To Design is to Be Human

In as much as it is human nature to be curious of the world we live in and attempt to craft solutions for the problems we encounter both big and small, one could say that to be a Designer is to give in to the better (or at least more constructive) tendencies of ourselves. In other words, one could say that to design is to simply be that which we are; human beings.

Design represents the toolkit we are endowed with from inception, indeed from our collective origin on Earth, which both drives our ambition to improve everything and enables us to do so. There are disciplines - the sciences, education, exploration, meditation and religion - that are all components of the design toolkit but comprise only the contemplation and experimentation aspects until creation begins, until we transform the data into action; until we begin to design.

Design is also the human ode to our own beginning. An ode to that which contemplated our existence and brought the idea of humanity to life. That which continues to alter us, improve us, reconfigure us and elude us. Human evolution is the ultimate design in the context of our collective experience and it occurs as though we are the subject of scientific experimentation ourselves, with and without our direct input; evolution is cosmic design at work and it is in our nature to mimic the universe's compulsion to iterate - to improve - to create new artifacts in the void for the sake of creating and designing schemes that simplify systems to the point of ultimate efficiency; to the point of extinction. [The Terminator - Official Trailer [1984]

When our seven-year-old grandson takes his Nona and I on a journey through the annals of 2nd grade logic to a reality in which he has zero culpability for anything - anything at all, ever - he is designing a system around his own desired experience. Where he lacks research on expected outcomes, the user interface (UI) is, for him, navigable and the user experience (UX) is... well, user experience is unpredictable sometimes and Nona doesn't have time for that mess.

At a recent digital technology conference, [http://eventifier.co/event/emtechdigital] the prevailing topic of discussion was the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Humanity is rushing forward in pursuit of machines that can exceed our own intellect in ways that we have yet to even conceive. Most are doing so with the intent of designing an automated system of service wherein machines predict our wants and needs, and are capable of autonomously "designing" desired human experiences by accessing and acting upon deep data.

There is also a subset of AI development that is curious to see if machines can create spontaneously, without prompting from or by reacting to humans. Can machines be designed to be the Designers? If this is possible (and frankly on a pure feasibility level I now believe it is), will machines design useful or beautiful objects, or will they move swiftly to systems design and discover that humans are more efficient as a labor or fuel source? [The Matrix - Official Trailer [1999]

After absorbing the data on what is possible and practical today, and what will be achievable within five, ten and twenty years, I've come to a conclusion that comforts me against the apocalyptic predictions of Hollywood and a few pessimistic futurists I've encountered.

To Design is to be a human being.

Whatever wonders machines are ultimately able to conceive of and create (and trust me the ingenuity will be transformative), the outcomes will be directly attributable to human curiosity, human ambition; human design.

Intelligent machines are the human ode to ourselves. An ode to that which contemplated the existence of a service society of mechanical and digital counterparts, and brought the idea of AI to life. The evolution of artificial intelligence is the ultimate design achievable by humanity in the context of our collective experience. 

We are, collectively, the seven-year-old designing a system around her own desired experience. We have no idea what the outcome will be and can barely grasp what we expect to come from artificial intelligence. It's beyond difficult to research the future. We do know that we expect the machines to tell us what Is possible and to collaborate with us in designing a UI. The UX? Well, user experience is unpredictable but we have all the time in the world to figure out that mess.

As long as humans exist, Design will persist.

Idioms - They're a Dime a Dozen

“Often you shall think your road impassable, sombre and companionless. Have will and plod along; and round each curve you shall find a new companion.” ― Mikhail Naimy, The Book of Mirdad: The Strange Story of a Monastery Which Was Once Called the Ark

Where there's a will, there's a way. While I'm convinced this idiom is ultimately a truism measured over the expanse of time, it often requires monumental leaps of faith to remain optimistic when you're in the midst of willing your way through (up, over, around) an obstacle. Especially when the objectives of others' (coworkers, family members, society, governing bodies) appear to be diametrically opposed to yours AND driven by equally willful optimists.

There's more than one way to skin a cat. This is another (albeit egregiously worded) idiom I consider to be mostly true. As you're willing your way along you'll inevitably encounter a fork in the road at which the way will become infinitely more difficult to ascertain. No one path is objectively wrong if we assume there is resolution on the other side. Even when the course taken by others appears to trample over yours and head in the direction of utter failure (as far as you can tell). Each party will reach a subjectively proper solution though one outcome may ultimately prove to be unanimously heralded as "the best."

It's better to be safe than sorry. Is it? Not according to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I tend to agree with her sentiment that it's "easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission." Consider being embroiled against the id, which would rather relax and partake of reality, while you're willing yourself to find the way. "Just play it safe and get on with it, be the hero," says the id. But here's where you have to ask yourself whether you're after a subjectively proper solution or if you're willing to go after "the best." At least a few of the "others" are going to succumb to the id and trudge along toward an inevitable, safe outcome. 

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Nothing worth doing is "like shooting fish in a barrel." 

It's a thin line between love and hate. And so it is. After all that willing and risk-taking, and not worrying about what the "others" are doing, you've made that mountain into a molehill. Or at least you can finally see the way from where you are today. Few seek the path of the lone wolf, but there are those that do. Such narcissism rarely yields "the best" results. Sometimes willing yourself to the way means getting out of your own way or even merging your way with the ways of others. Which can be a heavy weight to bear, especially for the id .

Basically, I'm Just Going to Walk the Earth

 

"It's that anonymous person who meanders through the streets and feels what's happening there, feels the pulse of the people, who's able to create". ― Cyndi Lauper

For as long as I've been a professional Designer, I've had the nagging sensation that every moment spent at a desk in front of a computer amounts to the weakening of my skills through attrition. There's no arguing that the monitor is dicing away at your eyesight and the keyboard (even the most elegantly ergonomic ones) are ruining you for decent handwriting forever. These are the physical pitfalls of the profession and we deal with it by donning designer glasses (perpetuating the stereotype) and with ingenuity to escape the hand cramps.

What concerns me more is the blurring boundary between reliance on the tools of the trade and those very tools adopting the tricks of the trade for us. No, I'm not about to launch into a rant against the laziness of the millennial designers (because that would be hypocritical) or the evilness of Apple or Adobe, or Microsoft (that would also be hypocritical and really, really long).

What I'm pondering stems from a recent comment a colleague made, and one that I've heard throughout my career; "Man, you are never at your desk. How do get all your work done?"

The answer is, of course, I'm a mad genius.

Ok, you're not buying that. Nor am I actually suggesting that I possess some kind of superpower that allows me to connect with my hardware/software through telekinesis and deliver the goods on time, every time. But the truth is also not so far off from fiction in the sense that I am rarely at my desk yet I do manage to output via the expected medium every time, on time.

You see, I'm a wanderer. No, not in the Caine in Kung Fu: walk from place to place, meet people, get into adventures sense, although that particular daydream creeps in from time to time. I do, however, raise from my swivel chair and walk from colleague to colleague, distracting them from their spreadsheets, enticing them into mindless banter or a nervous laugh. I'm well aware of the perception (especially in a corporate setting) that a few in senior management have of this behavior.

"So you decided to be a bum."

I'm not expressing disdain for or even shaking my head in a "you poor sheep" kinda' way at those who can clock in, sit down, eat lunch and clock out with only minor breaks for personal matters to draw them from their desktop utopia. On the contrary, I admire their work ethic, I truly do. But it's not how I'm built. I'm a lucky son-of-a-gun because, as I always say, "design picked me," and I marvel at my peers who knew from an early age that creativity would play a role in how they made their living. You could say I'm awfully fortunate that I followed along peacefully when opportunity knocked and fate drew me into a career as a Designer.

The actual "work" gets done in fits of fumbling around with my hardware/software, often in the last few hours of the workday. It's then you'll find me at my desk, in the zone, under the gun. It's always been this way. What isn't captured by onlookers or those who've tried to set a meeting (let's face it, there's way more meetings now and my skill at dodging them has waned) is that every moment away from my desk is improving the "work" that will come out of the fitful mouse movements when everyone else is getting ready to call it a day.

This is true because good design, truly insightful, inspired design, is born out of observation. Gestures and utterances, colors and patterns, laughter and lamenting, obvious mistakes and minute details; observations from your environment that simply can not be captured from inside the bubble of the personal workspace. Escaping the confines of the cube or office is what keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta' be. Ok, that's dramatic but the sentiment rings true. When I'm interrupting my coworkers or taking laps around the upstairs offices I'm not procrastinating, lollygagging, shirking or even socializing. I'm discovering and every bit of what I discover will end up enhancing the designs that dislodge themselves when I eventually don the headphones and wire into the tools.

These are the tricks of the trade that the tools, the machines, will never be able to reproduce. Not precisely anyway. The algorithms may eventually be able to assess observations fed to them, either by humans or through whatever ultra-sensitive probing hardware solution is attached, but when the day comes that machines can wander up to the water cooler and pluck inspiration from a conversation about Game of Thrones or NCAA tournament upsets, that's the day I will wander off like Caine in Kung Fu. I don't see that day coming anytime soon.

Do you?

Signore Giuseppe's Secret to Creation

 

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet 

In the mid-nineties I was living in the Lombardy region of Italy, at the northeast corner of the province of Bergamo, in a place called Albino; a town of less than 15,000 souls (at the time, she's grown a bit) hidden away in the valley of the river Serio (Val Seriana) from which you can basically see the foothills of the Italian section of the Alps.

I have literally too many memories from my life at that time to recount in a single newsletter. If we were stuck, say in an airport terminal overnight, I could talk your ears off and only scratch the surface. I landed in Albino through a series of fateful moments and happenstance that I've long since chalked up to cosmic realignment. Long story short, I was working in an advertising agency for the older brother of one of my high school friends (not my best high school friend, mind you, but a good friend who was a fixture of my social group).

That period of my life is an essential part of who I've become and the stories... well, let me share just one.

The agency I worked in was comprised of a handful of Americans (including my friends brother, the boss) and another handful of Italians. When I landed at Milan-Malpensa airport I spoke about as much Italian as any American who's seen all the Godfather movies. As in none. Media Artists, Inc. had been in business for a little over a year when Joe, my high school buddy, whipped down the cobblestone street and parked next to a Gelateria (a place that would become my Mecca).

Amongst the Albinesi our small group of expat Americans enjoyed a modicum of celebrity status - Albino is a town you pass on your way from Milano to Venezia and, though they've undergone major efforts (to my chagrin) to up their tourist game, twenty years ago an American walking down the street (or living around the corner) was a rarity indeed.

I learned that I assimilate languages quickly when immersed (our boss even insisted on conducting meetings in Italian) and that when I'm hungry I'm even more motivated to do so. And so I did. In a few month's time, I had the basics of ordering paninis, un cafe affogato, pizza con mele e gorgonzola down and maybe I could holler at a bella donna if I was feeling bold.

After a while, I'd greet the locals on the street as I walked to work. "Ciao Bello!" "Allora?" One of my frequent stops along the way was to chat with an elderly man named Giuseppe, a carpenter who appeared to have been renovating "downtown" Albino perpetually since before the United States was formed ―  As a side note, it really used to flip my lid that the apartment I lived in was, at its core foundation, older than the union of states that comprise the country that I was born in. Can you imagine? ―  and who smelled of garlic and fresh bread no matter what time of day you encountered him. Delightful, really.

About a year into my life in Albino, Giuseppe invited me to dinner at his house. This was big for me because although I had plenty of friends (and a few girlfriends... when in Rome, capiche?) and we Americans operated as a family unit, I missed my family dearly and I just sort of lumped all that emotion into accepting Giuseppe's kind invitation. Not to mention that I'd learned the kindly statesman was something of a recluse AND a legend around town though I hadn't ascertained why (and my boss, with whom we had a love-hate relationship had been trying to get a dinner with Giuseppe forever).

I should mention here that Giuseppe spoke almost exclusively in Bergamasco which is the dialect of the region. It is decidedly not Italian which I had assimilated (though I have a heavy Bergamasco accent I'm told). The sounds are germanic, influenced by countless conquerings of the region by tribes from the north in times of old. This is all to say that Giuseppe and I communicated via an entirely different language than either of our native (or adopted) tongues. We spoke the language of beauty and art.

Signore Giuseppe was a widower and he lived in one of Albino's hidden gems. The facade of most buildings in Albino (again at the time, I'm told its been modernized much to my chagrin) was that of ancient Roman ruins, crumbling and hidden behind ubiquitous scaffolding. Stepping beyond Giuseppe's foyer my mouth hung open in awe. Behind the humble brick and mortar was a palatial spread with columns in a circular pattern that I'm still kind of skeptical was even possible amidst the single-family dwellings in the center of town. But there it was.

One of the elder carpenter's daughters was preparing dinner (just imagine the smells, careening around the circular courtyard... aglio and olio and fresh pasta) and as he passed me a glass of red wine he grabbed my arm and drew me toward an unassuming door about midway around the circle. This door was windowless and locked with a contraption that might have been passed down to Giuseppe directly from Da Vinci himself. I'm just saying.

As the door creaked open two sensations hit me simultaneously; the utter lack of luminescence from within the space beyond and the distinct aroma of old (really old) oil on canvas. We (well I) fumbled around in the void for a moment while Giuseppe whispered away into the room. There was a click and a buzz and because I'm a jaded American I had maybe a two-second panic attack and Caligula flashback before no less than four halogen tripod worklights (the kind used in construction) flooded the cavern.
 
I was standing in the middle of a domed room with nondescript concrete walls surrounded by paintings. Oil and canvas in every direction; stacked against the wall, propped up on ancient wooden easels, and one large - we're talking 5 foot x 5 foot - monster leaning against a stack of empty wine crates. Giuseppe was in front of the big one, hands on hips, pondering as though he had just seen it for the first time. I only asked if he had painted any of them. He just shook his head, "no."

I kick myself because I took art history long after I lived and worked in Italy and I cannot tell you now if any of the paintings in the room resembled those of history's masters. To be honest, I don't think that would have mattered to Giuseppe. It certainly didn't matter to me in the moment. Here's this man, a craftsman who lives and works in the small town he was born. In a country so very rich with works of art that patriots and travelling idiots take for granted routinely. He's never been outside of Italy. He's never even been to Venice or Rome (he tells me). And deep inside the confines of his home he has collected works of art that never see the light of day. The enormity of the revelation led to a prolonged sharing of silence between this man and myself. We just stood in the room and... appreciated beauty and art.

I do not know what led this man, this recluse and legend among the Albinese to invite me into his home and share his secret with me. It could be that he wanted to repay the kindness of attention I willingly gave him each morning on my way to crafting with far more modern and way less elegant tools (mid-nineties Macs, Netscape, QuarkXpress). Or (most likely) he was just ready to share and I was not from there. I wouldn't ask him why. I think he knew that.

I do know that it wasn't the wine that buckled my knees when those tripod lights flooded his treasure trove. It was something else. Something that anchors me in the rolling foothills of the Italian Alps for the rest of my life. Appreciation. The ability to take in a sight or sound and be content to just experience that moment. That small eclipse of the everyday. That fortunate window into creativity that makes us unique on planet earth as human beings.

I keep that dark alcove of unknown art and Giuseppe's coveting of creation with me to this day. It sits somewhere between my heart and mind, lodged into a corner of my soul. Even as I (we) are bombarded with new creations daily, wonders of technology, science, art and design, I reflect on Signore Giuseppe's hidden works of art and wonder how deeply we appreciate what is made.

Smile, You've Got Personality!

 

“Moral maxims are surprisingly useful on occasions when we can invent little else to justify our actions.” ― Alexander Pushkin, Tales of Belkin


Personalities - we've all got 'em. Some are so caustic (or pleasant) they repel. In an office environment, we do a kind of psychological dance around the various personalities we engage, day in, day out. Many of us are equipped with our Myers-Briggs inventory, or Jung assessment (or this) that purports to inform us why we are the way we are. According to the experts, you can mitigate the perceived negative aspects of your personality by having a general awareness of how they manifest. But you can't fundamentally change your personality, at least not without extensive therapy and/or heavy drug use. Even then, you're likely to revert on some levels.

What you can control through awareness is your behavior. Or, more precisely, you can pay close attention to the behavior of others and adjust your own behavior to match the intensity or submissiveness of theirs - or somewhere in between. I keep a guide to DISC assessment at my desk and refer to it often before crafting an email to someone high up on the chain of command. It's all about how you craft your message.

As a Designer you learn to navigate the personalities & behaviors of your audience at each stage of a project - or at least you BETTER if you want to have any kind of longevity. Even more importantly, you gain a sort of Zen-like neutrality when listening to ideas or feedback. Especially feedback. I mean, you BETTER. You better be the Switzerland of every meeting. If you don't, can't or won't develop that ability, well then you, my friend, are an artiste and you're going to cry. A lot.

When I was first in the position of hiring a Designer (in this case an exhibit designer) I made a huge mistake. As I looked through the candidate's portfolios, I coveted the most impressive artistic expression. If I'm honest, I was thinking that we could up our visual impact if we could hire some sheer artistic talent. Mistake. I hired an exceptionally talented "designer" with a meticulous eye for detail. It took about two client reviews for her to come completely apart at the seems. I'm telling you there was a river of tears.

You see, she was an artist and a brilliant one at that. Her work had value to her well beyond whether or not a client felt it conveyed their brand message. And she had a big personality which she could not bring herself to separate from the work. And I get it. But, she had to go. Actually she left; floated away on a river of tears, hopefully to a rewarding career as a visual artist.

Don't get me wrong, Designers are artists to be sure. It is a craft and there is art in the creation of beautiful solutions. There are those among us who walk the line between art and design, but they are luminaries, set apart from the rest of us by clients with major fundage who are willing and able to walk that line with them. But artists, who express the human condition innately as from the bottom of their soul, are not Designers.

The art in design is centered around the ability to root out and define, and then tell, a story. In the midst of crafting the story, we are every bit the artist feeling the world around them. Responding to the minutiae of life, listening intently as stakeholders, users, customers and various personas tell their stories. Working tirelessly until a masterpiece is born. 

But unlike the artist, who is free to articulate the intricacies of their creation with every bit of flamboyant flair that is their essential being, we do not have the luxury of injecting our own personality into the pitch. It ain't always easy to accept the manner in which clients will craft their message. Our feelings do, indeed, get hurt. But unless you're a Stefan Sagmeister, you must not flip anyone the bird (full disclosure, I've never heard of Sagmeister flipping anyone the bird, but he will show you his junk) and you must listen. You're not after a spot in the Louvre. You're trying to tell a story.

The story is also our best defense against toxic personalities or moral maxims, or whatever personal "deal" someone brings to a design brief or project review.
 
As human beings, we respond to stories. They can help us develop deeper empathy in the present and create more vivid images about the kind of future we're trying to create. Paying attention to the human dimension is important, because designing is not just about processing questions. It's also about people, and not just the people you're trying to serve. It's also about you and the mindset with which you approach a project. Like art, design starts inside, not outside. Louis Pasteur, explaining the role of discipline and preparation in scientific discoveries observed that chance favors the prepared mind.*

This is an underlying reality that sets the context for innovative design, in much the same way that Einstein's law of relativity accounts for the movement of objects in the space-time continuum. The most fundamental natural law of design is that the only certainty is uncertainty. Unfortunately this physics is very different from the one that usually informs the design of organizations.*

Reality number two is that human beings - customers in particular - are terrible at envisioning things that don't already exist. Reality number three; If you insist on home runs, chances are you're not going to get very many singles (or many home runs either). Certain personalities just can't live with this last reality, so it's up to a designer to craft a story around the beauty of the game, or something like that, so that a vision of success can start to form that encompasses all personalities, all experiences, and everyone's personal baggage.*

Historians Neustadt and May refer to something they call "thinking in time" - or figuring out how to connect what you know about the past, with how to think well about a new future. And the tricky part of this is not extrapolating from the past, we all know how to do that. It's spotting where the future may diverge from the past and creating a story around that vision.*

Even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon is susceptible to being won over by a talented designer telling a whopper of a story that resonates with a moment from their past or an aspiration they have about the future. Great design draws emotion past the shell of personality into whatever reality the Designer has crafted.

If you're a Designer, be conscious about how much of your own personality you're injecting into your art.


*Props to Professor Jeanne Liedtka of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business - I'm currently enrolled in a Design Thinking for Innovation course through their executive education program and much of the more scholarly points I made can be attributed to the course material, though not verbatim.

Love, Papa

It takes a village.

As I settle in to share this story, Central Virginia is blanketed by five inches of snow. There was snow on the ground that day in February 2011 too. Outside the frozen landscape is calm and the day is lazy and comfortable. There couldn't be more contrast between the present and the past.

That February day in 2011, a family lost a father, mother and sister to a violent outburst from an estranged family member. Rashad Riddick, nephew to James "Clark" Jackson stole his uncle's shotgun, sawed off the end of the barrel and used it to end the lives of Clark, his wife Karen and Karen's daughter Chante Davis. After an agonizingly lengthy series of court appearances, psychological evaluations, and desperate antics on the part of the accused, Riddick plead not guilty by reason of insanity this year and will spend the rest of his days in a secure psychiatric hospital, which at least means he will never have the opportunity to destroy innocent life again.

As fate would have it, Chante's barely four-year-old son Jayden was not present at the time of the assault. His uncle had a strange feeling that day and had come by earlier to get Jayden so he could hang with his cousins. Jayden's father & mother were not together at the time, having decided to live apart a few months prior. They were very young (Chante was 26 when she passed) when Jayden was born and neither was truly ready for parenthood.

Jayden's father, Kyle, is the eldest of my girlfriend's two sons. Kyle (now 28) lived with us and at the time and we kept Jayden on the weekends. Jayden is with us full-time now. The absence of Grandpa Clark, whom Jayden loved dearly, bestowed upon me the coveted and singular title, "Papa." My parents like to remind me that they have the best of both worlds because they can lather up their grandsons (my sister has two boys) and send them home to the 'rents. I, on the other hand, am joined at the hip with my grandson, though I sense that this condition diminishes over time.

He was also joined at the hip with Chante and when she left us Jayden lost his mommy and his best friend in the world. Whereas I have almost zero recollection of large chunks of my childhood, Jay remembers seemingly every detail of the time he had with Chante. When he was five I realized his unhealthy obsession with Sponge Bob Squarepants was rooted in a memory; watching Sponge Bob and eating McNuggets was a mommy and Jayden thing.

My girlfriend and I read lots of books and online resources on coping with loss but slowly realized that we were looking for tools to help us cope with greater regularity than tools for helping a child through the loss of a parent. Kids are unfathomably resilient. It was the adults that were languishing through the stages of grief.

He was only four years old. He barely had the vocabulary to tell us what he needed let alone to relate how all this made him feel. The adults found solace at church and through very supportive families. Kyle's life changed overnight. You can imagine what a nightmare it was for him. And a blessing. And a guilt trip. And a rude awakening.

Jayden is  happy and healthy now, and doing well in school. He's grounded and full of love. As his vocabulary expanded he began to share with us how much he misses mommy. I don't have the vocabulary to describe how deeply that kind of thing will cut you. He'll grow silent at times in the car or during a walk and when you ask what's on his mind he'll simply declare, "I miss mommy." We tell him we do too and it's OK to feel sad and then gradually turn to reminding him how much mommy loved him and how she would be so proud of who is growing up to be. He's precious about his curly hair because mommy loved his curls. He is a constant source of entertainment and inspiration.

Jay & Popa discover second grade. 

Jay & Popa discover second grade. 

Jayden teaches me something about being a human being every day; lessons I carry with me everywhere I go. He's taught me a great deal about myself and given me the rare gift of truly understanding love. Beyond love as an emotion; love as a force through which humans connect, communicate, overcome and build a joyful, productive existence.

I'll wrap this up by sharing some of the lessons a forty-something-year-old Papa has learned from his grandson. They've made me a better designer because communication and empathy are essential tools in my profession. They've made me a better person because understanding and appreciating ourselves and others is essential for successfully living amongst our fellow human beings.

Lesson #1 - Every single human interaction is important, both physical and virtual. From a simple "hello," to a complex dialog at work, the nuances of how we communicate matter. Our interactions are always adding to our experience and those of others. The impact of mindful interaction resonates well beyond what is captured in the moment.

Lesson #2 - Suppressing any emotion is harmful. There's a fine line between suppression and mitigation, but the difference can be life-altering. Jayden taught me to leave plenty of space in your life to contemplate how you react to both stressful and pleasurable situations. Prepare for each by practicing your emotional responses in a void. This is tricky. But I found that drumming up anger, for example, alone in a room and examining my impulses brings greater awareness of my reaction when a coworker throws me under a bus or when arguing over chores with a nine-year-old. I still experience all the emotion, but I'm less likely to loose my cool.

Lesson #3 (a) - Pure, unadulterated honesty is always the best policy. None of us are completely open all of the time. We each possess some level of hubris that convinces us we have a handle on when to lay it all on the table and when to leave out the worst parts (or save them for a better time). We're all pretty sure there are times when another party "can't handle the truth." But if I can have frank conversations about the loss of his mother with an innocent child and our worlds don't collapse, you can conduct a civil conversation with an acquaintance over something which which you don't agree.

Lesson #3 (b) - Put your effort into crafting the message, not obscuring the truth.

Paralipophobia and the Written Word

Why is writing so difficult? I love to write. It is the single most cathartic practice I’ve ever indulged in. Better than exercise. More rewarding than any other creative pursuit for my money. I intend to write daily and end up writing far less frequently. Without a doubt, I am the architect of my own demise when it comes to writing and the dichotomy between desire and execution is depressing to a point approaching the need to punish myself for being… lazy?

I’ve read (has to be) the entire sum of what the experts have to say about preparing to write. I create sufficient opportunity for it to happen. I read all the time. Like, ALL the time. I constantly jot down notes about potential subject matter. I discuss what I’d like to write about with other writers. I employ a myriad of software solutions to start writing, keep writing, edit with peers, share ideas, track progress, nudge… I’m writing in one right now, and it’s good. I’m happy, in the zone, in my element. The brain is alive and sufficiently challenged. But it won’t last. It never does and I am truly, emphatically repentant.

When I’ve written something, anything, I’ll immediately share it with loved ones, friends, colleagues, the general internet public… I solicit feedback, I crave it, whether it be brutal criticism or tacit confirmation of my genius. It’s thrilling and the visceral sense of accomplishment is absolutely addictive. A healthy addiction even, one you can’t put a price on.

So why, for the love of all things Holy, is writing more often than not a source of self-flagellation rather than bliss? I’m confident in my ability (that is to say I like what I write and that’s usually good enough). I’m constantly within arms reach of the tools. The written word has been a steady companion all of my life and yet, like a playful puppy with a ball, when I reach for the inspiration the paragraphs dart off just out of reach and stare me down, mocking my ambition.

From early childhood on, my mother prompted me to read from the dictionary regularly. She shared her passion for language with my sister and I, molding us into “those kids” in class — the ones that busted out the big vocabulary drawing jeers and spitwads. I still endure the good-natured taunts of my significant other as I drop “antidisestablishmentarianism” as we discuss the first amendment for one of her online classes.

It is not for lack of language, nor thoughts on just about everything that stays my ability to write it down already. I don’t particularly lament poor grammar or spelling, punctuation or even lack of discernable structure in a composition (at least when I’m the transgressor). I’m not particularly reticent at the prospect of an audience (with the exception of email). I don’t consider crafting ten to twenty emails a day writing, so much as conversing in absentia. But I digress.

I never regret having spent time translating my thoughts into words and committing them to analog or digital media. That is to say writing never makes me sad. On the contrary, the act is one of genuine Zen, a pure cathartic release. I’m hard-pressed to connect the imposter syndrome that renders me immobile in the face of design projects to the phenomenon of staring at a blank page for twenty minutes and then just… not writing a single word.

Perhaps it’s not the act itself that eludes us. Perhaps it is the potentiality of written word that weighs us down.

The venerable Anne Lamott wrote it best:

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Perhaps Paralipophobia is as an apt a diagnosis as any. In my case, though I’m rarely writing anything of even minimal importance to anyone but myself, I feel a tremendous sense of duty to the craft. The written word, both factual and fictional, has been the catalyst for monumental moments throughout history. That I tend to write almost exclusively now in a media that is ubiquitous and relentlessly scrutinized, may indeed give me pause.

Then again, I may just love it too much, appending to the act the trepidation of a first kiss. You just have to lean in and let kinetics take over.

All Apologies

How do you receive an apology at work? In my own view, I’ve never been very adept at receiving an apology from a colleague. I hope that I’m gracious, display empathy, acknowledge the intent and provide the intended response to whoever is doing the apologizing. But I’m never really certain if I’m accomplishing any of these aspirations.

I perceive myself to be simultaneously empathetic and highly skeptical. When I ponder this dichotomy, I delve into an area of self-examination that becomes too complex for me to comprehend. This is probably the catalyst for my confusion regarding apologies. I’m performing this self-diagnosis while the other person is trying to relate and express their mea culpa. I begin to judge my performance and in turn scrutinize their words, their mannerisms and the space between us. Perhaps an overabundance of formal communication training is also at play here.

I have a vague sense that I’m most likely equally awkward at delivering an apology, but I try my best to apologize only when I feel genuinely responsible for causing another person anguish. But does everyone practice this level of self-regulation? I assume not. I wouldn’t say I’m sorry about this unfortunate assumption either. I believe I arrived at this state via various experiences wherein a person has apologized profusely for something and then repeated the offense at a later date.

Perhaps the ultimate metric by which to evaluate any apology, is actions. Does the person appear truly repentant in speech and subsequently back that up with action? Do they repeat the offense and launch into the same lament at having done so? Do they approach with bended knee, provide an adequate summation of their error, vow never to transgress again and exhibit an awareness of their actions going forward?

Children are terrible at this interaction. They apologize because we tell them, “you better say you’re sorry!” But their grasp on “right” and “wrong” is still developing and to hold them accountable on a deep emotional level for bopping another kid on the head with a Nerf bat is just ludicrous. A child’s apology is all about the adults in the room. An exercise in saving face for one parent as the child of another is crying hysterically in the corner. A platitude performed to instill a sense of responsibility for one’s actions while even the kid knows they can just apologize again the next time they spill orange juice on dad’s computer.

“I SAID I’m sorry!”

Come to think of it, this is probably at the root of my issue with workplace apologies. The cutthroat environment of the corporate world, office politics and the skewed view of heroism as it is exalted in business has left me jaded. Behind every apology, I empirically assume there is a cold, calculated conspiracy of cover your ass-ness evolving right in front of me. This may be the very reason I only say I’m sorry when I’m absolutely certain I’ve screwed a colleague through my actions or words (I’m confident this means I owe a ton of people an apology); I’m so weary of committing the offense of dodging the blame that I’d rather you just deal with whatever I’ve done to offend at the expense of basic civility.

Yikes!

As I mentioned, I’ve had my fair share of expert advice on the matter. I’ve run through the role-play pitting judging language against learning behavior. I know my DISC profile and my Myers-Briggs personality inventory. To be honest, I place high value on this level of self-awareness and understanding of basic human behavior. Though it requires practice and practical experience to derive true value from these studies, I can attest that even a general comprehension of WHY people behave the way they do, alleviates a ton of stress around interactions with coworkers (and customers).

Nevertheless, it’s so very easy to revert to primordial instinct when your coworker asks for a sidebar after a meeting and hems you into a corner of the hallway. What (for the love of Peter, Paul and Mary) do they want now!? OMG… this is about that thing they said the other day that I’ve completely forgotten but secretly plotted their demise over for, oh, about twenty minutes. Ok. Here we go.

“I just wanted to bend your ear about what I said the other day. Nobody asked me to do this, it’s just sat with me all week. Look, I value your input and ideas, and you’ve really stepped up your game lately. My issue is with how you’re approaching this particular project. You seem less invested than usual. But hey, I chose my words poorly in that meeting. I just want to apologize if I made you feel like we don’t appreciate all that you do. You’re a rockstar! So, are we good?”

In other words, “you, you, you, you & you.”

Ok, so it’s me. I’m horrifically jaded.

I’m sorry.

Unilateral Decisions

We’ve all been there. You’re at your desk, kiosk, podium, workbench, production cell, steering wheel, console, on stage, on set, behind the camera, behind the glass, behind the bar, on the corner, etc. whiling away your work day and then… the proverbial poo rolls down the hill and into your unsuspecting lap.

Yet another unilateral decision has been made by the company’s senior staff and is now being disseminated with varying degrees of tact to the worker bees. In some cases, the task is doled out through the chain of command, whose agents delay the delivery as they quietly bang out a resignation letter only to chuck it in the round file and then cheerfully pass the “good news” on to the professionals and skilled workers at precisely the most inopportune moment of the day.

Other organizations call an impromptu all-hands-on-deck and lay out the new law of the land via a scripted statement assembled in haste by an executive assistant (or the lone marketing copy editor because they’re good at that sort of thing) working from a human resource consultant’s template. Some executives go with the full Bill Lumbergh and casually drop by your workstation with an affected “attaboy” and then launch the sidewinder as they scoot on over to the next unsuspecting group.

Perhaps the least appreciated method is the email bomb. The CEO, President, Head Chef, Plant Manager or whoever grabbed the nearest “thoughts on leadership” book from the shelf and tore through it to the earmarked page with their favorite “how to effectively communicate organizational change on a Friday” phrase, fiddled with Outlook for ten minutes, plagiarized the author and hit SEND!

Regardless of the message or the method of delivery, the recipients will reject, mock, silently and immediately begin plotting their escape/revenge/sabotage scheme, or effectively shut down for the day when any decision that affects their every waking hour at work was made in a closed meeting, amongst a handful of executives, without universal input from the professional staff that have to change course mid-stream and execute the new directive.

Sometimes, it just has to be this way. But it rarely does.

Organizational changes are a function of doing business and as such are inevitable. How a company arrives at the decision to pivot and subsequently to communicate the change is a direct reflection of the culture. Not the culture triumphantly declared and emblazoned across the website. The flesh and blood manner in which members of an organization interact — the real culture that customers and consultants can detect behind the scenes.

Executives who live and die by the unilateral decision (especially those that thrive on starting the quarter — or the new year — with a string of “game changers”) are cultivating a culture of mistrust and almost assuredly a workforce that hesitates to push boundaries or invest time in new ideas of their own.

More often than not, a group discussion, a series of kaizens, an open letter to the president or a string of petitions are lurking just beneath the surface of acceptance. The meetings are going to be held. The voices of unrest will be heard (or the revolt will happen slowly over time through side bargains and scuttlebutt, and lapses in delivery).

In a healthy working environment, decisions about changing course, altering a process, upping the metrics or flipping KRAs and KPIs are made through thoughtful discussion, respectful debate and documented outcome.

This is the most effective tack toward the elusive state of universal “buy-in” and when practiced, yields far better results than the executive declaration and mic drop known as a unilateral decision.

Skin in the Game

Collaborative projects require that all participants have skin in the game. The larger the project, the more important it is that all stakeholders, project managers, product managers, owners, and creators are invested on some level. The more invested each participant is, the better the outcome. Conversely, if even one team member has divested themselves of responsibility, the overall quality of the project is in jeopardy — and somebody is going to be thrown under the bus for poor communication, not providing adequate training or not accepting the additional work left undone by the divested member(s).

So how do you ensure that all who accept responsibility, will continue to view themselves as responsible? How do you apply just enough pressure to hold all team members accountable without appearing to pass the buck? There will always be at least one individual who views themselves as too busy, too important, or perhaps unqualified (or inadequately trained) to contribute what they are asked.

The foundation for maintaining accountability is documentation of roles and responsibilities. Without a written statement declaring who is responsible for what and an acknowledgement that each role is important toward reaching a goal, there will be confrontations and those who decide that others should pick up their slack will have the leverage to slip in and out of the loop at will.

Training is the key to empowering each team member to complete the tasks they’re assigned, and it should be standardized, documented, consistent and readily available to all team members. Without formal training in place, it will be far too easy for some to claim ignorance of process or practice and lament, “I was never shown how to do that.” While lack of formalized training doesn’t constitute an excuse to divest from one’s role, it does create havoc at the point at which essential tasks are left undone and the team must revert to either ad hoc training or (worst case) must pick up the slack.

Project managers are the angels on everyone’s shoulder (though they often must play devil’s advocate). Because it falls on the project manager(s) to communicate status, collect and transfer data points and organize collaborative efforts, they are the glue that holds everything together. Their most potent weapon is communication, but they must be cognizant of the manner and frequency that is most effective for each member of the team.

Owners and stakeholders require concise updates on the big picture. Product managers need more frequent status reports on testing requirements, building progress and resource constraints. Creators must have regularly scheduled planning, requirements, testing results and feedback meetings facilitated by project managers who have recorded all data points diligently. Project managers must be able to push and pull with deft prestidigitation, step in and out of roles undetected and monitor the pulse of each team member to decipher developing pitfalls.

One of the major contributors to large or small scale divestment by team members is ineffective communication. This is not always in the form of poorly crafted messages. Communication confined to individual silos is a condition which develops into a disease that will slowly kill a project, taking a few team members down with it.

Communication confined to individual silos is a condition which develops into a disease that will slowly kill a project, taking a few team members down with it.

Open, honest and ubiquitous communication is the salvation for teams suffering the affliction of clandestine conversations. This is a responsibility shared by all team members and it should be the mantra that echos before every meeting and is implicit in every email. The flipside to this coin is openness to receive the message. If the majority of participants are dedicated to open communication and all the cards are on the table at all times, those who chose to avoid emails, dodge meetings and then attempt to push an agenda on the sly will meet with resistance (and perhaps comeuppance) at every turn. Motive is the gut check for all projects and when a team member’s agenda is discovered to be self-serving, their overall input will be minimized in favor of the common good.

Motive is the gut check for all projects and when a team member’s agenda is discovered to be self-serving, their overall input will be minimized in favor of the common good.

The true motive for any project should be empathy. Empathy for each participants’ point of view. Empathy for the end user. Even empathy with regard to the company and the bottom line. And this is where maintaining a team-wide sense of having skin in the game comes into play.

Consider the auto mechanic. When our cars break down we begrudgingly seek out a mechanic who is (hopefully) trustworthy and capable. We then swallow our skepticism and leave them to their work. When we return to retrieve our vehicle we’re told, “well it was this and that and now it’s all good.” We’re assuming that someone in the shop took it for test drive and made sure the repairs are sound. This is because we’re also assuming the mechanic has some skin in the game. But the latter assumption is devoid of proof. The proof comes when we drive a few miles down the road and the dashboard doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree. Or the next day. Or a few weeks later.

This is the same for any collaborative project. The proof of enduring investment from each team member comes after the resulting launch. If the wheels fall off in short order, somebody’s heart wasn’t in the right place.

Notes from the 2014 HOW Interactive Design Conference

HOW_Title.jpg

Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington DC

Update: View the recorded videos from HOW IDC in DC HERE

¡Viva la Revolución!

In November, 2011 I attended the inaugural HOW Interactive Design Conference in San Francisco. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. The experience sparked a passion in me and I foolishly (but confidently) launched a full-scale digital revolution when I returned to the office.

Three years later I now lead the department I was a junior member of in 2011. The revolution toppled the old regime and set small fires to antiquated systems throughout the business. 

As I reveled in the accomplishment earlier this year, it occurred to me that three years of digital design evolution have also transpired! Three years is a lifetime in digital evolution terms and resting on your laurels can render you obsolete quick, fast and in a hurry.

Thankfully, the HOW Interactive Design Conference has also seen great success and is now offered a few times a year, including close by in Washington DC. So this week I drove myself and our new designer two hours north and prepared to receive new marching orders to keep ahead of - or at least abreast of - the digital curve.

Why HOW IDC?

I was asked by a fellow attendee if I thought the concepts presented at conferences like this one have any chance of taking hold once you're back with your colleagues, under deadlines and beset on all sides by constraints.

There’s so much content being presented here. How the hell do you apply any of this to your work? How do you impress, educate and empower your team to pull any of this off, especially if your the only member in possession of all this new data?
— a fellow attendee

It's a fair question, especially when you consider that #HOWIDC draws more of the burgeoning interactive developer or designer set than full stack wizards. But the answer to this question may depend on your answer to another question; "what were you hoping to gain from the experience?"

If you were hoping to triumphantly emerge from the venue as The Webinator, able to transform any digital property into a study of content mastery and responsive fluidity, armed with your codex of coding secrets (notably absent from the swag-bag this time)... you probably want to head thisaway.

I don't have a good answer to my fellow attendee's question, except to say that you should research an event beyond what luminaries will be speaking and try to discover if the content is what you need to know right now.

I left San Francisco in 2011 incensed with haphazard digital craftsmanship and determined to attack the processes that allow its existence.

What I can share is this: I left San Francisco in 2011 incensed with haphazard digital craftsmanship and determined to attack the processes that allow its existence. Since then I've been part of the solution and the relationships I established at the first HOW IDC have kept me tethered to a mindful community of designers and developers bent on doing the same.

The organizers of HOW IDC are purveyors of best practice and they, and all of the speakers they invite to share the stage, care deeply about evolving the processes behind designing the best possible digital products. Even more infectious, and frankly the main draw for me, is the genuine concern they have for quality human interaction with technology.

Thanks to Christopher Butler, this year's program director for being so generous with his time and for his and the advisory board's conscientious efforts toward an excellent conference experience.

If you'd like to read my notes from the 2014 HOW Interactive Design Conference in Washington DC, follow the link below.

Who is the leader you look up to the most in today's world?

I'm not sure I can (or should) narrow it down to one leader. I'm drawn toward leaders in whom I recognize an approach that fits a specific aspect of my life. Setting aside the ethereal for a moment, there are a few notable leaders in my life whose attributes have influenced my style.

My father led our family by example and with great compassion. His approach informs my work ethic and empathy toward others.

John Maeda (former President of the Rhode Island School of Design) is a champion of experimentation and a firm believer in continuous learning, an approach I try to emulate with my team at work.

A benchmark for courageous leadership is my cousin, SFC Christopher Montera, who was severely injured in combat while on a mission in Afghanistan. By all accounts Chris is a born leader & his leadership style endeared him to the young soldiers relying on his decisions to keep them safe. But it his approach to life (before and after his injury) that I hold up as a prime example of uncompromising courage.

As you develop your own ethos, it's important to incorporate examples of great leadership in everyday life along with those from outstanding public figures. The last thing you want to do is subscribe to only one leadership philosophy. You could end up overlooking an approach that encourages a member of your team to achieve greatness or deepens the bond between you and your team.

Admirable leadership qualities are woven together as a tapestry of practical experience, careful observation, wins and losses, personal beliefs, and many, many other influences. A hallmark of inefficient leadership would be to deify the teachings of one "guru" and apply them wholesale in your approach to leading others.

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