feibisi / 2018年11月29日

Mona Chalabi on Statistical Standup, Play-Doh, and the Secret Language of Colors

With the power of an Olympic skater owning a gold medal routine, illustrator and data journalist Mona Chalabi took the 2018 99U Conference stage by storm with her visualizations on testicle size and hangover cures. We sat down for a longer conversation with the self-proclaimed TMI Queen about her journey beyond the halls of academia, the future of data journalism, and the likelihood that you’ll regret any tattoo she gives you.

Mona Chalabi skateboarding in her Brooklyn, New York neighborhood.

Mona Chalabi photographed skateboarding and reading in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

We know you best as a data journalist, but right now, on top of working at The Guardian US, you’re traveling for speeches, trying out acting, and you just got back from a fiction-writing retreat in Banff. What is that busy schedule like?

I feel like I complain about traveling all the time. When I was younger, I’d be like, “Do not complain about privilege like that! My friend always says the same thing when we’re feeling frustrated in our careers: “What would 18-year-old Mona think?” Eighteen-year-old Mona would be like, “Ahhh, you made it! You live in New York. You have acted in something.” Eighteen-year-old me would be so impressed. Thirty-one-year-old Mona is a bit like, “Eh.”

How did you become a data journalist?

I went to college. I studied international security. I went to go join the International Organization for Migration. I was producing reports there, and I felt really frustrated that the work was being read by a tiny handful of people. It’s funny – well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of disappointing: I wish more academics reached out to me to say, “Hey, I’ve got this data. Can you help me make sure that it has a big audience?” I used to hate working in an academic tone. But what’s exciting now is that I don’t have to write in that tone but I can still read that work. I feel like a big part of my job is to be a translator.

You speak multiple languages, plus you work in visualization, which sort of transcends language. How are you embracing this role of translator?

I’ve always been interested in languages. I grew up in a household where English was my parents’ second language, and they were really adamant that we would be raised speaking English. That first sparked my interest in language. I went to Jordan when I was 19 to try to learn Arabic. I failed miserably. It’s not a language you can learn in a summer. And then I went to France to study and stayed on there to do my master’s. I think that was actually a really important turning point in my career, because I realized how much – maybe you’ll totally disagree – I felt like when I was a speaking a foreign language, at a certain point, I wasn’t translating my English thoughts anymore. My brain was thinking in completely new ways.

Mona Chalabi photographed in her workspace where sketches double as wallpaper.

Chalabi photographed in her workspace where sketches double as wallpaper.

How was your brain working?

For example, the word sad has got such a weighted meaning for me in English because I’ve heard it in all of these different contexts, right? When you move to a new language and that word hasn’t been ascribed with years of memories, it’s a lightweight word. That means your use of it is different. There aren’t books that I’ve read with that word. I was free to think in different ways. If I was going to learn another language, I’d learn sign language, because I’m interested in languages that traverse cultures. Numbers can do that in an exciting way.

How do numbers do that?

Numbers, especially the actual digits, with very few exceptions, are universal across different places. And one of the goals of all the visualizations that I make is to reduce the number of words that I use to, hopefully, a point where you’re not seeing any words but it still makes sense. I’m a long way off from doing that, and it’s very difficult. But that would be the dream.

How did you move from producing reports for International Organization for Migration to data visualization?

I did a one-day workshop with Simon Rogers, who was then the data editor at The Guardian. And then I ended up getting an internship at The Guardian. It was an unpaid internship, so I could only do it one day a week. Then I ended up doing it two days a week. Then they needed me three days a week. And then I was like, “You got to pay me if you want me three days a week.” That’s how I got my foot in.

How did the transition to the U.S. happen?

I moved to America to work for a website called FiveThirtyEight. I only started to draw again because I hated that job so much that I would keep my sanity by doodling.

When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American.

A lot of the thing is all about being proactive and trying to find solutions, but there are some workplaces that you should just get out of. I was never going to succeed there. There was no route for someone like me to succeed.

What does “someone like you” mean?

When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American. It meant that every single room that I entered, I didn’t fit in. They prided themselves on being geeky and nerdy and that you were either smart enough to understand FiveThirtyEight or you weren’t. And that is not my philosophy about journalism at all.

What do you think information and data should be?

Accessible. It needs to be accessible to everyone – in particular, the people that need it to make informed decisions about their lives.

Did taking up illustration as a hobby help navigate you out of that toxic situation?

Those illustrations that I posted on Instagram made such a big difference. It gave me a little bit of confidence to see strangers reacting to them and saying the complete opposite of what I was hearing in that workplace.

Mona Chalabi takes a walk down the street in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

Color factors heavily into Chalabi’s work as each color can symbolize a different feeling.

How does color play into your work?

I think about it a lot. For example, [for a chart of] the Palestinian versus Israeli death rates, I needed to pick two colors that you would be able to visually differentiate from each other, because it’s tough to see the purple, because the Israeli deaths are quite low. I have to make two colors that are going to jump off the page. I can’t have any of them be green, because people will attack me and think I’m implying that those green deaths are fine, because green is “okay.” If I do red, that implies that those deaths are somehow more serious than the other ones. Blue feels a bit weird. It’s weird to choose orange and purple. I struggled a lot with the colors of that.

Mona Chalabi designed this chart that shows the Israeli and Palestinian fatality rate per month. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

Chalabi designed this chart that shows the Palestinian and Israeli fatality rate per month. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

Going back to the baggage of language, I guess there’s baggage to color as well. And it’s not always the same across cultures.

That’s some deep baggage. For instance, in the U.K. our political red and blue is the other way around. Red is always a color of the left in all of Europe, pretty much in most countries. And blue is always conservative. It’s really weird that it’s the other way around here. It took me a long time to unlearn those colors here, and even still, if you show me the color red and say to me, “Left wing or right wing?” I’m going to say, “Left.” Always.

The image shows the most popular dog names in New York City. (Bella is the most popular.)

Chalabi’s piece from The Guardian about popular New York dog names based on data from the New York City Department of Health, 2017. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

Have you ever tried stand-up?

I tried it when I moved over here. I did one where everyone loved it. I was like, “My God, I’m so good.” And then the next time, no. And then I was like, “I don’t think I have the stomach for this.” It was a stand-up about statistics. The starting point was these statistics about how often Americans curse versus Brits and went on to use that to talk about how Americans are repressed. Sorry.

That’s how we think about the British.

I know. Everyone thinks that. I think it’s the total other way around. Don’t you think you guys are a little bit repressed? A little bit?

A little bit.

Yeah. A little bit.

What’s the process of getting an assignment? How do you comb through all the information for it?

Most of the time I don’t have an editor. I’m coming up with stuff and doing the whole process myself. For a thing I worked on recently, The Guardian was producing a documentary called White Fright, which was about an attack on a community of Muslims in New York. The plan had gone really far and the terrorist was arrested just before it took place. He was trying to kill hundreds of people, and it got barely any press attention. I did a piece that was based on a forthcoming study which showed that Muslim perpetrators of terrorism get 357 percent more press coverage than non-Muslim perpetrators.

There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it?

I started up by doing this visualization analog, literally drawing them out and then photographing them from my notepads. I drew five different types of hands, five different ethnicities holding five different types of microphones, and then in a Photoshop file, you replicate those and you can see all of the layers, so I know for a fact I’ve got the right number. That also means that my Photoshop files are like 5,000 gigabytes.

Mona Chalabi takes a tea break in her home kitchen.

Chalabi takes a tea break in her home kitchen.

Where does your hand-drawn style come from?

For me, it’s important to show a human made this. With computer-generated graphs, it can seem like this completely neutral, perfectly objective thing that made the chart. And that’s not true. It’s a human who makes objective decisions about which rows and which columns in the data set to show you.

Also, it’s about replicability. I want people to feel like they are empowered. That not only can they understand it, but if they wanted to test it, they could recreate it themselves. And you can recreate anything that is hand drawn, right? Whereas with charts, most people don’t know how to create a computer-generated graphic. It’s about leveling the playing field.

If you could try out any new medium, what would it be?

I would absolutely love to create something that is really fun in stop motion. I’ve bought a ton of Play-Doh that’s sitting on my shelf at home. And I’m just like, “One day I’m going to do something fun in stop motion.”

Has anyone ever asked you to design a tattoo?

My friend was asking me to do it. I actually once did a piece on “How many people regret their tattoos?” Which is what I wanted to have tattooed on him: the probability that he’ll regret it. It would feel really special to me. I don’t have any tattoos because I’m so scared about marking myself for life. And this friend of mine is like, “Give me anything!”

What’s the best bit of money or salary advice you’ve gotten?

Before you set your rates, ask other people how they set their rates. Ask the client which territories it’s going to be used in. Ask where it’s going to appear, how many languages. Ask whether they’re going to own it in perpetuity, or for a certain amount of time. And then give them the price.

The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism.

My general philosophy is bleed the private corporations dry. I was about to go on my first holiday in five years. And I got asked by a big corporation to make some illustrations, and I was like, “I would like $10,000 per illustration,” kind of knowing that they would say no, but also if they said yes, that’s fine. But with any nonprofits whose work I believe in, I basically charge them next to nothing.

There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission. The illustrator Hallie Bates was telling me this: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it? And each job has to satisfy at least two of those three criteria. And the truth is, this is another thing about how privileged I am. Most people don’t even get to add in those second two criteria. It’s just about: “Is it going to mean I can pay the bills?”

What’s the biggest challenge for a data journalist in 2018?

There’s like five different things, and I’m like, “Which one should I say?”

You can also say them all. It’s a challenging year.

Yeah. One of them is keeping your integrity. For instance, at
The Guardian right now, I’m the only person who works with data and data sets like this. Someone will come to me and say, “What is the answer to X?” And I give it to them, and then it’s published. There is very little oversight of exactly how I’ve collected those numbers and exactly how I’ve crunched them. But it also means that someone with less integrity could be like, “This is close enough. Let’s just go with it.” So a challenge is maintaining your integrity when you’re trusted. A part of that is being as transparent as possible. Because readers often fact-check me.

This personal piece by Mona Chalabi shows that 1,995 children were separated from their parents in the spring of 2018. 

This personal piece by Chalabi uses data from the Department of Homeland Security, 2018. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

What’s another challenge?

Money. Journalism doesn’t pay particularly well. The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism. Until they are, we’re always going to be underfunded and scrambling to survive.

It feels like there’s a lot of momentum in your career right now.

Which is really bad. It’s wonderful. But this momentum is just carrying me along, and I want the opportunity to step back and say, “But what do I want to do?” instead of just responding to things. Part of the problem is I’m still so excited by different mediums. I want to be able to write fiction and nonfiction essays. I want to produce films. But I want to concentrate, too. Now is the time to focus on which direction to go.

feibisi / 2018年11月28日

What Creatives Need to Know About Working with a Recruiter

On average, you will probably have 20 jobs and at least three career changes in your professional life.

Allison Hemming, the founder and president of The Hired Guns talent agency encourages us to get better at managing our careers rather than seeking job hunting hacks and tips. And when we look at our careers that way, we might realize how much time and energy we spend exploring open positions, sending in resumes alongside hundreds of other resumes, and making cold intros that aren’t met with a reply. Looking for a new job can be a soul-crushing, inefficient, process. That’s where Hemming comes in—she is a recruiter whose team specializes in content, marketing, design, and user experience jobs from the C-Suite to entry level. Her skill is matching talent (you!) with the right job.

Recruiters help companies staff their teams. They often act as a talent partner—you have the skills, the companies have the need, and recruiters have relationships between the parties. And they can also serve as an ally because, as you rise in your career, you’re competing with better people for fewer jobs—why wouldn’t you want someone on your side during that process?

Hemming began her career at Morgan Stanley and has led The Hired Guns since 2000. She has helped place thousands of creators in jobs, and she give us the inside scoop on what it’s like to work with a recruiter.

Recruiters can provide keen insight into the current job market.

Today, the unemployment rate is very low, but there’s still a high level of frustration in hiring, explains Hemming. “Companies, like talent, are moving jobs constantly right now. And yet, companies have tons of open roles that are going unfilled,” says Hemming. What gives? “Companies don’t want to pay to uplevel. They want a fully-baked hire. But I think if they learn how to interview for risk and aptitude, they could fill the gap with smart people who know how to learn.”

The hiring company pays the recruiter fee.

Chalk that up to the longstanding model, as well as the fact that filling a role is an expensive proposition for a company. And Hemming isn’t just filling a role—she offers a service. “We get into organizations and help them look at their current state, and talk to them about their ambitions for the business and how to build a talent roadmap to get there.”

You can cold call a recruiter, even if you don’t see an immediate job listing.

Here’s how Hemming recommends you begin the conversation.

“Hi, I’m Jim. I’ve been working on the product side of digital media. I’d like to move into this other role and here is why I’d be a good fit for that. I don’t see that on your site, but I have seen other jobs that you have had.”

The Hired Guns leaves all its filled jobs up on its website for that very reason—so future talent can cite them as examples of what they’re looking for.

Connect with the experts in your field.

Every field has recruiters who focus on certain skill niches. “Their job is to corner the marketplace on a particular kind of talent and own it, and you’re never going to talk to certain companies unless you go through them,” says Hemming. “It would behoove you to know the recruiting specialists in your field.”

Don’t limit yourself to a single recruiter.

“In general, you should have two to three recruiting partners that you like and trust. It’s a relationship—the long game, not the short game. They may not have the right thing for you today. If they don’t, be helpful. And if you know the perfect person for the job, and it’s not you, recommend that person.” The recruiter will likely remember the kindness and repay it down the road.

It’s a confidential process.

The Hired Guns even conducts certain first-round interviews in its office so a candidate who might be interviewing with a competitor won’t be spotted in that office.

A recruiter can uncover key job details that aren’t advertised in the job posting.

One of the disciplines that was the hardest to get right was visual design and user experience design. Why? Portfolios. Everybody wants to see work. Problem is what company A thinks is beautiful, company B thinks is hideous.”

The Hired Guns has developed a technique with their clients where they walk them through a portfolio review to get at the dynamics of what is beautiful to them. “Then the matchmaking can begin,” says Hemming, who notes they always do this with the future boss. “If the boss of that person does not want to have the patience to teach us what beautiful looks like to them, we know we’re never going to make that placement because they will never be 100 percent satisfied.”

Don’t look for the job, look for the company.

If someone reaches out to Hemming without a clear job in mind, here’s what she’ll tell them: “List out 10 companies that you believe you can make a major impact at that need you more than you need them.” And the response is typically: Why would I want to go work at those companies? “Because you’re going to learn how to invent your own job description,” says Hemming. “They need you more than you need them, and you’re going to learn how to pitch through that lens.”

A recruiter can help iron out discrepancies between the skills, job level, and compensation.

Ever seen those misaligned job descriptions where a company wants a senior director with three years of experience? That is not going to end well. But a recruiter can advocate on the behalf of a future employee to make sure that the job role and experience matches the compensation, so you, the future employee, don’t have to have that awkward conversation.

Recruiters can speed up the interview process.

The Hired Guns has noticed an alarming trend—phenomenal candidates of theirs were not getting placed at clients because the company hiring processes were too slow. “It was interviewing by a thousand cuts for the candidate, meaning you go in 10 times and you have the same interview 10 times, but with 10 different people,” says Hemming. “That is terrible for the company.” Now The Hired Guns runs speed dates for its clients and talent and encourages its corporate clients to have entire teams sit in together earlier in the interview rounds.

There will be homework.

If you’re looking for a new job, Hemming has you put together a competitive set list of anyone you can find who has the same role that you want. This will help you see what skills they have, and if there are gaps between those and your own skill set. When Hemming did this recently with a content creator in the food space who aspired to be an Editor-in-Chief, she noticed something telling. “This person wasn’t an Editor-in-Chief or the Executive Editor through an editorial lens. But they are a damn good brand and content marketer,” says Hemming. “And I’m like, “You’re looking at the right companies but at the wrong job.” Once they course corrected, this person found the more appropriate, and better-fitting, job.

Lastly, a recruiter is not a miracle worker.

Sometimes people come to me and they want me to be the elixir,” says Hemming. “Like I’m going to be the genie in the bottle that’s going to help you land that perfect job – and that doesn’t exist. I want to give people the tools and the power to empower themselves to have a future of assembling the right jobs.”

feibisi / 2018年11月23日

What You Need to Know About Designing for the Public Sector  

For many creative types, getting involved in the public sector is a bit of an alluring mystery. The idea of working with a government-owned organization or initiative allows people to be part of a bigger cause, a stronger mission, and the possibility to impact thousands of people – often rarities in the private world, where projects are for business clients and only impact the people who interact with the company.  

Interior wayfinding at the Washington State Convention Center points guests in the right direction.

Interior wayfinding at the Washington State Convention Center points guests in the right direction.

But while the public sector can provide a sense of virtuousness, it comes with some unique challenges and processes to navigate.

Michael Courtney should know. As the founder of Michael Courtney Design, a Seattle-based graphic design firm specializing in wayfinding, he has spent 26 years working in the public sector arena, with half of his clients in that space. His projects include working with the Washington State Convention CenterSeattle City Light, the area’s publicly-owned electric power utility, along with wayfinding projects for Kansas State University and the University of Washington.

We caught up with Courtney to learn more about partnering with the public sector.

A giant "W" welcomes visitors to the University of Washington campus.

A giant “W” welcomes visitors to the University of Washington campus.

Find the perfect project for your skillset.

“I’d recommend design firms reach out to their state and local municipalities and see if there is a government or municipal service that gathers and distributes information about opportunities for design services. And then get on that service’s email to be able to search for opportunities,” says Courtney.

Besides finding an email list, Courtney recommends looking for other designers who might bring you onto their project teams. Architects and landscape architects do a lot of public projects, so connecting with them is a great place to start,” he says.

Land the project.

Unlike the private sector, where a lot of clients are based on relationships, the public-sector process is more stringent and follows an application process. “You need to go through the steps in the order they specify,” says Courtney. This could mean filling out one page, or 50, depending on the project. “They will ask the same questions by the same committee members in the same order every single time, so they hope they are getting an apples-to-apples answer. They don’t want someone coming back and saying, ‘I wasn’t included.’”

If you meet the criteria, you get an invitation to interview and only then do you get to do a proposal. “Sometimes, it is a really long journey to find out if you did or did not get that project, which is part of why some people don’t do public sector projects,” says Courtney.

Explain your process, as well as your intended result.

Once you land the project, you need build trust with the various stakeholders. And there are many from different organizations.

“Most clients and these community groups don’t do projects like we do all the time,” he says. “We have to help them understand what we can do, how we can help them, and what it is going to look like, not only the end product but also what the process is going to look like, so they get comfortable.”

Michael Courtney prepares to display the type for the donor recognition wall at The Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University.

Michael Courtney prepares to display the type for the donor recognition wall at the Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University. 

Build that bond through transparency.

For Courtney and team, they do a few exercises to help develop a cohesive vision.

“We do a visioning session where we have key phrases that we want clients to respond to, like, What do you want people to feel when they use the project? What do you want people to think when they leave this project? This provides a lot of input.

“And then we bring in images of other environmental graphics projects we have put out. We talk about them. Why did you like this? Why didn’t you like this? It allows us to talk about concepts like scale, colors, materials, and comprehension nature of a program, And it lets them have their say.

“It also helps our team. When they start designing, they have a clearer path, a roadmap to go by. When we bring back those concepts, we remind them of what we have gone through and how we are going to do that.”

The final donor recognition wall display in the Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University.

The final donor recognition wall display in the Berney Family Welcome Center.

Play the waiting game.

“Most designers in school are trained to work quickly and efficiently and when they get out of school, that is reinforced even more. With the public sector, it’s not the same.”

Decisions needing to be made by various stakeholders can make the process stretch out, says Courtney. Sometimes it can be months before starting back up on projects.

“[During the break], you have to be willing to not change your ideas. They have approved things and even though you might have come up with something that was even more distinctive in the three months, don’t do it. Stay the course.”

Imagine the community as your client.

For those looking to work in the public sector, it often comes down to telling a bigger story around the community, says Courtney. “If we do a fabulous project in an office building [for a private sector client], then only the people who get to see it are the people using that building. But with public projects, we have thousands of people who get to see these projects. And it lasts. A lot of our work has been up for literally 20 years.”

feibisi / 2018年11月21日

The Cabin in the Australian Forest That Provides a Creative Jolt

Nestled in the lower glens of Australia’s Dandenong Range is a cabin adorned with stained glass, sculptures, and paintings that evokes “Hansel and Gretel.” A stream circles the back property, filling the gardens with the sound of water over rocks. A stroll up to the cabin’s lapis blue door takes you past strawberries, fig trees, rhododendrons, and the basil-like leaves of lemon verbena. If all those names are hard to remember, never fear: Anyone who stays at Jacky Winter Gardens receives a hand-drawn map by artist James Gulliver Hancock, detailing every tree and flower on the property.

The walkway to the Jacky Winter Gardens houses cuts through the forest.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is the ideal countryside escape for creating something new.

The space is the brainchild of New York transplant Jeremy Wortsman. Wortsman moved to the Dandenongs six years ago, part of a long tradition of artists and creatives escaping Melbourne for the countryside. The prehistoric trees and the promise of fresh air have beckoned artists to the Dandenongs for centuries. Jacky Winter Gardens can be reached by hopping on the train in Melbourne and riding the rails to the end of the line, where the city morphs into a mountainous forest preserve of hills, waterfalls, and Jurassic Park–style ferns.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is full of designs from creators all over the world.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is full of designs from creators all over the world.

After first planning the house as a business venture, Wortsman realized it was financially possible to rent it out a few weeks each month and offer it to creatives for free the rest of the time. The creative residency he developed now accepts hundreds of applications a year to fill nine slots – a select group of artists who arrive at Jacky Winter Gardens to finish a work-in-progress. “The people who do it genuinely get amazing things out of it,” says Wortsman. “Plus, we love meeting new people: illustrators, artists, glassblowers, playwrights, board game designers, industrial designers. Every profession comes through.”

Each room is full of thoughtful touches, including a beanbag for lounging.

Each room is full of thoughtful touches.

Artists come for up to a week to sit by the stream, muse in front of the wood-burning stove, and peck away at the typewriter. If the contemplation and solitude become too much, they can walk to the local town for a flat white – a creamy Australian coffee specialty – or hike into the rain forest for a round of “forest bathing,” a Japanese-inspired trend of reconnecting with nature. When they come home to the Jacky Winter Gardens cabin, they might find the local wallaby – a kangaroo-like creature that New York–born Wortsman still finds bizarre – waiting outside.

Wortsman’s hope is that the time away gives creatives what they need to get unstuck and cross the finish line on their projects. And it works. “I’d never been so productive – and probably never will be again,” said author Jess Hill of her visit to the cabin. “To stay there feels like stepping into an alternate dimension where creativity is the most important part of life,” added former Disney animator Tania Walker.

A cool stream runs through the property.

A cool stream runs through the property.

This isn’t the only capacity in which Wortsman manages artists’ creative time. He’s also the founder of an agency and production company, also called Jacky Winters. Some of the artists he manages were the very first residents. Wortsman hopes that artists embrace the freedom the space offers and give themselves permission to step outside their normal patterns and blocks. A parent himself, one of his personal goals is to encourage new parents to do the residency for the creative breather often denied to new mothers and fathers. Ultimately, on top of the beauty of the physical space, what Jacky Winter Gardens really offers is creative time. “Getting an hour, much less a week, is really precious,” Wortsman says.

feibisi / 2018年11月17日

Design Debate: Is It Important That a Designer Agrees with Their Client’s Morals?

In our newest design debate, Meredith Hattam, Steven Heller, and Lina Forsgren weigh in on whether you need to agree with the morals of your clients in order to do the job. Ready, set, debate.

“I wish we were all lucky enough to be choosy with our work, but sometimes you just have to make ends meet.”

Meredith Hattam, interactive designer, Condé Nast

When I moved to New York and started out as a designer, I was very idealistic and only worked for nonprofits. I lived here for a bit longer and soon realized just how hard it is to only take on very philanthropic clients.

I do believe that working for ethical causes is at the heart of what I want to do – it is my goal. But when you’re living in such an expensive city, sometimes you can’t pick and choose the work that you’re going to do.

You’re very privileged if you’re able to be picky with your clients in New York. Some designers can be – maybe they have a trust fund or they’re superstars and can take on whatever projects they like. But for the majority of us, we can only do our best. Today, it’s difficult to be strict about which companies you take on in terms of ethics, because the lines get really blurry. Maybe you don’t agree with who’s funding the company, but you support what they produce. Where and when do you draw the line?

There are many wonderful, sustainable brands, but it’s very hard to find a company that produces products that are 100 percent ethical and sustainable.

I used to work a lot in fashion, which is the number two most polluting industry in the world. There are many wonderful, sustainable brands, but it’s very hard to find a company that produces products that are 100 percent ethical and sustainable. If you’re going about your day-to-day job at an agency or working for a brand, it’s not your responsibility to research the client and whether they are 100 percent ethical, especially if you’re trying to pay your rent. Sometimes you have to put that first.

It was fun to work in fashion e-commerce, with a lot of beautiful art direction and collaborations with incredibly talented people. But with large retailers, you don’t know how those clothes are getting made. I was finding creative fulfillment in my work, but around that time, I decided to start volunteering even more to supplement my more commercially driven work.

For me, it’s about finding a balance. And supplementing.

For me, it’s about finding a balance. And supplementing. If you truly want to work toward becoming more of an ethical designer, you can supplement the work you’re doing with volunteering, maybe by designing for nonprofits for free. There’s a website called Designers Available that hooks you up with nonprofits that need a hand. I personally volunteer with two nonprofits right now. As a designer, it’s very rewarding, as design is inaccessible for a lot of smaller companies and organizations.

While you often have to put livelihood first, there are still, of course, choices that you can make in terms of how you align yourself. I’ve chosen to support journalism by taking on a full-time position at Condé Nast. It’s incredibly important to support the journalism industry, especially at this moment in time. I really believe in what I’m doing, but a full-time position of this nature has been a hard and rare thing to find in New York.

“A citizen has the right and duty not to perpetuate bad behavior.”

—Steven Heller, design writer, educator, and historian

Policies and ethics have to be separated from each other. A designer could, I suppose, disagree with a client’s policies (or even individual beliefs), as long as the designer does not feel compromised.

Invariably, I do business with some concerns that probably include individuals on boards that do not hold my social or political views. But ethics is a key principle that dictates how a client does business. A designer must be responsible to the client, and if how that client operates in the world is ethically questionable, then the designer is guilty of abetting bad behavior.

There is no law that I know of that says by working for a bad company a designer is ex post facto committing a crime, but it is a breach of personal ethics to serve a client under these circumstances. Some of these are obvious – like a company that promotes discrimination.

One can often justify just about anything, but that doesn’t make it ethically sound.

One can often justify just about anything, but that doesn’t make it ethically sound. Keeping a job rather than losing work can be justified by any number of excuses. It used to be that advertising agencies that took cigarette advertising (which we can all agree contributed to considerable health problems) justified it by saying it’s “only a job.”

Ethics are sometimes situational.

Nothing is entirely black and white. Ethics are sometimes situational. Also, there is the old argument about the better of two evils, or working for good from the inside. In the U.S. now we are so polarized that it’s hard to talk about blue and red without becoming irrational.

I try to warn my students that we are constantly barraged by propaganda for one side or another. The best they can do is try to be vigilant and then do what their conscience tells them to do. As they say, it’s complicated.

“The clients I work with need to have good core values that correspond with their image.”

—Lina Forsgren, freelance art director and graphic designer

I’m a feminist working with an intersectional perspective, so it’s vital to me that my clients don’t disagree with my ethics. Especially in these times – when racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and climate change just keep growing – it’s really important to review the client’s values and actions before going into business with each other.

A few years ago, I was approached by a women’s fashion company called Birdsong London to develop its identity. I said yes because I support its concept and model. Birdsong works under the premise of no sweatshops and no Photoshop; its products are made by groups of female migrants in London who are paid a London living wage for their labor. The company has a feminist agenda, which affects all areas of its business model and structure. To me, it’s important that a client embodies feminist values internally if that’s their image. I’ve seen a lot of big companies that capitalize on good ethics and feminism – that use it as a marketing strategy – while the board of the company doesn’t share these values or have the intention of working with them long-term. Birdsong’s work, on the other hand, is permeated with these values inside and out.

To put ethics first as a freelance designer can be challenging. It can be difficult to support yourself.

I don’t often get approached by clients who don’t share my ethics, since most of my work is defined by feminist principles. But six years ago, I did get asked to do some illustrations for McDonald’s. I was still in design school, and at first I was stoked to get asked, because I was trying to get my work out there. Ultimately it felt wrong, though. I said no. I didn’t want to work with McDonald’s because I’m a vegetarian and am against the meat industry.

When a new client approaches me, I’ll do research to find out as much as possible about them. If it’s a client that someone I know has worked with in the past, I’ll reach out to ask them about their experience. It’s good to know how a client acts toward a designer – it says a lot about them. It’s vital not only that a client isn’t promoting sexist advertising campaigns, but also that internally their employees are feeling good and being treated right.

Putting ethics first can be difficult, because when you care, some people will hate and discourage you.

To put ethics first as a freelance designer can be challenging. It can be difficult to support yourself, since we live in a capitalist world. It’s also a challenge to make sure you don’t take on too many low-budget projects – so that you don’t get burnt out. But it’s also important not to work for low pay, in order to be in solidarity with other designers: We have to keep a certain rate standard to ensure the health of the creative industry.

Lastly, putting ethics first can be difficult, because when you care, some people will hate and discourage you. I’ve previously received hate messages for my feminist principles, and it can be trying to stay strong.

Ultimately, it’s important for me to work through these challenges, though. I primarily want to work with people who want to see the same world as I do, and who aren’t contributing to its destruction. If I work to promote companies and systems that I do not believe in, then I too am contributing to the continuation of destructive, unethical practices.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

feibisi / 2018年11月16日

Talent Wins: Eight Key Ways to Put People First

Why does talent matter? Because, according to a new book from Harvard Business Review, Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First, the one safe bet to make in the crazy game of business forecasting is that talent-first companies are the future of work. When change comes and makes your tech obsolete and your business strategy caput, your make-or-break resource will be an agile, high-performing talent pool.

Talent Wins is a playbook for companies ready to dive into building a people-centric business strategy.

We’ve pulled eight tips—from transforming human resources to killing the annual performance review—as a starter pack for turning your organization into a talent-first company ready to take on the future.

Look for unlikely people creating unlikely value in unlikely places.

A company’s top players are not necessarily its directors. The most valuable people are a hidden group called the two percent who generate momentum and energy that goes far beyond their day-to-day tasks. This two percent is good at getting to the heart of an issue and creating informal connections that encourage collaboration. They can tap into social networks to create buy-in and spread information quickly. Sometimes, they’re veterans that rookies look to. Sometimes, they’re fast movers. Sometimes, they’re just darn charismatic and infectiously encouraging. They all have in common the ability to make the organization healthier and more productive. What else do they have in common? Their power is probably being overlooked and underutilized. Traditional promotion structures don’t surface people with soft power skills so identifying the two percent is difficult. They’re out there. Go find them.

Reward your two percent. Do not, whatever you do, lose them.

Talent Wins asks business leaders to entertain an uncomfortable thought experiment: How many people would you trade for your best performer? If the number is more than five you’re likely underpaying that person. Don’t get married to a compensation system that lets high performers walk out the door to the talent marketplace. And don’t limit your search for the two percent to internal—your key members of the two percent may not work for you yet.

Turn your hierarchy into a talent marketplace.

Company hierarchy is an archaic holdover from the 20th century. For the rapidly-changing needs of business today, companies must remodel their talent resources to be more nimble. Tech companies and consultancies already have a model for this approach, assigning specific initiatives to team leads and partners who then build a dedicated team from the talent marketplace of the company. Instead of top- down corporate decision ladders, this flat organization is able to move quickly and without bureaucracy to meet project needs and then disband back into the talent marketplace at the end of the project.

Elevate your head of human resources.

We know that C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s need to be in the room to call the business shots. But how often is a Chief Human Resources Officer in those strategy meetings? Too often, the C.H.R.O. is relegated to managing the operational structures of payroll, onboarding, and company culture. But again, human capital needs to be managed as strategically as financial capital. A C.F.O. may see where a business unit isn’t making money, but a C.H.R.O. realizes it’s because turnover is bleeding institutional knowledge, stagnating the team’s deliverables. To solve expensive talent blind spots, elevate the C.H.R.O. to the level of C.F.O to form a trinity with the C.E.O that directs business strategy. 

Rethink who runs HR.

Having a C.H.R.O. qualified to lead business strategy means rethinking the qualities it takes to be an HR lead. No longer is the C.H.R.O. focused on the company Christmas party and slideshows about benefits. They need a whole new set of skills. The new model of HR lead is excellent at matching top performers to the right jobs. They have an eye for how well (or poorly) an org is functioning and can pinpoint the root causes. They are intellectually curious, have leadership skills and maintain a predisposition to weigh in early and often.

How do you get that person? Reinvent the HR career track. To give HR leads strong business instincts, they need to go on sabbaticals to other business units. Reciprocally, the C.E.O track should have a tour of duty in HR—following the career path model of the heads of companies like GM, Xerox, and BMW—in order to qualify to lead a talent-driven organization.

Make HR tracks attractive.

There’s a big problem here. It’s not only that the C.H.R.O. job has a mushy reputation. Top performers aim for other job titles because they make more money. C.H.R.O.s tend to make 50 percent to 60 percent of a C.F.O.’s direct compensation. To create a powerful, balanced triumvirate that attracts the top players, organizations must stop treating C.H.R.O. as a discount leadership position and up their pay scale.  

Use tech to add value, not cut costs (or people).

Organizations should invest in data gathering software—even data centers—that surfaces and solves the talent pain points that only big data can see. For example, Google crunched its numbers and spotted a trend of high attrition rates in employees who became new mothers. Based on the data, Google upped its paid maternity leave from three to six months. Turnover for new mothers dropped by 50 percent. HR departments everywhere should similarly think strategically about data and AI as a tool to identify major talent trends in the organization.

Kill the annual performance review.

It’s not just that annual performance reviews come at the worst time of year when everyone wants to get out to the holiday party. They’re perfunctory and all too often the manager is poorly prepared. Beyond that, it doesn’t make sense to provide evaluations on an annual timeline when most business strategies change more quickly than that.

Effective feedback should come from multiple sources and more often than once a year. GE has led the remodeling of performance review systems with their new program of continual feedback and coaching. How to make that performance review even more valuable? Replace retrospectives with conversations that aim at the future by focusing on priorities and improvement.

feibisi / 2018年11月14日

Follow Your Passion Way Off the Beaten Track

The words of photographer Scott Rinckenberger as told to Lauren Covello Jacobs.

The Pacific Northwest is unlike most anywhere in the country in that it has every type of landscape you can interact with. Within a couple of hours of Seattle, you’ve got a wild, rugged coastline where you can surf or kayak. Go the other direction and you’ve got giant, glaciated mountains that are often compared with the Alps. A little further east you’ve got desert environments, rain forests. There are just endless ecosystems in which to explore.

I grew up in a rural, woodsy part of Washington, and my childhood was very much about being outdoors. My friends and I weren’t “sit inside and play video games” kids. We were into getting on our bikes and finding a new spot to make a jump, finding a new creek to swim in, catching lizards.

Scott Rinckenberger spotted in the great outdoors of Washington state.

Scott Rinckenberger spotted in the great outdoors of Washington state.

Throughout my childhood and into college, I was really obsessed with skiing. It was sort of my driving passion. By the time I was college age, I had devoted enough time and energy to it that I was one of the better skiers around in my age group. That morphed into a semi-pro ski career that had me traveling all over the U.S., Europe, and South America. I skied professionally from when I was in college at the University of Washington until my late twenties.

I’m still a passionate and involved skier, and that’s a lot of what I bring to my photography.

For me, skiing was as much a creative pursuit as it was an athletic one. I say “was” only to compartmentalize it; I’m still a passionate and involved skier, and that’s a lot of what I bring to my photography. But there definitely came a time when I needed a new creative stimulus to keep my mind sharp and engaged. I didn’t want to continue to relive the same year over and over. I needed some new input, and photography offered that.

So in the second half of my twenties, I started self-educating in photography and looking for jobs assisting other photographers. At around 27 or 28, I ended up landing a full-time job working for a photographer named Chase Jarvis. That became my real foray into photography as a career.

From there, I began developing an eye for these wilderness winter landscapes and creating imagery that I wasn’t really seeing anywhere else.

On weekends, I’d be out in the mountains skiing, riding my bike, or rock climbing. Eventually, instead of skiing mostly out of ski resorts, I started to do more backcountry skiing, where you climb the mountain on foot and ski down. All of a sudden, instead of skiing the same five resorts, I had an entire mountain range as a canvas to explore. It opened up all of these astounding, wild, rugged, beautiful places. I started feeling like I at least needed to bring a camera along to record these adventures. From there, I began developing an eye for wilderness winter landscapes and creating imagery that I wasn’t really seeing anywhere else. And that’s what started to pull me in my own direction.

Scott Rinckenberger's photographs capture the stories of nature, as told in the colors of black and white.

Scott Rinckenberger’s photographs capture the stories of nature, as told through the colors of black and white.

My best imagery is reductive and graphically simple. The mountain wilderness has so much power and beauty that, as a vast sort of panorama, it’s almost overwhelming. A lot of my work is directed at trying to reduce it to really simple elements that, when combined, translate into that bigger grandeur.

Safety is a constant focus. In the last 20 years, I’ve lost friends to avalanches, rockfall, and rope accidents.

That’s also the reason much of my work is in black and white. For me, eliminating color from my work serves as one of the final tests to see if the image is graphically strong. If you remove all the elements of a giant wide-angle landscape and you start to tighten up your scope in terms of composition, and then you remove color from the equation, you sort of reduce and reduce and reduce. And that allows you to see if the image is still strong without relying heavily on things like color or artificial lighting. Turning things into a monochrome state helps me take that reductive ethos all the way to its natural conclusion.

Safety is a constant focus. There’s no getting around the fact that the mountain wilderness is unforgiving. In the last 20 years, I’ve lost friends to avalanches, rockfall, and rope accidents. All of these things are ever-present dangers, and on some level you have to come to terms with it. If you come to the decision that it’s a big enough part of yourself and your life, you have to develop an ongoing education and respect for that environment. You have to religiously assess risk and carry the tools to deal with an accident or emergency. Going on an adventure is highly motivating, but making it home at the end is really the ultimate criterion.

This skier waits to tackle a steep angle down and deep powder stash.

This skier knows the importance of documenting a steep angle and deep powder stash.

Home, for me, is in Fall City, Washington, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Before we had our son, Cedar, my wife and I lived in Seattle. That was a lot of fun – there’s tons of culture, great restaurants, lots to do professionally. But once he was born, we got really excited about moving out to a landscape where he would have a lot more room to roam, and where going hiking or swimming in the river wouldn’t be a whole big “load up the car” mission.

It was a transition going from Seattle to living out in the woods, but it’s been one that fits us well. Cedar is definitely an outdoorsy kid. Every day he’s out riding his bike in the woods or hiking around or swimming in the river – all of the things that give a person a lifelong love of the outdoors. We love where we’re at and what’s nearby. We definitely don’t have any plans to leave.

 

feibisi / 2018年11月8日

Do Creative Ideas Work Better than Data-Driven Ones?

Seven years ago, while working for an ad agency, I presented a billboard campaign to my client, Russell Fisher. After reviewing the work, he sat back and asked me this question, one that would deeply impact my career for years: “What proof can you give me that these creative ideas are more effective for my business than just a straightforward message? And I’m talking real proof, not the usual marketing jargon.”

Russell’s question remains profound—and one the ad business has been battling over since the 1970s and the birth of creative advertising. Put in more simple terms, it comes down to: “Do creative ideas work better?”

To best answer this, let’s first look at the mother of all hard drives—ours brains.

Emotion Versus Logic

The age-old battle over creative advertising starts with a few basic elements—emotion and logic. Usually, we equate these with the two major hemispheres of our brain: the left, logical half and the right, creative half. The left helps us with denotation, or the literal meaning of things. And the right offers connotation, or the connection between things, such as understanding the punchline of a joke.

But the part of the story that we often overlook is the front of the brain versus the back of the brain. The large frontal lobe (the area just behind our foreheads) is what sets us apart as humans versus other animals. This chunk of the brain, often referring to the prefrontal cortex specifically, controls our executive function. It helps us manage time, delay instant gratification, and provides us with rational thought.

What Damasio learned by studying these patients was this: a brain that can’t feel, can’t make a decision. We need emotion, not just logic alone.

Understanding the relationship between logic and emotion is critical. And they are more intimately connected than we think. In their famous study “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” psychologist Leda Cosmides and anthropologist John Tooby examined the relationship between animal instincts and human logic. They reasoned that we have more emotional instincts than animals, like our ability to love, have morals, and fear disease. And these emotions are what make us human.   

Another interesting study comes from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who worked with patients who had damaged a small area of their brains that controlled emotions. Even with this chunk impaired, he found his patients were still rational humans. But when he would ask them to make even the smallest decisions, they struggled. What Damasio learned by studying these patients was this: a brain that can’t feel, can’t make a decision. We need emotion, not just logic alone.   

Two Systems, One Brain

But because logic and emotion are so interconnected with all parts of the brain, many psychologists and neuroscientists prefer to speak about the brain’s functions in terms of two systems—your slow, logical system and your fast, emotional system. To me, it makes sense to call these your conscious and subconscious brains.

Several studies have been done to understand the capacity of these two systems. For our slow, conscious brain, psychologist George Miller found that our conscious brain can only hold around seven variables (“the magic number”), plus or minus two. This is why phone numbers are split into small chunks of three or four.  

As for the capacity of our fast, subconscious system, a recent study by the Salk Institute shows that our brains have the hard-drive capacity to hold the amount of data in the entire Internet. Imagine every YouTube video, every tweet, even the entire audio track from Zombo.com. Every human brain is capable of storing that much information.

How We Make Decisions

This brings us to the decision-making process. When making a decision, we first run any new experience past our library of previous memories to see whether there is a match. If there isn’t, our conscious brain becomes engaged. Our frontal lobe slows down and figures out this new experience. Once a new choice is made, the executive order is sent back to the subconscious through another burst of neurochemicals. These neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, are the regulators of our emotions and are how one neuron communicates with another.

The stronger the emotion, the greater the chance of creating a memory.

The memory is then filed away for future use through a series of neurons firing in a pattern, called a memory trace. It’s just like the 1’s and 0’s we use to burn a file on a hard drive—except the pattern is powered by a small burst of emotions between the neurons. This is our biology. Memories are created with emotion, and when we make or remember a decision, our brains are flooded with emotion.

Once a memory is created, we retrieve the memory in the same way. The stronger the emotion, the greater the chance of creating a memory. And if a strong emotion is present during retrieval, there’s a greater chance we will remember it. That means creating brand memories and lasting loyalty with customers is all about the amount of emotion that’s present when those experiences are formed.

What This All Means To Marketing

So, should we as marketers place more value on logic or emotions when making decisions? The answer is they are equally valuable. We need both to successfully communicate to customers, to have them believe our message, and to retain their love and loyalty.

The marketing gut is not dead. Some say that data-driven marketing gives us all the answers and we don’t need all that creative crap. Don’t be fooled.

Here’s an interesting thought: If emotions represent a massive amount of past experiences, memories, and rational decisions, then emotion is logic. Lots of it. And all summarized in a quick emotional burst. Which means it isn’t creativity versus strategy, or art versus science, but a combination of both. Perhaps a simple marketing choice with only a few variables should rely more on logic. But a more complex purchase might require more emotion, like listening to our guts.

That brings me to this: The marketing gut is not dead. Some say that data-driven marketing gives us all the answers and we don’t need all that creative crap. Don’t be fooled. Data inspires ideas. Metrics drive creativity. They are not mutually exclusive.

Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers.

When making good marketing decisions, we should use all the data we can find, including the insight we get from our mysterious, subconscious guts. Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers.

However, far too often, business decision makers ignore the emotions. They don’t give creativity a seat at the logic table. If they think creative ideas are marketing fluff, they don’t understand how humans think. If you want to avoid risk, look at our biology and make sure strong emotions are present in all communications. If you want a sure bet on your marketing dollars, you need to embrace a balance of both. More often than not, this means understanding the value of emotional ideas in a sea of data and logic.

As we better understand how the mind uses emotion to function, it gives new insight into why emotional marketing campaigns are more successful. For decades, marketing pros have known that emotional messaging pulls better. But they couldn’t explain why. They just felt it in their guts. Now that we know how the brain ingests data, how it uses emotion to process it, and how emotion plays a pivotal role in decision making and creating memories, we have a universal answer that explains why emotional marketing is more effective. It’s based on biology. If we remove emotion from the equation, the results are suboptimal.

Once you better understand the science, you not only know the answer to Russell’s question, but you also can see applications where the right balance of logic and emotion can help you craft more meaningful experiences for your customers. If you want your brand to succeed, the question now becomes: Why wouldn’t you use strong emotions and creative ideas in your marketing?

This article was adapted from Morgan’s upcoming book Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business: Proving the Value of Creative Ideas with Science.

feibisi / 2018年11月7日

Jessica Hische: Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave

Procrastiworking (noun): The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.  

If you’re in the design community, you might already be well acquainted with this word and its definition. And even if you don’t know the term, maybe you know its creator, Oakland-based lettering artist, type designer, illustrator, and author Jessica Hische.

The 34-year-old originally conceived of the word to describe the advice she was giving to young artists who were having trouble figuring out a direction. “Over the course of my career I’ve tried to pay attention to the work that I do when I’m putting off other work,” she explains on her site. Passion projects can be very telling.

Hische discovered procrastiworking for herself at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, when her own passion for graphic design overshadowed her lifelong interest in drawing. “I took a graphic art class and found myself procrastinating from all of my fine art work to work on my graphic design projects,” she recalls. After graduating, Hische transformed this enthusiasm into a successful illustration and lettering career.

Hische photographed in her office in California’s Bay Area.

Today, Hische’s professional projects reach across mediums and range from corporate powerhouses like Target and Tiffany & Co. to more offbeat indies like McSweeney’s and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

Hische might be as well known for her beautiful hand-drawn letters as she is for her hands-on approach to sharing professional insights. Her prolific, multimedium advice includes speaking at creative conferences, workshops, seminars, and on podcasts. The artist’s first side project, Daily Drop Cap, a website she created in 2009, offered bloggers an original daily letter illustration to make their blogs more beautiful.

She drew her way around the alphabet 12 times for the daily project that effectively transformed into a massive online gallery. Her “Should I Work for Free?” flowchart, an analysis of a question every creative person faces in their career, is online and also available in a letterpress print. Don’t Fear the Internet, a site she created with her web designer husband, Russ Maschmeyer, was meant to demystify HTML for beginner web designers. “I love making things and love creating, but I’m not immune to burnout,” she says. “The work that I do to help others is just the best motivator in the world.”

In her new book, Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave, that encouragement is extended to a much younger audience. It’s an uplifting bedtime story offering children the confidence to try new things. While her first book, In Progress: See Inside a Lettering Artist’s Sketchbook and Process, from Pencil to Vector, literally walked readers through her own creative process, this one is a different kind of support guide. It recognizes that the definitions of success can be different for everyone.

But, Hische might agree, positivity and procrastiworking are good places to start.

Congratulations on Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave. This children’s book offers encouragement to keep trying even if you don’t meet your goals right away. Have there been some moments where you have learned from the process of trying and not always succeeding in the way you imagined?

This theme definitely resonates with me. I feel like it ends up being a central theme of a lot of the public speaking that I do, and a lot of the one-off mentoring sessions I end up having with people. I’m a little addicted to getting coffee with strangers and playing design therapist. Part of the reason why it resonates so much for me is that “big picture” dreams felt so far off when I was younger and still kind of do as an adult. I can feel really demotivated by the scale of big projects and big life shifts.

Achieving is great, but the real accomplishment is pushing through the initial fear to actually start doing something.

Because of that, I’ve sort of adapted to be a person who “Tarzans” through life and through their career – moving forward by grabbing the closest vine, one at a time, until you reach something close to an end goal. Your path isn’t really a straight line and your choices can push you in directions you didn’t initially plan for. I’ve met a lot of people like me – people who for one reason or another feel too intimidated to start something they perceive as being bigger than them, or feel way outside of their comfort zone.

Almost everyone has a fear of failure, and that fear can be really paralyzing when it comes to both life and work. Achieving is great, but the real accomplishment is pushing through the initial fear to actually start doing something.

Spreads from Hische’s new book Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave. Images courtesy of Jessica Hische.

Is this a lesson your own parents imparted to you as a child, and did it impact your own creative journey?

It definitely came about in my childhood, but probably through my parents trying to comfort me when I was being too hard on myself. I hold myself to a high standard and have a hard time forgiving myself when I mess up. When I was younger, I always felt that once I ruined something, the only way out was a total do-over, not just moving forward and accepting that things can’t always be perfect. I’ve abandoned dozens of sketchbooks because of one bad drawing. I’d given up on courses in school because I got one bad grade and my ability to have straight A’s was ruined.

I put so much pressure on myself that my parents’ main job was to help take the pressure off. I think a lot of kids need this – they need to be pushed to try new things, but too much pressure ruins an activity, dampens your desire to learn and try new things, and can shut you down creatively and otherwise.

Extracurricular projects can be a low-pressure way of exploring new things and even opening new doors. Did Daily Drop Cap impact your career?  

Daily Drop Cap was my first big side project. I think the biggest thing it did for me was to give me a story beyond just being another designer doing client work. It was an exercise in creativity for me, challenging me to make new things every day even when I was busy or not feeling particularly motivated. It was a way for me to give away my work by letting people use them on their blogs. It’s the reason I started getting invited to speak on stage, which I think has opened doors for me and established me as a leader in the community.

Hische lives and works in northern California.

Has there ever been a case where side projects derailed your work? Or didn’t work out the way you intended?

I wouldn’t say that any have derailed my work, but a few of my larger website projects did become a bit of a burden. Inker Linker, for example, is a site that I was really happy to make and am definitely glad that I spent the time putting together, but I never intended to be a webmaster for a printer website forever. I haven’t done anything to make money from it – the only “ads” I’ve run were link exchanges – but I have to pay someone to help me update it and approve comments.

What did you learn from them?

I think anytime you make a project, especially an app or website, you have to consider how much ongoing maintenance is required, and you need to ask yourself if that’s something you’re willing to take on.

What are the most effective ways you’ve found to make a difference?

I think when I get to personally engage with people in a one-on-one way, it ends up feeling the most significant, both for myself and I think for them. I try to write everyone back who emails me, though I can take a long while to respond, and a few times a year I get a very personal and vulnerable email from someone struggling with something in their life.

Everyone knows the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness,” but making enough money is  important in contributing to the ability to be happy.

Sometimes it’s someone trying to re-enter the workforce after having children, sometimes it’s a new designer starting out, sometimes it’s an older person trying to start a new career as a designer. When I read their stories and hear about the things they feel are holding them back, it’s very moving. I try to give as in-depth of a response as I can, giving practical advice, encouragement, and sharing resources.

I’ve had a number of people write me incredibly moving and flattering emails about how something I said or did dug them out of a very specific creative rut, or that some encouragement that I gave them years before ended up being a turning point for them pursuing a new passion.

Is there a specific example that comes to mind?

Six years ago, a man reached out to me about helping him propose to his then girlfriend – she was a huge fan of mine and they were going to be in San Francisco and he wanted to propose to her there. He wanted to commission me to make a piece of art asking her to marry him, and we schemed to have it framed and hanging up in the restaurant they were going to for dinner. I was so tickled to be involved in such a significant part of someone’s life and story that I ended up refusing payment because it filled me with so much joy to do it. He wrote me back recently:

Six years ago, you created the most beautiful artwork to help me propose to my wife. Six years on, Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave is the first book I’ve preordered for our first child (to be born early July). I hope the years in between have been good for you, Jessica. As creatives, we have followed your career with interest. We’ve finally, hopefully (with fingers still crossed) succeeded after three rounds of IVF. But we have your artwork hanging on our bedroom wall every day to remind us of that most special moment.

It’s pretty impossible for me to not get teary-eyed over that. I’ve never met them in person, but just to know that our stories are woven together through these significant moments is so touching, motivating, heartwarming – all the feelings.

Okay, you seem to be pretty effective at changing other lives for the better. But how do you satisfy your own evolving sense of fulfillment?

Happiness, for me, is about living a life close to people I love with as little stress and anxiety as possible. The first part of happiness is just fulfilling your own and your family’s basic needs. Everyone knows the phrase “Money can’t buy happiness,” but I think that making enough money so that you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, and can make basic purchases for your life and family without stress, is  important in contributing to the ability to be happy. That’s one of the main reasons why I always encourage people to be aware of their basic life and financial needs and factoring those in when “doing what you love.”

I’ve found that I’ve had to navigate away from projects with unpredictable schedules and clients who require late-night and weekend work because of their own mismanagement of timelines.

Some people have the privilege of dropping everything to pursue their dreams but most people don’t. Most people have some form of debt: school, mortgage, or both; someone that relies on them for help: a family member, children; and personal needs – health and wellness – that can’t be ignored. Finding fulfillment is possible once all of your basic needs are met, and once you feel like you have a good handle on managing the stresses in your life.

I find it almost impossible to find fulfillment in my work when I’m derailed by something in my life, like the postpartum depression I experienced with each of my children. It’s all about keeping in touch with yourself, what you need in that moment, and adjusting expectations based on the hand of cards you’re currently holding. It is ever evolving, but that’s okay.

Would you mind sharing more about your postpartum depression?

The postpartum hormonal shift after both of my kids had an enormous impact on me. It was long-lasting, and manifested differently at different times. Sometimes it was crippling anxiety and all-day-and-night looping thoughts. Other times it was really classic depression symptoms, like being tired all the time or not being able to derive joy from things that previously made me happy. It made even minor tasks feel gargantuan, and then it would feel like all these little things I couldn’t motivate myself to do were snowballing on top of one another and turning into a big, out-of-control mess.

For both kids, it took about 13 months after having them to start to feel normal again. It gave me incredible empathy toward people who struggle with mental health issues all the time, and made me see just how toxic our work culture can be when you’re not at the peak of health and well-being. We’re thinking about having a third child, and I already told my therapist that I’m 100 percent going on SSRIs [antidepressants] next time because I just didn’t realize how bad it was until I was out of the woods.

How has becoming a parent changed the way you work in general?

Mostly in what kind of projects I commit to. I’ve found that I’ve had to navigate away from projects with unpredictable schedules and clients who require late-night and weekend work because of their own mismanagement of timelines. I feel excluded from working on last-minute campaigns, which can be very lucrative, because I’m unbending in my boundaries about family time. I have to be more proactive about projects and pursue different kinds of work that can fill the gap left from high-pressure, crazy-timeline agency work.

I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, though. I know that years from now I won’t have regrets over passing on a client project that could have been cool but would have insane regrets about missing out on key time with my kids when they were little.

Hische photographed in the Bay Area.

Speaking of adjusting the way that you work: You’ve talked about how craft doesn’t scale. Growing your business often means spending less hands-on time with the creative work and more time on less interesting, though necessary administrative aspects. How did you decide to scale down your business?

Part of coming to that realization was just a fear of stepping into uncharted territory. I am a pretty risk-averse person, and making the jump to growing a studio versus managing my own career feels significant. It also puts me directly in charge of someone else’s – an employee’s – future. I love mentoring people and advising others, but having that direct and dependent relationship with someone is definitely intimidating.

Art is my meditation.

Ultimately, though, what I found was that I need to be creating: that the act of making work and spending an inordinate amount of time slowly crafting something is very therapeutic for me. And it helps me manage a lot of the stress and anxiety that I can tend to feel. Art is my meditation.

When you imagine your professional future, what do you see?

I think the not-so-far-away future will mean more writing, kids’ books and otherwise; more making physical products, motivated by having my own retail store; pushing myself to experiment more in different mediums: jewelry, apparel – who knows? Mostly, I want to see where the wind takes me. It feels like it’s been picking up speed lately, and, if I can just convince myself to put my sails up, even if it takes me to uncharted territory, everything will work out.

feibisi / 2018年11月7日

Mike Perry: Good Vibes

Mike Perry is generally humble but there’s one thing he knows for sure: He’s the best damned tour guide you’ll ever meet.

“I can give a tour like nobody’s business,” he says with a laugh while showing off various objects in his 2,300-square-foot art studio in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. It’s a skill he picked up right after college, when his stint as an RA meant he could stay in student housing for the summer. During that time, he worked as a campus tour guide.

Perry couldn’t have known then how that experience, like so many others, would shape him. But it has. They all have.

Tall, barefoot, bearded, and bespectacled, Perry, 37, looks the part of a Brooklyn artist. Originally from Kansas City, he came to Brooklyn more than a decade ago. In the 10 years since moving into this studio, he’s built a small team of designers and creatives to join him on the journey. Together they produce a spectrum of work that matches the breadth of their color palette: everything from print ads to animations and large-scale physical structures. Their most famous work is on the popular Comedy Central show Broad City.

Perry working on a piece in his studio. Photographed by Eric Ryan Anderson.

While the subject matter changes from one piece to the next, the joyous, unabashed use of color is consistent. It’s most apparent in Perry’s paintings, which line nearly every inch of the huge but homey studio space. No matter what the image – nude women, flowers, a spray of wiggly shapes – the tones are rich and lively.

That liveliness is essential to Perry’s creative mission. “To be in the privileged situation of being able to make imagery, I should fill the world with positive things,” he says.

Here, Perry reflects on his life, his art, and the tonic-like effect of neon pink.

Perry photographed in his studio.

Your office is filled with so many cool things. If you had to flee in five seconds, what would you take with you?

My sketchbook.

How come?

It’s my whole memory, my journal. It’s everything I’ve gone through and all of the opportunities to reflect on the past. The sketchbook is so important to me. Like, you put something down on paper and it sits there and you don’t necessarily know what it means or why it’s there. And years later you come across it and you realize it now makes sense, and it changes all your work. And you say to yourself, “Hallelujah! I’m glad I wrote that down, because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had this epiphany.”

You’ve been drawing since forever, but you say painting is your first love. What sparked that love of painting?

My grandfather was a painter. I didn’t really have a close relationship with him, but he would show up randomly in my life. He was very overpowering – one of those “No one has anything to say except for me” kind of guys. For some reason, he gave me a tackle box of oil paints for my birthday. He probably just pulled it off his truck and was like, “Here’s some paint.” But I got it, and it f***ing changed my life, genuinely. I basically fell in love with painting. Painting was this thing that is so different than drawing; it still is. It has completely different challenges; I mean, you can’t do certain things with paint that you can do with pen, and so on and so forth.

So I basically painted all the time. When I graduated high school I had over 300 paintings. I was, like, painting something, then painting on top of it because I’d get an idea and not have another canvas. I’d go to construction sites and steal wood and take it home and paint on that. I mean – obsessed.

So you’re running around painting everything you can touch. What did your family think?

[Laughs.] My mom was really supportive. She was just really happy that I wasn’t, like, going out and doing bad teenage things. I was inspired, and I think she saw that. She’s amazing.

Was your color palette always this bright?

I remember using a lot of fluorescent colors. I loved fluorescent pink when I was a kid. I would wear fluorescent shirts, had a fluorescent-pink baseball cap. I think I’ve always just been attracted to color. When I started painting I was really into Impressionism. I actually think it had to do with my glasses; I definitely had a weird relationship with my glasses. I didn’t want to wear them – I was a teenager – so everything was kind of blurred. With Impressionism it was amazing, because I didn’t have to get lost in the details. I realized it could be about the color relationship. That’s what I took away from it – it’s about all the colors coming together to make something. That’s what I’m excited about.

Perry photographed in Brooklyn.

At the risk of sounding like a second grader: What’s your favorite color?

That’s a tough one. [Long pause.] I’m really into blue right now; I’m trying to figure it out. It’s such a crazy color. It’s everywhere and it’s so rich and complex and there are so many different variations. I like what it represents; I like how it can be positive and contemplative and dark at the same time. Pink is probably my favorite color; I think fluorescent pink provides some sort of mental satisfaction to me. I don’t know – it just makes me feel good. It’s like a drug that I get to create with.

Probably because of the blue/pink thing, I’m trying to also figure out purple. I find purple to be one of the most challenging, badass colors. It’s probably the least represented color in my everyday experience. So when I see it, it really stands out. I like it, and it’s fun that I get to figure out how it works.

Going back to the Impressionist thing – it’s like all of these colors exist and they all become everything. So having some sort of priority for one thing or another seems impossible to me because they all do all of the work, all of the time. I mean, it’s such a rich reality of color. [Points to a low cabinet nearby.] This is not beige. It’s blue, pink, tons of yellow, some red. Our brain merges them into this kind of flatness. I love that I get to geek out on all of this complexity.

I did see a news headline recently that blue is the world’s favorite color.

Yeah – it’s interesting. I was in Greece recently, on this island called Paros. When you’re there, you can put yourself in a place where all you see is blue. I think my upbringing in the Midwest is dedicated to a split line where you have blue on top, and then either green or brown on the bottom. Well, not brown actually – a golden-yellow color that’s like the f***ing sun. There’s this hard line there of complementary colors. But as I’ve gotten older and traveled more, I’ve seen these places where you can just see two blues talking to each other. These blues are just reflections of each other that create this glorious forever landscape. It’s just so present that it makes sense blue would be number one. 

Perry out walking his dog in Brooklyn.

As an artist, you’re kind of a combination of Keith Haring, Matisse, and Lisa Frank…

Cool.

…in an awesome way.

Sure. Yep.

Do you foresee a time when your style will be totally different from what it is now?

Who knows? That’s the fun part. Every day is a discovery of process.   

So you’ve had this studio for over a decade. How did it all happen?

I went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design to study painting and was really excited about it but didn’t feel inspired by the program. Graphic design was forced on everybody, and it became really relevant to me because it allowed me to use my ideas to make things, not to make things of my ideas. It was presented as this boundless opportunity to solve problems and come up with fun, creative solutions. That really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what art can be. It left me super inspired and hungry to make things in the world.

I switched from painting to interactive media (interactive media was not my speed; I don’t have the most “math-friendly” brain) to graphic design. After I graduated, I applied for jobs in Minneapolis. It didn’t go all that great. I ended up applying for a job at Urban Outfitters’ corporate office in Philadelphia as a designer. I got that job, moved to Philadelphia, and worked as a designer there for three years. During that time I met my wife, Anna Wolf, who is a photographer – we worked on a job together, hit it off, and fell in love. It soon became either she moves to Philly or I move to New York. It was a simple answer; I moved to New York. That was a long time ago: about 2004.

I moved to New York and I wanted to start my own studio but I genuinely didn’t want to do it for a long time. I thought, “I’ll work for another 10 years, and I’ll have some sort of understanding of how everything works, and then I’ll start.” But I had some relationships from Urban that I had nurtured over the years and started getting freelance work. And my wife had this freelance existence, and she was really helpful in educating me about how that lifestyle works. I mean, the lifestyle is so different from the 9-to-5 job; there’s so much freedom but there’s so much responsibility. You know, I joke about this Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like, sure I can do whatever I want all day. But if I do that every day, the whole thing falls apart. There’s this education that needs to be learned in order to make this lifestyle work. I was so lucky to have a guide.

You mentioned you weren’t a math person. Was it daunting to start a business?

Yes, definitely. One of the things I’m trying to get better at is recognizing the things I’m not good at. I think that’s very liberating. Obviously I have to have a basic understanding of how everything works because it ultimately falls on my shoulders. I have a bookkeeper who I’ve worked with for a long time, and that’s very helpful, and my accountant has been with me since day one. It’s about knowing what’s going on and being economical; the studio survived the recession, which is fascinating as a concept. Now, our political situation is so volatile and it’s stressful, and I’m like, Okay, we did it once; we can do it again. It becomes this constant journey of trial and error and figuring things out. We don’t have any other option. This is what we’re doing.

Art schools tell us to be really good at one thing. I think that’s helpful, and what I do is conceptually one thing. But within that umbrella, I think it’s really important to diversify and be prepared. The income stream is mostly client work. That’s how most of this is run. To subsidize it, I sell paintings, we have these exhibitions, I make books – things that have longer streams of cash flow. Those things really subsidize the day-to-day.

What’s your advice to young creatives trying to do the same thing?

Keep your overhead low. This desire to grow is something we need to have a conversation about. I feel it in my own self all the time. Why is it that we need to grow all the time? I don’t know. Personally, we all need to grow as humans, and I believe in that truly. But does every business need to be hundreds of people, or is there a rationale for staying small and agile and needing to – I don’t know – be barefoot? [Laughs.] The journey is what I care about.

Left: Perry in his Brooklyn studio. Right: Illusional Space, 2018. 9 color silkscreen print. Image courtesy of Mike Perry.

Walk me through a typical day.

I’m a morning person. I try to get up around 5 a.m. I make an espresso for myself and I make my wife a cappuccino; she sleeps for about another hour, so I put the cappuccino on the furnace and then start my day. I come into the studio. It’s usually dark out and quiet. I listen to a lot of podcasts, classical music. Radio is easy because there are no decisions involved.

If I get in at 5:30 a.m. I get a few hours to myself to figure out what’s going on, what I have to do today, and how long it’s going to take. I’m a task-oriented person; I like to cross things off my list.

Normally at 10 a.m. the world starts – people are here, the phone’s ringing, the emails start coming in – so I go into that phase of the day where it’s about correspondence, maintenance, and basically just running the studio.

We watch The Simpsons every day at lunch. We’ve been doing that for like two years. Most of the time we make food; I’ll make a big lasagna and bring it in to share. I’m a really big fan of not ordering out. I hate the waste; it makes me insane. Especially when there’s been a bunch of people here and we order lunch and there are like 50 to-go containers.

The second half of the day is usually something more conversational – meetings, conference calls. And then I try to get out of here at a decent hour. Especially if the goal is to make dinner, I have to be out of here by 6.

You’ve done a lot of awesome work but many people know you best for your animations on the TV show Broad City. How did the opportunity come about?

Broad City came about because I met Abbi [Jacobson] at Art Basel. We hung out and that was it. Six months to a year later, someone from Comedy Central reached out. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I turned down the project initially.

You turned down Broad City?

Yeah. I was really busy, and it was one of those busynesses where I felt if I had anything else I would basically lose my mind. They ended up reaching out [again] about a month later, and I was luckily free and ready to do it. It’s one of those pitches that I didn’t really understand would change my future. I had so many ideas and was really fortunate to have a creative director at Comedy Central who was comfortable with the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. That was my first real animation project; I had done some personal GIFs, whatever that means. [Laughs.] But here I had this creative director saying, “We’re here to help you.” They really were genuinely there to help me.

I’m very fortunate to be part of the Comedy Central family. It’s been five years. I feel like that’s really exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

As humans, we’re all pretty concerned about legacy. I feel like we can get deep here: What do you want to have someone say about you?

I don’t know. “He was a good person, tried really hard.” Honestly, I did a talk at FIT a while ago and this woman came up to me afterward. She had watched the Broad City “Mushrooms” episode and said it gave her a flashback to this time 30 years ago when she and her best friend did mushrooms together. She had completely forgotten about the entire thing. And she watched the episode and was flooded with all of the memories of that experience and it led her to reconnect with her friend. And I was just like, “Success!”