Sameera Kapila

I’m a designer, educator, and person living based Austin, TX with two cats and a lot of coffee. I’m a Web Design Instructor at The Iron Yard. I spend a lot of time playing with responsive web design, web typography, podcasting, and speaking.

Published Thoughts

2014 was a pivotal year for me. I changed jobs, I stepped up my Sass and JavaScript game, lived away from Austin for a few months, and saw parts of the domestic United States I had never seen before. I never could have guessed that was what was in store for me in 2014. I also never could have guessed that towards the end of the year, I’d have the opportunity to be a part of something that I had only dreamed of, but had convinced myself I shouldn’t even try. In a complete state of disbelief, I responded to an email I received exactly 365 days before the day of this post and I said “yes”. That email came from the Pastry Box Project. I still can’t believe six posts and a year later that Alex and Katy asked me to be a part of this. I read the PBP a lot—religiously almost. It makes me feel connected to our industry, it made me see that a lot of my own curiosities and fears about design and development are shared by others. I look up to a number of the writers, many who may or may not know the impact they’ve had on readers.

But with that, I want to touch on something I mentioned above, and I think this post is the perfect time to write about it. I “had convinced myself I shouldn’t even try”. I think back to that when I felt that way, and I think it was such a stupid idea (I don’t like using the word ‘stupid’ often but I think in this case, it's exactly the right word). For a while I let the open submissions deadlines whoosh by and convinced myself I wasn’t worthy. And that is a stupid, stupid notion. Gosh, if it weren’t for Alex and Katy, who reached out to me, I would have missed out on something I always wanted to do. Now, a year later, I can’t help but wonder how many other things I’ve let go by because I didn’t think I was capable of doing it. This frustrates me now to no end. It makes we want to go back in time in some fancy Back 2 the Future car and find that version of myself and shake her.

It’s a little ridiculous how we convince ourselves that we can’t do something. We’re so sure because we supposedly know ourselves better than anyone else, yet, we’re frequently wrong about our own capabilities. We frequently settle for less, convince ourselves not to do something because it’s easier and doesn’t involve rejection. We become complacent and think we made the right choice before ever having a chance to fail. The interesting part is that is when we fail. We’ve written the ending before writing the story.

Do yourselves a favor, fellow readers: try as much as you can to believe that you can do it. Sign up for that thing you’ve wanted to do. Say yes to the scary, exciting stuff. Say no to the soul-sucking, not exciting stuff. I think of Marie Kondo’s golden rule from her popular book: if it doesn’t bring you joy don’t keep it. Fear or self-doubt doesn’t bring you joy, so get rid of it. Don’t let your own fear stop you this coming year. You may have no idea what your 2016 is going to look like, but you have the chance to actually write it, yourself. At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster with an eagle on it, you won’t actually know until you try. Don’t wait for someone to ask you, but rather seek out what you’ve always wanted to do. Make a list and put it somewhere public, like Una did and before you actually do it, be like Jennifer and convince yourself—repeatedly—that you can do anything. Because you can and should. I hope the end of the year wraps up nicely, and I’m looking forward to what we do this coming year.

Choosing Nothing: Be Kind, Please Unwind

Every day, we make decisions on how we want to spend our time. I choose to keep coding and designing away, while watching tv. I choose to listen to audiobooks more than I curl up with a perfect-bound novel with a musky smell, just so I can also clean up the kitchen or chop some veggies at the same time. I choose to multi-task and feel more productive because of it. I feel like I’ve ultimately hacked “the system”. I keep myself busy, because I like doing things. But, I’ve realized something: I’ve forgotten how to unwind. Or rather, I had chosen to not unwind properly. I don’t mean unwind in the spa or vacation sense, but in a molecular sense of just a day, on a regular basis. Something that is routine, not something I wait to do weeks or months later once I’m utterly exhausted. An unwind that is a not a bandaid, but a regular process that isn’t packaged with another action. Rather, it’s a little bit of time every day that is reserved for choosing to do absolutely nothing.

A few months back, a coworker from NC was making arrangements to visit The Iron Yard campus I taught at in Austin. She asked where the closest yoga studio was and there happened to be one near campus, so I sent links her way and didn’t give it another thought. When she got to town, she asked if I wanted to go with her the next day to the yoga studio for a class she had signed up for. I was perplexed. I don’t do yoga and I’m busy, I thought. I also didn’t really know where to start or what to expect. As that thought crossed my mind I realized I hadn’t given yoga a chance, so I agreed, with a “sure, why not”. I had no idea what I was in for.

We went to a restorative yoga class, a type of yoga that helps reset the body and mind, and has more to do with resting in a pose than it does stretching or exerting oneself. Sounded easy enough. At first, I felt awkward, and within the first few poses, that’s when it hit me. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As I sat there in a basic seated position resting between two other poses, I thought of nothing. My mind was blank and I felt completely rested and calm. As we moved to different poses, my mind continued to follow the directions our instructor calmly stated and my mind continued to stay blank. By the end of the class, I felt like I was floating as I took in and let out each breathe. As we walked back to the campus, my arms and legs moved with a purpose and my thoughts were organized. I felt in-sync between what my body and mind were doing together. Within a week, I was doing daily yoga poses by screen-sharing Yoga Studio, an app I downloaded on my phone, onto my TV. In every session, the instructor starts seats calmly breathing for a few minutes, reminding users to listen to their breathe. Most workouts end with the corpse pose, laying flat on the mat, with arms on the side, and eyes—whether open or closed—facing upwards, again, listening to breathing.

At the end of the day, it’s a lessoned learned from yoga, not necessarily a requirement or recommendation to do yoga, but to just do nothing. It works in any room. It works when staring out onto a neighborhood street. It’s a great idea if you need a break from code or while watching a rare eclipse. Sitting still and listening to our breath. It’s the simplest thing and it works wonders and can become a regular routine. We all make choices about how we spend our time. I choose to not give up my cooking, cleaning, and audiobook habits, because I very much so enjoy cooking and enjoying a book. Now, I’m also consciously choosing to stare at a wall and listen to my breathing, sometimes in yoga poses and sometimes just sitting on the couch. If we put the phones and devices away sooner, ignore all the noise, and pause for these unitasking breaks, I think we can remind ourselves to unwind in a more productive way, all while doing nothing.

Design, Dinner, and A Show.

Whenever I worked on design projects, I always used to get stuck. I’d become nervous, vulnerable, and incapable, questioning the project, comparing my work to others, and beating myself up. I’d do what a lot of fresh out of school designers would do, which was something that we were taught. In art school, I remember being told that to become a better artist and designer, my peers and I should try to emulate the greats, so we could learn their process and see a piece through the artist’s eye. There was a promise of being able to get back on track after that. As an UI Design Instructor at The Iron Yard for the past year, and as a university lecturer for the previous six years, I’ve uttered the exact same advice I received in school—except now, students are emulating Codepens and tracing over icons and illustrations on Dribble, and then getting back on track.

I uttered the same words, because in a way, I believe it’s true. I think we can learn a lot about process by learning from others, and finding out what works for us, and have a better understanding of our process. I’ve looked at Dribbble, design award sites, and other inspirational design resources. But in the past two years, I’ve realized that looking at other design only takes me so far. Things start to look the same, and I don’t feel as connected with them. I’ve also realized that when I get to that level of stuck, I’ve been subconsciously distracting myself with one of two other things: cooking and music.

I used to hate cooking, and now it’s something I love to do. From my friends’ MAD MENu watch party theme nights, to Caribbean dinner parties (when I’m homesick for Curaçao), to ramen nights for my design friends where they assemble their toppings, a lot of my creative process goes into that. I start with plain, unseasoned ingredients and work with them in different ways to get the flavors I want. Trying a new oil (coconut is wonderful!) or investing in a better pan has allowed me to experiment more, and usually with a delicious result. Some recipes take longer, and simmer for hours before I can serve a pork belly ramen broth with instant noodles (they hold the broth, well). In the kitchen I’ve become a lot less fearless, a bit more trusting of my five senses, and stopped trying to follow a recipe down to the exact measurements. If a lamb curry smells like my mom and dad’s kitchen, I know it’s right. I’ve started taking this approach with design, trusting my senses, and I’ve found myself less stuck. Part of it is also taking a break from design. A lot of design problems just need time to marinate and sort themselves out in our mind. And then, like any food enthusiast, I take photos and painstakingly edit them on my phone and post them somewhere. Hey, food pics are just a modern day still life. No one yelled at the greats for ‘ugh, making another cornucopia’.

With music, it’s a bit different, and its fairly new. I’ve always loved most types of music (yes, even electronic music from my Dutch island upbringing), and I’ve always been a not so great musician, a decent singer, or a dancer since I was young. I have three students right now who are musicians outside of their code school lives. We’ve spent days talking about design, and I always try to relate design to other areas outside of it. My students have helped me realize something else: design is a lot like music. If we think of mastering and editing, there are different tracks that are recorded on their own, and then brought together and adjusted to all work together. To me, that sounds a lot like Samantha Warren’s Style Tiles (a presentable collection of visual elements inventoried for a design concept) and definitely a lot like design, and a good way to go about it. Rather than just throwing elements on a page, bringing elements together and then making adjustments to them so they all play the same design song is our goal, isn’t it? For me, it was such an a-ha moment, and it has changed how I sketch, Codepen tinker, and experiment in the browser.

What these two things have taught me is that when we’re stuck, we need to look outside of design, not just at other design. We need to draw inspiration more and more from other outlets that allow us to make and that allow us to get unstuck. We can learn something new, see something different, and make something interesting that way.

Like fruit flies to a ripe mango

On April 14th, 2015, everyone was in a frenzy on Twitter. No, it wasn’t because tax day was creeping up on us. It was because a presidential campaign released a logo. One single logo. And from the moment it was released, designers were on it like fruit flies to a ripe mango! And designers were mean. It seemed like one designer after another tried to one-up each other and see who could be the meanest of them all in 140 characters. But this isn’t about stopping feelings or opinions; we do this all the time, right? We live tweet WWDC, TV shows, NBA finals, those awkward first dates we overhear at coffee shops, and now design, which is sort of what social media is for. I get all of that. But as I read this, I can’t help but think about where Design (capital D, as in the industry) is currently, where it was, and where it will continue to go. And I was extremely frustrated with Twitter that day. After reading everyone’s opinions on the letter H and an arrow, I went on my own 140-character-times-like-10 rant. Design isn’t just about end-result visuals—we know that, right? We have a lot more to think about these days, and countless books, conference talks, and workshops are focusing more on experience, the user, and design research. So why were be ripping one design apart like this? After all, we are designers, too.

I can agree that a bold sans-serif capital ‘H’ reminds me of a hospital sign. That critique is not far off, because designers know that what we put into design still has connotations of past experiences and other design and art we’re exposed to. That plays into design research and history, intentionally or not. But some of the other critiques that came from that day on Twitter made designers look unprofessional and whiny, and said a lot about where we are as an industry. Some of the feedback that I came across that day:

  1. What is that!? Arial? Ugh.
  2. Those colors are dumb.
  3. Looks like it was made in MS Paint

I shudder when I read feedback like that. In 7 years of teaching, I’ve had a simple rule in my in-class critiques: Do not start a critique with “I like” or “I dislike”. I have this rule, because ‘like’ is about personal opinion, not about feedback that is productive or right for the project. Yet, this sort of personal opinion critique isn’t new; even Michael Beirut who worked on that H logo with Pentagram, wrote about design as a spectator sport back in 2013.

What bothers me about those particular examples above are what they mean for what we think of our own industry. For #1, there is nothing wrong with Arial or something ‘plain’ like it (I don’t actually believe it’s Arial). It may be overused, but it’s accessible to many (cost and device-wise) and it’s stood the test of time. It has its historical connotations and it’s readable. Typography isn’t about picking a specific family just because it is there or trendy, but because it is right for the job. And, unless we sat with that campaign team and Pentagram’s design teams, we don’t know what their research, let alone their end goals were or are. At that time we didn’t know that this logo would end up changing from solid colors to overlaid photos representative of each state Mrs. H C happens to visit during her campaign trail. They needed a bold enough letter and thick enough arrow that the imagery is visible when set on the shapes. I’m okay with the function dictating the form here.

For #2, those colors aren’t dumb, but sure, they do remind us of the most primary color shades of red and blue, maybe making someone think of grade school more than presidency. Saying colors are dumb is just like saying we like it. The strange thing here is that we designers gave a critique we would shudder to hear from clients. Some designers share those pieces of feedback on awful sites like Clients from Hell, poking fun at the their clients’ lack of design education (even though that is not the client’s job or area of study), rather than taking the time to sit down with their clients and talking them through the process. Great designers teach their clients about the design process, including how to give constructive feedback other than “I like arrows” or “I don’t like purple”. And when that not-helpful feedback does occur, we should be asking why and coach them through it, patiently. And we should set that example.

For #3, this one ate away at me the most. I kept seeing tweets that said, “they must have used MS Paint”. I’d feel comfortable betting at least a delicious sandwich that Pentagram didn’t use MS Paint. But even so, SO WHAT? Saying the tools we have (like Creative Cloud or Sketch) are better than a tool someone else has feels wrong on a lot of levels. It makes it sound like good design is solely dependent on the tools, rather than designers being creative enough and solving a problem with what they’ve got. We’re not slaves to our tools. We’re better than that. These tools absolutely help us get the job done, but saying that someone’s paintbrush is better than someone else’s paintbrush is a problem. It’s how we use the paintbrush. Further, MS Paint comes standard on many computers and Creative Cloud does not. So we’re also not better because we have a subscription-based, more expensive, industry-specific tool.

At the end of the day, I feel like we’ve forgotten how to be critically thinking designers and just defaulted to being critical designers. I can’t help but wonder what we look like from an outside perspective when we belittle others’ work in our own profession. I think it does a major disservice to each other and eventually to ourselves when we just take the end product into account, and ignore the processes, research, testing, performance, etc that we bring into our own work with so much passion. We’re devaluing our own industry’s work. So, whether it’s a certain clothing brand’s logo redesign, a political campaign, a GoT episode, I think we can all be a bit more considerate and kinder to each other’s work openly, and then maybe humbly approach design parties involved with constructive, doable suggestions for next time. Heck, maybe we can collaborate on something, working through it together with understanding, or at least collaborate on something we all find agreeably awful, you know, like online airline ticket purchase and customer service experiences.

The World Wide Vulnerability

There’s such a raw and present feeling that comes with vulnerability. It’s a burrito filled with doubt and self-criticism, wrapped (or, trapped) in a tortilla of fear. It’s looking at ourselves from an outside perspective as we feel small, weak, and helpless about everything around us.

The web makes us vulnerable in many ways, especially in what we share. We’re supposed to be that way, right? We’re supposed to share it all—the happy, the sad, the wedding, the baby picture, the breakup, the check-in, and the personal opinion which, for many voices, has lead to death threats. We put so much out there, sometimes as cries for help, a rant or rave, or a credit card number for a two-day delivery service. All of it is in a vulnerable state to attack, judgment, or exposure.

The web doesn’t care if we’re seasoned surfers or whether we’re new to it. Learning how to make a website for the very first time, sharing photos of our children, or expressing an unpopular opinion. Everything is amplified and permanent; the highs are high but the lows hurt more and linger. We’re vulnerable when that thing we’re making breaks and when we offend someone indirectly. We’re vulnerable when we don’t know how the person we know best—ourselves—may react to a new scenario, person, technology, or “blank-for-blank” startup. Usually, we end up okay and unscathed, or heal after a short time. Usually.

We purposely use vulnerability on the web, too. It has helped us become addicted to failure. We use it to say publicly that we failed so that we can stay in a state that is familiar and somehow safer than taking a risk, and as if it actually helped us overcome a hurdle. We use it to get support on a hard day. It’s all fleeting, yet, support flows in with other sharing that “they’ve been there” or that “it will be better next time”. It does make it better and we feel better.

We start being vulnerable naturally. I teach, and I watch students become vulnerable to the code—the unfamiliar. Not that they're going to break something on a site they’re designing, but I think their true fear is what that means. They feel vulnerable enough to think that I or a peer may be judging them, they fear the end of the learning period. They fear that they’ll be the first to not get it. Though, they always do get it! They have my support, the support of their peers, and the support of forums and search results revealing that we’re all dealing with the same battle. There is comfort in that.

Last year, I spoke at a conference. It wasn’t my first, but it wasn’t in my comfort zone of an extremely supportive, local community. So it was scary to me and I felt vulnerable. “What if they hate me, and then the web will know?”, I thought. “I’m sure I’ll say the wrong thing!”, I convinced myself. So, I kept working at it, even when ever ounce of me wanted to cower to the fear. Of course, it was fine, and the organizers, attendees, and especially the seasoned speakers, were supportive in person and on the web. They shared stories of their first talk. Ben, one of those speakers, told me I’d watch myself continue to feel more comfortable and that my fears will disappear the more I spoke. Of course I did, and, of course, Ben was right. Practice working with vulnerability and it becomes less scary.

Vulnerability has a reputation for being something bad. But, if the web is a tool, then vulnerability can be, too. We can use it in different ways. Sure, it can drive us to freak out, but it can also drive us to document, share, overshare, and speak up. Being vulnerable can allow us to let others learn from us, listen and react carefully, open our hearts and minds, and be understanding when others are going through something. We can use it to understand how users navigate a site, a get better feedback, or be okay with harsh criticism. It can help us learn, individually or together. When we’re vulnerable—and okay with it—we can be better, as a conference speaker or a new design student, an advocate for rights, or anything else we’re striving to be. Being vulnerable is very human, and it’s very okay. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it is in fact, it’s our strength.