January 17, 2018

Top 10 Albums: 2017 Edition

Look, I know what you're saying. No, you don't need another top 10 list. And yes, I am pretty late in getting this thing out the door. Here's the thing though: I do this mostly for me. It's really fun to look back at the music that I really enjoyed from the past year. If there are others out there that enjoy the list and discover new music, that's great.

White Reaper - The World's Best American Band

Let's be clear about this one: despite the braggadocios title, this album isn't going into the annuls of rock history any time soon. The lyrics aren't clever sonnets laid over virtuoso finger picking. Despite this, it's such a fun record to listen to. Over it's roughly 30 minute run time, it stacks one toe-tapping track right after the other. Before long you're nodding to the rhythm and pumping your fist during the chorus. Good times start to finish.

Hanni El Khatib - Savage Times

You might look at this album as a bit of a cheat. It is—after all—a collection of 5 EPs that Hanni El Khatib put out over 2016. If you look at it with the perspective of 2015's Moonlight however, it holds together as complete album. And like Moonlight, it's somewhat all over the place. From straight ahead, bluesy garage-fi tracks to others driven by synths and disco beats. That pattern has become El Khatib's modus operandi, so it is less of a distraction and more like the variety bag of jelly beans. Even though you get a few black licorices, the variety is the point. And some of those combinations? Quite tasty.

Gorillaz - Humanz

The first of two albums on this list that I never thought would exist. I've been a fan of Gorillaz since I saw the video for Clint Eastwood back in the day. I'd read that the Albarn/Hewlett relationship had soured a bit, so the possibility of a follow-up to the solid Plastic Beach seemed rather doubtful. I'm so glad that it happened, though, and Humanz delivers on so many levels. It's both a continuation and an evolution of the Gorillaz sound, bringing some great new collaborators into the fold. In all, the album seems a bit more weighty when compared to the allegorical high watermark that was Demon Days, but Albarn and crew manage to weave danceable beats through lyrics that confront our troubled times.

Here Lies Man - s/t

I don't quite remember how Here Lies Man came onto my radar. What I am sure of, however, is that their sound grabbed my attention immediately from the first listen. Their sound has been described as Black Sabbath playing afrobeat, which isn't the worst characterization but does gloss over the intricate repetitive rhythms that underpin each track and support distorted vocals that have little relation to Ozzy's theatrical delivery. Their sound is certainly heavy though, and it's wrapped around a rich tapestry of noisy fuzz that much more closely brings to mind psych rock than metal.

B Boys - Dada

Everything that B Boys put out sound like a love letter to punk. Not punk now, but punk the way it was in England in the late '70s and early '80s. Dissonant music played by kids who went to art school and still believed that a song could change the world. That's the sounds that led me to fall in love with punk, and I do again every time I listen to this record.

Wavves - You're Welcome

If B Boys are playing nostalgic punk chords, Wavves typifies the modern archetype of a punk auteur. Despite being the solo project of Nathan Williams, at no point does this release become monotonous or one-note. It's both fun and personal, with a lo-fi garage aesthetic that belies a layered structure. In short: really good stuff.

Guerilla Toss - GT ULTRA

Guerilla Toss are kind of a weird one. They popped up on my radar originally when they were still based out of Boston, but I can't say that I spent too much time listening to them until this album. And the more that I listen to them, the more I draw connections to late-era Devo with the use of quirky synths and dancier rhythms. Depending which track you listen to, there's also an undercurrent of post-punk's disco-fueled disillusionment.

Algiers - The Underside of Power

Every year I have that one album that I keep hearing about, but that takes a while for me to "get." That award this year definitely goes to Aliers' The Underside of Power. If you heard about this one and slept on it, I really recommend giving it some more spins. From the start, every track is a sonic assault. It's fast, heavy, distorted and angry, but it's also passionate, visceral, and extremely compelling. Politics are driving force behind so much of the music and the band isn't shy about voicing their opinions. While some won't appreciate the mix, I say bring it on and know that I'll be listening.

Death From Above 1979 - Outrage! Is Now

I'm glad that the guys in DFA patched things up, because I'm really enjoying these post-reunion releases. I was absolutely obsessed with The Physical World when it came out a few years ago so Outrage! Is Now had a pretty high mark to measure against. It falls a bit short though, without a ballad like "White is Red" or an aural assault on the level of "Turn it Out," but there are still plenty of great hooks and fantastic overall heaviness. [ASIDE: Is that really the best they could do for cover art?! Yeesh.]

LCD Soundsystem - american dream

As with the Gorillaz release, I was pretty sure that album would never come into existence. Then when I heard about it, I was also pretty sure that I wouldn't be into it. Mr. Murphy has been up to some unusual side projects since LCD Soundsystem called it a day, so whether this album would bear any resemblance to previous albums was an open question. It turned out that answer is, "Yes…sort of." Long gone is the pure energy and raucous fun of the early albums. Instead the tracks have been cut down to their barest elements, leaving the dance beat with trademark James Murphy vocals and only the most necessary accompaniment. It's as if the LCD Soundsystem formula has been distilled to its most essential and intentional elements. I'm certainly hoping that there are more releases to come.

Closing Thoughts

On a personal level, 2017 was marked by a lot of uncertainty. I became a father a little more than 7 months ago, and I knew that my priorities would shift but I didn't know how. Music has been important to me for quite a while, and I was afraid that I wouldn't have time for it. It's not easy to find new music by new artists and dedicate enough time to give that music enough thoughtful attention that you can decide if you like it or not. One thing is for certain: time has become a precious commodity. Thankfully I've still be able to carve out some time to find and listen to new music. There were some really fantastic releases this year, and I'm glad that they didn't pass me by.

I'm also thinking about how to share my passion for music with my daughter. I don't want her to like the same things that I do, I just want her to like her own things in the same way. She hasn't really started to pay much attention to music yet, but I'm really looking forward to when she does. Maybe we'll talk about the our favorite music.

Postscript: Other Albums That I Liked But That Didn't Quite Make The Cut

  • Ty Segall - s/t
  • Beastmaker - Insider the Skull
  • Songhoy Blues - Résistance
  • Antibalas - Where the Gods are in Pease
  • The Beaches - Late Show
  • Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

Post-Postscript: Spotify Playlist with The Top 10

January 15, 2017

Top 10 Albums: 2016 Edition

Not unlike 2015, 2016 was a pretty fantastic year for music. A lot of people seem to agree with me so I don't think that it's specific to my small musical sphere. As I like to do every year, here's a quick rundown on my favorite music from the last year:

Savages - Adore Life

On the surface, Adore Life isn't the assault that Savages' self-titled début was. After spending some time with it, the reality is that intensity is boiling slightly under the surface. This album is at times raw and brutal, yet shows a measure of restraint where the previous release was stuck at 11. For that reason this album was a bit of an initially slower burn, but I've really come to embrace it.

Ty Segall - Emotional Mugger

The weirdness of this album came out of nowhere. As a fan of Segall's previous releases and other projects, I've really enjoyed his fuzzed-out garage style. For Emotional Mugger however, Segall takes that formula and adds on layers on complexity and weirdness, from the child-like lyrics to vocal affectations. The result is like a garage version of a DEVO cover band, including a Booji Boy-like mask worn durn live performances. Given my affinity for both DEVO and garage rock, this one's a shoo-in.

Santigold - 99 Cents

There are a lot of things  to like about this album, starting with the cover art. It's not big on subtlety but does set an interesting tone and is a fantastic representation of music behind it. And while I've listened to Santigold's other albums, this is the first one that really grabbed me. The lyrics are a great mix of poetry with just enough to get a hold of so that you can figure out some meaning. In the end, it's a collection of catchy pop music that is used as tactic to deliver subversive jabs at our selfie obsessed, overly commercialized culture.

Tiger Army - V

There are so many ways in which this album is a throw-back and I don't expect it to show up on many other people's lists for that reason. It's probably a nostalgia pick for me, but it references ’50s and ’60s rock and roll, the late ’70s and ’80s birth of psychobilly and rockabilly revival, as well as the ’00s psychobilly revival. It may just be that it plays to my weakness for music from those periods, but it was an enjoyable spin for me nonetheless.

The Coathangers - Nosebleed Weekend

I'm such a fan of this band. They play on the stereotype of a girl band in a way that is really intelligent, but at the same time raw and honest. In contrast to some of their previous releases, this album weaves in some more nuanced lyrics and subtle song structure that breaks up the full-on garage rock assault that has previously defined their sound. For that reason I think this record will have more staying power than some of their others.

PUP - The Dream is Over

PUP follows up their fantastic début with another really solid release. Honesty and unvarnished emotion wrapped in staccato guitar riffs with shout-along choruses remain the hallmark of the band. While none of the tracks are as sticky as Reservoir this time around, there is a lot to like here.

M.I.A. - AIM

It took me a while to come around to M.I.A. The covers of her albums always embodied a "trying too hard to be ugly" aesthetic and it took a while warm to her aural approach as well. Thankfully I smartened up a couple of years ago, as I've come to recognize both how talented she is as a musician but also how unique it is to have a female, non-White viewpoint in popular music. AIM might not be her best record, primarily because it doesn't sound like she's pushing things much sonically or lyrically as on other albums. There are some really great tracks, however, and even a consistent release from M.I.A. gets on my list.

Against Me! - Shapeshift With Me

I was never the biggest Against Me! fan. I started listening to them in the As the Eternal Cowboy era, and things went off track starting with New Wave. This is the first album since that one that felt like a return to form, but also a progression. While politics were the glue that held early albums together, issues of gender and more personal relationships have moved to the forefront with this release. Dynamics within the band have been widely discussed in the music press, but this is the first album of theirs in a while that feels like things are starting to settle and they're returning to creating the winning formula of heart-felt songs at the intersection of punk, garage, and folk.

Goat - Requiem

Goat came on super strong for me late this year. I stumbled across their previous release (World Music) and really loved it. It's unlike anything else out there, but at the same time so familiar. I've described their music as demo set for a modern Jodorowsky fever dream. Mixing sounds from international folk music with elements of psych and progressive rock with obtuse lyrics and the occasional punk lick, this band really ticks the boxes for me. It's a product of the modern world, but also quite out of its time. As far as Requiem itself; I'm not sure if it measures up to World Music but it's excellent in its own right. Side note: I was really thrilled when the podcast Crimetown—quite unexpectedly—started using Run to Your Mama as their theme track. What better soundtrack for a story of corruption in Providence than a band of Swedish weirdos?

Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation - Mirage

If you haven't noticed yet, I have a certain weakness for nostalgia. The past is ripe for strip mining, and Josefin Öhrn is well aware. Also a Swede, her music mixes garage and psych, with a repetitive and spacey sound. Fortunately these tracks avoid a lot of the pitfalls of psych music with relatively short runtimes and a brisk pace. Öhrn's sugary vocal style enhances the effect, making it nearly impossible to not get caught up in this album.

Closing Thoughts

Looking back at the releases that I most enjoyed this year, there are definitely a few trends that I'm seeing. There was only one release that I would describe as really heavy in the sonic sense, through distortion and garage rock sounds are the backbone of most of these musicians' sounds. The overwhelming majority of these acts are centered around female performers or made up entirely of women. That's a historic shift for me, though not as a conscious decision but I am happy to support female musicians. I'm also drawn to musicians to like to challenge expectations; whether of their genre or societal norms.

As great as these albums are, I'm really looking forward to many of the albums coming out in 2017. There are lists floating around of what's just over the horizon, and it's enough to make me giddy. Here's to more great sounds in 2017.

December 28, 2016

Inspiration: Zach Lieberman

I took a dive into Processing this year. It started with going through Josh Davis's intro class on Skillshare, and then moved on to Dan Shiffman's intro book. While the dive was fairly shallow, I really liked getting into it and I'm hoping to get back to it sometime soon.

Last week I discovered the work of Zach Lieberman via Instagram's discovery feature. He has been spending the last year doing daily sketches using a variety of generative art tools. Tools aside, I particularly like that his work has more of an organic quality than much of the generative art that you see around. Indeed, that's one of the qualities that I most hope to be able to create with my own explorations. While I'm certainly not there yet, I really encourage you to check out Zach's work. Of particular interest is the (lengthy) article that he recently published which talks about the process behind some of his daily sketches. It's an interesting look into the process of creating digital art.

Header image is two of Lieberman's daily sketches.

September 5, 2016

Inspiration: Richard Diebenkorn

I've been looking at the work of Richard Diebenkorn a lot recently. With his unique structuring of space and sun-seeped color palettes, I'm drawn deeply into his world of abstraction. The work resonates deeply with both the work that I do professionally as well as my more artistic practice.

Richard Diebenkorn - Berkeley No. 3

Richard Diebenkorn - Berkely No. 3

Richard Diebenkorn - Albuquerque No. 4

Richard Diebenkorn - Albuquerque No. 4

It's difficult to describe the compositions as anything other than artfully balanced. Dramatic in their asymmetry, pieces often strongly emphasize the right or left of the picture plane while calling attention to the verticality of his preferred format. Although many interpret his work as an abstraction of California landscapes, Diebenkorn disliked the association. For him the work is purely abstract and not grounded in a metaphor of the physical world. Each piece is problem to be explored and unraveled through regular practice. I can relate to the tension and challenges that he alludes to in the video below when trying to figure out a particular painting:

When it comes to color, Diebenkorn was an absolute master. Though difficult to perceive in reproductions, each shape is made up of layer upon layer of translucent color. The resulting tones echo the light of the southern California sun, and have a certain dirty radiance that I'm continually in awe of.

Richard Diebenkorn - Ocean Park No. 125

Richard Diebenkorn - Ocean Park No. 125

Richard Diebenkorn - Untitled No. 18

Richard Diebenkorn - Untitled No. 18

March 28, 2016

Everything Will Live Forever, Unless It Doesn’t

The common wisdom is that once something is on the Internet, it lives forever. There is certainly some truth to this idea, especially for memes that become widely spread. After all, if nothing else, the Internet is extremely good at enabling the distribution of information. Once an idea moves beyond its original context it is taken up by one person after the another, each person giving the idea new context and new relevancy. In this way, the original idea transcends its original context and is given exceptional longevity.

For less widely spread ideas, the challenge arises with merely finding the information. There are myriad ways to find information online, but it may be hidden or located in an obscure darkened corner of the web. Here information becomes much more fragile. Sometimes the removal of one post or the shut down of one domain can result in the loss of information indefinitely.

Sometimes this loss of information is deliberate, but other times it's a simple matter of the ideas becoming (seemingly) irrelevant. The contextually relevant time window for the information passes, and its bits are simply recycled. The 1's and 0's are written over and repurposed for the next important thing because the reality is that storing information still has a cost. Server space costs something, as does processing information, not to mention the administrative cost of keeping everything somewhere accessible. Subsequently, as context shifts, more and more information is lost.

Ephemeral Ephemera

In the world of design, especially digital design, so much of what we do as designers is to create things that are contextually relevant. Of course, we try to create things that are relevant for as long as possible, but nothing really lasts forever. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes we create things for an opening, a festival, a campaign, or some other limited time that isn't worth the cost to keep alive for a time past the events duration.

The issue is exacerbated by the reality of the ever-changing web. Being static is seen as stagnation to the point of being obsolete. There is a constant drive to revise, change, improve. Again, this isn't a bad thing (quite the opposite in most cases), but it calls into question what the canonical manifestation of a website or app or other digital artifact actually is.

We Are The Chroniclers

This scenario becomes troublesome when considered within the context of design as a discipline. If the external manifestations of our work are continually being washed away by the inevitable tides of time, how should we preserve the work that we do? Design is still a relatively young practice and this practice is being completely changed as the Internet evolves. I sincerely hope that I'm not alone in believing that it's important that we attempt to record some of this upheaval so that we can look back on it and reflect.

One hallmark of a mature—or maturing—discipline is a healthy critical discourse that surrounds it. Indeed, there are some great places to find design criticism online. Despite this fact, there is always room for more discussion, and I sense that the industry would benefit from more diverse voices speaking out. We should keep in mind that while the conversation is happening, it is happening via platforms that are just as fleeting as the work that they are discussing. They are subject to entropy just as everything else online.

In the past, design artifacts have simply had a longer shelf life. Books, posters, packaging; these things can all be kept for decades. With digital things, however, physical archives have always seemed a poor solution. As the web continues to become even more dynamic, the only way that we will be able to preserve artifacts for future generations is a replica of a digital system that would include the context (i.e. platform), its infrastructure (the software that it runs on) and the entirety of its content. One can clearly see the hurdles that would be involved in such an endeavor.

First We Need to Make It Last

This space is not the best place to put forward ideas on such a monumental scale that archiving design would require. I have neither the resources nor drive to undertake such a task though I do believe that it's extremely important to think about how we might go about it. There are a few attributes that would be critical of any solution that we were to consider:

  1. The organization would need to be as objective as possible. It would be detrimental to the history of design to have such important archives controlled by one company or one person. No human organization can be truly unbiased, but setting up an independent non-profit with a clear mission to preserve the history of design would be a step in the right direction.
  2. These archives would need to be readily available and accessible to the public. A history that happens in isolation has no impact. If these artifacts were to be locked up and never looked at again, it would be nearly the same as if they had never existed in the first place.
  3. Whole complete systems would need to be archived. There's no guarantee that future technologies will be compatible with the technology of today. Take, for example, the death of Flash. If it became difficult to find a computer that ran Flash (a very real possibility), many of the websites created in the late '90s to early '00s wouldn't be viewable.
  4. Involvement from the creators is critical. To truly record and then attempt to understand the work, we would need to involve the people that helped to create these artifacts.

This list is doubtlessly woefully inadequate at capturing the critical pieces of the puzzle. What do you think about the idea of preserving design for future generations to look back on? How could we go about doing it? I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

March 13, 2016

The Only Design That Matters is A Verb

As designers mature there is a natural tendency to shift focus from end products to the act of design itself. Indeed, we're seeing a period of maturation of the profession as the discipline of user experience continues to develop and expand. In some sense we can look at our careers as a microcosmic view of the profession of design.

When I started my career, I was intensely focused on the artifacts of design. I was—and to some degree continue to be—obsessed with learning about how something was created. What Photoshop tricks did that designer use or how was that site built? These were the things that I spent all of my time trying to suss out. Ultimately that made me rather proficient with the craft of production, but it left me limited in effectiveness.

Similarly, before the term “graphic design” existed, practitioners were hired to create end products: books, posters, identities, etc. The path from signed contract to artifact mattered only in respect to its tactical details. Each practitioner had their own process because they knew that it generated results. For the client's purposes, the process was inconsequential. They only cared about what the thing looked like at the end.

Ideas have always been one of the cornerstones of design, but in ’60s and ’70s the profession seemed to push them to the forefront. Virtuoso designers were at the height of their skill and influence created work that the established the value for design in the business world. As I was reading up for my class last fall, I came across this quote by Charles Eames:

“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.”

The best part of this quote is its focus away from the final product and instead on the act planning. I went through an extended period of my career where this was my model for design. I often knew what I would make in the end—a website, a brand system, a campaign—and would be focused on achieving a particular goal. The bulk of the work was to establish a plan to achieve that goal and to put pieces in place to ensure as much success as possible. This isn't a particularly bad way to look at design, but it doesn't deal with several aspects that make up a modern practice, namely research and iteration.

In my current work, I focus increasingly more on the research and understanding that goes into figuring out what the real design problems are. I'm fortunate to work across the lifecycle of a project, but I've come to believe that the better your mental model for the world, the more effective you can be in your work. To construct such a model one needs to (personally) do research and use that research to create working models of systems. I've observed my career move in this direction, and I feel strongly that it results in more meaningful work.

I was listening to an episode of Design Matters late last year in which Debbie Millman was interviewing the talented designer Kelli Anderson. It's quite a broad interview, but one thing that Kelli said really stuck with me:

“I really believe that design is a research tool to go into that unknown territory and be able to highlight the reasons why things happen that are maybe hidden from us.”

This is the most resonant summation of design that I've come across, and it really gets at the value that design brings to our world. Design isn't about the stuff, it's about the learning, thinking, and doing. Through the focus on this action, design becomes a tool that isn't reliant on one particular outcome or result. It is an activity that a broader range of people can take part of and contribute to. This really is the power of design and will be the constant as the discipline continues to evolve.

February 29, 2016

A Working Theory of Balance

I've been thinking about a phrase that I hear quite frequently: "work-life balance." The phrase comes up most often when people are taxed beyond their abilities by their job and looking to gain some amount of reprieve from the constant demand of work pressures. While some are on a mission to achieve it in some Quixote-esque quest, others swear that it's a myth of a bygone generation.

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I've experienced the nirvana state of work-life balance, but it's something that I chased after from time to time. For fleeting moments I've felt that both my work and non-work lives are both somewhat healthy and satisfying. It rarely lasts, however, as something inevitably occurs that throws things out of whack. In addition to my own struggles, I've noticed that other people are always making their own shifts and alterations to their priorities. As a result, I've developed a metaphor that has helped me put things in some measure of perspective.

Picture If You Will…

…one of those tool wall peg boards laid flat on a table. Pick a point in the center, and then put a short length of dowel several holes out from the center on each axis. When you're done, you'll have your center point, plus one peg each on the north, east, south, and west axes. Next, go intro your refrigerator and grab one of those rubber bands off the heads of broccoli that you have in there. Stretch the rubber band around the four pegs.

Hopefully you have a mental picture of that odd contraption now. In this metaphor, each axis is a thing that takes a portion of your time and energy. Your professional life is to the north, personal relationships to the south. Interests to the west, obligations to the east. This is how it plays out: say for example that you have a lot of professional demands on your time. Move that peg up one or two from the center. The rubber band probably stretches to accommodate. Next, say that you land that big client but need to put in some extra time to make them happy. You can move the peg up a couple more, but the rubber band might not stretch. So you move the some configuration of the other pegs in towards the center to give you more wiggle room. As your demands and performance expand north, the other aspects of your life begin to contract. Ultimately you can only reconfigure the pegs so much, and you have a limit to the amount of things that you can handle. Our time and energy are finite after all.

I find this metaphor more appealing than the way that people typically talk about the binary work-life relationship for a few reasons. First off, it exposes the connectedness of the other aspects of our lives. Second, it allows for a certain amount of flexibility and give. We've all gone through those times in our lives what something was all consuming, so we know that sometimes everything else has to give for a while. Lastly, I like that the flexibility of the band gets less and less as the distance between pegs becomes more extreme. This really mirrors the tension that often arrises when our live become filled with so many things that we find it hard to cope.

The Work Relationship Interest Obligation Stretch

The more I chase after it, the more that I think that the work-life balance is a myth. I do recognize that I go through periods of heightened professional demands or of focusing intensely on personal relationships. It's not always easy to recognize that I'm making the choice to focus my life in these ways and that other aspects will suffer accordingly, but it's something that I'm working on acknowledging.

What have your struggles been like to achieve some level of balance? I'd be interesting in hearing your thoughts, so drop a line.

February 22, 2016

Tips for New Designers Part 3: Portfolio Reviews

Second only to the big client presentation or project launch, portfolio reviews are one of the most stressful experiences that designers open themselves up to. Regardless of whether it’s an informal review or as part of a job interview, having another designer review your work is a moment of vulnerability. Your challenge is to take that difficult experience and make it a positive one. Having done my share of presenting work and reviewing work, I put together a short list of guidelines for new designers as they get started with portfolio reviews.

What Do You Want?

Going into the review you'll want to have a clear idea of what you hope to get out of it. This may be something that you discuss with the reviewer ahead of time, or it may not. In the case of a job interview this should be fairly clear, but in a less formal setting it may be helpful to give the reviewer some context to how they analyze the work. Regardless of how up front you are regarding your motives, try to steer the conversation and discussion of the work towards this goal. If things start to veer off course, bring the discussion back around.

Do Your Homework

In most cases, the portfolio review will be a result of your networking efforts. This is great because it means that you're not entering into the conversation cold. Hopefully you have a rapport with the person who will be looking at your work. Try to gauge what type of work they respond to or what type of work they might be looking for. Try to position your portfolio in a way that shows that type of work.

In addition to helping to determine your presentation, learning more about the reviewer and their company shows a level of investment on your part. Being able to speak knowledgeably about their world says that you give a damn. Giving a damn sets you apart from those that don't, immediately giving an edge.

Fortunately it's not difficult to find information on people these days. Many companies have "Team" pages, and LinkedIn—or even a simple web search—can be a valuable asset. Following them on Twitter or Dribbble may be another way to see what they are interested in, though I wouldn't recommend following them on all social networks possible to avoid coming off as a stalker.

Run the Show

A common mistake that I see new designers making during reviews is giving the control over to the reviewer. As the designer, you absolutely want to control the narrative about the work. This allows you to frame the discussion, make sure that you hit on the important points, and get what you want from the interaction. Under no circumstances should you give the book, website, or presentation to the reviewer unless it's completely unavoidable. If this happens, it's guaranteed that things will go sideways. Stay in control and keep things on track.

Totally, Completely, Absolutely Unapologetic

Once you're in the middle of the review, make no excuses. This is not the time explain how, if you'd had more time, things would've gone differently; or if the client had any sense the project would've turned out better. Nor should you say that the project is old and looks a little dated. You can think those things, but under no circumstances should those thoughts cross your lips. The work is yours and you need to own it, warts and all. If you aren't happy with some aspect of the project, take the time leading up to the review and fix it. Not doing so and apologizing or making excuses during the review reflects very poorly on you, so avoid it at all costs.

Put a Bow On It

After the review is complete, make sure to thank the reviewer profusely for their time even if it didn't go as well as you would've liked. Even in an interview setting, gratitude for the feedback and time spent discussing work goes a long way. Before you leave, also ask what the next steps should be. After an interview, this can give you an idea about how long the decision process will take or who you should follow up with. If it's a less formal review, you can inquire about keeping in touch with the reviewer or ask who else might be good to talk to. Always try to leave with an action item.

After the review, send a thank you note of some kind. An email is often sufficient, if you have the reviewers address. The note doesn't have to be long or take you much time to write, but you should thank the reviewer for their time and let them know that you will follow through on whatever the action item you discussed was.

If hope that you found this guide helpful and that it eased the review process. While it touches on some high-level items that would make a portfolio review a good experience for you as well as the reviewer, you'll also get better at it with practice. Frequently showing your work to people will just make it easier. Indeed, talking about our work is a critical part of being a designer. If you have additional points about what I missed or have a chance to put these ideas into practice, I'd like to hear what you think.

This is part 3 in a 3-part series for new designers. If you missed them, the first part is about putting together a portfolio and the second was about networking.

February 8, 2016

Tips for New Designers Part 2: Networking

Following up on last week's piece, the next logical step for young designers is to get started with networking. My first thought was to jump right to the interview, but there’s often a good amount of time and energy that has to be put in before the opportunity of an interview presents itself. While I certainly won’t profess to be an expert at networking, I have done it for a while and have learned a few things that have worked for me. This approach is probably most applicable to people who are more introverted, since that’s my experience. I imagine that extroverts have a much easier time with networking, and I definitely envy those with more social fluidity than I possess. The skills to be a successful networker are important, however, and flex similar muscles to those that designers use in professional settings?—?such as meeting new clients and giving presentations.

Start With Your Portfolio

As with many things, the difficult part of networking is getting started. It’s helpful to get going if you’re just coming off of?—?or at least are in the process of?—?putting together your portfolio. Through that process, you’ve spent a good amount of time with your work, and you have a sense of how it represents the type of work that you want to do. Take that impression and translate that to the design world around you. Ask yourself questions like, “Who does the type of work that I want to do?” and “Where do people with similar interests socialize?” You might not know those answers already, but that’s where search engines come in handy. Start with queries like, “web design meetup” or look on social media, and follow that path down the rabbit hole. See what’s available in your area, or maybe even the next closest big city. Sometimes travel is involved, but that may be a price that you’ll have to consider.

Make Your First Moves Online

It's never been easier to meet like-minded designers than it is now. It's almost impossible to be a practicing designer these days without having an online presence. Use that to your advantage and try to find where the conversations are happening online. Whether it's on social media or work sharing sites like dribbble, there are people doing the type of work that you want to do online. Follow them, see what they’re up to, and have a conversation with them if you think that you can do that in a way that doesn’t come off as sycophantic or trollish. Asking questions is a great way to do that, as designers are often eager to share about their work and process. Following people is an effective way to stay on top of developments in the industry, and sometimes surfaces in-person networking opportunities. Practice that vital designer skill of listening to become receptive to the discussion that’s happening around you.

With so much of the design world happening online, the people who you interact with can lead to friendships, partnerships, or recommendations. If they're located in near you or in a place that you're traveling to, there's always the chance that you can meet up in person to talk.

Be Strategic About Your Focus

It can be intimidating to attend a new meetup, but I would suggest starting there when it comes to meeting people in person. Especially if you’re new to the field or in a new area, it’s helpful to see what the lay of the land is without the pressure of forced 1-on-1 interactions. For that reason, I would suggest finding a meetup that seems like it might be of interest and give it a shot before reaching out to individuals or more exclusive groups.

Networking has a cost. The first and most obvious one is the time involved. Whether it’s finding the event, getting to the event, or just the time spent there, there’s always a cost. The second one which introverts feel particularly acutely is tax on your social energy. In contrast to extroverts, introverts find social situations draining, which takes energy away from other tasks and necessitates downtime. Given that cost, it makes sense to prioritize the meetups that you go to. Most likely, there will be another session in a month or two, so you can always make note of it and attend the next one.

Navigating The Social Seas

Once you’ve done the work to figure out which meetup you want to attend, you’ve gotten there, walked in the door and gotten your name tag, there’s always the rather awkward moment of figuring out who to talk to first. If you bring some friends with you (maybe ones that you’ve met through online networking), this can be somewhat easier. Often times it’s easier to work into conversations that are already in progress that way. Should you bring some friends along, make sure that you don’t spend the whole time talking to them exclusively. Meeting new people is the point, after all. Try to incorporate people who you don’t know into the conversation, or work your friend group into other people’s conversations. If you don’t have friends along, there’s more pressure to insert yourself into conversations that you aren’t necessarily invited into. That’s really tough, and something that I struggle with. Keep in mind that we’ve all been there, and that everybody else in the room is there to meet other people. Inserting yourself into conversations is a moment of vulnerability, but it does get easier with practice. You will also find that you have an easier time if you approach the situation as authentically as you can. Own who you are and don’t feel pressure to put on airs to impress people. Again, not the easiest thing to do in practice but work at it and you’ll get there. It sounds kind of silly, but I’ve even given myself goals of interacting with X amount of people before leaving the event.

What you get out of in-person networking depends a lot on the event as well as how you approach it. I’ve been to my share of events that feel a bit like a feeding frenzy, where designers become sharks circling to few people who might be hiring. I’ve been to other events that are really just about shop talk or a purely social gathering. Most events fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but it’s usually best to not go with the hard sell. Try to get to know people and express a genuine interest in their life or work before jumping in and asking for a portfolio review or interview. Having been on both sides of the equation, people tend not to respond well to others that are just using them to get ahead. You need to offer something, even if it’s as small a token of validation. Regardless, it's always good to have a business card that you can give to people who you meet so that they can drop you a line or check out your portfolio online (because it's looking good by now, right?). Also don't be afraid to ask people for their card so that you can take the initiative and reach out to them first.

Reel Them In

Hopefully you’ve been able to tap into your online and in person resourcefulness by this point, and parlayed that into some sort of introduction to a person who is working in an area that you’d like to be in. Don’t let that opportunity window close, and make sure to follow up with this person before too much time has passed. The dating rules definitely don’t apply here, and the fresher your introduction to this person is when your email lands in their box the better. As with the in-person interaction, try not to ask too much or start with the hard sell. It’s up to you to suss out the situation, but a coffee meeting or informal interview can be a great start. If you’ve done some research and they have an open role that you would be interested in, you could inquire about that specifically. This sensitivity to the situation is something that you’ll learn over time, and eventually you’ll get a knack for it.

Ultimately your goal is to set up 1-on-1 meeting with the person where you can show them your work and ask questions. That's a whole other topic though, which we'll jump into next week.

This is the second in a series for new designers getting started in the field. For part 1 about putting together a portfolio, head over here.

February 1, 2016

Tips for New Designers Part 1: Portfolios

Getting feedback, whether solicited or not, isn’t always easy. It’s can be especially difficult when it is directed at the work that you’ve put so much time and care into creating. Given that external feedback is so central what it means to be a designer, it’s best to develop a thick skin early. Throughout my career, I’ve been received a lot of feedback on my work, and I’ve also had the chance to look at the work of a lot of designers just getting their start in the field. In the portfolios of less experienced designers, there are some commonalities that I often see that get in the way of receiving feedback on the actual work.

Less is Always More

As a young designer, I wanted to show everything that I had created. It’s a temptation that I see from a lot of other designers, and it’s completely understandable. You want it to be clear that you’re capable of a broad range of work. You want to convey that you’re flexible, and have the ability to pick things up as you go along. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be at the expense of quality. It also makes it difficult for the portfolio reviewer to see a clear voice in the designer. “Voice” in this instance doesn’t necessarily mean style, but instead refers to that special thing that this designer brought to the solution. If it’s difficult to see that in a portfolio, it’s difficult to say what this person will bring to the table on client projects.

The next logical question is how how many projects to show. There’s really no hard and fast rule for this one in my book, but for a junior designer I’d like to look at about 6–8 projects, give or take. If there are some extensive projects, it could certainly be less. I could even imagine a scenario where showing a single, very in-depth project would do the trick. But which projects to pick? Ah, we’ll get to that one.

Except When More is More

In terms of number of projects to show, less is the way to go. That doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting a portfolio that is light or lacking in substance. Very much the opposite, and this really gets to the heart of the challenge. For inexperienced designers especially, the reviewer isn’t as concerned with the outcome of the final project. What they really want to see is the thinking behind the work. They want to understand what the problem was, how the exploration was done, what the concept is, and how that concept was executed throughout every element of the project.

How this is conveyed is really the biggest challenge with putting together a portfolio. A lot of the time you can offer some voice over as you walk the reviewer through the projects, but that shouldn’t be the only option. Try to approach putting together your portfolio as if you weren’t present to narrate through the work—as is the case on a website—?so that you can illustrate the key talking points in other ways.

Presentation is Half of The Battle

This really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to you as a designer, but the way you present the work is critical. It says a lot about the care that goes into the work, and it also sets the tone. It’s important that you are able to create a beautiful logo, but it’s also important how you show that identity in application. Even with digital artifacts, showing context can help a lot with giving reference to the viewer. Of course, there’s a careful balance to strike (I’m looking at your severely skewed iPhone comps).

Fake It, Even If They Didn't Make It

This lesson is the one that took me the longest to learn personally. The point is that when it comes to your portfolio, you should always show the work that you did in the best possible light. If the client mandated changes to the design that were bad decisions or you ran out of time to give the project that final polish, this is your opportunity to make things right. Show the design as you would have wanted it to live in an ideal world. When presenting the work to a reviewer, you still have to be honest about the state of the work that you’re showing. You don’t necessarily have to offer that information without being asked, but if questioned you should absolutely be honest and be prepared to defend the presented version of the work without dragging the client through the mud. Ultimately though, the worst thing is having to make excuses for how the work turned out.

Don't Kill Your Darlings. Keep Them Close.

Deciding what to pick is usually the first step of putting together a portfolio, but it’s a decision that you’ll likely have to revisit frequently. The reason being is that early in your career, it’s best to tailor the types of projects that you’re showing to the interviewer. If you’re interviewing at a company that specializes in web design, it might not be the best tactic to go in with a portfolio that focuses on branding. Exercise your best judgement here, but always tailor the presentation to the audience.

Start by compiling a list of the work that you could show, and narrow it down to work the would be more relevant to the reviewer. From that shorter list, chose the work that you’re really passionate about. This will most likely result in a manageable list for you to figure out how to package. Depending on the type of review, you may also want to put in a wildcard project or two that you really love. Maybe it’s for a non-profit that you believe in or it was a project that came together really well and you feel it really represents your vision. Ultimately it’s your call, but your belief in the work will come through during the review.

In The Next Episode

Those four things are the biggest pointers that I can give to designers just starting to put together a portfolio. Having the work is just one part of the equation, however. Next week I'll talk about bringing it home in the interview.

Anything really important that I missed in the list above? Drop a line.