Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Passions and linchpins.

What are my passions? Well ... that’s a moving target these days as I’m discovering so many new creative worlds in my MFA studies. Art, design, and communication has been a huge passion in my life for more than 30 years and remains at the top of my list even today. And that passion culminated into a small, creative design group for the past 18 years. But it wasn’t just my passion for creative and distinctive design and communication that led me to the successes I’ve had in the business world. I was able to pick the right talent ... energetic young designers ... to work with me to collaborate on client projects. Most of the design staff at my business were young, either straight out of art school or within the first five years of their careers. They brought their passion to the group and became instrumental in helping me achieve my goals. And as the question has been put to me as to whether or not I am a linchpin, I don’t want to come off as arrogant, but would have to say ... yes ... I am a linchpin.

As an owner and Creative Director of a small business, my responsibilities go well beyond daily design duties. The inner workings of a small design group include not only managing the staff, but also managing the clients and vendors. While I enjoy the interactive qualities of those tasks, I found that it can create a drain on creativity. The day-to-day task of managing the different agendas and personalities of people has the potential to divert attention and focus away from what a person really wants to accomplish when it comes to creative development. While I believe the management of client needs, creative direction, and vendor management would qualify me as a linchpin, I feel my biggest success as a linchpin was recruiting the right creative talent to enable our group to produce distinctive, engaging, and successful communication materials for our clients.

But linchpins can break. The biggest obstacle I faced, and what got in my way, was a dysfunctional relationship with my former business partner. I won’t go into details on that subject as it’s very complicated, but after reading Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, my partner and I exhibited many of the negative traits outlined in that story.

As I’ve gotten older and have expanded my life beyond the studio walls, I’ve discovered a second passion. Through a 4 1/2 year position as an Adjunct Professor at Kansas City Art Institute, developing young designers at my design group, coaching youth sports for 10 years, and now mentoring undergraduates in the Champlain College design program, I’ve discovered that I have a passion for working with young people.

So, putting my passions for design and communication together with my love of working with young people, I’ve come up with the following positioning statement based on Kawasaki’s ten word limit:

Helping businesses ... and our youth ... create a beautiful world.

I look forward to continuing the mission.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inspiration just ... happens.

I never know where I’m going to find inspiration. And it usually comes when I’m not looking for it. I saw a weathered piece of typography on a mailbox as I was driving in the country a couple of days ago. It was beautiful. I watched my son’s varsity baseball game last week. The determination they showed was exhilarating. The lilacs lining my property are blooming right now. The color and smell is amazing. I met a talented undergraduate design student in the Mac lab several months ago. His story was triumphant. All of these events inspired me. I find that inspiration happens to me mostly when I’m not searching for it. It just happens. That’s not to say that I don’t search for inspiration, it just seems to be all around me in the different aspects of my life waiting to be discovered at the right moment.

When it comes to my creative work, I read all the design magazines and annuals that I can get my hands on looking for inspiration. That’s great for following trends, but after I put them down, I don’t always feel inspired. In fact, I’m not too inspired by very many new aesthetic trends happening right now. When I look at the magazines and annuals, I’m more inspired by the exciting new ideas and thought processes that creatives are applying to their world using unusual methods.

I came across an article in Communication Arts several months ago about an ad agency in Toronto that implemented an idea to separate themselves from their competitors. It is an online documentary of a day-long event titled “Think.” The site includes the documentary film, images, and text from the project and explores everything that happened that day. Their contention is that the hundreds of ad agencies in Canada tout themselves as unconventional, but don’t follow through on that promise. The project consisted of eight interdisciplinary thinkers from Zulu Alpha Kilo crammed into a box in downtown Toronto where they asked passersby for creative challenges and then proceeded to solve them on the spot while “thinking inside the box.” This Web site is an online extension of the live event:


The “box” was equipped with all the technical requirements of an agency (fast internet, printer, etc.) and fed live animations to all the video billboards surrounding the square to inform pedestrians of what was happening inside the box. No question or problem to solve was off limits. This collaborative project is fascinating because there was no way to predict what types of problems people would bring to them, it allowed them to show their creative problem solving capabilities, and showed potential clients that they truly are willing to take risks to prove what they are capable of producing. This project is truly inspirational to me.

I believe that finding inspiration can be elusive. Therefore, I keep my radar up for that opportunity where it presents itself to me. For me, it comes from people, nature, groups, objects, books ... essentially everything and everywhere. I just have to recognize it. Earlier today I was inspired by my dog Scot. He loves to play ... and playing inside our environment is a great way to discover inspiration.

Monday, January 31, 2011


It’s hard to talk about interface and interaction over the past 20 years without referencing the impact computers have had on interplay in our daily lives. I’m not speaking specifically about personal computers, although they have affected both interface and interaction tremendously. A person cannot go about their daily activities without having numerous interaction with all forms of computers, whether we realize it or not. Our desire to have comfort, speed, accessibility, and safety has made the computer and their various applications become the largest single force of change over the past 20 years.

If I paint a broad stroke over interface and interaction over the past 20 years, I have to believe that technology has made interaction in our personal and professional lives a positive experience. We are connected with people all over the world through the Internet. That connection has become increasingly quicker and easier through developments in broadband technology and its accessibility in rural and impoverished nations. It is estimated that cell phone users will hit 5 billion this year (1). With Earth’s population estimated at 7 billion, that’s a staggering amount of people connected in the world. 20 years ago, cars were still essentially focused on transporting people. Today they are mobile computers from the engine, to the stereo systems, DVD players, GPS systems, climate control centers, and more.

But designing better products has led to complexity of operation. Donald Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things states, “Modern designers are subject to many forces that do not allow for the slow, careful crafting of an object over decades and generations. Most of today’s items are too complex, with too many variables, for this slow sifting of improvements (2).” A clock radio used to have the on/off button, snooze bar, and volume control. They still have those functions, but now they play CDs and iPods, can be set to daylight savings mode, show the room temperature, display the moon cycles, show dates, and more. It is now necessary to read the manual to operate a simple everyday device. In the early ’90s, I could work on a car. These days, it is nearly impossible unless you’ve had training and possess high-tech diagnostic equipment. While computers have made our lives easier in many ways, they have also made our lives more complicated. I would even venture to say that the complexity in our daily interfaces has made Apple products difficult for some people to use as they spend time looking for complexity that isn’t there. Are we so entrenched in a world of mediocre or even bad design that we may never get out of it? Had the design community followed the concept of participatory design practiced by Larry Tessler as early as the 1960s (3), the mindset of consumers would be to demand and expect the interaction with products to be intuitive and engaging as that standard would have been established decades before.

If we fast-forward to the next 20 years, I believe there will be a greater effort to develop products that utilize participatory design methods. Designers will develop interfaces that conform to people. I recently discovered a TEDTalk given by Jeff Han (and then saw it on our class resource list) where he has developed a multi-touch, multi-user computer screen interface that is being discussed as a potential end to the point-and-click era (4). This screen is simple and intuitive. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the digital technology of our homes and offices by allowing even the most illiterate computer user to become connected. As I project ahead into the next two decades, it is inevitable that technologies of this type will become cheaper, making it affordable for a mainstream audience to interact with this type of product. Keep in mind that the first CD players on the market in the ’80s started at a cost of around $1,500. When high-tech becomes low cost, it becomes scalable to cross many consumer categories allowing availability to the masses.

When Donald Norman describes the house of the future in his book The Design of Future Things, he envisions a smart-home with software that can read the emotions of the owner and perform tasks accordingly (5). This includes homes that control the lighting according to their perception of the owner’s moods, that choose what music to play or that direct the television images to move from screen to screen as you travel through the house. There is already discussion taking place about the new Semantic Web 3.0 where search engines will not merely search for words, but will be able to look at context and understand the meaning of words. My point here is that the future of interface in our world as it applies to technology will become more about how software applications will read our thoughts and emotions and act accordingly. Norman describes cars that will sense tenseness in the driver, survey the exterior environment, and be able to adjust functions like seat belts and suspension stiffness to protect the driver. This experimentation with software interacting with our personal thoughts and emotions is already happening and can be viewed in a TEDTalk given by Tan Le, the head of Emotiv Systems who has developed actual computer applications that read a person’s emotions, thoughts, and facial expressions and performs tasks simply by having the user think about the task (6). Brain computer interface technology has applications to our world that are practically infinite, but can have major implications in helping handicapped people. This type of interface will surely be common within the next 20 years.

As I look back at the past 20 years of products we consume, the interaction with technology and its applications has been about getting smaller, and faster with more and more added features for interaction. But without attention to participatory design, our interaction with these products has been complicated, lacking intuitive operation for the typical mainstream user. Moving into the future, I have faith that the next era of design, through education and awareness, will produce products that are more user-friendly. And combining that concept with the breakthroughs happening in technologies like brain computer interface technology, the next 20 years should be exciting times not only for designers, but also for consumers.

(1) Physorg.com. www.physorg.com/news185467439.html. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.
(2) Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1998.
(3) Moggridge, Bill. Designing Interactions. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press, 2007.
(4) TED.com. www.ted.com/talks/jeff_han_demos_his_breakthrough_touchscreen.html. Web. Feb. 2006
(5) Norman, Donald. The Design of Future Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007.
(6) TED.com. www.ted.com/talks/tan_le_a_headset_that_reads_your_brainwaves.html. Web. Jul. 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

This is a big deal!

I’ve normally chosen to blog about current events and social issues on my personal blog.  But as we’re coming down to the last 4 or 5 weeks I’ve decided to reflect on something I’ve noticed over the semester. Not necessarily things about my classes. Of course ... the other students are really creative and very interesting. The teachers are engaging, very creative, and push us extremely hard to develop great ideas. It’s a truly fascinating part of my life and I’m learning so many new ideas about society, culture, media and technology.

I was at Hannaford yesterday and ran into Kristen, the mother of one of my son’s friends. I’ve known her over 12 years from being a youth baseball coach. We’ve spent our springs, summers, and falls together at the ball field along with dozens of other families. In fact, Hannaford seems to be the place where I can catch up with what’s going on in my neighbors’ lives. When you’ve coached well over a hundred kids over the years you get to know a lot of families in the community, and sometimes it takes over an hour to get a few items and make it past the cash registers.

When I told Kristen I’ve gone back to school to get my Master’s Degree, she had the same reaction that I’ve come to expect from pretty much everybody. They kind of pull back a little and exclaim, “WOW! That’s amazing. That’s a really big deal!” I’m assuming they don’t mean, “It’s amazing he’s able to get accepted into a Master’s Program.” Part of their reaction is my age and the point I’m at in my life. Part of it is the example they say I’m setting for my children. And part of their reaction is the fact that they know what a big change this is for me and my family.

When I started planning to go back to school, I wasn’t thinking about this “amazing” thing I was going to do. I didn’t necessarily think what I was doing was that big of a deal. Yes, I was being affected pretty hard by a sagging economy and the stagnation of the print industry. But the biggest reason for going back to school was that I needed something new ... something more. I needed change ... and a new challenge. Going for my Master’s just seemed like the right thing to do.

As we’re coming down to the last weeks of semester one, it’s been very challenging and humbling at the same time. I’ve started to reflect on my experiences since last August and plan for the future, both near and far. I’ve reviewed some of the projects we’ve completed, concepts we’ve studied, and relived moments of terror trying to complete projects on time ... it’s been very rewarding. VERY rewarding. Looking forward at my final semester projects, and projecting ahead to next semester’s studies, it’s finally setting in that what I’m doing is “a really big deal!”

Friday, October 29, 2010

Legislation, gaming and parenting.

 I read an article in USA Today that asks the question of whether or not states can regulate violent video games to keep them away from kids. (Joan Biskupic. “Can states keep kids from violent video games?” USA Today. Print. 28 Oct. 2010). My studies as a graduate student at a college with a prolific game design program has opened up my interest in the type of question posed by the author. And this question is now in the Supreme Court.

I’ve not been a video gamer the majority of my adult life, but I am a parent. And this has been a topic I’ve thought about since my son started playing video games. In particular, violent video games. The state of California says the ban is important to protect children. The publishing and filming industries believe that if the Supreme Court sides with California this could lead to suppressed creativity in other media by infringing on free speech rights. I find it interesting that the Governor of California, who supports this legislation, made millions of dollars on violent action movies that I watched while growing up. But the real issue here shouldn’t be what the government or publishing industry believes is right for our children. This issue needs to be addressed in our homes. Parents need to instill proper morals and ethics in their children’s thought processes in order for them to not be influenced by negative forces and make smart decisions about how to be productive citizens in our communities. 

I read a short blurb in the Free Press today about a woman in Jacksonville, Florida who plead guilty to second-degree murder for shaking her baby to death after the boy’s crying interrupted her playing of the Facebook game Farmville ... not Postal 2 ... Farmville. My point here is that violent games aren’t the force that make people do bad things, it’s the person and who they are that is the driving force behind the decisions and actions that define their lives. To borrow an analogy, “Games don’t kill people, people kill people.” I’ve even read studies that say game participants are less influenced by the violence of a game than their observers. The participants are focusing on gaming and the observers are seeing violence.

I personally believe certain video games are over the top in the way they portray violence, killing, maiming, and torturing. But that’s my personal opinion and I’m not willing to dictate to other people what is right or wrong for their children. Ultimately this topic comes down to a parenting issue. I’m not crazy about some of the games my son has played, and we have had numerous conversations about the positives and negatives of his game choices, but I have been a hands-on parent and raised him with the basic ideas that at this point in his life he needs to do three things to be successful: “get good grades, be a good person, and do the right thing.” And with these types of principles as a foundation for how he approaches his life, I’m confident that gaming won’t lead him to anti-social behavior or desensitize him to violence.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Peace through building community.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the idea that social media, in the hands of today’s younger generation, has an opportunity to spread the idea of peace through their global network. An article I referenced states there is evidence that sentiments among younger people are shifting and the warring ways of previous generations will not be sustainable. This is because views of our global and local neighbors is broadening from our connectivity through social media, creating a virtual student-exchange program.

In our Emergent Landscape class last Monday, I brought this topic to the attention of our speaker Rich Nadworny, a Burlington digital marketing strategist. He didn’t necessarily agree or disagree with the idea that social media will spread the idea of peace throughout the world. He brought up the point that just as peace can be spread through social media, hatred can be spread just as easily. In fact, there is just as much evidence showing that today’s media environment is desensitizing young people to the hurtful effects of their actions. The feeling of anonymity in the internet can bring out destructive behavior in people who are typically good and honest.

About 2 weeks ago, a Rutgers University student killed himself because his roommate and a friend secretly recorded the man having a gay sexual encounter in his dorm room and broadcast the event over the internet with a Web cam. This shows the darker side of social media’s grip on young people’s lives. And the intensity of that grip is felt by both the victim and the people victimizing. Spreading information and images online is devastating in that there is a major loss of privacy, and a simple search of a person’s name can reveal the images and information to friends, family, or employers for years to come.

I’m not saying that social media drove these two kids to do what they did, but I believe the current media environment is desensitizing people to the hurtful consequences of their actions. When these types of pranks are being schemed up, the immediacy and real-time aspect of the Internet does not allow the opportunity for people to think about the multilevel consequences of their actions. The victims become objects rather than people with emotions, feelings, families, etc. It becomes another reality TV episode with yet another hidden camera. I believe that because victimizers and viewers are removed from the action by the fact that they are watching it on monitors rather than in person makes the event more abstract, less personal, and some viewers may not even think it’s real. This adds to the callous attitude people have to viewing pranks like this, and ultimately, that callousness may lead to additional, or “copy-cat,” bullying behavior and hatred.

As I tend to be an optimist when I think about the world around me, I was really interested in the potential for social media in the hands of young people to bring about peace and understanding of others. I had passively, but not actively, thought about how it can be destructive. And Mr. Nadworny was not advocating that social media is bad. But what I took away from his point, that good and bad are spread just as easily in the digital environment, is that in order to truly understand an issue, you really need to look at both sides. If you understand the mindset of why people choose to be destructive and spread hate, you have an opportunity to address it at its roots in order to bring about change for the positive. If you don’t confront the reasons why people spread hatred, you’ll never be able to fix the problem. Tolerance for differences in race, sexuality, religious beliefs, basically everything, should be promoted as early in life as possible. Building a sense of community at a young age allows children to use that sensibility as a foundation for decency and humanity in their life as they mature into adults. And that, hopefully, will lead to spreading the idea of worldwide peace through any medium, digital or not.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Emergent Media: A New Look at the World Around Me

The pursuit of my M.F.A. in Emergent Media has just started, and I didn't truly realize the ways in which it was going to change my world ... especially so quick. Yes, I don't hang with the family in front of the TV, friends are a little less frequent, and dinner is at my desk quite a bit, but that was expected. But each of the different classes in our program have made me view my surroundings in a different light, depending on their subject. My studio based classes make me more aware of tiny pieces of our natural environment, and technical methods of creating digital art and media. The Emergent Landscape class has opened my eyes to marketing and collaboration thought processes that I "kinda, but not really" used over the span of my career. If I had a better understanding of these ideas at the time, I would have been much more productive and communicated with better social and creative impact in my business. And the Technology As A Disruptive Force class has enlightened my historical knowledge and contemporary interpretations of communication, media, and technology to the point that my awareness of media, its message, and it's effect on society and culture has also been enlightened. If not for that class, I may have overlooked an recent article in the newspaper.

I recently came across an article in the Opinion section of the Burlington Free Press. I was drawn in by its headline, "Making a social media end run for peace" by Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post. I normally would have blown right past it, but now that I am being immersed in communication, media, and technology issues on a daily basis, I had to read the article.

It starts with the fact that Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiations are re-opening ... again. The table is going to be set with gray-haired leaders ... again. As she puts it, " ... the taupe generation rehashes the same ... absurd arguments over who gets to claim which square inch of the sandbox." She then goes on to describe an experience living in D.C., watching a diverse younger generation sit at a table with iPhones next to the silverware, laughing, speaking in English, and trading news. A younger person she's with knows and identifies the four people at the table as an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Syrian, and the fourth is African-American. As the author puts it, they are the Facebook generation where they can communicate with a click and a keystroke.

The author's contention is that it is unlikely the world's warring nation's can sustain their warring ways because there is evidence that sentiments among younger people are shifting. Views of their neighbors, both locally and globally, are becoming much broader. They are willing to question the positions of their previous generations. When you arm this generation with social media, it becomes a network that goes beyond government channels, and in some cases, beyond government censorship. If this network communicates a statement of peace, it is an opportunity to build friendships in every neighborhood around the world. Social Media has the opportunity to increase the desire for peace in a global society where history that makes that idea difficult to achieve. The author suggests that "friending" people in the "enemy camp" is an opportunity to build a virtual student-exchange program. What a great idea to instill in younger people so they mature with a foundation of peace in their attitudes and beliefs.

If not for my current status as a student in Emergent Media, I may have missed that message. I'm sure I'll be discovering many more over the next few years.