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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25 June 2010

Making Ideas Happen bookcoverThis isn’t a review of Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen — because I’ve only read 4 pages of it so far. I’m going to read the other pages, I believe, it’s just that I haven’t yet. A few things have slowed my progress: the book is made out of paper — indeed, it’s a hardcover even. Thus, the book is not on my phone or my Kindle when I’m floating about looking to read a page or two. Also, said physical book has a dust jacket with weird, rough-feeling varnish, which kind of freaks me out and every time I pick it up, I spend some time thinking about this varnish choice. Finally, the cover uses the graphic trope of puzzle pieces in the jacket design, which I find shocking — for its designer to have even suggested something so hackneyed is shocking, but to have had it accepted by the multiple parties no doubt involved and have it go through all the way to production is just downright odd and disturbing. I thought we all had gotten over the puzzle pieces as the best visual metaphor ever thing a long time ago, like in the late 80s. But I digress. Actually, I haven’t even begun anything from which to digress.

In the few pages of the book that I have read, Mr. Belsky posits that lots of people, especially creative ones, have lots of ideas, but the problem is that people don’t follow through on these ideas. (Thus the book is about how to do so.) That sounds very right and true to me. Seth Godin talks about something similar all the time.

Today, this all happened in real life.

So, generally, I sit my office. I do my design stuff. Sometimes I have ideas, such as for art projects, or weird computer applications that have to do with poodles, or infographics or social movements, but usually I just sit in my office and keep doing my design stuff. Sometimes I write the ideas down on my whiteboard or one of many physical and electronic lists that swirl around me in billowing clouds.

Last year, I had this idea, to turn this historic tower in my town into a camera obscura. I don’t know where this idea came from exactly — a combination of wanting to do a community-centric art project, a love of building cameras, an appreciation of Abe Morell‘s and Jo Babcock‘s work, a general spirit of “hey, I should make some art!”.

This time, I actually acted on the idea, at least so far as applying for a grant to do the project from my local arts organization. I got the grant. And guess what! This means I have to Make the Idea Happen.

So, I’m doing this art event tomorrow. All week I’ve been emailing people I love and like but never bother to reach out to (because I’m reclusive-ish). Many have written back!

Today, I left my office and went to do some preparation. First I went to the Arts Council’s office to get a key to the building that will house my camera. In doing so, I went to a neighborhood of my town I’d never been in before, I found out about all these different city offices that are housed over there and I met someone new from the Arts Council. I already felt more civically engaged — and it was only 11 am.

Next, I went to the site where I’ll make the camera and set a few things up. While I was doing so, a bunch of people — from families to tourists to a group of developmentally disabled teens on a field trip — came up to me and asked questions about the historic building and what I was doing. I was able to let them see inside the usually locked structure, which made them really happy. All people I’d never talk to usually, especially if I stayed in my office. Chock up another few points for community engagement.

Then I went and walked around the neighborhood and put up some posters for the event. I talked to a man at the bus stop who was ranting about wanting 50¢ and giving people who wouldn’t give it to him a really hard time (I gave him 50¢ and he didn’t say thank you. Hmf!) I talked to a Haitian mum and her daughter at another bus stop. A sporty young woman walking by smiled at me as I sat on the grass playing with my masking tape. All of this does not happen on usual days. In the office.

And guess what! It was kind of energizing. Yeah, big deal, talking to a few random strangers, but the thing of actually DOING an art project, of engaging with the people in my neighborhood (sing to the tune of the Mr. Rodgers’ song) really, actually was  quite nice. I’m excited about tomorrow. If you’re reading this and in the area, come by! There’s more info about the project here.

OK, this is all very simple, even naïve, but I think I am starting to get it. Think I’ll make a point of making more ideas happen.

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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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15 February 2010

I’ve had two reminders lately about the power and importance of feedback. They both sparked lovely little lightbulbs of goodness in my head, so I thought I’d share.


I was just listening to a conversation in the Gamechangers Roundtable series (which, by the way, I highly recommend), amongst Jonathan Fields, Chris Guillebeau, Pam Slim, and Reese Spykerman with Elizabeth Marshall and Sarah Robinson. Reese, the designer of the bunch, who’s always tweeting interesting and smart things and creates some really wonderful websites, said something at the end of the conversation that struck me. I’ll have to paraphrase, but it was something like this: The minute someone stops and engages with you, take time to think about it and appreciate it, because it is a gift.

How I internalized this — and I hope I’m not misinterpreting — is that when someone bothers to look at what you you do and then, goes on to bother to tell you why they like it, or what they like about it, or how it effects them, or anything along those lines, it’s vital that you concentrate, and listen to them, and appreciate back that they have taken time, out of their no-doubt busy life, to connect with you. They have gone one step beyond, probably several steps beyond, what was required of them. And have made the world, or your life at least, that much better.

Chock up one more point in the universe for EM Forster’s “only connect”.

This is a reminder, too, to reciprocate. When something strikes you, appeals, influences, challenges, inspires — jot its creator a note. Or say a kind word. It doesn’t have to be public, you don’t have to become part of the 3% (or whatever it is) of blog readers that actually comment on blogs. It can be an email, a call, an in-person conversation, a direct message on Twitter or Facebook, a card in the snail mail. Depends on the circumstances, your relationship and your proclivities. But don’t just think it, let them know. (Is that someone’s advertising slogan?)

This happened to me

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few days, actually. I know I’m detrimentally sensitive, but I was noticing what a big difference a kind word can make, even, or especially, in the world of work. (And the opposite is also true — despite my training, my “hardening” in art school critiques as a youth, one unkind word can ruin my day, or my feelings about a project).

I’m pretty embarrassed about this story, but I’m going tell it anyway.

This is what happened. Last August, I did a family portrait photo shoot for an acquaintance. The “client” knew I was busy with my design work and that photography isn’t my main thing, so she expressed a vague timeline for having photos in hand by “the holidays”.

“No problem,” I thought. It was summer. If the holidays start at the end of November, I have scads of time to edit the photos and get her a DVD. So I procrastinated a bit, but not horribly. It took me a couple months to edit the photos. But I finally finished and put up a website to show the client. I told her I’d be glad to send her a DVD of everything, so she could make Christmas cards, or whatever. It took her a little while to get back to me. She said she’d love a DVD.

That was about all she said. As I’m a bit insecure about my portrait photography (I’m really an artsy-fartsy alt-process pinhole kinda photographer, not one who does truly realistic, portraity stuff), I took her brevity to imply that she was disappointed with the shoot, but figured she might as well get copies of the photos, since she paid for them.

Feeling bad about the quality of my work, it took me a few weeks to put the DVD together and put it in the mail.

A week or so later, the client emailed to say that her daughter broke the DVD before she could load the photos, could I send another?

It took me a few weeks to do that. And then, that DVD arrived broken. Stupid me. I didn’t package it well. We went through the dance again, the client asked for a new dvd, it took a while, I sent another, this time well-packaged. A few weeks later, she got back to me. She received the DVD, but it wouldn’t work in her computer.

By this time, not just November, but Christmas had come and gone. I’d felt progressively worse and more and more lame with each DVD malfunction. I put together another DVD, tested it, packaged it in a ton of bubble wrap, included a card with an apology and sent it off again.

This time, not only did the client get a DVD she could work with, but she wrote back thanking me, saying the photos were beautiful and that she’d definitely be ordering some prints.

I’d been feeling awful about this whole project for almost six months. And with that one simple email, no more than 3 sentences in total, she blew away half a year of cobwebs and self-doubt.

I don’t relay this story to criticize my client in any way. If anything, I’m sure I’m the one who looks the worst through it all — unable to complete a simple task properly and keying my self-image to irrelevant external factors. She was just being succinct and businesslike. I was reading too much into everything.

However, what I learned from this experience, and why I related such a long boring story to you just now, is that it’s really important to give people feedback, especially good feedback. It’s important for me to do that for other people. Even if I think someone’s far more clever than me, with a much better developed ego that doesn’t need praise and reinforcement, give them a true, kind word anyway. How do I know how it will effect them? Certainly it couldn’t hurt.

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14 February 2010
A page from Medizinal Pflanzen (Koehler's Medi...
Image via Wikipedia


I’ve had this recurring dream new and then, as long as I can remember: I suddenly realize I’m in another country, and the idea that I can go out and explore and see all new things and have all new experiences is the most magical feeling imaginable — akin to (but even better than) waking up on your birthday as a kid and knowing that all day, everything will be special and for you.

Sometimes, in the dreams, I’m going through the paces of some banal, day to day existence, in some familiar, expected place, when the revelation of where I am and how excited I am to go out and thoroughly experience my surroundings hits me with overwhelming, epiphanic force. It’s a sleeping wake-up call, reminding me that even the usual might be hiding some magic with the right spirit of adventure applied.

Sometimes, I wake up determined to begin to explore my own city, where I’ve lived for years, with the open eyes of a tourist. To visit the ends of town where I never go and see them as if they are exist in foreign territories I’m making my own by bringing them into the realm of my personal experience.


In high school, I don’t remember having a strict curfew. There was some specific time or other that I was supposed to be home, and certainly I was always to be easily located and accounted for (though luckily this was before cell phones were a glimmer in their parent’s eyes).

When I went off to college several hours away from home and lived in a dorm, I had an important realization: I could go out whenever I wanted. Granted, being shy and not a party-type person and living on a rural campus with no means of nighttime transportation, even into town, I didn’t really have anywhere to go in the traditional sense. It wasn’t that normal notion of teenage rebellion. Rather, the revelation was: If I want to get up at three in the morning and go climb an apple tree in the orchard and sit there listening to my walkman until the sun rises, I can.

It was a realization about freedom and autonomy. About making decisions, however unconventional, and that no one could tell me “no”.

My Mum

At the end of ten years of caring for her own aging parents 24/7, then several long overdue surgeries she needed, my mum was released from being a virtual prisoner in her own home. She realized that without the obligations and the debilitating pain of the previous ten years she had garnered a new freedom. But she was so out of practice, she didn’t even know what that meant.

In an effort to remind her that now should do whatever she wanted and be the master of her own life, I told her the story about sitting in the orchard in the middle of the night in college, because I could.

She said, “I’m surprised you didn’t get raped.”

Now, what kind of thing to say is that? This is no slight on my mum, she said it without thinking. She grew up in a more conservative time, in a more conservative way than me. She was never, necessarily, encouraged to embrace non-conformity in the ways she allowed me to. She grew up during the Cold War, when being conventional and living in fear and fatalism were de rigeur in polite society.

That said, she always tells me she lives vicariously through me. She always wants to know what I’m doing, not out of nosiness, but so she can imagine a freer life. It’s ironic, as I’m excruciatingly boring most of the time — I sit in a chair and design stuff at a computer. I go to meetings with clients. I have dinner with my gentleman friend. I play with the dog. I talk endlessly about the dog. But this is just a phase of my life at the moment. One where I get some shit together so I can move on and and more adventures.

I’m hoping, my mum will have adventures too. She’s starting to, now, a year after become free. It takes practice, for some of us, to get into the mindset. It takes our subconscious to remind us in dreams, or a remembrance of the impulsivity of youth.

You can do whatever you want. Go where you want, when you want. Even without money and time for real travel, you can explore the world with fresh eyes every day. You can wake up excited for the experiences the day holds instead of waiting subserviently for nuclear annihilation, real or metaphorical.

So see what you can do with apple-tree-climbing. You might wake up in another country.

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