Know your strengths

Do you know your greatest strengths? Your weaknesses?  

On some projects you’ll need to collaborate with people whose skills are different from your own and sometimes you’ll need people with comparable skills. To make effective team-building decisions you’ll need to know yourself.

Try this: write down your single greatest skill. The thing you do better than anything else. Then do the same with your weakness. Now find some people you’ve collaborated with in the past. Folks you trust to give you an honest answer. Ask them to name your greatest strength and weakness. I bet you’ll get some surprising answers that are different from your self evaluation. That’s because we don’t see ourselves clearly by default. Who we are gets clouded by who we want to be.

Have you been choosing collaborators based on who you are or who you want to be?


Let users break things

You can’t control everything. There’s always going to be the person who puts peanut butter in your casserole, tries to break the rules of your game or use your art as a cocktail coaster. Sometimes they they want to push the limits and sometimes they're just doing what makes sense to them. They can still help you make your things better.

You want to do user testing with folks who put your work through normal paces. They’ll help you you understand how your product suits normal people’s needs. But you also want people who will stress test your concept. Challenge users to break your design. They’ll surprise you by helping you make your product more stable and they may even come up with new ways to use what you’ve made.

Adults have a tendency to withhold opinions because they don't want to upset anyone. Inviting them to do something unexpected might help them remove their filter and get down to having some fun.


Being critical is easy

It's easy to list all of the reasons we don’t like things. It’s too dark, too spicy, has a terrible ending or too many metaphors. If the creator is in the room, we’ll step back and let them consider the marvel of our observational skills. If the creator isn’t in the room we might follow with something like, “That’s not how I would’ve done it…” Anyone can say what isn't working. It takes someone special to suggest a solution.

Creators, ask critics how to fix the problem they identified. This will distinguish between the talkers and doers.

The people worth listening to can offer suggestions or admit they don't have an answer. Invite the doers into your super team because they’ll help you become better at making things. Talkers, well, you can’t please everyone. But if the talkers reach a critical mass maybe they have a point worth paying attention to.


Tell people what you want

People won’t know what you need unless you tell them. Pretty simple but it’s amazing how often we expect our co-workers, teammates, friends, and significant other to intuit our needs. And then, to make matters worse, we get frustrated because they don’t understand what we expect of them. If you haven’t told someone what you want and they fail to deliver it’s your own darn fault.

Sure, they are exceptions. You shouldn’t have to tell someone not to kill, steal or lie. But I’m going to assume folks with those tendencies have already been excised from your life. Lets focus on the people you want to spend time with.

If you haven't taken the time to express your values or desires and someone fails to deliver it’s unfair to hold them accountable. That said, recurring disappointment needs to be addressed. It's fair to assume that you shouldn’t have to tell them twice. 


Opinions are great, but don’t confuse them with facts.

I love working with people who can express their opinion but when a person presents their opinion as fact they’ve taken a turn down a frustrating path. If someone does this, call them on it. Ask if that's an opinion or fact. Opinions need to be flagged as such or they're a distraction for your team. They make people with opposing opinions dig in their heels for a war that can't be won without someone losing face.

Early in my career someone with more experience than myself called bullshit when I presented a ‘fact’ in a large meeting. We were working on a story-based game and I was telling the team how they had it all wrong when the savvy manager asked me how they could do it better. I knew a good story when I saw one but I had never written one. I knew nothing of the craft. Probably 30 people saw me learn a painful lesson.

Share your opinions and be prepared to acknowledge them as such or back them up quantitatively.


You don’t know what you’re making

You’ve planned your project meticulously and know everything that needs to happen from the moment you begin working until the moment you dust your hands and step away from your completed creation. Every detail has been accounted for and all that remains is the labor. Guess what. You still don't know what you’re making.

Sometimes the thing you want to make is different than what your thing wants to be. Give yourself room to explore and let your project develop through the process of creation. What is the project is telling you? Collect feedback while you work and let it inform your decisions. Don't be a slave to feedback and observation but don't resist them, either.

People will view, use, read, hear and taste your creation differently than you. Their experience will be different than your own. You can’t control everything and that’s fine, let yourself be surprised.


Tell people what they’re doing well

It’s no surprise that crit sessions, or critiques, are stressful. Everything about them, from the name on down, is designed to expose all of the things the artist/designer is doing wrong or what could be done better. An artist spends a day, a week, a month or longer developing an idea and it culminates in a session devoted to exposing their weaknesses. That sucks. Here are a couple things that will mitigate the stress.

As the artist, collect feedback consistently while you’re working so you aren’t thrown any curveballs on the day of the critique. Do self-critique, use your friends and colleagues for gut-checks while you're working and strive to anticipate feedback.

As a critic, tell the artist what could be made better but also tell them everything they did well. Be very clear about this. The best outcome of a critique is an artist who can identify weaknesses but can also replicate success.


Interview: Ana Benaroya

I recently met Ana Benaroya on a thesis panel at The Society of Illustrators. She is calm, direct and clear while her work is energetic, confrontational and playful. In her own words she is " illustrator, artist, typographer, and designer; but above all, she is a decent human being. This is quite possibly her proudest accomplishment to date."

How would you describe you what is it that you do?

I make a lot of different things.

How much sketching or research goes into the planning of a new piece?

It depends - if it’s personal work, then less sketching will happen before I make a piece. If it’s commercial, then I’ll have to do more research and a series of sketches.

Click to read more ...


Feed the cauldron

If you plan on making magic you’ll need the right ingredients. They might be as exotic as eye of newt or fluxweed but more often than not they will be things like time away from the computer and targeted inspiration.

Consume and use the kinds of things you’re making. If you’re writing a fiction book, read novels. Baking a cake? Eat tons of different cakes. Inform your palette and make decisions about what you believe in important. You don’t need to replicate what you’ve explored but the act of exploring will give you new ideas, help you through sticking points and help you identify what you don’t want your thing to be.

And while you’re exploring, stray from the path and explore things that have no obvious connection to what you’re making. Develop new vocabulary to describe those experiences and ask yourself how they might connect to your project. The ingredients for creativity are all around us, we just need to figure out what to make.


Plan your day

The question I’m asked most often is, “How do you plan your day?”. I break it into three chunks: Prep, Play and Production. This works for me but may not work for everyone. The most important thing is that you plan your day in whatever way works for you and then honor that plan. Here's what I do...

1. Prep (morning): Wake up, Eat/shower/coffee, Do admin (emails, phone calls, Facebook), Close Facebook, Plan for the day’s project. The goal is to clear out distractions and seed the brain with ideas.
2. Play (lunch): You could do anything here that doesn’t require lots of active thought or communication. Take walk, clean, make a meal, etc. I go to the gym. Let ideas from from the Prep stage bubble around in your mind.
3. Production (afternoon): Work on the project. By the time I get to the Production stage in the afternoon I have ideas and clear actions fresh at my fingertips. Leave Facebook closed until goals for the day are met.


Close Facebook now

I like Facebook. I like connecting with people, I like reading unexpected articles and seeing the the varied opinions of my friends being expressed. I like that I can use it share my own ideas and events. I don’t like that its an easy distraction from getting real work done. I also don’t like that it manipulates our emotions in the same way slot machines and Candy Crush appeal to our desire for immediate feedback.

Unless you’re independently rich and have zero obligations to friends and family you probably have things to do. And I bet you’re already aware that Facebook is getting in the way of your getting those things done. Deep in your belly you’re feeling guilty about trolling for Likes and cute cat videos but the immediate feedback of your newsfeed is hard to deny.  

Set aside time for Facebook the same way you might set aside time for reading a book or watching a movie. Don’t let it dominate your life or become your excuse for unfilled creative projects. Close Facebook now.


Assemble a super team

We all wrestle with doubts and insecurities and it’s the job of our enemies to capitalize on our weaknesses. To foil their plans you need to surround yourself with people you trust. People who inspire you to be more than you think you can be. They might do this directly or they might lead by example. Track these heroes down. Talk with them, train with them and test your ideas against them. Spend time with people who make you stronger, faster, and smarter.

Be selective and choose people who won't flake when things get tough or collapse under pressure. Everyone needs support sometimes but be wary of people whose super power is causing drama.

Don't expect your team to go easy on you. If you're going to be ready for the next big challenge you'll need the members of your super team to tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. With support from the right team you can dream bigger and take larger risks.


Buy yourself some time

Feedback doesn’t always come at a convenient time. You might be deep in thought, in the middle of a conversation or actively trying to solve some other problem when an unexpected distraction drops in your lap. Shifting gears isn’t easy and very often a jarring shift means we don’t receive the distraction as gracefully as we would if we were prepared. Buy yourself time to react. Try one of these...

1. Take a deep breath and give yourself time to collect your thoughts.

2. Make a 'thinking' gesture. Example: lean back, touch your chin, nod, say 'Hmmmm....". Create a pause in conversation.

3. Be direct and tell the distracting person to give you a minute.

Over the years I've used all of these, professionally and personally, and I’m sure you can come up with your own scripted actions for buying yourself time. Try it and let me know what works for you!


Time - my enemy, my friend.

Time can work for you and against you. Working in short production loops means you need to focus your efforts and prioritize the features that are essential to whatever it is you’re making. It’s amazing what you can produce in a short period when you know what you want to prove and have a game plan. With some practice it's easy to estimate how much work you can get done in a short period, say, a day or a week. Extend that deadline and it becomes harder to imagine how much work you can get done. The questions pile up, the goals become fuzzier, and there’s more room for distractions.

The longer deadline, however, gives you more time to reflect on your product, make adjustments and add the polish that transforms a good idea into something great. What to do? Break longer projects down into smaller production cycles of features, goals or stages of production. Know what you want to prove for each of these and take time between cycles to reflect on what you made.


Dial back the heat

Sometimes creative conversations get heated. People get attached to their ideas, they dig in their heels and friction develops. What are you supposed to do? Dial back the heat by acknowledging the tension. It seems obvious but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Example, "It feels like things are getting tense. Let's take a breath, step back and refresh ourselves on the goals." 

Once the tension is abated ask whether your partner is willing to entertain other ideas. Most people will acknowledge that there might be other solutions. Then invite them to help you explore them.

Another strategy for reducing the stress of competing ideas: consider listing the project goals and invite other people to help prioritize them. Often this will expose emotional attachments and focus the conversation on what is needed, as opposed to what is desired, and lead to alternate solutions.


Your dirty laundry stinks

I'm sure gossips sometimes believe they’re a noble whistleblower making the public aware of some abuse. But usually gossip is the product of low self-esteem, jealousy, frustration, and anger. It’s an attempt by someone to make themselves look better and more righteous. And usually it backfires. Everyone’s dirty laundry stinks. Yours is no exception.

Gossips congregate. Their mutual dependency on negativity sustains one another and, eventually, isolates them from the folks who couldn’t care less about their drama. Are you in a pocket of negativity? Step away and consider spending time with people who are more constructive with their energy. 

Present yourself to the world as a gossip and you will be judged accordingly - personally and professionally. Rise above this. If you have issues, take them to the source. Talk directly to the people with whom you have a problem.


Keep yourself engaged

I have an issue with boredom. I hear people say, “I’m bored” and it drives me a little crazy. Boredom is a symptom of a lifestyle choice. The choice to be disengaged. I know we can’t all choose moment-to-moment happiness but we can choose engagement. For most of us, if we are unsatisfied with the task at hand or just plain bored it's our own damn fault.

Don't wait for your life to excite you. You'll be waiting a long, long time. The world couldn't care less if you're bored or unhappy. It will continue spinning long after you're gone.

If you look for dissatisfaction or boredom it will always be there but your energy is better spent looking for opportunities to do the things you love. If you don't see the opportunities, make them for yourself. You don't need to wait for anyone. Breathe life into your own ideas. Create the moments that bring you joy. 


Try a boss-free brainstorm

Want to kill a brainstorm? Invite the boss. Participants will hold back their wilder contributions and the second the boss opens his/her mouth the session will be dominated by their ideas. And even if boss holds their tongue the team will waste time looking for approval.

Bosses around the world might think, “Well, yeah, I’m the boss and I want my team to figure out to make my ideas work.” Fine, but that’s not how to get the best ideas from your team. Let them surprise you. A team needs some space away from their boss and the risk of judgement. Bad ideas will flow in a brainstorm and that’s fine because sometimes they lead to good ideas. If a team is second-guessing the quality of their ideas they won’t offer as much.

Hey boss, help your team by defining project goals and then step out for coffee. Try a boss-free brainstorm and you’ll see a difference in the quality and volume of ideas generated.


When visions collide

Before he passed away I had the opportunity to attend a talk with one of my design idols, Tibor Calman. Something he said still resonates with me, "If you're not fired from a third of your design projects you're not doing your job." While I don't agree 100% with his statement I love that it acknowledges the power of conflicting visions. At some point we will all work on projects that we don't find interesting or we disagree with the vision. For some people that's their daily routine.

The question that interests me is this - what do you do when you disagree with a vision? You have a few options if your amazing ideas have been rejected: 1) Walk away. 2) Accept the conditions and do your best because you have bills to pay. 3) Learn from the experience and find work that better aligns with your vision in the future and finally 4) Be such a pain in the ass that you're fired. While I prefer 2 and 3 as a strategy sometimes its best just to walk away. And sometimes we aren't given the option.


Beware the vocal minority

People are eager to offer what they think you should have done. They will describe in broad strokes how your product would be better if only you had done "X". They won't ask about your goal but they will project where your concepts are leading and how you should move forward. When pressed they will be shy for details but they will sow enough doubt that you'll question your path and it'll slow you down. We wrestle with enough doubts on our own. Beware the vocal minority. Don't give them too much power over your vision.

It's easier to identify what doesn't work than to articulate what is perfectly okay so most people's default mode is critical. Some people are just invested in being the one who can spot faults. They feel like they're accomplishing something by pointing out faults - they feel smart and sometimes they feel like they're helping. 

If someone expresses doubt don't take it as the gospel. Be critical of feedback, ask for details and test your ideas against multiple people.