Josh Clark is the founder of Big Medium a design agency specializing in connected devices, mobile experiences, and responsive web design. His clients include AOL, Time Inc, eBay, O'Reilly Media, and many others. Josh wrote Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps (O'Reilly, 2010) and the forthcoming Designing for Touch (A Book Apart, 2015). He speaks around the world about what's next for digital interfaces.
Before the internet swallowed him up, Josh was a producer of national PBS programs at Boston's WGBH. He shared his three words of Russian with Mikhail Gorbachev, strolled the ranch with Nancy Reagan, hobnobbed with Rockefellers, and wrote trivia questions for a primetime game show. In 1996, he created the uberpopular "Couch-to-5K" (C25K) running program, which has helped millions of skeptical would-be exercisers take up jogging. (His motto is the same for fitness as it is for software user experience: no pain, no pain.) He also has a Twitter account. Follow him at @bigmediumjosh.
Magically viable product
Instead of making the minimum, let's instead aim to make the magical.
Living with the algorithm
Twenty years later, I still remember the meal.
I was on my first visit to Europe, outfitted with a backpack and a rail pass. The web was young, with limited travel info. Mobile wasn’t a thing. I relied entirely on the limited recommendations of my dog-eared Rough Guide. But on this particular Sunday night in Siena, the recommended restaurants were all closed. I wandered and wandered and wandered the quiet streets, looking for food.
* * *
Serendipity doesn’t happen to me much when I travel anymore. I actively manage against surprises. I select restaurants and hotels well in advance, thanks to the likes of Yelp and Trip Advisor. There’s little chance of a poor meal or room (or, for that matter, an unexpectedly great meal or room).
My efficient tools tune for comfort and confidence. I spend little time searching for where to eat or what to do, yet I reliably find experiences perfectly aligned with my tastes and expectations.
In 2015, there’s very little friction in my travel planning.
* * *
In 1995, it was all friction that night.
I walked the fringes of Siena, trying to decipher my Rough Guide’s poorly detailed map, just trying to find a spark of life and a bite to eat. I plunged down narrow streets chasing the mingled sound of laughter and silverware, only to find it spilling from the open window of a family’s Sunday supper.
I kept on walking—hungry, tired, frustrated.
* * *
In 2015, information comes to me before I even seek it out. Google Now pushes me information in anticipation of my needs; it sends me driving directions moments before I start thinking I should look them up. Facebook filters and sorts friends’ posts to show me information I’m statistically most likely to be interested in. Amazon somehow knows that I need more shaving cream.
We’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes, sure, but apparently our wants and needs can be boiled down to a set of probabilistic rules.
This is life with the algorithm. Planned, massaged, the edges filed down.
* * *
In 1995, it was a glass of chianti that finally took the edge off. And some truffle crostini. And a pappardelle sulla lepre to die for.
I’d finally found a little osteria off a blind alley. The place had just five or six tables, only half full. The father cooked, and the daughter managed the front. They fed me and then gave me my first taste of grappa and laughed as I described my misadventures bumbling through Tuscany. They sat down with me and my crummy map and suggested what I should do the next day. They welcomed me like family.
The meal tasted like victory, a triumph over the dusty challenges of travel. I was sure I’d never tasted food so delicious. It was a glorious night.
* * *
In 2015, I would have easily found an online listing for the delicious neighborhood spot that’s open on Sundays and treats you like family (no reservations, accepts credit cards, outdoor seating, serves wine and beer, open 11am-10pm).
In 1995, I had to find the place on my own. I had to earn its discovery. And that accident turned into one of many lifelong memories of that summer.
I don’t know if I’d even remember the place if I hadn’t found it with such difficulty. There’s something about friction that makes you think more, feel more, appreciate more. Challenge makes you see things from a new perspective.
* * *
Here in 2015, I’m routinely delighted by how easy the algorithm makes it to gather information, to find answers, to avoid waits or discomfort. But I wonder what I’m losing when everything comes with such ease and efficiency. It makes me ask questions.
The algorithm undoubtedly makes our lives easier. But does it also perhaps make them smaller, narrower?
How might we salt the algorithm with surprise and serendipity?
How might we season our interfaces with friction designed to encourage a pause and reflection?
When is the right time to coax people to slow down instead of hustling through?
How do we build algorithms smart enough to know they’re not smart enough?
How might we build human judgment and social interaction into our interfaces (and our lives) when the algorithm fails to anticipate that need?
How do we encourage ourselves to plunge into the unknown without first looking up the answers?
And most important: where can I get a recipe for that pappardelle sulla lepre? (Oh wait, the algorithm knows.)
The Long Middle
I’m in the cove of a Maine lake, standing on a dock. The far side of the cove is 300 yards away—not far, but then I’m not a great swimmer. This is my English Channel. I focus on the opposite shore and slip into the water.
* * *
Beginnings and endings are the exciting bits: the potential of a new project, and then the thrill of completion. The trouble for me is the stretch in between. I almost always find the middle to be long and tedious. I focus on the destination, with little patience for the journey. I walk fast, I work quickly, and I’m not kind to myself when I take too long. I just want to close the gap.
Thing is, beginnings and endings are fleeting; we spend our lives in the middle. It’s the middle where the work is done, where the puzzles are solved, where the words are crafted. Halfway through my fifth decade, it’s only now starting to occur to me that I should develop more patience for the middle—perhaps even affection.
* * *
I’ve only been swimming for a few minutes, and I’m already panting. My slow, awkward strokes barely seem to move me toward the other side. Focus on your target, Josh, just push through.
* * *
I just finished my latest book. It took me much longer to write than I’d planned—a big, fat middle to slog through. Now that it’s done, I’m proud of how well it came out, excited to see it ship in a few weeks. I’m glad I did it, but I didn’t enjoy doing it.
For me, writing long is a punishing process—a self-punishing process. I spend much of the time feeling slow, dumb, inarticulate, waiting waiting waiting for the words to emerge and the ideas to gel. The longer the book takes to write, the more the self doubt creeps in: will the words still be relevant; am I really cut out for this writing thing; did I really just eat two whole bags of Cheetos; do I even have anything meaningful to say; why am I so awful at this?
Thing is, I actually love writing. I’m good at it. I’ve begun to realize that my problem is not with writing but with my perspective—and my process. The process of writing a book, like tackling any other big project, is one of milestones large and small. Manuscripts are made up of chapters are made up of sections are made up of pages. I tend to focus on deadlines and daily quotas to power past those book landmarks. I obsessively watch the word and page counts pile up (or not). In other words, I write a book by trying to sprint to an endless series of destinations.
Turns out that’s a terrible way to write. It’s a perspective that drains the joy and satisfaction out of crafting words. Instead of investing so much intellectual and emotional energy in the future—in the deadline—perhaps I should do more to reconnect with the pleasures and challenges of the moment: of actually writing, thinking, puzzling, making.
Be here now, my extraordinary wife often tells me.
* * *
My arms feel heavy, and I’m not even midway across the cove. I flip over to my back to coast a little, to rest. Why am I even doing this?
* * *
I love my work. I’m an interaction designer, and my whole job is to collaborate with others to invent the future. We craft new and better ways to connect the digital and physical worlds. The work is fun, challenging, and all about releasing untapped potential.
Like every job, though, mine comes freighted with process, politics, personalities. All of those things need to be tended. They’re critical parts of getting the job done, and I’m good at managing those pieces. But they’re not the work. They are the pressures and stresses and constraints of the project. They shape the work, but they’re not the work.
Too often, in the long middle of a project, I let my perspective be molded by those external forces, by the deadlines and the milestones and the phone calls and the contracts. So while I’m fortunate to have such creative and fulfilling work, I’m also foolish enough not to enjoy it as much as I might. Because come on: this is when the puzzles are solved, where experiments are floated, where the new is invented. That’s what the middle is made of.
But I often let the rest distract me from the pleasures of the work I do. I’m doing dream work for dream clients. I can let myself enjoy it, to remind myself that, hey, this is not just a job; this is work I love to do. Lighten up.
* * *
Gradually, I start to work a little less hard at pushing myself through the water. I relax a little. I find a rhythm and a sustainable pace. I’m slow—wow, so slow—but I’m steady. The other side is still a long way off, but I’m starting to listen to my body instead of focusing on the finish. This feels good.
I’m passing the middle of the cove now, and I let my senses shift from the far side to what’s right around me. Sun-dappled water. Impossibly purple dragonflies skimming the surface. A loon’s call is the only sound breaking the stillness. It will be a nifty accomplishment to reach the other side, but right now in this moment, I’m in the middle… and the water’s fine.
Connected // Disconnected
Go ahead and write off 20 percent of your day. You’re going to spend it gazing into your phone.
On average, we spend three hours and 16 minutes every day—a fifth of our waking hours—staring at our pocket computers. We consult them 221 times from morning to night, once every four minutes.
As a mobile designer, perhaps I should feel satisfaction that I’ve created such engaging experiences. But I can’t help but think: maybe we mobile designers have done our jobs a little too well. And maybe “engagement” was the wrong goal to chase in the first place.
* * *
It’s a business trip, and I’m taking in a meal on my own. While I wait, I entertain myself by poking at sites and flipping through feeds on my phone. Media has always been the armor of a solo traveler; a book, a newspaper, and now your phone… they all cushion you from your own isolation.
But I look around the restaurant, and I’m not the only one wearing the armor. Every table is occupied by people pecking at their phones—a couple here, a group of friends over there, all on their phones. A family is packed into the corner; only the toddler is looking around the room, alert. Everyone else is heads down.
* * *
I love mobile devices. I’ve devoted years of my career to designing for them. I’m a believer. The smartphone is amazing, a personal supercomputer that empowers us in a jillion ways and connects us with each another in loose but novel ways.
Here’s what makes the thing so powerful: it’s available at the point of inspiration. We can act on immediate impulse to get information or media or services or commerce. Snap that photo, record that conversation, consult that map.
This superpower is also mobile’s Achilles’ heel. Because the phone is available at the point of inspiration, it also carries us away from the very thing that inspired us. The more connected we are, the more disconnected we become from the world around us.
Even when we’re not actually using our phones, they still distract. A recent study found that performance on basic tests of attention gets worse if a cellphone is merely visible nearby.
How can we get all the marvelous benefits of these digital systems without disengaging from a far richer interface, the physical environment? Screens are always going to be with us, but perhaps they can merely caption our lives instead of frame them.
* * *
“Engagement” is a common business goal for the design of so many websites, apps, and services. We lure people in and try to figure out how to get them to stay. We tell ourselves that our goal is to “delight” users, but I think we’ve lost the thread of what the word actually means. We seem to think it means keeping people distracted and busy. When you say “engagement,” I now hear “theft of attention.”
As we bathe in data and swim in interfaces, spending time on site is not a gift. The real luxury is the occasional moment of peace and calm. That’s not how we designers typically tune our digital experiences. Instead, we vie for attention. We notify and nag.
The best technologies disappear into the environment to minimize distraction from the content or experience at hand. Yet we design for distraction, and we call it engagement.
Instead of engaging attention, I’d like to free it. Instead of maximizing time on site, I’d like to reduce it. Give people the information they need, and let them get back to their lives. Notify only when there’s something worth saying. Ask for attention only for content that deserves it. Less talk, more conversation.
* * *
Smartwatches ask designers to put a new focus on glances instead of sessions. I love it.
Watches don’t ask us to linger. Smartwatch design guidelines suggest that the best experiences limit interaction with the screen. (Android Wear encourages interactions of less than five seconds, for example.) Done well, that means we get quick doses of information delivered at just the right moment, and then we can return to the world. They provide a way for us to skim the digital surface instead of diving deep. Glanceability over engagement.
The trouble: glances work well when they’re delivered with respect and discretion, but alas those seem to be in short supply.
* * *
We deliver notifications about everything. Our phones and watches buzz constantly. If you have good digital hygiene, you’ll immediately start pruning those back. But few of us do that, which means these glance notifications tend to make the information overload worse instead of meeting their potential to ease it.
What happens when those notifications inevitably move off screen? Sensors, processors, and connectivity have become so trivially inexpensive that we can embed them into anything. That’s what the internet of things is all about, and it means anything can be an interface. This could go wonderfully or it could go horribly—probably both.
The last thing we need is for all of these new interfaces to tantrum for attention. Designers have to put careful thought into what’s an appropriate interruption, what’s the right information for the moment. As we embed software in the world, the challenge and opportunity is to supplement and amplify our real-world experience, not distract from it. Digital advantages without digital distractions.
* * *
The potential of the internet of things is to improve on what mobile does so well. Instead of availability at the point of inspiration, IoT lets us shift to interaction with the point of inspiration. Add sensors and smarts to an object or place, and you no longer have to pull out your phone for a digital interaction. We’re starting to create physical interfaces for digital systems, no screen even necessary.
The opportunity is to shift the interface to the physical world. That’s always been our primary interface, of course. But now we can begin to make it the digital interface, too, returning engagement to the world around us and freeing it from behind glass slabs.
Of Nerve and Imagination
I was six years old the first time I saw the future.
My elementary school imported a steady and unusual program of guest speakers. Our assemblies featured a swami, a secret-service agent and, on this particular day, a wiry young man with a stage full of equipment.
From inside my pint-sized body, the machinery in the auditorium that day seemed huge, a mainframe-sized collection of premium 1970s technology. Our visitor dashed from console to console, leaping thick cables, getting his gear ready. He stopped in front of a big keyboard and then looked up at us. And that’s when the sound started.
* * *
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote. He wasn’t talking parlor tricks. He referred to technology that so completely transcends our everyday understanding of the world that it is utterly inexplicable. Aristotle, Clarke wrote, would have been at a loss to explain how touching two pieces of metal together could unleash a devastating surge of energy. For all his genius, the philosopher’s understanding of science could not possibly embrace nuclear reaction.
The mind’s eye can’t see around the corner of brain-bending scientific breakthroughs. This is one of the things that make the prophet racket so hard. A single discovery or insight can suddenly make the impossible possible, even easy. The fact that we don’t foresee such changes is an excusable failure of imagination. It’s hard, foolhardy perhaps, to predict that the impossible is within reach.
Less forgivable is what Clarke called “the failure of nerve.” That’s when all the pieces for powerful change are sitting right in front of us, ready and available, and we fail to see their potential. We’re so stuck on the way things have been that we don’t see how they might be rearranged to powerful effect.
Failures of nerve often seem ridiculous after the fact, because the outcome seems so obvious in hindsight. In 1985, a New York Times column predicted a miserable future for laptop computers:
On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.…
Yes, there are a lot of people who would like to be able to work on a computer at home. But would they really want to carry one back from the office with them? It would be much simpler to take home a few floppy disks tucked into an attache case.…
[T]he real future of the laptop computer will remain in the specialized niche markets. Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing.
* * *
The sound started simply enough. A bleep here, then a bloop, a buzz and a beep. But slowly the sounds gathered and folded onto each other to form deepening layers. It’s robot music, I thought. I knew, because Star Wars had arrived in theaters that spring. The auditorium filled with the sound of a hundred R2-D2s chirping in harmony. It was electronic, unnatural, but still… distinctly musical.
At the center of the sound was our visitor, in t-shirt and sneakers, a wild-eyed composer creating a one-man symphony, just him and his machines. He was making the machines sing.
* * *
The significance of new combinations tends to escape us. When someone embeds a computer inside a watch, it’s all too natural for us to assume that it will be used like either a computer or a watch. A smartphone on your wrist! A failure of nerve prevents us from imagining the entirely new thing that this combination might represent. The habits of the original technology blind us to the potential opportunities of the new.
Today’s combinations are especially hard to parse because they’re no longer about individual instances of technology. The potential of a smartwatch, for example, hinges not only on the combination of its component parts but on its combination with other smart and dumb objects in our lives.
As we weigh the role of the smartwatch, we have to muster the nerve to imagine: How might it talk to other devices? How can it interact with the physical world? What does it mean to wear data? How might the watch signal identity in the digital world as we move through the physical? How might a gesture or flick of the wrist trigger action around me? What becomes possible if smart watches are on millions of wrists? What are the social implications? What new behaviors will the watch channel and shape? How will it change the way I use other devices? How might it knit them together?
As we begin to embed technology into everything—when anything can be an interface—we can no longer judge each new gadget on its own. The success of any new interface depends on how it controls, reflects, shares, or behaves in a growing community of social devices. We are bridging the gap between digital and physical, one small step at a time. Nerve demands that we take the long view.
* * *
He owned us. It’s not easy to hold the attention of 100 grade-schoolers, but after 30 minutes of crafting a live sci-fi soundtrack, he had us completely. A 1970s electronic pied piper.
And then it happened. At the end of his performance, he stepped to the front of the stage. “One day,” he said, “all of you will have a machine that does all this, makes music like this.” Then he pulled out his wallet and held it up. “And it won’t be any bigger than this. It will fit in your pocket.”
A roomful of little first-grade heads exploded. I’ll never forget it: “It will fit in your pocket.” It was the first time I really ached for a specific vision of the future. For me, the future wasn’t rocket cars. It wasn’t living on the moon. It wasn’t even R2-D2. The future was having my own little synthesizer, a computer in my pocket that I could use to make something.
So I waited for the future. At first, I thought it had arrived in 2001 with the iPod. Bam, music in your pocket, just like he said. But that was just a player. It couldn’t make anything. It wasn’t a creative device. It wasn’t until 2007 that I realized that it was the iPhone I was waiting for. Apple’s fabulous device was the first thing to resemble my childhood notions of the future. It was the very first time the future finally got here. And I’ll be damned if the future didn’t fit in my pocket, exactly as promised.
* * *
I don’t know who our guest was. I wish I knew his name. His equipment wouldn’t fit in my living room, let alone my pocket. Gordon Moore had posited Moore’s Law only a decade earlier. The Apple II personal computer would hit the market later that summer. And the New York Times was still eight years away from declaring the death of the portable computer. Yet this guy was already sharing his vision for tiny personal computers. Even more remarkable, he had the foresight to imagine them dedicated to creativity and leisure.
I thought about his promise every few months for the next three decades. And now that this stuff is what I do for a living, I think about it even more. I think about it every time I feel a lapse of imagination or nerve, or when I’m tempted to say, “it can’t be done” or “I just don’t see it.” I think back to the robot conductor of 1977, and I’m inspired to look again, deeper this time.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible,” Clarke wrote. There’s fresh magic minted every day. It’s up to us to have the nerve to see it.
Postscript: if you're interested in the future—and especially if your job has anything to do with predicting it—do read Arthur C. Clarke's 1962 essay The Hazards of Prophecy (pdf).
Advice to a younger me
As I plow through middle age, I look back at a track of bone-headed mistakes, hard-won triumphs, alienated relationships, accidental victories, and treasured partnerships. With that hindsight, what might I tell my younger self about success and contentment in professional life?
My friend Andy Pratt recently put this question to a ton of designers, including me: what advice would you give your younger self about “soft skills”—the non-technical stuff we need for success in our craft. I confess the question paralyzed me, because there’s so much that kid didn’t know. I started jotting things down. And more things. And more. The list was long, but one bit of advice easily floated to the top. This was my answer to Andy, the advice I wished I could beam back to my young self:
You are not your work. Your immense value as a human being is completely unrelated to the worth of the things you make. The success or failure of a project, the presence or absence of attention, the silence or applause of an audience… all of these things are useful commentary on your work—but your work is outside of you. Apply that feedback to the things you make, not to your self-worth. Success doesn’t make you a better person, and failure doesn’t make you a worse one. There is no rest or satisfaction in thinking you will finally be happy if only your work is a success.
Conflating what I push into the world with my own sense of self has easily been my biggest recurring self-sabotage. It’s an easy mistake to make; like so many, I pour a huge amount of effort and care into my creations—designs, talks, books, essays—and it sometimes feels impossible to separate them from myself. Regular Pastry Box readers know I’m not the only one who struggles to be kind to myself when things don’t pan out as I’d hoped. It remains a daily challenge to stoke my enthusiasm for the stuff I make while also maintaining healthy emotional distance from its reception. I wish I had realized the importance of that separation sooner.
As I thought about what else I’d tell young Josh Clark, the list kept growing. Some items were practical, others unabashedly self-helpy, but all were very personal—tuned to my own foibles, strengths, and experiences. Even more than most advice, of course, this means your mileage may vary with this list. But on the off chance that you’re tuned the same way I am (and was), I herewith share the rest of my list with you:
That thing you’re good at: fast work, fast ideas, long nights, little sleep… that doesn’t last. It will fade as you get older. Capitalize on those talents of youth but cultivate the big idea for the older you. Learn to listen, watch, make connections, and make conceptual leaps.
The best best practices change over time, as assumptions and givens change. Don’t get so hooked on a single technology that you are not ready for the next thing. Keep moving. Always keep moving.
Don’t be so afraid to quit. If the design doesn’t work, if the business doesn’t make money, move on. Failure is powerfully disappointing, but not as disappointing as staying stuck in it.
Your work is much bigger than the current project. Your work is to cultivate your craft, and that craft goes beyond the screen. Get your head into the real world and enjoy life around you. Don’t be so narrow. Indulge your curiosity, and cultivate broad pursuits.
You might think of yourself as “creative,” but that doesn’t also mean you’re not good at “business.” Business is mighty creative itself, full of storytelling and design opportunities.
The crux of design is selling. The design needs to sell its subject (this is commercial work, not art) and you need to sell that design. For the design to be a success, you have to pitch the project, sell your solution to it, and persuade your client to adopt it.
The pitch is part of the creative process. Selling design work requires intimate knowledge of the problem that needs to be solved. That’s the very heart of design. How is this idea, design, process, or experience going to make life better for the client, the customer, the community? Understand what motivates those audiences, and you understand the goal of the work.
You’re better and smarter at more things than you might expect. You’re also worse and dumber at other things than you think you are. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses so that you can better appreciate the talents of others.
You need other people. You can’t do this [thing, business, project, life] by yourself. Figure out the things that you like to do and that you’re good at (they often don’t overlap) and focus on those. Find friends and collaborators who like what you don’t and who are good at what you’re not. Celebrate their talents instead of envying them. You will make amazing things together.
The success of others has no bearing on your own. Don’t begrudge others when they’re awesome. This is not a zero-sum game. Their success does not take away from your own. There’s plenty of room for all of us to kick ass.
Having a difficult conversation isn’t nearly as bad as not having it. Being nice isn’t always being kind.
You’re not exceptional. Special things will happen to you, like they happen to everyone else. Be kind to others and support their awesome moments, and understand that your own awesome moments don’t make you better than anyone else. (But man, enjoy the hell out of those awesome moments.)
There is no big time. If you set up your life as a series of “when I finally get there, I’ll be happy” goals, you set yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment. A new goal or accomplishment or barrier will always arrive, and your happiness will always be just out of reach if you think that way. Keep up the chase, but don’t hang your happiness on the result.
Making the leap is scary but not as scary as waiting and waiting and waiting.
Perfect is your enemy. The world will not crash down if it’s not just right. And it won’t crash down if you outright fail.
Success and failure are both fleeting and relative. There’s aways a next chapter. Focus on what’s happening now, enjoy the current accomplishment, and then turn the page to see what’s next.
You’ve got time. Don’t be in such a hurry.
The list barely scratches the surface. There’s much more I’d tell young Josh, not that I’d expect him to listen. That headstrong young man was supremely confident in his exceptionalism and in the path he was sure he’d follow. He hadn’t yet made any big mistakes, and he somehow assumed that pattern would continue. In the end, there are things you simply have to learn yourself, through your own hard falls and soaring successes.
The worst, of course, is when you repeat the same hard fall over and over again. The good news is that I’ve accumulated these little rules to help avoid those falls. Maybe I’ll actually follow them this time.
Resolved: 7 creative habits for a pivotal year in design
January resolutions are punishments, the hair shirts that we piously pull on to scrub the vices out of our lives. Less delicious food! More uncomfortable exercise! Less TV! More work! Edicts like these are dreary apologies for who I was last year, not optimistic visions of who I might be this year.
I don’t usually take resolutions too seriously. Past reforms have included “drink more beer” and “no more silence in elevators.” I’m pleased to say that both resolutions were a resounding success, if not exactly world changing. The difference was that those pledges were gifts to myself, permission to go easy on myself for once and make the year a couple of degrees more fun.
This year, I’m considering my resolutions with a straighter face, but I’m still framing them as gifts to yours truly. What do I want my year to be? How can I give myself the things I need to make it so?
Resolved: this will be a year of more ideas and fewer screens for me. I aim to deepen the routines that stoke my enthusiasm, attract new inspiration, develop complex ideas, and connect me with people and places.
A year of creative change
The design industry has begun a set of fundamental shifts—from screens to objects, from UX as specialty to UX as basic skill, from mediated interaction to direct physicality, from agency hired guns to in-house smarties, from software to software+hardware, from apps to services. Yep, we’re entering yet another fresh period of invention—not only for our craft but for the way we think about the world and what we might build for it. When everything is an interface and everyone is a designer, things become interesting… unpredictable… full of possibility.
I haven’t been so excited about what I (and we) do in a very long time. This is shaping up to be a year of creative change for what we do collectively. So I’d like to make it a year of creative change for what I do individually, too.
At first blush, it looks like I’m all set there. I have two books in the pipeline for 2015—one on designing for touch, another on the internet of things. I’ve got a new business in the works. I’m starting design projects that are already stretching my imagination of what digital interaction can be. And most exciting of all: I’m getting married in June and becoming a stepdad, too.
I’m awash in stirring projects and life events, which is great on all counts. The risk, though, is that I’ll focus on all these tasks without allowing myself the creative reflection to make them the successes they might be. It’s a trees-forest thing.
My habits need an overhaul. My routine is not well tuned for the creative invention (and self-invention) that our craft requires this year. My creative hygiene needs some work.
The gift of permission
Everyone I know says they’re redlining. We all feel too many demands on our time: too many emails, too much information, too many obligations, too few hours in the day. In that context, how can taking time out for reflection seem anything other than self indulgent? People are waiting for stuff from me. Clients, family, colleagues. Personal needs can wait.
Here’s the thing. Obligations inevitably expand to eat all available time. If we don’t protect space for ourselves, the mean responsibilities of the day will swallow us up like kudzu.
The gift I’ve resolved to give myself this year is permission. I’m giving myself permission to have a healthier attitude toward work, life, and stress, to develop contentment with what I have and excitement for what I might. I’m giving myself the gift of time, reflection, and creative space. At a moment of groundshifting change both personal and professional, what could be more important?
Focus on craft, not just the job
Reading, writing, exercise, play, art… I’ve always considered these things to be decidedly extra-curricular, stuff that doesn’t pay the bills or cross stuff off my overloaded to-do list.
That’s short-sighted. These activities—the things I love most—may not directly serve a job, but they certainly serve my craft. Creative engagement is central to what I do for a living. My gig is to solve problems, come up with new ideas, think differently. If I focus only on “the work” at the exclusion of staying charged up for that work, I’m putting myself at a disadvantage, working on half battery. 2015 will be a year when we’re all going to need a full battery.
More of these, please
So how to stay charged, how to operate at full creative capacity? These are the things I’m giving myself guilt-free permission to do in order to form a stronger creative habit.
- 750 words per day
- Mornings just for me
- Daily runs
- Tool time
- Look at art
- Time away from screens
750 words per day
Writing gives form and discipline to ideas. Committing notions to paper gives clarity, tests logic, and inevitably brings up even more ideas. I don’t do this enough, and I miss it. Last year, I wrote only a single blog post. Most of my thoughts stayed trapped in my own head, untested by bringing them into the light.
This year, I’m giving myself time every morning to write at least 750 words per day. It’s a modest amount, and I’m not going to be terribly formal about it. Most of this will be stream-of-consciousness thoughts in a journal. (Hello, Day One.)
I’ll write about what’s on my mind: hopes, anxieties, ambitions, along with ruminations on the industry, on my work, on my family, on technology, on culture, on friends, on news of the day. Whatever is in my head, I want to spill it out. Most of this will be just for my own eyes, but I suspect that some of these scribblings will make its way into the public, the seeds for design projects, blog posts, book chapters, talks, and yep, Pastry Box essays.
But maybe more important, it’s a way to get my engine fired up first thing every day, to get thoughts flowing and ideas loose… before other voices descend, before distractions mount, before email sends me on a detour, before the next deadline takes hold of my brain.
To pull that off, though, I have to give myself another, particularly big permission:
Mornings just for me
Sorry outside world, the doors are closed until 11am. Before that, I’ll take no meetings, read no email, do no project work. This is time I’m giving myself to tend to tilling the creative soil (in hopes that I can come up with better metaphors than tilling soil). This is time that I’m giving myself every day for writing, reading, thinking, meditating, or just sitting.
When I was younger, night was my productive time. Age seems to have turned that around. The morning is my most imaginative time of day. The morning’s for thinking, and the afternoon is for cranking. If I crank in the morning instead, I lose my best thinking. This year, I’ll guard those fertile hours more aggressively.
I love to run. Twenty years ago I wrote a running schedule called Couch to 5K to help skeptical would-be runners start running. A confession: I’ve followed the program a jillion times myself, because I keep falling off the wagon. I am an inconstant runner, because I let other obligations push it out of my day. Running is time consuming, after all: a one-hour run plus warmup, warmdown, and shower takes two hours in all. It’s easy to tell myself I don’t have time for it.
Truth is, running is enormously productive for me. I do some of my best thinking on the run. It’s a kind of free-associative meditation. I return from a run in a great mood and full of energy, new ideas, and solved problems.
And, hey, it’s good for my body, too (lord knows I’m not getting any younger). Running keeps me healthy both physically and mentally; both are crucial elements of a sustainable creative life. In The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry writes that it’s not enough to be brilliant or prolific to create consistently great work; you also have to be healthy. His simple equation:
Prolific + Brilliant + Healthy = producing great work consistently and in a sustainable way
Last year some friends and I started an occasional hacking group to make stuff on Sunday afternoons. (Among other things, Larry Legend and I built the Happy Together interaction to make phones and desktops more friendly with each other.)
I plan to make this a weekly routine: three or four hours on Sundays to play with hardware, take stuff apart, build things up, or tinker with new web technologies. Tool time is my weekend laboratory to build prototypes and develop hare-brained schemes.
I hope a few of these prototypes will turn into something useful, but I expect most of them to turn into glorious dead ends. “It is as important to discover what cannot be done as what can be done,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke; “and it is sometimes considerably more amusing.” This is gonna be fun.
When I look over my past reading list, I see too much technology news, too few big ideas, too much inside my narrow professional discipline. It’s confining.
This year I give myself permission to read beyond my job description and, I hope, outside of my normal comfort zone. I want to read non-fiction in a variety of disciplines, to see the creative process at work for other thinkers. I want to read some sublime fiction to enjoy how talented authors create new universes by carefully stitching words together. I want to read science fantasy that imagines the world as it might be. Most of all, I want to read in order to remove myself to far-away worlds that, through their distance, give me a clearer perspective on my own.
Look at art
Art and design are cousins. Both are about solving problems, about connecting with the viewer, usually about creating something new. The crucial difference is that art is untethered from the commercial and, as a result, can go in many more directions and rise to a much higher altitude.
Walking through a museum or art gallery is electrifying to me. I love to see this collected result of hard creative work and thought, especially in a different discipline than my own. I imagine the problem the artist was trying to address, the process they took to solve it, how many different routes they might have attempted in getting there. I arrive at museums with a big goofy grin on my face in museums. I leave wanting to make.
I’m fortunate to live in New York, one of the world’s great art cities. Tons of museums and galleries are always within reach. In 2015, I plan to indulge myself with a weekly museum or gallery visit.
Time away from the screen
I do almost all of my work on screens. Most of my designs are created for screens. My communication happens through screens. I seek entertainment and leisure in screens.
This, my friends, is too many screens. I’ve bent my life to technology, when it should be the reverse. Time to flip it around. This means: leaving my phone at home on the weekend; leaving my computer at work; weaning myself off the social-media habit (FOMO is overrated); less TV at night.
This last one is tricky because TV is, for better or worse, our family hearth, a shared experience that we have together, and a way for all of us to unwind from overprogrammed days. That’s all good in moderation, but we’re experimenting with alternatives. We’re cautiously circling the idea of a game night on Sundays. Last weekend, we slouched over to a board game, dragging ourselves away from the TV. But after the first game was done, it was all let’s play that again!
More of this, please.
The idea is to spend less time with screens and instead spend more time with my head in the world and my heart with the people I love.
This is a year for ideas that matter. I’m aligning my habits to contribute my bit. So what’s your plan?