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.


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.