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?


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. 


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.


The three paths to innovation

If you’re innovating on an existing product or idea the entire process might involve hundreds of decisions  - but the initial steps aren’t so mysterious. You have three choices that take into account your goals, risk tolerance and timeline:

1. Continue the current aesthetic. You might make this decision to save time, leverage existing brand awareness, etc. Safe and secure.

2. Evolve the the current aesthetic. Maybe you’ve received feedback that will help refine the user experience or you discovered something new about your audience that needs to be addressed. Assumes some risk and additional development time.

3. React to the current aesthetic. Perhaps you want to make a statement, surprise users with something fresh and possibly get press for the shift in direction. The riskiest option and possibly the most expensive.


Identify your questions

If your questions about a project aren't clear you won’t know how to prioritize steps towards the goal. Aside from acting as a To Do list there are several other benefits of listing your questions.

• It removes monkey-chatter. Until questions have been addressed they take up mental and emotional space in your brain. Documenting them helps eliminate that distraction.
• Once you have listed you questions they become more manageable, easier to address and prioritize.

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 got done 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.


Warm your brain before a brainstorm

I'm going to share a personal revelation from several years ago - designing and playing music use very different parts of the brain. If I worked all day then did an evening gig it took at least an hour before I warmed up and transitioned to using the right bits of my brain. The music bits. It wasn’t just a case of warming up my muscles, I had shift my emotional/cerebral patterns before I could play well. I learned to set aside time for the transition.

Warming up your brain before you dive into any creative task, like brainstorming, will make you more effective at that task. Well, duh. This isn’t a revelation so much as a reminder. Feeding your brain with ideas will help new ideas come quicker. If you’re about to choreograph a new dance piece, watch other dances (of other styles, even. Gasp!). If you’re baking a cake, visit a bakery. If you’re designing a new toy, visit a toy store. You get the idea. Then, when you’ve changed your state and fed your brain, start brainstorming. 


Your best talent will leave you

If you hire people this is going to happen. Most personal relationships don’t work out, why would professional relationships be any different? People grow, their needs evolve and at some point they usually move on.

When someone makes the decision to leave you’ll probably feel frustration because all those skills you taught them, all those experiences that sharpened their resume, will be walking out your door - and some other company, or client, will be reaping the benefits. Hey, you probably broke some bosses hearts along your way.

Let them go. By leaving that employee is doing you a favor. It’s better to let someone go than suffer the loss of focus that happens when they would rather be somewhere else. You don’t have the time or money that. You need people who want to work with you. And by supporting them you preserve that working relationship for another time and place.


Don't wait, act now

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. The thing that separates the artist from the frustrated artist is action. It doesn't even need to be monumental action - it could be small, consistent steps towards an idea. The more you practice making use of small chunks of time the more likely you'll be ready to act when an idea hits you. 

You need full access to your creativity on the drop of a dime. The good ideas don't always come to you at the ideal time. You need to be able to recognize a good idea and capitalize on it when its fresh. Even if it's just to write it down. Push aside the stories and excuses. You have 10 minutes on the subway? Use that time. You're tired? Turn off the TV and read something related to a topic you love. Take a shower and pay attention to where you mind is wandering then write those ideas down when you get out of the shower. You are a wellspring of ideas. Let them breathe, give them life and take shape at your hands. Be firm. Show conviction. Prioritize yourself.


Start punching holes

Arguing is the new buzz in brainstorming. It’s an unsurprising backlash to the the brainstorm de rigueur of the past few years in which criticism is minimized. But its not an either/or decision. Both approaches are helpful depending on your needs at the moment.

Do you have a shortage of ideas? Use a brainstorm to generate fresh perspectives and potential connections. Have an abundance of ideas and need to filter them down? Invite someone to help you punch holes in the various ideas. It doesn’t need to be an argument. In fact, I suggest taking turns attacking and defending the various ideas on the table so you have to evaluate both the positive and negative qualities of a given idea. Call it an empathy exercise.

This also produces interesting results if you’re at a creative impasse. It takes a strong person to say, “Okay, for the moment let’s switch positions and I’ll argue for your idea and you try to attack it.”


Telling Ourselves Stories

I believe in the practical. I believe in processes and habits that can make people more creative, things that get their ideas into the world faster. I believe in tools that teach us to be creative on the spot. No warning, no time for embarrassment or overthinking.

Companies like IDEO know their employees need the tools, the habits, and the mindset to be creative anywhere and anytime. Don't wait for the perfect conditions to be creative. I need my laptop and a latte. I need my favorite seat in my favorite cafe and I should be listening to the soundtrack of loons and viola in a minor key. I need to be alone. I need to be with people. I have to be somewhere other than home. I need, I need, I need. All those conditions are a house of cards and if one of those conditions is not met a card is pulled out and the resulting collapse is an avalanche of reasons, of stories, that we tell ourselves why we can't be creative right can wait until later. No, it can't wait until later. There is no better time than now and later is too damn late.


The Idea Matrix

New ideas don't just appear. They are the result of conscious, or subconscious, connections being made by the creator. Someone took two or more disparate ideas and combined them to get an unexpected result. Concept artists use this strategy all the time. Need a cute dragon? Combine a dragon with something soft and fuzzy, maybe a peach or a puppy, and start illustrating. I call this the Idea Matrix.

The initial idea will probably evolve once pen hits paper but you're just looking for something to get the creative juices flowing. 

Here's how it works: I write down the thing I'm designing (character, logo, UI, etc). Then I'll list the qualities I want this thing to have. Following that I'll list other things in the universe that have those qualities. Once I have a list of those things I'll select my favorites and begin exploring combinations of the intitial concept with new references that represent more emotional associations. Try it out!


Brainstorming 101

As a creative tool brainstorms have taken a beating the past couple years. The key is setting expectations and organization. Don't throw a bunch of people into a room and expect magic to happen. Some tips...

1. Define the goals. Let the team know what the problem is that they're solving and describe criteria.
2. Appoint a leader. Keeps conversation moving along and polices judgement. Flags tangents.
3. Appoint a scribe. Documents all of the ideas on a flip chart or white board. Ideally in full view of the group.
4. Don't be critical. Nothing kills the desire to get involved like judgement. You can debate and argue later.
5. Embrace the wild ideas. The crazy thoughts can always be scaled back. 
6. Set goals. More ideas are better so go for volume. Set motivating goals like, "Let's come up with 25 new ideas."


Destory all typos

An ugly insight into the mind of hiring managers: they’re looking for reasons to reject applicants. A manager’s day can disappear quickly if a company is actively hiring so they have to be brutal when reviewing applications and typos are easy to spot and condemn. Did you catch the typo in the headline? How did you feel? Don't let anyone feel that way about you.

We all make mistakes when emailing friends or posting Tweets but if you’re serious about a job you need to proof your cover letter, resume and emails. If you can't focus, have a friend proof your material. Mistakes communicate volumes about your attention to detail. If you’re freakishly talented a typo may not work against you but a hiring manager may not get to your portfolio if your resume has mistakes.

Don't be laughed at or discarded. Destroy all typos.


Interview: Genny Platon

I wanted to learn how Genny manages her time. She's a mother of three energetic daughters, a homeschooler, an active dancer, a cosplayer and a self-employed artist. Seriously, I see how much she gets done and I can't help thinking A) there is a lot to be learned from her and B) I never have an excuse not to get stuff done. She never claims it's easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.

How would you describe what is it that you do?

In fancy terms, an endlessly learning alchemist. I take materials and turn it into something completely different than it's origin. I play with all kinds of materials at hand and transform them into something else.

In less than fancy terms, I make art. I sculpt, paint, sew costumes, and dance.

Click to read more ...


Is a day job your excuse not to be an artist?

Time to move on. There’s a long tradition of celebrated artists who held down jobs to fund their personal projects. You might recognize a few: T.S. Eliot, Philip Glass, Richard Serra, Bram Stoker, Kurt Vonnegut, Dustin Hoffman. Hell, even Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo did contract work to pay the bills.

Then are are the innumerable artists who aren’t universally known but hold down day jobs and still maintain their creative output. I’ve interviewed some of my personal hero/artists on TnR - Pete List, Rob Mastrianni, Baba Israel, Carmine Guida and more. I was recently emailing with a friend about how she maintains a high level of personal creative work while raising three daughters on her own AND homeschooling them. What’s your excuse?

If you think a day job invalidates your identity as an artist your ego might be sabotaging you


Convert negative feedback into something you can use

We can all improve how we give feedback but the biggest leap forward you can make is how you receive feedback. Especially vague, or unhelpful, feedback. It's a portable skill that'll follow you throughout your career and doesn’t rely on others to be great communicators for you to be effective. Do it well and you can convert poor communicators into clear communicators. At least for that one conversation. It's up to you to make sure feedback is usable.

• Don't accept hyperbole (postitive or negative). Ask for details.
• If you think an opinion was expressed ask for details. Find the source of that opinion.
• Dig deep and apply The Five Why's. If a suggestion is made and you don’t understand it, dig for answers. Ex. Why did you suggest that color specifically? Is it the color you want or the association you have with that color? Do I have room to explore beyond just that color as long as the design captures the quality you’re after?


Train to trust your instincts

You’ve spent years honing your skills and, sooner or later, you’ll need to test them in the real world. Very few people see themselves clearly so sharing your work with others will help you learn what it is that you do, and don’t do, well. Asking for and accepting feedback isn’t easy but you’ll learn a great deal if you pay attention to what others have to say and how it makes you feel.

Not every feedback interaction needs to be combative but let’s use martial arts as an example: in some schools a student trains and studies technique until they’re eventually tested by fighting another person. Confrontation is what exposes strengths and weaknesses. If they’re dedicated they’ll go back to training with this knowledge. They’ll build on their strengths and fill in the gaps where they are weakest.

Train, test, train, test, train, test. This is where instincts come from and the only way you’ll learn which instincts serve you best.


Your favorite trend will die

Flat design, bacon cupcakes, dubstep, hand held cinematography and more - they will all die. The best trends will evolve into something new but most of them are going to fade away. Don’t worry, ideas are cyclical and if there’s value to the trend it will be reincarnated some years down the road. In fact, your current favorite trends are probably ripples of an idea from a previous decade.

Predicting the directions of trends is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Let’s use Flat Design as an example: There’s already buzz that it’s time to move on and tentative arguments for skeuomorphism are resurfacing. So, either Flat Design will evolve or there will be a strong reaction against it and something like David Carson’s design will emerge as the next trend. Evolution or opposite reaction. Take your pick. 

Now for the hard part. Taking action on your prediction in a way that resonates with an audience.


Don't let pain distract you

Intentions follow thoughts. If you’re focused on obstacles you risk losing site of your goal. Pain can be physical, mental, emotional and range from the merely distracting to all-consuming. No matter what it’s shape or form you need find a way to move forward. The amount of work you can get done may be influenced by the discomfort but there is almost always a way to maintain momentum. You are defined by where you place your energy - if you focus on discomfort your life will be about obstacles. Focus on solutions and your life will be about solving problems.

What kind of pain is currently distracting you? A physical injury? Discomfort because you’re learning something new and out of your element? Maybe you’re just overwhelmed by the volume of your responsibilities. Break down your goals and prioritize them. Now break down your discomfort and make a plan for dealing with it. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.


The Negative Impact of the Wrong People

You will be influenced by the people you surround yourself with so choose them carefully. If you want to be upbeat and positive, hang with upbeat people. If you want more creativity in your life, spend time with friend who ooze ideas. Unfortunately the opposite is also true. Negative peers will affect you negatively. 

Last night at dinner the couple next to us complained non stop. I didn’t even know these people and the negativity they projected started to cling to me.

Everyone has their bad days but if the defining characteristic of a relationship is frustration or anger it’s time to move on. If it's a relationship you value try to work it out. The Manager Tools feedback model is fantastic if you’re unsure where to begin. If your feedback is consistent this person won’t be so surprised, and might even agree, when you decide to let them go.