Working Remotely from Antarctica to Albania

Working Remotely from Antarctica to Albania

It takes a while to get the end of the world. Helen Glazer would know.

Three years ago, Glazer left her cozy, three-bedroom home in the suburbs of Baltimore for the frigid climes of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The trip took nearly two days and involved stops in Dallas, Sydney, and Christchurch, New Zealand.

When she finally flew into Antarctica on a military transport plane, dressed head-to-toe in special cold-weather gear, she was exhausted but thrilled. “I was just like, ‘I can’t believe I finally got here!’ I just put so much into this,” she says.

Helen Glazer stands in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica in 2015.

Helen Glazer stands in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica in 2015. Image courtesy of Glazer.

Glazer was part of the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program, which sends a handful of artists, illustrators, filmmakers, writers, and musicians to Antarctica each year for exploration and creative work. She lived out of a research base for nearly two months, photographing ice and rock formations while learning things she’d never before thought about, such as how to tell when ice is too thin to walk on and how to set up a tent in freezing weather conditions. It was an experience that shaped her profoundly. “I had no idea what I was getting into, really, but it was even better and richer than I had expected,” she says.

While in Antarctica, Helen Glazer photographed the dream-like lake ice at Cape Royds.

While in Antarctica, Helen Glazer photographed the lake ice at Cape Royds.

Glazer’s feelings echo those of so many creatives who have experienced life off the beaten path: It can be a hassle, but the rewards often outweigh the inconveniences.

For wildlife artist Deborah Ross, who has spent years bouncing between New York City and Africa, the allure of living and working in remote locales is strong. Much of her work has been based in Madagascar, where she’s worked on a variety of projects, including illustrations of lemurs and workshops for students. She estimates she’s been there at least six times over the past few years, and will spend another four months there in January. The only part she dislikes is the travel itself – it takes about 20 hours in the air, and another eight to 10 hours driving before she gets where she needs to go. “Dramamine is a wonderful drug,” she jokes.

From a creative perspective, Ross feels the wildlife is unbeatable. She describes it as a sort of “candy land” full of friendly animals and incredible insects. The moths are her favorite – there are bright purple ones, huge golden ones, and tiny spotted ones that she says look like Kandinsky paintings. But what she also loves about spending time in Madagascar is that it allows her to use all of her skills. “When I first went there, I was amazed that it was somewhere that used everything I had. I had to use my wits, my talent, my humor, my people skills. I found the country just delighted me,” she says.

The African countryside, with its open roads and lush vegetation, photographed by Deborah Ross.

The African countryside photographed by Deborah Ross.

That’s not to say her experiences have always been easy. Ross remembers being asked to do an illustration for a river cruise. She didn’t realize it was mandatory to paddle, or that she would have to dig a hole anytime she needed to go to the bathroom. It was all so labor intensive, and she was so consumed by the whole process that she didn’t even have time to paint, which was the whole reason she was there. “It was ridiculous,” she says.

One of the major things that have changed over the years is her ability to work efficiently. Most of that is a result of technology. When Ross first began going to Madagascar in the late ’90s, it was a hassle just to make a phone call or send an email. She recalls the process of working with the German Primate Society on an article – she would use someone’s computer to write out a message, and then the person would have to drive into town to find a dial-up connection so the message could be sent.

Nowadays, she doesn’t have to worry about any of that. Her post at Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio, in the northeastern rain forests of Madagascar, has hot showers, fresh sheets, and – most important – high-speed Wi-Fi. “I just hook up my computer and scanner and I can do tons of work,” she says.

I would talk to my husband once a week on the phone, which was nice.

For Glazer, living and working in Antarctica also proved to be a relatively smooth adjustment. She describes life at the research station to be somewhat like college – she had a roommate and ate in the shared cafeteria. While the internet service was somewhat limited, she was able to start a blog to keep in touch with people. And she was actually able to make local calls to the U.S., as the line was routed through Denver. “I would talk to my husband once a week on the phone, which was nice,” she says.

Helen Glazer's photo "Skua" captures a frozen Lake Hoare in Antarctica.

“Skua,” Lake Hoare, Antarctica circa 2015. Photographed by Helen Glazer.

The creative benefits of working in Antarctica exceeded Glazer’s expectations. It wasn’t just a flat, white landscape, as she initially imagined it would be. In having the freedom to learn the land and live in a vastly unexplored territory, Glazer found all sorts of geological structures and patterns that blew her mind. She remembers, for instance, walking around a permanently frozen lake where the ice was evaporating and refreezing into an array of intricately etched designs.

“I still don’t know if anyone else has photographed those things, but I was fascinated by all of it,” she says. Upon her return, Glazer recapped her experience through more than 30 framed photographs and several sculptures in a solo exhibition called “Walking in Antarctica” at Goucher CollegeWhile she was ultimately happy to return to her family and friends in Maryland, and the creature comforts that came with it, the experience of living and working there continues to stay with her three years on. In fact, she’d like to go back. “I have my feelers out to see if there’s a way to do it,” she says.

To my parents, what I’m doing sounds completely weird. For me, it works perfectly.

While Madagascar and Antarctica are extreme places to live and work, there are creatives all over the world able to pursue their craft in regions outside of well-trodden locales. The explosion of technology has been instrumental in making the world much smaller than it once was, and it has fostered a culture of remote workers that continues to grow. Right now, more than two-thirds of people around the world work away from the office at least once a week, according to a recent survey by Switzerland-based serviced office provider IWG.

The trend has also been a boon for freelance workers. By 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce is expected to be freelance, according to a 2017 report by freelance marketplace Upwork. The beauty of it is that much of that growth is by choice – 63 percent of those surveyed by Upwork said they started freelancing by choice, not necessity, up from 53 percent since 2014.

For people like visual designer Vasjen Katro, the ability to work remotely has opened up many opportunities. Katro, 29, lives and works in his native Albania but does 98 percent of his business all over the world. With clients such as Adobe, Apple, Facebook, and Converse, he’s often juggling multiple gigs spread over multiple time zones. That sometimes means conference call at 3 a.m. “To my parents, what I’m doing sounds completely weird,” he says. “For me, it works perfectly and it’s why I love the internet.”

Vasjen Katro photographed in his studio, which is located in Albania.

Vasjen Katro photographed in his studio (right), which is located in Albania (left). Image courtesy of Vasjen Katro.

Katro, who lives in the capital city of Tirana with his girlfriend and their dog, finds working with international clients not only creatively inspiring but also financially rewarding. He generally earns higher rates than he would if he were to work only with local clients. And he’s able to save more than he would in many other places: In a recent cost-of-living ranking of 100 cities in Europe, Tirana came in at No. 86, while more established design hubs such as Geneva, London, Oslo, and Berlin were in the top 10 of cities with the highest cost of living.

Aside from the late-night conference calls, much of Katro’s day-to-day life is the way it would be in any other city. He starts his day with a coffee and a 10-minute trip to his studio, where he works on client assignments and “Baugasm,” a personal passion project that involves creating a poster a day and showcasing each one on Instagram. He also makes it his business to travel often for conferences and his own pleasure – recent trips include the U.S., Canada, Austria, and Italy.

“[Travel] is what keeps me alive,” he says. “Albania is a small country. I wouldn’t stay here more than two months without going somewhere.”

While he has no immediate plans to leave permanently, he says he’d like to live somewhere else for a while – not only for a change of pace, but for a bit of added convenience. “I would love to just order something from Amazon and get it the next day,” he says with a laugh.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

Mona Chalabi on Statistical Standup, Play-Doh, and the Secret Language of Colors

Mona Chalabi on Statistical Standup, Play-Doh, and the Secret Language of Colors

With the power of an Olympic skater owning a gold medal routine, illustrator and data journalist Mona Chalabi took the 2018 99U Conference stage by storm with her visualizations on testicle size and hangover cures. We sat down for a longer conversation with the self-proclaimed TMI Queen about her journey beyond the halls of academia, the future of data journalism, and the likelihood that you’ll regret any tattoo she gives you.

Mona Chalabi skateboarding in her Brooklyn, New York neighborhood.

Mona Chalabi photographed skateboarding and reading in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

We know you best as a data journalist, but right now, on top of working at The Guardian US, you’re traveling for speeches, trying out acting, and you just got back from a fiction-writing retreat in Banff. What is that busy schedule like?

I feel like I complain about traveling all the time. When I was younger, I’d be like, “Do not complain about privilege like that! My friend always says the same thing when we’re feeling frustrated in our careers: “What would 18-year-old Mona think?” Eighteen-year-old Mona would be like, “Ahhh, you made it! You live in New York. You have acted in something.” Eighteen-year-old me would be so impressed. Thirty-one-year-old Mona is a bit like, “Eh.”

How did you become a data journalist?

I went to college. I studied international security. I went to go join the International Organization for Migration. I was producing reports there, and I felt really frustrated that the work was being read by a tiny handful of people. It’s funny – well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of disappointing: I wish more academics reached out to me to say, “Hey, I’ve got this data. Can you help me make sure that it has a big audience?” I used to hate working in an academic tone. But what’s exciting now is that I don’t have to write in that tone but I can still read that work. I feel like a big part of my job is to be a translator.

You speak multiple languages, plus you work in visualization, which sort of transcends language. How are you embracing this role of translator?

I’ve always been interested in languages. I grew up in a household where English was my parents’ second language, and they were really adamant that we would be raised speaking English. That first sparked my interest in language. I went to Jordan when I was 19 to try to learn Arabic. I failed miserably. It’s not a language you can learn in a summer. And then I went to France to study and stayed on there to do my master’s. I think that was actually a really important turning point in my career, because I realized how much – maybe you’ll totally disagree – I felt like when I was a speaking a foreign language, at a certain point, I wasn’t translating my English thoughts anymore. My brain was thinking in completely new ways.

Mona Chalabi photographed in her workspace where sketches double as wallpaper.

Chalabi photographed in her workspace where sketches double as wallpaper.

How was your brain working?

For example, the word sad has got such a weighted meaning for me in English because I’ve heard it in all of these different contexts, right? When you move to a new language and that word hasn’t been ascribed with years of memories, it’s a lightweight word. That means your use of it is different. There aren’t books that I’ve read with that word. I was free to think in different ways. If I was going to learn another language, I’d learn sign language, because I’m interested in languages that traverse cultures. Numbers can do that in an exciting way.

How do numbers do that?

Numbers, especially the actual digits, with very few exceptions, are universal across different places. And one of the goals of all the visualizations that I make is to reduce the number of words that I use to, hopefully, a point where you’re not seeing any words but it still makes sense. I’m a long way off from doing that, and it’s very difficult. But that would be the dream.

How did you move from producing reports for International Organization for Migration to data visualization?

I did a one-day workshop with Simon Rogers, who was then the data editor at The Guardian. And then I ended up getting an internship at The Guardian. It was an unpaid internship, so I could only do it one day a week. Then I ended up doing it two days a week. Then they needed me three days a week. And then I was like, “You got to pay me if you want me three days a week.” That’s how I got my foot in.

How did the transition to the U.S. happen?

I moved to America to work for a website called FiveThirtyEight. I only started to draw again because I hated that job so much that I would keep my sanity by doodling.

When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American.

A lot of the thing is all about being proactive and trying to find solutions, but there are some workplaces that you should just get out of. I was never going to succeed there. There was no route for someone like me to succeed.

What does “someone like you” mean?

When I started, I was the only female writer. I was the only writer of color, and I was the only person who wasn’t American. It meant that every single room that I entered, I didn’t fit in. They prided themselves on being geeky and nerdy and that you were either smart enough to understand FiveThirtyEight or you weren’t. And that is not my philosophy about journalism at all.

What do you think information and data should be?

Accessible. It needs to be accessible to everyone – in particular, the people that need it to make informed decisions about their lives.

Did taking up illustration as a hobby help navigate you out of that toxic situation?

Those illustrations that I posted on Instagram made such a big difference. It gave me a little bit of confidence to see strangers reacting to them and saying the complete opposite of what I was hearing in that workplace.

Mona Chalabi takes a walk down the street in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

Color factors heavily into Chalabi’s work as each color can symbolize a different feeling.

How does color play into your work?

I think about it a lot. For example, [for a chart of] the Palestinian versus Israeli death rates, I needed to pick two colors that you would be able to visually differentiate from each other, because it’s tough to see the purple, because the Israeli deaths are quite low. I have to make two colors that are going to jump off the page. I can’t have any of them be green, because people will attack me and think I’m implying that those green deaths are fine, because green is “okay.” If I do red, that implies that those deaths are somehow more serious than the other ones. Blue feels a bit weird. It’s weird to choose orange and purple. I struggled a lot with the colors of that.

Mona Chalabi designed this chart that shows the Israeli and Palestinian fatality rate per month. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

Chalabi designed this chart that shows the Palestinian and Israeli fatality rate per month. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

Going back to the baggage of language, I guess there’s baggage to color as well. And it’s not always the same across cultures.

That’s some deep baggage. For instance, in the U.K. our political red and blue is the other way around. Red is always a color of the left in all of Europe, pretty much in most countries. And blue is always conservative. It’s really weird that it’s the other way around here. It took me a long time to unlearn those colors here, and even still, if you show me the color red and say to me, “Left wing or right wing?” I’m going to say, “Left.” Always.

The image shows the most popular dog names in New York City. (Bella is the most popular.)

Chalabi’s piece from The Guardian about popular New York dog names based on data from the New York City Department of Health, 2017. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

Have you ever tried stand-up?

I tried it when I moved over here. I did one where everyone loved it. I was like, “My God, I’m so good.” And then the next time, no. And then I was like, “I don’t think I have the stomach for this.” It was a stand-up about statistics. The starting point was these statistics about how often Americans curse versus Brits and went on to use that to talk about how Americans are repressed. Sorry.

That’s how we think about the British.

I know. Everyone thinks that. I think it’s the total other way around. Don’t you think you guys are a little bit repressed? A little bit?

A little bit.

Yeah. A little bit.

What’s the process of getting an assignment? How do you comb through all the information for it?

Most of the time I don’t have an editor. I’m coming up with stuff and doing the whole process myself. For a thing I worked on recently, The Guardian was producing a documentary called White Fright, which was about an attack on a community of Muslims in New York. The plan had gone really far and the terrorist was arrested just before it took place. He was trying to kill hundreds of people, and it got barely any press attention. I did a piece that was based on a forthcoming study which showed that Muslim perpetrators of terrorism get 357 percent more press coverage than non-Muslim perpetrators.

There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it?

I started up by doing this visualization analog, literally drawing them out and then photographing them from my notepads. I drew five different types of hands, five different ethnicities holding five different types of microphones, and then in a Photoshop file, you replicate those and you can see all of the layers, so I know for a fact I’ve got the right number. That also means that my Photoshop files are like 5,000 gigabytes.

Mona Chalabi takes a tea break in her home kitchen.

Chalabi takes a tea break in her home kitchen.

Where does your hand-drawn style come from?

For me, it’s important to show a human made this. With computer-generated graphs, it can seem like this completely neutral, perfectly objective thing that made the chart. And that’s not true. It’s a human who makes objective decisions about which rows and which columns in the data set to show you.

Also, it’s about replicability. I want people to feel like they are empowered. That not only can they understand it, but if they wanted to test it, they could recreate it themselves. And you can recreate anything that is hand drawn, right? Whereas with charts, most people don’t know how to create a computer-generated graphic. It’s about leveling the playing field.

If you could try out any new medium, what would it be?

I would absolutely love to create something that is really fun in stop motion. I’ve bought a ton of Play-Doh that’s sitting on my shelf at home. And I’m just like, “One day I’m going to do something fun in stop motion.”

Has anyone ever asked you to design a tattoo?

My friend was asking me to do it. I actually once did a piece on “How many people regret their tattoos?” Which is what I wanted to have tattooed on him: the probability that he’ll regret it. It would feel really special to me. I don’t have any tattoos because I’m so scared about marking myself for life. And this friend of mine is like, “Give me anything!”

What’s the best bit of money or salary advice you’ve gotten?

Before you set your rates, ask other people how they set their rates. Ask the client which territories it’s going to be used in. Ask where it’s going to appear, how many languages. Ask whether they’re going to own it in perpetuity, or for a certain amount of time. And then give them the price.

The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism.

My general philosophy is bleed the private corporations dry. I was about to go on my first holiday in five years. And I got asked by a big corporation to make some illustrations, and I was like, “I would like $10,000 per illustration,” kind of knowing that they would say no, but also if they said yes, that’s fine. But with any nonprofits whose work I believe in, I basically charge them next to nothing.

There are three questions you want to ask yourself before you take a commission. The illustrator Hallie Bates was telling me this: Is it good money? Will I grow professionally from it? And will I enjoy doing it? And each job has to satisfy at least two of those three criteria. And the truth is, this is another thing about how privileged I am. Most people don’t even get to add in those second two criteria. It’s just about: “Is it going to mean I can pay the bills?”

What’s the biggest challenge for a data journalist in 2018?

There’s like five different things, and I’m like, “Which one should I say?”

You can also say them all. It’s a challenging year.

Yeah. One of them is keeping your integrity. For instance, at
The Guardian right now, I’m the only person who works with data and data sets like this. Someone will come to me and say, “What is the answer to X?” And I give it to them, and then it’s published. There is very little oversight of exactly how I’ve collected those numbers and exactly how I’ve crunched them. But it also means that someone with less integrity could be like, “This is close enough. Let’s just go with it.” So a challenge is maintaining your integrity when you’re trusted. A part of that is being as transparent as possible. Because readers often fact-check me.

This personal piece by Mona Chalabi shows that 1,995 children were separated from their parents in the spring of 2018. 

This personal piece by Chalabi uses data from the Department of Homeland Security, 2018. Image courtesy of Mona Chalabi.

What’s another challenge?

Money. Journalism doesn’t pay particularly well. The world needs good journalism more than ever before. However, by and large most people are still unwilling to pay for journalism. Until they are, we’re always going to be underfunded and scrambling to survive.

It feels like there’s a lot of momentum in your career right now.

Which is really bad. It’s wonderful. But this momentum is just carrying me along, and I want the opportunity to step back and say, “But what do I want to do?” instead of just responding to things. Part of the problem is I’m still so excited by different mediums. I want to be able to write fiction and nonfiction essays. I want to produce films. But I want to concentrate, too. Now is the time to focus on which direction to go.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

What Creatives Need to Know About Working with a Recruiter

What Creatives Need to Know About Working with a Recruiter

On average, you will probably have 20 jobs and at least three career changes in your professional life.

Allison Hemming, the founder and president of The Hired Guns talent agency encourages us to get better at managing our careers rather than seeking job hunting hacks and tips. And when we look at our careers that way, we might realize how much time and energy we spend exploring open positions, sending in resumes alongside hundreds of other resumes, and making cold intros that aren’t met with a reply. Looking for a new job can be a soul-crushing, inefficient, process. That’s where Hemming comes in—she is a recruiter whose team specializes in content, marketing, design, and user experience jobs from the C-Suite to entry level. Her skill is matching talent (you!) with the right job.

Recruiters help companies staff their teams. They often act as a talent partner—you have the skills, the companies have the need, and recruiters have relationships between the parties. And they can also serve as an ally because, as you rise in your career, you’re competing with better people for fewer jobs—why wouldn’t you want someone on your side during that process?

Hemming began her career at Morgan Stanley and has led The Hired Guns since 2000. She has helped place thousands of creators in jobs, and she give us the inside scoop on what it’s like to work with a recruiter.

Recruiters can provide keen insight into the current job market.

Today, the unemployment rate is very low, but there’s still a high level of frustration in hiring, explains Hemming. “Companies, like talent, are moving jobs constantly right now. And yet, companies have tons of open roles that are going unfilled,” says Hemming. What gives? “Companies don’t want to pay to uplevel. They want a fully-baked hire. But I think if they learn how to interview for risk and aptitude, they could fill the gap with smart people who know how to learn.”

The hiring company pays the recruiter fee.

Chalk that up to the longstanding model, as well as the fact that filling a role is an expensive proposition for a company. And Hemming isn’t just filling a role—she offers a service. “We get into organizations and help them look at their current state, and talk to them about their ambitions for the business and how to build a talent roadmap to get there.”

You can cold call a recruiter, even if you don’t see an immediate job listing.

Here’s how Hemming recommends you begin the conversation.

“Hi, I’m Jim. I’ve been working on the product side of digital media. I’d like to move into this other role and here is why I’d be a good fit for that. I don’t see that on your site, but I have seen other jobs that you have had.”

The Hired Guns leaves all its filled jobs up on its website for that very reason—so future talent can cite them as examples of what they’re looking for.

Connect with the experts in your field.

Every field has recruiters who focus on certain skill niches. “Their job is to corner the marketplace on a particular kind of talent and own it, and you’re never going to talk to certain companies unless you go through them,” says Hemming. “It would behoove you to know the recruiting specialists in your field.”

Don’t limit yourself to a single recruiter.

“In general, you should have two to three recruiting partners that you like and trust. It’s a relationship—the long game, not the short game. They may not have the right thing for you today. If they don’t, be helpful. And if you know the perfect person for the job, and it’s not you, recommend that person.” The recruiter will likely remember the kindness and repay it down the road.

It’s a confidential process.

The Hired Guns even conducts certain first-round interviews in its office so a candidate who might be interviewing with a competitor won’t be spotted in that office.

A recruiter can uncover key job details that aren’t advertised in the job posting.

One of the disciplines that was the hardest to get right was visual design and user experience design. Why? Portfolios. Everybody wants to see work. Problem is what company A thinks is beautiful, company B thinks is hideous.”

The Hired Guns has developed a technique with their clients where they walk them through a portfolio review to get at the dynamics of what is beautiful to them. “Then the matchmaking can begin,” says Hemming, who notes they always do this with the future boss. “If the boss of that person does not want to have the patience to teach us what beautiful looks like to them, we know we’re never going to make that placement because they will never be 100 percent satisfied.”

Don’t look for the job, look for the company.

If someone reaches out to Hemming without a clear job in mind, here’s what she’ll tell them: “List out 10 companies that you believe you can make a major impact at that need you more than you need them.” And the response is typically: Why would I want to go work at those companies? “Because you’re going to learn how to invent your own job description,” says Hemming. “They need you more than you need them, and you’re going to learn how to pitch through that lens.”

A recruiter can help iron out discrepancies between the skills, job level, and compensation.

Ever seen those misaligned job descriptions where a company wants a senior director with three years of experience? That is not going to end well. But a recruiter can advocate on the behalf of a future employee to make sure that the job role and experience matches the compensation, so you, the future employee, don’t have to have that awkward conversation.

Recruiters can speed up the interview process.

The Hired Guns has noticed an alarming trend—phenomenal candidates of theirs were not getting placed at clients because the company hiring processes were too slow. “It was interviewing by a thousand cuts for the candidate, meaning you go in 10 times and you have the same interview 10 times, but with 10 different people,” says Hemming. “That is terrible for the company.” Now The Hired Guns runs speed dates for its clients and talent and encourages its corporate clients to have entire teams sit in together earlier in the interview rounds.

There will be homework.

If you’re looking for a new job, Hemming has you put together a competitive set list of anyone you can find who has the same role that you want. This will help you see what skills they have, and if there are gaps between those and your own skill set. When Hemming did this recently with a content creator in the food space who aspired to be an Editor-in-Chief, she noticed something telling. “This person wasn’t an Editor-in-Chief or the Executive Editor through an editorial lens. But they are a damn good brand and content marketer,” says Hemming. “And I’m like, “You’re looking at the right companies but at the wrong job.” Once they course corrected, this person found the more appropriate, and better-fitting, job.

Lastly, a recruiter is not a miracle worker.

Sometimes people come to me and they want me to be the elixir,” says Hemming. “Like I’m going to be the genie in the bottle that’s going to help you land that perfect job – and that doesn’t exist. I want to give people the tools and the power to empower themselves to have a future of assembling the right jobs.”

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

What You Need to Know About Designing for the Public Sector  

What You Need to Know About Designing for the Public Sector  

For many creative types, getting involved in the public sector is a bit of an alluring mystery. The idea of working with a government-owned organization or initiative allows people to be part of a bigger cause, a stronger mission, and the possibility to impact thousands of people – often rarities in the private world, where projects are for business clients and only impact the people who interact with the company.  

Interior wayfinding at the Washington State Convention Center points guests in the right direction.

Interior wayfinding at the Washington State Convention Center points guests in the right direction.

But while the public sector can provide a sense of virtuousness, it comes with some unique challenges and processes to navigate.

Michael Courtney should know. As the founder of Michael Courtney Design, a Seattle-based graphic design firm specializing in wayfinding, he has spent 26 years working in the public sector arena, with half of his clients in that space. His projects include working with the Washington State Convention CenterSeattle City Light, the area’s publicly-owned electric power utility, along with wayfinding projects for Kansas State University and the University of Washington.

We caught up with Courtney to learn more about partnering with the public sector.

A giant "W" welcomes visitors to the University of Washington campus.

A giant “W” welcomes visitors to the University of Washington campus.

Find the perfect project for your skillset.

“I’d recommend design firms reach out to their state and local municipalities and see if there is a government or municipal service that gathers and distributes information about opportunities for design services. And then get on that service’s email to be able to search for opportunities,” says Courtney.

Besides finding an email list, Courtney recommends looking for other designers who might bring you onto their project teams. Architects and landscape architects do a lot of public projects, so connecting with them is a great place to start,” he says.

Land the project.

Unlike the private sector, where a lot of clients are based on relationships, the public-sector process is more stringent and follows an application process. “You need to go through the steps in the order they specify,” says Courtney. This could mean filling out one page, or 50, depending on the project. “They will ask the same questions by the same committee members in the same order every single time, so they hope they are getting an apples-to-apples answer. They don’t want someone coming back and saying, ‘I wasn’t included.’”

If you meet the criteria, you get an invitation to interview and only then do you get to do a proposal. “Sometimes, it is a really long journey to find out if you did or did not get that project, which is part of why some people don’t do public sector projects,” says Courtney.

Explain your process, as well as your intended result.

Once you land the project, you need build trust with the various stakeholders. And there are many from different organizations.

“Most clients and these community groups don’t do projects like we do all the time,” he says. “We have to help them understand what we can do, how we can help them, and what it is going to look like, not only the end product but also what the process is going to look like, so they get comfortable.”

Michael Courtney prepares to display the type for the donor recognition wall at The Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University.

Michael Courtney prepares to display the type for the donor recognition wall at the Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University. 

Build that bond through transparency.

For Courtney and team, they do a few exercises to help develop a cohesive vision.

“We do a visioning session where we have key phrases that we want clients to respond to, like, What do you want people to feel when they use the project? What do you want people to think when they leave this project? This provides a lot of input.

“And then we bring in images of other environmental graphics projects we have put out. We talk about them. Why did you like this? Why didn’t you like this? It allows us to talk about concepts like scale, colors, materials, and comprehension nature of a program, And it lets them have their say.

“It also helps our team. When they start designing, they have a clearer path, a roadmap to go by. When we bring back those concepts, we remind them of what we have gone through and how we are going to do that.”

The final donor recognition wall display in the Berney Family Welcome Center at Kansas State University.

The final donor recognition wall display in the Berney Family Welcome Center.

Play the waiting game.

“Most designers in school are trained to work quickly and efficiently and when they get out of school, that is reinforced even more. With the public sector, it’s not the same.”

Decisions needing to be made by various stakeholders can make the process stretch out, says Courtney. Sometimes it can be months before starting back up on projects.

“[During the break], you have to be willing to not change your ideas. They have approved things and even though you might have come up with something that was even more distinctive in the three months, don’t do it. Stay the course.”

Imagine the community as your client.

For those looking to work in the public sector, it often comes down to telling a bigger story around the community, says Courtney. “If we do a fabulous project in an office building [for a private sector client], then only the people who get to see it are the people using that building. But with public projects, we have thousands of people who get to see these projects. And it lasts. A lot of our work has been up for literally 20 years.”

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The Cabin in the Australian Forest That Provides a Creative Jolt

The Cabin in the Australian Forest That Provides a Creative Jolt

Nestled in the lower glens of Australia’s Dandenong Range is a cabin adorned with stained glass, sculptures, and paintings that evokes “Hansel and Gretel.” A stream circles the back property, filling the gardens with the sound of water over rocks. A stroll up to the cabin’s lapis blue door takes you past strawberries, fig trees, rhododendrons, and the basil-like leaves of lemon verbena. If all those names are hard to remember, never fear: Anyone who stays at Jacky Winter Gardens receives a hand-drawn map by artist James Gulliver Hancock, detailing every tree and flower on the property.

The walkway to the Jacky Winter Gardens houses cuts through the forest.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is the ideal countryside escape for creating something new.

The space is the brainchild of New York transplant Jeremy Wortsman. Wortsman moved to the Dandenongs six years ago, part of a long tradition of artists and creatives escaping Melbourne for the countryside. The prehistoric trees and the promise of fresh air have beckoned artists to the Dandenongs for centuries. Jacky Winter Gardens can be reached by hopping on the train in Melbourne and riding the rails to the end of the line, where the city morphs into a mountainous forest preserve of hills, waterfalls, and Jurassic Park–style ferns.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is full of designs from creators all over the world.

The Jacky Winter Gardens house is full of designs from creators all over the world.

After first planning the house as a business venture, Wortsman realized it was financially possible to rent it out a few weeks each month and offer it to creatives for free the rest of the time. The creative residency he developed now accepts hundreds of applications a year to fill nine slots – a select group of artists who arrive at Jacky Winter Gardens to finish a work-in-progress. “The people who do it genuinely get amazing things out of it,” says Wortsman. “Plus, we love meeting new people: illustrators, artists, glassblowers, playwrights, board game designers, industrial designers. Every profession comes through.”

Each room is full of thoughtful touches, including a beanbag for lounging.

Each room is full of thoughtful touches.

Artists come for up to a week to sit by the stream, muse in front of the wood-burning stove, and peck away at the typewriter. If the contemplation and solitude become too much, they can walk to the local town for a flat white – a creamy Australian coffee specialty – or hike into the rain forest for a round of “forest bathing,” a Japanese-inspired trend of reconnecting with nature. When they come home to the Jacky Winter Gardens cabin, they might find the local wallaby – a kangaroo-like creature that New York–born Wortsman still finds bizarre – waiting outside.

Wortsman’s hope is that the time away gives creatives what they need to get unstuck and cross the finish line on their projects. And it works. “I’d never been so productive – and probably never will be again,” said author Jess Hill of her visit to the cabin. “To stay there feels like stepping into an alternate dimension where creativity is the most important part of life,” added former Disney animator Tania Walker.

A cool stream runs through the property.

A cool stream runs through the property.

This isn’t the only capacity in which Wortsman manages artists’ creative time. He’s also the founder of an agency and production company, also called Jacky Winters. Some of the artists he manages were the very first residents. Wortsman hopes that artists embrace the freedom the space offers and give themselves permission to step outside their normal patterns and blocks. A parent himself, one of his personal goals is to encourage new parents to do the residency for the creative breather often denied to new mothers and fathers. Ultimately, on top of the beauty of the physical space, what Jacky Winter Gardens really offers is creative time. “Getting an hour, much less a week, is really precious,” Wortsman says.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

Design Debate: Is It Important That a Designer Agrees with Their Client’s Morals?

Design Debate: Is It Important That a Designer Agrees with Their Client’s Morals?

In our newest design debate, Meredith Hattam, Steven Heller, and Lina Forsgren weigh in on whether you need to agree with the morals of your clients in order to do the job. Ready, set, debate.

“I wish we were all lucky enough to be choosy with our work, but sometimes you just have to make ends meet.”

Meredith Hattam, interactive designer, Condé Nast

When I moved to New York and started out as a designer, I was very idealistic and only worked for nonprofits. I lived here for a bit longer and soon realized just how hard it is to only take on very philanthropic clients.

I do believe that working for ethical causes is at the heart of what I want to do – it is my goal. But when you’re living in such an expensive city, sometimes you can’t pick and choose the work that you’re going to do.

You’re very privileged if you’re able to be picky with your clients in New York. Some designers can be – maybe they have a trust fund or they’re superstars and can take on whatever projects they like. But for the majority of us, we can only do our best. Today, it’s difficult to be strict about which companies you take on in terms of ethics, because the lines get really blurry. Maybe you don’t agree with who’s funding the company, but you support what they produce. Where and when do you draw the line?

There are many wonderful, sustainable brands, but it’s very hard to find a company that produces products that are 100 percent ethical and sustainable.

I used to work a lot in fashion, which is the number two most polluting industry in the world. There are many wonderful, sustainable brands, but it’s very hard to find a company that produces products that are 100 percent ethical and sustainable. If you’re going about your day-to-day job at an agency or working for a brand, it’s not your responsibility to research the client and whether they are 100 percent ethical, especially if you’re trying to pay your rent. Sometimes you have to put that first.

It was fun to work in fashion e-commerce, with a lot of beautiful art direction and collaborations with incredibly talented people. But with large retailers, you don’t know how those clothes are getting made. I was finding creative fulfillment in my work, but around that time, I decided to start volunteering even more to supplement my more commercially driven work.

For me, it’s about finding a balance. And supplementing.

For me, it’s about finding a balance. And supplementing. If you truly want to work toward becoming more of an ethical designer, you can supplement the work you’re doing with volunteering, maybe by designing for nonprofits for free. There’s a website called Designers Available that hooks you up with nonprofits that need a hand. I personally volunteer with two nonprofits right now. As a designer, it’s very rewarding, as design is inaccessible for a lot of smaller companies and organizations.

While you often have to put livelihood first, there are still, of course, choices that you can make in terms of how you align yourself. I’ve chosen to support journalism by taking on a full-time position at Condé Nast. It’s incredibly important to support the journalism industry, especially at this moment in time. I really believe in what I’m doing, but a full-time position of this nature has been a hard and rare thing to find in New York.

“A citizen has the right and duty not to perpetuate bad behavior.”

—Steven Heller, design writer, educator, and historian

Policies and ethics have to be separated from each other. A designer could, I suppose, disagree with a client’s policies (or even individual beliefs), as long as the designer does not feel compromised.

Invariably, I do business with some concerns that probably include individuals on boards that do not hold my social or political views. But ethics is a key principle that dictates how a client does business. A designer must be responsible to the client, and if how that client operates in the world is ethically questionable, then the designer is guilty of abetting bad behavior.

There is no law that I know of that says by working for a bad company a designer is ex post facto committing a crime, but it is a breach of personal ethics to serve a client under these circumstances. Some of these are obvious – like a company that promotes discrimination.

One can often justify just about anything, but that doesn’t make it ethically sound.

One can often justify just about anything, but that doesn’t make it ethically sound. Keeping a job rather than losing work can be justified by any number of excuses. It used to be that advertising agencies that took cigarette advertising (which we can all agree contributed to considerable health problems) justified it by saying it’s “only a job.”

Ethics are sometimes situational.

Nothing is entirely black and white. Ethics are sometimes situational. Also, there is the old argument about the better of two evils, or working for good from the inside. In the U.S. now we are so polarized that it’s hard to talk about blue and red without becoming irrational.

I try to warn my students that we are constantly barraged by propaganda for one side or another. The best they can do is try to be vigilant and then do what their conscience tells them to do. As they say, it’s complicated.

“The clients I work with need to have good core values that correspond with their image.”

—Lina Forsgren, freelance art director and graphic designer

I’m a feminist working with an intersectional perspective, so it’s vital to me that my clients don’t disagree with my ethics. Especially in these times – when racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and climate change just keep growing – it’s really important to review the client’s values and actions before going into business with each other.

A few years ago, I was approached by a women’s fashion company called Birdsong London to develop its identity. I said yes because I support its concept and model. Birdsong works under the premise of no sweatshops and no Photoshop; its products are made by groups of female migrants in London who are paid a London living wage for their labor. The company has a feminist agenda, which affects all areas of its business model and structure. To me, it’s important that a client embodies feminist values internally if that’s their image. I’ve seen a lot of big companies that capitalize on good ethics and feminism – that use it as a marketing strategy – while the board of the company doesn’t share these values or have the intention of working with them long-term. Birdsong’s work, on the other hand, is permeated with these values inside and out.

To put ethics first as a freelance designer can be challenging. It can be difficult to support yourself.

I don’t often get approached by clients who don’t share my ethics, since most of my work is defined by feminist principles. But six years ago, I did get asked to do some illustrations for McDonald’s. I was still in design school, and at first I was stoked to get asked, because I was trying to get my work out there. Ultimately it felt wrong, though. I said no. I didn’t want to work with McDonald’s because I’m a vegetarian and am against the meat industry.

When a new client approaches me, I’ll do research to find out as much as possible about them. If it’s a client that someone I know has worked with in the past, I’ll reach out to ask them about their experience. It’s good to know how a client acts toward a designer – it says a lot about them. It’s vital not only that a client isn’t promoting sexist advertising campaigns, but also that internally their employees are feeling good and being treated right.

Putting ethics first can be difficult, because when you care, some people will hate and discourage you.

To put ethics first as a freelance designer can be challenging. It can be difficult to support yourself, since we live in a capitalist world. It’s also a challenge to make sure you don’t take on too many low-budget projects – so that you don’t get burnt out. But it’s also important not to work for low pay, in order to be in solidarity with other designers: We have to keep a certain rate standard to ensure the health of the creative industry.

Lastly, putting ethics first can be difficult, because when you care, some people will hate and discourage you. I’ve previously received hate messages for my feminist principles, and it can be trying to stay strong.

Ultimately, it’s important for me to work through these challenges, though. I primarily want to work with people who want to see the same world as I do, and who aren’t contributing to its destruction. If I work to promote companies and systems that I do not believe in, then I too am contributing to the continuation of destructive, unethical practices.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

Talent Wins: Eight Key Ways to Put People First

Talent Wins: Eight Key Ways to Put People First

Why does talent matter? Because, according to a new book from Harvard Business Review, Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First, the one safe bet to make in the crazy game of business forecasting is that talent-first companies are the future of work. When change comes and makes your tech obsolete and your business strategy caput, your make-or-break resource will be an agile, high-performing talent pool.

Talent Wins is a playbook for companies ready to dive into building a people-centric business strategy.

We’ve pulled eight tips—from transforming human resources to killing the annual performance review—as a starter pack for turning your organization into a talent-first company ready to take on the future.

Look for unlikely people creating unlikely value in unlikely places.

A company’s top players are not necessarily its directors. The most valuable people are a hidden group called the two percent who generate momentum and energy that goes far beyond their day-to-day tasks. This two percent is good at getting to the heart of an issue and creating informal connections that encourage collaboration. They can tap into social networks to create buy-in and spread information quickly. Sometimes, they’re veterans that rookies look to. Sometimes, they’re fast movers. Sometimes, they’re just darn charismatic and infectiously encouraging. They all have in common the ability to make the organization healthier and more productive. What else do they have in common? Their power is probably being overlooked and underutilized. Traditional promotion structures don’t surface people with soft power skills so identifying the two percent is difficult. They’re out there. Go find them.

Reward your two percent. Do not, whatever you do, lose them.

Talent Wins asks business leaders to entertain an uncomfortable thought experiment: How many people would you trade for your best performer? If the number is more than five you’re likely underpaying that person. Don’t get married to a compensation system that lets high performers walk out the door to the talent marketplace. And don’t limit your search for the two percent to internal—your key members of the two percent may not work for you yet.

Turn your hierarchy into a talent marketplace.

Company hierarchy is an archaic holdover from the 20th century. For the rapidly-changing needs of business today, companies must remodel their talent resources to be more nimble. Tech companies and consultancies already have a model for this approach, assigning specific initiatives to team leads and partners who then build a dedicated team from the talent marketplace of the company. Instead of top- down corporate decision ladders, this flat organization is able to move quickly and without bureaucracy to meet project needs and then disband back into the talent marketplace at the end of the project.

Elevate your head of human resources.

We know that C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s need to be in the room to call the business shots. But how often is a Chief Human Resources Officer in those strategy meetings? Too often, the C.H.R.O. is relegated to managing the operational structures of payroll, onboarding, and company culture. But again, human capital needs to be managed as strategically as financial capital. A C.F.O. may see where a business unit isn’t making money, but a C.H.R.O. realizes it’s because turnover is bleeding institutional knowledge, stagnating the team’s deliverables. To solve expensive talent blind spots, elevate the C.H.R.O. to the level of C.F.O to form a trinity with the C.E.O that directs business strategy. 

Rethink who runs HR.

Having a C.H.R.O. qualified to lead business strategy means rethinking the qualities it takes to be an HR lead. No longer is the C.H.R.O. focused on the company Christmas party and slideshows about benefits. They need a whole new set of skills. The new model of HR lead is excellent at matching top performers to the right jobs. They have an eye for how well (or poorly) an org is functioning and can pinpoint the root causes. They are intellectually curious, have leadership skills and maintain a predisposition to weigh in early and often.

How do you get that person? Reinvent the HR career track. To give HR leads strong business instincts, they need to go on sabbaticals to other business units. Reciprocally, the C.E.O track should have a tour of duty in HR—following the career path model of the heads of companies like GM, Xerox, and BMW—in order to qualify to lead a talent-driven organization.

Make HR tracks attractive.

There’s a big problem here. It’s not only that the C.H.R.O. job has a mushy reputation. Top performers aim for other job titles because they make more money. C.H.R.O.s tend to make 50 percent to 60 percent of a C.F.O.’s direct compensation. To create a powerful, balanced triumvirate that attracts the top players, organizations must stop treating C.H.R.O. as a discount leadership position and up their pay scale.  

Use tech to add value, not cut costs (or people).

Organizations should invest in data gathering software—even data centers—that surfaces and solves the talent pain points that only big data can see. For example, Google crunched its numbers and spotted a trend of high attrition rates in employees who became new mothers. Based on the data, Google upped its paid maternity leave from three to six months. Turnover for new mothers dropped by 50 percent. HR departments everywhere should similarly think strategically about data and AI as a tool to identify major talent trends in the organization.

Kill the annual performance review.

It’s not just that annual performance reviews come at the worst time of year when everyone wants to get out to the holiday party. They’re perfunctory and all too often the manager is poorly prepared. Beyond that, it doesn’t make sense to provide evaluations on an annual timeline when most business strategies change more quickly than that.

Effective feedback should come from multiple sources and more often than once a year. GE has led the remodeling of performance review systems with their new program of continual feedback and coaching. How to make that performance review even more valuable? Replace retrospectives with conversations that aim at the future by focusing on priorities and improvement.

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