Friday, January 10, 2014


Nothing is more traditional as the year draws to a close than to begin working on a list of goals for the coming year – your New Year’s resolutions. They may be personal or professional, but they are usually things you know you ought to do but for some reason have never found the motivation to see through.

The new year is a clean slate, a new beginning. We summon up all the good intentions in the world and psyche ourselves up to get a running start. Right?

I’d like to suggest a very different approach, inspired by the way 2013 ended for me – it’s not just about how you begin the new year; it’s also very much about how you conclude the old one. And I suggest you conclude the old year by doing something that scares you to pieces.

Let me explain.

This year my boyfriend and I decided to celebrate the holidays in southeastern Baja, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez, as usual. It’s a very popular kiteboarding destination, and we’ve traveled there often with friends.

I don’t kiteboard, but my boyfriend and our friends do. Year after year I’ve strolled the beautiful beach watching the dozens of colorful kites split the beautiful blue sky as the surfers raced this way and that along the choppy water.

I’d routinely be coaxed by our friends (as well as other boarders) to take lessons, but my response was consistent: Thanks but no thanks.

The sport scared me. And this was no abstract fear; I’ve crewed on sailboats on San Francisco Bay for many years, and I have a very healthy respect for the power and impulsiveness of marine wind. There are stories of careless kiters being dragged through parking lots and down into kelp forests. The idea of strapping myself to a 15-foot-wide kite and launching it into 20 knot winds had “Not gonna happen” written all over it for me.

But this year, after hearing “you really need to try it” for the 47th time, and with the encouragement of my boyfriend (who’s been taking lessons) I finally decided to sign up for lessons from a school I trusted.

Why? Two reasons: first, I might actually like it – if I didn’t, then I could point to my lesson and say I tried it. And second, I finally accepted that my fear of it was in fact an argument on behalf of giving it a try.

Doing something scary does not mean doing something dangerous. I knew from talking to my friends that if I tried this sport I’d get the best lessons I could find, and use the latest, safest equipment.

I signed up at a school I was familiar with, and made my reservations clear to my instructors, as well as my mediocre swimming abilities. I knew I’d have a sleepless night the night before, and I did. It goes with the territory.

But I went to my lessons with a positive attitude. I told myself, no matter what happens, I will at least have the fact that I faced my fear as a small personal victory.

The lessons were very challenging, to be sure. My first day was not so successful -  fatigued, I had to abort the last water practice half way through - but my second day was completely different. I succeeded, and got enthusiastic raves from my instructor. I actually could do this, and more importantly it was wildly fun. As I reflected on my accomplishment, I realized my fear had vanished and was replaced with an indescribable serenity and a real appetite for the next challenge – like nothing I’ve ever felt before. If only every new year could be turbo charged like this!

Conquering a deep fear gives you a sense of power like no other. And the rush of good feeling that follows is akin to endorphins; you can’t wait till your next accomplishment.

What scares you? Surprise yourself by conquering it. Your list of goals for the new year will seem eminently more achievable overnight.

Monday, December 31, 2012


These events stood out for me because they surprised me, got me questioning my assumptions, and generally fired up my creativity.

As I look at them, the single unifying element is probably that they took me out of my comfort zone, something I’m more and more aware of as being a vital component to constantly improving my work.

I know it makes a better post to have 5, not 4, items. But these were the ones that merit posting, so we’re ignoring the rule. These are not in a particular order.


While I was only a spectator, not a competitor, this event was still creatively exhilarating. Groups of contestants in three categories of design (3D, 2D, and Motion Graphics) each had a mere 15 minutes to craft their creations, drawn from a given theme. Their work was shown real-time on huge overhead TV displays, all while club music whomped, a Red Bull-infused DJ hollered, and the crowd slugged beer and cheered. The idea of creating a pretty awesome, and fully realized, design work in 15 lightning-fast minutes, in front of hundreds of your peers, seems staggering to me – and yet somehow possible. It’s that hint of possibility that made me feel more than a twinge of challenge. I might not enter this competition but I left feeling like I needed to give myself way harder and scarier things to do – more often.


My friends and I work in nothing but pixels 40+ hours a week and then some. We do it because we  love it. But more and more I’m feeling the value of immersion into the analog world on occasion. It takes a little self discipline – patience, deliberation, and fussing are generally considered luxuries in our tech workplace. But it is good for the creative soul – it gives your brain a chance to return to a more natural, contemplative state and, well, breathe.

When I first heard about Maker Faire, it sounded just too quaint and geeky. Then I went to my first Maker Faire in 2011 and was blown away by the universe of fun, quirky projects and the sheer love of “making” that radiates from all the participants.

Today, our tech world is beginning to be influenced by “making” – origami is used in user experience exploration, 3D printing is bordering on mainstream, and of course we can never, ever, get enough of robots.


At the beginning of 2012 I was beginning my exit from a job that had stagnated. My boyfriend and I left for Mexico for three weeks to try and clean out the mental cobwebs and figure out where to go from here.

Mexico – at least the area we frequent – definitely requires that you learn a new level of patience and perseverance. But it also releases you from years of design dogma and assumptions.

Color, typography, and tone range from explosive and irreverent, to painstaking, calm, and spiritual. Textures and materials are unabashedly weathered and abused.

Immersing myself in this environment for nearly a month didn’t define my style, but it knocked me on the side of the head, made me stop and pay attention - and whetted my appetite for more exploration. All of those things are extremely healthy, and will inevitably blossom into ideas.


During some extended downtime this year I became actively involved in the 826 Valencia urban creative writing center project. I’d been wanting to participate in this program for years but never had the time. Kids of all ages come to 826 Valencia for programs, including the Bookmaking Field Trip, which is the program I helped with.

During a typical session, a volunteer leader helps a group of kids as they conceive, write, and illustrate their own 4 or 5 page book, on the spot. I’d typically be sitting at a computer station working on the kids’ biography photos in Photoshop, so I got to hear the ideas for main characters being tossed around.

It was when I heard one kid yell out “Balthazar, the Evil Sausage” – I’m not kidding - that I froze, jaw dropping, and turned to stare at the kids in bafflement. It was easily the most creative utterance I could remember hearing in a really long time. And the kid was like 9 years old.

The entire mission, values, and teachings of this program are driven by a love for words, a sense of humor, and a demand for thinking in unexpected ways. It is an incredibly rich creative environment and unexpectedly valuable no matter who you are or what you do, but especially for someone who creates.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


What designer wouldn’t want to spend every day behind a mysterious portal, next to a pirate store (where no one ever mentions pirates)?

Maria Ines Montes, Design Director at 826 Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District, has an awesome if challenging job: She directs all design for this smart, irreverent nonprofit program dedicated to teaching writing and study skills to urban students from 6 to 18 years old.

It’s a tall order: budget and time are usually tight, and resources limited, and thanks to a distinct visual brand and rising national visibility, expectations are high.

That’s okay: Maria has enough passion and energy to spare. Quick to smile but obviously very intent on the quality of her product, Maria truly lights up when the subject turns to the young students in the program.

“I have to show you something!” she said breathlessly at one point in the interview, as she jumped up and hurried over to a desk at the other end of the office. She brought back a print proof of a new poster featuring a quote from a young writer. "'I think time never gets tired, because it likes to move around place to place.'" Maria laughed in that way you laugh when something is too amazing to be true.

"That’s so beautiful!” she said, grinning.

I've always been impressed not just by the branding of this organization - wonderful typography as well as writing - but also by its mission of helping city kids - many of whom never would've thought of themselves as writers - think and write creatively.

Maria and I finally had a chance to sit down and talk about her role as Design Director at 826 Valencia last Friday morning. Light rain persisted as I arrived at the funky, humble storefront, at (of course) 826 Valencia Street. Maria threw open a door and greeted me enthusiastically, and we sat down at a study table in the office.

SL: Talk a little about yourself and why you came to 826 Valencia SF, especially with all the other opportunities around here for a design director. Where did you work before this? 
MIM: I came here because I wanted to use my skills and my creativity to do something good for our community, and our society. Before I was here, I was at an ad agency and I didn’t even know about 826, I just discovered it while waiting for my next opportunity.

I get bored quick with things, and I like to explore things, and that’s one of the reasons why I love graphic design; you can go in so many directions, you can go into something else every few years.

I’ve worked in a very small design studio, I’ve worked on huge collage murals for Wells Fargo, then went on to design museum exhibits for a company in San Rafael. At the Carol H. Williams agency in Oakland, I was able to work on TV commercials and video projects for big companies like Disney, GM, Cover Girl and so on; that was really fun and a great learning experience.

But after that job I knew I wanted to do something to impact our communities in a positive way.

SL: What is your role here?
MIM: As Design Director, I’m in charge of design for all materials for our organization’s events, internal materials, fundraising appeals, publications, you name it. Basically I’m the guardian of the brand. I have worked really hard to elevate what we had before and create a cohesive brand for the organization. I also serve as Project Manager (because we don’t have one) and as a mentor to our design team, which is made up of wonderful and kind volunteers and interns, which we switch out every three months.

SL: Your job sounds a lot like mine, as “guardian of the brand”, so I can definitely relate to what you’re talking about. So, typical process – do you do a lot of design yourself, or is it mostly direction?
MIM: Direction. When I started here, it was only me doing everything. But as the program grew, the amount of projects grew, and it was too much. I established a design process that established minimum timelines and forecasting, but ultimately I had to start bringing in design volunteers. First one, then two and eventually four in the summer. The designers are seniors in school so they need mentoring and are also limited by the hours they can spare from their studies.
There are times because of budget or timing, when I have to draw on the skills on the volunteers, some of which have unique illustration styles; I’ll just say “Why don’t we use this, it’s perfect.”

SL: Talk a little about the relationship between visual design for the Pirate Store materials and the look and feel of the 826 Valencia web site. They are different but still feel cohesive.
MIM: When I started, the look and feel of the website was beginning to feel dated. Volume redesigned our website based on the designs I had been doing. Office rebranded the Pirate Store, all the black background and Baskerville typography, black white and gold - that was Office’s creation. Then Volume created our website and updated the logo a little based on the design material I provided them. They designed both websites, so they have stuff in common, but one reflects the Pirate Store theme, with all the black, and one reflects more what we do here. They’re cousins.

SL: That’s fascinating. They’re cousins, but I can see how you can’t have a community outreach website that’s black, it would be off-putting.
MIM: The products at the store - what’s special about us, is that we deal with something that’s really serious: education, providing tools to be successful in life, creativity – but we make it fun and quirky. Where else are you going to have a “Mustache-athon” as a fundraising event? We have a unique sense of humor. By the way, we never actually mention pirates in the pirate store.

SL: That’s funny because one of my questions is, what role does humor play in the brand? 
MIM: Humor is a big part of what we do. We invite funny celebrities to participate in our events (Ed. note: a recent fundraiser included Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) and write funny skits for the students to participate in.

Think about it: everyone who enters 826 enters through a pirate store. That’s the portal. The transition between school and structure, into a place where you can relax and be creative. It sets the tone. You enter through a pirate store. That’s quite amazing.

SL: Until you said that, I never thought about it that way. I always thought of the writing room as “the room in the back,” and the pirate store as a fundraising mechanism. I never thought about it as a sequence; i.e. you come in through a portal, leaving the street and reality behind you. That’s awesome. Was that deliberate?

MIM: So the story goes, when Dave and Ninive started the organization, they got this space but they couldn’t use it unless they came up with a store because it was zoned commercial. They couldn’t figure out what to do, but then one of the writers suddenly said, "Well, it looks like the inside of a pirate ship in here, why not open a pirate store?". It started as a way of complying with the city’s zoning system, but it ended up becoming an important part of what we do. It helps us raise money, it’s a portal to the rest of our facility, and it sets the tone for our organization. And it all started from writers just having fun and being creative.

SL: What are the key rules for creative that you’re evaluating? What questions do you ask of the creative, particularly in light of the fact you work a lot with design interns?

MIM: First I want to make sure that it’s within our brand look and feel, the writing and tone are on brand as well. We don’t have a brand manual; it’s all up here (points to head). When a designer starts working with us I’ll show her a portfolio of samples and discuss writing tone. The design should be simple. Complexity doesn’t work for us. Good typography. Clear hierarchy.

I’ll walk around and share with staff that aren’t involved with the project. I ask, are we accomplishing the purpose of this piece?

Ideally, we’d have designers paired with writers – someday maybe we’ll evolve to that - but the reality is sometimes the copy has to be written by the person who’s requesting the piece.

I’ve been looking at the body of work we’ve produced and I’m so proud of the quality of work we’ve done over the past five years with such a small budget and a small workspace, no structure or project manager! It’s like running a letterpress stationery business out of your kitchen.

That’s one reason why I emphasize simplicity. Simple, straight to the point. We have so much student work that’s so powerful. We have amazing stories to share that are written by the youth; an excerpt or a quote from a student piece says it all, we don’t have to embellish it.

See samples of Maria's work here:

See the Pirate Supply Store website here:
Pirate Supply Store

See the 826 Valencia website here:
826 Valencia

Sunday, May 27, 2012


I was recently part of an interview session with a candidate for a designer position at the company I work for, where all the typical questions were being asked about process, challenges, and outcomes. Suddenly it occurred to me: Why don’t we as designers do a better job of following up on the results of a given project?

The more you think about it, the more of a blatant omission in process it is. Design’s done, artwork handed off; it’s either portfolio-worthy or it isn’t, case closed. Onward.

Crazy. It’s like leaving a big piece of the story back in the Accounts Department. You could’ve had a tangible story to tell about clickthrough rates or spikes in sales; instead you’re left with the classic feeble standby: “It got great results, the customer was really happy.”

Most if not all design and advertising projects (Identity design aside) involve some sort of problem-solving; most are targeted toward arousing some sort of customer response.

It’s not until one of us is waist-deep in an interview for a position we really want, that we realize that maybe we should have always made it a point to follow up after every single design project and demand to know what the outcome was in tangible numbers. You kind of start thinking they should teach this in design school as part of the regular routine of beginning-middle-end of a project - I’ve never heard of a job interview where having that information readily available didn’t make a difference.

With the current competitive environment for design jobs, you need all the ammo you can get; it’s a shame if you couldn’t be bothered to collect it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


From (via Flavorpill) here are some amazing designs from 80 years ago. Designers are voracious right now for things like this - the antithesis of glossy and shiny....things with a soul. If you like this, please do go check out the original blog from whence they's delightful and inspiring.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Advertising used to be mostly about influencing. Welcome to the social media age: where advertising is about influencing influencers. Ian Kovalik calls it "storytelling."

A couple of years ago I attended a local advertising industry cocktail gathering where I chatted with a couple of recent graduates from the San Jose State advertising program. When they told me they had just graduated, my eyes grew wide and I exalted, "This is the most AMAZING time for advertising I've ever SEEN." They threw incredulous glances at one another, clearly not feeling the same glow. "Advertising is turning into something completely, entirely different," I told them breathlessly, "and the possibilities right now are unlimited. This is the most profound reinvention of the industry since the 'Mad Men' days."

They smiled, nodded, and the redheaded one with black horn rim glasses nervously gnawed on a chilled shrimp.

I was gratified to feel somewhat vindicated by the AIGA presentation I attended last night, titled "The Super Special Interactive Storytelling Hour" featuring a presentation by Ian Kovalik, Executive Creative Director of Mekanism, an interactive advertising agency with offices in San Francisco, L.A., and New York.

Ian employed a playful, interactive on-screen presentation that included several "Choose a Door" intervals where the audience decided which door (or box) to open. The prize behind the door invariably would be a brief, cheesy, hilarious video clip from Lawrence Welk or Carl Sagan.

The point Ian was making with his presentation was that the very nature of advertising has shifted irrevocably and tectonically due to changing behaviors. The advent ('advent' or 'speeding 18-wheeler?') of social media. The distractions surrounding the average viewer. The guys at Mekanism push the notion that advertising now has to take on a storytelling form factor to hold a potential customer's attention across a broad, integrated campaign.

The talk was one part portfolio show for Mekanism, one part inspirational talk. Ian produced real-world examples of programs and websites that generate buzz by "hacking brands", such as the current Old Spice Red Zone collection TV spots that feature NFL player and actor Terry Crews riding a jetski in his boxers - straight into a Bounce commercial.

Ian even invoked Julia Child, as he played an episode of her cooking show where she brandishes a pistol as they begin a demo on making a souffle. "She was an amazing storyteller. Learn from her," he advised.

The program he spent the most time discussing was their agency's campaign for Brisk Ice Tea and the new release of Star Wars Episode 1 3D. The campaign included a mobile game app for both iOS and Android, ongoing Facebook activity, internet meme posters and of course TV. The customer was given the chance to add new characters to his/her game by purchasing Brisk and entering the code from the bottom of each cap.

Not everyone gets to work with Old Spice as a client, but any client wants innovative and delightful ideas. And when the idea develops into a story (maybe one that you help tell, and then share with your friends), then what we used to call "advertising" becomes something eminently more powerful and influential.

Here's a list of some of the things Ian shared (not all of which are advertising per se, but interactive storytelling):

Golden Grahams job-interviews-gone-horribly-wrong animations (This was a crowd favorite last night)

Take This Lollipop

National Film Board of Canada - Blabla

Ape With AK-47 - Viral video for the promotion of Rise of Planet of the Apes

Brisk Tea Darth Maul and Yoda Battle TV Spot

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Talk about the right idea at the right time. Design has never been more influential in business as it is right now, and the folks at Loft Resumes are probably going to make a ton of money as a result of this great idea: making really current designs available to non-designers to make their resumes stand out. It remains to be seen what hiring managers will prefer but it sure seems like this is a sea change in the making.

Loft Resumes Site