Last Saturday I spoke at Sketch Camp here in Chicago, which is a yearly event focused on…what else? Drawing. Well to be more specific, there were all sorts of workshops on the ways and reasons to draw. Once could practice still life drawing, storyboarding, rapid prototyping, wireframing techniques, and graphic facilitation – which is a fancy way of using drawing as a form of recording brainstorming session. It’s also known as taking sketch notes. My talk was about using free association drawing as a way to uncover your own ideas, because it’s really hard to storyboard or whatever if you don’t have an idea to draw in the first place. I did this because I’ve been wanting to find the time to draw more, to revisit what I learned in four years of art school, and to practice my speaking skills.
First we had to get past the fear of the blank paper, and how important (and hard!) it is to find a place to start. This is one of my favorite questions to ask creative people, in fact. For Kate Bingaman-Burt, it’s to draw something she bought that day. For Picasso it was the color blue. For a long time for me it was to doodle an ampersand or two. However simple or complex, it’s just a trigger for your hand and your brain, and once it’s practiced enough, an idea is sure to follow. It’s the same concept as the warm up exercises that dancers or athletes use and it works.
For the purposes of this class we made paper airplanes instead. The creases in the paper make a beautiful pattern, a landscape that maybe makes you use the paper in a way you’ve never considered before.
The next exercise in class was a game, what I’m calling “visual telephone”. One person starts by writing a short non-sensical sentence. They pass it to the next person, and person #2 has to draw that sentence. Then they fold the paper to hide the original sentence and pass to person #3. Person three writes a sentence based off the drawing, then passes along to the next person so they can draw the newest sentence, as so forth. Throughout the chain of people the original sentence invariably becomes mangled to hilarious result. What’s great about this is that it’s a window into other people’s thought process, as well as an ice breaker/team building exercise which are always useful with groups of people who don’t know each other.
And finally, we used Cards Against Humanity cards as drawing prompts. Although beforehand, I picked out the most offensive cards from the deck, because even though they are funny in the context of the game, I’m not willing to sanction drawing racist, violent, or sexual themes in a classroom setting. (Sorry, Max Temkin.) We spent the last 15 minutes or so of the hour long session free drawing from the selected cards and giggling over what everyone was drawing.
I definitely had a lot of fun teaching it, and several participants mentioned how much fun they had too which makes the whole thing worth it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, attending this camp worked. I’m definitely way less scared of drawing than I was, even last week. I’ve been practicing different techniques (do you like my brushwork in the slides? Of course, I had to draw them all – it being Sketch Camp and all!) and while I’m not about to chuck my computer out the window and go full-analog, it’s been a goal for awhile to find as many opportunities to merge old and new school ways of making things.
Quick, someone else hire me for another drawing workshop so I don’t have anytime to get rusty! If you have any tricks that you use to keep your hands ready and your mind trained, please do let me know! I never tire of hearing how other people manage to solve this conundrum.
Why bother with any financial planning when you don’t have any funds to… plan? While this line of logic isn’t entirely sound, I understand it entirely. It’s easy to see how it becomes reality if someone is stuck in debt quicksand, or has negligible savings or an unsustainable income. Toss in a couple of kids, maybe an illness, or a layoff, and forget it. Exhaustion usually wins out at that point.
It’s a relatable fact of life for many. Education was the “way out” in our house, valued above any other type of investment. Because there was no other option. I listened and put myself through school, graduating with 60k in student loans. Then I moved to Chicago with two suitcases, and $500 dollars to my name. No job lined up, no parental safety net. I shared a lilliputian studio apartment with a friend, sleeping on the floor because there wasn’t a couch to make a bed. At one point around this time, someone gave me Suze Orman’s Money Book for the Young Fabulous and Broke, which I read but didn’t manage to retain a lot of it. The entry-level design job I’d found by that point was paying me $12/hr, so I glossed over the non-applicable sections on 401ks (ha), buying a car (as if) or a house (not a chance). Suze’s mask-like perma-grin and aggressively popped collars didn’t help either.
Later, I did manage to set up 401k at another design agency job that offered a more respectable benefits package. However, it was for precisely 6 months. 2008 happened and it seemed like half the city got laid off, taking me with, and launching me into this life I have now. 6 months wasn’t long enough for the company to match the savings, so the modest sum was dispatched back to me and I had to pay taxes on it as income. Less than a return on investment.
These days though, after 5 years of self-employment as Pitch Design Union, it’s way more complicated than I could have expected. Still, every year gets a little better. Experience is everything, as is a good accountant. I still have debt, but it’s in a manageable place. There’s still so much more I need to be doing though, and I’ve been looking for ways to speed up this process. Lo and behold, the internet in all it’s wide and baffling awesomeness has many answers. (Spoiler alert.) At this point one of the tools that’s helping the most is NPR’s Marketplace Money show. Hearing people call in with questions is great because it makes me think of what my questions are. There’s always something new to think about that never would have occurred to me alone.
When I feel like reading the Billfold is my next step followed by Mr. Money Moustache. The Billfold’s series “How Do Other People Do Money” is great. It’s tag is simply: DOING MONEY which makes me laugh because all-caps blundering is pretty much what it feels like. Mr.Money definitely seems cheesy at first, but I swallowed that reaction when I saw that this guy was able to save enough money to retire at 30. Yes, he is a lunatic financial magician, but clearly this is a person who knows a thing or two about improving saving habits. Still looking for more, always. The Design Sponge Biz Ladies column might have some ideas, but not in their recent posts nor the first few search results. And since it’s 1 am I’m not about to click through years of archives. I’ve also found a number of resources that have a distinct bro-y vibe, or sound like a used car salesman. It’s hard to trust what they have to say. Have you found anything good lately? Send ‘em my way & I will put them in my newsletter. (If you’re new here, you can sign up here.)
Has anyone ever asked “what inspires you?” It is a valid question, but I think it misses the mark a little. It implies that getting inspired is something that just happens, as if by chance. It’s fleeting and out of our control. I think “what influences you?” is a better, more empowering question. It means that we get to chose what filters and funnels into, and out of, our work. Influence is contagious; it has a lineage that can be traced. Viral, as it were. Good things go viral, but a lot of crap too. We all have positive and negative influences in life, and sometimes they are the same thing which is tricky. Consuming and enjoying content that has roots in negative places is perfectly fine, so long as we are critical and conscious of the negative aspects. I’m an ardent hip hop fan, even though there’s a lot of it that is gross, violent, misogynistic, vapid. There’s also a lot that’s not those things. It is even possible to like some of the iffy stuff and not be a bad person, especially if this fact is acknowledged and balanced somehow.
If you are searching for a way to grow your influence, then you must question what is currently influencing you, and shift your focus to target what’s most accessible and likely to influence a wider and more diverse group of people. We must all remember: reacting in a better way than our negative influences is the only way to ensure that what we make in response will have a better affect on others in turn.
One of the best times I learned this was last summer when I was working on a book with Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects. The book featured a selection of Studio Gang’s projects and the kernels and idea seeds that sprouted them. One notable example is the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. The design for the building is influences by this photo of the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo in 2011. This highly organized camp is what the protestors built together in order to promote their cause. It’s a perfect thing to influence a building of the same goal.
The façade of the building is made from cross-sections of tree trunks cemented together. The idea for this came from Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can see the faces and diverse attendees in the crowd are echoed in the different colors and types of wood. To take it a step further, Studio Gang reversed-engineered the construction so it was carbon-neutral and highly insulating for the smallest environmental impact possible.
Compare this to a similar project from one of Jeanne’s contemporaries. Another world-renowned architect once made a book of his influences, a beautiful and expensively produced tome, with the side effect of revealing his love for trashy imagery that diminishes women. Quite the difference in influence, no?
So what else can good influence look like? Here’s some examples that the show influence in a variety of ways, all surprising & unique. Why did I pick videos to showcase this? Well, TV is most accessible type of culture these days, with the capability to affect a huge amount of people in moments. Also, there’s so SO much dumb/tacky/off-color/whatever TV, I wanted to curate some of the best. After watching hundreds of videos over the last few weeks, these are my favorites. I hope you enjoy.
[Full disclosure, the Apple one was included as a thank you to Apple for hosting me. And, if we have to watch a commercial at least it's a good one, eh?]
Thanks for reading/watching! Want more? Sign yourself up for my newsletter, there’s plenty more I’m sharing there. Also, in the interest of transparency of what *my* influences are, here’s the places and people who helped shape this talk. No secrets or guilty pleasures here. :-)
Hi! So as of a week or so ago, this place looks different. This is the first in series of upgrades I will be rolling out over the next few months (next up, responsive and retina support). Along with the obvious design upgrades and updated information for now, one notable change is that I’m starting a newsletter! Mostly because I think it will be a really great way to engage with people in a more meaningful way isn’t happening with most blogs these days. My aim is to send you a note every couple of weeks with green thoughts, and links to other’s content that’s grabbed me for whatever reason. Of course, there’ll be the usual new-y bits too. So excited about this medium though, when done right, I’ve noticed actual anticipation for the right emails. Which is far and beyond those spammy, tired promo emails we’ve all come to hate at one time or another, even if they were appreciated at first.
Also, for the locals, just a reminder that I’m doing a talk at the Michigan Ave Apple Store on Tuesday! 7 o’clock. Since this is a casual event, open and free to all, and will have plenty of non-graphic designers in proximity, I’m going to be taking a more general approach with my words. Through a series of short films, I want to talk about what makes things influential, and the different ways to make and create more influence in your own projects. Also, who doesn’t love a free picture show on the big screen? Roll out the red carpet, and byo popocorn. Apple’s not allowed to offer these things, unfortunately, but we can pretend. Hope to see you there!