Ingrid Fetell Lee: Our Surroundings Have a Profound Influence On Our Well-Being

Ingrid Fetell Lee: Our Surroundings Have a Profound Influence On Our Well-Being

IDEO Fellow Ingrid Fetell Lee is a purveyor of joy. Not just with her buoyant personality and quickdraw collection of delightful stories. Her blog, The Aesthetics of Joy, collects the sights, sounds, sunflowers, and playground slides that can brighten a room, buoy a mood, and reinvigorate a community.

Now, Fetell Lee has curated that project into a book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. In each chapter, Fetell Lee explores delight-inducing characteristics like abundance, harmony, and surprise and the creatives who have prioritized the benefits of joyful aesthetics in their homes, work, and communities.

99U sat down with Fetell Lee to talk about the origins of Joyful, how aesthetics impact our work performance, and how you’ve been thinking about your favorite color all wrong.


The Aesthetics of Joy started while you were a grad student at Pratt. What was the origin of the project?

I went into Pratt with very serious intentions. I was volunteering with a nonprofit that worked to prevent roadside injuries among children in Africa and I designed low cost reflective backpacks with them. That was the sort of stuff I was interested in. So, there was this moment of cognitive dissonance when, a year into the Pratt program, a professor said to me, “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.” And I was like “What? That wasn’t what I was going for.” Joy seemed so light and fluffy. It took a while for me to come around to the understanding that joy could be quite serious in its impact.

There’s an emerging body of research that shows that our surroundings have a profound influence on our well-being and performance.

How can joy be serious in impact?

We think of aesthetics as frivolous or superfluous. We’re inculcated with the view that this isn’t really what matters in life. But, these aesthetics of joy have deep effects. There’s an emerging body of research that shows that our surroundings have a profound influence on our well-being and performance. A reader recently sent me an example of confetti dots for kindness. They started in a classroom and each dot is a kind act that someone did. Now the whole hallway is covered in confetti. It’s a way to visualize the kindness of the community in an aesthetically joyful way. It spreads that visceral, unconscious experience to everyone in the school.

Ingrid Fetell Lee; Joyful

Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.

The book begins with color and light. Which color is the most joyful?

We think about color as hue. “What’s your favorite color?” “Red.” “Blue.” That’s opposed to the other two dimensions of color, which designers are well acquainted with: saturation and lightness, or value. Brighter colors, purer colors are considered to be the most joyful. It actually doesn’t matter what color you choose. I find that really freeing. You can have whatever favorite color you want. As long as you bring up the saturation and the brightness, it will be seen as more joyful.

I’d like to see the places that house the people who are most vulnerable designed with as much aesthetic sensitivity as the places that house the people who have tons of resources.

Where can something like the aesthetics of color and saturation have a really powerful effect?

Aesthetics enliven a community. They bring a sense of dignity. We’ve created cities that are so void of the sensory stimulation that makes us feel alive. You walk into a typical downtown and go, “Woah, how did we end up in a world that looks like this?” There’s a real equity issue here too. In public housing, for example, aesthetics don’t get any consideration. The most benign form of it is, “We don’t have resources to put toward to that.” But at the end of the day, most aesthetic questions, like the color paint you choose is not a cost consideration. It’s a choice. I’d like to see the places that house the people who are most vulnerable designed with as much aesthetic sensitivity as the places that house the people who have tons of resources: nursing homes, schools in underserved neighborhoods. And infrastructure, that’s an area that’s so overlooked.

It seems counterintuitive that design needs convincing of the importance of aesthetics. What happened there?

Over the past 15 to 20 years there’s been this evolution where design is now seen as a serious tool for business. Design swung hard to the functional as a way to be taken seriously in board rooms and C-suites. Designers tried to move away from being seen as stylists or people who just put the frills on top. But it’s really important to make a distinction between style and aesthetics. Style relates to taste and what’s current. Aesthetics has to do with the fundamental sensory experience of the place that you’re surrounded by. There’s a deeper core to aesthetics.

How do you convince the business side of the value of what you’re talking about?

It’s an ongoing conversation. The point of resistance lies in the fact that these effects are tricky to quantify. “How much is wall color connected to bottom line performance?” is a really hard question to answer. The most important thing is getting people to experience it for themselves. The most powerful moment is when I say, “Here are the things that bring us joy and here’s the office that most people work in.” People have been looking at all these brightly colored, wonderful things and then they see this grey cube farm and they burst out laughing. But it’s nervous laughter. 

from 99U99U

Be Frugal with Everything Except Your Bed, Your Chair, Your Space, and Your Team

Be Frugal with Everything Except Your Bed, Your Chair, Your Space, and Your Team

In the process of building a business—and in life, generally—you should manage expenses carefully. But sometimes frugality backfires.

For example, given that you spend 30 percent of your life in bed and that sleep has such a great impact on how you feel awake, you should not skimp on your bed. Same goes with your office chair: In this modern age, we often even spend more time sitting at our desks than lying in our beds! So go buy the best damn chair you can find. Beyond your chair, the overall work space matters. While I am certainly not a proponent of expensive offices, the thought you put into the tools and environment you use to build things influences the quality of what you make.

Most companies classify their spaces the same way they do office supplies: negligible. Facilities planners tend to focus on the cost per square foot and logistical efficiencies rather than how space impacts the psychology of its inhabitants. But how you locate and design your space is as important as your team’s skills, because your environment impacts how focused, motivated, and creative you are.

Collisions between people from different teams, Steve felt, were core to Pixar’s creative process.

The space you use also has a significant impact on the products you create. One of my mentors, James Higa, who spent a big chunk of his career working for Steve Jobs through his time at Next, Apple, and Pixar, shared just how emphatic Steve was about planning the office space for each company. He would take the time to fly around the world to look at sample materials and reference structures, and even once pursued acquiring sculptures by renowned Japanese American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi so Apple employees could have a “daily encounter with beauty” in the lobby.

Steve would also spend the energy required to bend the will of headstrong architects until they aligned with his vision. James told me one story about Steve’s influence at Pixar. While he didn’t get involved in storytelling or Pixar’s day-to-day operations, Steve took a very active role when it came to planning the company’s physical structure and design. Tom Carlyle, who oversaw facilities for Pixar at the time and would later help with Apple’s new Spaceship campus, worked closely with Steve to conceive the vision for Pixar’s “town square concept,” an area located at the building’s center that also housed the bathrooms.

The idea was to pull people together every day, whether they liked it or not, to promote “serendipitous idea exchange” when nature called. Collisions between people from different teams, Steve felt, were core to Pixar’s creative process. James recalls that Steve also encouraged each Pixar employee to “modify your space and go crazy,” recognizing how central freedom of expression was at Pixar. Of all the things Steve could have spent time on at Pixar, not to mention his other responsibilities, including leading Apple, he chose to focus on space because he knew what that meant for the company.

When you think about compensation, think about how indispensable someone is—or has the potential to become.

And yet, despite all the good reasons to do otherwise, most teams willfully ignore or just delegate facilities planning and other internal tasks in order to focus on what “ultimately matters”:  external-facing product and profit. Why the disconnect? Ultimately, it is a mismatch of talent and measures. Information technology professionals are measured by the compatibility of their systems and how well they manage their budgets. Facility planners have backgrounds in planning buildings and are seldom privy to the creative cultures they serve. They are measured by such efficiencies as how many desks can fit rather than whether creative collisions are happening that will enrich the story line of Toy Story 3.

Finally, and most important, don’t be frugal when it comes to paying your team. When you think about compensation, think about how indispensable someone is—or has the potential to become. Many companies wrongly focus on one’s past salaries and assigning people to “salary bands” that allow themselves to be subconsciously biased by age, years of experience, gender, and other characteristics that don’t correlate with indispensability.

While these companies may get away with underpaying someone in the short term, great talent tends to recognize their own value over time. When they do, their teams pay the price in either attempting to save them or, worse, having to replace them. Your team must feel taken care of and must have no doubt that they are being rewarded as best as possible for their achievements—and then a little bit more.

Excerpted from The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Scott Belsky.

To read 99U’s interview with Scott about The Messy Middle, click here

from 99U99U

How Robinhood Emphasizes Design to Make Stock Trading More Accessible

How Robinhood Emphasizes Design to Make Stock Trading More Accessible

The idea of trading stocks, for many people, triggers a porcupine-like reaction. It’s too complicated, too expensive, and the platforms that allow you do it feel straight out of the early 2000s.

That’s why Robinhood has had such success. Since launching in 2014, the millennial-friendly investing app has accumulated more users than E-Trade and is valued at nearly $6 billion. Where its competitors charge trading fees, Robinhood charges nothing for trades and a key part of its success lies in its clean, easy-to-use interface, which has been recognized in its own right; in 2015, Robinhood became the first financial services company to win an Apple Design Award.

Alex Bond, 29, is the senior product designer at the Silicon Valley-based startup. After studying fine arts and graphic design at Colorado State University, she went on to hold several design jobs before spending two years at Pinterest. From there, venture capital firm Sequoia Capital brought her on as the firm’s 2016 Design Fellow, where she worked with portfolio companies to help them solve business problems through design.

Today, she’s leading Robinhood’s small team of designers as the company continues to improve its product. In the interview, she explains the strategies and tactics she uses to make trading more approachable.


Was becoming a designer in the financial services world something you aspired to do?

Not at all. Like many people at the company, I don’t have a financial background. I remember when Robinhood initially reached out to me I was like, “What is this, a bank? I don’t know about this.” And then I spoke with (co-founder) Baiju Bhatt and he explained the product and it kind of blew me away. I felt that this was generally a worthwhile thing to work on.

What’s the design strategy at Robinhood?

Throughout history, design has dictated what product is for what person. Sartorial code has dictated where certain classes of people can go or where they belong. Design is kind of a shorthand for who you’re allowed to be and what you’re allowed to use.

In the modern era, it’s not really different. When you look at the traditional financial brokerage account, there’s a lot being communicated there that isn’t in writing. Whether it’s the landing page or the product itself, the design can feel very alienating to customers. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but it serves a purpose: it’s obtuse, difficult to parse, and, as a user, it can make you feel like trading is not for you or maybe those fees you’re paying are really worth it because this all feels really complicated. I think there’s a lot of muddying the water to make it seem deep.

At Robinhood, we’re conscious that design, beyond the words, communicates who a product is for. We’re focused on design that’s friendly, that’s inviting, that doesn’t intimidate you, that isn’t condescending. 

We make use of simple colors to remove as much information as possible, so that it’s clear to the user what’s happening.

Robinhood’s designs often begin with pen and paper. Image courtesy of Robinhood.

Robinhood’s main color aesthetic is bright jungle green. That’s not a color we typically associate with financial services. Tell us about the thinking behind this design choice.

Traditionally in the stock market, green means up and red means down. That’s a really quick visual cue, but in the wrong application, it can feel intimidating and clinical. Rather than just your typical primary green, we wanted ours to be a little bit more vibrant. I think that it speaks to a younger generation.

We make use of simple colors to remove as much information as possible, so that it’s clear to the user what’s happening. For example, we have day and night mode in the app that reflects when the markets are open and closed. Overall, we try to remove as much decoration as possible and use color as a way of communicating what’s happening in the moment.

In our work, we’re referencing Swiss design from the middle of the century. We’re getting back to basics and rethinking features through the lens of patterns that make sense to a contemporary audience. 

Robinhood’s minimalist interfaces use color to convey what is happening in the market.

The heart of all design questions is: “What problem is this trying to solve?”

How do you know what users want?

I’ve been at companies where research can feel like they’re a second-fiddle team and a lot of decisions by leadership are based on educated hunches. At Robinhood, our roadmap is almost entirely influenced by our research team. As we start solving problems, they’ve already done foundational research on users, on possible products. They’ve already started thinking ahead for us. And they partner with us to work on these projects. When you have facts and information, it makes decision-making easier. 

What are the questions you ask yourself as you’re designing?

The heart of all design questions is: “What problem is this trying to solve?” It’s something you can always go back to and, at any given moment, it can help you find the right solution. There are so many ways to make something look appealing, to make decisions about hierarchy, layout, type, color. For example, there is no reason we can’t have a technicolor app. But the fact is, the problem we’re trying to solve at Robinhood is clarity. We need to be clear and friendly and relatable. That is the lens through which we’re able to make design decisions. It’s what lets us rule out things that, while nice, don’t solve the specific problem.


from 99U99U

The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?

The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?

Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the unchartered waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about how to determine, and maximize, your first salary. 

Q. Should I try to negotiate the salary of my first job?

Knowing what your first job should pay is challenging: this number will vary wildly depending on geography, industry, studio size, studio clientele, and so on. Make sure to do some online research first (a good start is searching for “junior designer salary” in the city you are looking at). Once an offer has been made, you should always attempt to negotiate your salary — there is no reason not to, and every reason to try.

If a company wants to hire you, asking for more money is not going to suddenly make them change their mind. They may not increase your pay, but they will not suddenly tell you to go away, either. Any company that does take an offer off the table when you politely ask for more money is not a company you want to work for, anyway.

So many people look for a job purely by trying to logic their way through the process — is this the “best” position? Will it give me the “right” opportunities? Will I get to work with the biggest name clients? Will I get a desk in a cool loft space? Do I get enough vacation days? Are the office snacks organic? These are all legitimate things to think about, but so often we forget the most important metric: does it FEEL right? Does it seem like a place you want to be for 40+ (or 50+, or 60+) hours a week? Do you want to sit next to these people all day? Are you excited to start? Always, always trust your gut — if it feels bad do not take it.

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job.

Everybody has a different situation and different needs — there are some people who can afford to take a low-paying job with a big-name studio, and there are some people who have to cover more expenses. Be very honest with yourself about what your reality is: will you have to work a shift at Starbucks to cover the shortfall in a low-paying but “impressive” design job?

You might have massive student loan debt, you might have a child to support, you might have expensive housing. Make sure to take care of business and cover your living expenses. That amazing BIG NAME DESIGNER STUDIO job might not be worth putting your rent on a credit card just for the chance to work there. An incredible job that does not pay you enough to live might not be that incredible.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job.

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job. You can pay your bills, you will learn how commercial practice works, you will get some valuable experience under your belt, you will make industry connections, and you will be less panicked and desperate on interviews. Just like a company can fire you, you can quit when something better comes along, so do not be afraid to take a job you will not keep forever, especially if puts you in a place where you want to live.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job — what you do in 10 years might be completely different from what you do tomorrow. When you do leave, you should never, ever stand up at your desk, yell “I QUIT!!” and run out into the Brooklyn sunshine. Design is an extremely small world, so give two weeks notice and leave on friendly terms.

Lastly, if your resume is filled with a dozen jobs in as many years, that might be a red flag to a possible employer (and maybe to yourself: you might be better as a freelancer than as an employee.) 

from 99U99U

These UX Designers are Rethinking the Voter Ballot 

These UX Designers are Rethinking the Voter Ballot 

I was five the first time I went to vote, excited for a field trip with my dad that conflicted with bed time. The polling place was a school gym. The room echoed with the clunk of machine levers as each vote was cast, and I munched on brownies from the bake sale set up in the lobby. That visit, which was repeated each election throughout my childhood, made it statistically far more likely that I would become a regular voter myself. Many people aren’t exposed to the voting process at a young age, and millions never make it to the polls.  

Whitney Quesenbery and Dana Chisnell, co-founders of The Center for Civic Design, are focused on those people: where they fall off the voter journey, and how to get them back on. So they’ve set out to bring UX strategies to the myriad systems of local, state, and federal election offices, using human centered design thinking to shepherd citizens through the registration process to the moment they mark their choice on the ballot.

Chisnell and Quesenbery got into election design around 2001—the year that the infamous Florida butterfly ballot took over the headlines. Chisnell remembers watching the news as voters left the Miami polls questioning who they’d voted for and wondering what the design process behind the curtain had been. As it turned out, it was pretty flimsy. Usability testing and human centered design hadn’t found their way into elections at that point. Instead, design decisions reflected the perspective of the election officials: Did the materials meet regulations? And how would the ballot be counted?

“Democracy is a design problem.”

Like a happy meeting of two platonic halves obsessed with voter intent, it wasn’t long before Quesenbery and Chisnell found each other. They ran a Kickstarter together, producing the Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent. It was free for election officials and raised over $20,000. “We were like, ‘This is getting less like a hobby and more like a thing,’ recalls Quesenbery on their ‘will you be my co-founder’ conversation.

The Field Guide to Ensuring Voter Intent helps local officials create well designed ballots. Photo by Rowan Bradley

They launched The Center for Civic Design shortly thereafter. Their slogan? “Democracy is a design problem.” They’ve been together ever since, except for a brief sabbatical when Chisnell joined the United States Digital Service—the newly minted founder had planned to say no, but when Obama appeared on her White House tour she was hooked. “It was a very compelling recruiting pitch,” she admits.

Over the last decade, Civic Design has worked to dispel the myth that non-engaged citizens are apathetic. Instead, they’re trying to understand how the system has disenfranchised the non-voting and the non-registered. They are finding that, between regulations, time constraints, and lack of transparency, it’s just plain hard for people to travel the path from registration to the point where they have a ballot in their hands. The good news? A lot of these challenges can be solved by the tools of design: plain language, white space, wayfinding, new technologies, and a predilection for usability tests. Upgrading the voting systems hasn’t been easy. “The processes are 19th or 20th century processes and design is a 21st century process,” says Chisnell.

Sometimes the issues are too complex for just a copy change. Remember the infamous Virginia tied election of 2018, which was decided by pulling a slip of paper out of a fishbowl?

Civic Design has to be good at building trust in order to nudge government offices embrace change. Their secret? Listening.“Talk less, ask more questions,” says Chisnell. Don’t make assumptions. Try to understand the problem, the constraints and the resources. The two are the first to admit that they aren’t experts in running elections—they leave that to the election officials who, each year, martial an army of semi-volunteers, navigate the mania of filing dates, mailings, and then the elections themselves. Sometimes there’s resistance to Civic Design’s suggestions, but most people, they say, share the goal of making voting better for everyone. “They are salt of the earth,” says Quesenbery of their partners, “They are quiet innovators.”

The game changer that Civic Design offers election officials is the perspective of UX. In a project in Sarasota, Florida in 2008, the Civic Design team ran a usability test on a new ballot design which had candidates printed on both sides. At the bottom of the original first page in all caps, bold letters read “Vote both sides”. Maybe it was read by voters as esoteric bipartisanship or maybe it was just plain confusing. The net result? Half of the ballots came back with the second side still blank. Score 1 for doing usability tests ahead of time.  

This is the number one rule of ballot design.

The Civic Design suggested an instructions tweak. The copy was updated to read ‘turn the ballot over’. A natural A/B test played out when the neighboring county ran the original ballot design, giving Chisnell and Quesenbery the perfect case study to show that clear instructions, strategically placed and in familiar language, have a massive effect on ballot completion.

Volunteering on election day is a crash course in the kinds of questions and challenges voters have.

Sometimes the issues are too complex for just a copy change. Remember the infamous Virginia tied election of 2017, which was decided by pulling a slip of paper out of a fishbowl? Looking at that, Quesenbery thought, “This is exactly what happens when you have a ballot where people can’t verify their vote.” A verified vote system isn’t rocket science—it’s conceptually the equivalent of a diner experience in which you choose from a menu and then get a slip of paper, a receipt that lists your selections so you can verify what you owe. Voting booths similarly, could spit out a chit to be cast, counted, and audited just like any vote. The innovation isn’t just about convenience. This verification step adds confidence in the election process—a timely thing to bolster.

It’s not mandatory that election offices who work with Civic Design adopt their guidelines. But often, come election time, Quesenbery and Chisnell are surprised by how much design thinking they’ve incorporated. Quesenbery attributes it to leaving good tools out where people can find them: they make sure to send layouts in InDesign or Word files so they can be adapted, samples of good language. Often, they find that once an office takes one design element, they can’t stop. “By letting them work it by themselves,” Quesenbery says, “They take more steps than I could have made them.”

The 2016 presidential election result that took many by surprise put Center for Civic Design’s mission on the map. “We had toiled in virtual obscurity for a very long time,” says Chisnell. All of a sudden, their inboxes were flooded by people with election design ideas. “Our first reaction was ‘Where have you been??’” recalls Chisnell. Civic Design has now become a sort of clearing house; networking ideas, resources, and likeminded innovators. They expect another groundswell in the leadup to the midterm election.

We’re hearing a lot about how design leadership is taking over business. What would it look like if it started to lead in government? “Designers come to civic life and government thinking about what the experience is and what the outcomes for the public can be,” says Chisnell. They bring an actual process for understanding what people need. “The potential role of design in government is to change how government works,” says Chisnell. From the websites, to the way systems are built and tested, to how much projects cost.

So how can a designer get more involved in ballot design? Start by signing up to be a poll worker. With a little bit of training, you can show up on election day and see the entire process from the point of view of people working the polls. “Poll workers are awesome people who really love doing it,” says Chisnell, “You’ll meet a vast cross-section of human beings you might not otherwise get exposed to.” The experience is a crash course in the kinds of questions and challenges voters have. If you can’t commit the time to be a poll worker—the days can be over 14 hours long—register as an official observer. Anyone can do it, though, Chisnell warns, the clerk will think you’re spying for a political party.

Civic Design has gone from the fringes of government and UX to being experts in one of the most talked about topics of the year. But both founders have the capacity, stamina, and good humor for big changes, “Anybody in elections or politics who thinks they can set out a five-year plan and blindly follow it is just plain wrong,” says Quesenbery. And no matter what happens in November, Center for Civic Design will continue its drive to get more voters to the polls and have better materials waiting for them. “The time is right for CCD,” says Quesenbery, “Nothing much is going to stop it except for us just giving up.”

from 99U99U

How to Navigate the Messy Middle of a Creative Venture

How to Navigate the Messy Middle of a Creative Venture

The middle stretch of a journey is when the exciting moment of idea conception gives way to the long, slow, trying slog to the finish line. The promise of a fresh start is behind you, and the end far, far away. Volatility feels like the only constant. Each high—Yes! Champagne! $$$!—seems to be met by a heart-breaking low—Ouch! Rough! What happened?!

It’s this part of the journey where investor, entrepreneur, and co-founder of 99U and Behance, Scott Belsky, has directed his new book, The Messy Middle. Belsky’s insights are meant for people embarking on a creative project, whether they are founders, entrepreneurs, designers, or artists. The Messy Middle is a guidebook for navigating the time when you start to lose hope and become overwhelmed with self doubt.

Belsky, now Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, sat down with 99U to discuss what we misjudge about the middle part of a journey, the two most important characteristics for building something, and to share his lessons from The Messy Middle.

You’ve written The Messy Middle to focus on the wildly misunderstood part of a journey. What do we overlook about the middle? 

Typical headlines and the gravitational pull by all of the press around the starts and the finishes frustrate me. I feel like those are shallow, pithy ways of describing the journey, heavily edited for egos and sound bites, and don’t adequately reflect any of the provocative and sometimes controversial, or at least counterintuitive and conflicting insights that happen around the middle. 

What you need to think about in the middle of a journey is that sometimes the right playbook at the very start is the absolutely wrong playbook for the middle, and yet may become right again a little later on, and then wrong again. Leadership is about crafting instincts while understanding context and having some muscle memory around what you’re experiencing in the middle, and how to navigate it.

The muscle memory can come from your own experiences or those of others. Oftentimes, what I found in my own journey is that hearing a point of view of someone else, if I was careful not to just follow it because they found that it was useful, but rather just consider it as one data point, that wisdom is very helpful to me. I wanted to chronicle the essential insights for enduring the low points and optimizing the high points of that great volatility that happens in the middle.

The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky

The book looks at two key characteristics—endurance and optimization—to steer through the volatile middle miles of a journey. How and where can we apply these characteristics to what we’re building? 

Let’s get into the psychology of it for the moment. At the low points, you start to make decisions out of fear. You become overwhelmed by the self-doubt, the anonymity, the ambiguity, and the uncertainty of the moment. In such conditions we are more liable to make the wrong decision. Also, that’s where teams disband, where people lose hope. That’s where we add complication to our products because we can’t spend the time to find the right solution, so we just throw crap in there to try to solve it with complexity. It’s really where a lot of great new ventures and new projects within big companies start to unravel.

Then at high points, we start to make decisions out of ego and we actually start to believe, often falsely, that we are at a high point because of the things we did as opposed to good luck or good timing, or the work of others that may have been out of our control. It’s important to recognize that we’re liable to start making bad decisions at the high points as well.

In the volatility of the journey, whether you’re at a low or a high, you are in a spotlight of seduction to go down the wrong path. What keeps you grounded is being empathetic with what the customer is suffering from, and focused on doing what’s right for the team.

The Messy Middle; Scott Belsky

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

In one chapter you write about how teams tend to A/B Test products, but they don’t often A/B test processes. Why is it so important to A/B test the latter?

I think that we don’t feel like we have the luxury of testing and optimizing anything that works in the middle of the journey. If you have a Tuesday morning meeting and it just works, you don’t ever think well, maybe we should cancel and see what happens. But one thing I found across some of the most productive and admired teams, is that they were tinkering with the practices that were working. This makes perfect sense if you think about the world of A/B testing and the fact that you optimize the most important parts of the product. Optimizing process is important. If you believe that founders, entrepreneurs, leaders ultimately win because of how they manage, then how could you not allocate some energy, even when it’s scarce, to improving the things that you’re most proud of?

The Messy Middle Scott Belsky

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

You also write about hiring for initiative over experience. Why? And how does one spot “initiative” in a potential hire?

 When we started Behance, we didn’t have any money or connections really in the tech world. We had no choice but to hire people that didn’t have a lot of experience but had tremendous amounts of interest and initiative. What I learned from that is, while it takes maybe longer to build things, what you lose with having lack of experience in your team, you make up for, and then some, with initiative.

I find that people who have a history of taking initiative and things that are interesting to them continue to do so. Initiative is the best indicator of future initiative. And then when you start to become more successful or you start to have venture capital, you become a resume snob and you say, “Oh, well now I’m going to hire the most experienced people.” Oftentimes, what you’ll find is you hire experienced people who think within the box of what they’re experts in and are less open to ideas and alternative approaches because their ignorance in this case – or their knowledge in this case – has become a weight on their willingness to be open-minded. It’s important to remember as you’re building your team to continue hiring for initiative, even if you want to balance it out with a little experience at some point.


Instagram Photo

In another chapter you talk about how to allocate resources across the duration of the journey, in particular when it comes to negotiating with people. What is your negotiation philosophy?

If you’re buying a house, you obviously want to get the best price. But when you’re negotiating a partnership or a package for someone you’re hiring, it is the start of a relationship, and the last thing you want to do is get the better of them. What you ultimately want is to both feel like you got the right end that both people can feel really good about it.

My strategy is that I’m going to put out what I think you should be getting in your package and why, and let’s focus the conversation on what I might be missing or what you might be missing.

It’s about being straightforward and knowing that we started the relationship in a point where, two years from now, you don’t look back and say, “I got screwed.” But actually, look back and be like, “Wow. I was treated right and that’s the way I’m going to treat others,” because that’s self-perpetuating and that builds culture.

Scott Belsky The Messy Middle

Image courtesy of Scott Belsky.

Of all the lessons in The Messy Middle, which one do you feel that you’ve grappled with the most?

 In the final mile, for example, I talk about how the final mile is a different sport altogether and how you’d need a different set of mentors and a different set of coaches, if you will, because, despite all the confidence and skills you gained over a journey, before some finish line of sorts, you suddenly believe that you’re not ready.

In fact, it’s actually an entirely different set of factors that need to be considered in the final mile of a project. There were many times during my own entrepreneurial journey building Behance where I didn’t listen to outside people enough. I felt lonely at times during the journey and chalked that up to what it’s like to be the head of something and to have that burden on your shoulders.

What I’ve since learned from other entrepreneurs is that it’s really good to have people you go to for specific things. I don’t think the right way to do it is to have an advisory board or to rely just on your formal board, which is a mistake that I made. The people that were most helpful to me weren’t necessarily the right people to be on my board. Certain people are helpful for specific things, and you don’t want to necessarily be limited to just a few people who are there for everything.

Scott is also the author of the bestselling book Making Ideas Happen. Watch his 2018 99U Conference talk here.

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What It Takes to Launch a Profitable Side Hustle

What It Takes to Launch a Profitable Side Hustle

Radim Malinic doesn’t like to sit still. At 40, the Czech-born designer has lived many lives — first as a heavy metal musician, then as a DJ, then as an economics student, and ultimately as his own boss at multi-disciplinary design studio Brand Nu in London.

But when you ask him about his most fulfilling journey, he’ll tell you it’s the one currently underway: Malinic has written the second volume of Book of Ideas, his self-published collection of advice and observations for people in creative jobs. The first volume, released in 2016, defied self-publishing naysayers and not only became an Amazon No. 1 bestseller in graphic arts, but turned a profit. To date, more than 10,000 copies have been sold.

In the interview below, Malinic muses on how he found success in writing and offers advice for anyone looking to start a money-making side project.

You wrote and self-published Book of Ideas to help and inspire other creatives. Did you think it would make a profit?

Not at first. Being in charge was my first motivation. Initially my objective was to complete the work and get it out there and see what happens if anyone finds it. I printed 1,000 copies and hoped for the best. Little did I know that those 1,000 copies would sell out in three weeks and there would be a huge demand for what I’d written. From there I became more shrewd about the profit margins, the production, and I discovered that, indeed, books actually can make money. If you’re working with a publisher, your cut is small. A book could make $20 and you could be getting $1 or less per book. By being in charge, all the money goes back to where it started.

Many people think that once they’ve published a book, that’s where the journey stops. But what you do after your title is released is the most important part.
Radim Malinic book of ideas

Self-publishing is great because anyone can do it, but that also makes it a crowded marketplace. What did you do to stand out?

I followed the exact marketing strategy and tools of big titles and publishing houses. I spent money on advertising. I made sure that I promoted the book well beyond the regular cycle of a publishing house title. Being in control was key here. I kept pushing the book out to various channels for more than a year just to make sure I covered all ground.

The problem is that many people who self-publish think that once they’ve published a book and they’ve got it in their hand, that’s where the journey stops. But that’s only the first half. What you do after your title is released is the most important part.

Radim Malinic book of ideas

A lot of people are unable or unwilling to think like a big publisher because they see it as being expensive. How much did you spend on advertising and promotion of your first book?

Normally it’s around 20 percent of what you bring in. If the book takes home £2,000 a month, I spend around £300 or £400 on advertising. It can vary, but I would say 20 percent is a good mark. It’s something I’ve learned from people in the self-publishing bracket who have done it successfully. 

Treat your side hustle like it’s the most important thing next to your day job.

Radim Malinic

What was your biggest challenge in starting a side hustle?

The first challenge is creative freedom. The book could have been anything; I had to validate the concept in my head before I started. I needed to make clear to myself “What’s the book I’m trying to make? How I am going to make sense of everything I’m going to do to say?” It took me awhile to come up with a very simple idea — that one page of the book equals one idea. Having a clear concept in my head proved to be absolutely crucial.

The other challenge is time. We all think the life of an author is somewhat of a TV series — we get a cottage by the sea, write, have a fish lunch in the afternoon, go back to writing. It doesn’t happen like that. I would find time to write whenever I could, at 5 a.m., on plane rides, train platforms while waiting for a train, wherever I could.

What’s your advice to someone pursuing a side hustle on top of their day job?

I think the nature of whatever we do, if it’s a full-time job or side hustle, is that you live and breathe what you believe. When I decided to write a book, I first established when it would come out because, without a deadline, I’d still be writing today. That’s why it took me four years to publish the first book, because you think there’s always tomorrow; today doesn’t feel urgent. The latest Vol.2 took just six months from start to finish. I learned to how to incorporate the side hustle in around everything else.

Treat your side hustle like it’s the most important thing next to your day job. I’ve found that there’s always an hour at the beginning or end of the day where you can do something for yourself. If I write a half a chapter at the beginning of the day before I get to the studio, or at 8 p.m. right before I leave, I get instant satisfaction that I’ve achieved something. Those little stages of completion that you go through are so rewarding and inspire you to do more.

I’d started something quite full of obstacles and unknowns and mistakes. Now I have an idea for another three books.


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