Category: leadership

The man in the avocado colored jacket

In the summer term leading up to my senior year in college, I took a sociology course as prescribed by the Design Comm syllabus. Class was held in a small lecture hall seating less than a 100 students.

For the life of me, I cannot remember my professor’s name, but I do remember lots of things about him. He was in his early 60s and had been tenured more than a decade, maybe two. He wore a jacket and tie straight out of the 1970s every day, even though we were in the heat of the summer. And, he was completely out of touch with the times and his students.

One of my fellow students who sat near me on the front row was a big smart ass. He always had an inappropriate question for every topic, most of which the professor did his best to answer authoritatively, but often times missed the mark. The boy did served up constant jabs to get laughs out of the girls sitting around him.

One day we were discussing matters of a sexual nature that I will not delve into here out of respect for gentle readers. The boy on the front row posed some questions that were clearly out of line, but the professor trudged on. He tried to answer intelligently, maturely and with some dignity. But the boy pressed on him new levels of absurdity.

Truthfully, I did not learn much in that class. But I did learn one lesson that day that has stuck with me and I will try my best to relay it here.

On that day, I watched the professor closely as he was being grilled. I looked into his face, into his eyes. I saw fear. His confidence was gone. His authority had been undermined. I watched him being torn down and witnessed him fall apart. It was truly horrible.

I think about that professor when I publicly post these ramblings I scrawl together. I hope that I am not out of touch like him and that I have something of value to offer — a word of encouragement, a worthwhile opinion or a fresh idea.

Much like my sociology professor, I take great pleasure in sharing my knowledge, but in our society today, where it is so easy to instantly offer up a backhanded remark, it makes me nervous to step out on the limb for fear of being attacked or ridiculed. The lack of civil discourse today perhaps is a post for another time.

I also think about my professor when I am presenting — actually getting up in front of a group of people and sharing my knowledge or selling a new idea. For me, I’ve found it’s harder to get up in front of people I know rather than a group of strangers. If you know the audience, there is an inherent bias one way or another towards you. Everyone has this bias in them as we spend time with and get to know people. This makes presenting hard at times because I work with people who can resemble the boy from the front row of my sociology class. I really start thinking about the look I saw in my professor’s eyes and pray I do not have the same look of dread.

It’s hard to get in front of people – online or in person – and share yourself, but this is the single most important thing we can do. Not we as creative people, but we as humans. If we make like a clam and hide away in our shells, we will never make progress on pushing humanity forward. As designers, as writers, as producers or developers, isn’t that the crux of what we are here to do?

The lesson I learned that summer day all those years ago was about courage. The day after that horrific incident where the professor had been shredded in front of his class, he showed up again, dressed in one of his vintage 1970s avocado colored jackets with an equally ugly wide tie, and conducted class.


In conversation the other day with one of the CDs who work for me, we concluded that designers fall into one of two camps:


On the left side of the spectrum, a designer might be quite talented, smart, know their trade up one side and down another, but still they lack confidence in themselves and the things they do.

On the opposite side are those who walk around like their you-know-what doesn’t stink, pontificate, berate, humiliate and go to great lengths to tell you how wonderful it is being God’s gift to humankind.

Why such a dichotomy?

For those on the left-hand side, I think some of it is personality. So many designers are quiet and introverted by nature.

Also, many designers are at their core frustrated artists, who did not feel that they could survive in the world solely by making their art, so they chose the more commercial and stable path in order be creative while sustaining themselves. While there’s nothing wrong with having chosen that route, in doing so you’ve already compromised yourself by admitting that you are not good enough.

Having a client – or some other authority/benefactor to answer to – can be damaging to the spirit as well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of really rotten people out there who will do and say things just to tear others down. Being an artist at heart, designers put a lot of themselves into their work, so when criticism comes their way it’s hard to not take it personally. You have to have a thick skin, or in other words, confidence.

Software has made producing the work much easier. Design is no longer as arcane as it used to be, where designers created magic on drawing boards with an X-acto, a Rapid-i-ograph and other obscure tools of the trade. When I first started out in the business, newsletters were still bread-and-butter for many design firms. But with the desktop publishing revolution in the late 80s and early 90s, that work dried up as it was brought in-house for an admin to handle rather than pay for a professional designer. Not that you’re exactly sad to see that kind of work go, but it certainly knocks you down a notch knowing you’re lumped in wth the secretary pool.

You have probably noticed we’re in the middle of another such revolution with designing digital properties.

There’s a lot to dive in here, but let’s wrap up this portion with one additional thought: When it comes to creative work, everyone thinks they have good taste and an good eye. Everyone has an opinion. If the boss’ eye isn’t that good and they happen to have no taste, this can make a designer’s life miserable. Working hard doing bad work is definitely a burden on the spirit. Unfortunately, at one time or another, just about every designer works for/with a very toxic person.

Now. let’s look at the other end of the spectrum.

In my experience, there are very, very, very few individuals I have worked with who had a huge attitude yet still produced great work. People who are mostly attitude are trying to make up for inadequacies in other areas, be they in the heads or in their pants.

I’ve always had a simple rule when it comes to handling these people: You are welcome to have a big attitude, but you’d better have the game to back it up. If the work is anything less than exception … well, we will have words.

My advice to the right side of the chart: If you are going to be a god, be a benevolent one. Use your mighty powers for good. Don’t show off, instead share your knowledge. Rather than being bossy, choose to a leader. If you cannot help yourself and still want to be an asshole, do something to create a positive impact on the world.

We need all types of designers. Strive to find balance between the wallflowers and the gods.

Redefining success

So I am listening to Tim Ferris’ interview with Walter Isaacson about his new book on Leonardo DaVinci while walking the dog. There are a number of excellent takeaways and I strongly encourage you to give it a listen.

The most important takeaway was this: How do you go from success to significance?



What a bold question to ask yourself. If you work hard, practice, get good at what you do, you will be successful. It will happen.

But what’s next? How much success do you need? You can always challenge yourself to do more. You can always repeat earlier success – there’s nothing wrong with that. But after you’ve been at it for a while, there has to be more. More than another brass ring to grab. Something more than success for yourself or the people you work for.

Significance is so much bigger than yourself. It’s way beyond you. It’s something that might take years, or a lifetime, to attain. You may never achieve it. But it is a noble goal.

I wish I had the answer to this question. It’s been stewing in my mind for days and will probably for some time to come.

Think about it yourself. Think about significance in the context of what you are doing today. Are you do the kinds of things that will propel you beyond success? If not, how can you make adjustments?

As Isaacson pointed out, Franklin and Leonardo did lots of small things, any one of which might have made him famous. But both held such a larger perspective on the world that they saw the significance of their work.

Although it is of little significance, my dog loved the nice long walk.

Baseball, Stoicism & Being a Professional

One of my favorite classes in college was “Design Philosophy”. It was a mishmash of history, typography, production and techniques. It was not a portfolio class, but more like an art class, where we made more design that was like art.

The funny thing about Design Philosophy is that I was never quite sure what I was supposed to have taken away from it. Even 25+ years later, I’m still not sure.

But philosophy has never left my mind.

Life is hard and without getting to gooey, studying philosophy can help you find your way. A couple of years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I thought Isaacson was a little too close to his subject and a bit too much of a fanboy. But there were plenty of excellent take-aways with a surprisingly large number that are of a philosophical nature.

After reading the book, I immediately went out and picked up one of Job’s favorite books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book that had been recommended to me years ago but I had never broken down to read it. Finally did.

Although a beautiful, thoughtful book, Buddhist philosophy is not for me. I do meditate on occasion, but just cannot wrap my head around Eastern thought.

The Western equivalent, Stoicism, I do practice. Daily in fact. Of late, it has become the trendy thing to do largely in part to Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way and it’s subsequent adoption by the NFL as a manual for success. Hey, whatever works.

Sports offer such a great metaphors for life. Especially baseball.

My all-time favorite player has been and will always be the Astros’ first baseman throughout the 90s, Jeff Bagwell. He epitomizes Stoic philosophy.

I’ll never forget a post-game interview he gave. He just came off a monster game — a home run, stolen bases, great defense and base running. An All-Star caliber performance. A reporter comes up to him in the locker room afterwards and starts rattling off everything he had done. Bags just looks at him and says “You know they pay me to hit home runs, steal bases and field the ball. I was just doing my job.” Not an ounce of sarcasm, just pure Stoicism.

I’ve always tried my best to carry myself with a similar stance. Put your head down and do the work. That’s what being a professional is all about.  Don’t go out looking for glory, do the work and let it find you.

For the same amount of effort

I took this class that Disney offered about customer service. The first thing the instructor asked is for everyone to raise their hand. Everyone did. With all the hands still in the air, he asked the class to raise them a little more. Hands rose slightly higher. Now how hard was that? The class collectively reached just a bit higher with a minimal amount of extra effort.

This is a core concept Disney practices to ensure all their guests have the best experience visiting their parks.

That lesson has stuck with me for years.

When you get into your day-to-day work, often you want to rush through, not expend any more energy on a project than you have to, or want to get on with something else. But how big of a difference can you make if you would try 1 or 2% harder?

Conversely, back about 20 years ago I read an article in MacWorld that said if you do not open all the windows in the Finder, you save seconds of processing time every day. You’re making your Mac faster. In fact, over the course of a day you might even safe as much as a couple of minutes. Those minutes add up to hours, days and so on over the course of a year.

When you apply this principle to everything in life, how big of a difference can you make? How much change? Make things better?

Little things can be powerful forces.