Designer Confessions: The Most Embarrassing Moments Edition

Designer Confessions: The Most Embarrassing Moments Edition

We’ve all had spine-tingling, stomach-roiling episodes of  embarrassment. Whether we slip up ourselves or miss a thousand and one warning signs, we’ve all had OMG moments. However, with time and distance, we can often look back and smile rather than cry. In the spirit of having a collective laugh, we asked a few of our favorite designers to relive a time that made their faces burn.

To get us started, Arianna Orland recalls taking a project shortcut and drawing blood, illustrator Ping Zhu remembers botching her first big break with a major publishing house, and Zak Kyes recounts how he flew all the way to Asia just to be mistaken for someone else. Here are their stories.

Don’t cut corners when no one is watching.

Arianna Orland, Creative director, and founder of Paper Jam Press

I was freelancing in the 2000s, and I had to design these cardboard shipping boxes for one of my clients. It was also my responsibility to ‘comp the box’ – make a facsimile of the final packaging. I had ‘comped’ quite a few boxes in my career, so I thought this was going to be just another job.

Because I was freelance, I didn’t have a studio. I decided to use a service bureau to get the large-scale printouts I needed. And I asked them if I could use their production table. ‘Sure,’ they said. ‘But this is a favor. We can’t have nonemployees using the facility. Whatever you do, don’t cut yourself.’

“X-Acto cuts bleed fast. I was bleeding all over the comp, all over the table, all over the floor.

“The boxes I had done in the past were all on standard card stock. But these were a heavy gauge cardboard: a much thicker challenge for my X-Acto skills. When it was time to cut the cardboard around the curved edge, my hand slipped, and yup, I cut my finger.

X-Acto cuts bleed fast. I was bleeding all over the comp, all over the table, all over the floor. So there I was, a potential liability in someone else’s workspace, and still on a deadline to complete the job.

In a perfect world, I would have mustered the courage to ask for a Band-Aid right then and there. But instead, I told myself, ‘You can’t ask; they’ll kick you out!’ Then I remembered there’s an REI a block away! They’ll have first-aid kits. 

I stuck my finger in my mouth and ran down the street to REI. Thirty minutes later, I was back on the job. I tried to hide my Band-Aided finger for the rest of the day. 

The lesson? Obviously, I can’t resist: Don’t cut corners.

The real lesson? Never attempt to cut a curve on heavy-gauge cardboard with a dull blade.

Take your presentation cues from Madonna.
Sean Adams, Acting chair, Undergraduate and Graduate Graphic Design, Art Center College of Design

In 1996 I was invited to speak at the first AIGA National Business Conference. It was my first major speaking engagement. Most of my friends and design heroes made up the audience.

I was standing backstage, ready to go on, and the organizer told me, ‘I’m sorry, we’re running behind. You need to cut your presentation from thirty minutes to fifteen.’ I stepped up to the podium and began.

Rather than focusing on what I was actually saying, I watched the clock and cut sections of the presentation on the fly. The end result was a schizophrenic mash-up of words that made no sense together. I don’t think I was finishing sentences. Then, the time was up and I received a very, very lukewarm, mostly silent, sad applause.

As awful as this was, it was a blessing.

I was sure I’d ended my career right then and there. I walked Central Park for hours, replaying the train wreck over and over. Soon after, a magazine article singled the presentation out as the ‘worst low point ever’ and suggested, ‘Children should be seen and not heard.’

As awful as this was, it was a blessing. It knocked me down to earth and reminded me that I was not ‘all that.’ It taught me to be prepared down to even seemingly spontaneous comments. I learned that I should have said, ‘No. I prepared for 30 minutes. That’s what I need.’ From that point forward, at each speaking engagement, I took a cue from Madonna demanding that the AV be tested, the lighting fixed, and the timing confirmed. That doesn’t mean becoming a total jerk, just holding my own. Over the thirty years since, I messed up many other times. But mostly because I said something really stupid, not because of something that I didn’t get to say.

Treat every job prospect as an opportunity to break through to the next level.
Ping Zhu, Illustrator

I was still in school, and I went out to New York, where my professors had given me contacts of people to show my portfolio to. One of those people was Rodrigo Corral, an amazing designer who does book covers. 

I met with Rodrigo, showed him my work, and he was very kind. A few weeks after I got back from New York, he wrote to me and said, ‘We’re doing a book cover. Would you be interested in doing the illustration?’

That’s a huge opportunity. Normally when people get a job offer, they stay up all night doing the best they can. But I had no understanding of what it takes to be an illustrator. I didn’t sense the gravity of the situation. So I took it as a school assignment: Come up with some ideas, do some rough sketching, then paint something. I did my sketches on graph paper. I thought, I’ll just use a felt-tip pen, draw something really loose, and put it on paper that’s not even plain.

I sent back some really crummy drawings. But I thought it wasn’t terrible. Rodrigo would understand what I was going for. His email back ‘This isn’t really what I had in mind. Maybe we should just stop here without wasting anyone else’s time.’

I didn’t know what to say. I was so ashamed that he thought, ‘These are so bad, I don’t even want to engage.’ I’ve never cried that hard again for any reason regarding work. I was like, ‘I’m never going to make it. I’m a failure.’ I was desperate. But I was also determined to make things right. As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally.

I wrote him an email to say, ‘I’m so sorry. Please take me back. I can do better than this.’ And Rodrigo let me try again. I painted three finals: super refined; everything as polished as possible.

As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally.

He wrote back, ‘Oh yes, this looks much better.’ Unfortunately, it dropped off the map at that point. He never got back to me on whether they used any of them. At that point, I was too afraid to ask him anything else. In my professional career, I’ve never worked with Rodrigo. Maybe I’ve been blacklisted.

If you ever get an opportunity, just don’t screw it up. Give it everything you’ve got. Do your best. Underperforming won’t get you anything. As horrifying as that experience was, it shook me into place mentally. I said, ‘No more phoning it in. Even if you think it’s okay, you have to do better.’

If Rodrigo ever sees this: I’m very, very, very sorry. But I really hope he doesn’t remember.

A red flag means “stop” not “charge!”
Mac Premo, Stuff Maker, Mac Premo, Inc.

When my wife and I met, we were both broke artists. As we built a life together, she realized that she needed a sense of security. So she got a corporate job as a product manager. I continued making art and was like, ‘This is going to work.’ Then the recession hit and everything took a dive. Nobody was looking for talent. Then this interesting opportunity to work on a print publication came up. I was going to be the everything for it: creative director, making videos, designing the website.

To hear the guy putting it together talk about the project – ‘It should be a print magazine. It should be online. It should be both!’– you could see this history of him not being decisive. One perfect example was when he’d plan how to get from one place to another, his time estimate was always about how long it would take if it was 2 a.m., when there was no traffic on the road. He was constantly running late. That’s indicative of an overpromiser-underdeliverer. That behavior meant we were always late, always stressed out, and I’d have to say to him, ‘No, we can’t possibly have that by the time you promised.’

I’ve gone into situations ignorant to red flags, but more often than not, honestly, I plough through the red flags. Plus, this was the middle of the recession and I had just had a second child, so for a few months, there was economic stability. As things started going bad at the publication, I continued to ignore them with the hope that the stability would continue. He ended up not paying me for a few months of work. It put us in a bad financial situation, and I should have seen it coming.

I still get some prospective client calls and hear the dodgy, sketchy, vague talk that I used to hear.

It was tumultuous. I had to downsize my studio. During that time, my wife was carrying the weight of the whole family. And the whole time, I was thinking, ‘But this is a good idea. It has to work. But he said he was going to pay me. He can’t not.’

About five years ago, my wife quit the corporate world. Now I’m technically the full-time breadwinner. I still get some prospective client calls and hear the dodgy, sketchy, vague talk that I used to hear. But that experience honed my instinctive decision-making skill set. I came out of it learning to trust myself more. Yes, there are times when you kick yourself, but that’s the hard part of freelancing; it’s a leap of faith every time.

Let your work, not your title, define you.
Zak Kyes, Creative director, Zak Group

Confusion is common in projects that have large teams from different cultures. But rarely does it lead to a case of mistaken identity.

Several years ago, a well-known museum in Asia invited me for a site visit to discuss a new project. At the time, I was the director of Zak Group, the graphic design studio I established in 2005. I was also art director of the Architectural Association School of Architecture. 

I landed late at night and was brought directly to a dinner. When I arrived, the museum director hushed the room to introduce me to his team as ‘the great architect from London.’ A polite moment of reverence ensued. This would have been very flattering. But only if I actually was an architect.

While my work as the art director of the Architectural Association had become well known, that certainly didn’t make me an architect. I felt like Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who is born in a stable right next to Jesus and is mistaken for the Messiah. That story doesn’t end well for Brian. I blurted out, ‘Graphic designer!’ I’m sure this sounded strange as a greeting. The director was puzzled. ‘Architect,’ he corrected me. This went on for some time. I was concerned, even panicked. I thought about going back to the airport. I’ve always fought for more porous boundaries between disciplines, so it felt surreal to be reasserting them.

The result of the confusion was that Zak Group received its first commission to design both the architecture and the graphics for a large-scale, citywide exhibition. It ended up influencing curatorial decisions in ways that would never have been possible if we were ‘just’ a graphic design studio.

Last year, for the first time, an architect joined Zak Group’s team of art directors, graphic designers, developers, and a project manager. She has since been mistaken for a graphic designer.

from 99U99U

Two Designers Start a No-Judgment Conversation about Mental Health, Creativity, and Work

Two Designers Start a No-Judgment Conversation about Mental Health, Creativity, and Work

If it’s true that creativity takes courage, adding mental illness to that equation certainly doesn’t make it easier. But that hasn’t stopped Indhira Rojas or Dani Balenson from accepting the mantle of mental health role models while holding down full-time jobs and maintaining strong relationships with their friends, their families, and themselves.

Upon graduating in 2013, Balenson pursued her thesis project, Living With, a T-shirt campaign created to drive awareness of stigmatized mental health issues, before moving on to design at Vox Media and now Intercom in the Bay Area. Around the same time, Rojas quit her job at Medium to open her own studio, now called Anagraph. A year after that, she launched Anxy, a biannual magazine that speaks openly and honestly about mental illness, filling a need for readers hungry for the kind of discussion that more academic psychology journals just aren’t suited for.

While the two subjects of our very first double interview grew up in different kinds of families and in different parts of the world, when it came to seeking treatment for mental illness they were fortunate to be raised in a remarkably stigma-free environment. Perhaps that’s one reason why Rojas and Balenson have become outspoken mental health advocates. Growing up in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Rojas had parents who sought to incorporate counseling into their family dynamic, even if doing so was unusual to most Dominicans; and in Baltimore, Balenson started seeing a therapist at age nine at the behest of her family.

Now both live in San Francisco, and are among a handful of professional creatives who have turned a lifelong battle with mental health into fruitful work, shining a spotlight on their struggles in the process and starting a vibrant, new, no-judgment conversation that they welcome all to join. 

Despite their shared experiences and proximity to one another, Rojas and Balenson had never met. So after making an introduction, we sat them down together with a few talking points and a recorder. They spoke for over an hour about redefining the language of mental health, growing into their illnesses and developing communities around their work, and knowing when to quit and how to be okay with that – how to be more than okay with that.

Indhira Rojas: Alright. Take three. From the top. This is Indi.

Dani Balenson: And Dani.

IR: And we’re here to talk about our career paths and experience with mental health. What was your perception of mental health growing up? When did you become aware of your diagnosis?

DB: When I was in fifth grade the guidance counselor called me in to her office and my parents were both sitting there. I was very confused, because they divorced two years earlier. They sat me down, and the guidance counselor turned to me very seriously and said, “You have ADHD.”

IR: Wow. 

DB: And I was like, “Okay, what’s that? That sounds fun.” I remember not really knowing what was going on. I learned a lot about ADHD after, especially based on the way people treated me. They also diagnosed my sister, and we were both placed on medication around the same time. My parents had very different views on medication in terms of whether we should be on it, and what kind, and whether it was really working. It was a constant battle between them. 

I did know that being on medication helped me. I was able to sit still. I was able to listen. I was able to think clearly and not feel broken into a thousand pieces, but it still felt like a bad thing because they were fighting about it so much.

My grandfather, who was a psychologist, encouraged me to step back from the situation. To leave myself for a second and think about how they’re feeling and what they’re struggling with. How mom is acting this way because maybe she’s really sad right now; maybe she’s depressed. Being able to step back from my own life and look at theirs made me very aware of my mental health in relation to theirs. It definitely runs in my family. What was your experience like?

IR: The concept of mental health and the discussion of psychology in the Dominican Republic, especially while I was growing up, was not common. People in the D.R. tend to be very protective about their feelings, and there’s the perception that if you talk to a therapist there’s something wrong with you. And because the D.R. is an island, we tend to be ten years behind on everything, including psychology. So even the knowledge we have of psychology is a bit limited. Mental health was not something we talked about growing up. My childhood experience was very confusing for me. I always felt there was something wrong with me because of my experience with sexual abuse at an early age.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that what had happened to me was not okay. Through sex ed in elementary school, I put two and two together and realized that was not an experience a person should have had at that age. All of that made me feel like something was wrong. I carried that feeling all through my teenage years. I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about it.

It wasn’t until I got to Parsons that I started to understand more about it. When you come in as an international student, Parsons does this thing that’s pretty cool. They assume you’re in this transitional period, which can be very stressful for people, so they offer students free counseling. I think that was the one thing that shifted my whole life trajectory.

I saw this therapist for the two years I was at Parsons, and even after I graduated. Eventually, when I moved to California, she helped me transition to someone local. That was when I got officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety and PTSD. They’re both very common diagnoses for people who’ve suffered sexual abuse and trauma at an early age.

DB: So the conversation you had is one you had to actively seek out. 

IR: Yeah, and it’s funny because I tried talking to someone about it before at this church I used to go to when I was young. They told me to ask God to forgive that person, and to be compassionate towards them, and to not discuss it any further, which is really bad advice. For a while after that, I didn’t feel like it was something that I should talk about. By the time I met the counselor at Parsons, I was bursting at the seams.

DB: How did it impact your work as a student at the time? 

IR: Work has been a coping mechanism for me. Even though I felt really unstable, being busy helped me feel stable. The stimulation of being in a new city was good too. It helped me feel distracted. New York is the best city to be distracted in. What about your experience with mental health and your journey dealing with your diagnosis? How did your family history influence your work? And how did Living With come about?

Photo by Daniel Dent

DB: I was always thinking about why I was on medication and my friends weren’t. When I got diagnosed, I wasn’t bursting at the seams; I was just kind of living with it. A lot of the art I made throughout middle school and high school was about that. Later, for my degree project in college, I naturally gravitated to mental health because I was still on medication at the time and thinking a lot about it.

Living With started as an assessment of language. When I was diagnosed I was told that something was wrong with me and I needed to be fixed. But as I grew up and incorporated my disorder into my life and lived with it, I truly felt like I wasn’t broken; I just did things differently. And I felt very proud of that rather than beaten down – proud that I got up every day and was still functioning. I wanted to see how I could help other people feel as proud of themselves as I felt.

At the time, I hadn’t seen anybody in the mental health world talk about that aspect. They were always trying to offer support, but the language about mental illness is not good. It’s not positive. It’s not empowering. One way that I wanted to address that was with emotionally impacted design. Jonathan Chapman wrote a book called Emotionally Durable Design that I referenced a lot. Basically, when you call something a disorder, a disease, or an illness, it prevents it from being a facet of life, and instead it becomes something you’re trying to get rid of quickly or shove away.

I wanted to do T-shirts specifically because they’re a powerful and immediate way for you to show what you’re proud of. I started to think about how I could do that for mental health. But I didn’t want to make a shirt that just said “I have depression,” because that’s so insensitive and so not the point. The point isn’t that you have it; the point is that you get up every day and live with it. 

I used patterns to visualize it because a pattern can be abstract. A person can relate to it without having to tell people what it’s about if they don’t want to. So I picked four of the most common disorders in the country at the time, which were OCD, ADHD, depression, and bipolar, and made patterns based off those.

Originally, I put up posters around campus saying, “Hey, if you have any of these disorders come talk to me. I’d love to know your experience.” And nobody answered, because nobody wants to talk about it with some random girl doing her degree project about it. So I turned to the internet and I found that Tumblr was a really great place for people to be honest because it’s so anonymous. People just spilled their hearts out. They were very raw and real, and I designed the patterns to show the emotional balance of those feelings. 

A teacher let me use his studio to screen print the first 100 shirts. I did the packaging. I made a really rough business model. I did everything in school except for the website. I did that after school, and it took almost as much time as the whole thesis itself.

IR: How long did the project last? I know that life has led you to close it down. What was that process like? 

DB: The project lasted for about two years. We sold 600 shirts and donated $1,200 to [mental health nonprofit] Active Minds. I feel like in those two years I learned enough for six lifetimes. But I simply could not do everything. I had just moved to New York and started a new job. I was in a new relationship, and I wanted to hang out with my friends. There was so much that I wanted to do, and I just couldn’t do it all.

For a while I thought I could, because everything was going so great. Living With was taking off. I was speaking at conferences. People were reaching out about collaborations. But I didn’t really know what goes into running a business. I just blindly leapt in. And then I fainted on the subway.

IR: Wow.

DB: I was going to work one day, and I started worrying about taxes. Did I send that form in? Where would I even get the form? Is there a form? Or is it online? I genuinely just knew there was something I needed to do and I had no idea how to do it. I was on the subway and all of the sound around me started to mush together, and it got really hot and fuzzy, and the next thing I know is I’m on the floor.

Everybody talks about how New York is very big and scary, but if you faint on the subway just once, you’ll feel like you have friends wherever you go. All the people around me were trying to help me up. It was comforting to know that people cared, but I recognized that I needed to stop what I was doing because it was bad for me.

IR: What was the process like of making that decision to slow down?

DB: It was really hard. I loved the project and I’d given it my all for two years. I had people that really believed in it. It was a team of three at that point. There was so much that I wanted to explore as a designer, and there was so much that I wanted to do with my career, and I still needed to pay rent. I wanted to come back to it when I could do it right. And realizing that I couldn’t do it right, right then, was really hard. But I had to step back and see beyond the moment. So I slowly shut things down. And every time you tell somebody that you’re shutting something down, they’re like, “Why? What’s wrong?” And nothing’s wrong; I just can’t do it right now.

IR: When you’re very aware of your mental health, you start going to the edge and then you realize you’ve crossed it and need to take a leap back. It reminds me of a time when I had to shut things down. I was running a studio a few years back. I was also teaching and running a coworking space in the Dominican Republic with a few friends. I literally didn’t have time for anything. But when you want to create impact, it feels like the sacrifice and the hard hours are all worthwhile. And then you faint in the subway and you remember that you’re human.

DB: It felt very strange promoting mental health and taking care of yourself when I couldn’t even do it for me.

IR: What are your feelings about the project today?

DB: It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m definitely going to come back to it when I have the resources and the know-how.

Dani Balenson and Indhira Rojas

Dani Balenson and Indhira Rojas photographed by Daniel Dent

IR: Can you tell me about the community you developed around it? What did you take away from hearing people’s stories? What impacted you the most?

DB: The audience was mixed. When Living With first got press, a lot of people said, “You’re just a designer lining your pockets off of other people’s struggles.” That’s not how I felt at all, but I could see where they were coming from. But for the audience it was meant to resonate with, it resonated really well. I got emails from people asking me to make more shirts for other disorders. I got one email from a girl that made it all worth it. She said, “I got one of your shirts at an Active Minds Conference [the largest conference about students and mental health], and I just want you to know that when I wear it, I’m so happy to be standing.”

IR: Fast forward to today. You told me you have the best job of your life right now. How has that impacted your mental health?

DB: I truly love the job I have right now. I’m a brand designer at Intercom. What really sold me on the company is that it’s all human-based. It’s about making a human-interaction experience with technology not suck. I feel incredibly lucky. It still feels very surreal, to be honest. Feeling fulfilled by what you do for eight-plus hours a day frees your brain up in your spare time, too.

Before this, I was sad at work and not very inspired, and I would go home at night with a sense of dissatisfaction. I would have to force myself to be creative and do all these side projects. Now I can come home and do that, but it comes from a place of fun. I also have time now to figure out who I am outside of design. That’s the really good part. But the underlying truth is that I still struggle every day with mental health. When I moved to New York after graduation I stopped taking my medication. So for my entire career I’ve been figuring out how I can be as professional as possible and still get up and do all the things I need to do every day on my own. It’s been hard. I pick at my nails constantly. I’m always picking my fingers. They’re always fidgeting. I’m very aware that this table is glass.

IR: Now that you’re not doing your project, how do you perceive the mental health community and the conversation around mental health? Does that wider perspective give you a different sense of it all?

DB: I see a lot of artists who’ve never spoken out about mental health before, but are now doing commercial work for, say, a mental health foundation. I think it’s important to have the conversation out there anywhere, but the most important work being done isn’t necessarily this work.

IR: Do you believe, like, mental health is kind of trendy now?

DB: It’s trendy in the sense that when people care about something other people will capitalize on it. Mental health has always been there. Artists and designers have been creating work about mental health for as long as people could feel things, which has been always.

IR: I think we may have the language now to talk about it more openly, and the understanding as a community. But when I think about mental health being trendy, I wonder if that comes as a detriment to those of us who have been having this conversation for a long while now.

DB: It’s not really related to design, but one thing I think about a lot in terms of mental health being a trend is memes. Memes are super impactful because they’re relatable. You see them and you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so funny. I totally do that thing.” For example, there’s this one account on Twitter called @sosadtoday.

IR: I love her.

DB: I think it’s great and it’s very funny, but I worry that it fetishizes unhealthy behavior. There’s one I saw the other day that said “Existing is inconvenient.” To somebody who really, truly believes that, yes: It’s good to know that it’s out there. But it’s also kind of making a joke out of it.

IR: For me, when you’ve been struggling with PTSD and generalized anxiety for your whole life, you get to a point where you need to make fun of it to be able to relax around it. I follow @sosadtoday, and when she writes certain things I’m like, “You just read my mind.” I recognize that I have a certain level of understanding of my own trauma experiences, and I’m very aware of it, which gives me the ability to read something like that and be able to separate myself from it, see the humor in it, and move on.

DB: I think that being in a place where I’m okay with myself and how I work, I’m able to laugh at things, but it just worries me deep down somewhere. Like it’s almost become cool to be sarcastic about problems you have. It’s creating more stigma rather than reducing it.

IR: Do you think it at least creates awareness, or that it’s changing the conversation?

DB: I don’t know if it changes the conversation as much as it allows people to label themselves. When you retweet something from this Twitter account, it’s on your profile so it becomes part of your identity. In terms of personal branding, is it cool to be sad?

IR: This is a good segue into Anxy, because a lot of people ask me why Anxy needs to be beautiful. I feel like it’s the same question: “Is it cool to be sad?”

IR: But it being beautiful made me want to read it. You clearly thought about it. You have an understanding of the medium and the stories. Can you talk about what it took to make this magazine?

DB: When I was first thinking about Anxy, I wasn’t even thinking about the mental health industry. I couldn’t find any mental health content that I could relate to. There’s psychology content, but I can’t look at it from a design point of view. It just doesn’t make me want to read it. Then you have your articles about “How to be happy in ten days.” You know what? I don’t want to be happy in ten days. I want to understand why I’m sad and why that’s okay.

When we’re feeling anxious and we’re dealing with it, sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is go through that experience so you can participate in some kind of healing process, if that’s possible for you. But we try so hard to escape that. “I can’t be sad. I can’t be depressed. I can’t feel these negative things because that means that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m broken. Why can’t I get it together when all these other people have it together?” Then you look closer, and to me no one has it together.

DB: No one. Literally.

IR: I wanted Anxy to be a place where we could tell those authentic stories and be accepting of that state of being. Why can’t that be beautiful? Why can’t you make it the most pleasant experience you can have within the constraints you’re given? As I was flipping through it, what really struck me is that you pull from collaborators from all over the world – illustrators, writers, photographers.

Indhira Rojas is the founder of Anxy, a magazine about creatives’ inner worlds.

IR: I really love this phrase: What’s intimately personal is universal. I’m from the Dominican Republic, and I’m battling with all these things that my American friends and other friends from abroad are battling with too. Even though the challenges of mental health are influenced by specific social and cultural contexts, they’re also universal.

DB: You mentioned you’re a workaholic. How have you been able to fit Anxy into a healthy working schedule?

IR: It’s definitely been difficult. I think it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. What has helped me was making the decision to remain independent. So it’s been about incorporating the Anxy work into my freelance work and trying to structure it so that a few months of the year we’re working on Anxy and the rest we’re working on client work. That sounds great in theory, but in practice what happens is the client work gets more intense at the same time the magazine needs to be designed, and the whole schedule gets out of control.

DB: So do you work on both client work and Anxy every day? Or do you silo days? What does that look like?

IR: Now that I’ve been able to run my studio along with a junior designer, senior designer, and a project manager, I can oversee client work and I can delegate, say, a design assignment to my team if I need space to problem solve with Anxy. That said, when we’re closing the magazine, it’s the heaviest time. But I try to give myself a break, so if I worked a little too hard then I try to do some selfcare. My ideal scenario is one in which Anxy is financially sustainable enough to run at the same time and take up as much space as client work.

It hasn’t worked perfectly yet, but as time passes we get better at knowing what we need to know about things like how long shipping takes. There’s so much about running a small business that they don’t teach you in school.

DB: There’s so much – like taxes.

IR: Accounting. Bookkeeping. [Laughs] It’s a lot. But you know, because I’ve tried and failed and tried and failed, I’m hoping that this time I’ve learned enough through trial and error to make it work.

DB: You can’t do it all.

IR: You’re gonna end up fainting in the subway. What I’ve learned is that this is never going to end. Every time I cross something off, ten more things come up. It’s up to me to say: This is my to-do list, and everything else is going to have to wait.

DB: After all the conversations you’ve had with writers and designers and photographers while making Anxy, how has hearing all of their stories and their experiences impacted your own?

IR: It’s been very humbling. Because we’re working on Anxy, the conversation starts about ten degrees deeper. Sometimes we receive emails, whether it’s from readers or potential contributors, where they’re telling us their life story. It’s raw and difficult, and it’s the story of survival. To me it really just validates this idea that these stories are out there, that people are having these experiences, and, to Anxy’s mission, that we’re not alone in this.

Living With is a T-shirt campaign created to drive awareness of stigmatized mental health issues.

DB: As a designer, how do you feel about the role that mental health plays in your everyday life?

IR: I’m thankful that I found design, because part of the process of healing and making sense of it all is by expressing yourself and making things.

DB: You have the skills to get out what’s inside of you.

IR: I also love the fact that as a designer, I’m very attuned to other people’s needs. It feeds into the way that I’ve adapted to my trauma response. It makes me a better designer, but it also means I get to use some of my coping mechanisms as a tool for my work. It’s like these coping skills are superpowers.

DB: That’s so interesting. That’s how I feel as well. The things that are good for my own mental health are things I have to do for my job, like working with my hands, or making lots of lists, or being very detail-oriented. Those are things that come out of my ADHD: my need to double-check things to make sure that I did them right, because otherwise I know I did them wrong. 

IR: What do you think is next for mental health when it comes to changing the conversation? Where do you think we are?

DB: The fact that we’re having this conversation is a benchmark. The conversation needs to keep happening. Even if it’s just on social media, to know that there are other people thinking about the discrepancy between a logical situation and an emotional reaction, that’s really powerful.

People sometimes ask me about when this conversation will become normalized, and what would happen then. I have a hard time with that. What I would like is for it to be acknowledged as part of our landscape of being human. I would have wanted that earlier on, when I was a teenager and in my earlier years. 

IR: If we could acknowledge that this experience is happening to young people, and we made it part of our educational programs, that, to me, would be a benchmark. That would mean that mental health has gone fully mainstream. But to me, that’s not about becoming normal. 

DB: Right. I hate that word. I really do.

IR: It’s more about creating new social norms, where we check our mental health just like we check our teeth when we go to the dentist.

DB: I think about being able to take a mental health day the same way you would take a sick day. Sometimes you can’t get out of bed if you have the flu, and sometimes you can’t get out of bed if you’re really, really low. It’s interesting, because it’s something that you can’t see. You can see your teeth and you can see your body. But you can’t see what’s up here, even if you can feel it. Another big thing would be changing the language we use to talk about mental health. Living With was based off of the experience of being told that something is wrong with you when there’s really nothing wrong with you. It’s just you’re living with this thing that other people might not be living with. It’s a part of who you are, and you’re not broken for it, or less normal. 

IR: And there’s a spectrum. Some of us have more trauma than others.

DB: How do you feel about how it’s handled in the professional world, where people who experience those things later in life deal with the fallout?

IR: I was on a panel the other day and someone was talking about Facebook. They have on-site therapists. 

DB: I would never want to see a therapist at work.

IR: I don’t either. A lot of companies now are offering that as an alternative to coaching, because all work is inter-personal. You know, someone’s going to talk to you in a way or do something that’s a trigger, and our work is affected by that. If you’re in a very toxic environment, that might be happening a lot, so talking it out with a mental health professional makes sense to me. But it’s also kind of weird, because when I think of all my history with trauma it has nothing to do with work, and it was a really long time ago, and I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel talking about that with someone who is being paid by my employer. But it’s interesting that companies are able to go that far in terms of supporting you, and even hiring staff for it.

DB: Bringing in self-care to the workplace is a benchmark for sure. I know a lot of companies have better mental health packages now by covering therapy or doing wellness weeks. Anything that helps people think about themselves and their brain in an environment where they’re normally just told to act is a good thing.

IR: My last question is about advice for what people should or shouldn’t say when you bring up mental health. A lot of advice, especially for young people, is to talk to someone you trust. But how do you start that conversation?

DB: I am not a medical professional; let me just say that. But what’s made an impact for me in the past year has been other people sharing their stories. It makes me feel like I can talk about what I feel. People who have an audience shouldn’t be afraid to be like, “Hey, by the way, I’m also a real person.” I know celebrities have done that. The more that people do that, the more people will come to understand that it’s okay to not feel good. It doesn’t mean I’m bad. It doesn’t mean that I’m never going to succeed. It just means that I don’t feel right, right now, and I need to address that. I think the worst thing you can do is just not address it.

IR: I think that’s great advice. When I think about the first time I went to the therapist at Parsons, I remember crying for the whole session and basically screaming at her.

DB: Your first session?

IR: Yeah, for a whole hour. I just needed help so badly. I wish I had sought it out sooner. If someone feels like they need to talk to someone, I prefer that they talk to a professional rather than a friend. They could be a really good friend, but if someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time, it might derail what you need to do next.

DB: I’ve said this to a friend before, but I’m almost grateful that my parents’ divorce really messed my life up, because I was able to see that all humans, no matter who they are, are just humans. Your parents aren’t just your parents; they’re regular people. When you’re younger and you realize nobody’s perfect, it’s a really big deal. That’s not advice, but I wish more young people realized that and didn’t give themselves such a hard time. Alright. You think this is a good stopping place?

IR: I think that’s a good stopping place.

DB: I could keep going forever.

from 99U99U

HTML Flowers Makes Award-Winning Art in Spite of—and to Spite—His Lifelong Battle with Cystic Fibrosis

HTML Flowers Makes Award-Winning Art in Spite of—and to Spite—His Lifelong Battle with Cystic Fibrosis

The zine-rich, Instagram-famous rapper-cum-comics-artist Grant Gronewold sits in a dark corner of his chaotic bedroom studio in a house he shares with a botanist, a social worker, an artist, two illustrators, a ceramicist, a carpenter, a farmhand, a dog, a cat, and Side Salad – the last survivor of a coop full of chickens – in the Brunswick neighborhood of Melbourne, Australia. He’s small, bespectacled, mustachioed, wearing a Bart Simpson vest that exposes numerous sketchily inked tattoos across his hands, arms, and neck.

He speaks with a strong Chicago accent that occasionally gives way to an antipodean drawl, peppered with Australian turns of phrase (daggy, rock up, tall poppies). He slurps from an oversize Pikachu mug full of coffee – his third of the day at 11 p.m., part of his strict daily routine – and takes a breath before launching into a fastpaced, loquacious rant that draws parallels between science fiction and the reality of living with a disability.

“Sci-fi films feel like being sick; you’re isolated and there’s some kind of weird fear that’s creeping in. You don’t know what it is, but you’re paranoid, and there’s no one else with you in the fight – it’s just you, alone. You have to navigate this insurmountable fear that no one else deals with, which is space. But for me, it’s death.

“The only gift most of us get is that we die before we touch nothingness. But to be lost in space, to be lost in nothingness – to still be alive but decaying while that happens – is one of the biggest human fears. And that’s why we hate sick people. Nobody likes me because I remind them of death.”

When his parents were told about his condition, his father walked out on the family for good.

Gronewold was born in 1987 in Carbondale, outside Lincoln, Illinois, and for the first six months of his life he was horribly, critically ill. Coughing, sweating, projectile vomiting, trapped in wakeful fits, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that weakens the lungs, primarily, but also the kidneys, liver, pancreas, and intestines. When his parents were told about his condition, his father walked out on the family for good.

After those first six months in hospital, the infant Gronewold had already racked up almost half a million dollars in medical bills. His mother declared bankruptcy and sold everything she owned, sleeping on friends’ couches or in the back of her car with her newborn son, traveling around the Midwest to find hospitals that would treat him. She lived this way for a long time. Sometimes she’d get lucky; a friendly nurse would admit her baby to the hospital bed of a patient who hadn’t yet been formally checked out, and they’d run Gronewold’s meds through the still-open insurance plan. Other times he’d simply be given treatments or pills for free. Without that, Gronewold’s illness would have killed him.

“We just had a crappy life,” says Gronewold, who began living with his grandma. Then, when Gronewold’s grandma died, his mother decided it was time to leave the U.S. The idea had been percolating for a while, and she’d put some money aside for the move. She’d visit the local library to research foreign health care systems and how to move overseas, and then, by chance, met an Australian man on a Hunter S. Thompson appreciation forum online. They hit it off – “There was a genuine spark,” says Gronewold – and with the last of her mother’s life insurance money, she bought passports and plane tickets to Australia. Gronewold was 11. The guy ended up being an alcoholic, but in Australia, the state would provide the health care Gronewold needed and afford his family a better life.

Illness is the subject that underpins all of Gronewold’s visual and musical work.

The trauma Gronewold experienced before Australia still unsettles him. “As a kid, I remember knowing that my life was really different,” he says. “My family was really poor in that town, and I understood that we were a lot worse off because of that poorness. In our town, there were working-class people who were just getting by, and we were a rung below that. There’s a saying where I’m from that you’re either doing time in the bottle factory or you’re just doing time; those are the two options. But we were there because of my illness.” 

Illness is the subject that underpins all of Gronewold’s visual and musical work. From his first illustrations to his latest graphic novellas, and from his early folk rock recordings to his 2017 hip-hop masterwork, Chrome Halo. He’s prolific because of his illness, and he’s prolific to spite it, too. On the penultimate day of mixing Chrome Halo in the studio, he picked up a lung infection from a faulty surgical implant. He kept the meeting with his producer instead of heading into hospital, but had to spend the next month convalescing.

Photo by Elliott Lauren

In addition to a recent nomination for an Australian Music Prize for this solo debut, he’s got an anthology of comics on the horizon, and is in talks with a major broadcaster about a reality TV series – both of which are bound up in too many nondisclosure agreements to discuss in detail. He’s balancing all of this with gigging, dating, maintaining a rigorous routine of daily treatments to manage his illness, and trying to stay sober in order to shape up for a future lung transplant.

“I have to be off drugs for at least six months to even get on the transplant list. Then, once I’m on the list, they don’t know exactly when I’ll be able to get the lungs, because they have to become available. And then when they do become available, the question is, Am I sick enough to need them but well enough to survive the operation? Basically, what that means is an indefinite period of not even having weed. It’s sad. It’s like leaving a lover. I love my drugs; I miss my drugs. But I also feel weirdly like I don’t need them anymore.”

It’s the principle of the thing that gets to him; even his doctor can see the advantages of Gronewold’s marijuana use. “The transplant doctor is cool. He was like, ‘I think it’s unfair, especially given everything we know about the use of medicinal marijuana. You’re eating it, which I think is a great sign that you’re interested in risk management. I can see a number of benefits – from anxiety reduction to appetite increase – but unfortunately, it’s international law.’”

While it’s beautifully drawn, Sonogram is a grim, unsettling read.

The treatments take time; Gronewold takes a combination of 30 pills a day for digestion, gene alteration, vitamin supplements, and antibiotics, supplemented with four inhaled medications administered with a nebulizer and regular bouts of breathing exercises with an airway clearance device designed to encourage the expulsion of mucus from his lungs. He’s drawing a lot, too, making headway with the second in a series of hospital diaries that chronicle various bouts of illness and hospitalization. The first, Sonogram, was self-published in early 2017 and features self-portraits, hospital documents, and horrific vignettes of operation scenes and recovery periods, as well as screenshots of notes and journal entries recorded throughout his treatment. “New infections in my lungs,” begins one entry. “No one can say what they are. If it is what they think it is it could mean months of treatment, but no one can say if it is what they think it is. ‘No reason to panic’ they say.”

While it’s beautifully drawn, Sonogram is a grim, unsettling read. But Gronewold found it therapeutic to keep journals of his thoughts and experiences. The next in the series, Incision, is proving harder to commit to paper. “The second one has been a lot weirder, because the time I was in hospital was way longer, so there are a lot more entries and they sort of became chores. I was so much more depressed, and it was so much harder to give a shit about expressing myself. It would just be repulsive to hear myself at times.” 

Photo by Elliott Lauren

It’s a good thing he stuck at it, because the resulting work highlights the difficulty of navigating illness and disability within a complex health care system, not to mention the horror of reconciling his dependence on the pharmaceutical industry. “You don’t get to have rigid views when you’re as sick as I am, because you rely on the state that you hate. I need health care. I need to have a good relationship with doctors that I despise. So many people I see campaigning for social justice are like, ‘Cut toxic people out of your life! Throw poisonous people in the trash!’ But poisonous people are the reason why I breathe every day, so I just can’t do that.”

This is just one of many issues Gronewold has with accessibility politics, and while he’s vocal about disability in his work, he struggles with the idea of being an advocate outside of his own self-expression. “I want to be a complicated disabled person. I’m not really trying to subscribe to a culture without room for grayness.” 

He is asked to speak on panels and perform at events created to reduce the stigma of disability, but the ones he’s agreed to so far have left him with a sour taste in his mouth. “Lately, people are asking me if I’m trying to spread a message about disability. I’m literally like, ‘No, I just am disabled, and I can’t talk about my life without talking about it.’ I think it’s cool that there’s a message getting out, but it’s not a theorem. I’m not writing a dissertation about myself. That’s how people approach these things now, and it kind of drives me nuts.

The problem, he says, is that people expect him to discuss disability in a way that doesn’t offend or unsettle them.

“There’s a zeitgeist of the identities that matter, which I really notice, and disability is never on the top. Nobody really cares about disability, especially in Australia. They think that everything’s fine here and that there aren’t millions of dollars being cut from funding every year. Only 15 percent of people who apply for their disability support pension actually get it because of how tight the regulations are. People are always inviting me to be part of these communities, but they don’t actually know anything about it; they just want to tick that disability box, and I don’t really care about that.”

He does care, though, enough to return to the subject constantly while discussing both his music and his art. The problem, he says, is that people expect him to discuss disability in a way that doesn’t offend or unsettle them, but for someone who writes lyrics like “What you know about riding in a gurney / What you know about dying when you’re 30?” that isn’t really his speciality; nor does he think it should be.

Photo by Elliott Lauren

“I’m trying to talk about gritty, real life, and these panels don’t make space for that. They want to focus on what we can do to move forward, but that’s not my role. I’m the ghost at the feast; I’m here to ruin it. I rain bad energy, and the point is for you to listen to the bad energy. I don’t know why everyone now has to be positive about everything.”

For all the anger and aggression in Gronewold’s work and his public persona, there’s also extraordinary tenderness, particularly in relation to his mother. There’s a track on Chrome Halo called “Real Mom” that begins, “I’m the first son of a single mother / First thing I learned was protect each other,” and continues, “Momma got the VapoRub / Money is not love,” referring to the daily treatments she gave him as a boy.

“At the time there was this procedure where you’d bang on someone’s chest, and she was really good about that. She always made time, which was funny because sometimes she would be drunk when she was doing it. She’d come home after working for almost two days straight with maybe a few hours for a nap in between shifts and be like, ‘Ah, it’s treatment time, it’s treatment time!’ And I remember the stink of alcohol as she was banging on me.”

That close, complicated relationship still persists. Gronewold is saving up to buy her a house; and she is fiercely defensive of him and of disability issues on Facebook. She recently called out an accessibility festival that didn’t have any disabled artists on the bill.

She also went as Gronewold’s plus-one to the Australian Music Prize ceremony. He didn’t win, but she was so proud, he says. “It was a big deal for her. Mom always wanted me to be a singer because I was always obsessed with words and music.” Asked what he’d have done with the prize money if he had won, he’s characteristically pragmatic. “I don’t know. I record at home. I can’t travel; I’m sick. I would just spend it on a house for Mom.” Apart from that house, the only thing currently keeping him motivated is fear.

“I’m waiting for someone to put out a graphic novel about illness that completely outdoes me and my legacy, and I become the Michelle Visage to their RuPaul.” But would that be so bad, really? “No one cares about Michelle Visage,” he says, and in a voice like Daffy Duck, continues,“ There is nothing I care more about than my legacy as an artist.”

He’s only half joking.

from 99U99U

John Maeda: How a Fall Opened a New Chapter of Identity and Inclusion

John Maeda: How a Fall Opened a New Chapter of Identity and Inclusion

Follow John Maeda’s career trajectory, and you can loosely track the shifting zeitgeist of the design industry. A student at MIT, Maeda went on to teach at the famous and experimental Media Lab, where, as the internet was starting to take shape, he found ways to get designers and engineers to learn each other’s disciplines. Just as design with a capital D started to be seen much more widely as a professional career path, and not just an artistic one, Maeda left MIT and became president of the Rhode Island School of Design. His mission there was to expand on the university’s traditional notion of design, bringing in more focus on innovative tech and arts. 

In 2014, Maeda moved on to become the first design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he threw his weight into fostering a new cadre of startups that employ service design, experience design, product design, you name it, as a competitive business advantage. He’s remained at KPCB as an advisor, even after departing in 2016 to take on the newly-created title of global head of computational design and inclusion at Automattic, the open-web publishing company that runs, among other things,

When I asked Maeda for an interview for 99U’s “Hurts So Good”-themed magazine issue, Maeda wrote back. “Maybe talking about the time I tripped at 5 a.m. jogging on El Camino Real and broke my arm and face? It is the key incident that made me focus on design and inclusion matters. I can explain why…” Intrigued, I agreed.

After all, if something has Maeda’s attention, it’s a good idea to follow his gaze.

The last time we spoke, you had just assumed your new role at Automattic. You were actually so new that you were still in a sort of orientation – which, for all new hires at Automattic, means spending a few weeks answering customer service requests. I can hardly think of a pain point more notorious and acute than being on the line with customer service. Did it feel like that at the time?

I realized in my first week that I was helping to solve problems that were more like fixing flat tires. Where does the help menu go? That kind of thing. You get a lot of questions about menus. Do I have too many? Does this look good? I guess people expect some kind of aesthetic response. There’s a bug, or there’s a misspelling – technologists would get rid of it; say, “I fixed it.” That’s how they fix the world.

But as a designer, I realized that I had to understand where they wanted to go in the car. I could help them solve their tactical problems – the flat tires – but if I could figure out where they wanted to go, I also addressed their longer-term strategic opportunities. I remember talking with a woman who was outside of London, and she had a dream to succeed as a parent blogger, because she wanted to talk about this new baby she had – challenges and tribulations about it. And she wanted to get sponsors, like from the local candy store. That’s hustling. For people like her, who want to do something different, people aren’t scrutinizing your menus – they’re looking for information about you. So, how I can help you do that became the question.

I’m a piece of flesh on the ground. If I pass out, will someone find me? Where will I go?

Was that the main takeaway?

It’s been part of my changing perspective. Some of this started in earnest a few years ago, in Palo Alto. I was jogging on El Camino Real. I used to stay in Airbnbs and take Ubers everywhere, to just experience living in this sharing economy. So I left the Airbnb and went jogging, and somewhere my foot caught onto something – the sidewalk. I remember seeing it coming at me, and I landed on my face and arm before realizing that my arm couldn’t move, and my face was bleeding. I had, ironically, just published an article on Techcrunch about health tech.

That’s very real, corporeal pain.

I was like, “I’m a piece of flesh on the ground. If I pass out, will someone find me? Where will I go? I’m staying in an Airbnb; I don’t have neighbors who know me.” Eventually, using lawns to lie on to take breaks, I got back. I took an Uber to the hospital, and they gave me a clipboard, but I couldn’t write. They said you have to write something. The doctor finally shows up and asks if I can move my neck, and he says, “Wow, you’re lucky.” Then an hour later a nurse comes in. He says, “I hope you were wearing a reflective vest. You could have been hit.” So I had these two moments of gratitude, of things that could have been worse.

But still, by having a broken arm, travel and work get really hard: putting stuff on an airplane; I couldn’t type as fast. That’s very minor, but it was a catalyst. It made me realize that I like advising companies [at KPCB], but maybe I should actually do something. Work in a company instead, and if I do, I want to advance this kind of thinking in the space of technology products.

John Maeda, inclusivity in deisgn

John Maeda photographed by Julia Hembree.

“This kind of thinking” meaning inclusivity in design?

Right. In Silicon Valley or New York, you have a lot of access. People who are advanced in the technology world; they sound like they’re in the ivory tower. And I’m from the ivory tower, what with MIT. The reason that inclusive design is important is because of computational design. It impacts everyone; it’s not just technology for technies. So what can I learn from a lot of people who we’ve ignored because we don’t think they are Flipboard-able?

Is that what inclusive design means? It’s become a hot, buzzy term to use lately. That’s something that gets discussed in a really good interview that Mark Wilson, at Fast Company, recently did with Microsoft’s Kat Holmes, who brought inclusive design thinking to that company.

I think if you follow what Kat says in that interview, she says it’s a process and that the first step is to recognize exclusion. How do we find exclusion? It’s by being in environments unlike the ones we’re used to. We’re talking about pain, and I think that pain can also be read as a problem. And designers are problem solvers, so it’s important that they be in situations where they see a problem and try to understand it.

What does that mean, exactly, at Automattic?

There are people using Automattic’s services to try and earn $1 more a month; that’s a big deal to them. They will be psyched. A lot of my work has been to put a spotlight on people who want to earn online. Which, if you come from the blogging world, there’s an older belief that it’s about freedom of speech and saying what you want to say, and you don’t have to make any money. But working with Hajj [Flemings, a brand strategist and design entrepreneur in Detroit], I’ve learned that there are so many people who want to earn online.

One year ago we made it easier – this sounds so simple and obvious – for anyone to take a payment off their site. In the system, you just add a payment button. It seems really obvious, but it was just perceived as something someone didn’t need. Because if you look at any Silicon Valley system today it’s about the likes and the comments – that’s the measure of engagement. I think that’s been the dominant thinking.

It was a thought leadership conference where I think 80 percent of the attendees and speakers were African Americans. I’ve never been invited to something like this.

Back to what you said about being in environments unlike the ones you’re used to: Is that something you’ve taken to doing?

Just in the job, in getting to know customers better, I think I have. It got me really excited; I was chatting with people whose background, I just thought, “Oh, this is neat. I don’t meet someone like you every day.” I’ve also met more people who aren’t necessarily a part of this really old technology, of communicating on the web. I might have five websites. But many people don’t have their own home on the internet; maybe they’ve only had a rented home, on a social platform like Facebook. So that’s different. 

But physically, too, I’m addressing how ignorant I’ve become. I’ve been forcing myself to go to places I haven’t been to. Especially when I met Hajj. He’s a mid-forties African American entrepreneur in Detroit, and he has a conference, and he reached out to me three years ago and asked if I’d come speak. Marina, my assistant, said I should look at this. It was a thought leadership conference where I think 80 percent of the attendees and speakers were African Americans. And I was like, I’ve never been invited to something like this.

Spending time with Hajj has been eye-opening in many ways. While I was driving through Detroit with him, he pointed out to me one building that was owned by an African American family. This was after he said to me that over 85 percent of Detroit is African American. One little thing I remember from then as well: We had to drive like 15 minutes to another ATM that was kind of safer. Hajj explained the whole situation to me, that there were some streets or areas where you couldn’t just take cash out and assume you wouldn’t get mugged. Which I never would have thought of. You just take it for granted that if there’s access to water, there’s access to cash.

This reminded me of my childhood: I grew up in Seattle, in what’s now called the international district, but it was called Chinatown then. It wasn’t a good place to be, even though it was a good place to be. When you’re a child it doesn’t feel dangerous. But my parents were always worried; they thought everything was dangerous. They knew stuff that I didn’t.

What do you actually do, then, with all these observations, all this new awareness that everyone is having very different, nuanced experiences?

This will sound weird, but I had this epiphany recently that I’m an Asian American person. Which was like, “Oh, I’m not a white American person.” I had detached myself from my identity and how I look, and then I realized that maybe, by being an Asian American, I can go everywhere. I’m like a Type 0 minority – I can go many places, and people will say, “Are you one of us, or are you not?” I’m trying to use that to connect dots that are disconnected.

We did this big project with a school district in Paintsville, Kentucky, which is in coal country. So many people were like, “Have you read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy?” And then people were like, “Have you been there?” And I was like, “No.” Being there made me check my biases. I visited on a tech jobs tour initiative, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but Paintsville is famous for being visited by LBJ in the ’60s, as representing one of the poorest parts of the United States. Automattic is totally based around remote work, so we set up this program where students can be remote and learn about jobs in graphic design. We also set up video calls so they could interview designers about their work, and they talked to people like Hajj.

I’ve connected David [Gibson, the superintendent of the Paintsville school district] and Hajj together by text-messaging, and it’s like they are two worlds apart – Detroit and Appalachia – yet both of them are dealing with similar levels of inequality. They’re both using technology, but not Silicon Valley tech geek stuff. It’s practical technology, like videoconferencing and other “blue collar tech,” as I like to call it, to expand their zone of opportunities. The people reshaping how the tech landscape will work, it’s not just people in their twenties and thirties, and it’s not just Silicon Valley.

Which is to say, thinking about diversity in design doesn’t just have to do with race and socioeconomics, but with age and just plain digital literacy.

It is. Something about falling so hard, and lying on the sidewalk in the darkness bleeding alone – it gave me focus. The process of recovery kept teaching me new things, partly because the experience let me see what my body might feel like fifteen years from now, if not sooner. With the luck of my health turning out fine, it got me to think more carefully about what I do with my remaining time on earth. So inclusion became my passion.

John Maeda inclusive design

John Maeda photographed at the 2018 Adobe 99U Conference by Ryan Muir.

This article first appeared in 99U’s “Hurts So Good”-themed magazine issue. Watch Maeda’s 99U Conference interview here.

from 99U99U

Filipino Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales Goes Home Again

Filipino Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales Goes Home Again

The streets of Manila are busy and chaotic, and something about the chaos is fascinating and comforting. At every turn, people are selling things. You can count on someone singing karaoke as early as 4 p.m. in the afternoon. And you can hear children laughing and playing outside after school. All day long, colorful “jeepneys,” or public buses, rumble up the streets, and at every stop people get in and out. It is this Manila, with its vibrancy, that I love, and it inspires me and influences my photography. I was surrounded by this aesthetic as a child, so it’s reflected in my drawing, artwork, and photography.

There’s an art concept called “horror vacui,” which in Latin means the fear of empty spaces. When I was in high school, one of my teachers described Filipino culture as horror vacui because we fill up every space – just look at our jeepneys! I translate this concept to my photography and composition by filling every bit of the frame. And for a long time, I thought all cities were like Manila, the chaos, the filling up of space, and people everywhere, because it’s all I’d ever known.

You see, if you’re from Manila or if you study in Manila, the common narrative is that you’d stay here and never leave. People might move within the Philippines or migrate to another country, but in my environment, this wasn’t the case. I grew up in a house full of 14 people. Many of my friends never left, and people I love and have been with for decades are still here. Like horror vacui, being constantly surrounded by people gave me a sense of community and inspires my photography.

Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales

I’m also inspired by how hard Filipinos work. Manila is not an easy city. The streets are always packed, and the traffic is bad, and people work hard for very little. In the streets, you will see the daily hustle and grind on people’s faces, especially in the evening as they walk the streets toward their homes. On days when it rains and the city floods, the streets are impassable. One time, I was stuck in traffic for six hours just to do a 30-minute photo shoot! Things like this were part of life, and I thought other people around the world dealt with this too.

This juxtaposition of greens and garbage is so unromantic, but the greens thrive there.

However, my perception changed in 2013 when I was awarded a National Geographic grant and traveled outside the Philippines for the first time. People only asked me where I was from when I was abroad or when I was living in Cambodia for three years. It is in those moments that I realized Manila was unique and part of my identity. It was a revelation that I was rooted in a city so messy. The reliability of things in the U.S. and Denmark stressed me out. I’m used to going through my day where something hassles me. The traffic takes an extra 40 minutes, or the train stops. I find comfort in being in a constant state of problem solving. Despite Manila’s messiness, people still thrive. It makes me think of the water lilies that grow in the Pasig River.

At times, the river’s pollution levels are so high you can smell the stench from inside an enclosed vehicle. Yet the lilies grow in the water. This juxtaposition of greens and garbage is so unromantic, but the greens thrive there.

Photo by Hannah Reyes Morales

This is also true for people who live in the slums of Manila, where death is a daily occurrence. For the last year and a half, there’s been a drug war, which has really been a war on the poor. People who are alleged drug users or drug pushers are being killed. These are things that an average person is exposed to every day, and the images that have been coming out of Manila are bloody and violent. However, in my photography I want to show that these places are filled with people living normal lives amidst violence and hardship. To me, this is more striking. These stories need to be told, the hard parts need to be told, and it can be done when it’s balanced with their humanity. When I photograph people in their homes, often after tragedies, I’m always offered the best. Filipinos try to make you feel at home, even if we don’t have much. I think that’s the kind of hospitality that’s not just in Manila, but in all of the Philippines.

Last year, I moved back to Manila, and I saw it in a new light. The city changes so rapidly, and it’s teeming with life. It’s been interesting to re-explore Manila as a resident, through photography assignments and an ongoing project I’m working on, documenting shantytowns. You can’t plan everything out on the dot because something will go wrong, but you end up serendipitously finding gems. And it only takes a walk along the streets overflowing with people, the blare of karaoke, and the rumble of the jeepneys to remind me that I’m home.

As told to Jacqueline Lara.

from 99U99U

Blue Bottle Founder James Freeman’s Journey From Mozart to Cortados

Blue Bottle Founder James Freeman’s Journey From Mozart to Cortados

Instagram Photo

Look back to San Francisco in August 2002 when James Freeman’s idea to start Blue Bottle Coffee began to take shape. You’ll see an uninspired professional clarinet player who decided to invest $20,000 to turn his hobby of roasting coffee into a business. It began with an espresso cart.

Sixteen years later, Blue Bottle has grown from that one humble coffee cart to 40 locations throughout the United States and Japan. (Last year, Freeman sold 68% of the company for a reported $425 million and remains the CEO).

So what does this the coffee business have to with design and craft? Freeman credits many of the skills he learned as a classical musician with helping him to form the identity of Blue Bottle. From the attention he pays to negative space in the physical cafes to the typography on the company products, Freeman created Blue Bottle cafes to be places where minimalist is clean, not cold, and utilitarian exudes a distinctive personality. As Freeman says, “Blue Bottle Coffee is recognizable not so much for what is there, but rather for what is not.”

99U recently spoke with Freeman at Hustlecon to learn about how constraints led to Freeman’s pared-down approach to branding, why the most noticeable design comes from taking things out, and how focusing on the experience of the coffee and the environment has led Blue Bottle to stand out in a crowded field.

Take us back to the beginning. When did you open your first brick and mortar store?

My first seven day-a-week shop opened January 23rd, 2005. It was a kiosk in Hayes Valley on Linden Street in San Francisco. It’s still there! We made about $300 that day, so there were a few months of not being sure if it was going to work out. We made every drink made to order, and that was very different than what you could get in San Francisco at that time.

How did you identify a need for what you were doing?

I was fascinated by what I was doing as a hobby, and there wasn’t anyone else doing it. I thought there was a decent chance I could make a living out of it, not to the degree it has been successful, but making a living out of it was good enough for me.

Did you have a master plan?

There has never been a master plan!

James Freeman Blue Bottle Coffee

James Freeman photographed in the early days of Blue Bottle Coffee. Image courtesy of Freeman.

What were some of the early takeaways when introducing people to a new paradigm for something as normal as coffee?

People at the time couldn’t understand why I was opening a coffee place. There was the feeling that the pinnacle of coffee had arrived with Peet’s Coffee. Starbucks had been coming into town, too. I would get a lot of unhelpful feedback on how much competition there was, and how little chance I had in an environment people were calling “so saturated.” But I just wanted to do what I wanted to do! I wanted to make these very different type of tastes from Peet’s.

The general belief was that Starbucks and Peet’s were luxury products, so why was I charging more than them? There is a phrase: “The normative power of the actual.” You can think that certain coffee that you are used to is the finest and the best, but once you’ve had some different tastes, then those can seem normal. You normalize this new, more expensive, and more time consuming experience because you like what you are getting from it.

Blue Bottle has a different sense of craft and environment than Peet’s or Starbucks. Was that intentional?

Art is about constraints, right? It started out that I had a cart and a 250-foot kiosk and the freedom that those constraints gave me meant I couldn’t have a lot of extra stuff, so I had to be very pared down. But I also like to live very pared down. I don’t like things arranged on shelves, for example. Shelves are for books or dishes. They are a tool, not a decoration. But after working on 40 cafes now, we mostly think about what shouldn’t be there.

Blue Bottle Coffee is recognizable for what is not there, the negative space. The materials, furniture sets, and countertops can change depending on the region, but what never changes is the purposeful nature of the design. We like to have a variety of seating, but not much in the way of upholstery. It’s rare for us to have patterns, or tiled floors. It means that what takes people’s attention when they walk into our shops is what ought to take their attention, a focus on delicious coffee and a hospitable coffee professional to make it.

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle Coffee cafes, where the shelves are tools, not decoration. Photo by Suzanna Scott.

All the things you talk about apply to the visual language of Blue Bottle as well, from the logo to the aesthetic production of images on the website.

For a long time I was in charge of every utterance and every image, but now there’s a team that does that and I feel they do a good job of making sure the color palette adheres to a neutral blue/grey that lets the pop of the coffee stand out. There are few words and hopefully the words have impact. The words are friendly and not aloof, and the typography is simple, but not pompous.

What was your strategy for going from coffee cart to corporation?

There was no strategy. When you are moving around 135-pound or 152-pound coffee sacks, typography may seem like a luxury. But if you think about the world, even on a coffee cart, shouldn’t every utterance and every image have some kind of meaning? Shouldn’t they reflect some important goal, even if not in an overt way?

I was always thinking about that. One of the handy things about having a background in musical performance is that it’s about that same through-line. Even the silences between movements have meaning that you want to communicate to an audience. How you take a breath influences how people interpret the emotional tone of what’s to come. It influences how you might play emotionally. That way of thinking was not foreign. Having to pack every possible sense of meaning into silences, as well as sounds, translates quite easily into a confined space such as a sign. What should the words and typography look like? I wasn’t an expert in that, but I was an expert in projecting an emotional tone and meaning from every possible utterance.

Instagram Photo

Does this go all the way back to when you had the coffee cart?

It took a few years for me to figure out what the right emotional tone, so I made a lot of mistakes along the way. But I was cognizant of those issues from an early stage. Those mistakes weren’t the end of the world. I would have preferred to not make mistakes, but they happen. Hopefully you learn from them.

That’s the great thing about coffee: It isn’t an art. I was prone to beating myself up for mistakes with music, and I couldn’t live with them. But coffee isn’t the same. There is no Mozart in coffee. You make a drink, and, if it doesn’t come out the way you want it, you ask your guest if you can make it again. The pressure was off.

What makes a Blue Bottle experience different from going to another coffee shop?

Our goal is to have delicious coffee made by a hospitable coffee professional. So the experience is: “How do we emphasize that and not let other things get in the way?” It’s hard because people tend to think about adding things, and doing more and more and more. Sometimes people can be very additive, and that’s where they struggle. Whereas my struggle the last few years has been where to edit, rather than add. That’s how I like to live. It’s personal.

At Blue Bottle cafes, the design experience is about removing, not adding, elements. Photo by Suzanna Scott.

It seems like you have taken everything step by step.

Yes! Nobody can predict the future, but if you have a MBA you think you can. I didn’t have to sell the vision; I just had to invite people into cafes. I didn’t have to say, “Oh this is what we are trying to make.” Show, don’t tell. That’s how the Nestlé thing happened. Our CEO Bryan Meehan knew somebody at Nestlé and their CEO Mark Schneider wanted to come see Blue Bottle, so Bryan took Mark to our stores in New York. It seemed like a good time to have an alliance with a bigger company.

When you formed that alliance, did it accelerate or change your mission, and how did you communicate that within Nestlé?

The main work to be done was to communicate it within Blue Bottle, really. Brian and I flew to every market to talk to our employees. The vast majority of our staff were trusting and the world didn’t end. The coffee still tastes good!

Nestlé is a patient company. They are 151-years-old, and they take a very long view. The challenge hasn’t been with the Nestlé people. Public perception can be solved if we do good work and the baristas are happy. The challenge now for the Blue Bottle team is that they have to demonstrate certain financial markers. I’ve had my tantrums over the years about things that I think are important to the experience too, but that’s my role. I can be unpleasant when it’s called for.

Today I’m more involved with the experience part of the business, but really that’s all I’ve ever been concerned about.

Instagram Photo

What are you most proud about Blue Bottle?

I think about that little kiosk I started 13 years ago, and I still see a line with people drinking good drinks. It’s in my neighborhood, so I go down there once or twice a week. The first Starbucks is all about Starbucks-ness; it’s like a shrine. I like that mine is still this kiosk, and nothing more than a coffee cart.

I also think about our Tokyo opening with hundreds of people lined up, and I like that we’ve been able to sustain an interest in Japan, and not just be the flavor of the month. We opened in Tokyo because I love Tokyo and its old style coffee culture. I was a student of it. People appreciated that we weren’t coming as conquerors.


from 99U99U

10 Ways to Lead a More Fulfilling Creative Career

10 Ways to Lead a More Fulfilling Creative Career

We have gathered wisdom from some of the most iconic creatives on how to walk out each day and do what you love. Whether it’s Debbie Millman’s advice to invest in yourself or Amos Kennedy Jr.’s advocacy for setting your own values, these lessons act as a guide toward living a wonderfully fulfilling creative life. 

Play the 88-year long game.

We love immediate gratification and recognition. We want to be a prodigy and make the 30 Under 30 list. But being a shooting star isn’t the key to a lifelong career. Take abstract artist Carmen Herrera. She painted for more than 60 years before her work was widely recognized and, at age 101, her work was finally shown in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The takeaway? Nothing says your creative career is over if you’re not recognized early on. Remember to play the long game. Even if it takes close to a century. As Herrera herself put it, “Patience, darling, patience.”

Carmen Herrera in her New York studio. Image courtesy of Herrera.

Pursue personal projects.

Louise Fili has made a career crafting understated and elegant graphics, first for Pantheon Books and then for her own studio, Louise Fili Ltd. But her advice for a fulfilling career lives outside of the workday 9-5. “I feel very strongly that every designer has to have his or her own personal projects,” says Fili. “Because it’s the only way that you really grow and find your design voice.” The designer started with an Italian art deco inspired book, based on years of collecting material for fun. That little book grew into a design series that led Fili all over the world. “You have to combine graphic design with something you’re passionate about,” she says. “I wouldn’t be the designer I am today if I hadn’t done my own projects.”

Fili in her New York City Studio. Photo by Franck Bohbot.

Make confidence a part of your practice.

Animator Floyd Norman has been in the business a long time—since the days when an animator’s top pitch priority was to make Walt Disney himself smile. But his advice to young creatives has never gotten old. The secret to a good pitch? Fearlessness. “If you’re hesitant about your work,” Norman says, “this will show in your pitch. If you feel like you’ve delivered the goods, then you can pitch with confidence.”

Floyd Norman started working at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1956.

Think in systems, not pixels.

A brand isn’t only a logo you hand off to a client, according to MetaDesign founder Erik Spiekermann. A designer must take command of the big picture: strategy, implementation, a plan to put the pedal to the metal. “You can design anything, but if the rubber doesn’t hit the road,” says Spiekermann, “the client won’t call you again.” So, show up not just with color and a typeface, but a vision for how it fits into your client’s environment and business plan. That’ll put you right in the drivers’ seat.

Spiekermann in his studio in Berlin. Photo by Robert Rieger.

Act like you belong until it’s clear that you do.

President Reagan and President Obama White House Photographer, best-selling author, and Instagram sensation, Pete Souza, has his own twist on getting into ‘the room where it happens.’ The photographer earned President Obama’s trust while covering the then-Senator before he reached the White House. That might get him into the family’s Christmas morning celebration, but how about past security at G20 summits? “My approach was to sneak into rooms I wasn’t supposed to be in and act like I belonged,” says Souza. “I wasn’t successful every time, but it became a game to me.” His ‘fake it till you make it’ strategy eventually paid off. Souza’s Instagram documentation of Obama became so popular that ultimately, gatekeepers learned to wave the photographer in.

Souza walks with former President Obama.

Set your own values.

Master craftsman Amos Kennedy Jr. left a lucrative job at AT&T for the tempest-tossed road of starting a letterpress studio. At 60, the printer isn’t just an expert in type, he’s an expert in ignoring social pressures that whisper we must prioritize security, snazzy cars, and early retirement. “Personal responsibility is first for your happiness,” says Kennedy. “That freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.” Where does that happiness come from? According to Kennedy, it lies in finding and following internal peace.

Sync your schedule with the work style that inspires you.

Sign painter Norma Jeanne Maloney has lived many places, but in every location, she schedules her studio hours like she’s in farm country. “I get into the studio at 7a.m. and leave at 6 p.m.,” she says. “Sun up to sun down, like a farmer.” The schedule isn’t just about an honest day’s work.  It reinforces the idea of Maloney’s studio as a handcraft tradesman’s paradise, versus a 24/7 graphic design mill.

Maloney in her studio. Photo by Matthew Johnson.

Respect the tradition while designing your own spin on it.

Mira Nakashima may come from a rockstar family of woodworkers. But instead of giving her an inflated ego, that lineage has given her a humble sense of tradition and respect for previously tried-and-true techniques and designs. The result? A craft that blends personal inspiration with historical knowledge. “One usually builds on what one has learned in the past that works well and resonates from within,” says Nakashima. “In Western culture, following a tradition is not a respected path, but in most Eastern traditions it is the only way to go.”

Nakashima in the studio with her father. Image from the Nakashima Foundation for Peace.

Pitch ideas you’ll defend to the end.

George Lois made a name with his big ideas (and bigger personality) across ads, TV campaigns, and the covers of 92 editions of Esquire. “Any problem that you get as a designer, a communicator, the answer has to be surprising, shocking, maybe outrageous,” says Lois. “You want to show your creation to anybody and have them go, ‘You can’t do that.’ That is the story of my life.”

Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman. Photo by Julian Mackler

Invest in yourself.

It’s hard to get behind any kind of spec work, much less paying for an opportunity. Debbie Millman’s design career was taking off when Voice America offered her a podcast show…if she was willing to pay the fee. But, Millman reasoned, the paycheck from her big corporate job offered her the chance to invest in herself. “If you aren’t able to do the kind of work that you want to do at your day job, consider creating something of your own…Think about taking some of that money that somebody’s giving you and invest in something that you can do for yourself to make a difference in your own life.” The investment had exponential returns: Design Matters has become one of the top 100 podcasts on iTunes.

from 99U99U