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.


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!


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.


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.


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