Who are you to write?

Facing the voices of fear.

I’ve been torn lately. Part of me wants to write more often, to branch out and speak up. The other part of me fears that I am too easily sucked into the narcissistic current that is pulling our Internet-fueled broadcast culture out to sea.

Writing offers a platform for vulnerability. By speaking up, by publishing my thoughts, I may let others know they aren’t alone in their experiences. The written word allows conversations to take place with people I’ve never met, relationships to form that geography prohibits. There’s immense good that comes from the Internet and the ease with which we can share our thoughts with others. I’ve experienced this firsthand and have been greatly encouraged, sometimes rescued, by the words posted by a stranger on the Internet.

But it’s also noisy here.

Everyone has a blog. Everyone has a Facebook page they update with the mundane details of their lives and links to other blog posts that reenforce their opinions or whatever made them laugh. I can barely keep up with my Twitter feed, short 140-character nuggets of information, hilarity or inspiration that I’m afraid to miss. We’re all clamoring to be heard, to be known. It’s like we’re collectively tugging at the shirt of an invisible parent, asking, “Do you notice me?”

By writing, am I hoping to be noticed? Will I be adding to the scramble for attention? Will I add to the noise? I hang back from jumping into the blogosphere (is that still a thing?), and ask myself, “Do I have anything worth saying?” Yes, we’re all valuable, we’re all worth listening to. But do I need to broadcast my thoughts? Is the internet the best place for these written monologues? How much energy should I put toward trying to write more for an unknown internet “audience” (I guess that’s you if you’re reading this!) versus spending more time and making myself more available for the friend who wants to get coffee?

We’re all pretty good at talking. Maybe I should listen more first?

That was what I was thinking initially when I started this post. Listening is a good thing and maybe I’ll write about that next. I had taken a break from editing this post and read in Jon Acuff’s book, “START”, and chapter 3 hit me between the eyes. I realized that this post started because I’m listening to the voices of fear, disguised in some sort of psuedo-modesty.

“Who are you to write?”

“What could you possibly have to contribute to the conversations?”

“Do you think you’re smarter than the people who have already had these discussions?”

So I’m going to post this. A toast to living without fear, to shutting the voices up. May you recognize your own voices and call them out for the lies they are. Start. (Thanks, Mr. Acuff.)

The Sensitive Man

“Real men don’t cry.”

Popular culture at large demands a sort of detached, impenetrable strength from its men. It applauds the “productive, confident, courageous, fierce and hard-working”—those admirable qualities tied to masculinity. Women get pegged with “delicate, sensitive, tender, emotional”, etc. Accepted psychology tells us men are task-oriented; women are relationship-oriented. There are general exceptions to the rules, but by and large, these are the patterns we see and the stereotypes we live within.

I have had a few stray conversations here and there, read an occasion article that lets me know this is not always the case, thankfully. I might be late to the party as culture expands its views on gender personality stereotypes, but in my experience, the change is happening way too slowly. I’m realizing that I’ve been drowning under the weight of these generalizations. I’m not saying I want to wear dresses (though, honestly, in the summer, that seems like it would be SO much cooler than pants… Scottish kilts anyone?), but I want to be able to be myself without feeling ashamed for having emotions, etc.

Too Sensitive

The other day, someone innocently joked that I was too sensitive, after I had apologized for something I shouldn’t have bothered apologizing for. No one had any idea, but it felt like getting kicked in the groin.

“You’re too sensitive.”

It rings with such a tone of accusation and contempt for me. I had to keep functioning, like I know how to do, but those 3 words continued to eat at me. Crafty little bastard of a phrase. If I let myself feel hurt by it, I made the accusation true. If I steeled myself against the sting, it required disengaging and choosing to bury my feelings and thoughts, slowly disappearing inside. Felt like a lose-lose situation. I think I’ve been caught in that tension for years. A girl said that to me a long time ago and it’s been haunting my life ever since. I didn’t realize it until now.

And the problem with that, and the way our culture views masculinity, is that I’ve had to hide the fact that I’ve been hurting, that I’m emotional and sensitive. That’s not “manly”. Writing this post, which I understand in theory as brave and vulnerable, feels like some sort of death sentence. Of exposing myself as weak and vulnerable. I know Brené Brown says “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage”, but it doesn’t feel courageous. It feels wimpy. Like I’m telling you to be careful with me, because I’m fragile. But that’s why I’m writing this, putting my chips all in, to hopefully begin to disarm those lies, heal the buried pain, and live more fully.

Confession

I am sensitive.

I have a lot of emotions that I don’t let show, because I’ve been ashamed to. I rely too heavily on my odd sense of humor to deflect attention and keep things comfortably on the surface, even though as an introvert, surfacey conversations drain me quickly. Small sacrifice to pay to keep from being labeled a sensitive baby, right? Unfortunately, wrong. Very wrong. I’ve been missing out on deeper friendships, honest conversations and opportunities for real compassion, because I was too afraid I’d be accused of being too sensitive. I don’t want to do that anymore.

I cry during movies and TV shows! When no one’s around, mind you. That’s because I’ve been too afraid of being “too sensitive”.

So here’s to stepping into the way I’m wired. Here’s to accepting myself, being kind to myself as Anne Lamott says. There will be a lot of uncomfortable blog posts soon, where I talk about my feelings, anxiety, depression, etc. It will probably get messy, but… I think life wasn’t meant to lived in fear.

Let’s watch a movie together. I’ll pick the movie; you bring the tissues. I’m going to need them.

No Shame

Trent Gillis asked the question on Twitter, When we lose our sense of shame and propriety, do we lose a sense of intimacy and depth?

In general, I’ve come to think of shame in the sense of honor versus shame. Both are estimations of value by a community based on a shared sense of ethics. If a community (or a person) has the power to shame me based on some action I’ve done, they also have the power to restore me to honor. I’m not getting into whether shame is a positive experience or not, because Brene Brown has written several books that incorporate way more research and insight into that topic. My understanding is that shame is a feeling experienced from an outside source, whereas guilt is a feeling, very similar in nature to shame, but coming from within (side note: guilt as a feeling is destructive, though guilt as a state is simply a reality. Did I break that window? Yes. Then I am guilty of that, regardless of how I feel. Whereas I can feel guilty about not attending someone’s party, though I in fact did nothing wrong. I digress!)

Since I think shame is ascribed to me by someone other than me, if we lose our sense of shame, I take that to mean that we don’t care what people think of us. We dehumanize and make irrelevant anyone’s opinion but our own. In doing so, to answer Trent’s question, I believe we do lose a sense of intimacy and depth. By ignoring those around us and what they may think (whether shame or honor), we cut ourselves off from intimacy because intimacy requires two active parties being vulnerable with each other with who they are.

Intimacy seems to say, “Here I am, warts and all. Know me, understand me, accept me, love me, and I will seek to do the same with you.”

Having no shame says, “Here I am. I don’t care what you think. I do what I want.”

And outside of the messy world of “other people” where grace and understanding and forgiveness and patience are necessary in order to create intimacy, this lack of shame and propriety create islands of individuals who have disregarded anyone’s opinion of their actions but their own. And if we refuse to let people affect our lives—actions, thoughts, motivations, etc—we automatically privatize our true selves, leaving only the shallow stuff “out there” to talk about, whether celebrity news, sports, gossip, TV, etc. 

Shame and propriety are in some way an acknowledgment that you (plural) matter to me. Losing that sensitivity removes the ability for us to connect on a deeper level.

Don't Just Be "Nice"

“No one is hiring you to be their friend. They’re hiring you to design solutions to problems.”

– Mike Monteiro, “Design Is A Job”

He’s right. In order to be the best designers we can be and make a living doing it, we’re going to need the reputation of fighting for the best solution, even if it means disagreeing with our clients. This is not something I’m good at.

As I considered why this is, I realized that for much of my professional life, I’ve worked with a lot of stubborn clients, or with clients whose relationship with the agencies I’ve worked for were very precarious. The client’s budget was a considerable portion of agency revenue, so working with them was like walking on egg shells. Not ideal in the least. And after interacting with clients like that over time, I think I have developed a subtle apathy that Monteiro is making me reconsider.

I basically only offer what I think is the better, correct solution if I think a client is willing to listen. If they don’t give that impression, I don’t waste my breath. I would give them what they paid for—some “deliverable”. If clients requested design changes that took away from the design or usability, I would just make them. They were paying the bills, and if they didn’t value/respect my opinion, I wasn’t going to fight to make them listen. Because I also don’t want to be considered an asshole, and left with two options, I’d rather be “nice” and give the clients what they want, rather than come off as an arrogant know-it-all.

Swinging the pendulum in the other direction gives you that. Designers who feel so superior that they belittle their clients. They are the pixel hipsters. They can’t be challenged and assume their solutions are always the best. They can’t hide their sarcasm and condescension.

So I went with “nice”. Giving the client what they asked for, regardless of what I thought. I think that’s not necessarily hard to come to that conclusion, that resigned mindset. But I’m also challenging myself and anyone who has reached this place. It’s cowardice. There is a third way! Being pleasant is still possible; we can still be easy to work with. But we can also still speak our minds and challenge our clients’ reasoning for changes they request or get them to reconsider how the project goals align with their company’s overall mission, etc. It will mean a few hard conversations, I know. But this feels like one of those life-lessons that trying to be honest with what we think is always going to mean for healthier interactions down the road, as well as a greater sense of inner peace as we live our lives.

I was a design hypocrite. I was giving clients what they wanted to hear (“Sure, we can make that logo bigger!”) while inside thinking something completely different. Monteiro called me out on it, so now it’s time to keep digging in, re-engaging with projects and making better stuff.

Touch Interfaces: Information as Water?

In The Mobile Book by Smashing Magazine, Josh Clark says,

“A crucial step of designing a forward-looking touch interface is to identify how to reimagine your information and data as a physical object.”

On the surface, this is an important observation. We have been growing more and more adept at designing for our mouse-and-keyboard internet world, but that is quickly changing. The last couple of years has begun to show deep cracks in the landscape of what sorts of devices users are viewing our content on, and Clark’s quote is extremely insightful in outlining one of the key ideas that needs to shift as we design our websites and applications.

I agree with all that, but if you’ll indulge me, I want to explore a question that’s a bit more on the metaphysical side, a bit more “big picture”.

What is information?

When you take a step back from the internet, what is it? If you strip away all the visual elements—the images, the layout, the typography, etc.—what’s left? What is the content that we’re wrapping up in all this interface design and sending through the cables and wifi signals? It’s our thoughts.

I  think, therefore, information.

Initially, humans merely spoke to each other, revealing their thoughts to one another via conversation. Once the words were spoken, they were lost. They could be repeated, sure, but those words in that conversation, in that instant, were gone for good. With written word, suddenly those thoughts became immortal. So now, outside of ephemeral human conversations, we have these ghost-like conversations that are always possible. Once something is written down, it becomes half of a conversation that is always waiting and available to be entered into whenever a willing reader steps into it. And ever since then, it created the medium on which these half-conversations exist. Rocks in caves, scraps of tree bark, long scrolls, pages of books, and now on glowing screens.

We’ve been having these conversations through pages for a long, long time.

The printing press and type-writer mechanized the writing process, so we got used to a keyboard to speak through. Then, instead of typing with ink onto paper, we split that medium into glowing screens and computer memory. Memory is immaterial at this point. But now, these screens are taking on an almost infinite number of sizes and dimensions and resolution. The screens no longer simply display our thoughts that we’ve typed, they respond when we touch them.

So, back to Clark’s quote. The information or data he mentions is just our thoughts, our half of a conversation. Whether it’s advertising, editorial or entertainment, the information on these screens is one person’s or a group of persons’ thoughts. Thoughts are inherently NOT physical objects. The content on our sites or applications, minus the visual containers it comes in, is immaterial.

My question is, can we do what he suggests? Can we strip away the medium on which our users are consuming our information and envision our content as something physical?

I think it is possible. But it will not be easy, nor will it be simple. Physical objects inherently have physical properties. If our information has color, it will be inaccessible to someone who is blind. If our information sounds soothing, it will go unheard by our deaf users. If our information can be grabbed, it will be out of reach of some of our users that have lost or do not have control of their limbs, etc. As we step courageously into this quickly-approaching, mobile-saturated internet world, we have our work cut out for us. Audio, touch-screen, motion-sensing, facial recognition, camera input… the list of ways that users can interact with our information, our thoughts, is ever-growing.

I think Clark is right, about re-imagining our information as a physical object. But because our content is actually not physical, and only becomes physical when it is displayed, rendered, spoken through some kind of device, we will need to acknowledge that the closest physical object our information will ever resemble is water, filling the container that holds it in ways unique to that container.

How do we abstract our thoughts—our content—from whatever types of containers it might someday fill?

Designing for Touch Devices

I’ve been reading Smashing Magazine’s “The Mobile Book” and in the chapter about Designing for Touch, there’s a section about hybrid devices that sparked my interest. Here’s the quote:

“One layout has to win, though, and as with every other touch device, the winner should always be the thumbs. As it turns out, hybrid users begin to prefer thumb use over time, with expert users going nearly all thumbs, reaching them in and out of the screen from the edges to drive interaction. Once again, thumbs are the primary utility pointer.”
 
I’m not sure what kind of studies have been done on this, but if it’s true, I think I know why. It makes sense, but took a moment for me to step back and pay attention to what I was doing subconsciously. If you have a tablet handy (maybe you’re reading this on one!), consider how you’re holding it. I typically hold my iPad Mini with my right hand, in portrait orientation, and I hold it in the lower part of the iPad. This leaves my thumb free to comfortably reach and interact with the most of the screen without too much effort. However, if I hold the tablet in my left hand and use my index finger, I technically have more freedom to interact with the screen with much less effort.
 
So why do thumbs win out over using our index fingers? If we have more range of motion with our index fingers, why do we prefer our thumbs?
 
I think it has to do with the fact when we’re gripping a tablet with the same hand that we’re using to touch the screen with, we unconsciously provide resistance against the screen. As we tap with our thumb, the other fingers behind the device are responding with support. It’s the whole “opposable thumb” thing. Pretty ingenious. Whereas, when we use our index fingers, the device is propped up on something or in our lap. The simultaneous support that happens when we use our thumbs is not there. If we hold the device with our other hand, the support might be there, but it’s making our brain do extra work to coordinate those muscles to sync with the actions of our index fingers. The littlest details matter apparently!
 
Understanding why we prefer using our thumbs over our index fingers will help us both device interfaces more intuitively as well as be able to communicate with clients why we want to put buttons or navigation elements in the areas that are more natural for thumbs versus what may be more natural for index fingers.
 
That’s my take on trying to understand the conclusion from the quote above. Do you have any other insights as to why we generally resort to using our thumbs over our index fingers on touch devices?

Specializing Vs. Doing It All

After attending the Baltimore chapter of AIGA’s Converse event this week, there’s still a lot rolling around in my head. The topic of conversation for the round-table (which was actually a group of square tables pushed together in an L shape, ha!*) was about which was better or necessary: being a jack-of-all-trades or specializing in one area (whether it be a market/industry or a medium—like print, or trade show booths or mobile apps, etc.).

As a front-end web designer and developer (or whatever it is you call what I do these days), I believe the correct answer for an individual, as opposed to a business, is to be a jack-of-all-trades as much as you can.

I can’t speak as authoritatively about the world of print-based design. Yes, the mediums of the print world are varied and each brings its own challenge, but it is always known when the designer sets out to create something, whether that is a trade show booth backdrop, a direct mail piece or an annual report. That’s a luxury that we’ve taken for granted, I think.

Designing for the internet, however, that has become an ever-expanding beast. “Canvas” is nearly irrelevant at this point, as users will be interacting with our products on smartphones, tablets, huge monitors, smart-TVs, e-readers, game consoles… and that’s just right now. Smart-watches, augmented reality screens and audio-interfaces will quickly become part of the normal digital landscape and our job in this web industry will be trying to figure out how to best serve our and our clients’ content to the user in the most logical, usable and enjoyable way possible.

So, because of how quickly the web “medium” is expanding, I think there’s no way around it—we must dive in with both feet and be jacks (or jills) of all trades. It will soon no longer suffice to say you can build a mobile app for smartphones, because a client will want to make sure it can also work in a car’s in-dash display or on their smart-refrigerator display. If we don’t continue to push ourselves to learn these evolving technologies, we will become obsolete, just like a web developer who learned HTML tables and refuses to learn CSS and flexible, div-based layouts.

Now, the only caveat to that statement, is that it is also unrealistic to expect ourselves to become experts at all of these technologies and frameworks. You might become an expert at CSS3, but that will require you to understand HTML5 and browser- and mobile-compatibility, including some knowledge of Content Management Systems (and perhaps some basic PHP and Javascript skills). Beyond that, you’ll need to understand some human psychology and user-experience best practices, and maybe have some familiarity with analytics tools to help back up your research and make sound recommendations to your boss or clients. It is improbable you will have the time and mental strength to achieve mastery over all these elements. And by the time you master one piece, it could become obsolete with the launch of some new product or technology. That sounds daunting, I know. Unless you give yourself the space to make mistakes and be okay with not being an expert at everything, you’ll drown under the weight of trying to master this ever-changing digital landscape.

And that brings me to something I’m really starting to enjoy about this industry. Collaboration and sharing are strangely normal—even prized. Proprietary software has always had a bad rap, and it seems as though proprietary skills and workflows are garnering the same heat. The internet connects us in ways we couldn’t prior to its existence. That seems to fuel the creative energy and collaborative spirit amongst those of us actively creating websites and apps to facilitate those connections. What does that mean for this “specializing vs doing it all” question? It means that you aren’t alone. There’s a whole industry of people willing to share their knowledge, experience and time to help you keep growing and learning. If you don’t know something right away, there’s always going to be someone willing to help, or who knows someone who knows something and can help you connect with them.

So dive in! We’re all just figuring it out. Between follow creators, and learning sites like teamtreehouse.com and lynda.com, there are so many ways to connect and learn. It’s okay not to know everything! Just keep learning.

* This was a tiny pre-cursor to my lame, dry sense of humor and how that will inevitably sneak its way into this blog now and again.

As I Begin

Branding yourself or planning your own project is always so difficult, despite having the freedom of being the sole decision-maker!

It’s been weird thinking through how to begin this blog, because I always want to wrestle with all the planning and brainstorming that goes into the “why” of a project, rather just jumping into the “how” to get the project completed. Thinking through the goal of this blog, planning out the categories to use, determining which static pages will be worthwhile, let alone trying to come up with a compelling, interesting design, have all been strange processes to force myself to go through. It’s been a cool exercise! I’m trying to balance that, however, with the need to “ship”, as Seth Godin talks about. So I’ve decided that I’m going to let this blog be an iterative process as I design and build it out further.

This is a WordPress blog, obviously. I won’t bother outlining the process of setting up your own WordPress installation, as others on the internet have done a sufficient job of that.

For now, I’ve installed WordPress on this domain and established a few categories. Nothing major.

I’ll say that the hardest part of getting this off the ground was trying to think through what I wanted this blog to accomplish. And that illustrates what has always been the biggest hurdle in doing work for clients over the years. We do a lot of things in this industry without asking “why?” And without the “why?”, there’s no tangible way to know if you’re progressing toward a successful completion of a project, or just making more noise on the internet.

So my goal with this blog, and the criterion with which you can help me critique its effectiveness, is to share the knowledge I’ve learned over the years and the knowledge I’ll acquire as I continue shipping projects. I want to create a site worth bookmarking for folks looking to understand WHY we do what we do, before moving on to the HOW we do what we do.

Hope it’s helpful. Thanks for reading.