Thursday
Oct232014

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.

Monday
Oct202014

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 "...an 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 ...

Monday
Oct062014

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.

Monday
Sep292014

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.

Thursday
Sep252014

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.

Monday
Sep222014

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.

Thursday
Sep182014

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!

Monday
Sep152014

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.

Thursday
Sep112014

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.

Monday
Sep012014

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.

Thursday
Aug282014

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. 

Sunday
Aug242014

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.

Thursday
Aug142014

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.

Monday
Aug112014

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.

Friday
Aug082014

An introduction to Scripts

I'll broadly define Scripts as recurring conversations in everyday life. They are situational and range from the banality of "How about the weather?" to something more loaded like "Tell me why I should hire you." Almost every conversation has an associated script and expectations on both sides of the conversation. If you know the function of a script you can better anticipate the needs of the person(s) you're speaking with.

As an example, The 5 Whys, are an effective script for helping a client articulate their goals.

Personally, I love conversations that veer from known scripts into unexpected territory because participants need to switch off their autopilot and pay attention. Ironically, the people who know me can anticipate that I will go off-script so even my desire to break the script becomes a script!

Tuesday
Aug052014

Work fast, be wrong, and move on

The goal of Failing Fast is success, not failure. Years ago when my wife and I started a design studio, Daggus Designs, my background had primarily been illustration while she had done both graphic design AND illustration. Our clients mostly hired us for design services and I realized that she was a faster and more effective designer than myself. I began studying her process and here’s what I realized:

I approached my work as an illustrator. I had a mental image of the end result and I steadily worked towards that image, adjusting as I went if I couldn’t achieve a desired effect. She, on the other hand, immediately started designing with zero attachment to her reference material. She was constantly iterating on her design, trying ideas quickly and dismissing them or building on them. She was daring in her ideas because she was working fast and willing to toss them if they didn’t work. The design magic was in the process, as opposed to the initial vision.

Thursday
Jul312014

90% of feedback is worthless

But that last 10% is pure gold so it’s worth plowing through the trash to find the treasure. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but its also true. Everyone comes to a feedback session with their own ideas and agendas. And you probably do the same thing when you’re giving feedback because, by default, people see the world through their own eyes. Makes sense, right? Empathy takes work. And sometimes empathy needs a little pat on the bottom to get it moving along.

Thankfully there’s something simple you can do to increase the percentage of usable feedback. Before you start collecting feedback make sure people know your goals.

Blam. Easy as that. It’ll save you time, improve the focus of the feedback and, as an extra bonus, you’ll be less defensive because you won’t be getting reactions to things that don’t address your primary concerns.

Monday
Jul282014

Make ‘em feel something

I’m a fan of metrics driven design but sometimes its hard to figure out where emotional decisions fit into the process. Ever try to justify an emotional appeal in a meeting room surrounded by people who are focused on metrics and hard data? Usually its not enough to say, “trust me, it’ll be funny/infuriating/heart-breaking/inspiring/etc.”

It’s almost always easier to make a pitch when your audience is actually feeling the feeling you’re pitching. Establish the goals of the project first, retire to the dark cave where you do your work, then present your best concepts that include the emotional appeal to your managers, product owners or clients. Once they are laughing/fuming/crying/floating you can figure out how best to measure the success of the thing you’re making. 

Passion is fueled by the heart, connections are made in the mind. You feelin’ me?

Thursday
Jul242014

Become a teacher

You’ve  spent years developing your craft and you’ve seen firsthand that development is a series of gradually increasing plateaus punctuated by short bursts of growth. As time goes by major spikes in growth are harder and harder to come by. How do you push through sticking points? Try teaching what you know.

There’s no better way to learn about yourself than by teaching others - sharing all that accumulated knowledge that's banging around in your head, all the techniques you take for granted, all that amazing stuff you can do blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back.

What's second nature to you may be a complete mystery to others. And unless you take the time to articulate why do the things you do, your process might be a mystery to yourself. Sometimes the key to unlocking your next growth spurt isn't about what you make, but how you make it. Take some time to get to know yourself. 

Monday
Jul072014

Learn to prioritize in 1-2-3

To-do lists are great but completed items are quickly replaced with new tasks and they never truly go away. As a reaction we tend to spend our time on smaller, easy to solve problems because they’re require less energy and we can pile them up, which is good for the ego. At the end of the day we review what we completed and the bigger the pile the better we feel. But do all those smaller tasks require action? Be wary of filling your day with small tasks that don’t advance the larger concept.

Try prioritizing items on your to-do list using a scale of 1 to 3. Keep the units of your scale coarse, the finer the scale (example, 1-10) the less meaning the values have. On a scale of 1-10 what’s the difference between 5 and 6? Not much. But on a scale of 1-3 the difference is huge. 1’s need your immediate attention, 2’s will need your attention soon and 3’s aren’t worth your time. Try this with you current list of to-do’s and see how many 2’ and 3’s are draining your time.