Reilly Brennan lives in San Francisco but will always be a Detroiter at heart. He is the Executive Director of the Revs Automotive Research Program at Stanford and teaches a class on heroes and Dale Earnhardt at the Stanford d.school. He created a car photo thingy called Carmagnum.
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The sixth in our series is the sunglassed Telly Koosis, who I met on the first day of fifth grade. We played basketball together, made flamethrowers out of hair spray and pretended we were astronauts at Space Camp. Telly was the consummate connector, always developing fun adventures and getting people to see things in a new way, even when we were 10. This makes him sound like a cult leader, perhaps, but he did have a magnetism that seemed like it was a part of his original equipment. When I left to go to a different middle school in seventh grade I didn’t see him for about 15 years but recently reconnected through my brother-in-law and Telly’s old buddy, Steve Jelinek. Now Telly is a grown up fifth grader, bending code and design and all sorts of stuff at Odopod in San Francisco during the day and planning barbecues at his garden manse in Emeryville in his free time. He is brilliant, inventive and eternally good spirited despite the crowd he keeps. Also, he keeps a rather nice little blog.
What’s on your desk?
Disclaimer: I just moved, so my desk is rather perfectly clean and organized. If you would’ve asked me this question in a month, it’d prob be a completely different picture. (Ed. note: as this interview was conducted over many months due to the author and subject’s incredible lack of focus, what you see in the description below is largely absent from the photograph above. No matter, carry on).
Not sure how detailed you want me to be but here goes (sweeping from left to right):
The following are all resting a homemade monitor platform made out of books and a pilfered wooden shelf:
And to complete the freakish-level of detailing, the books holding up the shelf (resulting in equal heights) are:
* Left side:
o Spot of Bother
o Physics of Immortality
o How to Solve It
* Right Side
o God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
o Guns, Germs, and Steel
o Synthetic Worlds
Right on. Like a few of my friends, you seem to be a mix of coder and designer. How did you get into this and what do you like about what you do today?
Not surprisingly, a lot of what I do professionally today is a direct result of being in the right place at the right time and who I met along the way.
I got a Human Computer Interaction degree from DePaul and it set the foundation. Not only was I was exposed to a lot of industry disciplines (Dev, Design, User Experience (UX), Information Architecture (IA), etc) but also ones like physics, philosophy, and psychology. In the end, I gravitated towards development but that holistic exposure has had a permanent lasting effect.
In school, I became friends with way-too-talented programmers who shared a love of video games. Most things I know today about Networking/IT stems from setting-up multi-player/lan games. Those same friends worked for IT Services and eventually I did too.
The real luck came when I had to fulfill my internship requirements for school. Through friends, I lucked out and found an opportunity with a start-up interactive company. The company was created by five extremely talented individuals all bringing an overwhelming amount of experience to the table. I essentially had access to industry leaders in UI Design, IA, UX , Application Architecture & Development, Account Management, and much more. I quickly found my mentors (and some closest of friends to this day) who taught me by doing. They let me hang around beyond just the internships required hours so I soaked up all I could. I watched, listened, learned, and coded like a mad man. Being a newbie in a real-world environment and having these quality resources around me were invaluable in learning. They also showed me what it meant to be a professional, how to produce quality code/work, and have a sense of pride in your craft. I’m pretty sure I have them to thank for my workaholic tendencies too.
As time went on, I got deeper into development as a contractor but also sought out participation in UX, IA, and Design.
A couple years ago I left a Technical Director position because, while I learned a lot, I became unsatisfied with playing the role. Moving on gave me the opportunity to think about what I really enjoy doing in the industry.
I enjoy asking the core questions; the essence of an idea. I’m fascinated by the process of taking ideas, distilling them down into understandable parts then developing and integrating them as a functional system.
I thrive on collaboration: brainstorming ideas with others, critiquing designs, hacking at problems, and discovering creative solutions.
What I do today has come about in a very natural way and through that discovery I’ve really been able to identify the things I enjoy doing the most.
I’ve learned that a lot of people have the gift of finding the environments that meet their needs and goals, even if they don’t know what either of them are at the time. This might apply to you, it seems, but you likely displayed some of those same traits (finding the essence of an idea) when you were younger. Do you remember something (completely not business related) from your youth where you essentially played with the same set of philosophies / tools?
I’ve always been a social person, especially when I was younger. I think that might be a part of why I enjoy collaboration nowadays. That setting is very appealing to me. Gather a bunch of smart people whose company you enjoy (we’ll call them “friends”), and try to make things happen. Set the stage and see what comes of it. It works for me in any context and at any age: making forts in the woods, trying to sleep in the Sahara, or creating an unique web-based application.
When I was younger, I would organize activities like scavenger hunts and journeys around the lake. We’d plot our route, pack provisions, take off and explore. With the scavenger hunts, most times I’d be the one to create it and plan it all out. In retrospect, I guess I’ve always gotten great satisfaction from creating something from nothing, seeing how all the smaller parts can fit together, having a say in how things get done. Maybe I’m addicted to organizing, but I think it more about the experiences that come from it.
Translated later in life, those experiences are what makes traveling so self-gratifying. Allowing myself to simply zone out and observe how different places function and how other people live is really relaxing to me. And the planning is almost as enjoyable as the trip itself.
Growing up, I also had a lot of exposure to video games since my family’s business was in vending machines. There were all types around like pinball, arcade games, and then consoles and desktop games. So I was pretty heavily immersed in random story-lines and strategies.
All this definitely cultivated my present day nerd.
What is the best way to get groups of people — especially when they’re not in the same place — to work on a project successfully from your experience?
For me, getting people together is all about finding cheap (ideally free) tools that make communication clearer and getting stuff done more efficient. Minimizing overhead is always a concern, but there still are a lot of choices available. Staying on top of what’s out there keeps the search easier.
A new app has to satisfy what’s important to me: If the UI/UX isn’t astute or if the brand is annoying or if the design dominates or if performance is shoddy, it’ll be hard for me to stick with it no matter how useful the service. I prefer web-based applications since they’re inherently location independent. You find a lot of crap but every once and a while you find something valuable and get excited about it and want to share. That’s why I then tell my fellow nerd friends about it. We’re always on the look out for tools that improve or ones that satisfy a new need. We each have our own perspective filters which makes the collective feedback very useful to me. Sharing is caring, yeah?
Since I love lists, here some tools/services I’m using lately:
Of course, there’s always email, but it’s often tedious and has the potential to get you into trouble (lack of tone, inappropriate medium for the topic, etc.).
With that in mind, the tool that trumps all the rest: Being in the same room with a white board, fresh markers, a sturdy eraser, and bunch of ideas to hash out; That’s the good stuff.
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The fifth in our series is with Shane Mahoney, a guy I first met on the pit lane of an American Le Mans Series race in 2003 when he was running marketing and PR for The Racers Group and I was at Corvette; we’ve been friends ever since. He is the person I turn to with my ideas — most of them idiotic, barely a handful worth saving — who’s advice I treasure (and use). Under his eponymous marketing company, Mahoney + Company, his hard work has gone to bat for clients in activities as disparate as tech startups, motor racing, the published memoir of a porn industry worker, and countless others. Shane is a true doer. Chuck Close says “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s Shane.
What’s on your desk?
1. Four (4) three-packs of Field Notes
2. One (1) Moleskine notebook (sadly, not the Ghostly version)
3. One “Mater” tape-dispenser from Pixar exhibition at Oakland Museum of California
4. Six (6) Field Notes “Clic-Pens” with “miles of ink” in “Gary’s nose black”
5. Luxo L-1 task lamp (Target knockoff version)
6. 40-year old antique Persian rug, exact replica of the rug that The Dude stole from The Big Lebowski’s house in The Big Lebowski.
7. Glass statuette given to me by a guy who I saved from drowning, Pacific Grove, CA, 2006.
8. One (1) autographed photo of Patrick Long
9. Two (2) identical framed photos of myself and RJ Valentine
10. Autographed Jeff Clark / Mavericks poster. Inscription: “Shane: Go Big!”
11. Two halves of one broken surfboard (2004, Ocean Beach, CA), one In-N-Out Burger sticker
12. Kleen Kanteen stainless steel water bottle. California totally rubbed off on me.
13. Business cards for two separate companies: Mahoney + Company and Swift.fm
14. One (1) canine - Husky / Australian Shepherd mix, Harvey. Not posed. She just walked in and plopped down as Jenn took the photo.
That’s a great desk area. When you get up in the morning (or, whenever you get up), how do you get in sync to start gobbling up the day?
(Photo by Kaito Osborn)
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The fourth in our series is with Todd Osborn, the musician, artist and builder of whatever he puts his mind to. I met Todd about a decade ago in Ann Arbor and thought that he was one of the best DJs I’d ever seen / heard. While that would remain true, I learned through the years that it was a rather narrow view. The breadth of Todd’s output is simply staggering; not only does he record and play live some of my favorite music (for Ghostly and Rephlex), he builds his own instruments, puts together hovercrafts from scratch (we’re not kidding), assemblies Bultaco motorcycles in his kitchen, builds elaborate Lego sculptures and teaches himself how to fly planes (also not a joke). Every time I get the opportunity to sit on his couch in his Ypsilanti studio and take in the last few months of his projects, I leave uplifted in the belief that good work is the ultimate signature. Todd builds and builds and builds and when he can’t figure out how to do something, he teaches himself how to move around it or hover above it.
What’s on your desk?
It’s a mess (as always). I try to sort through things about once a week but more often than not I just throw everything in a box, hide it in a corner, and it starts all over again.
The main things that never change are two LG LCD monitors and a pair of Yamaha HS-50M’s.
As for the mess, it currently consists of:
- A TON of bills
- Issue of Jail Birdz
- Six TMNT comics
- Two Dennis the Menace comics
- Cuban cigar
- Two books on breakdancing
- Garmin 12XL GPS
- EEE PC
- Map ruler
- Logic puzzles
- Two PS3 controllers
- Laser level
- Three bottles of medicine
- Nintendo DSi
- Four kinds of packing tape
- Arp 2500 module
- Pellet gun
- Three sound cards
- Giant torque wrench
- Issue of The Economist
- A stack of strange currency (silver certificates, etc)
- Various DVD’s, DAT’s, cassettes, and DV tapes
- Ceramic monster head
This is one of the best desk inventories I’ve ever read. When you hit your desk when you start your day in the morning, what are you typically doing first?
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The third in our series is with Joe Case, the director and photographer living in Los Angeles. I met Joe when we were roommates in a study abroad program in college and we quickly became friends. We went on to live together in the Corktown section of Detroit after school, where our next door neighbor was a working dominatrix. Yes, those were interesting times. Joe’s ability to actively manage the work/life balance always impresses me and his endless well of creativity is inspiring. He’s probably the most levelheaded friend I have; in an alternate universe he would be a well-qualified bomb defuser for the FBI.
1. What’s on your desk?
Currently on my desk is an assortment of nomadic gear. The center of it is my very loyal G4 powerbook which has held up surprisingly well for its age. It still handles video editing and After Effects after all this time. Next to that is an M-Audio firewire audio interface with some Alesis monitors plugged into it. 4 external hard drives that have traveled with me a lot. One crashed and I am hoping to revive it because it wasn’t backed up. One more smaller hard drive with my last film on it, a beginner’s German book, some German flash cards from the 50s or so (they contain all these really archaic social references and phrases). A wire “inbox” basket, a David Lynch postcard from his artwork exposition at the Cartier foundation in Paris, with some special words from a special person on the back, a sunglasses case, Spring 09 issue of Filmmaker magazine, a can of orange air therapy spray from Trader Joe’s, a usb hub, pens, sharpies, an aluminum water bottle and a slew of post-it notes which are a mix of script notes and personal philosophy reminders.
2. You’ve lived more places in the last year than anyone I know, from Paris to Los Angeles. How do you manage to focus on getting work done with that much mobility? It seems like it takes months for me to get my desk sorted out, or maybe that’s just the excuse I give myself.
Mobility isn’t really the issue, it is more a lack of home base. Most of my work before was based in mobility - traveling and shooting, etc. Which I love of course, and then I had the home desk where I would do more personal work. But I can’t say I am good at mobile multitasking, if that is the right term. When I go somewhere, I am pretty absorbed into my surroundings and getting my mind to do anything else than explore the environment is tough. For example, once I said yes to go to Serbia for a fashion assignment while dealing with another deadline for a writing thing. I never say no to visiting a new place. We get to this new fantastic place and everyone goes to dinner, but I say I have to stay back to finish this thing. It just felt unnatural and I had to force myself. I am looking out of the window at this street filled with strange Russian cars I had never seen before, and I just wanted to walk across the street and buy a water to see what the people in the store looked like. Meanwhile I am getting text messages from the other photographer I was working with saying “you should have come to dinner, the chicken is insane and endless, and the girls are ridiculously hot and friendly.” When I travel I always take my stuff thinking I am going to get some other work done, but I never do. I just get too caught up in where I am.
That said, staying productive during a huge relocation like I had is nearly impossible. I didn’t get any real work done for months after I moved to LA because I didn’t have a desk or home base. I was staying with friends, and house sitting, etc, just bouncing around. Couldn’t get a damn thing done because I didn’t have a private place I could leave my stuff and come back to everyday. I need a place where the work stays, and I can leave and come back to it. Otherwise it just all floats away. Especially because my biggest task now has no clients or deadlines, so self discipline is absolutely essential and a skill I am working hard to improve on. But nothing really got done until I had a room with desk in it and a lock on the door that was all my own.
3. At what point do you feel at ease and ready to do your work? Do you start your day with email or try to plow through some tasks first?
Preparing to be ready to do your work is a delusion. Distraction is the most addictive and insidious drug there is. I know, I am an addict and deal with it constantly. I think the only way to do it is ruthlessly shove everything off the desk except the task and just tackle it. My most productive hours are very early morning. Once the world wakes up, I am out getting high on distraction like most people. My best routine is to get up really early (6am-ish), go for a walk perhaps, make coffee and just start plowing. Get through your essential work by like 9-10am. Problem is, it is tough to keep that routine.
Once you get on the distraction train, you are on it for the rest of the day. Your mind is already on that path. Checking a little bit of email, cruising a blog, perusing the news all seem like harmless little things that you can jump back to your work from, but your focus is already compromised. You’re done. You think you can get off the train whenever you want, but you can’t, it is non-stop service to the end of the day and a dull guilty feeling for not having gotten enough done.
Of course when I say “you” I mean “I.”
4. One of the facets of your working life I find most interesting is that you’ve done so much personal work for your own film and multimedia projects and also a lot of client work, yet all of it ties together. How do you manage to keep clients happy while also putting your own fingerprint on things? Seems like a tough balance
Hmm. That is a tough one to nail down. That line is hazy. I think the majority of my work thus far has been personal work. I think they tie together in that I have always been motivated from the exploration standpoint, whether that be subject matter, technique, etc., or the really just having a new experience for myself. If it is something I haven’t seen or done before, that always warrants a yes response. So whether I am doing it for me or for someone else, that exploration element can be there and has been the motivating factor. The other side of that is that after I get the exploration reward, I tend to leave it behind, which has resulted in a lot of fragments. I have generally lacked or haven’t paid too much attention to the feedback and reaction aspect, which I think is crucial as it helps give you a picture of your fingerprint. You go through those phases of saying “yes, this is what I do, this is who I am, it is awesome,” and then “what the hell do I do? who am I? I got nothing to offer.” The creative waves. The exploration motivation gave me a lot of experiences which are creative material. Now I am going through all these fragments and things and piecing them together again to give myself that necessary image of my creative fingerprint. This is actually something I am dealing with quite a bit right now as my move to Los Angeles was for the purpose of building a more lucrative career, so the client side of it is quite important and you have to know what you offer.
One thing I know certainly doesn’t work is trying to figure out what people want and mold yourself to that. I have done that and it always fails. Conformity is death, but that pressure is always whispering in your ear. I think if you are in a creative field and you actually have creativity, then that is what you have to offer and that is what people want from you. They want your fingerprint on things. So I don’t really see the balance issue. I think the way to success is knowing what your fingerprint is, and being confident in that product. As soon as you start to compromise that, you become less desirable. I mean, your job is to be the creative person. People hire you to tell them what works and what is good. It sounds messed up, but it’s not. Once you start asking “What do you guys like, what do you want, I can do whatever you guys need,etc.” then all of a sudden you aren’t the creative person. Of course, there is a collaboration. Clients come at you with a need and a destination. Your job is to get them there how you know how. So, I think fingerprint is what makes clients happy. But maybe I have been living in a charmed world of personal work, ha ha!
5. I think the notion of “knowing what your fingerprint is” is right on the money. Your fingerprint is something that you receive on your first day on earth. Going back to that is pure, without alternative and entirely yours. What advice would you have for people who are starting out who are looking to find their fingerprint?
Well, I think your fingerprint is only visible in the rear view mirror. So to discover it you just need to start covering as much road as you can. You need to be open to wherever that goes and not hold on to some rigid idea of “what you do.” I think people confuse what they want to do with what they actually do, and this is the first big trap on the road to creative endeavor. You simply cannot define yourself and your fingerprint by what you plan on doing or what someone else does. You need to explore. You need to put yourself up against different backgrounds. You need to fail forward. You need to explore dead ends, have things crumble, pick up those pieces and use them on something else. You need to identify the people you admire then rip them off to see how their stuff feels. You need to just chug through a lot of things. Then you need to be ready and open to the results, whatever those may be, because they will probably surprise you and they might not be as sweet as you imagined. And then you need to not identify with that, because it is in the past. A fingerprint is something that is left behind. It is evidence that someone was there. Which leads to a more operational definition than a stylistic one. You can’t predict exactly what it will look like, but you know you will leave it behind and it won’t look like that of anyone else.
Maybe “knowing what your fingerprint is” is not the right phrasing. Knowing that you have one is paramount, and you must have confidence that it is valid. I know that I have dealt with “fingerprint insecurity” - that feeling that what you do isn’t anything unique and all that, but that is a movement killer and creativity is movement. You need to keep moving to find out what it is you do.
More Joe Case: Joe Case Showcase
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The second in our series is with Nick Parish, a writer and editor living in New York, currently at Advertising Age (before that at Creativity Magazine, Flavorpill and the New York Post). I met Nick in high school in Detroit and we quickly became friends after realizing how much stuff we had in common, not the least of which was cars, media and the innovative side of life. Nick is one of those Detroit exports we’re eternally proud to see on the come up, always tearing it up and always true to his old pals.
What’s on your desk?
All the crap I accumulate around my desk area either serves to help me do work and organize things (like filing trays, hard drives, a lap board for my computer) or take my focus away from it (the radio, all the silly scrapbook-y stuff, postcards and clippings and random things that accumulate on the corkboard). I don’t have much of an attention span, so alternating between the two leads to best results.
It seems like a lot of people are figuring out how to make their workday a little more personal. In the old day that might have meant pictures on your desk but now it seems like having your Firefox plugins, favorites, music in your iTunes, etc is the new personalization. So, you tend to use both when you’re writing and editing?
Yeah, those little custom bits are great, until you get whacked and have to do a clean install of Firefox and all the things you’ve accumulated have to be re-found, and you never remember what they’re called, just ‘that thing that strips the CSS from a news story to make it easier to read’ and you have to think ‘Well, maybe I saw it on there’ and retrace your steps. Which is really a great way to check if they still matter to you. There are a couple I can’t do without. But both at home and in the office I have totems a computer just can’t match, maybe because they’re ultimately irrelevant to any specific task. Sometimes they’re significant personally and sometimes they’re just some strange artifact persistent in the space.
Tell us about your day, including what you do before / after work and what your job entails.
Phew, big question. Most days I’m up pretty early and scoping things out at home, checking out news feeds, writing and responding to emails and putting any finishing touches on things I was working on the night before. Mid-morning I go into the office and start my real day, managing Advertising Age’s events content. We do a handful of conferences every year and I’m responsible for programming them, which entails talking with the editors to suss out themes, tracking down speakers and panelists, making sure the word gets out and helping develop and produce cohesive stuff with the reams of content that emerge. Frequently I’ll leave the office in the evening and attend events or other appointments before heading home, but if the calendar’s bare I’ll try to get some exercise in. If the day was already really rugged, I’ll just abandon the evening to video games. Dinner’s usually my only decent meal, unless I had some sort of lunch engagement, so following dinner I’m generally heartened enough to sit down at home again and have a good think about new things.
You’re on the edge of what’s going on in media. What do you like about what some media brands are doing today? This might lead you to letting us know what your favorite sites, books, or magazines are, but that’s your choice.
Oh, jeebus, media habits. To the eventual reader of this interview: you are entering a world of pain. It’s all kind of a mess, really. I mean, I started at a .com, went to a massive, ancient tabloid, then to a creative trade magazine and now to a venerable old brand where I’m doing work in one of the few areas where our industry’s revenue is expanding. So I’ve seen a few different sides. And the only thing I can uniformly like is that I can control the heck out of how I experience media. I guess what I’m driving at is the things I like about some media I detest in others and am glad to be able to pick and choose. The name of the game is still information curation, but we’re so much more responsible for ourselves than ever.
I still like the biggies for minute-to-minute stuff, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, I hit those online a few times every day as they push breaking stuff out on RSS and subscribe to much of their corollary shit, like FT Alphaville for instance. I only ever buy print newspapers on the weekends or when I don’t want to carry a book but know I have a long subway ride, in which case it’s the Post, because I never feel bad to toss it away. FT Weekend every Saturday. I actually get out of bed early to make sure no one else gets the only copy my newsstand stocks. The Times, lately, deeper in the paper, there’s such a high fluff-to-info ratio I can’t tolerate it in print other than Sunday mornings, when I’m in good humor.
To actually answer your question, and focus it on magazines (because I think even though newspapers online may be annoying in their tentative and naive ways a lot of them are doing a good job adjusting) the magazine brands I dig right now are really tightly edited and art directed and pretty niche and direct. I’m willing to pay a premium for those because they’re not watered down with bullshit I know is advertiser-influenced or edited 20 times until it’s a total vanilla mess. I like magazines that have the seams showing, where you can tell there was a strong editorial influence but they’re not afraid to be quirky. The branding part of my brain knows that doesn’t really scale well or attract (and keep) advertisers but I tend to seek those out from a reader’s perspective. I really like Fantastic Man. While I’m outside their demographic, my girlfriend brought home a copy of Butt (Editor’s note: not safe for work) the other day and it was a great read. Most of the time, titles like that have a really minimal web presence but, like Butt, the website works and is still part of the mag’s artifact aesthetic. The Wire’s another good example of a magazine like this. Great editorial, vivid, interesting stuff, no-nonsense web presence that doesn’t give away all the good shit from the magazine itself, with a physical print presentation you want to keep around for a couple months. The Skateboarding Mag will never match Big Brother, the greatest skateboarding magazine of all time (and in my eternal top 5) but it’s very keep-around-able. Same for Monocle. They’re getting close to irritating with the constant every-other-page advertorial, branded-shoe-buffer schtick though.
And smaller mags can get this way but they’re just more about discovery for me than brand association or adoration. The Drake is a great fly fishing magazine representing a really sub-subculture of young fishermen and guides, not at all fuddy-duddys into spending $1,200 on a reel. F.E.D.S. for crime and street shit. I tend to look over any obscure shit that falls past me just because there might be something interesting I can glean from it. Taking a look in the basket right now there are things like Land Report (I went out west and was obsessed with ranches), and the inaugural issue of Dangerous Game Hunting, which my friend got for me in rural Michigan. The coolest thing I’ve seen this year has got to be Manzine, though. That’s awesome. Perfect tone, crappy but interesting design, heartfelt. Awesome. The spirit behind Manzine and Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet make me really stoked and hopeful.
(Unfortunately I’ve neglected the thousands of pieces that come from various channels like Twitter and shared items and small small blogs and whatnot. I’ve actually developed a theory around this that has helped me avoid overload, and guides how I run my social network gateways and filters. I first noticed it happening with Boing Boing, where I’d see 20 posts from it a day, and only a one or two that I was interested in. The more I scooted around to Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr though I found people who I was friends with in real life often shared the items I was interested in. I suppose that’s because we have shared tastes already. Once this happens consistently enough I eliminate the main feed and put more credence in what the friend is sharing, sort of employing them as a reverse stringer. And I haven’t touched on books. Let’s not get into books.)
I’m glad I asked. I wanted the firehose. What makes you happy to create? What do you want to do?
I think one of the things that has made me happiest in my work in the media is seeing the copy or issue you worked on for the first time. A lot of people I have worked with are filled with dread, and fly through looking for fuckups. I’m just still in awe of the process. I remember at the Post, filing a story and then stopping at the office or being around there on a late shift as papers were being delivered, at like 10:30 or 11 at night. The fresh issues would be soft and slightly damp and smell wonderful. It was the best feeling. And you could turn to your story or see the page you laid out and think ‘Wow, that was nothing four hours ago.’ And it was, it went from being an event, something that happened, rematerialized into this tangible object through an enormous group effort. And, in the case of the Post, there were some 600,000 of them being scattered around the country as I sat there and thought about the enormity. It was magical.
Making a newspaper is fulfilling every night. Making a magazine that happens once a month, or once a quarter, so it’s a different timeline and a different set of hopes and visions you’ve moved towards. Making a website, or web story, or little funny video, or event, or screenplay, or garden, or movement, there’s an entirely different set of expectations and different progress toward a goal.
As I get older I think more about the transience of publishing, how the papers I had that were so supple and full of life are yellowed and fading, like the memories of the things that happened to prompt them, recording facts and events that rarely reemerge based on the strange swerve of the universe. I’ve been lucky so far in having great opportunities and I really hope to be able to keep moving along with my interests. I hope the next important things for me can be more lasting, things that still matter years or decades from now, things that can grow on their own once you devote attention elsewhere. I think a lot of us in the media—and I consider myself among them when things are especially dark—consider our days numbered, and get this feeling of ‘What else can I do?’ Well, we’ve always used systems to create things, sometimes exceedingly personal things, that people like, from a few raw materials and hard work and cooperation. Maybe I’m overoptimistic and sappy but I think if we keep that in mind we can move into different areas without fear and apply our skills to new and exciting challenges.
More Nick: NickParish.net
Note: What’s On Your Desk? is a series of interviews with friends who are doing interesting things. The dialogue always starts off the same way, by asking the subject to describe their workspace. The first in our series is with Detroit’s own Nate Luzod, who is, pound-for-pound, my favorite designer and the guy I want next to me in any project large or small. Nate’s new interactive design outfit, GRID, recently opened its doors and is heartily bucking the economy.
What’s on your desk?
Centerpiece is a 24” iMac with Intel Core2 Duo Processor, 3.06GHz. To the right of the keyboard is my Wacom Intuos3 Table. The setup is rigged wirelessly to 3TB of NAS. Epson printer and scanners are hooked up wirelessly as well. Non-hardware? An assortment of highlighters and mechanical pencils sits in a 25 year old Luzod Associates, Inc. coffee mug (my father’s business from his entrepreneurial days). In front of that is a picture of my wife making a face at the camera and picking her nose with both fingers. Beneath the desk is usually a sleeping Wheaten Terrier named Max - he’s both important and special. There are also unfinished moleskines, sketchbooks, paper samples, half-read coding reference books, weeks of unopened mail, House Industries catalogs, vintage Transformers, an old school Voltron, Gundams, kid robots, and all the other immature things you might expect.
You have become a coder but you started as an artist. How did you manage that transition and what would you tell people who want to have both skills?
I wouldn’t call it a complete transition - since I wasn’t exactly a Stefan Sagmeister who decided he wanted to learn code. I’ve just always been interested in tinkering and curious about the way things work. That’s the answer in a roundabout way; as with anything you do in life, intellectual curiosity is the prerequisite for developing any semi-marketable talent. If you’re not interested, if you’re not into the process, then there are better ways to spend your days.
I don’t think I qualify as an artist. I consider myself a designer, which means my work has a defined objective independent of “how I’m feeling today”. Design, like programming, requires critical thinking and the ability to solve problems. Programming, like design, involves patterns, mathematics, geometry, and insight. They have a lot more in common than you might think. If you have a mindset for one, cultivating the other doesn’t require an absolute paradigm shift. It’s just a matter of learning the rules and applying them.
It seems that a lot of today’s jobs are straddling this concept — two related but classically opposed skills. Is it better to get good at one first or do both at once?
If you’re just getting started I think doing them together is the way to go. On the web in particular, the technology informs the design and vice versa - so learning them at the same time would be a huge benefit. Understanding both the constraints and advantages of the technology will help you build realistic and functional designs. Understanding how things should look and feel and interact with the user will make you a better programmer. In my opinion, learning all this at once would minimize any ‘unlearning’ and adjustment time.
What are the books / websites / magazines that you used to chart these waters?
For development, Programming PHP by Lerdorf (PHP’s creator) gave me everything I need to know. For Flash, Hillman Curtis’s Flash Web Design got me started with motion, and Colin Moock’s ActionScript books from O’Reilly did the rest. Anything and everything you need can be found online via “the Google”, though. There are too many great sites to name.
For design, its important to know the rules. I didn’t understand this until later on, but to design “what looks right” is dumb and won’t help you defend your work against clients who “just feel”. To learn the rules, Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style and Tsichchold’s The New Typography are critical for typography - the importance of which can’t be overemphasized. For grids and layout, Kimberly Elan’s Geometry of Design and Grid Systems were really accessible for my short attention span. Learn the rules from books, then get your inspiration from living life.
Most important was Hillman Curtis’s MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer. It focuses on approach and worldview, not just the rules of design. What is the designer’s role, what is his place in the world, how do you conduct fruitful meetings and get at the core of what a client wants; these are among the topics covered. Equally as important as design or coding talent is the ability to communicate clearly with your clients and run a successful business.
Lastly, the annual Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook will go into concrete terms for best practices, contracts, and fair pricing for what you’re doing. You want to make money, right?
For the aspiring designer / coder, how much of the growth process should be assigned to learning from consuming books like this? I get the feeling that more of today’s new age designer is just “doing it” and learning on the job. True?
For me, it has been 98% just doing it and 2% reading and studying. Maybe I would be further along had I devoted more to formal learning, but despite their value I find most instructional books vastly boring in comparison to just digging in and trying to make something work.
What are your thoughts about living in the Detroit area? How has this affected your creative / professional growth?
This is something of a touchy subject. In many ways I love Detroit - namely because it’s my home. The city’s significance is undeniable in industry, technology, music, art, and the creative scene persists to this day. I think it thrives despite, or in some cases on account of, the current state of things. If you can feed off all these elements, I think Detroit is a great place to be. But that takes a special kind of person.
Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of person. I draw no mystical inspiration from our blighted, post-apocalyptic cityscape. I find it kind of depressing. We have great food, amazing music and art, but the fact that you can almost never come home without smelling like an ash-tray is a huge disappointment. There is no mass transit to speak of, and the much of the city is tragically unsafe. No need to even touch on the embarrassing city government (though I hold hope for Bing), the 25% unemployment rate, and failing school system.
I think most tech-saavy, creative young people would be hard-pressed to pick us over any other major metropolis if they had a job offer here vs. even Cleveland or Pittsburgh, let alone NYC or Frisco. Detroit has done little to attract the types of people it needs and much to repulse those it should retain. Most of my friends and classmates have moved away and I don’t fault them for this. The depleted talent pool is both good and bad, though. Great if you revel in the potential of things and have the next big idea, not great if you’re looking for a job here and now.
That’s a balanced and thoughtful opinion. Is this something that’s changed over the last five years, in either direction, or do you think this has been static for some time?
I should note that it took a long time to write that, mostly because its painful to admit those things in writing. I would say my opinion of Detroit has changed significantly as I get older. I used to live downtown and I used to love it. As I get older and value things like peace and quiet, safety, the want to raise a family, my perspective has changed. As far as I can tell, Detroit has shown only minor improvement in the six years since I moved back. I realize these things take time, though.
What’s a recent thing you worked on / completed / started that you learned something meaningful from?
I’ve been doing some side work for my previous full time job and have been surprisingly more pleased with the end product than I was when working full time with the company. It’s interesting to see how you operate without the fear of pissing off the wrong people, without the fear of getting fired. You could say that the less you have to lose the more adventuresome you can be with your ideas. This is probably why some of my best work is done in the freelance capacity.
Is there anything you plan on doing to recreating that freelance mindset in your non freelance work? Or do you think that’s just the way it is?
That doesn’t have to be the way it is. Your work environment is important, and I think this pertains to any career that requires creativity. Your relationship with your co-workers, the way the company is run and the condition of the business are all factors. If you constantly live in fear of being judged, fired at the drop of a hat or “head-count-reduced”, you’re less likely to have the comfort required to take risks. Ultimately, you need an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes. The right place will encourage experimentation and understand that many failures (fast, educational ones, preferably) are often required for each huge success.
To get this right in a full-time position, I think its important to be picky about the job you take (also important in freelance). When interviewing for my current job, I viewed the meetings as a two-way investigation. I focused not only on selling myself, but also finding out everything possible about the company and those I’d be working with. Can I get by with these people 8 hours a day? Do I really stand behind the mission of the company? What do others who work there think of the place? Being picky is necessary. This is difficult advice to digest in such a poor economy, but important.