Jon Hirschtick Aims to Upend a Market Dominated by the Company He Founded

Jon Hirschtick Aims to Upend a Market Dominated by the Company He Founded

Entering Tannen’s Magic Store, a New York City landmark of the prestige scene, feels like walking into a 1990s VHS rental store to grab a movie on a Friday night. The man behind the counter sports a half-zipped sweatshirt, a ponytail, and a skull ring. He pulls decks of cards and boxed tricks off the shelves, demoing them for tourists and fellow magicians looking for a new taa daa moment. He shrinks a penny to half its size and illuminates a lightbulb off of a lamp like a cigarette.

“I used to demonstrate a similar version of that trick,” Jon Hirschtick muses as he watches a quarter spin in mid-air to gasps from the store patrons.

Hirschtick may be the founder of two product manufacturing system companies, but he cut his teeth on smoke and mirrors. In the 1980s, he was both a professional magician and original member of the MIT Blackjack team, which inspired the movie 21. We’ll leave you to separate the fact from fiction in that film, but Hirschtick was able to use $1 million of his winnings to start SolidWorks, a software company which became the industry standard for computer-aided design (CAD). Now, when most executives would have their eye on retirement, Hirschtick is anteing up again. Aiming to disrupt a market dominated by his own company, Hirschtick has launched a new CAD startup: Onshape.

Why? The opportunity he has spotted is that CAD tools for designing products haven’t really changed in 25 years, leaving engineers to fight everything from install problems to workflows that not only discourage collaboration, but lock teammates out of the design process.

Hirschtick is betting Onshape can unlock the gridlock – and so is Andreessen Horowitz, which led Onshape’s $105 million series D. That might sound like a lot but it’s a drop in the  $8.7 billion CAD industry ocean that almost no one talks about.

Surrounded by fans of cards, top hats, wands, and the coin trick books he studied as a teenager, Hirschtick discussed why he’s trying to disrupt the same market twice, what it takes to be a great designer, and how to wow your audience every time.

A successful card player might get up from the table after playing a successful hand. After selling SolidWorks to Dassault Systèmes for $318 million, why get back in the game with Onshape? 

All engineers, me included, try to see a better world through some sort of product.  Once seeing that vision of the future, engineers are very driven to realize it. Our job building great CAD was far from over. I felt an obligation; nobody else has shipped a true modern CAD system besides Onshape.

What exactly are you making with Onshape?

CAD are computer software tools that are used by engineers to design things. We’re a meta-designer. Engineers have always had tools. In the age of the pyramids it might have been papyrus, then paper, quill, ink. 50 years ago, it was pencil and paper. Today, most engineers use some form of CAD software. If you’re manufacturing a new product, you build it twice. First you build it in the computer in CAD. You make sure it’s right; the pieces fit together. And then you build it in the real world. A CAD system is like a script or a rehearsal.

Why market need does Onshape address that SolidWorks doesn’t?

I founded SolidWorks 25 years ago with five other people in my home. There’s millions of users who use it. Around five years ago, I’d visit designers and watch people use the system and I could see they had problems. They have problems just installing the stuff. It only runs on Windows. The next set of problems is that the data is stored in files. I don’t mean one file. I mean one file per part. If you’re making a snowmobile with 3,000 pieces, that’s 3,000 files. Everyone needs a copy of the 3,000 files to look at the design. With design the whole goal is speed and creativity. We want to make changes, iterate, and find the best answer.  But the tools say, “Wait a minute, before you make a change, do you have to latest version of, for example, File 1920?” That’s a good way to slow the team down. Things crash, people lose work.

So, those things were a top priority to fix in the launch of Onshape?

We felt we could design something where others could design their stuff faster, have better ideas, and honestly, have more fun. No one ever had any fun typing license codes and overwriting files. We borrowed from Google docs, who inspired us with real time collaboration. You go in and two people are in the document. Now, do that with the 3,000 parts. Those 3,000 parts are now all in one place in the cloud. We can work on it at the same time. We don’t have to lock anything and I don’t have to ask, “Where’s the latest version?” If I change the shape of the front fender of the snowmobile and you’re 1,000 miles away, you see if instantly. We allow concepts of branching and merging. So, I can try five different ideas and I don’t have to worry that I’m overwriting work.

Looking at how the industry has changed since you founded SolidWorks, is an engineer or a designer’s job easier or harder now?

Harder. You have to master many more technologies than you used to. Engineering is a broader subject with fewer clear lines of demarcation. Same with design. As a designer, you still have to know about print, because there’s a lot of a lot of print in the world. But you also have to know all about computing platforms, HTML, mobile devices. It’s an incredible palette of technologies you have to learn.

Where do you think the future of design is headed?

I think more of the world’s GDP is generated and differentiated by design than ever before. I’m not just talking about competitive differentiation. I’m talking about how the number of products is exploding. If you go to the store to buy laundry detergent, when I was a kid there was a ‘big box’ and a ‘small box’. Today, there’s 41 products from Tide: plastic bottles, the Tide Kick you throw in, a special spray. A category that had a few products, now has an enormous amount. There’s so much more choice. The SKU explosion is crazy. You used to go to the store to buy a stapler and it was a bent piece of metal.  Today, there’s three different cool designs in 18 colors. So, I believe the amount of design as a share of GDP is growing.

After 37 years in the CAD business, what advice do you have for designers?

A designer is never executing the status quo. Good designers are always moving forward. Many people have great jobs, but they don’t change the way people do things; they don’t envision a different world. Like, if you run the train system in New York, your job is to keep those trains moving from the 34th Street station to the 14th Street station. Your job is not to move the stations around. Zero designers are just operating the existing world. You have to see something that doesn’t exist. You have to engage in creative hallucination. Visions and hallucinations look the same until you try to build them.

Was your background performing magic tricks useful to you as an entrepreneur?

Magic is where I learned to demo things. When you start a company, you have to demonstrate the product. The demos need to be interesting, clear, exciting, and you want them to work. When I ended up building design projects at MIT, my friends would make elaborate designs that they could never get to function. They didn’t really appreciate what, to me, seemed obvious: the premium on shipping something that worked as opposed to fooling around with big ideas.

With demos, there are a few things to keep in mind. Practice it so it works. Most people don’t practice enough. Part of it is so it’s really reliable, and part is so that you have plenty of mental capacity left to talk. If you’re too dominated by remembering which button to press, then you won’t be able to think about the ‘patter’ of presentation. Practice a lot more than you think and practice from a cold start.

Anything else?

Have a backup plan. A trick I learned from magic is: don’t tell people in advance what you’re going to do. For instance, I can show you a trick with a deck of cards and I might ask you to do something which requires you to make a choice. If you pick one choice, I’m going to do a mind-blowing effect. If you pick the other one, I’ll still do a good magic trick. But you don’t know which I’m going to do. Similarly, I carry a video when I demo Onshape. If my browser crashes, I can bail to that video. You don’t know something’s gone wrong because I never said whether I was going to show you a video or not.

from 99U99U

The Best and Brightest Ideas from the 10th Annual Adobe 99U Conference

The Best and Brightest Ideas from the 10th Annual Adobe 99U Conference

If there is one pervasive theme that has taken hold of our work lives, private lives, and digital lives in the past year, it’s that challenges are always present — and they demand confrontation. This year, the Adobe 99U Conference focused its theme around tackling challenges by exploring new approaches to creative leadership, overcoming hurdles that limit our own work, inventing and reinventing formats, and using creativity to effect social good.

From 99U founder Scott Belsky to CreativeMornings founder Tina Roth Eisenberg to John Maeda, speakers dug into how to design the immersive experience of our future, how to replace job perks with passion, and why the future will be crafted by those who do the work beyond the scope of what their job title requires.

We’ve rounded up our speakers best and the brightest ideas so you can incorporate their insights into your career and reshape, upend, and nurture your creative life.

Lead fearlessly and from the heart.

You get to mindfully pick what kind of leader you are—whether you lead from fear of failure, or are joyfully driven by your vision. For CreativeMornings and Tattly founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, the best method is to make your work a playground for your future best self. “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire and not terrify me,” she said.

Don’t protect yourself from failure.

A culture of consensus building can kill any chance of disruption and innovation. Instead, Todd Yellin, VP of Product at Netflix, encourages his team to challenge convention, even if there is the risk of failure. “You want to lean so far forward that sometimes you fall on your face,” said Yellin. “You can never make it to a true utopia, but you should keep on pushing.”

To be a creative leader, start silly.

Whenever we begin a project we tend to also begin with an ambitious goal and that can make the whole project feel super serious and pressure-filled right off the bat. But what if we sometimes began with play and discovery rather than metrics and objectives? According to Google Creative Lab’s Tea Uglow, there is no reason that approach also can’t yield a successful result. “You can start with stuff that feels dumb and stupid, and play with it and you will get to places where it becomes potent and powerful.”

John Maeda and Adobe VP of Design Jamie Myrold/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Be inclusive.

“Being inclusive means welcoming the unknown,” said Automattic’s John Maeda who has made it his mission to rehabilitate the design world with a broader and braver sense of who we’re designing for. And when we design for everyone, we can reach everyone.  “Better products are created in tech when we’re inclusive-minded because the total addressable market increases,” he said.

Do, delegate, or drop.

In order to write compelling new chapters in our career, we have to give ourselves permission to drop a ball or two. Or better yet, learn to delegate—even if that feels totally unnatural. “If you want something you’ve never had before you’re gonna have to do something that you’ve never done before in order to get it.”said Drop the Ball author Tiffany Dufu said, So either do it, delegate it, or drop it. (And, as Dufu reassured everyone, if you drop unrealistic expectations, nothing bad will happen.)

Make your message the focus of your work.

Artist and author Adam J. Kurtz admitted he doesn’t necessarily aim for by-the-book visual perfection. Instead, he embraces an unpolished aesthetic and a habit of churning out a lot of ideas for the internet to either adore or ignore. “My work looks bad, but I have a lot to say,” he said. “My visual voice, the handwriting that I use, is emotive and disarming and it allows me to tackle difficult topics.”

Set your own house rules.

Sound artist Christine Sun Kim viscerally feels the effect of sound when it invades her home. Rather than be a passive player, Kim builds house rules and art projects like performances and sound diets to wrestle with the role of sound in her personal space (including asking a nearby church to cut back its bell-ringing schedule). “For me home is where my deaf identity and deafness are one and the same,” she said.

Walk your stakeholders through your ideas, literally.

Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Innovation & Creativity at Disney, recommends printing and posting your ideas around the walls of a conference room and physically walking your team and clients through them. “People sitting behind tables will judge you, they can’t help it,” says Wardle. When you walk with somebody, a presentation turns into a conversation.”

Tiffany Dufu/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Start your business with a problem you want to solve.

“Sometimes when people talk about their business idea, they jump to the benefit of their business,” said Emily Heyward, Red Antler co-founder.But people are not sitting around wishing your business existed—no one is sitting around wishing for a crunchy cereal with raisins.” However, they might be wishing for a quick answer to breakfast, or to lose weight—their motivation for buying the product you’ll make. “You have to go deeper to the actual problem behind why someone might care about this idea.”

Mindlessness is an affliction. Mindfulness is the cure.

These days you’re either at a company that is disrupting, or one that is being disrupted. As a leader, embracing change starts at the individual level, said SYPartners’ Rachel Salinas, who advocates for scheduling time for mindfulness into everyday life, through things like meditation or setting down your phone and disconnecting from the always-on mode. “If you don’t let your thoughts control you, you can be responsive, not reactive,” said Salinas. “That is hugely important for leaders.”

Risk-taking is an art…and a playground.

Our most valuable contributions can come from the times when we launch into untrammeled territory. But risk-taking is uncomfortable, awkward, and frightening. To keep creatives from shying away from going out on a limb, Good F***ing Design Advice co-founders Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher recommend adding partners-in-crime to share the burden of your risk, injecting playfulness to energize your process, and to embrace—not avoid—a sense of fear. “Pride and insecurities are responses to vulnerabilities,” they said. “They are telling you something. So listen!”

Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious question.

Iteration through prototyping is one of the most integral steps in the design process. It’s often the best way to bounce around new ideas, question creative solutions, and unearth new problems. But we often skip the most important piece in the prototyping process. As we rush to dream up new solutions and ideas, we often forget to ask ourselves ‘why?’ Why do it this way? Why prioritize that? Adobe Creative Resident, Natalie Lew alongside Donors Choose, said to ask three ‘why?’ questions after someone gives an initial answer, so you can get to the heart of what is really driving the change.

Attendees workshopped their own ideas during break out sessions/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

If you’re not designing for the future, you’re designing for the past.

Brand strategy firm Lippincott highlighted three key human experience design trends to help us plan ahead: a world of devices and systems treated as intimate resources and friends, which will set higher and higher bars of trust in order to access with your product; an increasingly customized world, where every moment and experience is designed for each individual; plus a new synthetic reality where the real and virtual meet and blend. In order to keep pace with the future, designers must address these shifts now. After all, the Lippincott team points out, “If you’re designing for today’s customer, you’re probably designing for the past.”

Think forward with your feedback.

Feedback is one of the most valuable and yet unspoken gifts we can offer our colleagues. Why is so much left unsaid? ustwo believes we don’t have the roadmap to manage our fear of crossing the line from feedback into critique. The most important thing to remember? “Be actionable,” said the team from ustwo. “Effective feedback is specific, relates directly to the goals of the project, and suggests a possible next step.”

Sometimes the most effective tech is the most old school

Stop motion animation brings to mind whimsical characters navigating a bumpy existence. But animation studio Mighty Oak says there’s more to stop motion than a wink and a smile. Major brands, from Volkswagen to Sun-Maid, have put animation at the center of their campaigns, embracing the personality that animation can add to the simplest shapes and images. According to Mighty Oak, animation keeps viewers engaged for longer lengths of time than live action. Even more importantly, the simplicity of the medium makes more complicated messages possible. “It allows us to discuss tough issues, explain complex information, remove barriers, cut through the clutter, and make memorable impressions,” said Mighty Oak CEO Jess Peterson.

99U founder Scott Belsky/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

The messy middle of a project can hold the biggest rewards.

99U founder Scott Belsky is no stranger to launching new endeavors. His current focus? That mysterious middle no one talks about in between inception and shipping; the time when you can’t see the finish line and you’ve forgotten what got you into the project in the first place. “Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that long-term vision is enough to keep us motivated,” said Belsky. But that’s not enough. In order to stay motivated during that muddle of a middle, Belsky advises building a team that accepts the burden of processing uncertainty, enjoys being together apart from product success, and to set whimsical milestones that lead to team excitement when there are no formal rewards in sight.

Deliver your wordy message in a visuals.

An audience’s attention is one of our most valuable resources. How can we make sure to keep it long enough for them hear our whole message? Data journalist Mona Chalabi transforms numbers into witty, incisive visuals that both delight and surprise and drive home serious facts and figures.

“Charts don’t connect the subject matter with the visualization themselves,” said Chalabi. “I try to connect the subject matter with the depiction of the visualization.” So if she’s been assigned to design a chart showing a major world event, she surely isn’t going to a ho hum bar chart. “If you’re talking about an economy that’s in freefall, that’s diving, why not show a diver?” she says. “The surprise is meant to hold your attention.”

Speaker Mona Chalabi/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Fun fact: Alternate realities are the product humans desperately desire.

Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek didn’t plan to get into one of the fastest growing economies of the 21st century. He originally set out to build an arts collective. But the immersive installations he launched at Meow Wolf fed into our desire to experience the avante garde. Kadlubek sees a growing opportunity  between reality and design as the two shape the world, and he challenged designers to think of themselves as shapers in the new freedom of this landscape. “The world has felt limited by previous infrastructure that we can’t affect,” he says. “That’s changing. All creatives around the world should start thinking about how together, over the next 20 years, we can create a beautiful new world.”

Replace perks with passions.

It’s no secret: tech and media are great fields to work in. Entry level talent can get unlimited vacations, three free meals a day, and workspaces with Kombucha and nap pods. But Audrey Liu, Lyft’s Director of Product Design, cautions against emphasizing all-day fun, not fulfillment, to attract talent. “We’ve lost sight of the one perk we should all care about,” Liu said. “A shared sense of passion for the problem we’re trying to solve.”

Inspire the dreams of others by chasing your own.

Super Heroic CEO, and former Nike Senior Global Design Director, Jason Mayden is driven by the philosophy that if we can play together, we can live together. Through his company, Super Heroic, he’s created a world of play that coaches kids toward creativity, agility, and perseverance. But to raise a new generation who can play and dream together, adults have to set a good example by tending to their own dreams. In order to inspire new generations, we must follow our own dreams. “You being comfortable with your dream,” said Mayden, “Allows someone else to be comfortable with their dream.”

Speaker Audrey Liu/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Shoot for the mundane, not the moon.

On a trip to Cuba to work with local start-ups, Marcelino J. Alvarez, founder of Uncorked Studios, discovered an entrepreneurial culture that, unlike in the U.S., wasn’t obsessed with profits and products, but with contexts and communities. Inspired by them, Alvarez advised designers to zero in on the everyday needs of systems and communities, “There are way more opportunities to scale impact through the mundane than through moonshots,” he said.

Unbury your greatest hopes and fears.

Ashleigh Axios, design exponent at Automattic and former Obama White House creative director, wants us all to be a little more self-centered. Not in the way that makes us design unnecessary products for a quick buck. She means self-centered in a more introspective, vulnerable way. Axios challenged designers to dig deep into the things that frustrate us—whether it’s hurt about racial inequality or an experience being bullied as a child—and create products that address those problems. “Every frustration,” she said, “every fear, every hope that you’ve buried really deep down inside thinking there was no way for it to change into something positive, I want us to pull that back up. Those are the things that will make us better off.”

Resistance at its best will slow the pace of change. Resistance at its worst can decimate a company or career.

The key to understanding why people resist change, said NOBL’s CEO Bree Groff, is to understand why exactly people are resisting. “I would argue that people aren’t resisting change—they’re resisting loss,” said Groff. Based on NOBL’s work with brands and agencies, Groff pinpoints six types of loss employees feel during organizational change: loss of control, pride, narrative, time, competence, and familiarity. Her advice for someone who is trying to enact change is to follow three steps: Honor the end of what you’re saying goodbye to, address the loss, and celebrate the beginning. Most people start with celebrating the beginning, noted Groff, but first they need to lay the proper groundwork for turning the page.

Learn to speak the language of every medium you touch.

We can’t be an expert in every medium, but our jobs require often require us to go beyond our speciality and work in new formats. What’s a creative to do?? Make sure you learn the language of the medium you’re in charge of. For instance, if you’re the brand director on a photoshoot, have a palette of visual language to communicate with your photographers so you can articulate direction to them. The best tactic for framing the initial conversation? “Make multiple mood boards,” said photographer and Adobe Creative Resident, Aundre Larrow. “A mood board for how you want expressions, how you want the light, and for the general feel.” You might not be a photographer, but you are still in charge of the photoshoot.

Attendees participating in Google’s break out session/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Get to the point (and then you can embellish)

What if you only had five seconds to sketch out your idea? What would you put down on paper? Some intricate design? Or the bones of the problem you’re looking to solve? In her breakout session, Adobe Creative Resident Jessica Bellamy challenged her audience to draw certain objects in five seconds to show how, when you get to a design’s essence, function precedes form “Beautiful design does not mean it communicates its function,” said Bellamy.

When in doubt, do as Google does.

Over the last 10 years, Google has become one of the largest and most important companies in the world. Even though its employee count has quadrupled during that time and its reach spans the globe, the company’s philosophy today remains the same as it was in the early years. “Focus on the user and all else will follow,” said Jens Riegelsberger, UX Director, Google, sharing a mantra that, come to think of it, companies of any size can follow as the golden rule of business.

Bottom up in the new top down.

Brands today have more dimensions to them than ever before, and experience, experience, visual, and verbal design must connect to each other, and to a brand’s purpose. This means companies have to be built in a whole new way, said the team at R/GA. “Modern brands are built from the bottom up because today, behavior is as important as belief,” said R/GA’s executive creative director Mike Rigby. “Bottom up means starting with designing the system and thinking about all of the interactions the audience has with the brand first instead of pushing a brand directive from the top to the bottom.”

Take Time out for Pen and Paper

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Effective Brainstorming = Frame > Open > Close

Who hasn’t been in an ideas meeting that has gone completely off the rails? Sure, we want to be open to any and all concepts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use a strategy to keep us on track. “The best way to brainstorm is Frame -> Open -> Closed,” said Jason Cha, director at The Design Gym. “Frame is where you figure out the challenge or problem; open is where you think of ideas—anything goes, you can just spitball the broadest ideas. “Closed is where you figure out how to actually solve the challenge using your open ended ideas.”

Bring in new voices and onboard them to lead the conversation.

General Assembly advised creatives to open up the pearly gates of design to new voices and new experiences. After all, the collective is stronger than the individual. The new mindsets General Assembly looks for? A full systems approach to design, and people who think ahead to design for evolution and adaptation. To bring those new voices in, Tyler Hartrich advised, “build a culture that allows newcomers to contribute to the way you do things.” The more we open up the doors, the better we will be as an industry.

When you demo new tools, demo new ideas too.

When working with new products, your key ingredient is the desire to try new things. That means, lead with a wish to learn, not a desire to be perfect. “Be inspired to make something you’ve never made before,” said artist and designer, Jennet Liaw.

When it comes to branding, sound matters.

Design is often thought of as a visual journey, which leads us to overlook one of the most powerful ways to connect with an audience—through sound. Emotional response to sound is strongly linked with the desire to engage or avoid an experience. “Our role is to score the brand experience,” said Kristen Lueck, Director of Strategy for Man Made Music. “If a product or experience makes a sound, it will have personality – you have no choice in the matter.”

Go with your gut.

It’s tough to evaluate and critique a partner’s work. We worry about hurt feelings, or possibly squashing the germs of a good idea. But DKNG founders Nathan Goldman and Dan Kuhlken say lets your instincts guide you. “Whatever your initial reaction to your partner’s work, don’t take it lightly,” they said. “It’s quite possible that anyone viewing the work will have a similar opinion.” Be upfront and honest, and, if you have to have a hard conversation, better it coming from you than a client who feels the same way.

Make thinking and making the same thing

Artist Jon Burgerman has crafted a career out of doodling. But there’s more to that practice than whimsical lines. “Doodling is thinking and making at the same time,” Burgerman said. Sometimes the best ideas, with the biggest impact can come from the very simple, silly, and quick, so find ways to remove the barrier between your thoughts and your attempts. “Allow your imagination to be your raw material,” advised Burgerman.

Attendees toasted two days of ideas with a dance party at MoMA/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

from 99U99U

Does Your City Need a Chief Design Officer?

Does Your City Need a Chief Design Officer?

There’s no disputing design’s growing contribution to the evolution of cities. From ambitious public art projects to the rise of the global “design district,” both private and public sectors have begun weaving aesthetics into daily life. This has led to the ascendancy of the “Chief Design Officer”—a figure who often works within tech companies, non-profits, even government agencies, to improve the overall design culture.

Recently, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne left his role at the paper to step into the newly created position of Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles. According to L.A.’s Mayor Eric Garcetti, Hawthorne has been tasked with “bringing a unified design vision to projects that are shaping Los Angeles’ urban landscape,” collaborating with city officials, departments, and architects on a wide range of public projects, from housing to transit. Los Angeles isn’t alone in creating this position. Helsinki, Finland and Edmonton, Canada both recently appointed Chief Design Officers to encourage local governments to reimagine their cities. But what exactly do these CDO’s do? Will all cities one day need them? And can design, let alone a designer, really have an impact on something as big and sprawling (and complicated) as a major metropolis?

To answer the first question I reached out to Anne Stenros, Helsinki’s former Chief Design Officer. One of the first to hire a CDO, Helsinki recruited Stenros, in part, because of her experience as former Managing Director of Design Forum Finland. “The City of Helsinki is going through its biggest transformation in 100 years,” she explained. “There is a new organization and leadership model.” In 2000, Helsinki became the Cultural Capital of Europe, and in 2012 was appointed a World Design Capital. “They realized they needed a leadership-level representative for design to go further,” she explained.

Does design-first public policy stand a chance in the U.S.?

Her role, ultimately, was to help bring new ideas and design approaches to the city’s strategy process and develop and implement standards and best practices. She quickly learned, however, that most of the issues afflicting cities can’t be easily fixed. “They are so-called ‘wicked problems,’ open-ended and complex. The only way to try to solve them is through [collaboration] across disciplines.” She explained that designers “cannot do it alone”— they must also work with the public, and other organizations, to strategize what’s best for a larger population. “We need to join our forces with other professionals.” Scandinavia’s government entities are notoriously progressive, but does design-first public policy stand a chance in the U.S.?

L.A.’s newly-appointed CDO declined to be interviewed, but we spoke with Alex Kuby, senior project designer at Hirsch Bedner Associates, one of LA’s top design firms, regarding the city’s attempts to integrate design into daily life. “What was once a blank canvas has become a hub of design and creativity,” he explained. “Creatives settled in L.A. for practical reasons–space and weather. In return, their contribution to the city has been dynamic design that touches every street corner, whether intentional or not.” He believes this boom in great design has enhanced the overall quality of life, not only serving as muse to residents but also revitalizing rundown areas. “Los Angeles commissioned artists to paint murals on utility boxes on city streets,” he cites as an example. “What was once an eyesore is now a piece of art that softens daily life. In this way, design is a means of passively taking care of each other.”

“Every kind of business needs design in some way.”

Detroit is employing a similar, if far more active, approach. While the city’s financial woes over the last decade may have dominated headlines, much attention is now being paid to its commitment to rebirth through design. One organization driving the conversation is Design Core Detroit, a non-profit that offers support to local creators and businesses, and believes design plays an integral role in the development of cities. “It’s the thread that weaves through everything,” said Olga Stella, Executive Director. “Almost every kind of business needs an aspect of design in some way.”

She notes Detroit is the only U.S. city to be named a UNESCO City of Design. Through this, she hopes, it can demonstrate how design is able to drive sustainability and equitable development. “We believe by building a practice of inclusive design, design can become more accessible for all people to live independently and successfully in society.”  As part of the Detroit City of Design Action Plan, spearheaded by Design Core, over 50 organizations have joined as partners, committing to 60+ projects that can help advance design in the city.

“Most designers are motivated to improve human experience and most human experience now happens in a city,” explained Mat Hunter of Design Council UK. “With urban populations continuing to rise, and the negative consequences ever more apparent in our quality of life, more designers are aware of their effect, and therefore their obligation.”

“The good news,” he continued, “is that more designers than ever are being recruited by public organizations, whether local authorities, public health services, charities and voluntary groups or private sector organizations seeking to deliver on a wider mission. This allows them to have a different agency that can deliver on their obligations and motivations.”

“There’s a larger trend towards design in society in general,” stated Justin Garrett Moore of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Program (GSAPP) and Director of the New York City Public Design Commission. “There’s been a broadening of the understanding of what design is and isn’t, and what it offers to society in general—so we see this now percolating into government; the idea of design process as a way to problem solve is something that is gaining traction and weight.”

He believes more cities are seeing the value in design and its approaches to problem-solving, even pointing to former Mayor Bloomberg’s ongoing Innovations Teams. “American society is becoming more design literate, so more people understand and value design.” Moore cited the ongoing global conversations around sustainability and climate resilience, and what role design is playing. “Both of those very large policy objectives and policy tracks have a connection to design work, design expertise, and design process.”

“Most designers are motivated to improve human experience and most human experience now happens in a city.”

“I’ve always felt design is a critical part of how cities and societies manifest themselves and their values,” said Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance. “Especially with respect to public spaces, design can be a place that represents the aspirations of a society for all of its people—or can be a place that signals indifference and disrespect.”

Tompkins, also the founder and previous director of the program Partnerships For Parks, a non-profit that helps parks groups and neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods, receive resources to revitalize their public spaces, cites the lasting impact of Elizabeth “Betsy” Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy. Rogers made it her mission to restore Central Park to its original glory for the betterment of the entire city. “There was a school of thought within the Parks Department, and the city in general at the time, that there was no point in making an investment in ‘something nice’ because it’ll get destroyed by vandals,” says Tompkins. “But Betsy believed if you make a commitment to design that’s aspirational, and signals respects for people, they will treat it with respect.”

Rogers used her own money and network to fund the restoration of the park’s beloved Bethesda Fountain, which ultimately became a symbol that “beautiful design could be restored. And once restored, and not destroyed, that design itself could change the behaviors and the people experiencing it, as well as the public’s appreciation of design.”

Later, when Tompkins was tapped to help reimagine Times Square as part of the Times Square Alliance, he looked to Rogers for inspiration, shaking off the naysayers who said the area was irredeemable. He was convinced that it could be a place for all New Yorkers, that “if you create design it will elevate the entire city. This is part of a belief I have that design should be exceptional and aspirational. That that can profoundly change a place.”

He points to the fact that 25 years ago the city was in decay, but through smarter design choices, collaboration, and greater resources, the tide changed dramatically. “Fifty years ago, all people could hope for in New York City was a clean subway,” he continued. “Now we have a robust public art program on the platforms and in stations. In general, there’s been an ever-rising set of expectations we have of urban spaces—and that’s ultimately good for cities and good for design.”

from 99U99U

Public Speaking is Terrifying—6 Ways to Deliver Like a Pro

Public Speaking is Terrifying—6 Ways to Deliver Like a Pro

Two weeks ago I woke up in a Copenhagen hotel room and picked up my phone to check the time. It was 7 a.m. In six hours I’d be hosting a panel discussion featuring a famous rapper, which would be live-streamed via social media to around 24 million followers. I had a crippling shudder of anxiety and began eagerly fantasizing about a deranged killer breaking into my hotel room and murdering me so I wouldn’t have to take part in the event. 

I don’t know why this still happens. In the last eight years I’ve hosted creative events, lead panels, and given hour-long lectures to crowds ranging from 15 to 1,500 people. But for some reason, it never gets any easier. If anything, the nerves are getting worse. What I can’t get over is how it just doesn’t seem natural to stand up on stage and talk to a room full of people. Many of us are computer nerds, hermitty writers, shy illustrators—we’re not actors! We don’t all have “the X factor,” and we most certainly haven’t been trained for this. It’s ludicrous, yet we politely accept the offer and get on with it, sometimes sprouting a few grey hairs and a forehead crease in the days preceding the event. 

In Copenhagen, I tried to work out just what it was that I was so afraid of. There’s the classic fear of falling over, burping, inexplicably saying something bad that then goes viral, having your skirt tucked into your underwear. Then there’s the fear that your presentation will be too long/short/boring/lame/weird, which is totally valid. We’ve all been to enough lengthy, monotone, heavy-on-the-bullet-point talks to know that the chances of people drifting off and thinking about what to make for dinner are pretty high.

But the clock ticks, it’s time to go on stage, we rise to the occasion, forehead dripping in cold sweat and hands trembling as we clutch the printed-off notes, dying for it to be over. Autopilot kicks in, then, as quickly as the email inviting you to even speak at the event flew into your inbox, it’s all over. People are clapping. You’ve done it. 

I wanted to explore the art of speaking in public, so I decided to contact people in the creative industry who have seen and given enough talks to be considered experts on the subject. What advice can they pass on? Because we’ll gladly take it. 

View public speaking as a career skill, not an exercise in potential humiliation.
Danielle Pender, founder and editor-in-chief of Riposte magazine, is one of those unlucky people who really, really hates to speak in public, but has a job that necessitates it. “The first large-scale presentation I did was at an editorial conference in Munich in front of 600 people,” she recalls. “For weeks leading up to it felt physically sick every time I thought about the talk. I prepared and practiced relentlessly. I took Kalms tablets for days before the event and downed sooo much Rescue Remedy on the actual day. I was so nervous I broke out in a rash and thought I was going to be physically sick minutes before going on stage.”

“I force myself to do it so I get used to it, even though it can be a torturous experience,” she adds. “I don’t always feel elated, but sometimes I’m really happy I’ve done it or even just that’s it’s over. It’s like a masochistic drive because I want to get better at speaking publicly—it is such an important career skill to have and to be able to master.”

Experiment in practice, focus on the stage.
Similarly, deputy editor of Gal-Dem magazine Charlie Cuff admits she has no choice but to put her nerves to one side, purely because she’s aware of the value and impact of public speaking. 
“One thing I’ve honed over the years is working out how to tell a story in the most direct way, leaving out anything that’s boring or irrelevant and only having stuff in there that’s either absolutely essential to the story, or just plain entertaining.” 

Embrace the nerves.
Will Hudson, co-founder of It’s Nice That and Lecture in Progress has been speaking at events and putting on conferences of creatives speakers since 2007. “With regards to nervousness, I heard a great story the other day about Bruce Springsteen which is still great and so helpful to remember,” said Hudson. “Someone asked if he got nervous and he said that feeling you get, stomach turning, heart pounding, sweaty palms, that was just his body telling him he’s ready. Ready to go on stage and do that thing he’s really, really good at.”

And finally a primer on what not to do when speaking in public.
Mr. Bingo, an illustrator-turned-traveling lecturer did 50 talks last year. “I speak at big conferences, smaller local creative meet-ups, and also at companies like Channel4, BBC, and Universal Music. This year I told myself I’d do less and spend a bit more time making work, but it’s addictive and I genuinely love it, so the diary is starting to fill up again!” After touring the speaker circuit for nearly eight years, here is his hit list of things to avoid. 

“Don’t just show your work: “People can usually already see all of this stuff online, so seeing you show it on a stage is kind of pointless.”

Don’t be a show off: “Tell the audience about bad things. Failure and uncomfortable situations are part of life and people appreciate you sharing this stuff. It makes you more human, more believable, and people can relate to it.”

Don’t read your slides: “Avoid word-heavy slides. In fact, if you can do without words in slides at all, that’s brilliant (I’ve never actually managed this). The words should be coming out of your mouth, not being read by the audience from a screen. Slides are visual aids for your speaking, not a book.”

See? Easy. Just remember all these do’s and don’ts and you should be fine. The thing is, we know that hearing advice from professionals is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, you’re still going to get sweaty palms before you step onstage. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work out how not to be nervous, and maybe that’s a good thing. As annoying, crippling, and embarrassing they are, nerves mean you’re not arrogant or complacent. Just ask Bruce Springsteen.

from 99U99U

A Road Map for Navigating your Next Crisis: Nine Creative Leaders on Overcoming their Greatest Challenges

A Road Map for Navigating your Next Crisis: Nine Creative Leaders on Overcoming their Greatest Challenges

We all encounter defining challenges in our careers. It’s unavoidable. But it’s how we handle them that matters most. Whether it’s using unconventional ways to keep the lights on when the bank account is empty or explaining to corporate America that the role you aspire to is ‘Dad,’ the experiences of our subjects will help you traverse your next career challenge.

Being 50 percent excited and 50 percent terrified is a good place to be.
Duncan Wardle, former Head of Innovation and Creativity, Disney

My most daunting challenge was walking away from Disney last year, after 30 years. The moment of realization came when they handed me the bronze Jiminy Cricket Statue for 30 years of service. I had always preached getting out of your own expertise, trying something new, being brave. But I realized that I hadn’t really ever stepped out from my own comfort zone. If I was going to do it, now was the time.

I looked at a few in-house roles and was approached for a few. But one of the key challenges you face is: the more senior you get inside any organization, the more you manage the politics, not the work. I left Disney to create my own startup, helping companies embed a culture of creativity throughout their organization.

The first few months were completely terrifying. I was starting from zero as an entrepreneur after 30 years inside the safety of a corporation. The whole time, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m bloody mad!’ My greatest fear was: would companies and agencies hire me?

I confess it took longer than I thought, but the last few months, things have taken off. I’m on a mission to prove to everyone that they are creative and give them tools to think creatively. I wake up most days 50 percent excited and 50 percent terrified. I think that’s a really good place to be.

It’s very early days. I’m still finding my way. But I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. It sounds cliche, but you only get one life. 

Constraints breed creativity.
Adam J. Kurtz, artist

The earlier years of my creative life were about making the most with what I had. Just five years ago, money was extremely tight. My rent was very low in a pretty grimy house with five roommates, but I still had trouble scraping it together sometimes. The first edition of my Unsolicited Advice planner was born out of necessity: I had zero money for holiday gifts. Instead, I looked toward my resources and skillset to make something to gift friends and family. I didn’t have money, but I did have access to free printing from a copy center job.

After a small run of that 2012 Unsolicited Advice weekly planner, I decided to try Kickstarter for a 2013 edition. I wanted to take a risk and see if the project could grow into something more. Turning to Kickstarter was about establishing my own legitimacy on a platform that had more brand name value than I did.

Telling the story, creating a video, and essentially selling myself as an independent creative and trustworthy person felt much more daunting than just printing 25 books at a time. The ‘all or nothing’ goal was intimidating. Even low fundraising goals are sometimes not met, and I was worried and embarrassed about what could potentially happen.

I ended up hitting my goal of $1,600 on day one, and exceeding it several times over ($7,598 total). It was more money than I’d ever had in my bank account at once. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility. I was used to doing small batches of zines, but this was the first time I thought, Wow, I do something that people really like. This might be a future. It seems silly now, but it was a formative moment in my life and career. Taking on some financial, and definitely emotional risk with that first Kickstarter project opened up a new chapter.

My big OMG am I an artist? freakout wasn’t entirely pre-emptive. The next month, I signed a book deal with Penguin Random House. And I created a personal manifesto that’s helped me set my intention and goals for the future. It’s given me something to reflect on whenever I’ve lost my way over the last few years. Knowing what actually matters to you, whether it feels important or a little silly (which is still valid!) enables you to focus on the work and keep you on track.

Be who you are. 
Tea Uglow, Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab

Doesn’t everyone find life to be daunting? I find life completely terrifying. I am sure there are professionally daunting prospects, but most of my real challenges have been being myself; finding myself, growing into myself, growing out of old selves, closing chapters, turning pages, starting fresh.

Overcoming my denial about my sexuality, my gender dysphoria, and face blindness have been a 40-year-long program of assembly, delusion, disassembly and reconstruction. The singular most daunting part of that is: how do you communicate to everyone a truth about yourself that you’ve never told anyone? Not a lover, not a therapist, not even a pet.

The whole ‘project’ ultimately became the consolidation of everything I never wanted to admit, unpacked into a series of open letters. It wasn’t an act of bravery. It was an act of obligation, to myself and the people around me who I desperately wanted on the journey: my creative team, my colleagues, my professional collaborators and my friends. I wrote 350,000 words during the first two years of my transition. Most of it was garbage. Three thousand words made it to my first open letter—a coming out letter. Two further letters followed.

I’ve learned that letters are a far better way to share information than blog-posts or social media. They scale way better than trying to tell everyone. I learned that the internet is fickle. I have learned never to read the comments. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s useful to insist people ask ‘How are you today?’ rather than ‘How are you?’

I’ve learned that people do want to hear from you, your story. I’ve learned never to trust a newspaper sub-editor. I’ve learned the average time-to-burn-out for a truly supportive friend (about 6 months). I’ve learned what a mess clothes sizing is for women, and how broken or under-acknowledged many female-oriented systems and models are. I’ve learned to love getting my nails done, and to take a certain pleasure in being occasionally objectified. I learned how to use Tinder. I learned loads of stuff.

I’ve mainly learned that however much you think you know yourself, your mind, your beliefs, or your history, that the world can flip on a dime. And you cannot even try to be ready for it. But you shouldn’t try to stop it when it does. I’ve learned that the human mind is incredibly powerful, and incredibly fragile and that you should look after it. Exercise it, support it, nurture it, love it.

What to do when your project has a lot of friends but is low on funds.
Vince Kadlubek, CEO, Meow Wolf

Opening the House of Eternal Return [Meow Wolf’s art experience in Santa Fe] was definitely the most daunting challenge I ever faced. Prior to House of Eternal Return, the biggest project I’d worked on was about one-fifth the size and one percent of the budget. And it was temporary. House of Eternal Return was the first time we ever got into business. None of us understood business. We kept running out of money. We were sleep deprived. And we were working around the clock to finish it on time.

I can’t do this came up all the time. And then it was followed with, ‘Yes, I can.’ We operated for a year with a constant pressure of running out of money. We never had more than two weeks worth of cash on hand. One time our bank was overdrawn and I had 100 artists to pay; $75,000 was needed. I had to make some really difficult phone calls. I called existing investors to ask them to very quickly invest more, with the transparent knowledge that we were out of money. That’s the most difficult and leveraged position a business can ever be in.

It was nuts.

The project was really rough at times, but there was a collective creative high that we were all riding. We all just wanted to make amazing art, and that’s what we were doing. There was always this really exciting thought in the back of our heads saying, ‘What if we really pull this off?’

During the build, we had over 100 artists working together, volunteering their time, and staying late. Every single person involved was absolutely crucial to the project’s success. We could not have pulled it off if we had not been working together as a collective every step of the way.

This project really made me believe that I, and the rest of the people at Meow Wolf, are capable of anything. No matter how daunting the project may seem there is always a way to make it happen.”

When corporate America doesn’t buy that your favorite title is ‘dad.’
Jason Mayden, CEO, Super Heroic

The most daunting challenge I faced was transitioning from my position at Nike to the more purposeful role of full-time stay-at-home father. At the time, my son was facing medical challenges that were greater than the ones I faced designing products for athletes. So, I decided to step away and use my gifts and talents to help him heal, both emotionally and physically.

I expected difficulties to come from the day to day tasks of being at home. But the real difficulties lay in the skepticism from my peers in the design industry. People had trouble understanding my choice to leave a prominent position in corporate America for the sake of the wellbeing of my child. Some speculated that I was going to a competitor. I felt shunned by the industry, discarded, even seen as a traitor.

I know that their judgmental perspectives were bound to a lack of knowledge. I was confident that my decision could endure a temporary rebuff from an industry that I deeply love. I decided to remain centered and calm. Ultimately, it was the right decision for our family. It helped me to focus on what mattered to me most: the preservation of childhood creativity and innocence. I decided to focus on building stronger children, rather than fixing broken adults. I decided to dedicate my life to the protection and well-being of all children—not just my own.

Now, I am the CEO and cofounder of Super Heroic, with the mission to entertain, delight and surprise every child in the world through interactive and imaginative play. We seek to encourage a spontaneous, active lifestyle.

As a CEO, I try to embed the spirit of what I’ve learned in how we work with and reward our teammates. We have an open, healthy dialogue that’s focused on promoting work/life balance. We have to play with and enjoy our families, in order to embed joy in the work that we do. It’s imperative that we live what we speak.

Don’t get promoted to micromanager-in-chief.
Emily Collins, Creative Director and Partner, Mighty Oak

The most daunting challenge I’ve faced as a creative director has been learning to step away from the process of making. I am instinctively drawn to making things with my hands. As a kid, I drew and invented characters inspired by people with crazy shoes, dogs, and wild patterns. Mighty Oak focuses on hand-made work, so the temptation to create is abundant! At first, it was very difficult to pull myself away from executing on my own.

The first time I stepped out of the weeds was for a project for Don Julio Tequila and the New York Times. It was the biggest team I had directed and I had to focus my energy on working with people and hearing their ideas. Our work is innately collaborative and needs a combined set of skills and hands. By reminding myself that we hire people for a reason and that I can not physically do all jobs helps keep micromanaging inclinations to a low for me (or at least I try!).

Once a task is someone else’s responsibility, I let them work it out and do check-ins regularly to make sure we’re on the same page. I fight the inclination to micromanage by highlighting my most important duties for the day—and doing them well—before I consider meddling with someone else’s. If my duties include checking in with people I schedule a couple of check-ins, but I don’t do their jobs for them.

I’ve found outlets to make things with my hands on my own time. Often just drawing at home at night quenches my desire to work with my hands and keeps me feeling fresh. I discover a lot of new ideas by opening up a drawing pad after 9 p.m. and seeing where my hand takes me.

My advice to those facing a similar situation would be to embrace the idea of collaboration. A multitude of artists can create much more work than a single maker, and that work is often enhanced by the collaborative process. Remember to be clear with your ideas while communicating with a team—have notes, sketches and examples ready to share. I’ve found joy in working with a group of amazing artists, and seeing so many of our ideas coming to life simultaneously.

Two designers gave up their salaries for a dream project could yield career-defining results. 
Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman, founders, DKNG

The most daunting challenge we have faced in our career was our first independent solo show. The concept was 50 different screen printed designs, each paying homage to a favorite TV show or film. We called the show ICON, which represented the iconic nature of the properties we were celebrating and the iconic style each illustration would encapsulate.

Prior to this project, the largest series of prints we had ever tackled was…three. Creating 50 designs for a single event? That was completely new to us. Each design was as a limited edition of 100 prints. That meant 5,000 prints would have to be produced and ready to sell.

We thought, ‘With enough time, creating the entire series will be manageable.’

We allowed ourselves two years to create everything. But time went on, and we gave priority to more and more unrelated projects. When push came to shove, we realized we had six months remaining until the opening. And we only had a handful of designs completed. We had to create 45+ designs, including printing and shipping time. When we did the math, we realized that we needed to create three to four designs a week to get this done.

That meant we had to shut our doors to client work. We knew that the potential success of the solo show could bring us enough income to sustain our business, but in order to get to that point we needed to buckle down and execute. We made the conscious decision to forgo our salaries for four to five months.

This was the first time that we had ever used a credit card for credit, meaning not able to pay off the balance in full. It’s ironic that, when we probably needed a vacation the most, or a reward in the form of a fancy dinner, we didn’t indulge in order to stay within a reasonable budget. It wasn’t really until after the posters were being sold online, a month after the show opening, that we splurged.

It was the strangest fiscal year we’ve ever experienced. From a yearly stand point, anyone could say we did great. But if you looked at the year in detail, our company made nearly no income for four to five months. The work we created was some of the most fulfilling work we’ve ever done, but it came with the price of delayed gratification and uncertainty. Long story short, the solo show was a huge success and truly paid off. Our ICON work has landed us jobs from several large clients, including Nickelodeon, USA Today, Lowes, and Marvel.

Some of our biggest successes still come from our biggest project to date. In order to make big changes in our career, it took an even bigger leap of faith. For anyone facing a similar challenge, create a schedule, and hold yourself accountable to it!

Win office politics by walking away.
Mona Chalabi, Data Editor, the Guardian US

For over a year, I worked in an office with people who didn’t take me seriously. My colleagues weren’t all prejudiced, nepotistic, or dumb. They simply weren’t into what I had to offer.
“There are plenty of areas of my life where I doubt my abilities. But work was always different. Whether I was working in a clothing store or in a newsroom, I’d always felt like I could see what I needed to do to be ‘good’ and then could work fast to get there.

All of a sudden though, the rules for success seemed foreign. We’d all file into a meeting room and the boss would say ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ then ‘Hello Mona.’ I’d never understand their sports analogies. I’ve always found it easy to talk to new people (I think that’s why I went into journalism). But now, my self-confidence was decimated.

What made it worse is that I couldn’t leave the job. There was a clause in my contract saying that if I left before 18 months I would have to pay the company a sum that I couldn’t afford. Plus, for an immigrant on a visa, switching jobs is always difficult.

My internal thought process went something like: I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid.

I realized that I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won (or, where winning meant sacrificing my sanity). The time to stop fighting was when I didn’t feel like myself anymore. So, I channeled my energy elsewhere.

I started to draw.

The illustrations looked like sh*t but they forced me to suspend my judgement of myself, to create and create until I had the strength to be critical in a way that wasn’t destructive. I finally got to a place where I could look at something and think, ‘Wow, that’s bad’, shrug and try again.

You can fight and fight and fight to be seen. Or you can walk away and try something else. I could never be one of that team. The thing that took the most time? Realizing that I didn’t want to be. Jobs are like relationships, the hard part is working out how long to fight for them.

How to get the job done when the client wants everything redone at the last moment.
Jon Burgerman, Artist

My publishers had signed off on the final version of my book, How to Eat Pizza, and my brain was sipping a beer, lying on the sofa, and cooling down with a self-congratulatory glow. That little switch in my head that said ‘picture book for April’ had turned off. Then, I received news that one of publishers wasn’t happy. The book needed to be completely revised in time for an important book fair in two weeks.

Wait, hadn’t they read any of the previous drafts? It’s not my fault! It was a real shock. But it would be awful to turn up at the book fair with a story with no ending. I had to rewrite half a picture book in two weeks.

There was no time to be annoyed. Normally, everything is slow and delayed in publishing; no one expects you to deliver the pages when you say you will. But here was a solid, no excuses, if-you-miss-it-you-might-as-well-not-go-to-the-book-fair deadline.

I was of two minds as I tackled the challenge. One was: This is stupid. I should just put my foot down. Everyone had access to the drafts, they should have voiced their concerns earlier. But then, I thought: What the hell do I actually know? I should listen to people who actually work in publishing. I’m lucky they’re even allowing me to make a book.

Rather than fight the issue—which would have been futile—I tried to understand where the publishers were coming from. They wanted the book to be more ‘Burgerman-y.’ I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was probably the best person to resolve it. There’s no magic spell. I just worked really hard. I swallowed my pride, opened up my sketchbook, my computer, and my brain and went about it.

I learned that even when a book is ‘finished’ that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Always keep good documentation of your drafts. Organize everything clearly, so if you need to look up old notes or artwork you can find them quickly.

Trying to understand the root of the problem is key to tackling it. Often, we only acknowledge the changes themselves and not the thoughts that prompted them. Once you can frame the issue for yourself, it’s much easier to solve it. And lastly, keep an open mind. In the end, everyone wants to make the best thing possible. Sure, publishers want that ‘thing’ to sell—and you know what— so do I.

from 99U99U

Meet the Literary Design Studio Bringing Classic Literature to New Technology

Meet the Literary Design Studio Bringing Classic Literature to New Technology

It started with e-readers, and now with new digital reading platforms like Twitter fiction, VR storytelling, and crowdsourced serials blowing through the legacy print industry like a hurricane in an indie bookstore, the way we consume stories will never be the same. While the book—and book design—is far from becoming obsolete, there’s now a rich, high-quality digital field where designers can reimagine what the reading experience can be. And, like a good book, it seems like we’re only limited by the limits of our own imagination.

One studio leading the way is, Plympton Inc., the scrappy team of applied math majors and fiction fanatics behind projects like Jeff Bezos’ Kindle Singles, the New York Times’ first literary VR film, Lincoln In the Bardo, and the Subway Library, which makes long commutes bearable via free New York Public Library short stories available on mobile.

We sat down to talk to Plympton’s CEO, Jennifer 8. Lee, and her co-founder, Yael Goldstein Love about crowdsourcing creatives, whether they fear (or are causing) the death of print, and how they’re bringing classic literature to the brink of new technology.

Lia Marcoux, Little Women and The Time Machine designed by Jon.

Plympton is a digital literary studio. What does that mean?

Jennifer 8. Lee: We work on innovative projects in publishing that people are excited to work on. The budgets for these projects are really tight, so I have to find cool things in order to get talented people to work below their market rates. For example, the George Saunders VR film was the first to adapt a literary novel. We’re often trying to operate on the frontiers of format. We’re trying to do things that don’t have precedent.  

Yael Goldstein Love: We ask: how can we use technology to get more fiction into people’s lives? That’s the thing that ties everything we do together. And how can we use technology to expand what we do with fiction?

What do you mean by that?

Lee: I was a reporter at the New York Times for a long time, and then in 2011, Kindle announced its Kindle Singles program for publishing short-form posts. I became fascinated with the idea that as new formats develop, what you write will change as well. Digital would change the nature of the things we publish in the same way paperbacks did.

Which of your projects epitomizes how the pairing of digital and literature made something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise?

Love: Our Rooster app. So many people that we spoke to said, “I love fiction, but I never read fiction because I have no time.” And yet they were reading all the time on their phones: articles, the news feed. But they wouldn’t read fiction because it didn’t feel native to their phones. The Rooster app was meant to target that. Every month there’d be two serialized pieces of fiction. You could choose how big a chunk you wanted to read, which would be as long as your commute. There’s real precedent, in terms of serialized fiction, from the 19th century. This was reviving an old art form.

Whether it’s an app or VR, how do you select what your next format will be?

J8L: It depends. You’re trying to solve a problem. I really love the Recovering the Classics project, which asked designers to reimagine covers for public domain books. We were just doing it to solve our own problems: we needed better covers for public domain books. So we said, “Well, how do we solve this problem in an exciting and cost effective way? So we made it into a movement and crowdsourced covers from around the world, from students, to retirees, to professional designers. I loved how enthusiastic people were. Some of our best work comes from trying to solve a problem with fewer resources than would be ideal. Scarcity breeds creativity; if you had lots of resources, you’d solve it in a traditional way. Because you don’t, you have to come up with a new way.

Karl Orozco, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Roberlan Borges, The Brothers Karamazov.

How does funding work?

J8L: In general, all the projects we do have to pay for themselves. We sold the VR project to the New York Times. We sell a lot of stuff to libraries because we’re able to create products for them that have unrestricted user access. I’ll often come up with an idea for a project and then, going backwards, figure out where the funding comes from. The wonderful thing about books is that generally people are willing to pay for them.

But being a startup sucks. Never do it for fame or fortune. You should only launch one if you’re absolutely driven to change the world and no one else is doing it. Then the burden falls on your shoulders.

What vision of the world are you driven to create?

J8L: I’m really interested in the business models that let creators create for a living. We are a poor society if we don’t have structures in place that let the creatives in our world be creative. It’s interesting to see the creative times throughout history, whether it’s Paris in the late 1800s or China during the Tang Dynasty. There are definitely times in history where culture has left a deeper legacy than others. You need to come up with the circumstances that create that.  

So Plympton is trying to be a model for a new Renaissance?

J8L: A little bit. We are trying to figure out what the Renaissance of publishing looks like when it shifts to digital. And how do you maintain this idea that it’s a craft and give the most talented folks in our generation the ability to pursue their art?

What do you think about the state of digital publishing?

J8L: Digital publishing is wonderful. It frees up a lot of things. It also flattens a lot of things–which is reflected in the fake news stuff. I think, generally, after a couple years or so of flattening, there’s a flight to quality. That’s across journalism and traditional book publishing. Publishing, historically, has been a medium that is about care, curation, and taste. So for Plympton, publishing has always been a craft, from the writing to the cover art. I think that is not true in an engineering-led or a Silicon Valley approach to publishing.

What do you say to people who fear the death of print?

J8L: I think the printed book is an amazing invention. I think there’s a lot of relief in the industry that digital is not going to take over everything. It is going to find its home in a format, just like paperbacks found a format, and hardcover found a format. It’s a good sign that indie bookstores are rising in business and that people feel strongly about books as trophies.

YGL: There are definitely times when I stay up at night thinking, “Oh my god, is the next generation never going to hold a printed book in their hand?” But I don’t think that’s true. There was a period when e-books were gaining a lot of market share and everyone was really scared that books were going to go away. Then in 2015, even earlier, it plateaued. People really do like holding books in their hands. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. It’s possible that fiction is going to become more of a niche interest. In the same way that there was once a period when everyone who was educated read poetry. And now it’s a tiny group of people who actually read contemporary poetry. I think it’s becoming more and more of a hobby by which people identify themselves, as opposed to something that everyone does.

Is there a technology that you haven’t explored yet that you’re excited about?

J8L: Podcasting. A dating app based on books. Another idea is choose-your-own-adventure through Alexa. I would love to do that, I just haven’t found the funding for it.

from 99U99U

Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Almost 200 years ago, a blind, 20-year-old French student demonstrated a dot-based reading-and-writing system at the 1834 Paris Industrial Exposition that would go on to become the single, universal standard for the visually impaired. Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight at age three from a freak accident while playing with his father’s leather-making knife tool, was inspired by a covert “night writing” code alphabet used by Napoleon’s army. Endorsed by UNESCO in the 1950s, it’s been adapted to 133 languages and spawned special Braille codes for music, science, and math notations. With growing awareness for accessible design, these embossed dots are everywhere: building signs, elevator buttons, new banknotes, even medicine packaging in Europe.

In its heyday, the blind community championed Braille as the key to independence, literacy, and employment. The problem is that only a very small fraction of blind people actually read Braille today. In the U.S., less than 10% (around 60,000 people) of the estimated 8 million blind population use it regularly. That’s a steep decline from the 1960s, when more than half the country’s blind population read Braille.

If you didn’t learn Braille as a child, the prospect of learning the system of cells and codes sounds daunting, requiring about six to nine months of intense study and memorization. With advanced text-to-speech technology and smartphone apps like TapSeeTap, which recognizes objects based on photos, or LokTell which helps blind users sort banknotes, experts fear that Braille may soon join Esperanto in the annals of dead languages.

This alarming disparity struck Andrew Chepaitis, a former equity research analyst who founded a startup called ELIA Life Technology. ELIA, which stands for Education, Literacy, and Independence for All, aspires to challenge Braille’s dominance through an easy-to-learn system based on letterforms of the Roman alphabet.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

After years of development, ELIA’s marquee project, ELIA Frames, is finally ready. Distributed as a free-to-download font on its website, ELIA Frames will be spotlighted in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s exhibition, “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.” Chepaitis is also launching a Kickstarter campaign to introduce ELIA Frames to “a community of early adopters, innovators, and creative thinkers,” as he puts it.

For time-strapped adult learners, ELIA Frames offers a compelling proposition: Instead of months memorizing dot patterns and permutations, Chepaitis suggests that users can gain mastery of the Roman alphabet-based system in a matter of hours.  

ELIA’s system is based on a series of strokes and dots contained in four distinct shapes. Letters A-D are contained in a semi-circle; O-S are in a circle; and the rest of the letters are boxed in a square frame. Numerals are contained in a pentagon that looks like a house. Refined with the input of some 200,000 test participants, ELIA’s designers believe that the shapes that evoke letterforms from the Roman alphabet help distinguish characters.

“A family, classroom, or an office can learn it in five minutes and then incorporate it into their daily lives,” asserts Chepaitis, who got the initial idea for ELIA Frames from his mother’s PhD research. Because it’s so easy to learn, he’s hoping that ELIA will offer a common alphabet for all readers. “[Companies] may prefer ELIA, because all their employees could learn it during lunch one day and then share a common alphabet with their blind and low-vision employees,” he explains.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

ELIA already has a strong list of backers: It’s raised $450,000 in seed investments and $2.7 million in grants from the National Institute on Aging, the National Eye Institute, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NYSTAR. It’s also partnered with Hewlett-Packard to develop a desktop inkjet printer that will allow users to instantly produce tactile fonts and graphics.

Chepaitis envisions that ELIA might attract more investment in assistive technology in general. “People have looked at our market as unattractive because of Braille’s performance, and that gave us time. Who would invest $3 million in a market where the standard has 59,000 potential customers?,” he says. “Braille is, in many ways, is still tied to the mechanical systems of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

ELIA, on the other hand, wants to position itself as the Apple of assistive languages: Friendly, easy-to-learn, and intuitive. It’s even cleaned up its branding and website with the help of Order, a graphic design studio founded by former Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

But not everyone is completely sold on the Braille alternative, as Fast Company reports. The U.S. National Federation of the Blind (NFB) says ELIA Frames will slow readers down because they’ll have to trace around each frame with their finger. “You are never going to build up the kind of reading speed and fluency that you would want,” says NFB spokesperson Chris Danielson. “This idea that Braille is hard to learn, we would argue that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Chepaitis is hopeful that NFB might warm up to ELIA one day, but for now, he’s not letting its reservations deter his momentum. “We respect their opposition and criticisms of our work. This is a field where a lot is at stake. People’s independence, educations, literacy, and ability to work—those may be affected by our work, especially if we fail. The onus is on us to demonstrate that we can do good. If we do that, perhaps they will collaborate with us,” he says.

Chepaitis says he’s less concerned with replacing Braille altogether as he is with offering a faster, more accessible alternative for 90% of the blind population. “We are focused on helping people achieve greater independence and literacy,” he says. “It’s been really challenging. But I’ve had faith that this initiative is the most worthwhile way I could spend each day.”

from 99U99U