My Design Articles 2014

Designing a Creative Practice

For much of my life, I’ve taken a pretty haphazard attitude towards my own creativity. And while I’ve been mostly successful, I have long periods of creative block, as well as professional goals that have idled. I look back at envy at some of the most creatively-fertile periods of my life (2007-8 in particular) and I’ve realized there were activities I did every day that I should probably resume.

At the same time, for the last few months, I’ve been reading a number of books on creativity and forming creative habits. While many of these books have different, specific pieces of advice, I’ve collected the themes into a course of action for myself.

The UX of Commercial Drones, UX Magazine

Technology asks, “Can it be done?” Design asks, “Should it be done, and how?” I’ve thought about these questions frequently in the weeks following the 60 Minutes’ introduction of Amazon’s PrimeAir. While some were horrified by the prospect of commercial drones buzzing through the skies, I was amazed and intrigued at this vision of the future. But that’s all it is right now: a vision, and a somewhat crude one at that—one that leaves many questions unanswered.

Some of those questions are logistical and legal: Will this work and in what environments? What are the implications on a social level and where safety is concerned? These are all tremendously important questions, but let’s assume the issues surrounding them can be worked out. After all, there is plenty of money to be made (by Amazon and others like FedEx [and Google’s Project Wing]) by making it a reality. In fact, Ross McCullough, vice president of corporate strategy at UPS, recently said: “I believe these things will be part of the system in the future. I don’t know when.”

The Hidden Genius and Influence of The Traffic Light, Wired

See it sway: three-eyed blind bat hanging from a wire. Or perhaps there: perched atop a pole, lights moving from top to bottom–green yellow red green yellow red–in its unvarying sequence. Two hundred years ago, it would have been a wonder, something on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, gawked at by Victorians. Today it’s seen but unconsidered, passed under a dozen times a day by most of us, influencing how we move, shaping our cities, warping how we travel, and occasionally, inadvertently, helping to kill us. Consider the traffic light.

The First Things on The Internet (of Things)

I was curious what the first non-traditional-computer objects were that were connected to a computer network. (A telegraph is probably the first device connected to any kind of network.) To be technical: a non-computer yet packet switched network device with continuous or frequent connectivity to said network.) Here’s some I found, stretching back 40 years.

Why We Need to Tame Our Algorithms Like Dogs, Wired

These coded aliens, these ghosts in the machines, are becoming even incomprehensible to their creators. With algorithms starting to take on oversight and control of our critical systems, we need to ensure that, like with dogs, we become comprehensible to them. If so, perhaps in the future we’ll think of them as Man’s Best Friend.

On Design Education, Medium

The crux of the matter is the feeling that many design schools are doing a disservice to their students by preparing them for careers they’re unlikely to have, at least right out of school. “No one wants to hire a 22-year-old strategist,” was how a colleague (perhaps indelicately) phrased it. Graduate schools focus on more and more specialized, baroque areas of design. Meanwhile, undergraduates are pointed towards areas like service and systems design, and social innovation, despite the fact that the job market for those is small. What most undergraduates in the design field will work on when they graduate are products: physical objects, printed materials, or (increasingly) hardware and software. Now certainly, most of these will be part of a service or system, and some (hopefully all) will have a benefit to society. And no one is arguing that an understanding of strategy, services and systems isn’t essential to understanding 21st century design. But too many graduates get out of school and become disillusioned when the work they’re doing is not at the system or service level, but at the product level, where their skills, at least initially, are needed the most. I’ve seen this first-hand.

Some Kind of Toaster, Medium

It wasn’t quite as bad for my father. By the time he was built in 2001, there were lots of things on the Internet: coffee pots, refrigerators, even toilets. Switching a toaster on — or even knowing if it was in use or not — was pretty trivial by then. People had gotten used to seeing objects online; it wasn’t quite the freakshow it was in grandpa’s time.

No, with Dad, connecting him had to be for something different, something interesting. It wasn’t enough that he was on the Internet — that he was present — but that he did something as well. Being online had to mean something. It had to be useful. So — get this — he told the weather.

The End of Design as We Know It, Medium

To many people this is a bleak, grim, oh-shit-there-goes-my-job, future. Which is understandable, because for many people this probably will be the end of their job unless they future-proof themselves. You future-proof yourself by ensuring that the kind of work you do cannot be easily replicated by an algorithm. In design, those skills are insights-gathering, problem framing, and crafting unconventional solutions.

The Wonderful Possibilities of Connecting Your Fridge to The Internet, Wired

Smart appliances humbly predict our needs and modestly adjust as little as possible to accommodate them. This sometimes requires connecting to the network for a better, bigger brain or to draw upon the collected intelligence of similar objects. You don’t need to stuff lots of processing power and memory into the object itself if it can use resources in the cloud. Imagine if your refrigerator could learn how to keep food cooler more cheaply by looking at the data from other refrigerators in the area? Collective machine intelligence and the benefits it could engender such as fixing model-specific problems and product efficiency are good reasons to enable network connectivity.

The Shelves Come to The Pickers, Medium

It could be that we’re finally seeing emerge what the late John Rheinfrank called “Adaptive Worlds”: products and environments that are smart enough to change their functionality, content, and even form based on the task and the person’s abilities. In this worldview, design isn’t human-centered (although humans are part of the system) but rather ability-centered: what are the capabilities of the people and products in the system and how can they react and supplement each other to perform activities.

My Top 10 Albums 2014

Unlike previous years, there was no clear winner this year. Many good albums that I listened to a lot, but no clear winner. At various times, all the top five could have shuffled around.

  1. About Last Night, Sleeper Agent
    Fun. A big step up from their first album, which I also enjoyed.
  2. Before the Waves, Magic Man
    Not my usual style of music, but man, some of the songs are super catchy.
  3. The Both, The Both
    I had no idea whether the pairing of Ted Leo and Aimee Mann would work. It does. And how can you not like a song (“Milwaukee”) that mentions The Fonz?
  4. Seeds, TV on The Radio
    The first half of this album is up there with their best stuff. Gets mushier in the second half though. Still very good.
  5. Distraction, Bear Hands
    The only real “debut” on the list is this one. A band to watch.
  6. After the Disco, Broken Bells
    Not as good as the first album, but nearly every track is a gem.
  7. They Want My Soul, Spoon
    Not many bands make one of their best albums 20 years into their careers, but Spoon did.
  8. Liberation!, Peter Matthew Bauer
    The first album on the list from a band musician doing a solo album, this time the bassist from The Walkmen stepping out on his own. Liberation! is a great rock record, combining some mellower, Indian-tinged numbers with some rock out songs. Spiritual without being overbearing. Uplifting.
  9. Weatherhouse, Philip Selway
    Radiohead’s drummer’s second album is atmospheric, bitter at times, and resigned. Perfect for rainy days and reflection. “It Will End in Tears” is such a brilliant song.
  10. Morning Phase, Beck
    Beck at his Sea Change melancholy best. Heartbreaking. I don’t know who could fail to be moved by “Say Goodbye.” As always, Beck can do anything, drifting through genres (rock, folk, country, etc.) like a smoke through a forest.

See also my picks for:

My Favorite Design Articles 2014

Designer Duds: Losing Our Seat at the Table, Mills Baker

It’s now 2014, and I doubt seriously whether I’m alone in feeling a sense of anxiety about how “design” is using its seat at the table. From the failure of “design-oriented” Path to the recent news that Square is seeking a buyer to the fact that Medium is paying people to use it, there’s evidence that the luminaries of our community have been unable to use design to achieve market success. More troubling, much of the work for which we express the most enthusiasm seems superficial, narrow in its conception of design, shallow in its ambitions, or just ineffective.

The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird, Ian Bogost

The games we find ourselves ever more devoted to are often also the ones that care very little for our experience of them. This is the devotion of material indifference. To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Where Inspiration Should Sit at the Table of Design, Tanner Christensen

We seek inspiration when we don’t fully understand the problem or task at-hand.

That is: inspiration can be helpful, but more often than not we confuse the pursuit of inspiration with doing legitimate work towards creating an effective solution. The truth is that spending time seeking inspiration is typical of dilly-dallying and not real progress towards a solution.

The Nightmare on Connected Home Street, Mat Honan

I wake up at four to some old-timey dubstep spewing from my pillows. The lights are flashing. My alarm clock is blasting Skrillex or Deadmau5 or something, I don’t know. I never listened to dubstep, and in fact the entire genre is on my banned list. You see, my house has a virus again.

Technically it’s malware. But there’s no patch yet, and pretty much everyone’s got it. Homes up and down the block are lit up, even at this early hour. Thankfully this one is fairly benign. It sets off the alarm with music I blacklisted decades ago on Pandora. It takes a picture of me as I get out of the shower every morning and uploads it to Facebook. No big deal.

The Ubiquitous Button, Lars-Erik Janlert

But the operation of modern buttons is not as uniform as that of traditional buttons: The basic mode of operation is stretched in various dimensions to get additional control, mainly with regard to the amount of pressure, the duration of the press, and combinations and patterns of presses. The usual motive for this is that there would be too few buttons of the ordinary kind in the artifact to achieve the intended level of user control, either due to lack of space or because the designer wants a clean, nice-looking design and maybe hides away some rarely used functions or settings. In a modern camera, pressing lightly on the shutter button usually activates focusing and light metering; pressing harder takes the picture. Digital kitchen timers may suddenly increase the speed of counting up the minutes (for instance, from intervals of a minute to intervals of 10) when you keep holding the button. Wristwatches and mobile phones often have buttons that perform different functions if you press them for a longer time; also, hard-to-remember combinations of simultaneously pressed buttons take on special meanings. We are not very surprised anymore if a double-click achieves something different from a single click.

Home Automation is an EasyHard problem, Scott Jensen

As a UX designer, I know how quixotic and down right goofy humans can be. The simple rule-based “if this then that” style scenarios trotted out are doomed to fail. Well, maybe fail is too strong of a word. They won’t fail as in a “face plant into burning lava” fail. In fact, I’ll admit that they might even work 90% of the time. To many people that may seem fine, but just try using a voice recognition system with a 10% failure rate. It’s the small mistakes that will drive you crazy.

Tips for Designing a Connected Home That Isn’t Chaos, John Kiechel and Louisa Heinrich

Today, consumers buy kitchen appliances, and then take them home and do whatever they want with them. But if that product is “connected,” chances are it’s been pre-loaded with someone else’s idea of what a person should be doing with it. And no matter how well meaning that someone else is, when the objects we own contradict us, that’s going to be a frustrating experience.

Macrointeractions, Mike Kruzeniski

If I want the products I work on to be great, I need to think of the spaces adjacent to the product as being a design problem as important as the product itself. Though a lot of the Design canon is focused on the quality of craft — the details make the product after all — a lack of attention to the problems around the product may mean very few people ever experience all your attention to detail.

I’ve started to find it helpful to think of the problem space around the product as a Macrointeraction — an interaction design space at the other end of the spectrum from a Microinteraction. Any friction that might prevent your product (with all its wonderful details) from being made or connecting with your customers is a design problem worth spending time on.

Amazon’s Fire Phone May Be Too Magical for Its Own Good, Sean Madden

The biggest challenge of modern UI design is knowing when to stop. We have the ability to make every single moment sparkle and dance, so the new task is learning to restrain ourselves, and it’s hard. Most of a good user experience is forgotten, because well-designed often means forgettable: you can’t remember 100 delightful interactions a day, nor would you want to.

Perennial Design, Wilson Miner

If all we celebrate is what is visible on the surface—the fragile plant and not the durable root system—we limit the scope of our ambition to the shortest possible horizon. Are we making layers of sediment for future generations to build a mountain, or are we planting each year’s crop of new products and watching them wash away once their short-term value is harvested and consumed?

Can a robot be too nice?, Leon Neyfakh

The idea of programming a robot to have a specific personality might sound like science fiction; in a world where true artificial intelligence has yet to be achieved, a personality—an individual’s distinct mixture of emotional response, attitude, and motivation—seems even more subtle and complex. But for computer scientists interested in social robotics, it has become a surprisingly immediate goal. As machines become more sophisticated, and integrated in new ways into human society, researchers have begun to realize that their effectiveness depends on how easily we relate to them.

Rejoice: Tomorrow’s Tech Will Probably Stop Nagging Us, Kelsey O’Callaghan

As technology enters our homes we expect it to feel more personalized, evolving its role from a standalone product into a service mentality. This not only manifests through the customer-facing touch points but also drastically affects an organization and its strategic considerations. Take the connected home for example; an increasing number of automated solutions are available, yet many are destined to become obsolete (eventually residing in the drawer next to last year’s wearable wristband) due to a narrow product lens. The few living up to the hype, such as Nest, create value by modernizing a household while providing services that reinvent our relationship with temperature control. A strategic objective of their thermostat is to actually play a less noticeable role in our lives. While the intelligence baked in the app and hardware is busy gathering insights and predictively responding to emergent needs, it’s regarded as more useful the less we need to adjust it. Conserving energy and saving a few bucks each month are pleasant byproducts, but the service doesn’t inherently burden us with these incentives and instead silently controls temperature. Less really is more when it comes to invisible technology.

Conversations with the past: hermeneutics for designers, Sjors Timmer

When we look back it’s easy to see the past as a collection of outdated technologies and failed business models, to quietly reminisce on how far we’ve come. This however only works if we look at the past through the limited frame of technological and economical progress. If we expand our vision, follow Ive and add history and culture to our framing we can see the past as a rich landscape of ideas, artefacts and people all telling us something about what it means to be human. For us this means that we have to find out about the designers, the writers, typographers, toolmakers and architects that came before us and wonder how we can re-interpret their work and make it relevant for yet another generation.

Why Her Will Dominate UI Design Even More Than Minority Report, Kyle VanHemert

t’s not just that Her, the movie, is focused on people. It also shows us a future where technology is more people-centric. The world Her shows us is one where the technology has receded, or one where we’ve let it recede. It’s a world where the pendulum has swung back the other direction, where a new generation of designers and consumers have accepted that technology isn’t an end in itself–that it’s the real world we’re supposed to be connecting to.

Constraints are Hard, Julie Zhuo

Constraints are hard because they represent the bar, and the bar is high on existing, successful products. Designers who persevere to ship something beyond this bar have achieved something remarkable, but they’re often unsung heroes because what they accomplish doesn’t come across as big or splashy. It’s often the quiet hum of a product getting better and better through the years—a common action made a little easier, a confusing interaction made simpler, a habitual gesture made more delightful. Maybe the average person never notices, but the product continues its upward trajectory. It grows more popular. It has more impact in the world.

Related: My Favorite Design Articles from 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

Job Search 2014

Two weeks ago came the news that Smart Design, the place I’ve called my professional home for nearly three years, was closing its San Francisco office. It’s a bit heartbreaking as the team I’ve built is now disassembled, and, well, I’ll soon be without a job.

I’m looking for a role as VP/Creative Director/Product Design Lead that lets me do the two things I do very well: lead designers and design products. Ideally, this role would be in San Francisco proper (I’m definitely not moving and dislike commuting) and involves designing hardware and software. I’m particularly interested in connected consumer devices for the home or office. Dog-friendly workplace is a plus. Financial stability (no early-stage startups) also a plus.

Here’s my resume as a PDF or on LinkedIn. My online portfolio basically ends three years ago when I got the Smart Design job, but I can walk through more recent work in person.

Contact me at dan [at] odannyboy [dot] com if you might have or know of suitable work. Thanks!

New Talk for 2015: Practical Creativity

When we think about creativity, it’s usually the creativity of artists and musicians, novelists and poets. That is, people who create to express. But there’s another kind of creativity: that of designers and craftsmen, scientists and engineers. Those who create to solve problems or to invent. While these two modes of creativity aren’t exclusive, this second type of creativity, what I’m calling Practical Creativity, is defined by constraints that aren’t of one’s own making and are usually solved by putting together disparate pieces into a new, unique whole. This talk focuses on what you can do to increase your practical creativity through the deliberate practice of finding and gathering those pieces and the methods for fitting them together. We’ll look at everyday practices and methods to boost creativity, as well as how to overcome the (infinite) number of things that seem to inhibit creativity.

If you’re interested in having me speak at your conference or event, please contact me.

The First Things on the Internet (of Things)

I was curious what the first non-traditional-computer objects were that were connected to a computer network. (A telegraph is probably the first device connected to any kind of network.) To be technical: a non-computer yet packet switched network device with continuous or frequent connectivity to said network.) Here’s some I found, stretching back 40 years.

Interface Message Processor (1969)
“The packet-switching node used to interconnect participant networks to the ARPANET from the late 1960s to 1989. It was the first generation of gateways, which are known today as routers.”

The “Prancing Pony Cooperative” Vending Machine (early-mid 1970s)
“A computer-controlled vending machine…it used to be directly connected to the SAIL DEC-20 mainframe, but when SAIL was retired, it was defunct for a while, and it’s now connected to the UNIX box that replaced SAIL. It’s basically a payment system; if you have an account, you can buy things and charge them to your account. The machine has an early-model laptop attached to the front (replacing a Teletype KSR-35) for this purpose.”

The CMU CS Department Coke Machine (mid-1970s)
“They installed micro-switches in the Coke machine to sense how many bottles were present in each of its six columns of bottles. The switches were hooked up to CMUA, the PDP-10 that was then the main departmental computer. A server program was written to keep tabs on the Coke machine’s state, including how long each bottle had been in the machine.”

Argos Seabeacon Buoys (1980s)
“It was originally intended as a scientific tool for collecting and relaying meteorological and oceanographic data, but with its location tracking properties, scientists quickly realised it could do much more. ‘It all started with a huge programme where 200 drifting buoys were deployed around the Antarctic Ocean,’ explained Mr Ortega. ‘The idea was to collect data – atmospheric pressure and sea surface temperature – from the buoys and to locate them. But at the same time, the buoys were drifting, and because Argos could locate their positions, the scientists also found out they could start to compute the direction and the speeds of the currents.’”

The Internet Toaster (1990)
“The toaster…had one control, to turn the power on, and the darkness of the toast was controlled by how long the power was kept on. However, a human being still had to insert the bread. [In] 1991…a small robotic crane was added to the system, also controlled from the Internet, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster, automating the system from end-to-end.”

The Trojan Room Coffee Pot (1991)
“In the Trojan Room there were several racks of simple computers used in the testing of our networks. One of these had a video frame-grabber attached and was not being used at the time. We fixed a camera to a retort stand, pointed it at the coffee machine in the corridor, and ran the wires under the floor to the frame-grabber in the Trojan Room. Paul Jardetzky…wrote a ‘server’ program, which ran on that machine and captured images of the pot every few seconds at various resolutions, and I wrote a ‘client’ program which everybody could run, which connected to the server and displayed an icon-sized image of the pot in the corner of the screen. The image was only updated about three times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly, and it was only greyscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee.”

Live Wire/Dangling String (1995)
“An 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String meets a key challenge in technology design for the next decade: how to create calm technology.”

The Telegarden (1995)
“An art installation that allowed web users to view and interact with a remote garden filled with living plants. Members could plant, water, and monitor the progress of seedlings via the tender movements of an industrial robot arm.”

Drive Me Insane (1997)
“This is a website. Specifically, it’s a website where you can turn lights on and off, and watch it happen via a webcam.”

Icepick Internet Fridge (1998)
Also toilet (1998), doorbell (1998), and mailbox (2000).

Any more? I’m particularly looking for any from the 1980s, especially a rumored “MIT door lock” project and some elevators (MIT?) that were networked (1970s? 80s?).

Thanks to Mike Kuniavsky, Scott Berkun, Bill Buxton, Ianus Keller, and Thor Muller for help!

Louis CK and The Creative Process

I’ve watched a lot of Louis CK over the last five years and most recently his 2013 comedy special Oh My God and the first four episodes of the fourth season of Louis, his brilliant TV series. As I’ve watched, I’ve caught onto one of his tricks, which is completely illustrated here in this 90 second clip from the first episode this season:

So let’s try to deconstruct what he did here. He started with an observation, which in this case is pretty banal: Garbagemen early in the morning are noisy. A lesser comedian might have stopped there. “Didja ever notice how garbagemen always come by when you’re sleeping? Doncha just hate that?” Observational comedy, ladies and gentlemen.

But here’s what I think he did next. He took a quality of that noise—it sounds like they’re right in the room with you—and imagined what would happen if that were really true, that they were in the room with you. How would they get into the room? What would happen once they were there? What would be the most funny reaction to that situation? In this case, it’s acting as though it was a normal, everyday occurrence.

Bill Buxton has a term for this kind of creative thinking: Order of Magnitude (OOM). He says to take a characteristic and stretch it as a conceptual thinking trick. “If something changes by an order of magnitude along any meaningful dimension, it is no longer the same thing.”

Louis CK uses this trick all the time, whether it’s garbagemen in his bedroom or in Oh My God in a bit about stepping over dead children in the mall in a world where murder is legal. The mastery, though, is in how he stretches the audience, most of whom certainly wouldn’t normally make such conceptual leaps on their own, with him. And how he does it is by building on small moments of detail. Look at how the garbage scene above grows, cut by cut. At first, you are empathizing with him asleep. But then, without your realizing it, you’re standing outside the scene laughing, because we’re first startled by the men crashing through the window, pushing the scene clearly into fantasy, but mostly because his reaction is not what ours would be. He remains asleep, then groggily wakes up.

Like the best comedians, he does this to show us an insight from that observation. What does this mean? In this case, it’s that the world isn’t outside our window; it’s right here in our bedrooms, in our dreams. His blasé reaction is the acceptance of the noise of the world. I’m certainly over-analyzing it because this bit is a trifle, but it’s an amusing one. And one that can teach us a lot about how to take an observation, no matter how minor, and using Order of Magnitude thinking, turn it into something new, something with meaning.

Designing a Creative Practice

Growth doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional effort and consistent progress. You must define how you want to grow, then establish a plan to help you get there. —Todd Henry

For much of my life, I’ve taken a pretty haphazard attitude towards my own creativity. And while I’ve been mostly successful, I have long periods of creative block, as well as professional goals that have idled. I look back at envy at some of the most creatively-fertile periods of my life (2007-8 in particular) and I’ve realized there were activities I did every day that I should probably resume.

At the same time, for the last few months, I’ve been reading a number of books on creativity and forming creative habits. While many of these books have different, specific pieces of advice, I’ve collected the themes into a course of action for myself.

Block off time for creativity. This is obvious. You can’t expect projects to just happen; you have to make time for them. And it’s better to have a consistent small block of time every day than to expect large chunks of time at some future date (which almost never seems to happen). This is how I wrote my books: small bits every day, early in the morning. It’s how I should structure my other projects as well. From now on, every morning from 6-7:30 is creativity time. I’ve also blocked out one morning a week—on my work calendar!—for work-related (article) writing.

Start with a ritual. You need to get yourself into a creative state—even when you don’t feel like being in one. This is where ritual comes in. “It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way,” writes Twyla Tharp. For me, the ritual is a cup of tea and Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

Work space. When I’ve written books in the past, it always has to be at particular place, which has (oddly) moved around my house with each book. I’m going to attempt to reclaim my (disused) desk and make it not just a place for dropping bills and other semi-garbage. It should be a place to summon ideas—and act on them.

Keep a list of Big Questions. It’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be thinking about and working on, especially since my working days as a creative director are often chaotic and fragmented. Having a list of the top three things my subconscious should be mulling on is important as a centering tool. And phrasing them in the form of a question helps the mind work on answering them in the background. “When we phrase our objectives simply and in the form of a question, we lead our minds directly to solving the problem,” writes Todd Henry. I have a small whiteboard at home (it used to be my daughter’s toy) next to my desk where these questions can go.

Take walks.* Movement helps the body relax and the subconscious work. Too often I stare at my computer screen or flip through social media when I should just get up and walk around the block. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman noted, “Almost every dimension of cognition improves from thirty minutes of aerobic exercise, and creativity is no exception.”

Fill the well. Advises Austin Kleon, “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” I’m going to make an effort to see more art, starting with buying a membership to my local museum, the De Young. I’m also going to expand my non-fiction reading to more general interest, biography, and other topics removed from design. I’m also going to increase my fiction reading. I used to walk down Haight Street in the early mornings, before the crowds came, and just look in the windows. Seeing new things can trigger new connections.

Record what you observe, then review it. I’ll be keeping two notebooks: one physical, one digital. The digital one (in Evernote) is for capturing anything I read online. The physical one will be for writing/sketching fragments of ideas, what Twyla Tharp calls “scratching.”

Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas. Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you…Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one.

When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks. That’s what they look for when they scratch for an idea.

The physical notebook (dotted paper from Muji, if you’re interested in that sort of detail) is for scratching.

Because it’s not enough just to gather, on Saturday mornings (usually my longest working period), I’ll review and reflect on what I’ve read/seen/gathered that week.

Turn off the stream. Your mind needs time to work and process. I often find myself aimlessly going from Facebook to email to Twitter to RSS and repeat. When I catch myself doing that, I know it’s time to unplug (and maybe take a walk). Being bored and staring off into space is fine. Allowing your mind to wander allows ideas to enter. I’m not going to pull out my phone immediately while waiting in line either. “As we tune in to our devices during every moment of transition, we are letting the incredible potential of serendipity pass us by,” says Scott Belsky.

Rest. Related to turning off the stream is just switching off for longer periods. In addition to my (hopefully now) annual Screens Sabbatical on the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll be doing a weekly Screens Shabbat from noon on Saturday until sunrise on Sunday. “The idea is that one day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode, you need to not work. Every week, your brain—and your soul—needs to be reset,” writes Tiffany Shlain.

Meditate.* I hate even using the word meditate. It sounds so San Francisco. For me, this is simply sitting quietly for a few minutes, not doing anything. This is very difficult for me.

Have a hobby.* I haven’t seriously played the cello in almost five years now. That needs to change. I miss it. Kleon: “It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”

If you want your life to be different, you have to try something different. I hope that by taking these steps, I’ll move outside my comfort zone into a more fulfilling, productive, creative space. I’ll let you know how it goes. Although hopefully, the fruits will be self-evident.

* It’s very easy to find good advice, but very hard to take it. For some of these activities, I’m going to be using Stephen Guise’s “mini habits” to help me out. Mini habits are those that are designed to be too easy not to do, and lead to making it easy to form a habit. For me, this is doing (daily) one minute of walking, one minute of sitting quietly, and tuning my cello.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
I recommend all the books on this list, but especially The Creative Habit, The Accidental Creative, and Steal Like an Artist.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp
The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
Manage Your Day-to-Day, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson
Creative Something blog

My 2013 Bibliography

NON-FICTION

Drawing Ideas: A Hand-Drawn Approach for Better Design, Mark Baskinger and William Bardel
Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, Nick Bilton
The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, Todd Henry
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff
The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, Sandra Blakeslee
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Katherine Boo
Making Creative Mobiles, Timothy Rose
The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, Kevin Smokler
This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, John Brockman (ed.)
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
The Way the World Works: Essays, Nicholson Baker
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick
The Lessons of History, Will Durant
The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Change, Alan Sepinwall
Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, E. Paul Zehr
User-Centered Design: A Developer’s Guide to Building User-Friendly Applications, Travis Lowdermilk
Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career, Jocelyn Glei (ed.)
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Stephen Guise
Do the Work, Steven Pressfield
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

FICTION

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
The Son, Philipp Meyer
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
From Hell, Alan Moore
Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts
The Player of Games, Iain Banks
Capital, John Lanchester
Life After Life: A Novel, Kate Atkinson
Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5), Hugh Howey
2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

My Top 10 Albums 2013

This year, I realized that aside from my usual criteria (repeat playability, no/few skipped tracks), one other subjective characteristic had to be there: I had to imagine at some point walking down a street and having this album be the soundtrack behind me.

10. Muchacho, Phosphorescent

9. Wonderful Glorious, Eels

8. If You Wait, London Grammar

7. Yes It’s True, Polyphonic Spree

6. Reflektor, Arcade Fire

5. When It Was Now, Atlas Genius

4. The Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River

3. Trouble Will Find Me, The National

2. We The Common, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

1. Modern Vampires of The City, Vampire Weekend

See also my picks for: