I gave a talk (part 3)

I had to put at least one meme in here.Briefly, I want to share some advice. This is based off my 11 year insane career path, so it’s ok to be a little cynical. Cynicism is underrated. But maybe it’ll help someone here.

Lovely networking graphic

The most valuable things you will get from any job are experience and connections. Experience in the sense of both portfolio pieces and technical skills, but also good habits. Connections because many people find jobs almost exclusively through referrals. I’ve only had a few job offers come through recruiters and normal applications. Most have been either a person specifically pointing me to a company, or friends referring someone to me – even years after I worked for them. The world is much smaller than you think. So don’t burn bridges unless you’re absolutely certain you won’t need them again.

All hail our robot overlords

When you’re actually looking for jobs, find a designer you like. Find out where they worked, see who used to work with them, see what else they’ve done. The internet is great for stalking people. Maybe even reach out and say hi. Let them guide you. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human being. Same for companies. Got a company you want to work for? Reach out to them, even if they’re not hiring. See who works for them, and find out where they worked. See who used to work for them, and find out where they are now. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human. Also, make sure companies can see your work. Get a website. Make sure your work is on Behance, or Coroflot, or where ever else. Keep LinkedIn up to date. It’s no substitute for in-person networking, but every bit helps.

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When you’re interviewing, have your presentation down. If you’ve got samples, make sure they can survive handling. If you’ve got a printed book or boards, make sure the prints/photos are in good shape. Make sure you can actually carry it. If you’re presenting on a tablet or laptop, make sure your battery is charged and if you’ll need internet access, make sure you arrange that beforehand. Make sure everything works. Talk process and decisions. Know your contribution. Don’t fake it. Also, don’t show everything for the sake of showing everything. I’d also rather see fewer deep projects than lots of shallow projects. Chances are, I will only ask you about a couple pieces in your portfolio – probably the strongest (because I’ll be curious) and the weakest (because I’m going to push you).

Nothing funny here

Understand what companies do. Be prepared to ask questions. Look past the PR. Find out what you’ll be doing. Curiosity is underrated, and will help you in the long run

And understand, your first job or two or three will probably suck. Sad but true. They’re the hardest to get. You’ll be the low man on the totem pole and do the most basic work until you prove yourself or move on. You’ll do a ton of things wrong. Eventually that’ll change (even if it’s only because you change jobs). Learn and grow. Don’t let your first job pigeonhole you. Complacency can hurt you in the long run, even if you like what you’re doing – for example, I had the opportunity to focus purely on Flash design/dev early on. If that became my only skill, I’d be virtually unemployable now. If you hate your first job, find something else. It’s a big world, every company and every client is a little different.

Take freelance on the side, if you can manage it, or start personal projects. The barrier for entry for getting yourself published online has never been lower. Whether it’s the Daily Drop Cap, the Daily Monster (both actual projects from designers I respect), or the weekly-something-I-just-made-up, it’s the closest you’ll get to your student work in terms of pure concept and self-expression, which is always interesting. Use the time to experiment and improvise. It’s a far cry from the daily exercise in compromise that is professional design.

Go to these two things

Design is a business. Remember how I just said how student work is about concept and self-expression and improvisation? Professional design is about getting paid, hopefully without selling your soul. Money’s certainly not everything, but life is much easier when you’re not worried about eating or paying rent. It’s also much easier when you don’t take it personally. Speaking about getting paid, there are two things you should check out on the internet:

  1. shouldiworkforfree.com (Which helps answer the question you’ll have to answer constantly, “Should I work for free?” Hint: the answer is generally no)
  2. Fuck you, pay me (Not the scene from Goodfellas, but a very funny presentation about contracts by Mike Monteiro, who runs a design shop in SF.)

Once it's up, it's up

There is no such thing as beta. For those who aren’t aware of how software releases work, there’s a first release, called an “Alpha” – it’s a buggy mess. It’s generally not meant for public consumption. It’s just to test specific features. Then there’s beta – maybe opened to the public, this is when the bulk of the features are done, but you need a bigger audience to look for the odd bugs. Then there’s the actual release.

Guess what? There is no beta. When putting your work or thoughts online, remember – you only get 3 phases: zero (pre-publishing), a few (showing it in-person) or everyone (sending out password-protected links, posting your work in forums, whatever – once it’s out there, it’s out there.

Also, take yourself seriously. No one else will. And I mean that professionally, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Would you like a nice pair of aviators?

This is the biggie: Be careful drinking the kool-aid. You’ll have to drink a little bit of it. If you’re in a small design shop and you don’t think that late nights, and stress, and instability and insanity are exciting and at least a little cool, you’ll be miserable, fast. If you’re in an ad agency, accept that you are selling products. You’ll have to live with the fact that advertising is its own little universe where it is actually important in people’s lives. If you work for a big tech company, accept that things have a process and politics and move at a glacial pace sometimes. If you work in pharma… well… at least you’re not doing porn. I’ve never worked in pharma, for the record. If you’re freelancing, you have to learn to love that you never REALLY know what you’re going to be doing next week, and managing your expenses, and networking constantly, and filing your taxes. But I’ve worked for small ad shops, big ad shops, a non-profit, corporate, tech, design… whatever. You’re going to have to be engaged and present… and if you’re not, you’ll just be sad.

That said, take it easy. This is the one thing I repeatedly fucked up. It took me 7? years to figure this out: You aren’t your job. Shocking, I know. Working 70-80 hours a week gets old fast. Working weekends gets old fast. It’s not healthy. It leaves you no personal time. And it leads you to a personal and creative stasis. You shouldn’t expect to walk out at 5PM every day – you’ll have to put in your time. You should want to go to work in the morning, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you get up. Because as soon as you hit a rough patch, or a friend quits, or your client fires you and things get crazy or god forbid, you get laid off, or you just decide it’s time for a change… it will hurt that much more, and it’s already going to suck. Stefan Sagmeister has a great story about this:

When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money Tibor Kalman told me: And don’t you go and spend the money they pay you or you’re going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life. I didn’t and got easily out of it again. Most of my colleagues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies.

I don’t want to unfairly pick on advertising (design isn’t much better), but he’s got a point. Advertising is a crazy world that revolves around buying things you don’t really need. They pay a lot of money (most of the time) to make up for the stress and instability. As an industry they practically pride themselves on wrecking their employee’s lives and condoning terrible behavior. And many people buy into it as “the price you pay”. And to a degree, that’s true. You can have a lot of fun in advertising. Some people fall in love with it and stay forever and produce all sorts of really good work. But, If you end up in a world you don’t like (say, you hear self-important speeches about ‘positive contributions to culture’ and ‘conversation starting’ one too many times, or bashing of junior creatives who want to be treated as actual human beings), it’s very hard to leave when you’ve spent all of your money, and gotten into a lifestyle and spending habits that require that high salary.

Really though, it’s good advice for everyone, whether or not you go into the ad industry. Every industry has its dark side. It’s tough for you guys, just graduating, without a ton of money, probably with student loan debt. Being careful with money means you can move across country. Travel. Save for a rainy day and you can afford to wait for the job you want, not taking the first paycheck that can come your way if you find yourself laid off. It is genuinely liberating to get to the point where you don’t need that next paycheck.

Speaking of Kool Aid, you’re going to have to develop a sense of ethics. I’ve worked for absolutely loathed companies – My first job was for a cable company. I worked on Discover Card and Capital One. No one ever likes credit card companies, or their cable company. But both were full of shockingly decent people who wanted to provide a good product. I worked for BofA during the last crisis when they bought ML and Countrywide (nice people, at least), P&G Pet Care (they frequently have food recalls, but geniuinely loved animals). I draw my line there. My last big agency client was Citibank. I can say that I’ve drunk a little of the koolaid here and there… but Citibank crossed a line. I will not work for a company that is that openly, blatantly unethical and staffed by people who seem gleefully aware of that fact. And while I’m ok working on alcohol, I would never do tobacco, or porn ads (and yes, there is a place that does both of those).

And so ends part three. Here’s where my talk went a little long. Keep in mind I didn’t have much time to edit, but I would probably trim this part down a bit more in the long run, and talked a lot more about ethics. We make decisions every day, large and small, that affect our users. We can choose to make the easy decision or the hard decision or the right decision.

I gave a talk (Part 2)

Picking up where I left off, I had just finished talking about how the industry, as I saw it, had changed in 10 years. Now we get into my sordid career.

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In 11 years, I have had 11 jobs, not counting short term freelance gigs and side projects. 2 jobs lasted more than 1 year. 3 lasted almost exactly 1 year. One company went bankrupt. One was bought and sold a couple times. I quit before I could be laid off. One was boring. One gave me gray hair. One laid me off after a year. One laid me off after 6 months. One laid me off after 3 months after bouncing direct deposit.

9

If you’re allergic to change, this is not the career for you (I’m an extreme case – but be warned, this happens). There is an incredible turnover in skills,  style, and technology and people that is mind boggling to anyone outside of the industry.

Lobster is delicious.

I’ve been a small cog in a big machine. I’ve work 72 hours on 4 hours of sleep. I’ve almost gone to nursing school. I’ve almost rage quit. I wrote an email to my boss describing, in detail, why we deserved to be fired by our client. I named 2 lobsters, Ravi and Sachin, after a couple outsourced offshore devs/project managers who were making my life miserable. They tasted delicious.

Not every day is easy.

Not a great motivational poster.

On the other hand, I made a calendar for Tecaté. The models were pretty. I helped grow a small company. I was on a video shoot with a barge mule (it was huge) and cheerleaders and fake blood. I had 3 interviews and a long-term freelance gig less than 36 hours after getting laid off. I’ve been poached and promoted. I wrote a “this is why we suck” email to my boss, and was praised. I helped animals get adopted, and I  helped raise awareness for clean water. I was unemployed for less than 12 hours (and fielded 3 offers) after getting laid off. I’ve worked with geniuses and cool people. I made something useful. I made something cool. For every skill I’ve lost, I’ve gained one.

Some days are pretty good. I’ve probably come out ahead.

Life is random OMG PONIES?

What should you take away from all of that? It’s a random, capricious, and occasionally cruel industry. Sometimes it takes its toll on people. Sometimes it’s incredibly fun. And it never makes sense. You can either let it drive you insane, or you can figure out a way to make peace with it. How that happens is up to you.

So far, still so good. I’ll stop here because I’ve just taken nighttime cold medicine, and expect to be unconscious in 15 minutes or so. But also, This is about where my talk starts delving into advice, which is dodgy as hell.

I gave a talk (part 1)

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to the graduating seniors at my alma mater, TCNJ. As a part of their visiting artist series, they invited some alumni back to talk about their particular fields or work environments, and to give advice. It went ok. Frankly, I’m out of practice speaking to groups like this (work presentations are totally different), and I was off. This is part 1 of the talk I wish I gave.

Sorry.

First, I want to apologize to everyone for canceling last week. There was a typo in the initial email chain, and I wasn’t prepared for the sudden notice that I had 1 day, not 1 month to finish everything up.

I'm old.

So, I’m Dan Boyle. I graduated from TCNJ in 2003 with a BFA in Graphic Design. Since then I’ve spent my time working as a designer, in one form or another, in one industry or another, for one company or another. The economy crashed a couple times. I’ve taken jobs, quit jobs, and almost quit design entirely. I gained weight, lost weight, gained it again, turned 30 and discovered I’m not indestructible (those last two events were very closely timed), got married, bought a house, did some traveling, and had a kid. Right now I’m a designer and product manager for eBay.

While I’m going to talk a little (a lot?) about career stuff, and interactive design specifically, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d love to do nothing but brag about my kid and show you cute baby pictures, but that’s not really relevant to you guys. But I do want to say that while I will be talking a lot about working, that’s not all there is to life after college. But, it’s a big part of your life.

Kid pics

There is time for a couple kid pics, though.

In the year 2000

So, almost 11 years of this. 11 years ago, you weren’t even in high school yet. The art department was still on the 3rd and 4th floors of Holman Hall. Our 3D animation lab was “updated” to dual processor G4s from the old SGI systems. SGI was still a company. Fanky and Anita were new. Like, really new. I think I had Anita her first semester teaching here. I think I had Fanky his second or third semester here. It feels like at least half of the current campus hadn’t been built yet.

Get off my lawn

Many places were still using G3 computers. G4s were a luxury. G5s, much less any Intel-based Mac were years off. OS X had just come out and was a mess. Apple itself was in terrible shape. We had to use Zip disks and Jazz drives to store our work, until they developed the “click of death” and we raced to back up our data. If you were lucky enough to afford an external hard drive, a 60GB firewire drive could store your college career’s worth of work and then some (and would only set you back a couple hundred dollars). The closest thing to a smartphone that you ever saw was a Blackberry, and they were crap for anything other than email. Nothing approaching iOS, Android or modern Windows Mobile existed. If you were lucky a friend in the dorms had a PS2 and you could play multiplayer games on their couch. Everquest was ruining academic careers and relationships.

It's a fad

The internet was a smaller place. The internet economy crashed. It rebuilt itself, and now it is making itself look stupid again. The only real social network was MySpace. It was terrible. RealPlayer was a legitimate option for streaming video/audio. It was also terrible. MP3 downloading was illegal – no iTunes/Amazon/Google Play. Google was this weird little company. No one knew what to do with YouTube. It was harder get your voice onto the internet, but it was, conversely, easier to stand out, but finding an audience was tough. Free AOL CDs were everywhere, and a great backup when your cable internet went out (which happened at least once a month).

This isn't date, right?

No one had yet thought of the phrases “design thinking” or “user centered design” but we were all doing it. The Marketing and MBA people just hadn’t gotten ahold of it yet. David Carson occasionally showed up for speaking gigs. People actually knew who he was. Pentagram wasn’t just phoning it in. Digital Photography was the future, but still “actually” the future. You sure as hell weren’t getting anything decent from your cell phone. Quark was king, but it was terrible. InDesign wasn’t even a dream in Adobe’s eye. Photoshop 5 (not CS5!) was a huge upgrade, Director was powerful, but complicated – but worth mastering. Flash was the future of web design, and was responsible for incredibly innovative and completely unusable experiences. Now, Macromedia is part of adobe, Director is dead, and Flash is a niche within a niche, which is kind of a shame because a lot of the really cool stuff can’t be replicated (yet). Minimalism was an anti-trend. Web standards weren’t. Most web sites were just a collection of pages. Now we plan for responsive, mobile, accessible, webapps, and hi-dpi. WEBFONTS. OMG WEBFONTS. You have no idea how lucky you are to be in a world where you can use fonts other than Arial or Times New Roman on a website, and to actually expect it to work in most browsers.

I started to list all of the skills I graduated from college with that are no longer relevant, but it would make us all sad.

 

 

Fixing things.

Any bokken will break eventually. Fortunately, this isn’t one I made. Unfortunately, it still snapped on its owner.

An ipe bokken that split about halfway up its length.
An ipe bokken that split about halfway up its length.

Once a bokken has split like this there’s not really much you can do to repair it.

In pieces.
In pieces.

So let’s cut it up into smaller pieces. Depending on where and how bokken break, you can generally get a shoto (short sword) or tanto (knife) out of it. In this case, I’m able to get one whole tanto by cutting below the crack, and then cutting some extra length off the tsuka. The balance isn’t right and the curve is off, but that’s simple enough.

Joining the end grain
Joining the end grain

That leaves us with enough for a too-short tsuka and a blade portion that’s too thin to join directly to the remaining tsuka. You can’t just glue end-grain to end-grain either – the joint is too weak. What to do? A half-lap dovetail joint. Basically, you cut away a portion of the thickness on each piece so they match up, with a dovetail to act as a key so it theoretically wouldn’t pull out.

 

Half-lap dovetail closeup.
Half-lap dovetail closeup.

I cut a test piece out of a scrap of eucalytus and it should work. I’m not sure if I’m going to the eucalyptus to join the last two pieces of ipe, or just make two tanto.

3 finished tanto
The finished tanto.

In the end, I was able to get all three tanto to work out. Interesting fact: Ipe dust turns red when it gets moist. On one hand, I’m glad that the little bit of dust I accidentally inhaled didn’t give me a massive nosebleed (gross, I know – my apologies). On the other hand, it’s still pretty nasty.

You need to build real, physical objects.

A few years ago, while working at Organic, I was asked to help manage a quarterly creative meeting. Each office would get together and have a few minutes to speak. The New York office, leading that particular meeting was expected to provide the bulk of the content.

One of my presentations was “what if there was no beta?”

As digital designers, we’ve gotten into the habit of saying a site/product is “always in beta.” I think that’s dangerous. Of course, we can always work to improve our products, but we also excuse incomplete content, missing features, and questionable decisions. Even in the print design world, people have gotten careless as digital printing has taken over (but you’ll still loathe having to explain that the business cards you labored over need to be reprinted because someone forgot to double-check the phone number.

None of that compares to building a physical structure, though.

A few years ago, my wife and I undertook a project to gut and refinish the second floor of our home. One half was unfinished, bare attic. The other half was finished, but with wood panelling and olive green carpet. Two years later, we had built up the unfinished half into a new bedroom/office space complete with brand-new electrical and build in networking jacks. The existing half ended up being completely re-wired, re-insulated, and needed a new closet and ceiling framing to boot.

We learned a few things in the process:

  • Sheetrock is heavy.
  • Finishing sheetrock is a terrible, tedious process.
  • Installing an entire room worth of sheetrock, in a single day, by yourself, with the wrong driver, is just asking for crippling tendonitis.
  • Closets are never too big.
  • If you already have the room down to bare studs, just make your changes then and there.
  • Your work can never be too flat, too level, or too square.

The one thing I took away from this was a sense of accomplishment – at the end of the process, I had build something that will last for decades, barring natural disaster or a complete demolition. It could conceivably outlast me! When is the last time you could say that for a website, banner ad, facebook page or app? You might be lucky to get a year out of it.

That led to the subject of my talk: What if there was no beta? How would we design and create if, once we hit the publish button, we couldn’t edit a blog entry when we see a stupid typo? What if we couldn’t fix that one bug that eluded us? What if any change was paid for in actual blood, sweat, and tears? What if, once you committed a code change or laid down a pixel, you couldn’t undo it? From a design perspective at least, it would make it an interesting experience to never be able to delete, move or tweak an existing layer.

Excuse the digression, please. It’s an idle thought.

But really, what if there was no such thing as beta? I bet we’d work much more thoughtfully.

Yes, I was an art major.

Liberal arts majors don’t acquit ourselves particularly well.

Every so often, some politician, commentator or writer in the public eye sees that we don’t have enough STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors / workers, and decides that history education, creative writing majors, and women’s studies programs are to blame. If we need more STEM graduates, why throw scholarship money, grants, or any such resources at these programs? Clearly the only thing science programs need are more money (note that you’ll never see the government trying to throw more money at ANY K-12 program, science or otherwise).

The liberal arts majors of the world reflexively respond that the goal of liberal arts is to teach critical thinking skills or that it’s creating the next generation of world-changers or that these skills are applicable to all careers. The world would grind to a halt and fall into a new dark age if this were to happen.

We need to stop this, now.

Liberal arts studies teach you how to think? Go tell that to a scientist. They’ll tell you about the scientific method, which is an actual method for inquiry into our world. If they’re nice, they won’t laugh at you until you’ve left the room. World changers? Anyone can change the world – it’s not restricted to liberal arts. And cross-career skills? No employer gives a damn about your cross-career skills. Every single person who has a bachelor’s degree should have cross-career skills like “being able to write a complete sentence” or “basic research abilities” or “logic.”

Look, I was an art major at a small state college that prides itself on its liberal arts education. I’m not knocking my education. It’s worked out well for myself and many of my friends, and I’ve seen many of my colleagues do amazing things with their liberal arts educations. But I’m not kidding myself that this is only part of an education.