drawer in the living room entertainment unit for her files.

I have an utterly overflowing 12×12-ish room for my office. Even though I’ve been going progressively more paperless over the past few years, storing stuff in the cloud or on my computer with programs like Evernote, Backpack, BidSketch and NeatWorks and scanning everything I possibly can with my Fuji ScanSnap — even forcing it to eat things like napkins with drawings and old passport books which don’t make it very happy at all, but do make me, with my mania for archiving, quite chuffed.

I have 2 monitors, one rather large, (well, not by today’s standards), as I’m often laying out items that are physically big enough that you can’t see them on the screen easily (a spread in an 11×17 book, for example) and that in a program like Adobe InDesign or Illustrator that have palettes upon palettes taking up screen real estate. This just doesn’t happen with web design… I never open any palettes in my code editor. I never design a web page that doesn’t fit on my screen.

But because I’m a print designer as well as a web designer, I have a lot of stuff. I have 6 Pantone chip books and 4 Toyo ones for showing clients different color swatches with various ink systems and methodologies. I have 3 shelves of paper swatch books (and I don’t even keep the printed sample pieces). I have books on technology, typography and books of royalty free art to scan, lots of old Emigre and RayGun magazines. And, taking up scads of room, I have printed samples from jobs I’ve done over the past 15 years. A few each of a zillion business cards and stationery systems and brochures and books and annual reports and this and that and this.

Then, of course, as well as the desk where my computer is, there’s a drafting table, for sketching and for making comps. Although one needs far far fewer mechanical supplies than one used to for print design, there are comp-making tools: black boards for mounting design options, glues, tapes, xact-o knives, and all sorts of different sizes and types of paper for the inkjet. I have drawing pens and pencils, various pads of design vellum for sketching. I have all my filled-up notebooks of work notes and sketches.

More and more often these days, I make electronic comps, and present things to clients with emails and PDFs and Basecamp, but certain presentations still demand the old school formality or exactitude of physical comps and designs pasted up on boards. I wonder if that will eventually fall away completely. I wonder if color management and monitor calibration will ever be simplified to the point of ubiquity.

I’m not even talking about all the art supplies and photography stuff I have because I also do that stuff. Or all the paper samples I’ve kept after not using them for projects because they’ll come in handy for art later. Or all the reference books about things tangential to design and technology.

There isn’t a whole lot of point to this article. I just thought it was interesting that a web designer can operate without a lot of trappings, whist a print designer is a bit beholden to their stuff. Certain things like color and paper texture cannot be experienced through the computer screen with any semblance of critical accuracy (yet)— so you have to have actual, analog samples on hand. My possible tendencies towards pack-ratting notwithstanding, it explains a bit about my non-minimalist office, and why, though I’ll wander off working with my laptop for days at a time, I always end up back here somehow.

Maybe life is simpler if you design only for the web. Certainly the folks at An Event Apart were very focused, and very knowledgeable about their craft. Maybe print is dying, like they say… certainly it’s a lot more dead than it was 15 years ago when I started as a designer (and worked on only print). And I’m not much one for advocating printing via traditional methods these days, with the toxicities and resource-wastefulness (there’s argument about resource usage in print vs. web, but I’ll not go there today). Nonetheless, there is something very pleasing about understanding the art and craft of all that analog printing technology (or its newer digital counterparts) and knowing the ins and outs of making physical things as well as virtual ones.

Every day, every year, I feel my one, cluttered foot in the past slowly pulling away, towards an all-digital world, or at least work world (my film cameras and my piano without a power cord are happily entrenched). I wonder about print, and print design. I’ll still be designing logos next year, for sure, but I wonder about the one-off brochure mock-ups to show clients the way the paper feels in the hand.

But, as I sit here copying 155GB of precious, laboriously scanned and retouched photographs from my backup drive to a new home (“about 8 hours”) on account of yet another traumatically failed hard disk, I’m going to guess it’s going to be a little while before I’m totally ready to let my paper samples hit the recycling bin.

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6 March 2010
Gateway of Ezion Geber
Image by uair01 via Flickr

Old Stuff at School

When I was a student of art history at university, the oldest art I learned about was, I think, that of ancient Greece. I also took a course in the “Architecture of St. Paul the Apostle”, which seemed like it was about something more aged than ancient Greece, on account of everything being indistinguishable heaps of sandy rocks, but St. Paul the Apostle and the architecture in which he was hanging out were, logically, a product of AD times. (I actually paid so little attention in this course, it’s almost like I didn’t take it…. reading the New Testament and looking at slides of dusty heaps of stones… not so interesting to me at the time). Anyway, yes, ancient Greece. Having lived near several Museums with respectable Egyptian galleries, I’ve poked around ancient Egypt as well. But I never really looked at anything older. Never took any courses in prehistoric art of any sort, nor did I have anthropology or science requirements that made me go there. Which was good, since I didn’t think that stuff was very interesting — didn’t have the wow-factor of, say, Medieval art.

Old Stuff at Home

Lately though, I’ve started to see something it it. I have been listening to The History of the World in 100 Objects podcast from BBC Radio 4. (Available on iTunes, with more info here), which begins with discussions of quite a few prehistoric objects. I’ve also, over the past few months, been watching whatever documentaries I come across about early humans. This all started when I saw population geneticist Spencer Wells’ fascinating documentary on how we’ve recently been unraveling the early migrations of humans out of Africa using DNA.

I think why this period (prehistory) has been attracting me is a because of its reductionism. Not that life was simple then, or that early people were less capable or clever than contemporary ones — rather, we know so little about that time that we can only ferret out (what we perceive to be) the important aspects of prehistoric lives in broad strokes on a vast and gappy timeline. And these things, or achievements, if that’s how you want to characterize them, can make us really think about what we do now. What we’ve evolved to do — and whether these activities make our lives more complicated or simpler and better. When did people start to talk? Did it make things better, or add undue complication? Was it worth it? What does that tell me about verbal communication today? Monogamous couples, staying put instead of being nomadic, building shelters instead of relying on caves, cooking food, eating meat, hunting in groups, planting seeds, domesticating animals, wearing clothes… all this and so many other big and small steps in becoming who we are today. Better, worse, what if it were different?

My to do list

The other day I was driving somewhere, doing some errand or other, in a bit of a driving coma. I thought fleetingly about all the things on my to do list, my very populated white board back at home. I felt a slight bit of apprehension about getting the to do items done. Being in a slightly altered state as I was, suddenly all these tasks I was meant to do, which I’d been carefully collecting, curating and crossing off, seemed intensely arbitrary. Why these tasks? Why email this person? Why email at all? Why have a computer? Why work with computers? Why design a business card for my friend? Why write in my blog or promote my design firm? Why even have design firm? Why lock myself into doing all this busywork?

OK, there are reasons, at least if I’m participating in the framework of human society in which I live. And I do tend to do that. I need to make money, I like to make my friends happy, I design things, I use computers. That’s what I do. I need to buy coffee because I’m addicted to it and like it. I need to send emails to share information. You know the drill. Arguably, none of these things are about survival on the basest level, and aren’t strictly necessary. Some of them would be very difficult not to do, with the way things are in the world (like making money), but I expect I could go off in some wilderness, eat nuts and berries, live in a cave, keep warm under a pile of leaves, that sort of thing. (Now, I know I’m not the wilderness type and have a problem with mosquitoes, but we’re talking theory only.) But assuming I had the base survival things under control, wouldn’t I want more? Wouldn’t I want to have some clothes that felt good next to the skin or to wear a nice shiny rock I found on a cord around my neck? Wouldn’t that make me happier? Would making these not-strictly-necessary items which gave me aesthetic pleasure be busywork? Or would it, in a sense, be art? Does it even matter which, if I have the inclination (instinct?) and it adds to my joy at being alive? I posit that it does not.

Meanwhile, in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania…

That’s why I find episode 2 of The History of the World in 100 Objects so moving. It’s about a stone chopping tool made 1.8 million years ago and found by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. It’s a heavy rock, chipped just so to make it useful for a number of cutting tasks. And it is the oldest object we know of that demonstrates human’s capability to design. In the podcast, naturalist David Attenborough says:

This object is something created from a natural substance for a particular purpose, and in a particular way, with a notion in the maker’s mind of what he needed it for. Is it more complex than was needed to actually serve the function which he used it for? Do you know, I think you could almost say it is. Did he really need to do one, two, three, four, five chips on one side and four on the other? Could he have got away with two? I think he might have done so. I think the man or woman who held this, made it just for that particular job and perhaps got some satisfaction from knowing that it was going to do it very effectively, very economically and very neatly. In time, you’d say he’d done it beautifully but, maybe not yet … the start of a journey.

The maker of this chopper went, perhaps, one step beyond the point where the tool would serve its purpose, to make it also pleasing to the eye and well-fit to the hand. When I upgraded to a Good Grips vegetable peeler after years of using the standard plain metal kind, I was acting on the same impulse, as was the person who designed the Good Grips peeler.

So what’s my point?

Maybe it’s a silly thing to have gone on about, since most of us, especially us blog-writing, blog-reading types, are, generally, members of the framework of modern human society. We don’t live in the woods and make decisions relating only to survival. Most of us have completely bought into the validity and necessity of our to do lists.

But once it a while, it’s good to question it. Question it all. Reaffirm that you’re still on board with making tools with extra chips to make them fit in your hand better. That design and art, and purposeful, technically non-necessary actions add beauty, meaning, pleasure (what have you) to your life and those around you. That they’re worth doing. If they aren’t — if there’s anything on your to do list that isn’t necessary (for survival, or its modern equivalents) or doesn’t add joy to life, you might want to just cross it off now.

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17 February 2010

This is a pretty simple one. Well, I guess all the little apps I put on my list to write up are simple, only, once they fall into the pile of prolixity which is my mien, they may seem not so simple. But this one, really, it’s simple.

Today’s app is Free Ruler. It’s a ruler. You can get it here, for free.

How often have you been designing or coding up a website only to wonder, “how many pixels is that”? Or, how many times have you been working on something when someone, say, an art director type person in your life, asks, “Is that actual size?” and you realize you’re not really sure? Or, how many times have you been browsing the web and wondered how wide someone designed their site? How many times have you wondered just how many point that type you already turned to outlines in Illustrator is?

OK, I will admit you may have answered “zero times” to the questions above. But these were awkward situations and conundrums that once plagued me. Not so with Free Ruler trustily stowed in my dock!

You can drag it around your screen You can convert units. You can measure vertically or horizontally or both at once. You can make it more or less transparent. You can get it to tell you the exact measurement at the place you’re pointing your cursor. You can tweak it to give you accurate measurements for your actual monitor. You can lock it in place. You can get it to convert units for you. You can use keyboard shortcuts. And, it looks pleasingly like a ruler.

See, it was pretty simple. I use this thing a lot. Maybe you wouldn’t. That’s ok. I also really like metal drafting rulers with cork backs. But I can’t get those into my monitor.

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