I’ve been swamped by work recently, and have slowed down the dispatch to help me balance out my schedule.
A Seasonal Hours clock
This esoteric-looking clock represents all 24 hours of the day as a word, and maps those words to the same time across all time zones. This way, “soup o’clock on friday” can mean the same thing to everyone in a distributed team. This suggested standardization feels surprisingly warm and humane.
If it hasn’t appeared on your radar yet, MakeSpace is a fantastic take on what a truly digital meeting space can feel like. For lack of a better explanation, it makes the meeting “space” felt, and purposeful.
In my opinion, the best part is that it’s a group of interested people creating it – not yet an organization, maybe a not-for-profit, we’ll see later.
How to be lucky, a guide/essay by Christian Busch, on how to be a serendipitious person. Not too hand-wavey, not too rigid, it’s full of fun insights. And I’ll take all the positive mindset advice I can get these days.
Also, Aeon is a fantastic publication, and Psyche, from the above article, is a sister outlet of them.
Do you know about Procreate? It’s an accessible and powerful drawing tool for iPad – it’s very popular. One of its main attractions is how it emulates many traditional media with good enough accuracy. Budding illustrators get good results with it. Seasoned pros can put out work that’s pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing.
Photoshop is also pretty (in)famous for having “artistic” filters, that imitate traditional media. These may or may not be the what your uncle picked to jazz up his profile picture lately.
On the specialist side, AI researchers have been making leaps in what’s called style transfer, transposing any picture into the style of a given artist (the results from these networks are very impressive but also very WIP from up close).
And I really get where the interest for digital-but-like-the-real-thing comes from. Our senses are receptive to texture, to natural rhythms and proportions.
My own work uses what I call unimaginatively my fake plotter library (I’m open to name ideas). It draws shapes like a pen might do on uneven paper. I feel this need to mimick the real, too.
Tyler Hobbs has a great talk about deconstructing the properties of ink or watercolor on paper, and reproducing these qualities digitally. It’s a great watch, and nothing too scary for the less tech-oriented:
There’s the whole Art imitates life idea, which I don’t want to lean on too much, but we do have a sort of innate receptivity to certain visual structures and styles.
With the innate, we often conflate the fact that it is instinctive, with the idea that it can’t be explained, analyzed or deconstructed. I think that’s a false conclusion. Like with music, sometimes we’re deeply receptive to a quality before we learn the language that describes it.
But learning to describe and build the quality is such a trip.
If you haven’t yet come across Bartosz Ciechanowski’s Lights and Shadows article, do not miss it. Get to it when you have some time, too, it’s a deep read. It’s basically an explanation of how light works on surfaces, with fantastic interactive visuals.
This one is for product and digital design friends. Put on your nerd glasses 🤓
If you’re minimally familiar with GitHub, you know it as the de facto epicenter of open-source projects, especially on the web.
And if you think of open-source software (OSS), you probably think of development. In fact, you probably think almost only of software development. Coding.
The step before coding an idea would be, of course, design. In my industry, “design” is sometimes a shortcut when we mean “visual mockups”, but let’s keep it large: Design is when you go from an intent, to a documented way of how to accomplish it. It can be mockups, a product spec – anything you can pick up and use as the blueprint to develop a working piece of software.
Right now, OSS is heavily centered around development. GitHub, as a platform that propels OSS, is pretty mature and established at this point. It has this circular effect of listening and catering to developers, cultivating their majority at the same time. The way GitHub is shaped guides and influences global collaboration practices in open-source software.
On the design side, the situation is different. For an individual who wants to present an ongoing or a fleshed out “open” design project that lives online, either they post their design documents alone as an exercise on Dribbble/Behance, and consider them "done", or they build up a whole website to present a fleshed-out idea to the Internet, but not within a platform that facilitates the upcoming work. There’s no default structure for collaborating with fellow designers, nor with developers if they are interested in making the idea come to life.
If developers are interested, and GitHub is (likely) picked to provide the larger work structure, then all the interactions become owned by the development side by default. Design discussions become issues, big releases might become development milestones, and such.
I hope to see a better way soon. There should be a platform similar to GitHub, that fosters interacting and learning between designers on open projects. It would help build a better shared language of work between designers, as well as establish baseline standards of design-development collaboration (at community-scale, instead of team- or project-scale). Maybe that platform will be a future form of GitHub. It would make a lot of sense!
So what does an open design platform look like?
My litmus test for such a platform would be if it successfully encourages budding designers to jump into existing projects and start delivering concepts and incremental changes, with reviews and support from the mature team and community that's already there.
I think there are lots of products juggling with parts of the solution currently. Abstract (and previously, Layervault and others) is the answer to “What if design had git-like versioning?”. Figma answers “What if design collaboration means working on visuals together, real-time?”. Abstract’s Notebooks tackle the question of a design workflow that’s first about documenting intent – which is really fantastic, but since they sell it to internal, corporate teams, nothing changes at the community level. Honestly, I think Basecamp gets a lot of the design workflow right by focusing on working in public and exposing intent, especially combined with their Shape up methodology.
There’s also the question of what incentives exist within the tools. In an area that’s already dominated by developers, to ask designers to insert their work in a code-centric tools like GitHub, is to ask for design to be subservient to the development workflow. I think neither discipline exists under the other, and the right tools need to foster the right relationship there.
I wholeheartedly believe that there’s a design revolution waiting to happen when the discipline integrates an OSS scene.
A big part of it is to recognize that with design, “open source” means having access to the intent and the reasoning, not just the mockups.
Also, I don’t want to end this without mentioning that there are existing efforts, such as Open Source Design, who have already started building the bridges that lead us into this better future.
♥️ Loved lately
I should have loved biology– I think we all need a periodic reminder that even the most rigorous of disciplines don’t really exist – or thrive – without wonder.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole, a great essay by Charlie Warzel about the traps that misinformation lays, and how we should avoid burning mental energy on it.
The year is 2014. In a glorious moment of self-actualization, you decide to finally focus your productivity on things that matter, and you pick Wunderlist/Things/Firetask as your sidekick to help you out.
The year is now 2016. In an awesome moment of self-actualization, you decide to finally focus your productivity on things that matter. You leave behind Wunderlist/Things/Firetask – didn’t work out, you’re using sticky notes currently. You pick Trello/Asana/Basecamp as your sidekick to help you out.
The year is 2018. In –
I suppose you get the point I’m trying to make. I’d like to talk about the trust we have in inboxes in the general term (like the list in a to-do app), and mention an inbox characteristic that is, in my opinion, disrespectful.
The OG inbox. Email is the timeless to-do list we hope doesn’t actually fill with to-dos. It’s not only an inbox, but it definitely fills with stuff we need to get to. Tasks arrive there without our control, too! It’s a bottomless list of other people’s priorities (oh god I hope you’re at least enjoying this email I sent to yours).
Ah! You’re the captain now. Nothing enters this list without you deciding it.
So you set up a single list, maybe you name it “Projects” or “Important” or “Up next”, and you put things in. You check them off when they’re done. The dopamine hit is nice, and stuff is moving. But a few months in, the bottom of the list has some tasks that, yes, should be there, but you know you aren’t getting around to doing them any time soon. You’re adding other important tasks a bit too quickly for the count to go down.
A few more months down the line, the list is more than 50% guilty bottom-of-the-list tasks you probably won’t do.
A year down the line, you realize that the list is clearly not a fresh start anymore, and it’s actually pulling you back. Using it to find focus is a maybe, but the dread and guilt are a given.
Breaking the cycle
I’ll name the invisible enemy: Bottomless inboxes. A bottomless inbox does not respect people’s capacity for processing things.
When issues pile up in, say, a factory, at some point, everything has to stop while the issues are taken care of.
When you live with discomfort at work and it accumulates, at some point it is too much, and you address it, or you begin to think about leaving.
When things accumulate in a digital inbox, there is no threshold. The capacity for pile up is infinite. Our mind is not. Meanwhile, our smart subconscious sees the daunting list, too low-priority, and too big to be worth tackling, and it whispers to us, leave, leave it all.
So we frame it as Moving Forward or A Resolution, and we leave, leave it all for a different system.
Making it better
I want to suggest two simple things to take into account, whether you’re building a productivity tool, or just organizing your own life a bit:
Things will fall off your planning. Use methods that allow for it. Many to-do systems have great inboxes but annoying triage. An inbox you can’t efficiently process is not one you end up trusting. Allow yourself to groom tasks ruthlessly: unimportant things shouldn’t stick around. Some things become unimportant before they’re done. Too few systems let you easily remove tasks without presenting it as this grave Are you sure? decision.
Your task lists should have a built-in limit. As far as software goes, I can at least point to TeuxDeux doing this. It’s got daily lists, and rolls over undone tasks to the next day. The Kanban system, too, has this idea of limited focus built right into it.
By personal experience, this limit to quantity is one of the most important aspects of systems like the Bullet Journal. Just like real life, you just can’t carry over undone tasks forever. You can’t keep filling a weekly or monthly plan with things you won’t get around to doing. So you drop them. All of this is healthy.
I tried a lot of task management apps before settling to a bullet-journal-ish method. I’ve just looked at the way I structure my weekly spreads, and it would be hard to add more than nine tasks and events (all together) in a given day. There’s no capacity for more.
Of course, most of the above observations are anecdotal. Maybe it’s just me! But there seems to be a common thread of wanting to manage the overwhelming inputs and demands of the world, without feeling like we let it down.
In picking (or building) an inbox, maybe our quest is not about thinking Finally, I can take on more tasks, but rather:
Finally, I can breathe!
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I have a soft spot for long-form journalism about crime and general mischief. It’s my reality TV, if you will. Let’s have this as the week’s theme!
The bicycle thief – You know what would help you rob local banks and leave without being caught? A road bicycle. And, uh, Olympic training, if you can get it.
HSBC’s Secret Files – Buzzfeed News is such an investigative journalism powerhouse. Here’s their dossier on how HSBC (basically, the bank of choice for International drug dealers) apologized in the face of sanctions, then kept right on with their dark clientèle.
Half a decade ago, I could deliver a project easier than I can today.
Back then, I thought experience would eventually make me able to take better decisions (it has), and make me able to tackle larger projects with more complexity (it has).
I didn't understand the compromise that would come with it.
Having experience implies seeing the consequences of our decisions better. Having responsibility means dealing with these consequences. This leads into a sort of experience paralysis, where our ability to better foresee outcomes, and the fact that none is without compromise, makes us more hesitant to pick any direction and move with confidence.
Despite my subconscious’ best efforts, I'd rather not wallow in this situation. I want to apply ways to dial back – or prevent – the paralysis. Most of these I picked from the things we do as skilled beginners when we work, and I now try to apply deliberately. Here's where I’m at these days:
Template the outcome immediately
I need to act more like there isn't much of a process, and design for the document or format I have to deliver. To me, that means I prepare a canvas for my deliverable very early on, and fill it with drafts-that-could-be-final as I progress.
Make space for trying
If you need to read this, or need a reminder: Any environment where there’s no space for what-ifs and mistakes, is a place where you can’t grow. Tasks accomplished in a defensive posture are always held back in one way or another. Trying is vulnerability, and vulnerability is unsafe when we’re alone or exposed to risk.
We don’t all have the option to just up and go find more space, though. And if we do, it’s only sometimes. That makes it important to notice the space when it exists.
Then, uh, I left myself a draft note saying vocabulary over perfection. I think the initial metaphor escaped me between this note and my writing right now, so let’s freestyle this together — write to me if the prompt resonates with you in a different way!
Perfection is strict, but vocabulary is expressive
This is a bit more hand-wavey and felt, but bear with me for a paragraph. Think of vocabulary as a concept much larger than language: a breadth of capacity, our possessing different means with which to achieve a given goal – each getting to that one destination, but infusing a distinct quality to the process and the result. Vocabulary, in this large sense, defines the freedom we can find in skilled work. In contrast, perfection tends to start with a constraining view of what accomplishment looks like. A perfection mindset rejects the idea that the process is the part worth exploring, and that the better outcome may be unknown at the start.
As beginners in any skill, we are forced into learning the process and building vocabulary – we explore because we must. With experience, it becomes easier to forget that doing and exploring is a much better state to be in than having done and knowing. We all have our pounds of ceramics left to shape.
Read you soon,
Keeping with the theme here, I had originally written a draft that I thought would be for fellow designers, but it turns out that the lessons in there weren’t really specific to design! So there we are, with the better topic discovered by trusting that the process is richer than the intent.
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If you haven’t heard (of) Generative.fm, try it out right now! Alex Bainter has been creating generative music pieces for a few years now, and it makes for a great collection to browse. No doubt, this one will become a periodic reminder on here.
If you were fascinated by the illustrated science books your school library had, Digizyme made the Internet rounds with an intricate render recently. The theme is Cell Signaling Technology, and it’s beautiful, in a weird way! Which is to say, the best way!
Self-Renewal, an old (and somewhat old-school) speech given by John Gardner in 1990:
The things you learn in maturity aren't simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You leant not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.