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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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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